A History of Russia
Chapter 4: IMPERIAL RUSSIA
1682 to 1917
This chapter covers the following topics:
Peter the Great
1682 to 1725
When Fyodor III died, the tsar's bodyguards, the Streltsy, took matters into their own hands. In order to insure that they could control the next tsar, they created something never seen at any other time in Russian history: a co-regency. Both of Fyodor's younger brothers, the moronic Ivan V and the precocious Peter I, were crowned tsar; a two-seat throne was built for the occasion. Since both were too young to rule in any case, an elder sister, Sophia, was made regent. Sophia literally was "the power behind the throne"; concealed by a curtain behind the dual throne, she told Peter and Ivan what to say.(1)
Peter shunned the Kremlin as much as possible because to him it symbolized everything that was old and wrong about Russia (after he grew up, he would feel the same way about Moscow). He spent most of his time with the western Europeans who lived in the German Quarter of Moscow; not only could they satisfy his immense curiosity about things, but also their tastes for drinking and carousing equaled his own. With their help, he gave his playmates military training with modern equipment.(2) This came in handy when Peter grew up, because by then Sophia did not want to step down from her powerful position. She attempted to have Peter arrested, but Peter and his well-trained friends got to her first, and in 1689 they hauled her off to a convent.
When Peter returned to Russia the Streltsy revolted, so Peter exterminated them wholesale and built a new modern army in their place. He then westernized his subjects by shaving the beards off the boyars and forcing them to wear Western dress. He did the same with the common people, but later made a concession to them in the form of a beard tax; those who did not shave had to pay a small tax to keep their whiskers. The government was overhauled to make it more efficient, and Western-style schools were built. All of these reforms were unpopular, especially the laws concerning beards; both the established Church and the Old Believers agreed that since man is created in God's image, shaving is an indirect mutilation of God himself. Probably 95% of the people opposed Peter's reforms, even after they got results. In response to this Peter made his authority more absolute than ever; his reforms were not so much introduced as inflicted upon his subjects ("Russians must be coerced!"). Since the Church was his greatest critic, Peter removed its tax-exempt status to help pay for his reforms; then when the patriarch died, Peter refused to appoint a successor. The patriarch's office was replaced with a "Holy Synod," a committee of ten priests led by a tsar-appointed layman; this neat little move made the Church just another branch of the tsar's government. In order to extract the last possible kopeck to pay for his wars, Peter placed additional taxes on coffins, beehives, bathhouses and anything else that seemed remotely likely to yield revenue. Most of the new burdens were borne by the already oppressed peasant masses; Peter went one step further and put all of the peasant's land, as well as his body, at his master's disposal. The service gentry was given the right to reduce the amount of land a peasant could work on, increase his obligations at will, and even dispense justice on his personal property as he saw fit. In addition, those serfs conscripted into the armed forces were required to serve a minimum of 25 years. As time went on, the government came to regard the serfs as chattel rather than human beings.
Azov was nice, but Peter thought that a seaport on the Baltic, conveniently close to England and Holland, would be nicer. Since the Baltic was a Swedish lake at this time, he formed an alliance with Denmark, Saxony and Poland, three other countries with anti-Swedish grudges. All four of them declared war on Sweden in 1700.
The Swedish king, eighteen-year-old Charles XII, was expected to be a pushover, but youth was his only shortcoming. He didn't mind hardship, was cold and calculating--and like his great ancestor, Gustavus Adolphus, he was a military genius. Instead of waiting for the expected onslaught, he made a beeline for Copenhagen, knocking Denmark out of the war in a single battle. Then he led 10,000 men to the other side of the Baltic, defeating a Russian army of 50,000 at the battle of Narva. From there Charles could have continued to Moscow and ended Peter's career, but instead he set up winter camp, pondering whether to attack Russia or Poland next spring.
The tough-looking German mercenaries in Poland's army decided matters, and Charles marched south to deal with them. For the next six years Charles and Poland's King Augustus chased each other in circles around Poland. During this time Peter recovered from his defeat, sent an army into Poland each spring to keep Charles from winning too soon, and occupied the eastern shore of the Baltic (Ingria, Estonia and Latvia). He showed his total commitment to winning the war by building Russia's new capital, St. Petersburg, on former Swedish territory, at the mouth of the Neva River. The site was abominable--cold and swampy--and to build the city he drafted thousands of peasants, paid them nothing, shrugged at their misery and death, and drove them onward. When it was finished he ordered the nobility to move there. In this we can see the real genius of Peter's actions, for he knew that his reforms would very likely die with him unless he placed the seat of government so far west that it could not help but see what the West was doing at any time.
In 1706 Charles XII chased Augustus to his home, the German state of Saxony, and finally captured him. Now he could tackle his real enemy, Peter. But this time Peter's modernized army fought better than expected; it took until the fall of 1708 for the Swedes to reach the Russo-Polish border. It was too late in the year for Charles to go forward, but he would not go back, either. Therefore he set up his camp in the Ukraine, where he could hope for food, milder weather, and support from friendly Cossacks. Charles couldn't have known how foolish it was to spend the winter in Russia, because he lived a century before Napoleon and more than two centuries before Hitler. Colder than expected weather killed off half his force, and the local Cossacks stayed loyal to the tsar.(3) In July 1709 Peter surrounded and annihilated the remaining Swedes in the battle of Poltava. Today Poltava is regarded as one of the most important battles in world history, because Sweden was the most powerful country in northern Europe for most of the previous century, but has never been even a second-rate power since that time.
Charles XII cannot be blamed for the defeat of the Swedes at Poltava, because war wounds had left him in a coma at the time. When he recovered he escaped to the Ottoman Empire and persuaded the Turks to join his side. The Turkish response was disappointing, though; they only stayed in the war long enough to take back Azov. Now Denmark, Hanover, and Prussia declared war on Sweden, and all of Sweden's enemies closed in. By the time Charles got home everything but Sweden itself had been lost, but he kept the "Great Northern War" going until he was killed while invading Norway in 1718. At the Treaty of Nystad (1721) Peter gave back Finland (occupied since 1714), but got to keep all of his other conquests.
1725 to 1762
Peter could never get along with his only son, Alexis, and in 1718 he accused Alexis of collaborating with the Swedes; after severe "questioning," Alexis died in prison. Alexis would have made a poor tsar, but killing him made matters worse. Most of the next seven tsars were women and children, and the rest of the eighteenth century would go by before the usual system of father-to-son succession could be reestablished. The Romanov dynasty did not become extinct during this time, but its bloodlines were stretched mighty thin. The immediate successors of Peter the Great can be summed up in a few words:
Catherine I (1725-27), Peter's second wife.
Peter II (1727-30), a teenage son of the late Prince Alexis. He tried to move the capital back to Moscow, but died of a severe cold first.
Anna of Kurland (1730-40), daughter of Ivan V. She returned the southern and western shores of the Caspian Sea to Persia, territory annexed by Peter I in 1723.
Ivan VI (1740-41), the infant great-grandson of Ivan V, deposed by his babysitter,
Elizabeth (1741-62), a daughter of Peter I. A competent empress, but also a nymphomaniac, who was addicted to cherry brandy until it killed her one day.
After these characters the last living male member of the Romanov family was Peter III, the son of another daughter of Peter I. This Peter was not even Russian; his father was a Prussian prince. Peter hated orthodoxy and Russian traditions, but loved everything that had to do with Prussia. His wife was also from the German nobility, a princess named Sophia Augusta Frederica, who changed her name to Catherine II after the wedding. A German couple now ruled Russia.
