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A brief history of Russia

Tumult in
St Petersburg

A Brief Outline of Russia till 1917

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Although European history can be divided into three basic categories, namely Ancient, Medieval and Modern, no such categorisation is applicable to Russia.

Russia lay historically completely outside the ambit of European developments, being untouched by the Roman Empire, the great Medieval Renaissance and the various advances of the modern European period. Instead, Russian history is divided into four divisions according to the place of the Russia capital city, namely Kiev, Muscovy (Moscow), St Petersburg and Moscow.


The first period, Kievan Russia which is often called the Golden Age of the Russian civilization, occurred in the 11th and 12th centuries, at a time when Europe was rising to the crest of the Medieval Renaissance.

Ostensibly a Viking or Varangian state, Kiev came under strong influence of the Byzantine civilization which left its mark in terms of religion, art and architecture. Had Russia been allowed to progress peacefully for several more centuries, it is probable that the state would have been drawn into the European ambit and evolved very differently to the course which history dictated.

The fact that Russia never did draw close to the West was due largely to the 13th century invasion of the Mongols (Tartars). While Europe was glorying in a period of unsurpassed prosperity which ushered in the Medieval Renaissance, Russia was laid flat by the Mongols who thereupon ruled with a rod of iron for several few centuries, effectively ending cultural, political and economic advance.

Russia therefore fell far behind Europe, so that by the time that her people succeeded in breaking free from the Mongol yoke, and indeed turned the tables by conquering the last vestiges of Mongol authority, the state was already many centuries behind Europe and would need radical progress if it were to make up the leeway.


The second Russian state, known historically as Muscovy, was centred on Moscow and its rulers claimed to be heirs to the Mongol Khans which gave them theoretic suzerainty over Asia. They were also conscious of being descendants of the Byzantine Empire because the ruling prince of Moscow married the heiress to the throne of Constantinople.

They therefore claimed theoretical authority over Constantinople and Greece and so took for themselves the title of Caesar or Tsar. From then on, Moscow claimed the title of the "Third Rome", centre of the "universal empire" and custodian of the orthodox Christian religion (hence Russian Orthodox Church).

Just as absolutism and centralisation were inherent in both the Mongol and Byzantine traditions, so Muscovy under the Tsars developed these principles beyond precedent. Liberty and diversity were sacrificed to the need of an overwhelmingly strong central authority which was needed to rule over such a vast empire. The Tsars, however, were then more noted for their cruelty than for their ability to govern, with Ivan the Terrible the most notorious.


At the beginning of the 17th century the Rurik Dynasty died out and was replaced by the Romanovs who would reign until 1917 when the Russian Revolution would topple them from power. The early years of the dynasty witnessed a slow by steady rapprochement with the west, more especially under Peter the Great who tried to speed up Russian development into a modern state by use of western technology and ideas.

It was he who transferred the capital to St Petersburg so as to be closer to the west and thereby hasten the dissemination of western ideas. Catherine the Great is in turn known in history as one of the "Enlightened Despots", although her form of enlightenment is of questionable validity.

Russia nevertheless entered the 19th century with the possibility of following Europe into the sphere of enlightened government and the evolution of forms of democratic advancement. The state was handicapped, however, both by the vastness of its territory and by the incompetence of its Tsars.

Alexander I (1801-1825) was completely unequal to the task required of him and was faced with revolutionary upheaval in Europe and the Napoleonic wars. He had grandiose schemes for the government of Europe along the lines of benevolent Christian ideals (Holy Alliance 1815) but he did nothing for Russia and the civilization of its people.

With Alexander's death in 1825, there was an attempt by a group of liberal minded aristocrats and army officers to seize control of the government. Their ideas were vague but they were inspired by events in Europe and saw an opportunity of overthrowing a corrupt and incompetent regime, and replacing it with some form of constitutional government which would be imbued with western ideals.

The "Decembrist Uprising" was crushed by Nicholas I but had an immense effect on the new Tsar, making him a determined enemy of liberalism and a harsh upholder of autocracy. As a result, his 30 year rule seldom exceeded narrow bureaucracy and ruthless discipline.

Outwardly Russia had by now become a military giant and had not lost a battle for over 150 years, even against Napoleon. The Crimean War of 1854 revealed its weakness, however, and defeat at the hands of Britain, France and Sardinia convinced many in higher circles that radical reform was necessary. Tsar Alexander II was expected to produce the necessary changes.

The major area for reform was in agriculture. By the 1850s, Russia was still a poor, agrarian country with little industry and 90 percent of its population living on the land. Agricultural techniques were archaic and serfdom was still the basic social institution. The serf was little better than a slave, bound to the lord on a hereditary basis and sold at will.

Serfs were also obliged to perform labour services or make money payments as the lord desired. The lord was also free to enlist a serf for duty in the army, which required 25 years of military service. Serfs could be punished by deportation to Siberia.

