Russia before the Revolutions

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The Russian Imperial Family, 1913. Source: Wikimedia
The Russian Imperial Family, 1913. Source: Wikimedia

Russian society before the Revolutions of 1917 is explained by Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

What was Russia like before the First World War?

The 1905 revolution had failed to bring down the Tsar. But it had shown the Tsar that he lacked a stable constituency. He had managed to divert the capitalist and middle class groups in 1905 by promising constitutional monarchy in his October Manifesto.

But he continued to distrust these groups because of their role the events of 1905 and because he did not wish to concede limitations on his role as absolute monarch. For almost three centuries, the Romanov Tsars had not shared power in Russia.

The Limits of Absolutism

Their centralised state apparatus had lorded over a country largely made up of serfs, agricultural labourers who lived on the land of the nobility and had to work for and pay dues to their masters.

The nobility profited from this arrangement and were overrepresented in the top echelons of the civil service, the military and other state institutions.

Yet their position was also being challenged. The Tsars were keen to modernise Russia in the second half of the 19th century.

Though they took pride in their defeat of Napoleon in 1812, Russian defeat in the Crimean War in 1853-56 led to reforms which challenged in various ways the power of the nobility.

The Tsars pushed through the abolition of serfdom in 1861, though most land remained the private property of the gentry landowners.

Moreover, the growth of the state for administrative purposes, the industrialisation drive of the 1890s, and the growth of cities all diluted the influence of the nobility as the nobility’s proportional importance to the political, economic and social spheres of life fell.

The Tsar could take noble support for granted. Nobles, but also rich peasants, bureaucrats, merchants, shop-keepers, policemen and the clergy, rallied to the defence of absolutism in 1905, uniting in anti-revolutionary and antisemitic groups called the Black Hundreds.

Their street mobilisations and pogroms were a standard feature of the 1905 events, though the Tsar was still able to cling on largely because of his control of the army.

The Tsar knew this was not enough to maintain absolutism in the longer run. So, when he forcefully put down the working class uprising in Moscow in December, he began to go back on his promises on constitutional reform, announcing a different set of reforms than those he had promised.

The new parliament, or Duma, would be elected by class, with the classes favouring absolutism allowed more of a say, and workers and peasants less. The Duma would not appoint a government or have major decision-making powers. The Tsar would still run the show.

The Tsar’s Parliaments

The four parliaments that sat between 1905 and 1917 were engineered to increasingly follow the Tsar’s wishes. The first Duma, boycotted by the Social Democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries, sat from April to July 1906.

Because too many liberals and peasant representatives were elected, however, the first Duma was dissolved. The Tsar then appointed an arch conservative Pyotr Stolypin as Prime Minister.

Stolypin was to renew Russia’s agricultural sector – without taking the land of the nobles – by creating a new class of rich capitalist farmers. But Stolypin faced another hostile Duma with as many as 65 Social Democrat deputies. To pass his land reform, the Tsar had to break the Fundamental Law he had himself accepted – that he could not make changes to constitutional matters without the backing of the Duma.

Over the summer of 1907, he changed the franchise, limiting the votes of the popular classes and non-Russians. This third Duma would serve out a full term from 1907 to 1912 and pass Stolypin’s land reform.

Stolypin’s reforms worked only up to a point: they reduced rural poverty but they failed to create a fully capitalist countryside or even a major constituency for absolutism among peasants.

The government still relied heavily on repression and force to maintain itself. Stolypin had been a ruthless governor and then minister of the interior before becoming Prime Minister.

So many were hanged under his premiership, over 3,000, that this form of punishment came to be known as ‘Stolypin’s necktie’.

Stolypin was also unpopular among the gentry, however, who feared he wanted to take too much from them. Stolypin was beginning to rely on nationalists in the Duma and push for Russian peasant interests in non-Russian parts of the Empire – against non-Russian nobles.

