The Princes of Kiev: Rus and the Introduction of Orthodox Christianity
By the tenth century, Kiev was the center of the Rus territory and overlooked several rivers that connected the Byzantine Empire with the West. Having been settled by “warrior-traders” from the north (3), Kiev achieved relative stability and wealth due to its location as a flourishing trade hub. Its leader, Prince Vladimir, finally decided it was time to choose a religious faith for the territory.
In his quest, Vladimir received visitors who represented various religious traditions but wasn’t quite satisfied with any of the options, including Islam and Catholicism. He then sent a small delegation on an expedition to learn about other faiths.
After the delegation’s report of the beauty and profoundly moving spiritual experience they’d felt inside an Orthodox cathedral, Vladimir chose to adopt the Greek or Eastern Orthodox Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity was based in Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, which encompassed “parts of Italy, the Balkan Peninsula, the Aegean archipelago and all of Asia Minor” (4).
As Western Europe was just beginning its ascent out of the Dark Ages, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, with its emphasis on the Greek language and literature, had served as a repository, preserving the ancient Greek and Roman arts, philosophy, and Christianity (4).
Russians incorporated their own traditional folk art, music, and pagan traditions into their adopted faith. These included “community and brotherly love,” peace, and a reverence for beauty and nature. Religious art within the hundreds of churches that were built throughout the territory emphasized humility and human suffering (4). As Russians would not have a fully translated version of the New Testament for quite some time, they tended to focus on the essence of Christ —compassion and willingness to suffer — rather than his specific teachings (3).
The painters of the largely religious icon art of the next several centuries were responsible not just for the beauty and artistic execution of the paintings, but were also expected to convey the Holy Spirit in their subjects. To fulfill this obligation, artists engaged in deprivation, prayer, and the study of religious texts in addition to honing their creative skills. Of the several schools that each developed a specific technique, the Novgorod school became the most renowned (4).
Historian Suzanne Massie, in her book Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia, describes the passion that Russians brought to their new faith during this period:
So magnificent were the Russian churches with their decorated interiors, so mighty the music of Orthodox choirs, unaccompanied by any instruments, that many foreign ambassadors were awestruck upon setting foot in these palaces of God and . . . …said that they felt they were in Heaven (4).
Vladimir softened his implementation of the Byzantine legal code by prohibiting torture and mutilation as forms of punishment and curtailing the death penalty. He also incorporated the traditional Slavic emphasis on social responsibility. During his periodic court feasts, Vladimir would have “wagons loaded with bread, meat, fish, vegetables and mead” wheeled out and distributed to the less fortunate throughout Kiev (4).
Vladimir’s son, Prince Yaroslav the Wise, presided over the most peaceful and successful period for Kiev Rus. Devoted to the uniquely Russian form of Orthodoxy that had been adopted, Yaroslav oversaw the development of many schools and hospitals along with numerous churches and the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom. The latter was partly a consequence of the flood of educated clergy from the Byzantine Empire. Art continued to thrive as well (4) (3).
Other cities in the territory, mostly a network of fortifications located along rivers that facilitated trade (3), developed such as Vladimir and Novgorod. Some cities even built roadways and constructed efficient drainage systems (4).
As the territory expanded during this period, it was mainly due to the spread of Orthodoxy. As historian James Billington explains in The Icon and the Axe:
Kievan Russia received such unity as it attained essentially through waves of conversion – —moving north from Kiev and out from the princely court in each city to ever wider sections of the surrounding populace. Conversion was apparently more important than colonization in unifying the region, and each new wave of converts tended to adopt not merely the Byzantine but the Kievan heritage as well. The Slavonic language became the uniform vehicle for writing and worship, slowly driving the Finno-Ugrian tongues which originally dominated much of northern Russia to peripheral regions. . . . ….The unity of Kievan Russia was above all that of a common religious faith. The forms of faith and worship were almost the only uniformities in this loosely structured civilization. Such economic strength and political cohesion as had existed began to break down with the internecine strife of the late twelfth century (3).
Kiev Rus had grown successful enough for members of its royal family to even begin marrying into other monarchies in Europe. But none of this success could compensate for the one major vulnerability of the general territory: its geographical lack of barriers to invasion from different directions. Indeed this vulnerability would underpin a major feature of the Russian mindset that still resonates today: patriotism and the high value placed on security.
By the time the Mongols first invaded in 1223, the Kiev Russian territory had degenerated into rivalries between princes who lorded over around “a dozen or so” independent areas, which had resulted in disorganized rule (5).
Subsequently, the Mongols were able to burn, sack, and massacre virtually all cities and towns of the territory in short order. Around two-thirds of the population perished, and many survivors retreated into the forests, taking solace in their Orthodox faith (4). They eventually migrated farther out to less vulnerable areas, closer to Moscow.
The Mongols reigned over the land through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, forcing the surviving Russians into complete subjugation. They were able to impose their centralized and absolutist rule on the scattered Russians who had lost their complex Slavic tribal bonds in the process (5). Massie describes an important aspect of this rupture of bonds among the Slavs who’d constituted Kiev Rus:
Earlier as the Slavs had expanded and absorbed the land, they had fallen into two natural divisions: the Great Russians in the north and the Little Russians in the south. After the Mongol invasion, the Little Russians were cut off from the Great Russians. While the Great Russians became vassals of the Mongols, the Little Russians, who were later known as Ukrainians, were taken over by the Poles and the Lithuanians (4).
The Mongols, for all of their viciousness, did have a socio-political ideology. It required absolute submission to the power of the Khan, who embodied the state. This Khan owned all of the land and had unqualified authority over his subjects. Land might be temporarily given to others to be overseen at the pleasure of the Khan, who could withdraw the privilege at any time. The overall objective was to create an empire that, after quick and dirty wars of conquest, would be ruled over by the Khan as a “worldwide social order based on justice and equality,” living in eternal peace (5). The price for this security and justice was perfect submission.
The efficient rule of the Mongols, which lasted for almost 250 years, was achieved by re-establishing a form of national unity from the top, delegating responsibility at the local level for maintaining peace, collecting tribute, and enforcing the law to those princes and those among their entourage who showed trustworthiness. Faithfulness to the Khan (the state) was rewarded through a system of seniority among the princes (5).
The basic principles of Mongol rule —security and justice in exchange for submission to an absolute central authority —would influence Russian governance into the twentieth century.
The one city that was spared was Novgorod. Due to a combination of fortuitously bad weather that prevented the invaders from penetrating the city and the continual payment of tribute by its ruler, Alexander, Novgorod remained intact. Alexander also fought off a Swedish invasion instigated by an opportunistic pope who hoped to capture Novgorod and convert it to Catholicism (4).
As Russians fled from Kiev and the surrounding areas, Moscow —once considered a small and unimportant “trading post in the wilderness” (4) —gradually developed into a prominent city that was influenced by Mongol administration and Orthodox mysticism (3).
The princes of Moscow collected tribute from their subjects, which they, in turn, used to pay tribute to the Mongols. In exchange, the Mongols gave the local princes the liberty to administer their domain however they wished (4).
The Moscow princes expanded the city mostly through annexation, increasing its power and wealth. It’s location between major river routes, which enabled communication, travel, and trade, contributed to its growing success (5). The leader of the Orthodox Church, called the metropolitan, moved from Vladimir to Moscow in 1326, adding to the city’s importance (4). Moscow developed in a series of concentric rings around the center as churches and villages sprang up on the periphery.
The Moscow prince who founded the dynasty that would rule Russia after the Mongols and through the sixteenth century was Ivan I, also known as Kalita. Ivan was ruthless when it suited him to get rid of rivals and in the service of his Mongol bosses who rewarded his subservience with increased power and prestige within his fiefdom.
In 1327, the Mongols conferred upon Ivan the title of “Great Prince” (3). He was granted exclusive judicial authority and right of tax collection over all the other princes after he brutally put down a rebellion initiated by another prince attempting to overthrow Mongol rule (5).
