In the context of the years 1815 to 1917 to what extent was the collapse of Tsardom caused by the spontaneous upsurge of the political masses? To fully understand the collapse of Tsardom, the condition of Russia in 1917 must be analysed, along with 1815 to 1917. The Russian revolution and the subsequent collapse of Tsardom are perceived to be caused by the spontaneous upsurge of the political masses by some Historians however, it is also seen to be the result of a century of general discontent building up against the notion of Russian Autocracy.
This divisive debate has bisected the opinions of historians. Many historians accept that the 1917 Russian revolution was a significant cause of the collapse of Tsardom and the Romanov dynasty, although was the Revolution caused by short term malcontent against the Tsar Nicholas II or was the political system of Tsarist autocracy weak and bound to fail? Smith’s view in ‘Workers’ Control: February-October 1917′ in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of the Russian Revolution and the view of Pipes in his book ‘Russia under the Old Regime’ show the conflicting ideas presented by historians.
Smith argues to a certain degree that the collapse of Tsardom was caused by the spontaneous upsurge of the political masses arguing that “when the February Revolution came, it was not as the result of military defeat, or even war weariness, but as the result of the collapse of public support in the government”. The resentment of the lower classes moved from the Tsar’s policies and more towards the Tsar nearing the end of the war, greatly affecting the public support of the Tsar. The extent of discontent was clear in the “Okhrana’s files[which] bulged with reports on disaffection”. 2] The government lost public support due to the pressures of society brought about by the move towards greater economic modernisation, particularly since the 1860s. For example, the emancipation of the serfs through edicts from 1861 to 1866, which was a move inspired by economic modernisation as the Serfs represented an economically backwards Russia to western observers. This freed peasant householders from serfdom and granted them the right to rent a small amount of land. The emancipation discontented the peasants, due to their lack of education – they didn’t see it as a step towards freedom but as a greater hardship added to their lives.
Multiple factors caused peasants to leave rural areas and work in cities temporally or for longer terms such as the costly rent of land, the obshchina which were annual payments to the government, which reimbursed the gentry for their loss of serfs. The rent was set a higher rate than the market value of the land in a scheme that reflected the vested interests of the gentry and ignored the peasant’s ability to pay. From 1893 to 1903, Minister of Finance of Russia, Sergei Witte judged that the thing Russia needed the most was to acquire capital for the means of investing in its industry.
He negotiated huge loans and investments from foreign countries and imposed high taxes and high-interest rates in Russia. Witte also imposed protective tariffs to safeguard domestic industry and put Russian currency on the gold standard to encourage foreign international investment in Russia and create financial stability. This caused slight opposition from customers in Russia was the higher-value rouble caused items already made scare by tariff restrictions to have even higher prices. Witte also created opposition from officials that believed he made Russia too dependent and foreign loans and investments.
Witte also paid no attention to Russia’s agricultural needs, which affected a huge percentage of Russians. However, in balance to these criticisms, Witte’s freedom of action was restricted by the resistance to change from the court and the government. The demands of the military also often harboured his plans of railway construction and the construction of new industrial plants. The number of passports which were used by the peasants to leave their native village to work elsewhere grew exponentially from 1. 2 million in 1861-1870 to 6. 2 million in 1891-1900.
This was due to city pay being greater than the on-farm earning, the latter of which not being enough to sustain a peasant household. This increase in demographics lower class in cities was a contrast to the isolation experienced by the rural peasants who were more passive towards their treatment due to lack of communication. For example, the percentage of peasants living in rural areas decreased from 86% pre-1861 to 80% by the late 19th century. In urban centres, there were greater degrees of communication which allowed the lower class have a greater majority in their discontent than in the countryside, where they were sparsely located.
The growth of the lower class in urban centres had a positive correlation with the growth of opposition to the Tsar in Russian urban society. Such reforms not only led to peasants and urban working class opposition but also some sections of the nobility. For example, (nobility rebellions) These pressures were significant even in 1914, which although caused discontent in the capital were not entirely revolution causing. This changed under the pressures of the First World War.
Passive in 1914 and supplying soldiers, manufactured goods, grain, hay and horses at inadequate prices, the peasantry’s seemly previous undying support for the Tsar reached new lows in 1917, as seen in the majority peasant soldiers garrisoned in Petrograd who became reluctant to carry out orders to suppress disorder in other sectors of society. By 1915, the strain of war had caused high levels of inflation, which result in great economic difficulties for the Russian Empire resulting in a fall in wages, public health and urban amenities stressed by an influx of rural migrants searching for factory work nd refugees fleeing the German occupation, culminating in the 24th February 1917 Strike, which resulted in Petrograd being at a virtual standstill.
Although passive at the commencement of the war, supplying soldiers, manufactured goods, grain, hay and horses at inadequate prices, the peasantry’s seemly previous undying support for the Tsar reached new lows in 1917 due to the Tsar’s intransigent approach toward these economic matters, as seen in the majority peasant soldiers garrisoned in Petrograd who became reluctant to carry out orders to suppress disorder in other sectors of society due to poor food supplies and strict discipline.
If Nicholas wasn’t so complacent about the labour movement which greatly affected the public support of much of the population, only sensing the graveness of the situation by February 24th, perhaps the Revolution although probable would not have been inevitable. In contrast to this, Pipes argues Tsarist Russia was not ousted by the masses – “the record leaves no doubt that the myth of the Tsar being forced from the throne by rebellious workers and peasants is just that”. Instead, he argues that “the Tsar yielded not to a rebellious populace but to generals and politicians”.
Tsardom did not fall due to malcontent within the general population, but due to the Tsar yielding his power to “generals and politicians, and he did so from a sense of patriotic duty”. Tsar Nicholas was resented bitterly by members of the upper and middle classes who had not done well out of the First World War. The council of the United Gentry, seen as a traditional bastion of Tsardom, even was reconsidering it’s loyalty to the Tsar by 1916, showing how dire the Tsar’s popularity was within this class of which generals and politicians were a part.
The Tsar lost the support of the generals and politicians due to a variety of reasons. For example, Nicholas had been tied to the economic and administrative inefficiency during the war. Many generals and politicians such as Guchkov, Kerensky and Milyukov believed that the removal of the Tsar would facilitate a decisive increase in administrative and economic efficiency. Although many general’s careers and bank accounts had experienced an improvement during the war, they had become convinced that Russia would develop more effectively without Nicholas’ input.