Russia enjoyed a relative peaceful period under Tsar Alexander II, with the obvious exception of the Crimean War of 1854-6. His Great Reforms of the 1860's which had seriously overhauled military service and abolished serfdom had still failed to produce any serious kind of power sharing proposal. The autocracy was on a path that could only lead to the end of the Romanov dynasty with the assassination of Alexander II and the rise of Alexander and his son Nicholas II. When Alexander died in 1894, and Nicholas II came to power, it quickly became apparent what course of action the autocracy was to take. In a speech addressed to the representative of the gentry he explained that the hopes for change were 'senseless dreams'.
This showed the mindset of the autocracy, heavily influenced by Nicholas' mentor Konstantin Pobedonostsev, and was to shape the fate of the Royal Family and the failure of Tsarism. In this essay, the reforms of the autocracy and its economic, social and political policies will be scrutinised to show how the autocracy did not liberalise at any substantial level between 1905 and 1914. The time-period which will be examined starts in the middle of a great crisis facing the autocracy. From 1896 onward there is increased worker and peasant unrest in Russia, with employers simply caving in to the demands of workers, and then with the help of Tsarist troops, restoring order and then reversing the promises they made. There are increased numbers of troops being used in the countryside to stop peasant unrest due to poor harvests. "Troops mutinied, workers went on strike, peasants rioted, terrorists blew important government ministers, the middle class attended protest banquets".
All in all things were not looking bright for the autocracy. The unrest had followed an old rule; economic failure equals social unrest. The unrest all boiled down to an important stimulus, that of the economic downturn that had hit Russia after the 1900's. The Witte System, with its initial high growth rates, was faltering and grinding to a halt.
It relied heavily on foreign investment, which dried up mainly due to the view of Russia as a pariah and despotic state with its usual brutal repression methods. The shattering defeat of the Russian navy by the Japanese in the war of 1904 did not help situations at home. The news of defeat caused an unprecedented upsurge in popular discontent, and on the 9th of January 1905 there was a mass demonstration by St Petersburg workers. ".. marching into the centre of the city to try to present a petition to the Tsar... ". , they were met by troops who fired into the crowd killing 150 demonstrators and wounding thousands more. This event was to be known as Bloody Sunday in the black pages of Russian history. Surprisingly there were no immediate reactions by the masses. However, unavoidably there was an uprising of disturbances, with the Railway strike of October hitting the regime the hardest.
Nicholas was desperate to try and quell the disturbances and instead of using liberal ideas, such as granting liberal groups. ".. any form of participation in the work of central government". , he wanted to preserve the power of autocracy by choosing repression. Only at the threat of his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, shooting himself did he concede to reform. On the 17th of October, Witte issued the historic October Manifesto, promising. ".. full civil liberty, to give major legislative powers to the promised Assembly (the State Duma), and to broaden greatly the franchise on which it was based". The Manifesto was far from being a strong worded document promising civil liberty, it was a piece of paper full of vague and shady language not really promising anything, but camouflaging a lot. However, the autocracy was quite shaken by the events described above and was treading a fine line between reform and reaction.
As Edward Acton states; "An uneasy balance between reform and reaction was reflected in the Duma Statute and the Fundamental Laws issued in February and April 1906". The autocracy wanted nothing more than go back to its old repressive measures, especially after Witte decided to let the masses vote for their own representatives hoping that. ".. the vote would simply show up the chronic isolation of the intelligentsia radicals and bring about the triumph of conservative candidates". This, however, was not the case and the ensuing Duma was nearly entirely composed out of centre-left groups with the Kade ts in an overwhelming majority. Witte was replaced by Stolypin who immediately undertook a more repressive approach to any kind of rebellion, and even went as far as to shell rebellious cities such as Kronstadt and parts of Moscow. The 'liberalisation' of the autocracy took a new turn for the worst with Stolypin's policy of 'pacification'.
"Officially hundreds but, in reality, probably thousands, of peasants and workers were executed after summary court-martial". After the First Duma was dissolved only three months after it was put in session followed by an interval of six months before the Second Duma was elected and in session, showing the deliberate stalling and logger heading of the regime. The Second Duma was little different from the First Duma and was again locked in a struggle with the regime, who thought they were just a temporary annoyance which could be gotten rid of as soon as the autocracy had reasserted its authority. Stolypin came up with a string of mild reforms aimed primarily at the communal land owning hoping to divert the peasant's quest for noble land.