Wars were a major feature of the next three centuries, including wars of aggression and expansion as well as wars of defense and of internal conflict. There were six wars with Sweden and twelve with Poland-Lithuania alone (5). Much of this martial conflict was driven, at least in part, by Russia’s geographic situation between Europe and Asia.
When the Golden Horde’s dominance eventually faded, the Tatars, based in the southwestern area of Crimea, terrorized Russia with constant raids on horseback that killed or captured Russians, selling the victims into slavery in surrounding territories. This only ended when Catherine the Great annexed the area in the latter eighteenth century.
Due to the Tatar aggression, Russian men were conscripted from spring through late autumn every year to defend against the violent incursions. This situation also forced Russia to focus its colonization efforts on the harsher areas to its north and east.
Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible (or “Ivan the Formidable” in Russian) finally defeated the last of the Mongol-controlled areas of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia in the 1550’s.
Ivan the Terrible
Ivan, who had lost both parents to death by the age of eight, spent his childhood watching rival factions in the royal court jockeying for power with unabashed violence. During this period he was reportedly often abused and neglected. He also read voraciously, taking a particular interest in religion and the history of Russia, ancient Rome, and the Byzantine Empire.
At the age of sixteen, having nurtured his own ambitions for power, he had himself declared “Tsar and Autocrat,” the first Russian leader to assume those official titles (4). He would go on to rule effectively for thirty-seven years, the longest ruler in Russian history.
Many historians recognize a distinction between a relatively “good” period under Ivan IV that coincided with the earlier years of his reign - when he was happier and healthier - and the well-known “terrible” period that came later.
In the early years, art, architecture, and music flourished in Moscow. However, it tended to be of a religious nature, as Ivan ultimately repressed most secular influences and emphasized the traditional, even to the point of micromanaging everyday aspects of life.
Ivan encouraged the completion of an extensive encyclopedia of world history in addition to volumes on Russian folklore and biographies of Russian rulers. He was even responsible for the first printing press being brought to Russia (4). The cathedrals of Kazan and St. Basil in Moscow were both constructed under Ivan’s rule.
During this period Moscow was declared “the third Rome,” since Constantinople had been captured by the Turks. As Billington states with regard to the interweaving of the religious and the political during Ivan’s reign:
Justification for his rule was rooted in the historical theology of Muscovy. The massive Book of Degrees of the Imperial Genealogy, drawn up by his monastic advisers, carried to new extremes the blending of sacred and secular history. Hagiography was applied wholesale to the descriptions of tsars, and imperial ancestries were traced to miracle-working saints as well as emperors of antiquity. . . . ….The Church code enacted in 1551 known as the hundred chapters was designed only to “confirm former tradition,” and prescribed rules for everything from icon painting to shaving and drinking. . . . ….Every aspect of domestic activity was ritualized with semi-monastic rules of conduct in the “Household Book” (Domostroy) (3).
Ivan’s later violent purges were partly based on an exaggeration of perceived threats to his absolute rule in both the political and religious arenas. Targets included the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church and any individuals or groups who were considered to have the potential for independent influence.
During Ivan’s reign, peasants –who only a few generations before had enjoyed freedom of movement as long as they weren’t indebted to a landlord – became bound to the land. This undermined any independent power that landlords had begun to acquire through exploitation of the peasants’ increasing indebtedness due to poor lands and the inability to pay off loans. In conditions of excess land and scarce labor with which to colonize it, landlords were forced to compete for peasant labor. Many prospective landlords lured peasants away from their existing landlords by offering to pay off their debt. However, the price for this repayment was the peasant relinquishing his future freedom, as well as that of his descendants, in perpetuity to the new landlord. Consequently, the landlords now effectively owned the peasants who served them (5).
This arrangement threatened the state’s taxation system by the loss of “free peasant” taxpayers as well as limiting the supply of men available for military service. By the middle of the century, landlords were understood to be agents of their peasants, or serfs, being responsible for paying their serfs’ taxes, ensuring their serfs’ good behavior, and conveying their serfs’ grievances to the appropriate government officials.
Although landlords could legally try to punish their serfs – including the use of torture, private imprisonment, and death – for insubordination and other infractions, peasants also had a right to petition the tsar with complaints against the landlord (5). But it was impossible to predict whether such a petition would have any beneficial effect, since there were no actual laws regulating the relationship between a serf and his landlord and the results were largely up to the caprice of the tsar.
Ivan’s religious zeal, inculcated by his strident monastic tutors who emphasized the Old Testament in their teachings, prompted his initiation of the Livonian War in 1558. This war against the Baltic region of the West, which lasted 25 years, had religious and cultural overtones and was ultimately a failure for Russia (3).
Like the Mongols, Ivan the Terrible had a political ideology in which the ends justified the brutal means. He was the most responsible for synthesizing the despotism of the Mongols and the cultural influence of the Byzantine Empire into the Muscovite brand of autocratic rule that would reign for hundreds of years.
Ivan spelled out his views of governance in response to his former ally Prince Kurbsky’s published condemnations of Ivan after he’d “defected” to Lithuania. Referring to his subjects as slaves and denying (dishonestly) that Russian rulers had ever governed any differently, Ivan maintained that he had absolute authority over all Russians and all lands within the territory (5).
Although the tsar’s views were partly a reflection of his own personal love of unqualified power, they also were consistent with the views of church leaders and political writers of the time. Before their substance was articulated by Ivan the Terrible, Ivan Peresvetov, recognized as Russia’s first political theorist, advocated the amalgamation of the Turkish political system with the Orthodox religion. He argued that the Turks had been able to conquer Constantinople because of their absolute authority and “use of terror,” whereas the Byzantine emperor’s authority had been too limited, which made him and his empire vulnerable (5).
Due to Russia’s size and unwieldy nature (poor communication, rough terrain, and dubious social cohesion), it was further argued that the only way to achieve the obedience of its subjects and to govern effectively was for the people to be “kept in great dread” (5). Russia was perceived by its leadership to be in an existential struggle to survive as a unified entity. This would be a common theme throughout its history.
Ivan’s gradual descent into greater savagery started 13 years into his reign, after the death of his beloved first wife, Anastasia. She was the one person who loved and accepted him and whom he trusted without reservation. He suspected that she was poisoned by political rivals in the court. Forensic analysis of her exhumed remains centuries later would confirm his suspicion of foul play (6).
An exhumation of Ivan’s remains during the Soviet era confirmed that he himself suffered from mercury poisoning – a not uncommon side effect of which is psychosis. Many medicinal treatments at the time contained the toxic element, and it is believed he became poisoned as a result of the use of ointments for bone and joint problems he suffered in his later years that would have caused severe pain and limited mobility (7).
By the latter part of his reign, Ivan displayed increasing instability and paranoia, which would precipitate his calls for massacres carried out by a personal army of thousands known as the oprichiniki. The most famous of his targets was approximately three thousand of the inhabitants of the independent city of Novgorod, who were murdered in the most barbaric manner because he had come to believe they were traitors.
In 1581, Ivan accidentally murdered his son and heir, striking him on the head with his wooden staff in a fit of rage. The scene is captured in Ilya Repin’s famous painting in which an anguished Ivan is shown holding his dead son in his arms. Ivan himself died three years later at the age of 54.
In the Soviet era, Ivan the Terrible’s rule was whitewashed (5) with Joseph Stalin and his advisors claiming that Ivan’s cruelties were necessary in the context of the time and circumstances (8). But historians have pointed out that Ivan oversaw a powerful and unified state with no significant internal threats, only the usual dangers from the outside world (5).
Peter the Great
Our people are like children, who would never of their own accord decide to learn, who would never take up the alphabet without being compelled to do so by their teacher, who would at first feel despondent. But later, when they have finished their studies, they are grateful for having been made to go through them. This is evident today: has not everything been achieved under constraint? Yet now one hears gratitude for much that has already borne fruit.
– —Peter the Great (5).
Like Ivan IV, Peter lost his father while still a young child. He, too, witnessed palace rivalries that resulted in massacres, including of family members and supporters of his mother, who was his father’s second wife (4).
