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Bankruptcy of Tsarism

Down with the Eagle! By I. Vladimirov

By the start of the twentieth century it became manifestly obvious that Russian absolutism was no longer capable of providing an effective and competent political leadership of the country in a modern age. Under the Russian system of government the Emperor was expected to rule as well as reign. As chairman of the Russian government, he had to coordinate and manage it effectively and bore ultimate responsibility for everything.

The Russian administration was a large and quite sophisticated organization carrying out various and complicated tasks. By the early twentieth century no human being could have acted as chief executive of the Russian government throughout his adult life. The strain of the job was crushing. It is not at all surprising that Nicholas II showed increasing signs of  physical and emotional exhaustion. However, brought up to believe fully in the divine origin of autocratic power, Nicholas was probably even psychologically unable to contemplate the possibility of sharing his ‘God-given’ duty of safeguarding his country’s destiny with anybody else. The Emperor loved his country and served it loyally to the best of his abilities. Yet he was a hostage to the system of government he inherited. His refusal to allow any dilution of his autocratic prerogatives, his rejection of the calls for a Western-style government and a ministry responsible to a majority in the Duma, precipitated a constitutional crisis which cost him his crown and his empire.

Ironically, it was the government-sponsored modernization that brought into stark relief the serious limitations of the autocratic form of government. The Tsarist Empire’s ability to accelerate socio-economic progress was not matched  by the desire to modernize the antiquated political system. As a result of rapid industrialization, Russia’s educated society had increased enormously, its composition being augmented by the rapid growth of new professional and business groups. And yet the country remained in essence as before an autocratic monarchy with no place for either a constitution or parliament. The government’s policy of suppressing every current of opposition thought and its refusal to engage in any meaningful political interaction with educated society led to a deepening socio-political crisis. There was an urgent need for an institutional framework that would have allowed the educated and increasingly articulate intelligentsia, landowners, and professionals to express legally their grievances and aspirations. Democratic institutions would have gradually associated these classes with the undertakings of the government, given them a sense of participation, and thus would have provided a school of civic activities.

In the absence of such a system, a large mass of educated, progressive people was pushed into the ranks of the revolutionary movement. By refusing to grant to its subjects political emancipation, by denying the main sections of the population a role in government at an all-Russian level, the autocracy absolved them from civic and political responsibility and delayed the ‘coming of age’ of Russian society. The Imperial Duma, conceded under pressure in 1905, came too late and failed to alter radically the political structure of tsarism. By its very nature, the autocracy proved to be incompatible with modern forms of political life of the state, for its basic instincts compelled it to suppress and stifle any moves towards a democratic system of government.      

The most dangerous aspect of the government’s position was its naive belief in the loyalty of the masses of the peasants and the conviction that popular discontent was deliberately provoked by the irresponsible agitation of the intelligentsia. The truth of the matter, however, was that the working classes felt increasingly alienated from the regime and were becoming consumed by anti-government attitudes. The mass of rural and urban working people felt oppressed by the state, which imposed heavy economic and fiscal burdens on it, yet was unable to resolve its age-old problems and to respond to its elemental hopes and aspirations. The shooting of the peaceful demonstrators on 9 January 1905 killed Russia’s age-old popular trust in the tsar as the people’s protector. The  ‘Bloody Sunday’ thus struck the final nail in the coffin of the patrimonial state.

Yet the Russian Empire became neither a nation nor a bourgeois society.  The alienation of the Russian population from the tsarist administration, the weakening of a sense of national identity and belonging, which unites the government with society, was at the root of the crisis which crippled Imperial Russia. The incompetent and unpopular regime grew increasingly isolated, its base of support eroding fast from under its feet, until it became completely ‘detached’ from its people. The political bankruptcy of tsarism was starkly and disastrously revealed with the onset of the Great War. The war provided the last mighty push to bring the whole rotten structure tumbling down.

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The End of an Empire


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
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The End of an Empire
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