Steps Towards the Russian Revolution


The quotation, "'I shall maintain the principle of
autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as it was
preserved by my unforgettable dead father.' (Nicholas II)
In spite of the Czar's decrees and declarations, Russia, by
the beginning of the 20th century, was overripe for
revolution," is supported by political and socioeconomic
conditions late monarchial Russia. Nicholas II was the Czar
of Russia from 1896-1917, and his rule was the brute of
political disarray. An autocrat, Nicholas II had continued
the divine-right monarchy held by the Romanovs for many
generations. From the day Russia coronated Nicholas II as
Emperor, problems arose with the people. As was tradition
at coronations, the Emperor would leave presents for the
peasants outside Moscow. The people madly rushed to grab
the gifts, and they trampled thousands in the bedlam. As an
autocrat, no other monarch in Europe claimed such large
powers or stood so high above his subjects as Nicholas II.
Autocracy was traditionally impatient and short- tempered.
He wielded his power through his bureaucracy, which
contained the most knowledgeable and skilled members of
Russian high society. Like the Czar, the bureaucracy, or
chinovniki, stood above the people and were always in
danger of being poisoned by their own power. When Sergei
Witte acted as Russia's Minister of Finance from 1892 to
1903, attempted to solve Russia's "riddle of backwardness"
in its governmental system. He is considered more of a
forerunner of Stalin rather than a contemporary of Nicholas
II. In 1900, Witte wrote a memorandum to Nicholas II,
underscoring the necessity of industrialization in Russia.
After the government implemented Witte's plan, Russia had
an industrial upsurge. All of Russia, however, shared a
deep-seated resentment of the sudden jump into an
uncongenial way of life. Witte realized that Nicholas II
was not meant to carry the burden of leading Russia to an
industrial nation as a Great Power. Nicholas II's weakness
was even obvious to himself, when he said, "I always give
in and in the end am made the fool, without will, without
character." At this time, the Czar did not lead, his
ministers bickered amongst themselves, and cliques and
special-interest groups interfered with the conduct of
government. Nicholas II never took interest in public
opinion, and seemed oblivious to what was happening around
him. He was still convinced he could handle Russia himself.
By 1902, the peasants had revolted against Witte's
industrialization movements, which were marked by a raise
in taxes as Russia spent more than it ever had. Russia was
struggling in the European and Asian markets, and with much
domestic unrest, Nicholas II did not want foreign affairs
muddled as well. Nicholas II dismissed Witte from the
Minister of Finance in August 1903. January 22, 1905,
commonly known as Bloody Sunday, was a revolutionary event
only because of what followed, not of what actually
happened on that day. A group of workers and their families
set out, with the backing of several officials, to present
a petition to the Czar. As they approached the Winter
Palace, rifles sprayed them with bullets. This cruel act by
the Czar shattered what smidgen of faith the workers and
peasants still held for Nicholas II, and sparked the
quickly-aborted "October Revolution." Peasants and workers
revolted in an elemental and anarchic rebellion, ultimately
turning a large-scale strike and bringing the government,
economy, and all public services to a complete halt. By
October 1905, the relations between the Czar and his
subjects had come to a complete breakdown. The October
Manifesto, created in 1905, caused two things. First, it
granted basic civil liberties to all, despite religion or
nationality; it even legalized political parties. This
concession was capped by the creation of an elected
legislative body, the Imperial Duma. Second, it split the
revolutionary front, reconciling the most cautious elements
among the moderates, who had no heart for violence, with a
government which promised to end the abuses of autocracy.
This formed the political party called Octobrist, which
lead the Duma. Peter Stolypin was Chair of the Soviet of
Ministers (1907-1911). Stolypin's goal was to seal the rift
between the government and the public. His scheme was a
moderate one, based largely on Witte's earlier suggestions.
Its essence was the creation of a prosperous and
conservative element in the countryside composed of "the
strong and the sober." On the whole, Stolypin succeeded
with some improvements in the civic status of the
peasantry, but did not expunge the barriers separating it
from "privilege Russia" (see explanation in section
covering social aspects). A revolutionary assassinated
Stolypin in 1911. In 1916, Nicholas II and his wife,
Alexandria, were so estranged from the ruling circle that a
palace coup was freely advocated. Before this, Alexandria
had brought Rasputin, a faith-healer, to live with them in
the Winter Palace at Petrograd. Alexandria believed he was
holy and could save her son, Alexander, from dying of
hemophilia. Rasputin ate into the woodwork of the Russian
aristocracy, and Alexandria made sure that the members of
the Duma did not tarnish him, and that they met his
requests. Two revolutionaries murdered Rasputin in December
of 1916, after being poisoned, shot, and drowned. Many
members of the Imperial family and army generals in the
field believed that, "If it is a choice between the Czar
and Russia, I'll take Russia." The British Ambassador to
Russia, Sir George Buchanan, said to Nicholas II on January
12, 1917, "Your Majesty, if I may be permitted to say so,
has but one safe course open to you, namely to break down
the barrier that separates you from your people and to
regain their confidence." To this, Nicholas II replied, "Do
you mean that I am to regain the confidence of my people or
that they are to regain my confidence?" History took its
course with the belligerent ravings of Nicholas II, and on
March 7, 1917, a major demonstration ignited in Petrograd.