For many years of his youth, Peter, his mother, and his two sisters were exiled to a country village outside of Moscow. He soon befriended the village boys and excelled at numerous outdoor activities such as hunting, masonry, falconry, building construction, and shooting cannons. By his teen years, he was designing war games and had recruited hundreds of boys to play in them. These boys would later comprise the center of his royal guards and “elite units of the Russian army” (4).
He eventually grew to a full height of six feet and eight inches. By adulthood, Peter had developed an insatiable curiosity, particularly about the mechanical arts, which he had a natural talent for. A particular passion was boats; he eventually learned ship-building under the tutelage of a Dutch expert during his extended trip to Europe in 1697. While there, he also learned paper-making and engraving (4).
When Peter assumed the throne, he took the title of emperor instead of tsar. Although his reign would see a flourishing of the arts, his emphasis was always on the practical, such as architecture, engineering, medicine, and manufacturing.
Based on his observations during his visit to Europe as well as his contact with various people of Dutch, Scotch, and German descent, from artisans to mercenaries, Peter concluded that Western culture and technology were superior. He consequently viewed the Mongol period of rule over Russia and the customs associated with it as backward (4). He therefore wanted to advance the country as quickly as possible to make up for it.
He started with changing customs of appearance in the royal court. Men were to shave their faces and wear English-style clothing, and women were to remove veils from their hair and face. Forced marriages were prohibited (4).
He then turned toward modernizing the army and creating the first Russian navy. He also founded schools specializing in subjects ranging from math and science to philosophy and medicine. He oversaw the initiation of the first Russian newspaper and encouraged the mass printing of books on various topics. He introduced paper manufacturing and tapestry making, and he sent Russian students to Europe to learn navigation and engineering (4).
His most ambitious project came in 1703 when Peter decided that a grand city would be built on a marsh facing Europe and the sea, a city intended to rival the finest of the West in terms of art and architecture. The city, now known as St. Petersburg, would be located along the Neva River, which flows from Lake Ladoga and through a series of swampy islands into the eastern Baltic Sea (3).
Most of the city’s original 35,000 buildings were designed by the most skilled Europeans who had contracted for years in Russia, some of whom stayed on, since Westerners were welcomed into the area. However, these Westerners often lived apart from the average native Russian (5).
The city was built in seven years. As Massie points out, this was an amazing feat considering that the French, using the most modern materials and methods, had taken 47 years to build Versailles (4).
Unfortunately, the human toll of making this magnificent city a reality is estimated to be in the thousands. Like Stalin, his twentieth-century counterpart, Peter meant to drag a lagging nation kicking and screaming into modernity. (9).
St. Petersburg not only became an important naval base and center of trade, but also became home to numerous learning institutions like the Academy of Sciences, as well as libraries, beautiful palaces, and ornate churches with gardens, fountains, statues, and parks. A unique culture that synthesized creative influences from the West and native Russia emerged in the city and is still its trademark today.
Peter, however, prompted backlash from conservative merchants, religious traditionalists, and peasant rebels for his breakneck pace of Westernization. His reforms were perceived as a threat to Orthodoxy and traditional culture due to the influx of foreigners and “heretics” from the West. Peter’s practice of subordinating the church and its leader into a state-controlled synod, along with declaring Russia an independent and secular state, caused particular offense. Peter also expanded tolerance of Catholics, allowing the first Catholic church to be built in Russia. But he also supported Galileo in his conflict with the church on behalf of science.
Peter was also the first Russian ruler to use political propaganda to spread his justifications for decision–making and ideology. He underscored a brand of secular nationalism as opposed to a religious one, and a foreign policy objective of maintaining a balance of power in Europe (3).
Peter ultimately repressed any forces that insisted on preservation of the traditional religious rituals as well as radical religious reformers. Although he did oversee the building of the last of the “great complex of monasteries,” it’s likely that he did so because he wanted St. Petersburg to be the equal of Kiev and Moscow, both of which were linked to such a complex (3).
In terms of the conditions for peasants, by the time of Peter’s reign, the state showed very little interest in administering over them as long as the taxes were paid. This resulted in the landlords’ increased control over them in all practical respects.
Peter had developed a belief in meritocracy during his teen years in the village outside of Moscow (4). As a result, meritocracy was incorporated into his program of military reforms, and some social mobility was established more broadly with the introduction of the Table of Ranks in 1722 (5).
Members of the nobility comprised most of the military, and the need to burnish the socioeconomic position of this group, without actually granting them independence, was recognized. Under the Table of Ranks, all Russian subjects were classified into ranks, also known as estates.
The lowest estate was occupied by the serfs, who were sub-divided into two classes: state serfs and private serfs. The former consisted of those who were not under the bondage of private landholders and included low-level religious clergy, Siberian pioneers, and relatives of serfs who owned no land of their own. They were understood to be treated slightly better than private serfs, which created class envy. Peter declared the buying and selling of slaves to be illegal, but there was virtually no enforcement of the declaration, and the practice continued (5).
Merchants and traders comprised another rank, tied to trade. Nobles were tied directly to state service, either in the military or civil service. Massie describes the dynamic of this system:
Everyone was recognized as belonging to one of these estates. Any educated person could apply to enter state service, regardless of background. Entering at rank fourteen and aspiring to rank one. As soon as a person reached the eighth rank, which corresponded to a colonel in the army or a captain in the navy, he automatically became a “noble.” . . . …There was a high degree of social mobility; one could move from one estate to the other, sometimes with alarming speed. . . . ….Serfs in the army could rise in two generations to noblemen. Dostoevsky, whose father was a modest doctor, was classified as a noble. Lenin’s grandfather was a serf, but Lenin was born a nobleman because his father had achieved civil service ranking of hereditary major general (4).
Despite the many successes of Peter’s rule, there were also many failures and negative unintended consequences from his policies. For example, the majority of industries started under Peter failed. Sheer will alone could not paper over the fact that many of the elements that Western nations had possessed that facilitated the gradual development of manufacturing from crafts and cottage industries were absent in Russia (5). These included capital, entrepreneurs, workers, consumers, and the concept of supply and demand (3).
Historically, no wealth could accumulate, and no commerce could develop due to most cities and towns being little more than military outposts or fortresses with some basic trade. All people, whether they were peasants or landholders, were in bondage to the state to pay taxes and had no independence.
The state owned all resources and served as virtually the sole source of demand. It chose agents of the government to serve as industrialists. This led to a system that had no profit incentive and acquired workers by taking over villages and their serfs with the permission of the state. Convict labor was also used.
No competition existed to foster innovation or improvement, as demand was guaranteed along with monopoly status to the industry. Foreign companies were not allowed to compete, and private clients for industry were not allowed until 1809 with the advent of textile manufacturing (3). This resulted in poor- quality products.
Peter also changed the method of succession of the tsars, which led to instability for the next hundred years, as coups and murders followed the deaths of rulers. For approximately four centuries prior to Peter, the tsars had been chosen by male heredity. But Peter instituted the concept of choosing one’s successor, which enabled the armed guards of the court to place an individual in power if they had curried favor with them. Since the guards came from the court nobility, this group effectively gained temporary influence until peasants were able to enter into the ranks around the turn of the eighteenth century (5).
Some historians point out the dark side of Peter’s legacy. First, it instilled the belief among future Russian reformist and revolutionary thinkers that change had to be forcibly imposed from above and rationalized the use of brutal methods on behalf of the goal. For all the beauty of the city he founded and the opening up of Russia to outside knowledge and modernity, Peter was ultimately a pragmatist who cared about results and not so much about what means were used to achieve them (5).
Second, his reforms resulted in a Europeanized court and nobility that had adopted the language and trappings of a culture foreign to the Russian masses, thereby widening the divisions between the two classes irrevocably (5). As Massie notes,: “By exempting the clergy and the peasants from his Westernizing reforms, he began a cultural schism between classes which had never existed, a schism never fully healed. For more than a century after him, for the upper classes what was Western became fashionable; what was Russian became lowly, unworthy, and plebian.” (4).
This trend was reinforced by Catherine the Great and to a lesser degree by other subsequent tsars who considered Western-inspired reform.
Catherine the Great: Trying to Square the Circle
Peter’s only son to have lived to adulthood, Alexis, died in prison in 1718 due to alleged participation in plots against his father. Consequently, Alexis’s only son, Peter II, ruled Russia for a short time until he died and Anna, a niece of Peter the Great, was installed. After a few years, she fell into disfavor in the court and Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth ascended the throne and ruled for two decades.
Elizabeth was a good-natured and generous pleasure-seeker who led an even greater expansion in the arts as well as openness to the West in facilitating that expansion. Although she oversaw two wars, she was not the pragmatist her father was and not much changed in terms of government or military reform during her reign.
Upon her death, an ambitious German princess whom Elizabeth had called over from Europe as an eventual wife for her teenaged nephew, Peter III, had been gradually cultivating her own plans for power. The daughter of an indifferent father and an opportunistic mother, young Catherine realized quickly who to befriend and whose good side to stay on after she arrived in Russia. She also started to learn Russian and converted to Orthodoxy so she could further remain in the good graces of the right people in her adopted country. An intellectual who studied under private tutors, Catherine developed an interest in French culture and philosophy.
Catherine’s sixteen-year marriage to Peter was an unhappy one spent mostly apart, as Peter soon took a mistress whom he later made clear would be declared empress after he took the throne. In consultation with her lover and royal court guard member, Grigory Orlov, she had her unpopular husband overthrown so she could become empress. Within a week of his abdication, he was dead under mysterious circumstances (10).
Unlike Elizabeth, Catherine took great interest in the administration of the country.: “She pored over state papers and wrote not only her own laws but the arguments in their favor and philosophical commentaries on them.” (4).
Catherine soon made French the official language of the court, and French culture was adopted by the nobility whose interests she championed throughout her rule. She acquired a prodigious number of paintings from Western Europe, particularly France, which later comprised the beginnings of the Hermitage collection (4).
Catherine’s reign would see the introduction of vaccinations for small pox, paper money, improved administration throughout the country, increased secularization, and the rebuilding of many cities – —including St. Petersburg, whose population doubled.
She conducted a years-long correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot and had an interest in European Enlightenment-inspired reforms. But as we will see, the reform issue would ultimately pose a quandary for Catherine.
During this period, the number of books published –now mostly secular —skyrocketed from around 100 per year to 8,000. Secular education was allowed to spread into the farther reaches of the land in an effort to “transform provincial cities into imperial cultural and administrative centers” (5). This was enabled by the flood of private tutors into Russia from Western Europe and expeditions into the north and east of the country by Western scientists. These forays into the harshest parts of the country inevitably involved the locals, who served as guides and assistants (5).
Catherine founded a school for girls that accepted a significant number of students from families of moderate rank in addition to the nobility. It was the first girl’s school in Europe to include science in the curriculum. This was in keeping with reforms started under Peter the Great that had improved the status of Russian women, who could now legally inherit and own land and money, able to exercise some independence if they had the means (4).
In another pioneering move for Europe, Catherine appointed a woman, Catherine Vorontsova-Dashkova, to head the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. Dashkova was a highly-educated and well-traveled widow who was devoted to the advancement of Russian scholarship and expanding the education of Russians. Under her leadership, a translation department was established to facilitate Russians’ ability to learn from foreign academics. Russian literature and theater was encouraged as well as the establishment of Russian scientific journals. She also increased instructor’s’ salaries and organized public lectures (4).
Catherine eventually wrote a treatise outlining her own philosophy, called “Instruction.” It was not codified into law, but was distributed widely throughout the non-peasant population of the country and became very influential to those who came in contact with it.
There were four major influencers on Catherine’s thought: 1) Voltaire, who emphasized rationalism and skepticism, 2) Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher who advocated utilitarianism, 3) Beccarrias, an Italian philosopher who argued that crime was a product of ignorance and bad laws, and 4) the French philosopher Montesquieu, who inspired her desire to bring “rational order” to the political sphere (5).
Catherine, however, lost interest in reform after the French Revolution and its subsequent Reign of Terror. She was personal friends with Marie Antoinette and was upset by her execution.
Subsequently, she turned her focus to foreign policy and expanded the Russian territory through several wars, including the acquisition of Crimea, Poland, and parts of Turkey. She had many skilled military leaders at her disposal in this undertaking, including Grigory Potemkin, who would also serve as a diplomat and reformer of the military as well as being the “great love” of Catherine’s life (4).
As Billington notes, for all of Catherine’s efforts in rebuilding major cities and expanding their artistic and architectural glory, these efforts ultimately revealed an emphasis on style over substance, as they did little to serve as the means of economic development and trade that still eluded the country compared to the lionized west (3). Instead they effectively served as grand cultural displays while no substantive changes occurred in the lives of the majority of the population, which consisted of serfs.
Serfs were still tied to the land under severe conditions, administered over by landlords who controlled all aspects of their lives (4). At this point, they had even lost the privilege of petitioning the tsar for any grievances. The nobility had been granted the right to exile serfs they were dissatisfied with to Siberia or into convict labor, and state serfs were regularly handed out to favored members of the royal court (5).
Catherine began her reign sympathetic to the idea of emancipating the serfs but ultimately did not go through with it. But she did issue the Charter of the Nobility in 1785, granting yet more rights to the aristocratic minority, who were now effectively “emancipated” from most of their state obligations. This privileged group was now free from taxation, compulsory service, conscription, and corporal punishment, and they enjoyed the right to a jury of one’s peers if accused of a crime. Most of these perks would be reversed after Catherine’s death, during the short reign of her despised son, Paul, whom she did not want to inherit the throne (5).
Catherine’s legacy in connection with domestic reform was decidedly mixed. Billington mentions an important drawback to Catherine’s focus on certain aspects of European Enlightenment philosophy that was ultimately not well -thought out on practical grounds:
From Catherine, aristocratic thinkers received only their inclination to look westward for answers. They learned to think in terms of sweeping reforms on abstract rationalistic grounds rather than piecemeal changes rooted in concrete conditions and traditions (3).
Furthermore, by using philosophy – as opposed to heredity or religion – as justification for her rule, Catherine unwittingly introduced the possibility of debate regarding legitimacy. And by expanding reform and education, she encouraged discussion of and rising expectations for further reform and progress. This would eventually undermine or at least call into question the continued viability of absolute rule by her or any tsar or emperor.
As Billington further points out, reform-minded rulers from Catherine to Alexander II all felt compelled to eventually put the brakes on reform and revert to more authoritarianism to control forces that had been unleashed with unforeseen consequences (3).
When push came to shove, none of these rulers – with the possible exception of Alexander II – was ready to cede much if any of the omnipotence they enjoyed. Each was succeeded by a rulers who rejected reform. This led to a rise in the influence of more extreme elements demanding more profound changes, including those who advocated the complete destruction of the existing system.
Alexander I: The Leader Who Humbled Napoleon
Catherine’s son Paul ruled for five years and then was murdered in a coup, which brought Alexander I, Catherine’s grandson, to the throne. Alexander knew of the coup plot but had been promised that his father’s life would be spared and was deeply upset at the news of the outcome.
Tutored by followers of the European Enlightenment, he also started out as an advocate for reform. But he would eventually follow the path of all such tsars and backpedal.
Alexander’s education ended when he married at the age of sixteen, leaving him with high ideals but no real notion of how to effectively execute them. At the beginning of his reign, he surrounded himself with a contingent of advisors comprised of nobles and officials who shared his ideas for reform. One particularly influential advisor was a scholar and administrator named Mikhail Speransky, known for his abilities, honesty, and humble origins (5).
Together they implemented an impressive array of policies. Censorship was banned, landowners could voluntarily emancipate serfs, modern ministries were introduced, a wave of new schools and universities were built, and the mass publication of books took off (4) (3).
Alexander fraternized with average Russians and oversaw the construction on sixty bridges over the canals of St. Petersburg. He even corresponded with Thomas Jefferson regarding the idea of a constitution (4).
Speransky was an advocate for a constitutional monarchy. His practical background in civil administration led him to realize the need for better training of civil servants, establishing two schools for this purpose. These schools soon became a hotbeds for more reform ideas.
Speransky had drafted a blueprint for even wider reforms, which included separation of powers, the establishment of a supreme judicial body and a legislative body. The latter would be composed of a network of “regional representative bodies.” The tsar would still retain control over all of these institutions (3).
Speransky’s papers were recovered in 1961, and his written commentaries on the conditions of Russia in the early 19th nineteenth century are insightful and deserve to be quoted at some length:
The fundamental principle of Russian government is the autocratic ruler who combines within his person all legislative and executive powers, and who disposes unconditionally of all the nation’s resources. There are no physical limits to his power. . . . ….Under autocratic rule there can be no code of laws, for where no rights exist there can be no constant balance between them. What these governments call codes and laws are nothing but the arbitrary decisions of the sovereign authority, prescribing to the citizens their duties for a certain period of time, i.e. until the autocratic will chooses to change or otherwise circumscribe them. . . . ….Governments without political foundations can have no stability. . . . ….What is the use of laws assigning property to private individuals when property itself has no firm bases in any respect whatsoever? What is the use of civil laws, when their tablets can at any time be smashed upon the first rock of the arbitrary rule? People complain about the confusion of our finances. But how can finances be set in order in a country without public confidence, without any laws for regulating the financial system? (5).
But Alexander hesitated and ultimately decided against instituting these wider reforms. Consequently, Speransky – who was sympathetic to French liberalism – was exiled after Napoleon invaded in 1812. Alexander proceeded to crack down on what reforms he had implemented, imposing censorship and increasing police actions (5).
Ironically, Napoleon’s invasion would not only inspire a rise in the trademark patriotism and tenacity of Russians that would lead to ultimate victory and new status as a great power in the world, it would also inspire additional demands for reform.
After the invasion, Russians of all ranks volunteered for service – even some in their seventies who reportedly fought with the same vigor as young men, and donated whatever money and equipment they had (4).
Despite his best efforts, renowned General Mikhail Kutuzov wasn’t able to keep the French from taking Moscow, which was captured within a week. What Napoleon encountered after this feat, however, amazed and flummoxed him. Alexander refused to surrender and negotiate a peace treaty. Instead, the Russians proceeded to burn Moscow to the ground, depriving the occupiers of much-needed resources. This would eventually enable them to turn the tables on the French.
An awestruck Napoleon had the following reaction:
Such terrible tactics have no precedent in the history of civilization. . . . ….To burn one’s own cities. . . . ….A demon inspires these people! What savage determination! What a people! What a people! (4)
The morale of the French forces, who were overstretched to begin with, plummeted as many of Napoleon’s men fell ill or deserted and discipline broke down (11).
Five weeks later, after desecrating and robbing Uspenski Cathedral of tons of gold and silver, Napoleon and his men were forced to retreat through the Russian countryside where they faced a one-two punch of deprivation and bands of furious peasants and Cossacks who attacked them mercilessly:
A Russian account says that 36,000 French dead were found in the Berezina River alone. In all 125,000 men perished in battle; 132,000 succumbed to fatigue, hunger and cold; 193,000 were captured. Only 40,000 men returned alive from what was one of the greatest military catastrophes in history (4).
The Russian army eventually galloped into Paris, and Russian officers mingled with advocates of constitutional government and equality. After fighting alongside peasants to defend Mother Russia, some aristocrats and army officers were open to the French liberal ideas they were hearing and became more determined than ever to reform Russia (4).
After a failed military uprising that originated from one of his most trusted regiments, Alexander also became more repressive, purging educators, destroying books, expelling the liberal Jesuits, and abolishing all secret societies – including the Masons who had served as a far-reaching network of nobles who would meet to discuss politics and philosophy, among other topics. Their interests ranged from serious reform to mystical religion to relatively frivolous matters (3).
Following Alexander’s death in 1825, the line of succession was unclear, since he had fathered no children. One of Alexander’s brothers was likely to take the throne: Nicholas or Constantine. Reformers were hoping it would be Constantine, who was believed to be sympathetic to the cause of more progressive change. However, by December, Nicholas took power after Constantine renounced, and a group of military officers, veterans of the war with France, protested in the capital and later led an uprising in Kiev (3). The insurrectionists would become known as the Decembrists.
As Billington points out, the Decembrists were united more by what they opposed than what they favored. They all opposed the arbitrariness and petty cruelties of the state as reflected by the actions of its bureaucratic officials (3).
They also seemed to agree that some form of constitutionalism was needed, but beyond that they were a motley crew, with some praising the historical independence of Novgorod while others had connections to and admired Poland’s parliament or Lithuania’s constitution. Still others desired a constitutional federation modeled on the United States. Some even eschewed nationalism altogether and wanted a pan-Slavic brotherhood (3).
Nicholas violently put down the uprising by publicly executing some of the leaders and imprisoning others or exiling themed to Siberia. The regular soldiers – approximately 3,000 took part – were whipped and made the voyage to Siberia in chains as common criminals (12).
The leaders who were exiled to Siberia were well received by the indigenous Russian population of the area. They viewed the rebels as heroes, treated them with generosity, and were even known to facilitate communication among the Decembrists and with their friends and relatives.
Many of the Decembrists’ wives went to Siberia to live with their husbands. For those who had the resources and wherewithal to survive the initial years of exile in the harsh hinterlands, many eventually became farmers and landowners, even choosing to stay on after their sentences were completed (13).
Nicholas quickly sent an unequivocal message to the reformists. He established a secret police that employed spies and informers throughout the country and emphasized the values of discipline, regimentation, and reverence for the military (5). The severe bureaucratic network was strengthened, increasingly made up of underpaid and corrupt officials.
Meanwhile, the influence of the nobility – associated in Nicholas’s mind with the Decembrists – was neutralized. Class stratification was more strictly enforced, serfdom continued, and economic focus remained on agriculture rather than on the development of industry (3).
Philosophy was eventually outlawed in the later part of Nicholas’s reign. Some refer to this period as the “anti-Enlightenment” in Russia. Before that, however, Russians had made great strides in the areas of math and astronomy. Russian intellectuals had turned their focus to German philosophers in their search for an as-yet undeveloped “systemic secular philosophy” (3).
With an abiding interest in history and their role in it, many Russians were attracted to the thinking of August Schlozer, an advocate of universal history in which Russians had a unique role to play. F.W. Schelling, who believed Russia was “fated to have a great destiny” within his more general belief in a world that was engaged in a meaningful process of evolution, was also popular (3).
Georg Hegel became another favorite among Russians from around 1838 to 1848. As Billington explains: “He offered the Russians a seemingly rational and all-encompassing philosophy of history and led the restless Westernizers – for the first time – to entertain serious thoughts of revolution” (3). The popularity of Hegel was facilitated by intellectual clubs that attracted young and enthusiastic followers, which included the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky as well as Mikhail Bakunin and Alexander Herzen (Belinsky, Bakunin, and Herzen will be discussed more in Chapter 2).
Hegel believed that rational sense and meaning could be derived from history and valued the objective over the subjective. His followers interpreted his views on destruction as a call to – or at the very least an allowance for – the destruction of the current state of affairs, including the institutions and individuals who kept it in place. His thinking was very influential to populists and anarchists, such as Bakunin. But Belinsky and Herzen eventually rejected Hegelianism to varying degrees (3).
Hegelian-derived ideas for social and political change suffered from the same problems that have been previously noted with respect to much of Western Enlightenment thought in Russia. Concerned with abstract and secular notions about history and philosophy, it lacked a practical program of reform rooted in moral imperatives that the majority of Russians could relate to.
The arts – namely poetry, music, and painting – and literary criticism became the main vehicles for the exploration of these philosophical ideas. Belinsky and poet Alexander Pushkin were probably the most famous examples of each. Belinsky summed up the period’s blend of the rational, mystical, and creative in pursuit of existential truth and meaning: “For me, to think, feel, understand, and suffer are one and the same thing.” (3).
Alexander II: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
The new tsar had shown humanitarian and reformist inclinations before he ascended the throne, asking his father to grant a general amnesty to all prisoners as a wedding present. Nicholas wasn’t amenable to this request but compromised by ordering the release of all incarcerated debtors and clearing their records (4).
When Alexander II came to power in 1855, he inherited the Crimean War with Britain, France, and the Ottomans. Recognizing that the war was unwinnable, he declared a truce, ending the three-year debacle. The defeat provided incentive for a renewed program of reform and development that looked more to France and England as influences rather than Prussia and Austria, which were viewed as failed allies (3).
Alexander also pardoned the Decembrists and cancelled all tax debts of the poor. By this point, the issue of serfdom had become more complicated. Some peasants were free, and those with good land had even prospered. Of those still under serfdom – which was the majority – not all had tyrannical landlords, though many did, and there was no form of legal redress. Furthermore, some serfs were domestics who did not work the land (4).
Comparisons have been made between American slavery and Russian serfdom. There were some significant differences, however. One was that Russian novelists never really talked about serfs in their literature, unlike American writers, since by rank their life experiences were far removed from those of serfs (3). Another difference is discussed by Massie:
The fine distinction between Russian serf and American slave was that every serf family, other than house serfs, owned a piece of land where they could labor when the lord’s needs had been satisfied and from which they could sell the surplus for their own profit. In principle, the serf was tied to the land, not the master, but in the late 18th eighteenth[DL17] century, Peter the Great established a tax bill on all the male population, which the landlords, not the peasants, were responsible for paying. Thereafter the tendency was overwhelming to regard the serf as the landlord’s property, to be bought and sold without the land, although later this was strictly against the law (4).
In 1861, Alexander freed the serfs. One reason why previous tsars who were sympathetic to emancipation eventually balked at going through with it was due to working out the aftereffects of such an act. Should land be granted to each serf as a means of future survival? If so, how would the landlords be compensated for the loss of both labor and a portion of land?
Alexander’s emancipation decree did not include the granting of land to the released serfs, but it contained provisions for each land-working serf to receive an allotment of land “similar to what they had cultivated in the past,” but the allotment had to be purchased from the landowner. This provision, along with the fact that most landlords were only willing to sell off poor-quality land, effectively rendered most serfs landless (14).
Another complicating factor in this scheme was that much of the land was cultivated within the context of peasant communes (14).
The emancipation decree arguably left the serfs worse off than before in most practical respects. There is debate as to whether this was incidental or intentional as the country was finally focusing on the development of industry and the factories in major cities now needed a supply of labor.
From the year of emancipation on, Moscow became the industrial center of the country and grew at break-neck speed to catch up to the West. The city’s population doubled between 1870 and 1912. A new class of rich industrialists emerged who became patrons of the arts, creating a rivalry between Moscow and St. Petersburg for recognizing and developing young artistic talent (4).
This rapid growth in industrialization and urbanization (3) and the mass of labor it required also had many negative and inhumane effects. These would come to a head in later years, enabled by the further expansion and liberalization of education and the press.
From 1870 to 1879, there were 326 strikes in factories and mills throughout the country. As during the industrial period in the West, workers were viewed as extensions of the machinery of production, to be used until run down and replaced. Shifts lasted 12–-15 hours and included children, the sick, and the old (15).
Rural conditions were still very poor for many. Teachers in the provinces made below- subsistence wages and often slept on cots in the corner of their classrooms. There were occasional reports of teachers who died of starvation due to the authorities neglecting to pay the paltry wages they did earn for a month or more (15). There was also the high rate of indirect taxes on peasants in the scramble to build up the nation’s financial reserves and fund its expansion (15).
In the meantime, Alexander continued to introduce more reforms. These included the establishment of units of self-governance in rural districts and large towns called zemstvos. The zemstvos consisted of local elected assemblies with limited rights of taxation (Massie 19804). But they were not allowed in areas with a concentration of minority populations for fear of hostility toward the Russian state and the fostering of instability (16).
In the sphere of criminal justice, a package of reforms was introduced that included the rights to a public trial by jury, to a defense attorney, to question witnesses, and to “equality before the law” (14).
Formal university education was made available to all males (14), resulting in a major increase in students. Public lectures and debates became popular again, and newspapers and magazines proliferated along with professional and technical journals (4).
A part-time reformist educational program directed toward poor people emerged from 1859–1862 in the form of the “Sunday school movement.” This was partly inspired by the romanticized idea of a peasant revolt, which the educators believed they were helping to spark by providing the education and consciousness-raising (3).
Billington underscores how this period of reform differed from previous ones in the sense that the modernization had now become irreversible as the changes were now affecting too many areas of the country. Railroads, which enabled quick travel over long distances, were being built, affecting the landscape and social relations. Former serfs who flooded into the cities were now coming into contact with reformist ideas that previously only nobles could have access to. Consequently, Russia would no longer be able to simply revert back to “self-imposed isolation” once disillusionment with change set in (3).
Populism arose as an independent political philosophy during this period. Its advocates included students who had come of age during the latter part of Nicholas’s reign and hailed from different ranks like officials, professionals, and minorities. It included many from the “unsophisticated” provinces as well as seminary students who brought with them a strident zeal. The philosophy itself was heavily influenced by both utilitarianism and materialism, including nihilistic materialism (3).
Populists believed that revolution was inevitable, especially for Russia, and a moral necessity. They also revered science and believed that society could be administered in a cold and scientific manner. Seeing themselves as an elite cultural and political force, they were responsible for building this new society (3).
They idealized peasant communes as a model of egalitarianism and participated in the hippie-like movement in the summer of 1874 to live among the peasants and spread the “good news” of revolutionary change (3). But this project was largely a flop, as the peasants often saw them as interlopers and troublemakers, sometimes even reporting them to the authorities (4).
To the populists, Alexander’s reforms were too slow and often were perceived to have been enacted in a sloppy manner that called into question the good intentions behind them. The prime example was the emancipation of the serfs without granting them land.
The first assassination attempt against Alexander occurred in April of 1866. This ushered in a reactionary period through 1881. However, by the end of this period, Alexander had decided to give reform another try, working on a program that included a rapprochement between liberals and more moderate elements of the populist movement and incorporated reformers and the bourgeois into government structures modeled on the success of the network of zemstvos (3).
By March 1, 1881, Alexander had even drafted a decree, to be officially issued within the coming days, that would have set Russia on the road from an autocracy to a constitutional monarchy (17). But Ignaty Grinevitsky, the second in a trio of bombers from the revolutionary group Narodnaya Volya (“The Will of the People”) who were lying in wait for the tsar as his carriage drove by, mortally wounded him as he stepped out to tend to those in his entourage who were wounded by the first bomber (17).
His son, Alexander III, made no pretense as to reform, so the idea of progress languished until the 1905 revolution when Tsar Nicholas II would cede some power to a parliament – if only on paper.
Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution
Seen as an omen by some historical observers, the festivities surrounding Nicholas II’s coronation were stained by the deaths of 2,000 people and the injury of thousands more who were trampled in Moscow as record crowds turned out for free beer and one of 400,000 specially made enamel mugs to celebrate the tsar.
Eyewitness reports at the scene described “piles of bodies, sometimes as many as fifty in a heap, a tangle of arms, legs, and heads, the people’s clothing black with dirt and often torn from their bodies.” (15).
Not only did this show disorganization, resulting in serious loss of life and injury, it provided a glimpse into the tsar’s attitude. After some members of his government suggested that the festivities should have been cancelled out of respect for the victims, Nicholas made it clear that while the day’s events had been a tragic disaster, they should not be allowed to “darken the coronation holiday.” (15).
The reign of Nicholas II was known as the “Silver Age” due to achievements in the arts, humanities, and sciences. More books on a wide range of topics were being sold than ever before. Numerous new art journals were established. Music societies, art exhibits, and theater all flourished (4). The creative community, which would have its share of revolutionaries and sympathizers within it, was also known for its decadence during this period (15).
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, railroads were laid all over the country – all of them, with the exception of the Trans-Siberian, were built and run by private business entities. Moscow had nine rail stations and served as the railway “hub” for the empire (4).
By the dawn of the 20th twentieth century, Russia was leading the West in economic growth. Between 1873 and 1913, oil output quadrupled, iron production levels increased by twelvefold, and coal production increased by twentyfold (4).
The new “independent dynasties of merchants” behind this growth gained great wealth and power. Like the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the Gilded Age in the United States, they were benefactors for the arts, hospitals, and schools (4).
But it wasn’t enough to compensate for the yawning chasm between themselves and the workers who toiled in the factories or those who were barely surviving in the provinces. They inevitably became targets of anger and resentment by the intelligentsia – educated reformers and revolutionaries.
Indeed, the dark underside of this development had been growing. By 1902, labor unrest was breaking out more frequently in various parts of the empire. In Saratov province, a plot by teachers to carry out political assassinations was uncovered in 1903. The assassination of a minister of internal affairs for the tsar who had been widely regarded as a reactionary also occurred around this time. Many in government obliquely acknowledged that it was an attack on the tsar himself and that support for the autocracy was “fragile.” (16).
In August of 1904, a wave of social upheaval was sparked by the “banquet campaign” pushed by the Union of Liberation. This “underground” organization called for a constitutional government with various socioeconomic reforms (16). The banquets were organized so that members, mostly from the educated classes, could air their grievances with current political and economic conditions. They also adopted resolutions advocating various liberal or radical reforms. Ironically, these banquets had to be approved by the government, which it reluctantly did in an attempt not to further antagonize the aggrieved (16).
Mass political meetings increased between 1904 and January of 1905, demanding “civil liberties, amnesty for political prisoners, and a democratically elected constituent assembly.” (16).
The tsarist government was facing a plethora of problems that were interrelated. A nationalist movement in Ukraine – which produced a large proportion of the empire’s grain and sugar as well as 70 percent of its coal, 68 percent of its cast iron, and 58 percent of its steel – was also brewing (18).
Meanwhile, Russia was involved in a war with Japan that would ultimately end in humiliation. The tsar had chosen to listen to unofficial advisors who’d encouraged him to underestimate potential enemies and to take unnecessary risks (18).
Unfortunately, this was a pattern with Nicholas. The tsar was insulated and indecisive, and did not always choose wise advisors who could help compensate for his ignorance and shortcomings. Occasionally, he did have far-sighted advisors who recommended certain reforms to both stave off more pressure and improve Russians’ lives, such as Sergei Witte and Pyotr Stolypin. But he often didn’t listen. And if he did finally decide to implement a change, it was usually too little too late.
At this point, hard-pressed peasants and urban workers tended to resent the additional burdens of military service. Harrison Salisbury, a New York Times correspondent who covered the post-war Soviet era and author of Black Night, White Snow: Russia’s Revolutions 1905 – 1917, described Khitrovka, Moscow’s worst slum at the time, as comparable to the Haymarket slum in St. Petersburg:
[It] was known as the foggiest place in Moscow. It was situated on low land, surrounded by old stone houses, paint peeling off, with peddlers and beggars huddled in rows on the pavement, cooking slumgullion in iron pots, frying sausage on charcoal fires, and boiling up messes which they called “dog’s happiness.” The smell of urine, manure, roasting mutton, frying onions, steaming horses, filled the air. [DL22] Tens of thousands of human souls lived around this square, paying five kopecks a night for a place to sprawl on a wooden shelf. Thousands of unemployed peasants and laborers gathered there each day, waiting for the labor brokers and shop bosses to pick them for manual work. If they were not hired by afternoon, they would sell a shirt or their shoes for a bite to eat and another night’s lodging. At night, the place rang with drunken shouts and cries for help. But no one answered (15).
In an attempt to placate the increasing calls for major change, the government tried to co-opt peasant and urban reform movements in a more moderate direction.
Peasants comprised around 85 percent of the population but still owned only 37 percent of the land (15). Much of that peasant-owned land was via peasant communes. Therefore, the peasant commune was viewed by some as a possible bulwark against the excesses of early capitalist development and a stopgap against socialist revolutionary ideas (18). But others saw it as an inefficient method of farming in the long term (16).
Similarly, the government set up unions with the help of security forces and tried to serve as mediators between the demands of disgruntled workers and their employers. But these state -co-opted unions backfired on the government, as illustrated by Father Gapon and the events leading up to Bloody Sunday, which kicked off the 1905 revolution (18).
Georgy Gapon was an Orthodox priest whose early work with the poor had made him sympathetic to their struggles. Starting out as a police shill, Gapon evolved into a genuine radical leader. Workers turned to him for leadership and advice, since other revolutionary movements were not as well organized at this point. He led labor demonstrations in St. Petersburg that were estimated to have as many as 120,000 participants. The growing calls for reform and the attendant increase in mass demonstrations throughout the empire over the previous year had reached fever pitch by January of 1905 (15).
Referencing the historical right to petition the tsar for grievances, Gapon led the masses to Palace Square in St. Petersburg on Sunday, January 9th to demand an audience with the tsar or a suitable representative. As he’d stated in a letter sent to the tsar ahead of time, he wished to peacefully plead for the establishment of an eight-hour workday; higher wages; better working conditions; the right to strike; freedom of speech, press, and assembly; and an end to the Russo-Japanese war (15) (16). One of Gapon’s followers exclaimed:
We will go to the Father [Tsar] and tell him how we suffer. We will tell him – —Father, forgive us. We have come to you. Help us, your children. We know you are happy to dedicate your life for us and to live only for us but you don’t know how they beat and torture us; how we starve; how they treat us like cattle; how illiterate we all are (15).
In response to the demonstration, government troops ordered the crowd to disperse under threat of force. When the demonstrators didn’t or couldn’t, soldiers began charging into the crowds and shooting indiscriminately as well as using their sabers (15). Eyewitness accounts testify to the disbelief and shock expressed by many of the demonstrators at having actually been attacked:
Direct fire at close range on people standing beside the garden and directed into the garden, on the curious, the passersby, the children at their games. The crowd stood frozen. No one believed these were real bullets. Then they saw. Bodies lay torn and bleeding around the square, in the gardens, against the iron railings, blood flowing over the white snow and the frozen ice (15).
By the time it was over, 130 were dead and around 300 wounded (16).
Though the tsar was not present in St. Petersburg at the time of the attack, anger and outrage were palpable among many different ranks of society. Since Gapon and his demonstrators were not revolutionaries calling for the overthrow of the autocracy, only for reforms and more humane conditions, the tsarist government’s violent response gave new legitimacy to more extremist revolutionary thinking and action. Russian writer Maxim Gorky, a friend of Gapon who was with him during the march, cabled to the New York Journal shortly after the massacre: “The Russian Revolution has begun.” (15).
By January 12th, strikes had erupted in factories and, railways, and even among white- collar workers throughout the empire, with a particularly large one in Saratov province, echoing many of the demands made by Gapon and his followers. These actions spread, renewing the motivation of revolutionary leaders who’d previously been disorganized, and culminated in a general strike that affected almost every major urban center in the country by October. It’s estimated that around two million workers participated, bringing the empire to a virtual standstill (16).
Paradoxically, it was difficult for the state to handle the unrest – despite its repressive inclinations – due to the fact that, like so many other government officials, local police were woefully understaffed, underpaid, and poorly equipped. It was not unusual for police to sometimes sympathize with the strikers.
When the tsar ordered a crackdown on unrest in mid-October, this time the army and police largely stood down (16).
The tsar finally was finally forced to realize that he needed to implement reforms or at least give the pretense of doing so. Ministers and advisors reported that, between continuing strikes throughout the country and the deep divisions among the nobility that were literally paralyzing essential government and commercial activity, complacency was no longer an option (15).
The reformist faction of the tsar’s government was led by Sergei Witte, who formulated the October Manifesto, which granted freedom of conscience, speech, assembly, and union as well as widespread suffrage. It also established a cabinet of ministers (19) and a parliament, known as the Duma, with the provision that no law would be enacted without its approval (16).
