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The weaknesses of the Tsarist state inherited by Nicholas II

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  • Category: Weakness

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The Tsarist state inherited by Nicholas II consisted of many weaknesses. The deficiencies in the state he inherited in 1895 combined to mean that he was on his way to heading a weak state. The weaknesses and faults present at the time of Nicholas’s inheritance consisted largely of political problems (autocracy, bureaucracy, military etc), social weaknesses and tensions, faults in the economy and other factors that all combined to make Russia a weak state.

Pictured Above: Tsar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their five children. A large and recurring problem in the state that Nicholas inherited was undoubtedly the fact that Russia was autocratic, which meant as Tsar he had unlimited powers and could virtually rule the nation as he saw fit. At the time of Nicholas’s appointment he strived to maintain the country’s autocratic nature and in fact this was his one fixed idea that autocracy should be preserved under his rule.

He was utterly against the idea of reforming the Russian government and in any way limiting his powers as Tsar, despite opposition from reformists. Many reformist groups posed problems to Nicholas’s Tsarist regime and wanted gradual change to the Tsarist system. There were many reformist groups inside Russia that opposed the Tsar and the government in general and they actively tried to sway public opinion against the Tsar and his regime. For Nicholas to totally dismiss ideas of reforming the Russian government was probably his first major mistake.

Aside from the social tensions and disputes his Tsarist state fuelled, the dire condition and structure of the government he had inherited would prove tough to manage effectively and it was riddled with irreversible problems already, which were largely due to it’s medieval nature. The government was highly centralised and unrepresentative and had no constitution whatsoever, which Nicholas chose not to address and under his regime this would remain. Nicholas’s powers as Tsar extended nearly as far as his word, literally being deemed as law. Furthermore, Russia had no parliament and political parties were illegal.

This meant Nicholas was in complete control of the country with no legal opposition within the government. The government’s day-to-day running was undertaken and carried out by the bureaucracy, however the Tsar distrusted them and corruption was not uncommon at all. This obviously posed problems and weakened his government considerably. Nicholas’s advisors and ministers rarely met as a cabinet as he was wary of them and he feared challenges to his authority. There were frequent clashes between his ministers, which again lead to tensions within his own government.

The government was widely considered as corrupt and the policies Nicholas inherited with it were deliberately repressive which increased the government’s unpopularity and allowed social tensions to grow all around the Empire. Nicholas did nothing to change these policies and kept them going upon his inheritance of the state. Russia generally had poor relations with countries outside her Empire and Russia’s foreign policies didn’t aid in building any proverbial bridges. In Europe their policies were defensive out of fear of Germany, but in the Far East expansionist ideas were put into practise.

These policies brought around opposition, especially in the Far East and culminated in the Russo-Japanese war. The fact Nicholas had opted to take complete control over the country in the form of a tsarist state was problematic for a large number of reasons, one of which was the Russian Empire’s geographical faults. Due to the geography of the Empire, Russia was virtually ungovernable and for one man alone to try and run the Empire efficiently was a near impossible task. Russia’s geographical problems were largely down to her hugely diverse nature.

Of Russia’s vast empire only about 50% of the population were actually Russian by nationality, meaning many religious and cultural issues and disputes inevitably arose between each contingent respectively. This was a problem dating back many years before Nicholas II’s reign, but a problem that was still very much prominent when he became Tsar. The rise of nationalist groups trying to seek independence offered the Tsar yet more opposition. When becoming Tsar, Nicholas not only became the head of state, but the head of the official Orthodox Christian religion.

It was common belief from old myths that the Tsars right to rule was derived from God. This meant Nicholas would assume leadership of not only all governmental responsibilities, but all religious ones too. The church was used as a massive propaganda tool and in many ways looked to keep people in favour and on the side of the Tsar and his government. Due to the Tsar heading the official Christian religion in Russia, this equated and lead to large tensions, unrest and divisions between many ethnic, national, and religious groups in Russia.

These problems were not down to Nicholas personally and were again inherited by him and the government structure he became head of, but his failure to address and possibly resolve the situation was a poor decision as it inevitably escalated. With regard to the country’s autocratic nature, Russia had in time (predating Nicholas’s inheritance) remained largely cut off from social and political development in Europe, and Nicholas did little, if anything, to change this upon becoming Tsar.

The failure to keep up to speed with Europe on such matters meant social and political issues in Russia were very backward and medieval. Again Nicholas’s failure to improve this issue was a prime example of his desire to keep Russian traditions and preserve age-old customs, which then stopped any gradual reform in its tracks, which angered opposition to the Tsarist state. The military that Nicholas inherited was extremely weak. A massive 45% of the government’s annual spending was pumped into the army and to no real avail, which obviously added to the economic disruption and problems in Russia.

