The Russian Empire before Nicholas II: How and why did the Russian Empire come to be so large by 1917? 2/2

In the previous post we looked at how and why the Russian Empire had expanded throughout the centuries. Now, it is the time to look at how the rulers of the Russian Empire consolidated their power across their realm.

The Russian Empire: Consolidation of power

As it was mentioned in the previous post the Russian Empire grew out of a relatively small and relatively powerful Muscovite state in North-Eastern Europe, which was landlocked and had little natural borders therefore allowing various surrounding tribes to invade it easily. Politically, Muscovy had little significance for contemporaneous Western major powers, like the Holy Roman Empire, but was one of the more prominent states in the Eastern Europe. This could be evidenced by the wars in which the Muscovite rulers involved themselves in, especially those that had occurred during the 1600s. For example, in 1654, under tsar Alexei I, there was some expansion towards modern-day Baltic states and Belarus, which were largely owned by Charles X of Sweden. Although the campaign of 1654 was relatively successful, with the Muscovites gaining Smolensk, Kiev and access to the Don river this success was short lived as the Swedish Empire continued to grow. Consequently, as has been shown above, the Muscovite state was a relatively small and a relatively important entity.

The map of the modern-day Ukraine. The purple line is used to signify the approximate territories that went to Muscovy by terms of the Russo-Swedish negotiations in 1654-57
Here is a fun video that discusses the history of the Swedish Empire

So how did it consolidate all the power in the due process of expansion if it was kind of weak, you may ask?

As with any other historical question we will have to consider some factors and think for yourself which one is more likely to be the answer. Three factors have been chosen to discuss this topic, but they are by no means a definitive answer to the question. These factors are: the army, Russification and the centralised autocratic government.

  1. The army

The army is an important factor to consider as it allowed to not only expand the empire, but also to strengthen the hold in the newly invaded territories. In this period in history, a strong army was the key to success and potential political power. By 1698 Russian army was, needless to say, an unstructured mess. There were very few professional commanders and it mostly consisted of a bunch of nobles and their peasants fighting for the tsar (who also, surprise, surprise did not receive professional military education). However, this all changed when Peter I had decided to reform the Russian army according to the Western standards as part of his Westernisation policy.

Although there were some negative effects, one of the positive effects was that Russia now had a more effective army. This could be evidenced by the 1709 victory at Poltava over the Swedish troops, which was an important victory because the Swedish troops were considered to be the most powerful ones in Europe in that period in History and thus the victory at Poltava had put Russia onto the contemporaneous political map. Consequently, one of the reasons why the Russian Empire started to grow and to consolidate its power was due to the effectiveness of the reformed Russian Army. Within nearly a century, by the 1850s the Russian troops were able to help to restore the Bourbons onto the French throne following Napoleon’s rule in 1814 and in 1828 via the terms of the Treaty of Turkmenchay the Russian Empire added to her dominions most of the modern-day central Armenia, most of the modern-day south-eastern Azerbaijan. Such victories ‘signalled’ to the West that Russia was a politically strong country with a powerful army, therefore placing her as an important player onto the contemporaneous political scene, whose wishes should not be disregarded.

However, the army was not the most important factor when it came down to consolidation of the Russian Empire’s rule in the newly acquired territories. Although most of the Russian Emperors had utilised the army to control the newly conquered territories by either stationing various troops across the region or by placing a military man in charge of the region, such tactic proved unsuccessful. This was mostly because these military men were often unsympathetic towards local laws and customs as well as there being no clear-cut guidance from the Imperial government on the role of these men. Both of these factors led to alienation of the local population from the ruling class, thus causing various frictions that often resulted in military clashes.

Think like a Historian:

Is having a powerful army always an efficient way for a government to consolidate its power over the new territories?

2. Centralised autocratic government

Another important factor to consider, is the centralisation of the Government in the Russian Empire. This is a very important factor to consider because centralisation allowed to integrate administratively new territories and therefore to impose control over them. In the early 17th century Muscovite government was not particularly centralised as Ivan IV did not leave any heirs to the throne thus causing a series of major political shake-ups at the Muscovite court. These political tensions involved various noble families attempting to install their own men as rulers, which caused focus on the internal intrigues rather than the consolidation of the political power in the domain. This could be seen in the rebellions in this period. For example, in the period between 1654 to 1662 there were two major popular rebellions that were mostly caused by population’s disagreement over the unfair taxation. As a result, the Muscovite Government was not particularly centralised at the beginning of the 17th century.

However, by the end of the 17th century this situation changed because Muscovy was thrown into rapid Westernisation by Peter I. This process involved Westernising everything—the administrative structures like the Court, the Government and the Army; as well as cultural life. One of the outcomes of this policy was the attempt to make the Muscovy’s Government more centralised. This could be seen, for example, in Peter I’s creation of the Senate, which was a governmental body the main function of which was to coordinate the work of various central and local organs, such as supervision of taxation. Furthermore, the reign of Peter I saw the replacement of the prikazy system, which was very clunky and slow, to a kollegy system, which was based on a hierarchy that was responsible directly to the Crown. Consequently, the centralisation of the Russian Empire was started by Peter I and was continued by his successors.