Peter's six months as tsar were good ones: he reduced the salt tax, abolished the secret police, forbid the sale of serfs to factory owners, and stopped the persecution of Old Believers. He also freed the serfs that worked on Church property, eliminated the term of military service required from the gentry, and gave the gentry permission to travel abroad. However, if you want to know what kind of person Peter really was, read on!
Peter the Great had turned Russia into a major participant in European politics, a fact of life that has continued to this day, even when Russia was under mediocre leadership. In 1733 Stanislas Leszczynski was elected king of Poland; he had briefly ruled the country as a puppet of Sweden during the Great Northern War. The Russians didn't like this turn of events, so they sent an army to Warsaw to demand new elections; this time the candidate the Russians liked won by a landslide. Six years later the Black Sea port of Azov was taken for good. And the exploration/colonization of Siberia (and Alaska) continued.
The place where Russian involvement really made a difference was in the Seven Years War (1756-63), which was caused by the constant quarrel between two implacable foes, Prussia's King Frederick the Great and Austria's Empress Maria Theresa. These two began their reigns with a silly war called the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), and Maria Theresa was spoiling for a rematch, so she persuaded France, Sweden and Russia to join her in an anti-Prussian alliance, while England sided with Frederick. The next time Prussia and Austria had a fight, all six countries got involved. Frederick, "the Soldier King," won most of the battles, but his forces were outnumbered, and he ran out of men before his enemies did. By 1762 two thirds of Prussia had been lost, and a Russian army had captured Berlin. Then Peter III became tsar; he thought Frederick was simply great, and promptly switched sides. That was just what Frederick needed, and the war quickly ended with a Prussian-English victory.
1762 to 1796
Peter III may have been a good tsar but he was a lousy husband. Every night he would get into bed with his boots on, play with his collection of dolls for an hour or so, and tell Catherine about his newest mistresses (he didn't really have any). Then he would roll over and snore. After nine years of this Peter moved to a separate bedroom; Catherine called him "a moronic booby" and started entertaining various lovers. She had five children during her nineteen years of marriage, but it is unlikely that they were all legitimate.(4) Six months after he became tsar, Peter was imprisoned and murdered by a conspiracy of Catherine's lovers. We do not know if Catherine had anything to do with this, but once she was in charge of Russia she never married again; instead she kept a number of lovers around for the rest of her life. We also do not know how many boyfriends she had; officially there were twelve, but there may have been more. One interesting part of Catherine's character is that she kept friendly with all of these men after she broke up with them; for example, when Gregory Potemkin became too old to keep up with the "demands of state", he found handsome younger men who could, and was richly rewarded by Catherine every time he brought her one.
Catherine was the foremost promoter of Western culture since Peter the Great. She considered herself an example of "enlightened despotism" and corresponded with many of the philosophers of her day; she also wrote about philosophy, making her the only intellectual to ever sit on the Russian throne. The sons of nobility were sent abroad to Western colleges, creating a class of educated Russians called the intelligentsia; they would play an active role in the shaping of future generations. Catherine's reign is also noteworthy for producing Mikhail Lomonosov, the first scientist in Russian history.
Enlightened as Catherine's reforms may have been, they did nothing for the country's peasant majority, whose fortunes hit rock bottom at this time. By now the government no longer interfered with the landowner's treatment of his serfs in any way. In addition to all the burdens placed on the serfs previously, the noble could now make them work in his factories, interfere with their marriages, convert them into domestic servants, or even sell them, often breaking up families in the process. Many nobles now demanded that their serfs pay their rent in barshchina (labor), rather than in the customary obrok (payment in goods or money); this meant to the peasant more supervision by his owner and less freedom to manage his own affairs. Catherine added to the plight of thousands of serfs by giving her lovers gifts of land (along with the peasants working on them), for the state was a less demanding taskmaster than most of the landlords. One could say that at this time "the landlord ruled a little monarchy within the great one."
In 1772 a Cossack named Emelian Pugachev deserted from military service, wandered to the Ural River, and claimed to be Tsar Peter III; he said that he never really died, but had spent the last ten years hiding from his enemies, including Catherine, by traveling abroad. Pugachev did not resemble the late tsar in any way, but the Cossacks, desparate for any sort of liberator, supported him enthusiastically. Soon the entire Urals (both the river valley and the mountains) were in revolt, as Pugachev's band was joined by workers from Russia's first factories, and by Moslem tribesmen who resented the government's heavy-handed attempts to convert them at gunpoint. Government troops sent to the scene defeated Pugachev at Orenburg, but he escaped to the Volga city of Kazan. There he was joined by oppressed peasants who warmly remembered Stenka Razin's revolt a century earlier, and they went on a rampage, looting the houses of the rich and killing anybody they caught who was financially better off than they were. This last and most terrible of the Cossack rebellions engulfed the entire Volga as far upstream as Nizhny Novgorod, and threatened to spread even farther west to the Don, making Pugachev's retreat look more like an invasion. Late in 1774 he was finally captured and executed, and the rebellion petered out after it lost its "False Peter," but to many the message was clear. Among these was Alexander Radishchev, a member of the gentry whose family barely escaped the Pugachev rebellion with their lives. His book, A Journey From St. Petersburg to Moscow, had a fictitious traveler advocate liberation of the peasants, warning that a more dangerous rebellion would come if their misfortunes continued. Radishchev got ten years in Siberia for writing this, so today he is remembered as the first modern Russian revolutionary.
If acquiring real estate is a proper way to measure "greatness," then Catherine was a more successful ruler than Peter the Great. To the south and east, Russian expansion into Central Asia and the Caucasus region began, to be continued one step at a time for a century. Two wars with the Ottoman Empire (1768-74 & 1787-92) captured the northern shore of the Black Sea. Between those wars, a third one finished off the Crimean Khanate (1783). Six hundred years after Genghis Khan, the last state ruled by someone claiming to be a descendant of his had ceased to exist.
The most unusual gains, however, came from the partitioning of Poland. It happened like this: Austria's Maria Theresa, alarmed at Russia's continuing success against the Turks, threatened war if Russian expansion in her direction did not stop. Prussia's Frederick the Great intervened, offering this solution: why not peacefully take over something else rather than fight over slices of Turkey? Catherine agreed, and in 1772 Russia, Austria and Prussia each annexed approx. an eighth of Poland's territory.(5) Naturally the Poles were livid at the carving up of their country, and they revolted constantly, until Prussia and Russia came back in 1793, forcing the Poles to give up half of the land they had left. Once the occupying forces left there was yet another Polish revolt, so in 1795 Prussia, Austria and Russia quietly returned and divided the rest of Poland between themselves.
Dembei was originally a fisherman from Osaka. Every year Osaka sent a convoy of about thirty ships full of merchant goods to Tokyo (then called Edo), and Dembei went with one of those convoys as a merchant clerk. The convoy was caught in a typhoon, and Dembei's ship was blown to Kamchatka; by the time Atlasov had rescued (or captured) Dembei, all the other survivors had been killed by the natives.
