Before the revolution
In 1861, the Russian Empire extended
seven thousand miles from east to west and
encompassed one-sixth of the surface of the
globe. Stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the
Black Sea, from Prussia to the Pacific, Russia
was the world’s largest country. An empire as
diverse as it was large, Russia held seventy four
million people who spoke more than one
hundred different languages, came from over
one hundred distinct ethnicities, and practiced
most major and many minor religions. Trying
to hold together the huge and diverse empire
created enormous problems for Russia’s rulers.
How was Russia governed?
Though Russia was unrivaled in size, it
was considered by many Western Europeans
to be an extremely backward country. The
Renaissance and Reformation, with their
emphasis on the importance of the individual,
had hardly touched Russia.
Since 1613, Russia had been governed by
the tsar (emperor) who possessed complete authority.
Though the state bureaucracy assisted
the tsar in the operation of his government, no
political parties were permitted. Below the tsar
and his bureaucracy were privileged nobles
who owned much of the country’s land. Below
them was the majority of the population, millions
of serfs (peasant farmers) who worked
the land in virtual slavery.
Tsarist Russia had no legislature and
no constitution. Russian subjects were not
entitled to freedom of speech, assembly, or
worship. Any public dissent or opposition
was stifled or stamped out by the tsar’s secret
police. The government carefully censored all
publications. Though the power of the tsar was
absolute and life was filled with hardships,
many Russians regarded the tsar as a representative
of God and a force for good.
What were the political groups
struggling for the future of Russia?
The tsars had the loyalty of much of the
gentry (land-owning nobility) and the masses.
But generations of repression by the government,
and the suffering of millions had
generated political movements among intellectuals
seeking change in Russia. There were
also numerous non-Russian minorities (including
Poles, Jews, Finns, and Ukrainians),
seeking to free themselves from the tsar’s rule.
Although there were many different groups,
by the early twentieth century they could be
divided into two basic categories: socialists
and liberal reformers.
Socialists: There were many socialist
groups with differing goals and plans. The
socialists hoped to create a classless society
that would end the exploitation and suffering
of the peasants and workers. This included
dismantling the capitalist economic system by
taking the “means of production” (land, factories,
etc.) from the owners and placing them in
the hands of the state. The socialists knew that
they would have to rally peasants and workers
to their side.
Liberal Reformers: Liberalism was a
political ideology based on the ideas of the
Enlightenment. Liberal reformers believed that
they could put in place western constitutional
practices and the rule of law to solve Russia’s
problems and correct the injustices of the past.
The readings in this unit will take you
back to a time when Russia’s future hung in
the balance and will help you to explore the
competing visions for Russia. The first reading
explores the events from the emancipation
of the serfs to the Revolution of 1905. Part II
covers the period from 1905 to the eve of the
Revolution in early spring 1917. You will then
be asked to address the questions Russians
debated at that time.