Imperial Russia, 1796–1917

Paul I and Alexander I. When Catherine died in 1796 she was succeeded by her son Paul, whose rule was arbitrary and erratic. Hoping to undo some of the things his mother had done, he reduced the privileges of the nobility. The result was a palace revolution that led to the murder of Paul in March, 1801.

Paul was succeeded by his oldest son, Alexander. During his early years Alexander showed interest in liberal reforms. But he would not surrender his autocratic powers, and the nobles would not permit him to reduce their privileges or abolish serfdom. Alexander was occupied mainly with foreign affairs. In 1805 he joined in a coalition with Great Britain and Austria against France, then ruled by Napoleon. In 1807, after Russian forces suffered a crushing defeat at Friedland, Russia was forced to make peace with France. By the Treaty of Tilsit Alexander agreed to ally Russia with France against Great Britain.

By 1812 Russia and France were again at war. Napoleon invaded Russia and captured Moscow but had to make a disastrous winter retreat. Russia took a leading role in the campaign that ended in the capture of Paris and the overthrow of Napoleon. Russia became a major power in Europe. After the Congress of Vienna (1815) Alexander joined with other monarchs to stamp out liberal movements wherever they appeared in Europe. He also attempted to repress liberal ideas in his own country.

Decembrist Revolt

In spite of the czar's reactionary policy, liberal ideas were taking root in Russia. Many young army officers had been to western Europe during the Napoleonic Wars and had come back with revolutionary and liberal ideas. A few formed secret societies and plotted revolution. In November, 1825, Alexander I died. Upon the accession of Nicholas I to the throne in December, several officers of a secret society, with a few thousand troops, revolted. This “Decembrist Revolt" was poorly planned and immediately put down, but it was the beginning of revolutionary protest against the czar and served as an inspiration to later revolutionaries.

Autocracy under Nicholas I. The new czar was greatly affected by the Decembrist Revolt. He became extremely distrustful of new ideas, and his regime became increasingly more oppressive. The czar intensified censorship and placed strict controls over the universities. He became known as “the policeman of Europe" because of his zeal in putting down liberal movements both at home and in other countries. Also during his reign Russia entered upon its golden age in literature. Prominent were the poet Aleksander Pushkin and the novelists Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev. Russia's outstanding novelists, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, were beginning their careers. There was also much economic progress, and trade increased tremendously. Protective tariffs promoted the growth of Russian industry.

In foreign policy Nicholas turned his attention toward the weakening Ottoman Empire. He hoped to win control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles so that Russian access to the high seas and also domination of the Black Sea could be assured. The other European powers would not permit Russia to strengthen itself at the expense of Turkey. One crisis followed another until the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853–56), in which Great Britain, France, and Sardinia joined Turkey. Russia suffered a serious defeat, and lost its position as a leading power. Nicholas died in 1855.

Reforms Under Alexander II

Nicholas was succeeded by his son Alexander. The shock of Russia's defeat made the new czar realize that reforms must be carried out in order for Russia to equal the western European powers in strength. He freed the serfs in 1861 and made it possible for them to purchase land on a limited basis. Although the peasants gained personal freedom, their economic condition did not improve because they were allotted only small parcels of land and were forced deeply into debt to pay for them. Alexander also established county councils for local government, set up independent courts with trial by jury, created town councils, and reformed military conscription.

In 1863 Alexander put down a serious revolt in Poland. In Turkestan and the Far East new lands were added to his realm, but in 1867 Russia sold Alaska to the United States. In 1877 another Russo-Turkish War broke out. The Russians halted before Constantinople because of the threat of war with Great Britain. The Congress of Berlin (1878) forced Russia to withdraw its troops from the Balkans.

Alexander's reforms failed to calm the discontented, and in the 1860's political agitation developed, primarily among university students. A number of these dissidents, called Nihilists, wanted to destroy totally the existing order. Some felt that the only hope for Russia was a peasant revolution. Discussion turned to action when, in the middle 1870's, hundreds of young intellectuals went to the peasants to convert them to revolution in what was called the “to the people" movement. It failed because of police oppression and peasant indifference.

