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"People's Autocracy"


The government’s policy of suppressing every current of opposition thought and its refusal to engage in any meaningful political interaction with society were combined with an attempt to resurrect the outdated official doctrine of Orthodoxy-Autocracy-Nationality devised in the conservative era of Nicholas I. It was now ‘repackaged’ as the theory of ‘people’s autocracy’, which presented Russia’s autocratic form of government as a most ideal and advanced political system. 


K. Pobedonostsev

The ideologues of the new official theory, such as Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907), Procurator of the Holy Synod and one of the key advisers to Alexander III, promulgated the notion of a close unity of the tsar and the people. However, this notion was in principle different from the ideas of the liberal-minded Slavophiles who saw the clearest expression of such unity in a popular assembly. By contrast, the official theory upheld the privileged position of the nobility as ‘the live link between the tsar and the people’.

Based on the chauvinistic idea of superiority of all things Slavic in general and Russian in particular, the official doctrine was translated into the enforced policy of Russification, a policy that could hardly cement together a multiethnic empire like Russia, where ethnic Russians, at the end of the nineteenth century, made up only 45 per cent of the whole population. Jews, Polish Catholics, Baltic Protestants, Central-Asian Muslims - all fell victim in a greater or lesser degree to this ill-conceived policy. A whole battery of discriminatory legislation was devised aimed at suppressing various manifestations of  non-Russian national identity and un-Orthodox religious practices. Even the use of native languages - for example Polish in Polish schools - was selectively banned and the learning of Russian made compulsory in some of the non-Russian borderlands. Even the East Slavs, Ukrainians and Belorussians, who were ethnically and culturally most close to Great Russians, were denied their cultural identity and were officially regarded as ‘Russians’, while their language and culture were not recognized as being separate from Russian.

Tsar Nicholas II and his people

The only national region which was allowed to retain its special legislation, a representative assembly and its own monetary system was Finland. However, its autonomy was constantly under threat. In the period between 1898 and 1905 Finland was subjected to particularly harsh Russification which provoked a violent nationalist backlash culminating in the assassination of the Governor-General of Finland, Bobrikov, in 1904. 

The Jewish community was singled out for particularly vindictive treatment and racialist attacks. It was an open secret that Alexander III was a convinced anti-Semite. Under him special legislation was introduced on the Jews which restricted their rights and forbade them to live outside the so called ‘Pale of Settlement’ limited to 25 provinces on the territory of Russia and Poland. The discrimination against the Jews eventually led to the emergence of a ‘Zionist’ movement in search of a separate Jewish homeland.

Despite the authorities’ preoccupation with maintaining a privileged status for the Russians, the nationalities policy had no beneficial effect on the economic well-being of the ethnic Russian population. The standards of life in the Russian heartlands were often lower than on the ethnic periphery. In Ukraine, the Caucasus, Poland, the Baltic and Finland, the government’s policy of systematic Russification not only failed to halt the emergence of nationalist movements, but stimulated ever stronger demands for greater cultural and political autonomy.  

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