The Last Years of the Autocracy

The Last Years of the Autocracy

The Russo-Japanese War was a turning point in Russian history. It led to a popular uprising against the government that forced the regime to respond with domestic economic and political reforms. In the same period, however, counterreform and special-interest groups exerted increasing influence on the regime's policies. In foreign affairs, Russia again became an intrusive participant in Balkan affairs and in the international political intrigues of the major European powers. As a consequence of its foreign policies, Russia was drawn into a world war for which its domestic policies rendered it unprepared. Severely weakened by internal turmoil and lacking leadership, the regime ultimately was unable to overcome the traumatic events that would lead to the fall of tsarism and initiate a new era in Russian and world history.

Revolution and Counterrevolution, 1905-07

The Russo-Japanese War accelerated the rise of political movements among all classes and the major nationalities, including propertied Russians. By early 1904, Russian liberal activists from the zemstva and from the professions had formed an organization called the Union of Liberation. In the same year, they joined with Finns, Poles, Georgians, Armenians, and Russian members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party to form an antiautocratic alliance.

In January 1905, Father Georgiy Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest who headed a police-sponsored workers' association, led a huge, peaceful march in St. Petersburg to present a petition to the tsar. Nervous troops responded to the throng with gunfire, killing several hundred people and initiating the Revolution of 1905. This event, which came to be called Bloody Sunday, combined with the embarrassing failures in the war with Japan to prompt more strikes, agrarian disorders, army mutinies, and terrorist acts organized by opposition groups. Workers formed a council, or soviet, in St. Petersburg. Armed uprisings occurred in Moscow, the Urals, Latvia, and parts of Poland. Activists from the zemstva and the broad professional Union of Unions formed the Constitutional Democratic Party, whose initials lent the party its informal name, the Kadets.

Some upper-class and propertied activists called for compromise with opposition groups to avoid further disorders. In late 1905, Witte pressured Nicholas to issue the so-called October Manifesto, which gave Russia a constitution and proclaimed basic civil liberties for all citizens. In an effort to stop the activity of liberal factions, the constitution included most of their demands, including a ministerial government responsible to the tsar, and a national Duma (see Glossary)--a parliament to be elected on a broad, but not wholly equitable, franchise. Those who accepted this arrangement formed a center-right political party, the Octobrists, and named Witte the first prime minister. Meanwhile, the Kadets held out for a ministerial government and equal, universal suffrage. Because of their political principles and continued armed uprisings, Russia's leftist parties were undecided whether to participate in the Duma elections, which had been called for early 1906. At the same time, rightist factions actively opposed the reforms. Several new monarchist and protofascist groups also arose to subvert the new order. Nevertheless, the regime continued to function through the chaotic year of 1905, eventually restoring order in the cities, the countryside, and the army. In the process, terrorists murdered several thousand officials, and the government executed an equal number of terrorists. Because the government had been able to restore order and to secure a loan from France before the first Duma met, Nicholas was in a strong position that enabled him to replace Witte with the much less independent functionary Petr Stolypin.

The First Duma was elected in March 1906. The Kadets and their allies dominated it, with the mainly nonparty radical leftists slightly weaker than the Octobrists and the nonparty center-rightists combined. The socialists had boycotted the election, but several socialist delegates were elected. Relations between the Duma and the Stolypin government were hostile from the beginning. A deadlock of the Kadets and the government over the adoption of a constitution and peasant reform led to the dissolution of the Duma and the scheduling of new elections. In spite of an upsurge of leftist terror, radical leftist parties participated in the election, and, together with the nonparty left, they gained a plurality of seats, followed by a loose coalition of Kadets with Poles and other nationalities in the political center. The impasse continued, however, when the Second Duma met in 1907.

The Stolypin and Kokovtsov Governments

In 1907 Stolypin instituted a series of major reforms. In June 1907, he dissolved the Second Duma and promulgated a new electoral law, which vastly reduced the electoral weight of lower-class and non-Russian voters and increased the weight of the nobility. This political coup had the desired short-term result of restoring order. New elections in the fall returned a more conservative Third Duma, which Octobrists dominated. Even this Duma quarreled with the government over a variety of issues, however, including the composition of the naval staff, the autonomous status of Finland, the introduction of zemstva in the western provinces, the reform of the peasant court system, and the establishment of workers' insurance organizations under police supervision. In these disputes, the Duma, with its appointed aristocratic-bureaucratic upper house, was sometimes more conservative than the government, and at other times it was more constitutionally minded. The Fourth Duma, elected in 1912, was similar in composition to the third, but a progressive faction of Octobrists split from the right and joined the political center.