Dembei pleaded with the Russians to send him back to Japan, but instead they sent him to St. Petersburg, so he could tell Peter the Great what he knew about his homeland. He was baptized as a Christian, renamed Gabriel, and spent the rest of his life as the first Japanese language teacher in Russia. During this time Japan was under a strict isolationist policy, which not only prohibited foreigners from entering the country, but also decreed that Japanese citizens who left could not return, on pain of death. So even if the Russians had tried to send Dembei back, I doubt the Japanese authorities would have accepted him.
Tsar Peter believed that "If you want something done right, get somebody from western Europe to do it," so when he wanted to find out what was in his empire's northeastern corner, it made sense to choose Vitus Bering, a Danish captain serving in the Russian navy, to command the expedition. With transportation being was it was, it took Bering three and a half years to get started; first he had to go from St. Petersburg to Okhotsk, and then across the sea by that name to Kamchatka, where he would build a boat; only then would the real adventure begin. By 1728 the boat was ready; his only instructions after that were to follow the Siberian coast northward and see if it went to America. "Seeing" was the hard part; the body of water that would soon be called the Bering Strait is always full of fog, so while Bering kept to the western (Siberian) side of the strait, he never saw what was on the other side. He kept going until he reached latitude 67o 30' N., and at that point, the coast was clearly going west, meaning that a land bridge between Siberia and North America was unlikely. In 1730 he returned to St. Petersburg to give this report.
Bering had only accomplished half the mission; he found where Siberia ended, but not where America began. Thus, while he was in the capital, he also got the backing for a second expedition. This expedition would be larger and better prepared, since it was now clear they would have to sail across the north Pacific. That meant building at least two boats, not one, and before he did that, he would first build a base of operations in Kamchatka. This base became Petropavlovsk, still the peninsula's most important city. The name was a natural choice, for Bering named the ships he built the St. Peter and the St. Paul. They cast off in 1741, with Bering commanding the St. Peter, while his chief lieutenant, Alexei Chirikov, commanded the St. Paul. At first they headed southeast, to check a report of an island named Gamaland; a Spanish captain, Juan de Gama, had sailed across the northern Pacific, from Macao to Acapulco, in 1598, and claimed he saw land on the way. No land was sighted here, and when the ships turned east to resume their mission, they got separated by a storm and did not see each other again.
Forty days after leaving Petropavlovsk, Chirikov reached Prince of Wales Island, at the southern end of present-day Alaska. Working his way backward, he followed the Alaskan coast, then the Aleutian Islands. One of the St. Paul's two longboats was sent forth to find a good spot for an anchorage (not the city of Anchorage, mind you!); it never returned, and after waiting a week, the other longboat was sent out and it did not return, either. Without any longboats, the crew could not go ashore, hunt or forage, or even collect fresh water, Thus, Chirikov was forced to go back to Petropavlovsk without making any stops on the way -- but at least he made it.
Bering wasn't so lucky. His landfall, at Mt. St. Elias, was 450 miles northwest of Chirikov's landing. Ill and exhausted, Bering also chose to go westward after that, with brief stops on shore for fresh water. But when they tried to make the crossing from the Aleutians to Kamchatka, storms blew the St. Peter back in the direction of America. Because a cold, wet climate is not suitable for preserving things, the ship began to rot, and when the fresh food ran out, the men began to come down with scurvy. Eventually the St. Peter came to the uninhabited Komandorski Islands (Commander Islands in English), and shipwrecked on the largest of them, a place soon to be named Bering Island. Here they spent the winter, and this was the most important part of the trip for the expedition's chief scientist, the German-born Georg Wilhelm Steller, because these islands had many new animals to study--and they had not learned to fear men. The largest of these was the Steller's sea cow, an enormous manatee that weighed four tons or more. Steller was able to cure some scurvy cases by getting the men to eat seaweed, but he could not save the sickest among them, including Bering. The following spring, the men improved their diet by hunting sea cows (just one of them could feed the whole crew easily), and one crewman used the leftover timbers of the St. Peter to build another boat. In the St. Peter II, 46 survivors (out of an original crew of 76) completed the final leg of the journey, a relatively short jump from Bering Island to Petropavlovsk.
One of the veterans of Bering's first expedition was another Dane, Martin Spanberg. With an Englishman named William Walton, he was given the assignment to find out exactly where Japan was. For the first expedition, in 1738, they left Kamchatka and followed the Kurile Islands as far south as Iturup, then they returned because it was getting too late in the season to continue. In 1739 they tried again and made it to Honshu, the main Japanese island. Japan was still closed to foreigners, but the Japanese politely gave them a reception and some gifts, before sending them off. Spanberg, Walton and the Russians seemed to know the Japanese would not make any kind of agreement with them, because they did not press their hosts very hard. They tried one more expedition in 1741, but the boat they built for this one leaked so much that they soon had to turn back. Later, in 1785, The Russians declared all of the Kuriles to be theirs, except for the three islands nearest Japan.
Behind Bering came Russian hunters and fur trappers. Like the Cossacks in Sibera, they forced the natives (Aleuts along the Bering Sea) to obtain the furs for them, instead of doing it themselves. Thus, an orgy of animal killing followed in Alaska. Unfortunately the hunters had heard about the Steller's sea cow, so they made it a point to stop at the Komandorskis, to load up on fresh meat for later travels. The sea cow had no natural defenses against man, and did not even swim as well as the manatees in other seas; most of the time it just floated on the water's surface. Worst of all, its numbers were dangerously low when humans arrived (Georg Steller estimated there were no more than 1,500 of them). Hunters killed the last sea cow in 1768, meaning the species was ruthlessly hunted to extinction in only twenty-seven years after its discovery.
Alaskan natives suffered badly as well. Infectious diseases from the Old World took their toll, the way they did when introduced to other parts of the Americas. And the Russians treated them brutally--resorting to hostage taking, splitting families, and all-out violence--when the Aleuts and northwest coast Indians did not cooperate. In 1772 Russia officially annexed the Aleutian Islands, not only to increase control over the land, but also because Catherine the Great was starting to get concerned about the exploitation of the natives.
The Indian tribes on the mainland were too unfriendly to build a permanent settlement there, so Russia's first American colonies were built on offshore islands: Kodiak Island in 1784, and Baranov Island in 1794. The latter settlement was originally called Fort Saint Mikhail or Mikhailovsk. To reduce competition and clashes between the hunters, a government-sponsored monopoly, the Russian-American Company, was chartered in 1799. The Company charter also granted to the Russian Orthodox Church the right to send missionaries into Company territory, thereby establishing Christianity in Alaska.
There was a setback in 1802 when the Indian tribe near Fort Saint Mikhail, the Tlingit, wiped out the settlement, killing 24 Russians and 200 Aleuts, and enslaving everyone else who failed to escape. Alexander Baranov, the founder of the settlement, paid 10,000 rubles for the safe return of the surviving settlers. But Baranov had also just become head of the Russian-American Company, so he did not feel the matter was over. In 1804 he returned to the site with 150 Russians, 700 Aleuts, and a Russian warship, the Neva. They bombarded the fort, drove away the Tlingit warriors, and built a new settlement, which they first called Novoarchangelsk, and later Sitka. Then in 1812 a third settlement, Fort Ross, was built just 65 miles north of San Francisco, giving the Russians a claim to the entire Pacific Northwest coast, from California to Alaska.
