The Modernization of Russia

Nation building became a strong and determinative factor in Russia during the mid to late nineteenth century as well as it had in Italy and Germany, but in a different direction. The gargantuan size of the country and its plethora of nationalities, ethnicities and languages meant that Russia was faced with the challenge of holding the state together, either by political compromise or by force. The problem was not unlike that faced by the United States as it grappled with the issues of territorial expansion and the extension of slavery, which ultimately resulted in a civil war and the strengthening of the national government in Washington. Russian rulers saw national self determination, the factors which had helped to unify Italy and Germany, as a subversive ideology which they intended to suppress. Even so, its rulers knew that the country must modernize if it were to survive.

The Crimean War and the Great Reforms: Russia at the middle of the nineteenth century was primarily an agrarian society. There was little industry, and 90 per cent of the population lived on the land. Serfdom was still practiced, although it had been abolished in the rest of Europe over 200 years before. Serf families were tied to the land, although they could be bought and sold by landlords; were required to furnish labor for him or pay money rents as he saw fit. He could choose which of his serfs should serve in the military for up to twenty five years. If a serf were guilty of insubordination, he might be exiled to Siberia, literally the end of the world. Landlords frequently exploited female serfs sexually. Although it was a moral and political issue for the Russian government, there was no impetus to end it prior to the Crimean war.

The Crimean War lasted from 1853 until 1856. In 1853, Russia sent troops to defend Christians within the Ottoman Empire. Within months, Russian troops had occupied parts of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks declared war. Britain and France were both concerned that Russia would use the war as an excuse to occupy the Crimea and other Ottoman territory. On 28 March 1854, looking to prevent Russian expansion, Britain and France (with Austrian backing) declared war on Russia. The war was fought almost exclusively on the Crimean peninsula off the Black Sea. In September 1854, Allied troops invaded the Crimea and within a month were besieging the Russian held city of Sebastopol. Russia’s transportation network of rivers and wagons was not sufficient to supply troops adequately, and the Russian Army suffered a humiliating defeat.

The Crimean War was at first unpopular in Great Britain, as Turkey was Islamic and Russia was Christian; however the success of British troops gave rise to an overwhelming surge of nationalism. Political cartoons of the day showed Queen Victoria "taming" the Russian Bear. Although the War did not result in significant diplomatic or geographic changes, a charge of British light horsemen into Russian cannon due to a mistaken order was the basis of Tennyson’s famous poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade." "There’s not to reason why; theirs but to do and die." A lesson all AP students should learn and heed.

The loss of the Crimean War was both a blow and a wakeup call to the Russian government. It had not lost a major war in over 150 years, and the defeat exemplified how far Russia was behind the industrialized world. The country needed better armaments, a reorganization of the military and most importantly, railroads. Also, the war had caused tremendous hardships and serf rebellions were possible. Reform was desperately needed and the new Czar, Alexander II (r. 1855-1881), in true Russian fashion, felt that the reforms must come from above.

The first great reform was to free the serfs. In 1861, serfdom was permanently abolished, and the peasants received about half the land. They still had to pay fairly high prices for their land, and it was owned collectively (the peasants of each village were jointly responsible for payments of all families in the village). The governments plan was to prevent the development of a class of landless peasants; everyone would have an interest in the land in common. The plan backfired, however, as the peasants had no incentive to improve their agricultural methods of leave their villages. Old habits and attitudes remained, and there was little, if any, improvement.

Later, in his efforts to force the Soviet Union out of the Great Depression, Josef Stalin forced peasants into collective farms. The plan was a colossal failure, and many people starved while crops rotted in the fields.

In 1864 the government instituted the Zemstvo, a local government institution in which members were elected by a three class system of towns, peasant villages and land owners. An executive council dealt with local problems. This establishment of the Zemstvos marked a step towards popular participation in government, and many Russian liberals hoped it would lead to an elected National parliament. It didn’t happen, however, as the local councils were subordinate to the bureaucracy and the local nobility. The only significant reforms were in education and the legal system. Censorship, which had long been practiced in Russia, was relaxed, but not completely removed.

Industrialization: Two great surges of industrialization improved the Russian economy. The first, after 1860, involved government subsidies to build railroads. In 1860, Russia had only about 1,250 miles of track; by 1880 it had 15,500 miles. Railroads allowed Russia to export grain and urn money for further industrialization. By 1879, Russia had developed a railway equipment industry, and industrial suburbs grew around Moscow and St. Petersburg. Industrial development strengthened Russia’s military and gave rise to territorial expansion to the south and east. This expansion caused many nationalists and super patriots to become very excited, and they became the government’s most enthusiastic supporters. Industrialization also led to the spread of Marxist thinking and the transformation of the Russian revolutionary movement after 1890.

Sadly, political reforms ended with the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 by a group of Nihilists who called themselves the "People’s Will.". Alexander knew his life was in danger from Nihilists, and rode in an iron clad carriage. A group of terrorists, who planned on killing him, through a bomb underneath his carriage. The bomb did little damage to the carriage and Alexander was unhurt, but a number of his escorts were wounded. The bomber was arrested on the spot. Although his driver begged him to stay in the coach, Alexander, ever the consummate military man, thought it his duty to provide comfort to the wounded members of his escort and stepped into the street. When he did, a second terrorist threw a bomb between himself and Alexander, and both were mortally wounded. Everyone fled the scene, leaving Alexander bleeding alone in the snow. A group of military cadets hurried to the scene and lifted him into a coach for medical attention, with the help of one of the terrorists, who remained undetected. Alexander died from his injuries, as did the bomber, several hours later.