Stolypin's boldest measure was his peasant reform program. It allowed, and sometimes forced, the breakup of communes as well as the establishment of full private property. Stolypin hoped that the reform program would create a class of conservative landowning farmers loyal to the tsar. Most peasants did not want to lose the safety of the commune or to permit outsiders to buy village land, however. By 1914 only about 10 percent of all peasant communes had been dissolved. Nevertheless, the economy recovered and grew impressively from 1907 to 1914, both quantitatively and through the formation of rural cooperatives and banks and the generation of domestic capital. By 1914 Russian steel production equaled that of France and Austria-Hungary, and Russia's economic growth rate was one of the highest in the world. Although external debt was very high, it was declining as a percentage of the gross national product (GNP--see Glossary), and the empire's overall trade balance was favorable.

In 1911 a double agent working for the Okhrana assassinated Stolypin, and Finance Minister Vladimir Kokovtsov replaced him. The cautious Kokovtsov was very able and a supporter of the tsar, but he could not compete with the powerful court factions that dominated the government.

Historians have debated whether Russia had the potential to develop a constitutional government between 1905 and 1914. The failure to do so was partly because the tsar was not willing to give up autocratic rule or share power. By manipulating the franchise, the government obtained progressively more conservative, but less representative, Dumas. Moreover, the regime sometimes bypassed the conservative Dumas and ruled by decree.

During this period, the government's policies waivered from reformist to repressive. Historians have speculated about whether Witte's and Stolypin's bold reform plans could have "saved" the Russian Empire. But court politics, together with the continuing isolation of the tsar and the bureaucracy from the rest of society, hampered all reforms. Suspensions of civil liberties and the rule of law continued in many places, and neither workers nor the Orthodox Church had the right to organize themselves as they chose. Discrimination against Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and Old Believers was common. Domestic unrest was on the rise while the empire's foreign policy was becoming more adventurous.

Active Balkan Policy, 1906-13

Russia's earlier Far Eastern policy required holding Balkan issues in abeyance, a strategy Austria-Hungary also followed between 1897 and 1906. Japan's victory in 1905 had forced Russia to make deals with the British and the Japanese. In 1907 Russia's new foreign minister, Aleksandr Izvol'skiy, concluded agreements with both nations. To maintain its sphere of influence in northern Manchuria and northern Persia, Russia agreed to Japanese ascendancy in southern Manchuria and Korea, and to British ascendancy in southern Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. The logic of this policy demanded that Russia and Japan unite to prevent the United States from establishing a base in China by organizing a consortium to develop Chinese railroads. After China's republican revolution of 1911, Russia and Japan recognized each other's spheres of influence in Outer Mongolia. In an extension of this reasoning, Russia traded recognition of German economic interests in the Ottoman Empire and Persia for German recognition of various Russian security interests in the region. Russia also protected its strategic and financial position by entering the informal Triple Entente with Britain and France, without antagonizing Germany.

In spite of these careful measures, after the Russo-Japanese War Russia and Austria-Hungary resumed their Balkan rivalry, focusing on the Kingdom of Serbia and the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Austria-Hungary had occupied since 1878. In 1881 Russia secretly had agreed in principle to Austria's future annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But in 1908, Izvol'skiy foolishly consented to support formal annexation in return for Austria's support for revision of the agreement on the neutrality of the Bosporus and Dardanelles--a change that would give Russia special navigational rights of passage. Britain stymied the Russian gambit by blocking the revision, but Austria proceeded with the annexation. Then, backed by German threats of war, Austria-Hungary exposed Russia's weakness by forcing Russia to disavow support for Serbia.

After Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia became a major part of the increased tension and conflict in the Balkans. In 1912 Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro defeated the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, but the putative allies continued to quarrel among themselves. Then in 1913, the alliance split, and the Serbs, Greeks, and Romanians defeated Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War. Austria-Hungary became the patron of Bulgaria, which now was Serbia's territorial rival in the region, and Germany remained the Ottoman Empire's protector. Russia tied itself more closely to Serbia than it had previously. The complex system of alliances and Great Power support was extremely unstable; among the Balkan parties harboring resentments over past defeats, the Serbs maintained particular animosity toward the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In June 1914, a Serbian terrorist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, which then held the Serbian government responsible. Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, believing that the terms were too humiliating to accept. Although Serbia submitted to the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared the response unsatisfactory and recalled its ambassador. Russia, fearing another humiliation in the Balkans, supported Serbia. Once the Serbian response was rejected, the system of alliances began to operate automatically, with Germany supporting Austria-Hungary and France backing Russia. When Germany invaded France through Belgium, the conflict escalated into a world war.

