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What Were the Main Internal Problems In the Russian Empire In the Period 1881-1917

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In appearance, Russia in 1881 was a great empire. It covered over 8 million square miles. At its widest points from west to east, it stretched for 5000 miles, at its longest points, north to south, it measured 2000 miles. It covered a large part of two continents. European Russia extended eastward from the borders of Poland to the Urals mountain range. Asiatic Russia extended eastward from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean. The greater part of the population was concentrated in European Russia.

It was in that part of the empire that the major historical developments had occurred and it was here that Russia’s major cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, the capital, was situated. One person, the tsar, governed the peoples of the Russian empire. Tsar Alexander 111 ruled late imperial Russia from 1881 to 1884, and then by his son Tsar Nicholas 11 from 1894 to 1917. Both were members of the Romanov family, which in 1913 celebrated 300 years as Russia’s ruling dynasty.

The notion of an absolute, divinely-appointed monarch still prevailed in Russia in the late nineteenth Century is a clear indication of how politically backward the country was in relation to the other major powers in Europe. It is true that many other states were monarchies but in each of them their had been significant moves towards parliamentary or representative government. Although Russia had been frequently and closely involved in European diplomatic and military affairs, she had remained outside the mainstream of European political thought.

Progressive Tsars such as Peter 1 (1688-1725), Catherine 11 (1762-1796) and Alexander 11(1855-1881) had taken daring steps to modernise the country, but their reforms had not included the extension of political rights or freedoms. In Russia in 1881 it was still a criminal offence to oppose the Tsar or his government. There was no parliament, and political parties were not officially tolerated. State censorship was imposed on the press and on published books. Although this did not prevent liberal ideas from seeping into Russia, it did mean that they could not be openly allowed.

The result was that supporters of reform or change had to go underground. In the nineteenth Century there had developed in Russia a wide variety of secret societies committed to political reform or revolution. But agents of the Okhrana, the Tsars secret police, frequently infiltrated these groups. As a result, raids, arrests, imprisonment and general harassment were regular occurrences. A few progressive tsars recognised the need for reform, but no matter how enlightened the views of the individual tsars, none would go so far as to introduce measures that might weaken his authority.

The tendency was therefore, for reform to be sporadic. One problem faced by the Russian people under the autocratic regime of the Romanov dynasty was the lack of freedom of speech. ‘Many of the laws enacted during the first decade of Alexander 111 reign were aimed at what he and most of his advisors regarded as the forces of weakness, disloyalty and cowardice’1. The main targets predictably were conspirators and propagandists who were engaged in unlawful political activities, outspoken newspaper editors, university professors and students.

From the point of view of the ministry of the interior, who was charged with maintaining the internal security of the state, not only did such people often assume the right to discuss and make recommendations on matters of state policy, but they also but they also encouraged the lower orders of society to criticise the government, and sometimes even to defy it. This inability or unwillingness to reform by the government was a significant problem for the Russian people. This problem was very difficult to resolve, as the bureaucracy within Russia at this time was a significant obstacle in having grievances addressed.

The empire was over governed at the centre and under governed at local level. Too many matters required reference to St Petersburg, where the decision-making process was plagued by delay, and a lack of coordinated policy. The bureaucracy that existed in the government ensured that the people found it virtually impossible to have their issues addressed in a fair and organised way. Another area of Russian life, which was extremely problematic, was agriculture. Indeed it is accurate to say that the land in Russia was a source of national weakness rather then strength.

The empires vast acres were not all-good farming country. Much of Russia lay too far north to enjoy a climate or a soil conducive to crop growing or cattle grazing. The 1897 census confirmed what foreign visitors had already observed, Russia was an overwhelmingly rural country. The majority of the population, 86. 6 %, lived in the countryside, most of them in small villages. Although Moscow had a million inhabitants and St Petersburg slightly more, there were only about a dozen other substantial cities, and few of these were located in central Russia.

The vast majority of rural inhabitants were peasants; between 3/4 and 4/5 of the population of the empire were either engaged in agriculture or were in some way were dependant on it. The rural population continued to grow so rapidly that there was the constant shortage of arable land. The peasants went on creating more mouths then the countryside could feed. Many of the peasants counted in the 1897 census had been born serfs, serfdom having survived from the Muscovite era until Tsar Alexander 11 embarked on a series of ‘great reforms’ in the 1860’s.

Whatever its legal implications, emancipation scarcely improved- indeed some would say it worsened the economic situation of the Russian peasant. In its wake, many peasants found themselves tiling an allotment of land that was barely able to produce subsistence for themselves and their families. This situation was difficult to resolve as the peasants found themselves tied to redemption payments that the government had imposed in return for having compensated the landlords for parting with some of ‘their’ land.

Judged by the standards of peasant agriculture elsewhere, France for example, the land allotments of Russian peasants might well have been sufficient, if only they had been worked in a more efficient manner. This situation was difficult to resolve as primitive agricultural methods still prevailed throughout much of rural Russia. Understanding little or nothing about fertilizers or crop rotation, most peasants employed traditional scratch ploughing methods that virtually guaranteed low yields per sown acre.

