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1914 marked the beginning of a new era of history that ostensibly changed the world forever. With this year came many important events which have helped civilization, particularly Western civilization, move into an era of modernism and new social and political changes. This was manifested in a very great manner in Russia’s history due to the start of World War I and the climatic beginnings of the Bolshevik Revolution; a revolution that would alter Russia forever. If one looks through the corridors of history from 1914 and compares the early 19th century with the early 20th century, the two time periods are shockingly different; a fact which makes one wonder what all happened to change Russia from a strong autocratic nation to a country divided between common folk instilled with Communism and an apathetic tsar. As the nineteenth century was coming to a close, Russia as an Empire also began to decline rapidly. In 1888, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated which left his son, Alexander III, to claim the throne. Alexander III was not like his father however and things went from bad to worse in Russia under his rule. In the 1890’s there was a great famine in Russia which severely crippled the country’s economy and developed more dislike for the tsar. Tsar Alexander III also tended to more traditional in his “reforms” and therefore also put himself in disfavor with the intelligentsia for not being progressive enough. But things were rapidly changing in Russia, particularly among the intelligentsia and the new working class. French and German philosophies began to creep their way into Russian minds and people began to whisper about creating reform themselves. Out of the late 1800’s and very early 1900’s came the rise of the Russian socialists, a movement spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin, who sought to reform society even more than others had previously thought possible. Fueled by Marx and Engels and others, Lenin and his compatriots quietly (at first) embellished their ideas and disseminated them among the Russian intelligentsia and populace. In 1902 he published a little book called What is to be done? ; this book sought to answer the “burning answers of our movement” and argue for socialism in Russia. But what happened to transform Russia into the Russia of the 20th century? Russia’s greatest changes came through the actions (and inactions) of various social groups that brought about vast intellectual and cultural reforms to Russia. Russia’s change from a strong autocratic nation to a nation ruled essentially by the mob came through these changes.

The nineteenth century began with the reign of Alexander I, a tsar who began rather austerely with a violent change of regime.[1] Even starting as early as 1801, Russia was set on a collision course with change, especially change through revolt. These changes in Russia, at least in the first few years of the 19th century, coincided with the Napoleonic Wars. Pressured by fear of offending high ranking officials and generals, Alexander quailed at making significant reforms during his reign as he promised to rule in the style of his mother Catherine[2].  The nobles of Russia had an expectation that he would fulfill their interests just as his mother had done[3]. But Russia desperately needed reforms; Russia was grossly divided between the upper classes, namely the tsars and nobility, and the lower class. Of course these divisions became more complex toward the end of the 19th century with the rise of the working class. In such situations there was division and animosity growing not only between lower classes and tsars but even between the peasants and working class[4]. As of the early 19th century though, the nobility of Russia was Western educated and very privileged. Though there were a scattering of various peasant revolts in the 19th century, no one really desired to do anything drastic to improve Russia’s social conditions. People, especially of the noble class, weren’t really concerned about need for reforms until a new social and intellectual group awoke and fueled the fires of revolution and class consciousness. This group was known as the intelligentsia and their extensive literature, though censored from time to time, stirred up other members of the nobility to desire some change in Russia’s heavily autocratic culture. These ideas were for the most part silent until the Decembrist revolt of 1825. Alexander had tried to implant some reforms in Russia, particularly toward the idea of constitutional reform and even reforms that would benefit the peasants but this was shattered due to pressure from the nobility[5]. While this was happening, a duel between conservatism and progressivism began to take place[6]. The young men began to hold secret societies and plan for revolution[7]. This came to a head when Alexander I died without publically naming an heir and the intelligentsia attempted to overthrow the whole thing in the interregnum[8]. They were severely defeated and Nicholas I came to power[9]. This brief segment of the 19th century demonstrates that a new social/intellectual class was arising that would forever shape the history of Russia until the revolution of 1917. The intelligentsia became the new proponents of change and gradually started to wield the sword rather than the pen in overthrowing the corrupt autocracy. Nicholas I, inspired by the propensity for Russians to revolt, was much tighter on conservatism than his predecessor[10]. He tightened on literary censorship but Russia still flourished in a nationalistic literary sense through the writings of Pushkin and others[11]. Gradually, Russia began to pull away from the Western influence it had enjoyed since the reign of Peter the Great[12]. With the end of Nicholas I being the end of the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia had reached a mile marker culturally and even politically in becoming more nationalistic and the vestiges of reforms were slowly becoming realized. They had defeated the invading French and were thus named “the continent’s most formidable power”[13]. Though they obtained some national status, Russia was still a very backward country compared to Britain which enjoyed the boost of the Industrial revolution. Russia would soon have its turn at industrialization and modernism.