After a promising start, the Russian-American Company's fortunes took a downswing. The reason was that the Russians were still hunting at unsustainable levels; there were enough wild animals on North America's Pacific coast to make a few independent trappers rich, but not enough to keep a big business in the black. By 1820, the seal catch had fallen 60 percent from its 1800 level. With sea otters it was a wholesale slaughter, because their pelts brought the most money; the sea otter catch for 1820 was barely 10 percent of what it had been at its peak. Even now, almost 200 years later, the population and range of the sea otter have not recovered to their pre-1800 levels. Alaska became more of a liability than an asset to its owners, and the tsars looked for a way to cut their losses. Fort Ross was sold to the American entrepreneur John Sutter in 1841; the rest of Russian America was bought by Secretary of State William Seward in 1867, for the fire sale price of $7,200,000 (two cents an acre!).
1796 to 1825
Paul, Catherine II's son and successor, was the ugliest of the Romanovs, and he inherited all the bad qualities of his father, Peter III. Five years of eccentric rule convinced a group of nobles that Paul was dangerous; they strangled him and crowned his son Alexander in his place.
Alexander I (1801-25) had a few quirks of his own, especially a fondness for mystical things, but fortunately he did not let them get in the way of running the country. He wanted to improve the lot of the peasants, but the foreign affairs of the day kept him from ever getting around to it. Those foreign affairs were mostly French; in the days of his grandmother, Catherine the Great, revolutionaries established popular governments in America and France. Catherine shrugged off these experimenters with democracy as "so many Pugachevs," but her successors could not take them so lightly. The monarchs of Europe trembled when the French executed King Louis XVI, and they grew even more concerned when the French republic degenerated into the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte's ambitions for a French-dominated Europe threatened to put every monarch out of a job, and they formed alliances to stop him. Russia was included in these alliances, and in the reign of Paul an army, led by an excellent general named Alexander Suvorov, marched into Italy to drive the French out. Unfortunately Paul and the Austrians could not agree on what to do with French-occupied Switzerland, and Suvorov was called home before his work was completed. By the time Alexander I decided to take part in the anti-Napoleonic coalition, Suvorov was dead, and the generals Alexander had were not quite as good. Alexander found this out the hard way when he tried to help Austria (1805) and Prussia (1806); Napoleon beat him badly both times.
Despite these victories, Napoleon did not really want to fight the Russians. In 1807 he met Alexander on a raft at Tilsit, in the middle of the river dividing Russia from Napoleon's empire. There they discussed plans for the future of Europe.(6) Napoleon offered Finland to Alexander; they talked about dividing the Ottoman Empire between them, and how to drive the British out of India. All of these ideas, except the one concerning Finland, were fantasies as long as the British navy ruled the seas undefeated.
The Franco-Russian alliance did not last long, because Alexander insisted on continuing to trade with Britain, Napoleon's archenemy. Napoleon took offense at anyone who thought he could remain independent of his economic system, so he made plans for the invasion of Russia. On June 22, 1812, he began his march toward Moscow with 600,000 men, the largest army Europe had ever seen.
The Russians used the same tactics of attrition that worked so well against Charles XII a hundred years earlier: burn anything useful to the French that cannot be removed, avoid a straight-on battle with Le Grand Armee', pick off stragglers that get separated from the main body of French troops, etc. It wasn't until he reached Borodino, 70 miles from Moscow, that Napoleon got the kind of battle he wanted; after that he occupied Moscow easily. But once he was there, he did not have anything useful to do next, for Alexander I had never even left St. Petersburg. Alexander refused to surrender or negotiate while Napoleon was on French soil, so the Little Corporal found himself sitting in the Kremlin, feeling very silly. When the Russians set the outskirts of Moscow on fire, burning three fourths of the city, Napoleon got the message; he gave the command to withdraw, 33 days after arriving in the heart of Russia.
Napoleon had plans to come back the following spring for an attack on St. Petersburg, but it was not to be. As soon as he left Moscow (October 1812), the first snows of winter fell. The weather grew bitterly cold; campfires were inadequate, shoes soon wore out, and thousands died in the snow. Disease and guerrilla attacks by Cossacks took a terrible toll; discipline broke down, and the army became a shambling mob of marauders. At the end of the year it recrossed the border in various small groups. Less than one man out of thirty in Napoleon's original force ever saw home again.
Somehow Napoleon managed to raise a new army to replace his losses, but nothing went right for him now. The Russians were part of the coalition that drove him back to Paris in 1813-14. Russia was too far away to take part in the final battle at Waterloo, but Alexander had done enough; everywhere he was hailed as "The Liberator of Europe." At the Congress of Vienna, which drew the map of post-Napoleonic Europe, Alexander was a major participant, and he got to keep two of the territories had acquired during the wars, Finland and Bessarabia.(7) He also received most of the Polish land Prussia and Austria had taken in 1795, which he named the "Kingdom of Poland" and gave to his brother Constantine.
1825 to 1855
The Napoleonic wars gave many Russians a chance to take a close look at Europe, where the industrial revolution was beginning to improve the quality of life for ordinary people. When thesesoldiers returned from Paris they compared what they had seen there with the oppressive life of home and asked themselves, "Is it for this we liberated Europe?" A few hundred officers formed two secret societies, called the Northern and the Southern Societies; modern historians call both the Decembrists. The Southern Society was more radical than the Northern, but both had the same goals: land and freedoms for the serfs, and a constitution.
Because Alexander I was childless, it was expected that Constantine would become the next tsar. But Constantine did not want the job--he was happy enough with Poland--so the crown went by default to the youngest brother, Nicholas I (1825-55). Unfortunately Constantine never announced in public that he was refusing the crown while Alexander was alive, so many (including the Decembrists) thought Nicholas was a usurper. Alexander's death caught the Decembrists without a plan for achieving their goals, but they acted anyway, feeling that it must be now or never. On December 14, 1825, they staged a coup d'etat in St. Petersburg, but most of the tsar's troops stayed loyal, and the revolt was promptly crushed. Five Decembrist leaders were hanged, and the rest were sent to Siberia.
The Decembrist revolt was doomed to failure from the start: it was attempted without planning, did not have determined and experienced leadership, and made no attempt to gain civilian support. Most of all, it ignored the three elements essential for any revolution to succeed: widespread discontent among the masses, an incompetent government, and support from most of the armed forces. However, it gave the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia its first martyrs, and an important lesson in how not to seize control of a country.
Because his reign got off to such a bad start, Nicholas I devoted his career to upholding the three ideals he cherished the most, "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism." Foreign visitors were carefully screened, and those with "dangerous ideas" were halted at the border. Foreign books were not permitted if they contained any liberal political ideas from the West. Even sheet music was checked to see if the notes were a secret code. Schools and universities were under constant surveillance, and only officially approved textbooks could be used. A new secret police was created, and a new criminal law code made any attempt to limit the authority of the tsar, to alter the existing system of government, or even to fail to denounce anyone guilty of these offenses, crimes punishable by death and the confiscation of all property. Spreading ideas which in any way spread doubt about the authority of the tsar could result in a Siberian exile, four to twelve years of hard labor, flogging and/or branding. A measure of how effective these policies were on Russian intellectual life can be gained by noting that in 1843 all Russian periodicals had a combined circulation of only 12,000 and the colleges contained less than 5,000 students; this in a country of almost 70 million people!
Nicholas did not limit his preoccupation with security to Russian affairs. In 1848 Hungary declared independence from the Austrian Empire. Faced with losing half his kingdom, the new Austrian emperor, eighteen-year-old Franz Joseph, called on Russia for help, and Nicholas gave him the troops he needed to crush the rebellion. For this action and those at home Nicholas I was given the epithet "Europe's Policeman."