Moreover, because so much of the land was periodically redistributed among members of the village commune, peasants had little reason to think of the long-term productivity of any particular allotment. Many peasants during this period worked within a strip system. This was when small areas of land were subdivided into narrow strips in an attempt to provide each household within the family with some property, no matter how little. The result was greater inefficiency. ‘The strip system, involving the use of antiquated farming implements and techniques had long ago been abandoned in the agriculturally advanced nations. 2 Its continuation in Russia was a major cause of her relative incapacity as a food-producing nation. In 1890, Russia was the least industrialised of all the great powers. In order to catch up with Europe, Great Britain and the US, Russia would have to achieve phenomenal rates of industrial growth. To do so in turn would require a sweeping transformation of Russian habits, customs and beliefs: attitudes to authority, work, time, discipline and vodka consumption would all have to change as part of the process of industrialisation.

One major problem for the lower classes in Russia was the heavy burden of indirect taxation. This was Russia’s principal form of government revenue. It was placed on articles consumed by the whole population, but ultimately hit the poorest classes the hardest. The lack of economic development was very noticeable in Russia. There was a striking disproportion between the size of the urban professional and working classes and that of the rural peasants. Russia was however, not completely without industry. Iron produced in the Urals region and textile factories in the cities.

And most peasant homes engaged in some sort of cottage industry producing woollen or flaxen goods to supplement their income from farming. However, these activities were relatively small-scale. The sheer size of Russia and her underdeveloped system of roads and railways had proved an important limitation on industrial growth. An additional restriction to industrialisation had been the absence of an effective banking system. Russia did not have access to the readily available capital for investment in industry that had stimulated developments in other countries.

These factors had discouraged the rise of an entrepreneurial spirit, that dynamic, expansionist attitude that characterised western capitalism in this period. Another factor that created problems within the Russian empire was the issue of ethnic diversity and religion. With the census of 1897 many Russians learnt with surprise that they had already become a minority in their own empire. Out of a total population that exceeded 122 million, less then 45% were now ethnic Great Russians.

Slavic peoples constituted a majority of the entire population; Great Russians, Belo Russians, Ukrainians and Poles together formed more then 73% of the total. Out of these ethnic groups the poles were particularly nationalistic. A century earlier Catherine the great had joined Prussia and Austria in destroying the Polish state and partitioning its extensive territory. Merged against their will into the Russian empire, the poles remained separated from the Russians not only by language and history but also by religion, the overwhelming majority were Roman Catholics. Polish Catholicism and Polish nationalism were difficult to separate.

The partition of Poland also brought under Russian rule about 5 million Jews, almost all of whom lived, no longer by choice, in a specially demarcated area of the western provinces known as the Pale of Settlement. Yiddish speaking and traditional in dress, the Jews understandably sought to preserve their religion and culture against attempts to convert or assimilate them, thereby earning the hatred of anti-Semites, who were especially active in the western and southern Ukraine. By the end of the nineteenth century more then a 1/4 of the Tsar’s subjects were neither Russian’s nor Slav’s.

Some 13 million were Muslims, most of whom spoke various Turkic languages. Also Finns, Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Georgians and Armenians lived within the empire. In the late imperial period, many important conflicts would turn on relations between Russians on the one hand and Poles, Finns and Jews on the other. If the empire’s ethnic and linguistic diversity was bewilderingly complex, so was the variety of religions practiced within its boundaries. Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims and Protestants all resided within the Russian empire.

Religion, in other, words, was more likely to divide then to unite the tsar’s subjects. As I have discussed, the Russian empire contained within its boundaries many ethnic groups but Russian national identity was the only one officially recognised. Russian monarchists thought that the Habsburgs had been foolish to accommodate the Hungarians by turning their empire into a dual monarchy. They were determined to resist any similar move towards federalism in Russia, and their support for the autocracy was based on the belief that without it the empire would disintegrate.

During the reign of Alexander 111 a policy of Russification was implemented. This was done in an attempt to restrict the influence of the national minorities within the Russian empire. Russian was confirmed to be the official first language, thereby extending the traditional policy of making it the form in which law and government were conducted throughout the empire. The effect of this was to give officials everywhere a vested interest in maintaining the dominance of Russian values at the expense of the other national cultures.

Discrimination against non-Russians, which had previously been a hidden feature of Russian public life, became more open and vindictive in the 1890’s with hindsight; the Tsarist policy of Russification can be seen as ill judged. ‘At a critical stage in its development, when cohesion and unity were needed as never before, Russia chose to treat half of its population as inferiors or potential enemies. ‘3 Particular victims of Russification were the Jews. Anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained in Tsarist Russia. Fierce persecutions of Jews had long been a feature of Russian history.