After two days of heavy rioting, the soldiers called into
to control the bunch and defend the regime gave up and
joined in. On March 12, the soldiers in Petrograd would not
obey the Czar's orders, and in several days this held for
the rest of Russia. On March 15, Czar Nicholas II abdicated
his Empire to the emissaries of the Duma. Socially, Russia
was in just about as much of as mess as they were
politically. In 1900, the Czar and his government had not
decided how to treat its peasants. It kept all the peasants
legally and socially segregated from the other social
groups. There were essentially two sides to Russian society
at this time. On one side stood the peasants, the "dark
people." On the other was "privilege Russia," including
nobles, bureaucrats, the run of educated Russians, and even
the merchants, who often had risen from the peasants.
"Privilege Russia" look down upon the "dark people" with
much contempt. Chekhov described the peasants in a story
that he published in 1897: . . . these people lived worse
than cattle, and it was terrible to be with them; they were
coarse, dishonest, dirty, and drunken; they did not live at
peace with one another but quarreled continually, because
they feared, suspected, and despised each other . . . The
most insignificant little clerk or official treated the
peasants as though they were tramps, and addressed even the
village elders and church wardens as inferiors, and as
though he had a right to do so. The peasants were the bulk
of Russian citizenry, and acted as the soldiers of the 1917
revolution. While "privilege Russia," worked reluctantly to
make themselves more western, the "dark people" had
remained the same over the years. Most were, until this
time, politically unaware. The only Russia that they knew
existed within a five-mile radius of their shanty. In the
bottom of the peasant's heart, he or she carried a deep,
imbedded bitterness and hatred for the "upper crust." All
moves toward industrialization and westernization had been
done without regard to him or even at his expense. The
peasant was simply apathetic and harbored a sense of
personal worthlessness to his country. Ultimately, he
rejected it, and was not a Russian, but identified himself
as merely from his local area. As pathetic as the peasant's
situation might be, it was finally them who started the
revolution and them who slowly came politically aware. As
visionaries believed in the power of the people, the
peasants' resilience and drive encouraged them. "Privilege
Russia," although markedly better-off than the peasantry,
was not having a picnic either. As much as it tried to
westernize itself, it did not enjoy the equal citizenship
of a European democracy. It was divided into
state-supervised organizations: the nobility, the
bureaucracy, the priesthood, the merchant community, and
the "lower middle class." If a citizen had graduated from a
school which was considered "higher education," the citizen
became known as an "honorary citizen," which granted enough
more privileges to appear somewhat like a western citizen.
The Balkans had ethnic groups numbering in double-digits,
and they weren't worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier.
Greater Russia had groups numbering in triple- digits.
There were hundreds of different ethnicities, languages,
cultures, and many different religions, ranging from sects
of Judeo- Christian to Islam to even Buddhism. Getting
along with one another was not easy for these groups, and
especially so under Russia's policy of forced assimilation.
 Most Russians were dissatisfied with their country's
"cultural barrier" between Russia and Europe. They had an
inferiority complex, thinking of themselves as less
civilized, backwards, "Asiatic," and in doing so created a
lack of respect among Russia's European counterparts.
During World War I, when the Allies bullied Russia to get
back into the war after their first retreat, they seemed to
think of Russia as "stupid cowards." Germany made Russia
soon to sign a treaty with Germany, after their army -
embarrassingly enough - ran away from strong German
defenses. If losing a war isn't enough to give people of a
nation an inferiority complex, nothing is. The Russian
people unconsciously accepted the flood of western
standards into Russia between 1890 and 1914. Not
surprisingly, the Russians with their extra-long- sleeved
shirts were complacent to this infuse of foreign culture,
wanting to do anything to feel equal to Europeans. The
years of revolution between 1907 and 1914 were not
particularly bad ones for the peasants. Stolypin's
reformation plan had given more land to the peasants (who
already owned most of the land in the first place). Though
taxes had increased un expectantly under Witte's system,
Stolypin quickly lowered the rates and eased the tax burden
on the peasants. Rural goods-cooperatives had expanded and
even introduced technolical advancements. The literacy rate
had risen as the government put more emphasis on elementary
education. Even under the political restrictions imposed
by Stolypin and his successors, with the creation of the
Duma and political parties, people felt freer. Educational
planners predicted that there would be schools for every
child in Russia built by 1922. Russia's contacts with
western Europe grew, as they even began contributing to the
fashions in art, literature, and philosophy. Not looking at
these years from a pessimistic, intellectually political
point of view, these were Russia's version of our "roaring
twenties." By 1916, all of this had changed. Peasants were
forced into the army as punishment for striking. Much of
the army was made up of peasants, and hundreds of thousands
of men died. No one believed the war was a noble cause to
fight for. At the beginning of 1917, an estimated 1.5
million people deserted the Russian army. All of this
amounted to one thing everyone knew for sure; they were in
for another storm of revolution. With the first aborted
revolution attempt of 1905, the people were like half a
splinter removed; there was a momentary relief, but later
the pain returned with an infection. All of Russia knew
something had to be done by 1917, and up until that point
no one could decide upon what should take place. Russia had
been torn apart politically by a weak Emperor, festering
with indecision, and socio- economically with World War I,
class wars, and the increasing state of industrialization's
unrest and bread lines. It was a time for change, and in
1917, Russia was clearly "overripe" for revolution. 


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