Here is a quick and very fun introduction to Peter I (‘The Great’)

Indeed, the centralisation of the Government was embraced by future Russian rulers as the Empire grew larger , thus making the previously established system inadequate for control, which thus resulted in a higher level of control being required by the Imperial Government. For instance, Empress Catherine continued to shape local administrative control following Pugachev’s Rebellion by forming the zemstvo based system. The Russian Crown also tightened the centralisation of the government via censorship. For example, Nicholas I had formed a governmental body, called His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery, that was responsible for dealing with internal affairs, including taxation matters, clarifying and passing royal decrees and censorship. As a result, part of the centralisation process was also linked with state-based censorship; this unity between the state and the censorship was arguably a highly effective device to ‘glue’ the Russian Empire together before the 1900s because it limited the spread of anti-Crown ideas.

Think like a Historian:

What other methods can a ruler use to centralise their Government?

3. Russification

The final important factor that will be discussed is the Russification policy of the Russian rulers prior to the 1917 Revolution. The main aim of the Russification policy was to integrate various ethnicities and nationalities of the Empire into its political body. Generally speaking, the official policy since the reign of Nicholas I was to impose the principle of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”. This was done by both peaceful and violent methods. The peaceful methods included teaching the native populations the Russian language and classifying it as the ‘best’ language as well as using the Orthodox Church for local control. Nevertheless, the more violent methods were used more often than the peaceful ones. For example, such was the case with the Russian policy in Caucasus in the 1860s. When the Imperial Russian Army had invaded this region it used violent military methods to impose and to consolidate its rule in this territory. Although such a tactic was practical short-term, long-term it created alienation and embitterment from the local population, the effects of which are still seen to this day.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent a Church may help the Government in consolidating its rule in newly acquired territories? Does this Church-State relationship flow both ways?
Important vocabulary:
  • Muscovy: also known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow; it was a governmental principality in the North-Eastern Europe near the modern-day Baltic states
  • Westernisation: a policy introduced by Peter I, which aimed to reform the Russian Government, the army and the cultural life in accordance to Western European standards
  • Centralisation: a process by which the government becomes ‘tied’ to the important administrative city (usually the capital of the state)
  • The Senate: a governmental body that was introduced by Peter I to centralise the contemporary Muscovite Government
  • Prikazy: a Medieval Russian term for a governmental position, or an office
  • Kollegy: a system of government that was introduced by Peter I as part of his Westernisation reform. This system was answerable directly to the Russian Crown.
  • Zemstvo: a 19th century Russian name for a district council
  • Censorship: a process by which either an individual or the state prohibits the publishing of a particular literary or cinematic medium that explores an idea that may be a threat to the state’s political or social security
  • Russification: a policy followed by the Russian Imperial Crown to integrate various nationalities and ethnicities via both peaceful and violent means into the Empire
  • Caucasus: an area near the Black and the Caspian Seas that include modern-day states like Georgia and Azerbaijan
To explore the topic further…
  • If you are interested in the figure of Peter I and his role in the formation of the Russian Empire, there is a very good biography written by Robert K. Massie which is called Peter the Great: His Life and World. It’s a very enjoyable read and an excellent starting point for researching the tsar’s reign.
  • If you are interested in seeing how the Russian Empire developed, The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore is a good place to start. However, please be aware that it spends a significant amount of the book on the explanation of the Russian reasons for the expansion of the Empire and does not give enough context of the political scene in Europe.

Russia 1905-1917: Why did the Tsarist Regime collapse in 1917?

  1. Treatment of various ethnicities

The Russian Empire was very large and contained very different groups of people. This occurred due to various wars that Russia had led since the mid.1700s. As a result of these wars the Russian Empire had a lot of people who had differing religious beliefs. For example, some of such groups were the Buddhists of the Kalmykia region, Shamanists of various Siberian regions, such as the Buryat region, and the Jews who who were mostly settled in large cities, like Moscow and St Petersburg. Just as the religious beliefs were different, so were the ethnicities. For example, the Russian Empire contained the Ukrainians (or New Russians as they were known contemporaneously), Latvians, Lithuanians, Belorussians to name a few of them.