Despite this oppression (or maybe because of it?), the nineteenth century became the golden age of Russian culture. Russia's greatest musicians (Tchaikovsky and Glinka, to name a few) and authors (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev and Lermontov) lived during this time. Great achievements were also made in art and science. Often these forms of expression had political motives; one painting, for example, shows two rich men sitting on lawn chairs, discussing a trade--a family of serfs for a family of hunting dogs!
Some Russian authors, influenced by Western ideas like Utopian socialism and Hegel's philosophies, chose to write purely political literature. At this point most of the Russian intelligentsia thought they could reform the country peacefully along Western lines; we call them Zapadniks, or Westernizers. The most important Westernizer was Alexander Herzen (1812-70), a moderate socialist who wanted to free the serfs and make Russia a democracy. Nicholas forced him to flee to London in 1847 on account of his beliefs, where he published a newspaper named Kolokol (The Bell). It was smuggled into Russia, where it was widely read, even appearing mysteriously on the table of the tsar.
Another important Westernizer, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76), wanted the same goals as Herzen, but had a very different way to achieve them. Bakunin was an anarchist, who advocated terrorism as an agent of social change, calling it "the propaganda of the deed." Bakunin was shipped to Siberia, but he escaped, journeyed across the Pacific, North America, and the Atlantic, and finally made his way to London, where he teamed up with Herzen and Karl Marx. His followers called themselves Nihilists (from the Latin word for "nothing"), and they would become trailblazers for Russia's frustrated thinkers, who turned into violent revolutionaries in the next generation.
Finally mention should be made of Russia's conservative philosophers. They called themselves Slavophiles and viewed the world differently from the Westernizers. They felt that Peter the Great had done the wrong thing by embracing Western culture; there were still a lot of good things in the Slavic way of life, such as Orthodox Christianity and collectivism (as opposed to the dog-eat-dog capitalism of the West). Heaping scorn on the "decadent" West, one Slavophile wrote:
"In Europe the principle of personality is supreme; with us it is the communal principle. Europe is pagan, Russia--holy Christian. In the West reigns apparent liberty, a liberty like that of a wild animal in the desert. The true liberty is found among us, in the East."
The Communists of Soviet Russia were never Slavophiles, but what we call Marxism-Leninism owes as much to this philosophy as it does to the teachings of Marx.
As the nineteenth century progressed the Ottoman Empire, which Nicholas I scornfully called "The Sick Man of Europe," grew visibly weaker, and as it did so, the temptation to exploit this weakness grew stronger every year. In 1853 Nicholas succumbed. He sent an ultimatum to the sultan demanding the right to protect his Christian subjects (about 40% of the Ottoman Empire's population); when the sultan said no, he declared war. The Russian Black Sea fleet destroyed the Turkish fleet off Sinope (modern Sinop, Turkey), and the army occupied the nearest Turkish provinces, Moldavia and Wallachia.
The Western response was quick; nobody liked the Turks, but a strong Russia controlling Constantinople was a bigger threat to world peace than a weak Turkey. Britain, France and Piedmont-Sardinia (an Italian kingdom) joined the war on the side of the Turks, and landed an expeditionary force on the Gallipoli peninsula, at the entrance to the Black Sea. They also persuaded the Greeks, who hated the Turks and were thinking of getting involved on the Russian side, to stay out of the conflict. The Russians couldn't count on their central European friends, either; Prussia stayed neutral and Franz Joseph of Austria threatened to join the Allies if Nicholas did not pull his troops out of Moldavia and Wallachia immediately. Nicholas was furious--it was, after all, only a few years since he had saved Franz Joseph's bacon in Hungary--but he could not take on all of these countries at once, so he recalled his forces.
That eliminated the reason for the fighting, because the Russians were back to where they were before the trouble started; if the war had ended here, only fans of historical trivia would remember it today. But the British and French felt they could only teach a proper lesson to the Russians by defeating them in a battle somewhere, and since the Russians would not come to them they must now go to Russia. They decided that Sevastopol, the Russian port in the Crimea where the Black Sea fleet was stationed, would be a suitable target. September 1854 saw the joint Anglo-French force enter the Black Sea, blockade the Russian Black Sea fleet in Odessa, and land 50,000 men at Eupatoria, a spot on the Crimean shore one hundred miles from Sevastopol.(8)
The Crimean War dragged on for more than a year because of incompetent leadership on both sides. The Duke of Wellington, Britain's foremost army hero of the Napoleonic Wars, had died two years before the Crimean War began, and while the man who took his place, FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, First Baron Raglan, had been with Wellington in both Spain and at Waterloo, he had no experience leading armies, and was now half blind. The commander of the cavalry, George Charles Bingham, Third Earl of Lucan, was the most hated man in Ireland, because he ran County Mayo during the Potato Famine, and did not care about the suffering of the Irish; moreover, his idea of fun was flogging his troops. The commander of the Light Cavalry Brigade (see below), James Thomas Brudenell, Seventh Earl of Cardigan, was equally disliked in London because of his fierce temper, and could not enter a theater without being booed by the rest of the audience. Both Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan paid for the privilege of holding their ranks, meaning they were no more experienced than Lord Raglan, and all three men hated each other. How's that for inspiring leadership?
Even so, the British got off to a good start, because the Russians were poorly led, too. Their commander, Alexander Menshikov, was so confident he could crush the intruders that he did not interfere with their landing. Six days later, he tried to stop the advance of the Allies at the Alma River, but in the battle of the Alma, the British charged from an unexpected direction, and the Russians broke and ran. Then it was the Allies' turn to blunder. Disagreement between the British and French commanders on how they should attack Sevastopol meant it would take the rest of September and October to surround the city, giving the Russians plenty of time to fortify and supply it.
The Russians made two major attempts to break the siege of Sevastopol, at Balaklava (October 25) and Inkerman (November 5). Two British units distinguished themselves at Balaklava: the 93rd Highland Regiment, which earned the nickname the "thin red line" because it didn't have the strength to hold off a Russian cavalry charge, but did so anyway; and the Light Cavalry Brigade, which was ordered to recover some cannon the Russians had captured from the Turks, before they could take the guns away. The order was extremely vague; it didn't say which guns to take, or where they were. Consequently the Brigade bravely charged a position which they had no chance of taking; only 195 of the Brigade's 661 men survived, including, unfortunately, Lord Cardigan. Afterwards, Alfred Lord Tennyson made the Brigade famous by writing a poem which emphasized their valor and the foolhardiness of their mission: "The Charge of the Light Brigade." The battle of Inkerman was even bloodier, and is sometimes called "The Soldier's Battle" because heavy fog isolated the armies into small units, forcing individual soldiers to think for themselves, rather than simply obey orders from their superiors.
Although the Allies had won both battles, they did not have enough strength left to continue their offensive. Nor were they prepared to face a Russian winter; a severe storm in mid-November sank thirty British ships in Balaklava harbor and destroyed the supplies they were carrying. Remembering how the armies of Charles XII and Napoleon had suffered, the tsar boasted, "I have two generals who will not fail me: Generals January and February." The next few months seemed to prove him right; the Allies steadily lost men to cholera and the cold weather; all they could do was defend themselves. And keep in mind that the Crimea has one of the mildest climates of any spot in the Russian Empire; the Allies would have lost the war for sure if they had gone after St. Petersburg or Moscow!