The military was weak in size in comparison to the vast size of the Russian empire and the protection they offered the country was lax. The army’s severe weakness most likely stemmed from it’s conscription methods, and being conscripted into the army was often thrust upon criminals as a form of punishment. Their reluctance to be in the army obviously meant they wouldn’t give it their all and fight efficiently for the country in a time of war. Corruption in the army also weakened things. The ability was there for nobles to buy ranks and this meant people without any combat knowledge got the high ranks in the army.

All these factors combined meant the army was riddled with resentment and wasn’t very strong and efficient as a result. This fact was only disguised and masqueraded by the fact Russia hadn’t engaged in war since 1856 during the Crimean war, but the backlash of their weakness was felt later during the Russo-Japanese war. The Police was also another problem area for Nicholas. The Police force in Russia was extremely small by European standards and their responsibility in some individual sergeants cases, extended for many people across areas of over 2000 square miles.

Combined with the fact the Police were heavily under resourced, the control, law and order exercised in Russia by the Police was inevitably lax and their authority over Russian people was little to non-existent. The secret Police, the Okhrana, was hugely corrupt and Nicholas inherited this and freely allowed it to go on. This again aroused public and social tensions and unrest due to the underhand and sly techniques they used against the Russian public.

When Nicholas succeeded Alexander III he made the decision to support, continue and further the practice of Russification (making all of Russia’s population speak and act Russian) that Alexander had begun. The decision by Nicholas to continue Russification was a poor and ill thought out one. With Russification he had inherited all the resentment it had already conjured up for Alexander and it acted as a stimulus to many nationalist opposition movements. Russification’s success “ranged from the unfortunate, to the disastrous”, as described by the historian Hutchinson.

This summary was reached as it created resentment and opposition to the Tsar in all walks of life, especially from non-Russians living in the Russian Empire. Russian society was generally poor, uneducated and cut off from the social and technological progress that the rest of Europe was experiencing at this time. This meant the vast numbers of the country’s population were very backward. Society as a whole was defined by a system of noble rank and privilege that meant many at the low end of this “hierarchy” were resentful and violence could arise because of their situations.

Russia’s economy was in a pretty dire state and industrial development was being encouraged and was on the increase. However it was still considered weak and was merely a minor industrial power within Europe. Social tensions also increased in towns as the expanding industrial classes were denied political rights. This added further to the vast number of opposition the Tsar was up against from within the Russian Empire. Hutchinson summed up Russia’s spurt in industry issues; “Only by rushing to catch up with the industrial revolution could the autocracy and empire hope to survive”.

This clarifies that Nicholas was aware his empire could well fail and fall without industrial readjustment and it explains why such projects as the trans-Siberian railway were then started. Despite the rapid growth in industry a depression was to follow and all hopes of major industrial growth came to no real fruition. Other problems with the economy lay with the country’s communications and agriculture. Communications in Russia were excessively poor due to the country’s harsh terrain and agriculture was backward and inefficient due to techniques being not dissimilar from medieval times (e. g. wooden tools).

All these factors combined meant the Russian economy was in a state of disarray. Although not strictly an inherited weakness, Nicholas II was a reluctant Tsar. He lacked any real political ability and awareness. Nicholas as a man had a strong sense of duty, but had important weaknesses that rendered him unsuitable to be the Tsar of such a large and complicated empire. Nicholas was shy, wistful and melancholic. He never had an opinion of his own and he was in some ways reliant on those around him. He was ignorant about government matters and he was looked upon as incapable of dealing with complex issues.

The only one thing he was sure of was to preserve autocracy, which as already discussed proved not to suit his character at all, as he didn’t have the political sense and knowledge to be in such a position with so much power, especially when he was responsible for an empire the size of Russia. Ultimately the interpretation of the question that the Tsarist state inherited by Nicholas II was weak is definitely a fair one and very much justified. As discussed, at Nicholas’s time of appointment as the Tsar the country was evidently rotten to the core with weaknesses in many key areas.

Political, social and economic weaknesses combined to mean the Russian empire was in a dire state and Nicholas couldn’t really stand a chance of maintaining autocracy in the country without any opposition calling for reforms to the state and system. Structural weaknesses inherited by Nicholas were extremely menacing to him and his incompetence then meant the state could only go from bad to worse as he failed to stamp out or address any of the weaknesses that were right under his nose that could have possibly been rectified.

Nicholas’s suitability to be the Tsar is also highly questionable. Weaknesses with the autocratic nature of the country would be high up on the list of the main weaknesses with the empire, as this fault then lead to other problems in the country, which then spiralled out of control and brought major opposition. Tensions across the country as a whole, both politically and socially, were inevitably going to escalate and worsen the state’s weaknesses and its safe to say that Nicholas’s Tsarist state was highly unstable from the word go.

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