The next half of the nineteenth century was marked by a move from counter-reform to reform[14]. Writers like Chernyshevsky wrote long novels to broadcast their ideas for a new civilization they wished Russia would become. It was here in the middle of the 19th century when Russian intellectuals began to study and advocate socialism, serf emancipation and various other German philosophies. One of these German philosophies that infiltrated Russian society was that of nihilism. Nihilism was the idea of divorcing oneself from the traditional values of society. Nikolai Chernyshevsky in his book What is to Be Done? writes a long tale describing Russian society during this time and advocating a better one, a Russian utopian society wherein the traditional values of Russia are heeded no more. It is within this time period that the serfs became emancipated[15]. Many were divided in the intelligentsia over the idea of emancipating the serfs[16]. Some wanted to do so because of their Western humanitarian ideals but others still wanted to keep them enslaved[17]. Many other reforms took place during this time such as reforms of the military, education, agriculture, and the zemstvo[18]. It was during this time period that the working class began to emerge during the eve of Russia’s Industrial Revolution[19]. With the rise of the working class came the new issues of dissent between the peasants and the workers as well as the nobility. The working class, as evidenced in Kanatchikov’s biography A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia, was also becoming aware of the corruption of the tsars and expressed a desire for revolution and change. Sentiments or desires of change continued to be expressed in the writings of the intelligentsia and now the working class who slowly became educated. Sentiments of revolution continued to express themselves violently throughout the 19th century, particularly during the reign of Alexander II. Alexander II desired to enact good reforms throughout Russia but unfortunately they didn’t benefit the people much. In fact, his reforms not only failed to achieve their goals but also created new ones[20]. As a result, Russian society from the lowest classes of peasants to the intelligentsia desired to revolt and on March 1 1881, a group of St Petersburg radicals successfully assassinated the emperor with a bomb[21].

So by that point Russia was definitely becoming tired of its tiresome and ancient canker sore: the tsars. The next period of history, 1890-1914, saw the rapid movements of intelligentsia and even the new working class to create a Socialist regime. Looking back to the 1870’s one can see that reforms were passed and new bureaucrats came to power; things that were diabolically opposed to the established order of the tsars[22]. Several things during this time period helped speed the movement towards revolt. One of those events was the Great Famine of 1891-2; this tragic event really demonstrated the alienation of the nobility (and tsars) from the populace as well as the despotic and apathetic behavior of the tsars. During this hard time the new zemstvos were greatly used (on their own volition) to help the populace[23]. Soon after this crisis labor troubles erupted amongst the industrial working class[24]. The labor unrest was manifested through in various strikes throughout the industrial areas of Russia; these strikes were also widespread and well coordinated which was very odd for backward Russia[25]. The 1890’s also saw the rise of revolutionary parties, especially the People’s Will, who desired to attend to the fate of the peasants and workers[26]. One of the parties that gained supporters during this period were the Marxists—a group whose rise to power in 1917 alter Russia’s history forever[27]. One key Russian Marxist, Vladimir Lenin, was really involved in this movement and wrote a treatise called What is to be done to advocate revolution and the education and training of the workers for eventual revolution. His Marxist writings inspired many and in 1905 many Russians staged a riot and strike which irked the tsar to send in troops to quell the riot in a violent fashion[28]. This was Russia’s Bloody Sunday and became the first of many revolutions during the 20th century. From 1905 to 1914 many bloody riots and assassinations ensued which contrasted with the further corruption of the tsars. Various men of disrepute and questionable morals were nominated to high office by Nicholas II including Rasputin, a “holy man” who became good friends with the tsar’s family[29]. This was Russia’s situation just before World War I.

Russia, by the time World War I hit, was a country at war with itself. Its various social strata were constantly bickering amongst themselves to gain freedom and economic rights which had been limited by the Tsar. The rise of new social classes helped bring a complexity to Russian society and could have also helped in the move out of feudalism. Various intellectual movements such as nihilism, liberalism, nationalism, and especially Marxism helped inspire Russians of varying social classes to rise up and pursue their own liberty. The tsars had become very corrupt and apathetic toward the wishes of the people and toward the end of Imperial Russia, tended to result to violent force to get their way with the people. The Russian people, as evidenced through literature and rioting, were tired of the centuries old tradition of having an autocrat as their supreme head. Through the gradual rejection of the Orthodox faith and the rise of Marxism and liberalism, the people desired change from the old traditions; traditions that the tsars apparently still held on to. It is truly amazing to look back through a hundred years of history and watch a country literally tear itself to pieces and morph into a completely different creature. Russia did just that and it seemed overnight that Russia, once 1917 hit, really wanted to get out of autocracy forever and did so. 1917 saw the great fall of the Russian empire and the rise of Communism in Russia; a new regime had come to stay. Thus, culturally, intellectually, and politically Imperial Russia fell after 196 glorious years.


[1] Gregory L. Freeze, Russia: A History, third edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 168.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 169.

[4] William Risch. Imperial Russia: Russian Society on the eve of Revolution. Lecture. Spring 2011. Slide 4.

[5] Ibid. 181.

[6] Ibid.  182.

[7] Ibid. 183.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 183-4.

[10] Ibid. 190.

[11] Ibid. 190-1.

[12] Ibid. 190.

[13] Ibid. 196.

[14] Ibid. 199.

[15] Ibid. 171.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. 178.

[19] Ibid. 182-3.

[20] Ibid. 193.

[21] Ibid. 196.

[22] Ibid. 201.

[23] Ibid. 205.

[24] Ibid. 206.

[25] Ibid. 207.

[26] Ibid. 210.

[27] Ibid. 211.

[28] Ibid. 214.

[29] Ibid. 228.

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