The collapse of Tsarism

Submitters name: T.M.

Age Grouping: A-level (17-18 yrs)

Date Written: 09/2006

Tsarism collapsed primarily as a consequence of Russia’s involvement in WWI”
To what extent do you agree?

In a 1905 essay, Lenin dismantled the well-established Russian doctrine of “Oneness of the Tsar and the People, and of the People and the Tsar” . He may have then re-configured it under equally partisan Marxist class terms, but he had addressed a menacing development in Russian society: the alienation of the Tsar from his people. This was caused by the Tsar’s refusal to adapt to a rapidly changing Russian Empire, thus creating serious social and political grievances. World War One exacerbated these grievances to the point at which they overpowered all loyalty to the Tsar and destroyed the monarchy. There is a question as to whether the war destroyed Tsarism or merely accelerated its destruction. This debate hinges on the situation immediately before war was declared. Some historians, such as Steve Smith , argue that the war was the primary reason for the Tsar’s downfall. They reason, with an optimist’s perspective, that by 1914 Russia was beginning a slow process of Westernisation, bringing it greater stability and protecting the monarchy. On the other hand more pessimistic historians, such as Steve Wright , believe that movements ignored by the Tsar had already ensured his fall from power, that the war was merely a catalyst or even, some argue, delayed Tsarism’s inevitable collapse.

On the optimist’s side, there were signs that Russia was slowly becoming more stable before the war ruined all the progress made. The economy was one of the fastest growing in Europe, with an annual growth rate of 6%; Russia would have looked forward to a robust industrial economy in less than a decade. Consequently, employment and living standards would have improved. This would have placated political opposition, reduced the number of strikes and strengthened the security of the monarchy. Thus, Tsarism had a good chance of survival if the industrial boom continued. The war, however, checked any possibility of this as the economy heaved and inflation rose. Living standards deteriorated as food and fuel, used up by the army, came into short supply. Add to this the grief incurred, especially among the conscripted peasant population, by 4 million military deaths in the first year of war, and no wonder opposition to the Tsar climaxed. Optimists would therefore argue that the war was the primary reason for the downfall of Tsarism, as it reversed the process which could have saved it.

However, the stability of Russia in 1914 must not be overestimated, and the war did not create the issues which were to overcome the monarchy. The economy was growing, but was not on par with the other great European nations such as Britain, France and Germany. Living conditions were still poor. The rapid industrial growth caused problems as it enlarged the working class and drew labourers from the countryside, putting strain on antiquated urban infrastructure and overstretching farmers. This countered any improvement in the standard of living brought about by a stronger economy. The political situation was also uneasy: the number of people who took strike action in 1914 was the highest it had been since 1905. The backdrop was flammable. Russia may have been stabilising, but it was not yet stable enough to withstand war. The war therefore served to aggravate problems which were already present, and its importance is diminished. What is more, whether war had happened or not, Tsarism was being torn apart by its own struggle.

The problems which the Tsar faced had been mostly brought upon himself before there was even a suggestion of war. His incompetence was characterised by a haughty despotism which damaged his prestige and antagonised both his opponents and supporters. Throughout his reign, Tsar Nicholas II had increasingly lost touch with his people. On his orders, Cossack guards brutally repressed the 1905 revolution, memorialised as ‘Bloody Sunday’, and the 1912 Lena goldfields protests. Suddenly, people discovered that their leader was not the benevolent idol they had previously adored, but a ruthless official determined to keep order. His most grave mistake was when he took over full control of the armed forces in August 1915. When the army continued to be defeated, Russians lost all sense of a protective, shrewd, paternal Tsar and it gave them an excuse to criticise him. By the time rumours of Rasputin’s sexual shenanigans in the royal court started spreading, along with rumours of the unpopular Alexandra’s interference in royal affairs, it simply confirmed people’s distrust in the Tsar. Loss of prestige was important because prestige was something relied heavily upon by such obsolescent, despotic regimes to keep largely illiterate populations under control. Its loss played straight into the hands of the political opposition such as the Bolsheviks, an alarming trend which was already strong before war was declared.

The Tsar’s despotism was most clearly seen in his dealing with calls to reform, and here is where he planted the seeds of unrest. In 1905 he was forced, reluctantly, to introduce a limited constitution, a parliament and legalise trade unions. This tempted liberals, who unsuccessfully demanded more. However, over the following ten years he tried to reverse these concessions. The Fundamental Laws immediately rebuffed the October Manifesto and Order No. 1 gave the Tsar power of veto over the Duma, itself stymied by Tsarist conservatives. This conservative reaction drew the resentment of the left and offered them ammunition to argue with. Sooner or later the issues would have been raised again regardless of whether war broke out or not.

In many respects, Tsarism was doomed anyway because it could not adapt. Before long, and especially with an enlarging proletariat, calls for a more representative parliament or more liberal constitution would have threatened the monarchy. The best way for Nicholas II to deal with such demands would have been to prevent future unrest by granting them, but this would have weakened Tsarism. In order to exist, Tsarism had to prevent reform. But early 20th Century Russia was gripped in a whirlwind of change, and expected the government to adjust itself accordingly. Resolute Tsarism thrived in conservative, repressive conditions, the opposite of what was developing in Russia, which is why World War One was inconsequential as far as the result is concerned. It may have rushed the Tsar’s collapse, but did not create any new problems.

‘God bless the Tsar!’ sang crowds outside the Winter Palace on the announcement of war in August 1914. Such patriotism had been standard practice under so many years of Tsarist autocracy, the natural reaction to a national event. But this hopeful display of unity was, like the Tsar himself, an anachronism from the past. Beneath the surface lay a rift between the Tsar and his people, one which the Emancipation Act of 1861 had cracked open, and one which was being stretched apart by numerous social and political grievances. The rift did not seem beyond repair in 1914, but it could not have been bridged by anything other than the weakening of Tsarism, something which Nicholas II refused to allow. His intransigence was both a personal quality and an inherent feature of the Tsar monarchy, relying on autocracy for its survival. Russia was therefore heading in only one direction in 1914, because the nature of Tsarism would have prevented any sort of recovery even if total war had not occurred. World War One shattered Tsarism, but could only do so because Tsarism itself was so brittle.


Age Grouping: A-level (17-18 yrs)