Author Topic: Did the repression of Alexander II make the collapse of the Empire unavoidable?  (Read 9016 times)

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Offline hockeywriter84

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I've recently begun studying Nicholas II for my personal interest again after a bit of a layoff, and in connection with that, I've been looking at the events that led up to his reign and the conditions they created. Some of my study suggests to me that Alexander II may have really put the wheels in motion to create the collapse of the Empire. While he does have something of a reputation as a reformer, particularly due to his abolition of serfdom, he's also remembered for the repression of the latter part of his reign. In my study, I've even come across articles suggesting that the liberation of the serfs may not have really been much of a liberation because the "freedoms" they gained came with a high price to them.

I know the rollback of some reforms that took place under Alexander III and the general ineptitude of Nicholas II contributed greatly to the fall, but I can't help but wonder if it would have mattered much if they were different. Any thoughts?

Offline edubs31

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A good question and one that's been asked before. I'm of the opinion that revolution was an historical inevitability that could only have been avoided had Nicholas acquiesced to a major decentralization of power and a reduction of his own absolute authority. The First World War hastened the downfall of the semi-autocracy (which is what it was, in effect, post-1906). But such a regime ruling over a vast and diverse country such as Russia was destined for extinction within a decade or two of 1917 regardless if a devastating global war had take place or not.

What is more unfortunate is the eventual loss of the White Army to the Reds and Kerensky's downfall that allowed the Boldheviks to secure power. The post-revolution period between March-November, 1917 was Russia's opportunity at responsible western-style democracy. The war combined with radical elements within and, to be honest, an immature population known for impetuous behavior made this inpossible.

Back to Alexander II. Yes his liberation of the serfs didn't exactly make them free from total bondage and in many cases they were no better than indentured servants. This was probably a contributing factor to the dissatisfaction of the peasant population. But I think it has more to do with basic human nature at play. Give people an inch and they'll take a yard, and rightly so in many cases. One generation might have been satisfied with Alexander's reforms, but a generation or two later, under Nicholas, wanted more.

The obvious comparison that comes to mind is the abolition of slavery in the United States - also having taken place under a much revered leader (Lincoln). Perhaps the initially freed generation of former-slaves (the younger ones at least) realized that emancipation didn't equal equality they turned their attention from the issue of slavery to enfranchisement, and equal pay, and civil rights and, later, affirmative action...Reform rarely happens quickly enough for most people and it's successive generation wants more - and is often willing to fight for more - than it's predecessors.
« Last Edit: September 10, 2015, 09:23:42 PM by edubs31 »
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Offline hockeywriter84

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Back to Alexander II. Yes his liberation of the serfs didn't exactly make them free from total bondage and in many cases they were no better than indentured servants. This was probably a contributing factor to the dissatisfaction of the peasant population. But I think it has more to do with basic human nature at play. Give people an inch and they'll take a yard, and rightly so in many cases. One generation might have been satisfied with Alexander's reforms, but a generation or two later, under Nicholas, wanted more.

That adds another dimension that I didn't previously think about, but I do believe you make a good point. I think I'm more convinced of my original answer after reading this paragraph. I feel safe in saying that there was something of a yo-yo action going on with the last three tsars. Aleaxnder II made some concessions, but tempered them his later oppression. Alexander III took much of it away. Nicholas II made some movements, but too little, too slowly. Add the "immature population" factor you mentioned, and it's even more volatile. I wouldn't like being yanked around like that, and adding the nature of the people to it makes the situation even more dicey.

Now I'm wondering a couple of new things. 1) How long the empire would have lasted without any changes under Alexander II? As the country modernized, is there a possibility that it have ended up in an authoritarian situation similar to the USSR, only with a monarchy instead of a communist system? If there was any chance of survival, it seems that would be just about the only route. 2) How far would decentralization under Nicholas II have to go for him to remain in power?

Offline Maria Sisi

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I'm probably wrong but it feels like they didn't have any plans on how to deal with after effects of liberating the serfs. They knew what they wanted to happen yet seem to do very little to make it happen. Almost like they were hoping it would happen naturally on its own despite centuries of landowners and serfs indoctrinated with the opposite of what the Tsar wanted. If there was a plan then it was really poorly carried out.