The Allies, like the Russians, thought at this stage that the best way to win the war was through attrition, so the siege of Sevastopol continued through the winter of 1854-55. This meant that more lives would be wasted on both sides. Wars of attrition are also as uncreative as the artist who uses a paint-by-numbers kit to copy a masterpiece; generals who wage them are not remembered as brilliant strategists. For the Allies, the only bright moment during that winter came in February, when the Turks won a battle against the Russians at Eupatoria. The tsar himself became a victim of "General February"; he caught pneumonia and died during that month, leaving his son Alexander II (1855-81) to pick up the pieces. Another February casualty was the British government, which fell to a no-confidence vote when folks at home learned that the British army was being destroyed by incompetence, neglect and bad organization.
When warmer weather arrived, it took all of spring and most of summer for the Allies to build up their positions around Sevastopol, before they could go on the offensive again. Attempts were also made to cut off the Russian supply line, by capturing the ports of Taganrog and Rostov-on-Don, but these attacks failed. Still, it was the Russians who had the supply problem now, because the empire had almost no railroads. The French did better; when they captured Malakoff Hill, the most important redoubt defending Sevastopol, the Russians had to evacuate the city, and Sevastopol itself surrendered in September 1855.
A Russian campaign in the Caucasus in the summer and fall of 1855 captured the Turkish city of Kars, but the fall of Sevastopol meant continuing the war was futile. Alexander II wasn't as determined to fight as Nicholas had been; that, and more threats from ungrateful Austria, persuaded him to talk peace. Negotiations went on for three months in Paris, culminating with the signing of a treaty ending the war in March 1856.
To show the Allies had made their point, the treaty dismantled all of Russia's naval bases on the Black Sea, forbade the Russians from building any fortifications on the Aland Islands (to replace the ones taken out early in the war) and declared that nobody had the right to interfere with Turkish affairs on behalf of the sultan's Christian subjects. Russia also agreed to hand over the Danube River delta to the Turks, and to return Kars, their only gain from the war. To keep the Russians from entering the Balkans again, Moldavia and Wallachia were united in 1858 to create a new country, Romania, and the tsar agreed to leave it alone.(9) He even gave the coast of Bessarabia to the new state, so the Romanians would have access to the sea. Finally, the war taught both the British and the Russians that professional soldiers make better military leaders than nobles who got their commands through family connections or money.
1855 to 1881
The reason why Russia lost the Crimean War was technology; in the 40 years since Napoleon, western Europe had progressed tremendously, while Russia had stood still. The muskets used by the Russian troops, for example, were good enough in Napoleon's day, but far less accurate than the rifles now used by the British and French. In addition, Allied troops had a better survival rate, because this was the first war to use modern medicine, thanks to the work of two famous nurses, Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole; the medical lessons learned during the war also led to the founding of the Red Cross, in 1863. And we already mentioned the effect of new transportation and communications (e.g., steamships, railroads and telegraphs), which only the Allies had at this time. Most important of all was the effect of the industrial revolution; the factories of the West gave Britain (and later other countries) wealth and power that was an order of magnitude greater than anybody else's. To avoid becoming a second-rate power, Russia would have to industrialize, but that could only be done if workers were available for the factories Alexander II intended to build. That meant getting the serfs off the farms of their landlords and into the cities, but to do that the feudal system established by the previous tsars would have to be done away with. Announcing that "It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it is abolished from below," Alexander freed the serfs from their landlords in 1861; this is the most important event to happen in nineteenth century Russia.
Like the slaves freed in America just a few years later, Russia's 23 million peasants found that life did not get much better with the arrival of freedom. Instead of receiving their pieces of farmland for free, the peasants were charged a stiff price for what the government gave them, and they had 49 years to pay off this debt. What happened in effect was that the debt of the peasants was transferred from the nobility to the state. For purposes of administration, a group of farms would be organized into a mir (commune); the mir collected land payments, and to insure that everybody worked to meet these payments, no one was allowed to move without permission of the mir. The peasant was free from the abuses of the landlord, but he was still hungry, in debt (more so than before), and bound to the soil.
In the eyes of the intelligentsia, Alexander just would not go far enough in his reforms. The followers of Herzen, who now called themselves Narodniks (Populists), decide to "go to the people," spreading among the peasants the revolutionary ideas of "land and freedom." Intent on rousing the peasants from their political apathy, the Populists worked in the fields alongside them, or became their doctors and teachers, telling their creed to anyone who listened. The movement failed miserably; the peasants, who still viewed the tsar as their protector from evil and greedy men, could not understand what the Populists were talking about, and usually turned them in to the authorities.
Alexander found native political philosophies more interesting than foreign-inspired ones. Since the Crimean War had discredited the Slavophiles, conservative thinkers now entertained an idea called Pan-Slavism, which stated that all of the world's Slavic peoples should live together in one country. Pan-Slavism never caught on among the Slavs living just across the Austrian border (the Galician Poles and Ukrainians)--they knew which ethnic group would dominate a super-Slav state!--but to Czechs, Serbs, and other Slavs living under Austrian or Ottoman despotism, Pan-Slavism offered an ideal to fight for. It was from this that the idea for a southern Slav state, called Yugoslavia, would come into being.
Pan-Slavism also provided Russia with an excuse to intervene in Turkish affairs again. Remembering the Crimean War, Alexander II restrained himself for most of his reign, merely asking the British for permission to build a new Black Sea fleet. The British refused, so in 1871 the tsar proposed having the issue discussed at an international conference in London. Since nobody could stop the tsar from building ships if he really wanted to, the conference accepted Alexander's proposal. Four years later, Turkey's Serbian and Bulgarian subjects revolted, and they were suppressed by bloody massacres. Alexander thought he saw his opportunity when horrified Europeans cried out for the rescue of the Christians from the Terrible Turk.
In the Russo-Turkish War (1877-8), the Turks threw everything they had against the Russians, but after nine months a Russian army reached the gates of Constantinople. The sultan sued for peace and was forced to sign a treaty that gave most of Turkey-in-Europe to an independent Bulgarian state. But the treaty never went into effect because there were British ships nearby. The David & Goliath struggle had turned Western opinion in favor of the Turkish underdog. Britain threatened a second Crimean War if a new treaty was not written. This put Alexander in an embarrassing situation because, despite all the fuss he made about his right to keep warships in the Black Sea, he never actually got around to building any. Germany offered a neutral meeting place in Berlin, and there the Turks got to keep most of their empire, losing just bits and pieces to Britain (Cyprus), France (Tunisia), Austria (Bosnia & Herzegovina), Romania (the Danube delta), Greece (Thessaly), and Russia (part of Armenia). The Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria became fully independent, but it was not the kind of freedom they originally expected.
While all this was going on, Alexander abandoned his desire for reform and turned to the repressive measures used by his father. The Nihilists responded with acts of terrorism, shooting or blowing up the tsar's men one by one. Between 1866 and 1881, five attempts on the life of the tsar were made. On the sixth try a group called Narodnya Volya (The People's Will) succeeded, throwing a bomb into Alexander's carriage just hours after he had approved a proposal for a constitutional convention.