The expected reform was only half-hearted. No attempt was made to curtail despotism and little was done to uplift the serfs, apart from the abolition of bondage. Although the Statute of 1861 did grant civil liberties to the serfs, it did not solve the very vexed land question. The serfs had hoped to be given control of their land which they claimed as their right but which had been usurped by the nobility.

The Statute did give them rights to the land but forced them to pay exorbitant prices to the aristocracy so that few could legally take advantage of the new law. It therefore did not establish free farmers as had come to exist in Europe.

Indeed, the opposite was true. Land came to be owned collectively, thus creating peasant villages which made it extremely difficult for a peasant either to improve agricultural methods or to leave the villages. The peasants had therefore little incentive to change old habits or attitudes.

Alexander III came to the throne in 1881 after the assassination of his father and was determined to avenge his father's death. Moreover, he took as his adviser Constantine Pobyedonostsev, a man who was a firm believer in the unsurpassed virtues of autocracy and Russian nationalism.

He rejected all modern western institutions, such as parliamentary democracy, freedom of the press and independence of the judiciary. Under his influence, not only were the feeble attempts at reform under Alexander II halted but were also reversed. A police state was inaugurated which would remain until 1917.

The Russian empire had now become a monolithic structure, with one ruler, one language, one law, one religion. Pogroms against Jews also began, with widespread massacres, marking the beginning of mass emigration from Russia. It was, however, not the racist anti-Semitism as used by Hitler, for a Russian Jew automatically became exempt from persecution should he convert to Christianity.


Upon Alexander's death in 1894, the throne fell to Nicholas II, a convinced autocrat but a man who had neither the determination nor strength of character to apply himself thoroughly to the task. Like Louis XVI of France, he was saddled with a foreign wife who became the power behind the throne.

She in turn fell victim to the charismatic influence of Rasputin who came to hold a psychological stranglehold on her mind. Rasputin was a man who was hated by the populace because of his debauched nature, although the various scandals which surrounded him seem to have been kept from the ears of the Tsar and his wife.

Russian intellectuals during the early 19th century fell roughly into two groups. There were the liberals who believed that Russian salvation lay in the adoption of western thought and technology. On the other hand, there were the Slavophiles who were nationalist romantics. They romanticised Russia's past and glorified its imaginary virtues as being superior to those of the decadent west.

Russian national tradition, they claimed, contained the seeds not only of a true spiritual life but also of a just solution to social problems. Russia therefore needed to look not to the west but to her own past for solution of her problems. Indeed, Russia's historical character and faith were intrinsically superior to the foundations of the western civilization which they claimed was in a state of decay.

Out of Slavophile philosophy arose Pan-Slavism, a political movement which aimed at uniting all Slavs into one homeland under the domination of Russia. Its chief proponent was the writer Nicolai Danilevsky who prophesied that a new historical civilization (Slavic Russia), would emerge which would become heir and successor to the decaying western civilization.

The West, Danilevsky claimed, necessarily felt an instinctive hostility towards its Russian successor. Furthermore, in contrast to the West which was dominated by the spirit of violence and capitalistic greed, the Slavo-Russian civilization would proceed in ways of peace, guided by the ideal of social justice. Russia, he said, was too great to be only one of the powers of Europe but must realise her unique destiny as a world power.

The concept of Pan-Slavism was only achieved by Stalin after 1945 but it was not a belief held by the other Slav peoples who spoke different languages to Russia and who had their own nationalism

Nevertheless Pan-Slavism played a major part in Russian foreign policy after 1870 as Russia took up the cause of the Slavs in the Balkan peninsula against both the Turks and the Austrians. This increasingly led Russia into warfare at the turn of the century and would ultimately trigger the Great War.

During the period prior to 1880 various terrorist organisations arose in an effort to overthrow the autocratic rule of the Tsars. Their aims were generally vague and met with little success beyond the occasional assassination. In the 1880s, however, a change occurred with the development of a new philosophy based on the scientific socialism formulated by the German Karl Marx, but with a definite Russian flavour.

The first Russian Marxist, George Plekhanov, believed that Russia would have to follow the trend of western Europe, with the development of the capitalist stage of economy before arriving at socialism. It would be the growth of capitalism which would put an end to Russian autocracy and usher in a democratic regime. Plekhanov believed that Russian socialism should not attempt to provoke a premature revolution but should await the advent of the social revolution in western Europe before making its move.

Russia, like the rest of western Europe, underwent a severe economic downturn during the period from 1873 until about 1895. Thereafter southern Russia began making great strides in industrial development, both with a rapid construction of railways (such as the Trans-Siberian Railway) and encouragement of foreign investments (steel and oil production rapidly caught up with the West). By 1905, rapid industrialization was also producing a new class of proletariate in the towns, people who were to be markedly susceptible to Marxist philosophy.

By 1895 Marxist principles had found their way into the factories and under the influence of Lenin (Vladimir Ulyanov) a Marxist union, the Fighting Union for the Liberation of the Working Class, was founded in St Petersburg. In 1897 Lenin was arrested and exiled, first to Siberia and then expelled from Russia altogether. He thereupon took up residence in Geneva where he started the newspaper Iskra aimed at disseminating Marxist teaching and spearheading the Marxist Revolution throughout Europe.