This is a map of the Russian Empire in 1917. The marks represent either important cities or the regions that are mentioned in the text. (CC: Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the Russian Crown did not treat these minorities well. For instance, under Alexander III, the Crown argued that all ethnic and religious minorities should become ‘Great Russians’, which meant that if various peoples did not want to obey the Russian Crown’s vision of what being Russian meant they were considered third-rate citizens and were not allowed to work ordinary jobs in the cities. When people rebelled locally against such laws they were suppressed harshly by the Crown. Nicholas II went much further than his predecessors in treatment of various ethnic groups in Russia because he enhanced the previous oppressive state policies. State backed up anti-Semitism was rampant by 1900. For example, Vyacheslav Plehve, Nicholas II’s Minister if the Interior, encouraged Jewish pogroms in 1904 as it was believed by Russian officials that Jews were leading a world-wide conspiracy against the Russian tsar. Such treatment of different ethnic groups caused many people from these ethnic groups to join anti-tsarist groups, such as the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Such groups rapidly gained support and played important roles in 1905 and 1917 revolutions, ultimately overthrowing the tsarist regime.

Think like a Historian:

Can a geographically large nation expect all people to support its ideas?

2. Weak Governance

Another reason why the Tsarist regime had collapsed in 1917 was because Nicholas II was a weak tsar. Nicholas II was an autocrat, which meant that only he had the direct power to control the entirety of the Russian Empire.

SOURCE TIME: This is a photo of Tsar Nicholas II. What can you tell about him and how the Russian Crown tried to present itself as?

However, this did not mean that he was skilled at his job. For example, he avoided making important decisions that could only come from him as he was the head of the autocratic system. This could be seen in the Tsar’s failure to listen to the worker’s demands on Bloody Sunday in 1905 as well as him disregarding the Duma demands in 1905 by disintegrating it. Both of these events caused people to argue more and more radically against the Tsarist regime.

This is a short contemporary video of the crowd that had gathered to listen to Lenin’s speech either shortly before the 1917 Revolution or slightly after it. Who do you think these people are apart from being Lenin’s listeners?

The main weakness of Nicholas II, however, was that he put the needs of his family above the ones of the state. This could be evident by the Tsar’s treatment of Grigori Rasputin, who was surprisingly not “Russia’s favourite love machine” as the band Boney M. claims, but an eccentric Siberian peasant who attached himself to the Tsar’s court and soon was able to have some influence on the Royal family and the daily decisions that they were making. For example, when Nicholas II went to personally command the Russian forces in 1915, the Tsarina (tsar’s wife) was influenced by Rasputin to install incompetent ministers. Despite vocal opposition to Rasputin that came from more competent ministers, Nicholas II wavered at sending Rasputin away from the court and even when he had done so he kept up correspondence with him. This angered some Russian nobles because they saw that the tsar was incapable of making his own decisions and therefore was weak.

Think like a Historian:

Why would people chose to support a revolution, in your opinion?

3. Russian Empire’s involvement in World War 1

Another reason why the Tsarist regime fell in 1917 was because of the Russian Empire’s involvement in World War 1. Since the mid 1750s there were several Tsars who had attempted to modernise the Russian army so make it more effective in combat by using the Prussian army as its perfect example, but these attempts did not go far.

This is a very short video that explains why everyone in 18th century Europe were madly in love with the Prussian army and why the army itself was not as perfect as it seemed to be.

By 1910s the Russian army consisted of mostly untrained peasants and working men and had a weak fleet in comparison to other armies. This meant that the Russian army was lacking in effectiveness significantly, which could be seen in a wide range of serious military losses such as the Battle of Tsushima Strait (1905). Despite such loses the Russian Empire joined the World War 1 in 1914 in order to protect her interests in the Balkans. This war strained the already unstable economy of the Russian Empire and caused extreme food shortages in major cities, like St Petersburg, leaving many people starving and angry at the Crown for not helping them. Consequently, more and more people joined anti-Tsarist groups that eventually overthrow the Tsarist regime in the Russian Empire.

Think like a Historian:

What are the differences between a rebellion and a revolution, in your opinion?

Important vocabulary:

  • Communism: a socio-political theory developed by a German philosopher Karl Marx, which argues that all property is owned by the community and everyone receives equal wages
  • Social Revolutionaries: a radical, violent group that opposed the tsar strongly. Their beliefs were grounded in the teachings of Karl Marx
  • Autocracy: a system of government in which all of the power is in the hands of one individual
  • Empire: a group of states that is governed by a single ruler, usually a monarch
  • Tsar: a Russian name for a king
  • Mir: a village commune in Russia that later developed into a political
  • Commune: a small community that could make local decisions
  • Zemstvo: a 19th century Russian name for a district council
  • Okhrana: a 19th century Russian name for police forces
  • Duma: an elected Parliament
  • Serfdom: a system, which had Medieval origins, and in which the peasant was attached to a lord to work on lord’s land without any pay
  • Bloody Sunday: 22 January 1905, which was a day during which a crowd of strikers had been shot by Tsar’s forces

To research the topic further…

We cannot stress this enough, these series by Lucy Worsley are amazing if you’d like to dig deeper into Russian history