The peasants, however, .".. through their deputies in the Duma and the zemstvos, continued to express an unequivocal demand for the abolition of noble landownership". This unrest was quickly put down by extremely reactionary measures. The Second Duma was dissolved on the 2nd of June 1907, the day before the government decided to illegally. ".. alter the franchise to reduce peasant participation and increase the representation given to landowners and urban property-owners". This change had dire consequences on the outcome of the election of the Third Duma. It also showed the autocracy's unwillingness to even consider the outcomes of the elections of the Duma as a, one of numerous, sign that the autocracy could not go on in its policies as it had been doing. The Third Duma was now dominated by a group called the Octobrists which represented above all the landowning nobility.
Stolypin seemed to see this as a welcome change and set about presenting the Duma with a string of mild reforms. These included. ".. more lenient treatment of the Jews, reform of the zemstvos and local government to reduce the division between peasants and the rest of society... genuine effort to discipline local officials and strengthen respect for the law among rulers as well as ruled". This seemed a genuine effort and change of Stolypin's earlier repressive and backward reforms. His apparent new way of thinking caused friction between the Tsar and Stolypin himself, highlighted by the clash over a Duma bill, approved by Stolypin, giving the Duma the chance to make recommendations on naval administration. When Stolypin was assassinated in 1911, Russia was again held in a grip of reversal and despotic rule, instigated by the Tsar's desperate clinging on to ideals deeply rooted in his upbringing.
The period after 1911 was again dominated by oppression and backward views. Even though the Fourth Duma again had a majority of Octobrists, which benefited the government, ministers. ".. took no pains to win support and became increasingly intolerant to the slightest criticism". Labour protest were dealt with in the usual Tsarist repressive way, reaching a climax when in 1912,200 striking mine works were shot by government troops in the British owned Lena goldfields. With the declaration of war against Germany in 1914, the Russian autocracy dived into years of war and a complete reversal to militaristic style dictatorship.
When considering the Tsarist policies in the period between 1904 and 1914, one cannot discard the economic side of the policies it put forward. As always, the decision made by the regime were fuelled by frustration and repression. It was also confused, especially in the War years, since it relied enormously on heavy industry to provide it with arms in the later years of the War. However, industrial reform was not on the agenda, and the business community was resisted by "The mass of anachronistic Tsarist legislation governing business practices, the tangle of red tape inhibiting the formation of new companies... ". Inflation, due to over-printing of money, was seriously effecting the labour force, with wages only rising at an average of 50 percents, whilst the price of goods increased 100 to 500 percent.
The foreign community of investors which Russia had always heavily relied upon to provide it with an economic impetus, saw Tsarism. ".. with its baggage of anti-Semitism and tendency to arbitrary, crude and brutal repression, as an obsolescent obstacle to progress rather than an ally". The events described above, and how the Tsar and the autocracy reacted against it, illustrates to a large extent the autocracy unwillingness to liberalise even moderately. The Tsar, heavily influenced by Pobedonostsev, had ingrained ideas about his 'divine' right to rule, and had no place for any policies or reforms which would have him lose even the slightest bit of power. Even in late 1904 when Russia was in a state of collapse, and his uncle threatened to shoot himself, did the Tsar concede to a view changes. These changes only lasted for, at most 3 years. From 1907 onwards the Tsar wanted a complete reversal back to pre-Manifesto rule.
The onset of the First World War, which Russia plunged into without any real preparations, certainly none as effective as the German and Austrian ones, with its strain put on production, food requisition, administrative efficiency was a. ".. test which Tsarism failed to survive". All in all, the one event that sums up the entire mood and real intentions of the Tsar, and which sheds a spotlight on Tsarist ideals, was the warning of the British Ambassador to the Tsar in 1916 of things to come if the Tsar did not win back the confidence of the people. The Tsar replied. ".. it was not up to him to regain the people's confidence but up to the people to show themselves worthy of his confidence".
Acton, Edward, Russia - The Tsarist and Soviet Legacy, 1986-1995, (Essex 1995) Read, Christopher, From Tsars to Soviets - The Russian people and their revolution, 1917-2, 1996, (London) Waldron, Peter, The End of Imperial Russia, 1855-1917, 1997, (London).