Lenin proved intolerant of all other socialist parties and also disagreed with the concept that Russia first needed to pass through the capitalist phase of development before true socialism could take control. On the contrary, because Russia was the weakest chain in European capitalism, he claimed it would be the first to undergo the socialist revolution. As a result, Lenin caused a split in the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903 when his majority (Bolshevik) group ousted the minority (Menshevik) who believed in a more moderate policy.

In the meantime, severe repression was coupled with Russia's calamitous defeat in the war of 1904 against Japan. The war saw the cost of living spiral out of control, producing severe economic hardship on the peasants and the urban labour force. In addition, nationalism was gaining ground amongst the minority groups of the empire.


In January 1905 a peaceful protest in St Petersburg was met with a massacre by the armed forces. The government thereupon initiated ruthless suppression of all who were perceived as revolutionaries and various atrocities against intellectuals, liberals, minority groups and Jews were committed throughout the country. The result was widespread insurrection until the government decided that it was wiser to pursue a policy of conciliation and political reform.

The upheaval resulted in a new constitution, a particularly hybrid one. It provided a legislative assembly consisting of two houses, with the Duma (lower house) being elected by universal adult suffrage. On the other hand, the Tsar was still described as having autocratic power and acceptance of his authority was dictated "not alone by fear and conscience but also by God himself."

The constitution therefore provided for a constitutionally limited autocracy which is a contradiction in terms. It was nevertheless a step in the right direction and had it been allowed to continue, further progress was possible.

The constitution, however, lasted a mere two years. The first Duma, consisting of moderate leftists, quickly found itself at loggerheads with the Tsar and was dissolved after only 73 days. The second Duma was more radical and it was clear that the reactionary representation which the government wanted would never happen with universal franchise.

The government therefore unilaterally changed the voting qualifications, removing the vote from the peasants, labourers and minority groups. The third Duma lasted five years, and the fourth was still in existence in 1917 when the revolution broke out.

Despite the constitutional debacle, Russia did make great strides in agricultural and industrial expansion during the decade prior to the outbreak of the Great War. At the same time, censorship interfered less and less with the population. The people, particularly in the large cities of the west, found themselves able to update themselves on events and ideas from Europe, and were able to propagate various philosophical, economic and political publications of their own.

In this way, the Bolshevik Party was able to establish the newspaper Pravda in St Petersburg in 1912. Growth of the economy and culture in turn led to an increasingly critical attitude towards the incompetent and autocratic government of the Tsar.


The outbreak of the Great War proved to be an unmitigated disaster for the Russian government. The Russians were not expecting a long war and believed the army was well supplied. The soldiers, however, quickly ran out of supplies and found themselves confronted with a German army which was better equipped and disciplined.

After an initial period of fervent nationalism, dissolution soon set in, multiplied by pathetic conditions and the fact that many peasants were sent to the front unarmed. The allies attempted to remedy that by sending armaments through the Dardanelles but the plan failed in the Gallipoli expedition. In the meantime, Marxists such as Lenin made good use of the war to decry imperialism and call for a universal revolution against it.

The Russian population at home also suffered unbearably. The war pushed up the cost of living, reduced the amount of food and other vital commodities and caused general hardship. 13 million peasants were called up for armed service which meant that the work load now rested mainly on the shoulders of the women, children and the elderly. Inflation became rampant.

Revolutionary conditions therefore evolved rapidly, fanned by the incompetent government and rumours of Rasputin's control of the minds of the Tsar and his wife. His murder by a group of aristocrats did nothing to alleviate the situation. It had become clear that the interests of Russia and the government were desperately at odds.

Matters came to a head in March 1917 when a spontaneous revolt took place in St Petersburg (by then known as Petrograd). The Marxists had apparently nothing to do with this "February Revolution" and, indeed, both Lenin and Trotsky were abroad at the time.

It started as a food riot and, when the army was sent in to quell the disturbances, it too rebelled. A Soviet (council) of workers and soldiers was thereupon set up in Petrograd, creating a dual authority in Russia, namely the Duma and the Soviets. Tsar Nicholas thereupon stepped down and work began on the creation of a new constitution.

It seems that the movement from the "February Revolution" to the "Communist" (Bolshevik) Revolution in October hinged on a number of major problems. First, was the inability of the various parties to reach agreement on immediate, pressing issues.

Then there was the war, where continued fighting played into the hands of the radicals, whereas a humiliating peace treaty would also have played into their hands. The vastness of the Russian Empire was also a major problem. Finally, Lenin's determination and intolerance to all opposition made him a natural leader at a time when leadership was rare.

The Bolsheviks were nevertheless in the minority and soon found themselves at the centre of a civil war. Theoretically, they should have been no match for the forces opposed to them but the White armies became their own worst enemy and the Red armies eventually won the day.

Ultimately Lenin found himself the ruler of a country which had been destroyed by war (both world war and civil war), where the infrastructure had collapsed completely and had a major problem to put order into chaos.

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