Nicholas II1

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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The peasants were the bulk of Russian citizenry, and acted as the soldiers of the 1917
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
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
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.


Bibliography:
jgigf