Alexander was succeeded by his son, Alexander III, who felt that the reform had gone too far. All political reforms were suspended, and Alexander instituted a program of Russification. Only the Russian language was to be used in schools, businesses, and government, regardless of the language his subjects might otherwise have spoken. The same group who assassinated his father also planned to assassinate Alexander, but the ring leader, one Aleksander Ulyanov, who was sentenced to death and hanged. He was the brother of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who later adopted the surname Lenin, and was responsible for the overthrow of the government of Alexander’s son and the last Russian Czar, Nicholas II.

Industrial modernization nevertheless continued in Russia. Under the leadership of Sergei Witte, Alexander’s finance minister, the railroad network doubled to over 35,000 miles, including the famous trans-Siberian railway, which runs from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean to Moscow, five thousand miles away. He also established a series of high protective tariffs that protected Russian industry; and he also put the country on the gold standard to strengthen Russian finances.

Witte ingeniously devised a plan to employ Western capital to build factories in Russia. He once told Alexander, "The inflow of foreign capital is …the only way by which our industry will be able to supply our country quickly with abundant and cheap goods." Within ten years, on the strength of foreign investment, a huge steel industry was developed, so much so that only the U.S. Germany and Great Britain produced more steel. Russian refineries were producing half the world’s petroleum by 1900.

Although Witte was a businessman, he was ever the autocrat and acted that way when dealing with foreign businessmen. Once when a foreign businessman came to see him and demanded angrily that the government fulfill a contract and pay him for it immediately, Witt calmly asked to see the contract. When he had it in his hands, he read it carefully, then slowly tore it to shreds and threw it in the waste basket without a word. He was not one to be bullied.

The Revolution of 1905: Territorial expansion seemed to be the next step for Russia to take, as this was during the age of Western Imperialism (as if the country were not large enough already.) Russia first established influence in Manchuria (Northern China) and then began casting greedy eyes upon Korea, much to the dismay of the Japanese, who were equally imperialistic. When Japan’s diplomatic protests were ignored, the Japanese launched a surprise attack in 1904, the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War. The typical European sense of superiority of the day indicated that Russia would win an easy victory over the Japanese; but the end result was stunningly opposite. Incompetence more than anything else doomed the Russians, and although the Japanese were financially exhausted, Russia collapsed first, and by the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905, mediated by President Theodore Roosevelt, Japan gained substantial territorial rights in Manchuria and Korea. The war marked the first major victory of an Asian power over a European power.

Military disaster brought political upheaval at home. Business and professional people had wanted political reforms, primarily to turn Europe’s last absolutist monarchy into a liberal representative government. Factory workers exhibited all the grievances and complaints that their counterparts in Western Europe had exhibited years earlier. The peasants were suffering from poverty and overpopulation, and nationalist movements among the internal minorities were growing, particularly among the Poles and Ukrainians. (It is significant to note that ethnic Russians were only 45 per cent of the population of the entire country.) The Russian Army was pinned down in the war in Manchuria, and all the various sources of disorder congealed to bring about the Revolution of 1905.

On a January Sunday, 1905, a massive group of workers and families converged peacefully on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to present a petition to the Czar. They were led by a priest named Father Gapon, whom the secret police had supported, as they considered his method of reform more favorable than some of the radical unionist demands. The crowds carried icons (a common Russian custom) and sand "God Save the Czar," the Russian national anthem. They did not know that the Czar, Nicholas II (son of Alexander III and a good man but a complete and hopeless pinhead) had left the city. The palace guard suddenly opened fire on the crowd without provocation, and hundreds were killed or wounded. The "Bloody Sunday" massacre forced those who were noncommittal into the camps of those who opposed the czar and a wave of general indignation resulted.

Compare this to Herbert Hoover’s inept handling of the Bonus Expeditionary Force in Washington after World War I. Amazing how one can at times snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Revolution was in the air. Outlawed political parties came out in the open, minority nationalities revolted and troops mutinied. In October, 1905, a general strike was called which paralyzed the entire country, and Nicholas was forced to capitulate. He issued the October Manifesto which promised full civil rights, and promised the election of a Russian Parliament, known as the Duma. The Manifesto did not go as far as many had hoped, and had the effect of splitting the opposition to the government. Most moderates and liberals were satisfied, but the Social Democrats did not think it went far enough. A bloody workers uprising broke out in December, 1905 in Moscow. Middle class leaders were frightened, and helped the government repress the uprising and survive as a constitutional monarchy.

The government issued a new constitution on the eve of the convening of the first Duma known as the Fundamental Laws, and its provisions were disappointing. The Duma was to be elected indirectly by universal male suffrage and also consist of an appointive upper house. The Duma could debate and pass legislation, but the Czar held absolute veto power. Ministers would be appointed by the Czar without the need to consult with the Duma.

Things went from bad to worse. When the members of the Duma tried to work with the Czar’s ministers, there was no cooperation, and Nicholas dismissed the Duma. The new Duma, elected in 1907, was even more radical and hostile, and Nicholas dismissed it after three months. He then rewrote the electoral law so as to concentrate more power in the propertied classes at the expense of the workers, peasants, and national minorities.

The new Duma actually promotes some land reforms. Agricultural reforms were instituted to break down the collective village ownership of land and encourage the more enterprising peasants, a program known as the "wager on the strong." On the eve of World War One, Russia was partially modernized, had a conservative constitutional monarchy, and a peasant based industrial economy.