1881 to 1894
Whereas the first two tsars named Alexander were pseudo-liberal, Alexander III was a staunch reactionary from the beginning, no surprise when one remembers how he inherited the throne from his father. He practiced the repressive measures of Nicholas I and rigid adhered to the maxim of "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism." A confirmed Slavophile, Alexander tried to save Russia from chaos by locking out the subversive influences of western Europe. Publications were censored, and schools and universities were regulated to prevent students from learning "dangerous ideas."
In addition to what it could already do, Alexander made it legal for the Okhrana (secret police) to do the following:
1. Imprison dissidents for up to three months without trial.
Alexander's most influential advisor was Konstantin Pobyedonostzev, the personal tutor of Alexander III and his son Nicholas II, and the procurator of the Holy Synod from 1880 to 1895. Pobyedonostzev taught his royal pupils to fear freedom of speech & press and to hate democracy, constitutions, and the parliamentary system. With his approval, terrorists were hunted down, and a new policy called Russification was formed. Russification sought to eliminate revolts from the numerous minorities in the empire's heterogeneous population by forcing all of them to learn Russian and convert to Orthodox Christianity. One nation, one language, one church, and one government: this was the goal Alexander tried to achieve. When it came to languages, for instance, Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian, Belarusian and Finnish were banned in schools and public places; in Moslem areas, the Arabic alphabet was suppressed and replaced with the Cyrillic one. All this backfired; instead of converting rebellious ethnic groups like the Poles into good Russians, previously loyal groups like the Baltic Germans now became enemies of the state.
Those hardest hit by Russification were the Jews. The original Jews of Russia, the Khazars, were long gone, most of them having been converted to Christianity or driven out of the country. In 1502 a rabbi converted two Novgorod priests to Judaism, causing a nationwide panic, and ever since that time anti-Semitism was considered a natural part of Russian life. Yet from the thirteenth to the mid-eighteenth century there were hardly enough Jews in Russia to bother persecuting them. That changed when Catherine the Great grabbed eastern Poland, gaining more than a million Jewish subjects for the empire in the process. Persecution gradually increased afterwards, reaching its peak under the last two tsars, when the Jews were bullied or massacred in terrible pogroms, and thousands emigrated to more tolerant places like the United States. For this reason, an astonishing percentage of communists and other revolutionaries in the early twentieth century, like Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev and Julius Sverdlov, came from Jewish backgrounds.
1. Russia failed to industrialize fast enough to end the wretched state of poverty most of the people lived in.
The last members of the Russian Imperial Family, shown in 1913, exactly three hundred years after the first Tsar of the dynasty was crowned. From left to right: Grand Duchess Maria, Tsarina Alexandra, Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, Tsar Nicholas II, and Grand Duchess Anastasia. Tsarevich Alexis sits in the front.
Though Nicholas failed in economic matters, it was not because he didn't try to solve them. Early in his reign he had a superb Minister of Finance, Count Sergius Witte. Witte felt that industrialization was the country's first priority, but if factories were going to function at full capacity, they would need an efficient transportation system to bring in raw materials and take out the finished products. At the turn of the century the answer to this problem was railroads, so Witte borrowed money from France and used it to build an unprecedented amount of railroad tracks (more than 10,000 miles). Half of that mileage went into the famous Trans-Siberian Railroad, which reduced travel time across Siberia from several months to a single week. Witte also indirectly controlled the ministries of agriculture, education, and foreign affairs, making him a powerful statesman indeed. Unfortunately, he did not keep his posts long enough to finish his projects; Nicholas kicked him upstairs to a powerless cabinet post in 1903 because Witte thought that peaceful cooperation with the modern nations, particularly Japan, would be better for Russia than wars of conquest.
The economic progress achieved by Witte would have been impressive had it taken place in a smaller country. Iron and steel production, for example, had reached three million tons a year by 1910. This was ten times the amount produced in 1850, but it was still just half of Britain's 1910 production, less than one fourth of Germany's, and a mere ninth of what the United States (a country with two thirds the population of Russia) was producing at the same time. Russia's urban population also grew respectably, from 6% to 15%, but per capita income remained depressingly small when the GNP was divided between 170 million people. Part of the problem was that the country was too large to be changed quickly; almost every tsar had been successful at enlarging the portion of the world under Russian rule, without any concern for the problems of communication and transportation this would give future generations. A head of state who was determined to succeed, no matter what the cost, like Peter the Great or Joseph Stalin, could have modernized this kind of country, but Nicholas II was not that kind of ruler.
Karl Marx never thought of Russia as a likely place where his ideas would first be put into practice; he always expected the communist revolution to begin in the most advanced countries of the West, where capitalism had flourished for a long time. This may have been a proper assessment of the situation during his lifetime (1818-83), but it wasn't after the turn of the century. By now the proletariat (workers) of the advanced countries, through labor unions and progressive governments, was receiving better pay, improved working conditions, and other material benefits of capitalism, causing the desire for revolution to diminish. In Russia, on the other hand, factory workers were the lowest paid in Europe (about $90 a year), and everyday life was still nearly as nasty, brutish and short as it had been during the Middle Ages. Here were workers who had nothing to lose but their chains!
The first Russian Marxist group was founded by a repentant nobleman, George Plekhanov (1857-1918). A former Populist, Plekhanov was disillusioned with both the failure of the Populists (he had participated in the "going to the people" movement of the 1870s) and the futility of mindless terrorism. He emigrated to Switzerland, discovered Marxism, and in 1883 he teamed up with three other ex-Populists to found a party called Liberation of Labor. In the following years other Marxist groups were formed, made up mostly of Polish, German and Jewish members. Because of the lack of freedom, all of them either held meetings abroad or resorted to conspiratorial activity.
In 1898 nine of these Marxist cells each sent one delegate to Minsk, where they united to form the Russian Social-Democratic Worker's Party (RSDWP). That event marks the birth of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), though it would not be called by that name until 1918. In 1902 a second party congress was held, and it split over the critical issue of how to conduct the upcoming revolution. Most of the older members of the party, including Plekhanov, felt that Russia had not been a capitalist country long enough for a Marxist-style revolution to take place any time soon. They proposed a two-stage revolution: first, overthrow the tsar and establish a Western-style democracy; second, wait an indefinite amount of time for the country to finish industrializing; and finally, when most of the government's members are Marxists, stage a second revolution, to place a "dictatorship of the proletariat" in power. One party member, Vladimir I. Ulyanov, better known to us as Nikolai Lenin, felt differently. He argued that the Russian people, accustomed to all-or-nothing politics, would not accept or even understand a party that acted that way. Instead, he proposed a violent short cut, saying that communism must be established as soon as possible, with no regard for what Marx said about social conditions. Later on Lenin would propose two other major changes to make Marxism compatible with Russian reality: he would require that the proletariat be led by a totally committed, conspiratorial elite, and he would look for support among the peasants as well as among the workers.(10)
The two factions of the RSDWP were not the only Russian political parties around. The largest was the Social Revolutionaries (SRs), which absorbed into its membership most of the former Populists and Nihilists; consequently it championed the rights of the peasants, and advocated terrorism as a means to achieve their ends. Also significant were the Labor Party, a socialist group, and the Liberal Party, which split in two during the 1905 Revolution to form the Octobrists and the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats). On the far right was an anti-Semitic group called the Black Hundreds, which assassinated members of the other groups when it was not busy with pogroms.