By the late 1870's, however, several small terrorist groups had developed, and in 1881 Alexander II was killed by a terrorist bomb. He was succeeded by his son, who became Alexander III.

Reaction Under Alexander III

The new czar adopted a policy of severe repression. He put down liberal and radical movements, suppressed all ideas of change, persecuted the Jews, and tried to force the Russian language on all subject peoples. Many radical leaders had to live in exile. The revolutionary movement reached its lowest point but still persisted.

During Alexander's reign there was an expansion in industry and much railroad building.

Autocracy Under Nicholas II

Nicholas II, who in 1894 succeeded his father, Alexander III, to the throne, carried on the repressive and autocratic rule of the previous regime. Persecution of the Jews also continued throughout Nicholas's reign. The czar was weak-willed and was dominated by his wife Alexandra.

Nicholas was fortunate to have in his government Finance Minister Sergei Yulievich Witte. Under his capable leadership, Russia experienced a spectacular growth in industry and railroad building in the 1890's. However, the country still lagged far behind the major industrial powers of western Europe. Russia was still mainly agricultural, with peasants making up about 80 per cent of the population.

With more industrialization, the number of factory workers increased. Working conditions were poor and there were frequent strikes. Revolutionary activity revived again in the late 1890's. A new radical group were the Marxists, who followed the Communist doctrines of Karl Marx. They believed that a revolution would occur among the working class. One group of Marxists consisted of the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of V. I. Lenin. A peasant organization called the Social Revolutionary Party was also active. Throughout most of Nicholas's reign, these groups had an insignificant following and were largely ineffective.

In the Far East, Russia attempted to increase its economic dominance in Manchuria and Korea. These attempts led to war in 1904 with the Japanese, who were pursuing an equally imperialistic policy in those areas. The Russo-Japanese War at first generated some patriotic enthusiasm, but as it became apparent that Russia was waging a losing war and conditions at home worsened, dissatisfaction grew. (The Treaty of Portsmouth in September, 1905, recognized Japan's victory.)

Revolution of 1905

On Sunday, January 9, 1905, Father George Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest, led a procession of 200,000 workers and citizens of St. Petersburg to the Winter Palace, to present their grievances to the czar. Confronted by the crowd, troops panicked and began shooting, killing hundreds. As news of “Bloody Sunday" traveled around the nation, the people rebelled.

Terrorists struck down government officials, peasants rose up and seized private estates, and large-scale strikes occurred in many cities, virtually paralyzing the economy of the nation. In St. Petersburg a soviet (council) of workers' delegates threatened to take over the government. At the urging of Witte, Nicholas consented to the adoption of a constitution and the election of a Duma, or parliament.

The first Duma met in 1906, but was soon dissolved because it was hostile to the czar. The second Duma met the same fate. The third Duma, chosen under a revised election law, was conservative and compliant to the czar's wishes. After the 1905 Revolution and before the outbreak of World War I, Russia made steady economic progress. The position of the peasants improved substantially because of reforms initiated by Premier Peter Stolypin. Radical activity declined sharply during those years.

In foreign affairs Russia concentrated its attention on the Balkan area. As the largest Slav nation, Russia championed the Slavs in the Balkans against Austrian and German encroachment. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 was due partly to Russia's support of Serbia against Austria-Hungary. Russia, which fought on the Allied side, suffered a series of defeats at the hands of Germany. Millions of men were lost in battle. Vast areas were occupied by Germany, and war weariness began to spread over the nation. Scarcities of bread and other necessities appeared in the cities.

The czar went to the front to assume command of the armies, leaving the leadership of the nation in the hands of the superstitious Czarina Alexandra and Rasputin, a crude peasant who dressed like a monk and was considered holy. Rasputin had an increasing influence on the imperial family beginning in 1905, when he eased the bleeding attacks of Alexis, heir to the throne, who suffered from hemophilia. The czarina and Rasputin chose many disreputable and incompetent ministers to run the country. Rasputin was murdered by some nobles in December, 1916, but the quality of government did not improve.