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Empire in the Early Twentieth Century


In the early twentieth century, although capitalism was making rapid progress in Russia, the agrarian sector continued to dominate the national economy. Although Russia had become a more urbanized society, about four fifths of the population continued to live in rural communities. The overwhelming majority of the population (73.7 percent according to the 1897 census) was illiterate. Socially segregated from the rest of society, the peasants, many of whom were born under serfdom, remained the ‘dark people’ - a medieval element surviving into the dawning of the modern era. 


After 1907, the Stolypin plan authorized the destruction of the commune intended to create a new class of independent, economically viable proprietors in the countryside, who would be attached to the principle of private property. Yet this step, desirable as it was, was far too little and too late. In addition, the reform added new problems to the old by helping to stratify the peasant mass and creating hostility between different groups of peasants. Contrary to the government’s expectations, the projected bulwark against an agrarian revolution in the shape of a class of small independent capitalist farmers was never erected.

In towns, the continuing industrialization accelerated the growth of the class of urban wage workers, many of whom were proletarians of the first generation, who had recently arrived from the countryside. So novel was the class of factory workers to Russia that there was no legal provision which would have defined its place in Russia’s social structure: in their passports the workers were referred to by the traditional labels as peasants or town-dwellers. Though still a small proportion of the population, the urban working class assumed an increasingly significant political role due to its high concentration in the two main nerve centers of the country, Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Russian working class remained the most oppressed, impoverished and discontented in Europe. Much of its dissatisfaction arose from Russia’s lack of proper labor legislation which would regulate relations between capitalists and workers. There was no legal provision for the operation of trade-unions, for national insurance from illness and work accidents, or for a system of old-age pensions. If the government had had the wisdom to give thought to comprehensive labor legislation of this kind,  it is possible that this policy might have diffused an explosive social situation.

In Russia the divide between the working classes of peasantry and proletariat and the rest of the population was particularly deep, for here the remnants of feudal customs and practices coexisted with and were aggravated by the predatory methods of Russia’s capitalism in the early stages of its development. The absence of civil rights, the economic and social inequality perpetuated by the outmoded social legislation, the government’s inability to regulate the relations between different social groups and to curb the excessive exploitation of wage labor, the destitution and poverty exacerbated social divisions, heightened the rebellious mood of the people and forced them to adopt a more radical, revolutionary course of struggle for their legitimate demands.

In the early twentieth century, the unprecedented rise of popular discontent erupted into three revolutions in the space of twelve years from 1905 to 1917. Popular movements became breeding grounds for extreme, ultra-radical elements, which manipulated the public consciousness and social behavior of the masses. There was practically no middle class which might not have been so vulnerable to radical, extremist slogans. Angered at the regime’s age-long neglect of the peasant problem, frustrated by its inability to offer legislative protection against abuses of factory-owners, Russia’s peasants and workers lent a ready ear to the radicals’ call ‘Expropriate the expropriators!’ and to the provocative Bolshevik battle cry ‘Loot the loot!’. In February 1917 the social explosion, ignited by the protesting women in Petrograd bread queues, culminated in the inglorious collapse of the great empire of the tsars which had failed to ensure basic rights and decent standards of living to the mass of its working population.

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The End of an Empire


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