Overall, the 1905 revolution was a failure, but Lenin learned some important lessons from it. The most important was his dealings with non-Marxist revolutionaries, most of whom quit when Lenin felt the revolution was just beginning. After that he would never look for support from anyone who was less committed to the cause than he was. To the Bolsheviks, 1905 was a dress rehearsal; the next time a revolution came they would know exactly what to do.
Because the tsar did not keep his promises, 1906 and 1907 were years of unrest; revolutionaries and common criminals went on a spree of violence, killing 4,383 people (more than half of them state officials) and wounding 3,453. The new prime minister, a conservative named Pyotr A. Stolypin, struck back with military tribunals that arrested, convicted, and executed 1,144 people; soon the hangman's noose was called "Stolypin's necktie." But Stolypin was no blind reactionary; he felt that the best way to insure future peace and prosperity was to help the country's largest economic group: the peasants. To do this he launched an agrarian revolution of his own. All debts that the peasants still owed the state were canceled, and new land was offered to them at moderate prices. He also made it legal for peasants to leave the village commune (mir) and work for private profit, or even to run for elective office in local governments. For the first time the peasants were given a fair chance to prosper. But while Stolypin was befriending the farmers, everybody else disliked him and his reforms. The conservatives, still Slavophiles at heart, saw the mir as the ideal village society, and the revolutionaries hated him not only for his security measures, but also because no revolutionary likes a reformer who claims he can do peacefully what a revolutionary plans to accomplish with violence. In 1911, while attending an opera with the tsar in Kiev, Stolypin was assassinated by a Social Revolutionary who was also, in the strange Russian tradition, a police agent.
Meanwhile, the royal family came under the influence of one of the strangest figures in Russian history, Grigori Y. Rasputin. An unkempt Siberian "holy man" who smelled like a goat, Rasputin first gained the attention of the Empress Alexandra because her only son, Alexis, had hemophilia, and his bleeding spells would stop whenever Rasputin was around. This gave him a reputation as a miracle worker, and he gained a powerful influence over her, and through her the tsar and the government. With his hypnotic eyes he seduced the women of St. Petersburg, calling his bedroom "the holy of holies" and declaring that "great sins made possible great repentances".(12) The competent members of the government, including Stolypin, warned the tsar that this "mad monk" was a dangerous charlatan, but to no avail.
The spark that started the war came from the Balkans, a region so politically unstable that people were calling it "the powder keg of Europe." In the three dozen years following the Russo-Turkish war there had been four more Balkan conflicts, in 1885 (Bulgaria vs. Serbia), 1897 (Greece vs. Turkey), 1912 (Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria vs. Turkey), and in 1913 (Serbia, Greece, Romania and Turkey vs. Bulgaria). None of the new borders created by these conflicts satisfied everybody, and every nationality in the region came to hate its neighbors. On June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew and heir to the aged Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. Austria sent Serbia a list of demands involving the investigation of the murder, to which Serbia agreed except for one: permitting the Austrian police to conduct their investigations in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. No sovereign state could allow that and keep its independence, so Serbia rejected it and Austria declared war.
The Russian Empire had always been a friend of Serbia, but the last two times there had been an Austro-Serbian quarrel (1908 & 1913), Russia could not help; this time the Russians felt they could not let the Serbs down again, so the call was made to mobilize. That brought in other countries, bound by the treaties signed over the past generation; Germany mobilized to support Austria, France and Britain joined Russia, and World War I was on.
This propaganda poster has three women representing the chief nations of the Allies. From left to right: France, Russia, Britain.
Expecting an easy victory, the huge Russian army went into the war with high spirits. With six million men available for active duty, and another nine million in the reserves, Russia had by far the largest army on either side. But transportation was still substandard, and equipment for the troops was out of date, and often unavailable. One third of the soldiers did not even have guns, and they were told to stay in the rear until they could grab the rifles of fallen comrades. Indeed, the Russian army was lucky to have firearms at all. The Minister of War, a corpulent general by the name of Vladimir Sukhomlinov, could not understand why anyone would discard the glorious cavalry saber for firearms. In 1913 he had discharged five instructors from the War College for teaching the virtues of firepower; "All these things," he declared, "are merely vicious innovations."
These shortcomings were not obvious in the first three weeks of the war, as Russia took all of Galicia from Austria (whose army was in equally bad shape), and part of East Prussia from Germany. But the Russian units moved at a snail's pace and used uncoded radio signals, allowing the Germans to know exactly what they were doing. On August 26 one of the armies in East Prussia blundered into a trap at Tannenberg and was destroyed. Because there had been Russians in the armies that beat the Germans at the first battle of Tannenberg, five hundred years earlier, the Germans could now claim they had been avenged. By the middle of September the Germans had stopped the other invading Russian army at the Masurian Lakes, and driven it out as well.
In the summer of 1915 the Germans followed up this victory with a combined Austro-German offensive that cleared the Russians out of Poland completely. The Russians were now too far away to save Serbia, which was crushed by Austria and Bulgaria in October. In response to all this bad news, the tsar went to the front and assumed personal responsibility for the conduct of the war, but things did not get any better. In fact they got worse, because the empress and Rasputin were now running the government in Petrograd (the capital's name since 1914; St. Petersburg sounded too German). During the last eighteen months of Romanov rule the empire had four prime ministers, five ministers of the interior, three foreign ministers and three ministers of war, all hired & fired on the personal whims of the empress. She bombarded Nicholas daily with letters and telegrams and even interfered with the conduct of military operations. And rumors about Rasputin's role at the court filtered down to the front and undermined the soldiers' morale. As for the Germans, they halted their advance eastward because they considered fighting the British, French and Belgians to be their first priority; for the rest of the war they would keep the Russians from winning in the east and send every man they could spare to the Western Front, an insulting assessment of Russia's fighting ability.
The only time things looked better for Russia was in June of 1916, when the tsar's only good general, Alexei A. Brusilov, punched a hole in the Austrian front and was rewarded with a general collapse of that sector, allowing him to retake eastern Galicia. Austria's Czech and Slovene units had always performed a bit reluctantly when fighting their Slavic brothers; now they simply threw away their weapons and ran. The Russians took more than a quarter million of them prisoner. In the Caucasus, a similar offensive conquered the northeastern part of Turkey. But the Brusilov offensive was the last gasp of imperial Russia; it ended in September when German reinforcements arrived on the scene. In December a conspiracy of five nobles, including a cousin of the tsar, murdered Rasputin(13), but it was too late to save the empire. The events that followed, starting with the downfall of the Romanovs and finishing with the establishment of communism, would make 1917 the most momentous year in Russian history.(14)
The most gorgeous and the most amazing pre-color-film color pictures have to be those taken by a Russian, Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky. Using the three filter method, he took thousands of pictures of his homeland from 1909 to 1915. That was when Russia was under the rule of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, so to us these pictures come from a lost world. The costumes of the people and the lack of twentieth-century technology will tell you this is a setting more than a hundred years old, but the colors are so fresh the pictures look like they were taken yesterday. You might even think modern actors posed in World War I-era outfits for these pictures!
To give just one example, here is a shot Prokudin-Gorsky took of Leo Tolstoy, the famous author, in 1908, two years before his death. Who'd have thought a photo that old would look so good?
Much of Prokudin-Gorsky's collection was lost over the years, but you can still see a good selection by clicking on the link or picture below, to go to a webpage about them. Gaze upon this eye-candy and enjoy!
This is the End of Chapter 4.
A History of Russia
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