The government as a form of blood letting customarily encouraged these acts of savagery, referred to as ‘Pogroms’. During the reign of Alexander 111 the number of pogroms increased markedly -an indication of the governments real, if unofficial encouragement of this particular form of state terrorism. From looking at this one can see why the issue of racism was difficult to resolve, with the state advocating intolerant behaviour it would have been hard to control discrimination at a local level. Another problem to be found within the Russian empire during the period 1881-1917 was that of urban modernisation.

Contemporaries found the streets of Russian cities ‘teeming with vagrants, paupers and hooligans’. 4 However, despite the urban growth Russia was still on the eve of the twentieth century, a largely agricultural and peasant country. In matters of health Russia also remained behind the west. Mortality rates in the late nineteenth century period were higher then those in Western Europe. Until the 1880’s urban death rated generally exceeded rural, but in St Petersburg, reputedly the unhealthiest capital in Europe, mortality rates remained startlingly high as late as 1913.

Most deaths were still from infectious diseases. Children died mainly from measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria; adults from small pox, cholera, typhus, typhoid fever malaria and tuberculosis. Because of poor ventilation and over crowding, respiratory and eye diseases gathered pace during the winter months, while in the summer water shortages especially in the south often produced gastro intestinal disorders. This problem of disease proved difficult to resolve, as there was a general lack of education on methods of sanitation.

When considering internal problems within Russia during the period 1881-1917 it is crucial that one identifies social unrest as a significant problem. The first expression of working class unrest was a 1-day general strike in Baku in December 1905. Some days later a strike began in the Putilov works in St Petersburg. By January work had stopped in most factories within the capital. On 22 January a petition was taken to the Winter palace. The troops opened fire, and several hundreds were killed or wounded.

This was the ‘bloody Sunday’ massacre, which is usually considered to have opened the 1905 revolution. This denial of free expression tended to drive political activists towards extremism. An outstanding example of this was the assassination of Alexander 11 in 1881 by a terrorist group known, as ‘the peoples will’. In a society in which state oppression competed with revolutionary terrorism, moderate opinion could make no headway. When discussing problems experienced by the Russian people one would have to include the great famine that began in 1891.

It was the defining event of the decade and was compounded the next year by epidemics of cholera and typhus. The overall loss of life is estimated at more then a 1/3 of a million people. Nature produces crop failures, but it takes human action to turn them into famines. In this case, the deliberately harsh grain requisitioning policies had exacerbated the endemic poverty of rural Russia. The famine affected not only peasants, who lost family members as well as livestock, but also all those who serviced agricultural settlements, such as blacksmiths and rural traders.

The famine, greeted on the left as conclusive evidence of the regime’s incompetence, acted as a catalyst for the renewal of revolutionary activity. Almost all educated Russians found the famine and epidemics reminders of Russian backwardness. The last factor I will consider when analysing the internal problems of Russia is that of the effects of World War One. In 1914 there were no clear signs that the Tsarist government wanted war. Russia’s experience ten years earlier against Japan had made her wary of putting herself at risk again, and her foreign policy after 1905 had been essentially defensive.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro Hungarian throne, by Serbian nationalists made it impossible for Russia to avoid being drawn into European conflict. Three years of total war were to prove too great a strain for the Russian economy to bare. During the years 1914-1917, the political, social and economic institutions of Russia proved increasingly incapable of meeting the demands that the war placed upon them. Inflation soared during this period as millions of Roubles were spent on the war effort.

The national budget multiplied by nearly eight times during this period. The government resorted to putting more notes into circulation, but this made money practically worthless. The result was severe inflation. The war also affected food supplies and distribution. Full-scale mobilisation took over 15 million men from the countryside during the course of the war. Hunger became a constant reality for much of Russia during the war years. A lot of food went to waste, as Russia’s transport system could not cope with the pressure that the war had placed upon it.

The army was another area for concern during the war as over 4 million Russian troops were killed or wounded during the first year. The enthusiasm and high morale of August 1914 had turned by 1916 into pessimism and defeatism. Ill equipped and underfed, the ‘peasants in uniform’5 who composed the Russian army began to desert in increasing numbers. In conclusion one would have to say that during the period 1881- 1917 the Russian Empire experienced a huge variety of internal problems.

Its economy, agriculture and the growth of urban modernisation all created a variety of problems for the Russian people. What is apparent is that the majority of the population lived in the depths of poverty. The government and the ruling classes viewed the peasants with suspicion and regarded them as the dark masses. The unwillingness of the Tsar and his government to reform and make concessions for the benefit of the majority of the population led to the social unrest that eventually contributed to its down fall.

In 1917 Russia experienced a revolution that succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and replacing it with a liberal provisional government, that was in the same year to be replaced by Lenin and his Bolshevik organisation. Russia undoubtedly suffered great hardships during the period 1881-1917. Many of these problems were difficult to resolve at the time for a variety of reasons. What is clear, with hindsight, is that greater reforms, a more democratic style of government and education for all would have gone a long way to elevating some of the hardships shared by many.

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