In this, he was seen as too brash by Russian nobles, who feared Russian nationalism was aimed as much at their privileges as the privileges of non-Russian nobles. Their instinct was class-based rather than national.

Stolypin was so determined to push through local government reforms in non-Russian areas, though, that he even forced the Tsar to dissolve the Duma when it stopped following his direction.

Stolypin appeared in a sense therefore to be challenging absolutism. That was a step too far. His assassination in September 1911 stopped many of his reforms – and the event is still shrouded in mystery.

He was shot by a leftist who had also worked with the secret police, and the Tsar stopped a police inquiry into the event. The Tsar also reputedly said after Stolypin’s death: ‘Now there will be no more talk about reform.’

Cracks in Tsarist Russia

Under such circumstances, the capitalist and middle class circles who had shied away from revolution in 1905 appeared once again to be called to action as the apparent natural defenders of the constitution.

They sincerely disliked absolutism since it was getting in the way of developing full capitalism in Russia and it was depriving them of a say they felt they should have in the country’s running.

They faced a dilemma, though: to get rid of absolutism, they clearly had to force the Tsar’s hand; but to force the Tsar’s hand, they would have to form alliances with the popular classes, especially with the workers. This was not an easy balance as it ran in contradiction with their own material interests.

As owners of factories and land, how could they whip up revolutionary fever for a political revolution, when that revolution could easily slip into social revolution?

Would workers strike alongside their bosses against the state today, and then go back to work tomorrow? There was no such certainty.

Nonetheless, many liberals now tried to repair fences with some of the workers’ parties from 1905. They thought that both the middle classes and the working class wanted to defend some of the meagre gains of the 1905 revolution: the limited rights to freedom of speech and assembly that came alongside the right to elect representatives to the Duma.

The liberals turned in the first instance to the Menshevik wing of the Social Democrats and, in 1911, they discussed joint action for freedom of assembly.

They in fact started a Petition Campaign to defend trade union rights. They expected the Mensheviks to moderate their own tactics, which the Mensheviks did.

Calls for a democratic republic and the expropriation of noble estates in the Menshevik programme disappeared in favour of more vague calls for change in the course of the 1912 Duma elections.

Towards revolution

The trouble for both the liberals and moderate socialists was that they appeared out of step with reality. The burden of economic and military modernisation after the 1904-5 defeat in the war against Japan fell on the back of workers.

Workers themselves saw the need for much more militant action to end Tsarist oppression, like the government massacre of striking workers at the Lena Goldfields in 1912.

Strike levels from then on increased to 1905 levels by 1914, and workers turned increasingly to more radical parties, especially the Bolshevik wing of the Social Democrats, who advocated more militant methods and took control of most of the trade unions in elections in 1913-4.

By May 1914, the government was planning to narrow the rights of unions and faced a near-insurrectionary general strike in July 1914, days before the outbreak of the First World War.

Though the strike petered out, it was clear that Russian on the eve of the First World War was a deeply divided society. The Tsar was backward looking and refused to countenance political reform.

His attempts at advancing Russian capitalism without giving up absolutist power put him at odds with such ruthless and reactionary champions of land reform as Stolypin.

Russia’s urban capitalists and middle classes sought to force political reform but feared mass mobilisation lest anti-capitalist forces gained popularity.

Peasants remained unhappy that most arable land remained with the nobles. And workers above all took up the mantle of revolutionary change.

Certainly, the World War contributed to the collapse of Russian absolutism. But it was not the sole cause of the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

The movement from below was gaining strength and not finding support among the propertied classes who put their own profits and interests ahead of democracy.

Across the world, we see a similar trend today: a whittling down of democratic rights in favour of upholding austerity and private property.

Liberals and moderate socialists offer little resistance to rightward moving movements, governments or undemocratic institutions like the EU. Workers have little interest in maintaining the failing status quo.

They are prepared for radical solutions. Where the left is prepared to offer these, workers take note. Where the left compromises with the status quo, it ends up nowhere.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica