home | history

Russia's Romanovs and Rebellion

The Romanov family belonged to a privileged class of rich landowners (boyars). Back in 1613 a group of Russia's most influential personages selected Michael Romanov to become the next Tsar — a title greater than King, derived from the word Caesar, denoting exalted monarchical power, Moscow as the Third Rome, and offered by the "grace of God."

The sixth Romanov to rule, Peter the Great (r. 1696-1715) held the title "Ruler of All the Russias," which included lands from Moscow to Kiev, and it included Estonia and Latvia acquired during his war against the Swedish Empire. It extended to the area around a new city that he had built, named after Saint Peter: St. Petersburg. His power extended south to the Caspian Sea — but short of the Khanate of Crimea. And it extended into Siberia. Russian expansion and fur trade in Siberia included fighting indigenous peoples and, in the mid-1700s, an ordered genocide against the Chukchi and Koryaks. Entire ethnic groups were wiped out.

Catherine the Great, who had been a German princess and had married Tsar Peter III, came to power in 1762 following a coup and the assassination of her husband. She was headstrong and tough and expanded the Russian Empire against the Ottoman Turks, and she extended Russian rule to what today is the southern Ukraine, where the Russians founded the city of Odessa. Catherine annexed the Crimea in 1783. The Russian tsar won from the Ottoman Empire the position of protector of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land. And Russia joined Prussia and Austria in partitioning Poland, Russia gaining territory not quite so westward as Warsaw, Lublin. and Lvov.

By the year 1800, traders and settlers in Siberia numbered something like 900,000, and by 1850 they had increased to 2.7 million, most of them in the western part of Siberia.

Russia's loss of the Crimean War (1853-56) was accompanied by its lost status as protector of principalities along the Danube River, but the empire gained territory in Siberia in 1858, taking advantage of Manchu China's weakness. And in 1860, with the Treaty of Beijing, Russia gained territory that allowed its founding of the port city of Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan (the East Sea as Koreans prefer to call it.)

Meanwhile, in 1809 a fort that the Russians had built in Honolulu had been abandoned. And in 1842 the Russians abandoned their settlement named Fort Ross, in northern California Russian trading companies pulled back from operations in the northern Pacific because of diminishing animal populations, the loss of sailing vessels in Alaska storms and the rising costs of long voyages from the Siberian seaboard.

In 1855, toward the end of the Crimean War, the Romanov tsar, Nicholas I, died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Alexander II. As Geoffrey Hosking writes:

Defeat in the Crimean War was a profound shock to the Russians... It demonstrated that the army, reportedly the strongest in Europe, could not defend a fortified base in its homeland against troops dispatched from thousands of miles away.

Tsar Alexander II promised reforms. Some intellectuals wanted an advance of rights in an enhanced rule of law. But serfdom was the big issue. It was recognized that the military failure was related to economic conditions, with serfdom a part of that. Russia had 22 million serfs — around 44 percent of its population. Mostly they were the property of landlords, and some labored for people other than their lords while making regular payments to their lord, with some owners of serfs having enough of them to make a living from these payments. Public opinion overwhelmingly favored emancipation, many believing that freeing the serfs would help Russia advance economically toward the level of Britain or France. Those opposed to emancipation were isolated – among them the tsar's wife and mother, who feared freedom for so many would not be good for Russia.

In March 1861 (on the same day that Abraham Lincoln took his oath of office) Alexander issued his Emancipation Manifesto. The lords were to receive compensation in the form of treasury bonds and the freed serfs were to join in annual payments to the government for forty-nine years. Many freed serfs, especially in the fertile agricultural regions in the southern provinces, felt they were not getting all the land that had been promised them. Some communities of former serfs failed to receive lands with access to a river and were forced to bargain with their former lords for access to these. According to one source, the former serfs received 18 percent less land than they had been promised, and 42 percent of the former serfs received allotments of land insufficient to maintain their families. (Nicholas V Riasanovsky, A History of Russia, Oxford University Press, 1977, p 414.)

Many students viewed the tsar's reforms as an example of inadequate change, and they were hostile toward Alexander's authoritarianism regarding their universities. Disturbances erupted on university campuses in 1861-62. Leaflets urged revolution. Jail cells at St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul fortress and nearby Kronstadt naval base filled with university students. Political activism became prestigious for students. They viewed their generation as more advanced than their parents (to be described in a novel, Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. The progressives were in rebellion against the metaphysics, religion and romantic poetry of their parent's generation. They were described by Turgenev as nihilists, and the label stuck.

In 1866 a student tried to assassinating the Tsar, thinking his act would advance Russian society. A new minister of education took charge of the universities and applied stricter controls. In 1873 students studying in Switzerland were ordered to return to Russia, and the returning students launched what was called a "To the People" movement. They were interested in patience and persuasion, in serving common people in various ways, as teachers, doctors or scribes. The movement grew to a couple of thousand people. Many of those they wanted to help saw them as outsiders and as troublemakers and reported them to the police. Arrests and trials of nearly 250 marked the end of the "To the People" movement. In 1876, in the wake of this get-tough policy, a group called "Land and Liberty" was founded.

In early 1878, a non-student worker-activist member of "Land and Liberty," Vera Zasulich, sought revenge for the beating that one of her activist friends received in prison. She shot and wounded the military governor of St. Petersburg and was tried by a jury, which failed to convict her. The government responded by ending jury trials for people charged with politically motivated crimes.

In 1879 a group emerged that called itself "The Will of the People." Its stated goals were democracy, worker ownership of mines and factories, lands to peasants, complete freedom of speech and association, a classless society and people's militias replacing the government's army. Some believed that if Tsar Alexander II were assassinated he might be replaced with a new ruler who would create a liberal constitution, and some believed that the assassination of the tsar and prominent officials could spark a popular uprising. In 1879 several attempts were made to kill Alexander. In 1880 they blew up the dining room at the tsar's Winter Palace, killing eleven and injuring fifty-six but missing the Tsar, who had been late to dine. The police were able to track down and arrest many members of the group.

In March 1881, the police were aware that another attempt was afoot to assassinate the tsar. The police warned Alexander to remain secluded, but Alexander ignored the warning, and, on March 13, a bomb was thrown beneath his carriage, wounding some in his entourage. The entourage stopped — as the assassins had planned. Alexander emerged from his carriage, feeling obliged to be with the wounded. A 26-year-old member of the conspiracy, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, approached within a few steps of Alexander and tossed a package that landed at the feet of Alexander. The package exploded and ripping apart Alexander's legs. Alexander's entourage fled in panic, leaving the Tsar to bleed alone on the icy ground. Passers-by found Alexander, but he died a few hours later.

Alexander III, thirty-six years-old when he ascended the throne, the second son of Alexander II, associated the assassination of his father with liberal reforms (more perhaps than a security failure). Alexander III claimed that parliamentary institutions and the liberalism of Western Europe were inappropriate for Russia and that Russia could be saved from the revolutionaries only by traditional authoritarian rule. The Russian writer, Count Leo Tolstoy, appealed to Alexander III to spare his father's murderers and "to meet his enemies on the field of ideas." The terrorists had ideals, said Tolstoy, and he advised Alexander to counter their ideals with "another ideal, higher than theirs, greater and more generous."

Alexander III was close to the ideology of his former tutor, Konstantine Pobedonostsev, who since 1880 had been lay head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Pobedonostsev argued against parliamentary government, declaring against "the dexterous manipulators of votes." He described elected representatives as defending the interests of narrow constituencies. A monarch alone, he said, embodies the common interest. Pobedonostsev saw liberal ideas as a threat to Romanov authority and claimed that all opposition to Romanov authority should be ruthlessly crushed. He viewed Jews as collectively guilty of killing Christ Jesus. Alexander III agreed. Alexander wrote: "Let us never forget that it was the Jews who crucified Jesus."

For many in Russia, an association was made between the assassins of Alexander II and "the Jewish plague". The assassination of Alexander II was followed by a string of pogroms against the Jews, by attacks on Jewish communities and the property of Jews. The murder of Jews occurred. Jews had been money lenders, and to many Russian peasants, and many who had migrated to the cities, the Jews were extortionists who bled Christian peasants with high-interest rates.

Censorship was tightened, and publishers and writers with liberal ideas were harassed. Activists were arrested, imprisoned, commonly tried by courts-martial and ex-communicated. Thousands were exiled to Siberia and in some cases hanged. But opposition to monarchical rule was not eliminated. It was merely forced underground.

Only the Orthodox Church was allowed to proselytize. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in the empire were subject to surveillance. The involvement of the Orthodox Church in primary education was increased. Higher education for women became more restricted. Students were prohibited from forming organizations, and teachers were appointed by the Ministry of Education rather than elected by their colleagues as before.

Several attempts were made to assassinate Alexander III, but his death would come in 1894 from disease of the kidneys. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Nicholas II, at age of twenty-six. Like many sons of tough authoritarian fathers he was wimpish, believing himself inadequate.

Getting more extreme in their authoritarianism would not secure the Romanov's the longevity in power that would be enjoyed by the more liberal monarchies in Western Europe — still on their thrones in the 21st century. The Romanovs, in power since 1613, would be diminished by a revolution in 1905 and would lose power in 1917.

CONTINUE READING: Ideology: Smith, Bentham, Mill, and some Utopians

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.