As a result, the number of newspapers multiplied ten-fold with the press freely publishing whatever they deemed newsworthy, and workers established a multitude of trade unions, consumer co-ops, clubs, and cultural societies (16).
But the issuing of the October Manifesto also precipitated a backlash and ushered in much chaos. Right-wing interests violently attacked reformers and revolutionaries, pogroms erupted against Jews, and a faction of peasants looted and burned large estates and state-run liquor stores (16).
Along with the reforms, the tsar instituted a deadly retaliatory campaign against revolutionaries in the countryside over the next year (15).
The reforms of the October Manifesto were codified and known as the Fundamental Laws of 1906. The election of the first Duma that year involved the ranking of voters based on ownership of property and payment of taxes. The first group was landowners, followed by peasants, town dwellers, and workers. Each group chose electors who then selected Duma deputies.
The elections were boycotted by social democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR), which left the field open to other left-wing groups, who won the majority of seats (16).
It should be mentioned that right-wing populism would also become a significant force in the form of the Union of the Russian People party, which appeared in the period after the political opening provided by the October Manifesto. Its supporters often were involved in the vigilante Black Hundreds who took part in anti-Semitic pogroms and joined in state-sanctioned repressions of peasant and worker rebellions (19).
Although the tsar publicly recognized the Duma’s legislative authority, he would proceed to try to sideline it as much as possible. He also maintained the right to veto any legislation, to declare martial law, and to issue commutations and pardons, and he still had sole decision-making authority when it came to the conduct of foreign policy, and the overall administration of the empire (16).
As part of his attempt to pacify the situation, the tsar appointed Pyotr Stolypin as prime minister and minister of internal affairs. He served in both positions from 1906 until his assassination in 1911. Having already spent years managing a large province, Stolypin had developed a program in response to social unrest that combined methods of soft repression and concrete reforms to improve living conditions.
Stolypin had grown up and lived in areas with minorities and was a relatively tolerant man. In his time as provincial governor, in both Grodno and Saratov, he’d acquired experience successfully negotiating with the leadership of rebelling groups to prevent escalation (16). He had also proposed policies to support public education, reform the credit system to assist modern agricultural schools, the building of fireproof structures to prevent the destruction of peasant homes, and the prevention of land seizures and horse theft (16).
He had also noted the generally better conditions enjoyed by workers and peasants in Russian plants and colonies controlled by Western Europeans. For example, workers in one French-owned plant were treated well with their own schools and hospitals on-site. Another example involved a German colony that had paved roads and stone houses with indoor plumbing (16). Stolypin wanted to replicate these improvements for Russian-controlled entities.
The centerpiece of Stolypin’s envisioned transformation of Russia was agrarian reform. His package of reforms was designed to change peasants’ mentality. He believed in the expansion of private ownership of land, which would enable the peasants to see themselves as stakeholders in a stable and orderly society. This, in turn, would confer to them a sense of citizenship based on being rational actors who could take the initiative to improve their lives, creating a sense of civic engagement and respect for the rule of law (16).
Stolypin pushed ahead with these policies even though he knew they would likely make the nobility feel threatened. He believed that if his reforms were successful, the nobility would eventually disappear as a class.
Stolypin viewed the peasant majority as the weakest segment of society at the time but also the segment with the most productive potential for Russia’s future. He advocated a rudimentary form of “state socialism” to facilitate this transformation of the peasantry, as he stated in a 1907 speech:
At the present time our state is ailing: the most ailing, the weakest part . . . …is the peasantry. We must aid it. . . . ….The idea that all the forces of the state must come to the aid of the weakest part of it may be termed the principle of socialism; but if this is the principle of socialism, it is state socialism, which has been applied more than once in Western Europe and has achieved real and substantial results (16).
Several sets of policies were enacted in 1906 to assist the peasants. The first set made more land available from the state to be sold to peasants and to make purchases easier with low interest rates on loans. Some interest was generated among the peasants, but not as much as hoped for because the peasants had expected the land to be granted for free rather than sold. However, Stolypin had been unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade the tsar to give away the land (16).
A subsequent set of policies were implemented in October to expand the civil rights of the peasantry, allowing them to work as administrative officials, to be elected without limitation to zemstvos, and to freely attend school. It also permitted them to move from one region to another and to purchase land in other regions (16).
The third set of policies was enacted in November and involved methods for the voluntary transfer of allotments of land worked by peasants within communes to private ownership (16).
The radical left didn’t like the reforms. Vladimir Lenin expressed his fear that it would lead to the creation of a large bourgeois class of peasants under a capitalist agrarian system that would soon be a fait accompli. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) opposed the reforms as well (16).
Stolypin recognized that the reforms would take time to reach their full intended effects – up to a generation. But ultimately there were many obstacles to their success. These included peasants’ hesitation to leave the communal structure, the fact that divided and privately owned plots did not necessarily have access to necessary infrastructure, peasants not wanting to separate from neighbors, and too few government officials to carry out the steps of implementation (e.g. surveyors). It also wasn’t unusual for violent conflict to erupt between communal members who wanted to secede and those who didn’t (16).
By 1914, around 20 percent of peasants had become private owners of their land, with those of average land-holdings showing the most motivation to take advantage of the new laws and benefiting the most from them. But the changes were ultimately too slow to prevent further upheaval.
In fact, Stolypin’s historical reputation as a moderate reformer is often overshadowed by the cycle of violence and repression that continued during this period. The violence from 1905 through 1907 included some revolutionary groups who were using terrorist tactics such as killing police and other government officials. These groups often resorted to armed robberies to finance their activities. Between October of 1905 and September of 1906, 3,611 government workers were killed (16).
Stolypin ordered all local administrators to quell the unrest but emphasized that legal means had to be used, noting:
The measures that are adopted must be characterized by firm, careful planning; therefore, indiscriminate repression must not be approved. Illegal and imprudent operations provoke bitterness instead of calm and are [therefore] unacceptable (16).
Based on his past experiences dealing with unrest as governor, he knew that this approach was a nuanced one that not all officials had the skill and patience to effectively execute. Consequently, he sent out a 20-page supplement to his order that outlined how to neutralize popular support for radical groups, such as implementing changes that enabled peasants to increase their land holdings by expediting loans. He also advised local officials to personally meet with peasants to discuss their grievances and protect them against abuses by landlords (16).
He made it clear that an immediate attempt was to be made to restore calm at the first sign of unrest by using means other than force. But if force was necessary, it was to be quick and decisive (16). He also advocated surveilling organizations that might be involved in anti-government activity as well as those in the press who might be encouraging it (16).
In August of 1906, however, an assassination attempt was made on Stolypin at his summer home where he was conducting official meetings. Three members of the Socialist Revolutionaries set off a bomb in a suicide mission. Although Stolypin himself escaped unhurt because he was in another part of the house, 27 others were killed and 70 wounded, including two of his children.
Stolypin still believed that the use of overly repressive measures in response would backfire. But there was great pressure to clamp down further to combat the terror, including by the tsar himself. Some reactionaries were even calling for dictatorship.
A meeting of all cabinet members was convened to discuss the matter. All present, except for Stolypin and the Minister of Justice, agreed that the an on-field courts-martial should be instituted. This would allow for suspicious civilians to be handed over, without investigation, to a field court consisting of five military officers. The field court would conclude all trials in private within 48 hours of arrest. Sentences, which were often severe and included the death penalty, were carried out within 24 hours (16).
Utilizing a loophole in the Fundamental Laws, the decree was enacted when the Duma was not in session and no date had yet been set for when it would meet again. As a result, the law was in effect for a significant period of time before the parliament could act against it.
The field courts operated for eight months, with 1,102 executed and almost 800 sentenced to prison or hard labor. Around 71 were acquitted (16).
Though incidents of terror did decrease, the field courts were widely unpopular (16). Stolypin’s association with this policy, which suspended the few elements of due process Russians had been granted, harmed his reputation and his objective of encouraging respect for the rule of law.