The Tsarist regime
As many countries in Europe industrialised their economy and liberalised their political structure, Russia was bound by the conservative nature of the Tsarist regime. The economic, social and political tensions that emerged in the late 19th century led to revolution in the 20th century.
The Tsar was the absolute ruler of Russia. He had all the political and social authority. The future of Russia rested on the Tsar's will. The Tsarist regime was supported by the structure of Russian society. The bureaucracy, military, judiciary and Orthodox Christian church reinforced the Tsar's rule. The majority of the population were illiterate peasants. There was no place for freedom of speech and political debate.
The background: the Industrial Revolution
In the late 19th century, the majority of the world experienced the Industrial Revolution. The revolution changed the economy from a basis of manual labour to one of mechanical labour. The textiles industry was the first affected by the Industrial Revolution. Transport changed when steam power was introduced. The Industrial Revolution changed almost every industry in the world. Objects were produced faster and in greater quantities.
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Accompanying the Industrial Revolution were many social changes. Urbanisation was the movement of people from the country to the city for employment. People began to work in factories. Workers demanded higher pay and governments adapted their policies to changing social conditions. As Europe adapted to modernisation, Russia lagged behind.
Barriers to progress: the Tsar
Power was focused on a small group of people in Russia. The Tsar was the absolute ruler of Russia. He had all the political and social authority. Around him were advisors who comprised the imperial council and cabinet of ministers. These advisors, however, were a small group of personally appointed acquaintances. Their power was limited and their advice could be dismissed. Few advisors could influence the Tsar.
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The future of Russia was dependent upon the interests of the Tsar. In 1853, Russia was ruled by Tsar Nicholas I, who avoided modernisation and industrialisation. Nicholas's conservative policies led to Russia's defeat in the Crimean War.
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Nicholas was succeeded by Tsar Alexander II in 1855. Alexander recognised that Russia was in a dire situation. The peasants were stuck in a poverty cycle. The government imposed high taxes on the sale and purchase of land. Peasants who were able to purchase land were burdened by mortgages and taxes. Consequently, agricultural production was poor and led to food shortages across Russia. Alexander made a series of reforms to resolve the crisis. In 1861, he emancipated the serfs, freeing peasants from the burden of land taxes. Alexander also encouraged the development of capitalism and industrialisation.
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The conservative nature of the Tsars was symbolic of the Russian state. Most parts of society were resistant to change.
Alexander III became Tsar following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. While Russia underwent a period of great economic and industrial growth, the Tsarist regime and political system remained inflexible.
Alexander III tightened censorship (asserting control over information), increased the powers of the Okhrana (secret police) and followed a policy of Russification, asserting the Russian language and culture over minority ethnic groups.
The Orthodox Church had a role to play in the promotion and continuation of conservative elements in Russian society. The Orthodox Church gave spiritual authority to the Tsar and reinforced obedience to his rule.
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The nobility were concerned only with maintaining their high standing and wealth. The bureaucracy, judiciary and military were populated by corrupt officers. Promotions were not based on merit, but friendships and alliances
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The majority of Russians were peasants. Although the peasants suffered from the effects of land taxes and hard physical labour, they remained resistant to change.
The future of Russia under the Tsarist regime looked bleak. Although capitalism and industrialisation were encouraged by some Tsars, there was no commercial class to build business. There was no freedom of speech or political debate. Groups who opposed the autocratic (absolute power held by one person) Tsarist structure were driven to extremism.