Russia at War, 1914-16

Russia's large population enabled it to field a greater number of troops than Austria-Hungary and Germany combined, but its underdeveloped industrial base meant that its soldiers were as poorly armed as those of the Austro-Hungarian army. Russian forces were inferior to Germany's in every respect except numbers. In most engagements, the larger Russian armies defeated the Austro-Hungarians but suffered reverses against German forces.

In the initial phase of the war, Russia's offensives into East Prussia drew enough German troops from the western front to allow the French, Belgians, and British to stop the German advance. One of Russia's two invading armies was almost totally destroyed, however, at the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg--the same site at which Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian troops had defeated the German Teutonic Knights in 1410. Meanwhile, the Russians turned back an Austrian offensive and pushed into eastern Galicia, the northeastern region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Russians halted a combined German-Austrian winter counteroffensive into Russian Poland, and in early 1915 they pushed more deeply into Galicia. Then in the spring and summer of that year, a German-Austrian offensive drove the Russians out of Galicia and Poland and destroyed several Russian army corps. In 1916 the Germans planned to drive France out of the war with a large-scale attack in the Verdun area, but a new Russian offensive against Austria-Hungary once again drew German troops from the west. These actions left both major fronts stable and both Russia and Germany despairing of victory--Russia because of exhaustion, Germany because of its opponents' superior resources. Toward the end of 1916, Russia came to the rescue of Romania, which had just entered the war, and extended the eastern front south to the Black Sea.

Wartime agreements among the Allies reflected the Triple Entente's imperialist aims and the Russian Empire's relative weakness outside Eastern Europe. Russia nonetheless expected impressive gains from a victory: territorial acquisitions in eastern Galicia from Austria, in East Prussia from Germany, and in Armenia from the Ottoman Empire, which joined the war on the German side; control of Constantinople and the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits; and territorial and political alteration of Austria-Hungary in the interests of Romania and the Slavic peoples of the region. Britain was to acquire the middle zone of Persia and share much of the Arab Middle East with France; Italy--not Russia's ally Serbia--was to acquire Dalmatia along the Adriatic coast; Japan, another ally of the entente, was to control more territory in China; and France was to regain Alsace-Lorraine, which it had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, and to have increased influence in western Germany.

The Fatal Weakening of Tsarism

The onset of World War I exposed the weakness of Nicholas II's government. A show of national unity had accompanied Russia's entrance into the war, with defense of the Slavic Serbs the main battle cry. In the summer of 1914, the Duma and the zemstva expressed full support for the government's war effort. The initial conscription was well organized and peaceful, and the early phase of Russia's military buildup showed that the empire had learned lessons from the Russo-Japanese War. But military reversals and the government's incompetence soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets. In addition, inept Russian preparations for war and ineffective economic policies hurt the country financially, logistically, and militarily. Inflation became a serious problem. Because of inadequate matériel support for military operations, the War Industries Committee was formed to ensure that necessary supplies reached the front. But army officers quarreled with civilian leaders, seized administrative control of front areas, and refused to cooperate with the committee. The central government distrusted the independent war support activities that were organized by zemstva and cities. The Duma quarreled with the war bureaucracy of the government, and center and center-left deputies eventually formed the Progressive Bloc to create a genuinely constitutional government.

After Russian military reversals in 1915, Nicholas II went to the front to assume nominal leadership of the army, leaving behind his German-born wife, Alexandra, and Rasputin, a member of her entourage, who exercised influence on policy and ministerial appointments. Rasputin was a debauched faith healer who initially impressed Alexandra because he was able to stop the bleeding of the royal couple's hemophiliac son and heir presumptive. Although their true influence has been debated, Alexandra and Rasputin undoubtedly decreased the regime's prestige and credibility.

While the central government was hampered by court intrigue, the strain of the war began to cause popular unrest. In 1916 high food prices and fuel shortages caused strikes in some cities. Workers, who had won the right to representation in sections of the War Industries Committee, used those sections as organs of political opposition. The countryside also was becoming restive. Soldiers were increasingly insubordinate, particularly the newly recruited peasants who faced the prospect of being used as cannon fodder in the inept conduct of the war.

The situation continued to deteriorate. In an attempt to alleviate the morass at the tsar's court, a group of nobles murdered Rasputin in December 1916. But the death of the mysterious "healer" brought little change. Increasing conflict between the tsar and the Duma weakened both parts of the government and increased the impression of incompetence. In early 1917, deteriorating rail transport caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes. Authorities summoned troops to quell the disorders in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been called since 1914, to Russianize the Germanic name). In 1905 troops had fired on demonstrators and saved the monarchy, but in 1917 the troops turned their guns over to the angry crowds. Public support for the tsarist regime simply evaporated in 1917, ending three centuries of Romanov rule.

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