They were only thinking short term and how glorious it would be to the Tsar to liberate them but didn't think long term and as a result everything ended up very messy and the transition to a post serf Russia was not as the Tsar had envisioned. It made everything for the future more difficult. I believe when all was said and done not much changed with how things functioned simply because people didn't know how to live or deal with it. All it seem to do was create a new mindset that wasn't exactly friendly to the government and as a result the liberal Tsar had to become more oppressive.  

People say of the reign of Nicholas II that Russia needed a Peter or Catherine for the monarchy to survive and make it. Well the serf liberator needed to be a Peter or Catherine as well and Alexander II was not one. Liberating the serfs was such a huge thing that completely changed the country and it needed someone who had a clear vision of before and after for it to happen successfully. Alexander II needed to be far more forceful like Peter was with the boyars. In a way in order to liberalize Russia he needed to do it in a more autocratic way and force them to it. He wasn't strong enough and what should have been a step in bringing Russia to democracy only brought it in the complete opposite direction.
« Last Edit: September 11, 2015, 12:39:25 PM by Maria Sisi »

Offline hockeywriter84

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People say of the reign of Nicholas II that Russia needed a Peter or Catherine for the monarchy to survive and make it. Well the serf liberator needed to be a Peter or Catherine as well and Alexander II was not one. Liberating the serfs was such a huge thing that completely changed the country and it needed someone who had a clear vision of before and after for it to happen successfully. Alexander II needed to be far more forceful like Peter was with the boyars. In a way in order to liberalize Russia he needed to do it in a more autocratic way and force them to it. He wasn't strong enough and what should have been a step in bringing Russia to democracy only brought it in the complete opposite direction.

I agree with that. The last few rulers of Imperial Russia seemed to have that problem. They had delusions of grandeur based on the exploits of the ancestors, but couldn't live up to them.

Sad to say, but with the backwardness of the Russian population of the late 19th and early 20th century, I think they were quite a bit away from being able to handle any form of democratic government very well. In fact, in saying that, I may have answered one of my own questions from my last post. While Nicholas would have had to have gone a long way with concessions to satisfy the people, their mentality likely would have collapsed the Empire anyway.

I find it interesting that after so many years of autocratic rule, that Russia fell into the repression of the Soviet Union, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it ended up with a strong man at the helm in the form of Vladimir Putin. It seems as though the tsars deeply ingrained authoritarian government into the fibers of Russian society.

Offline Maria Sisi

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That's true they seem to trade in one authoritarian for another. There seems to be something in their character that allows it to happen. They tried in the 90s to be more western style democratic and the country really fell apart. It wasn't until the 2000s when the government took more control that things started getting back on track.

I think Alexander II's father, Nicholas I, and his son, Alexander III, seemed more confident and secure in their visions and what they wanted. Maybe not the smartest of people but they didn't hesitate or let others walk all over them. Unfortunately they favored the more conservative autocratic ways then the more free liberal.

In terms of Russia being a constitutional monarchy does anyone think something like an Elizabethan type government could have worked? Or would the Russian people have rejected that as well.?
« Last Edit: September 11, 2015, 02:55:24 PM by Maria Sisi »

Offline edubs31

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Don't discount the role of education and opportunity as well. Russia was a laggard in these areas when compared with 19th century Western Europe and the United States. Freeing the serfs comes with it some obligation to make sure they, and the broader peasantry class in general, had access to the "tools" required for enlightenment and upward social mobility.

I'm not an expert in this particular area but it seems to me that basic schooling was fairly atrocious in rural Russian society. I don't get the sense that it was valued by the poor, and certainly was not considered a portal for escaping ones lot in life - usually as a laborer in the fields. The Russian government would have done well to pour some money and effort into revamping their educational system. Higher education on the other hand was a luxury afforded to too few. Such a wide gap in education and affluence is dangerous in any society and it's not hard to understand why those born into the lower rungs of society grew up angry, bitter, and susceptible to revolutionary propaganda...What is somewhat ironic is that many of those members of the imperial government - including the Tsars themselves - were actually more concerned that too many Russians becoming too highly educated were a threat to the order of society.
Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right...

Offline Maria Sisi

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Don't discount the role of education and opportunity as well. Russia was a laggard in these areas when compared with 19th century Western Europe and the United States. Freeing the serfs comes with it some obligation to make sure they, and the broader peasantry class in general, had access to the "tools" required for enlightenment and upward social mobility.

I'm not an expert in this particular area but it seems to me that basic schooling was fairly atrocious in rural Russian society. I don't get the sense that it was valued by the poor, and certainly was not considered a portal for escaping ones lot in life - usually as a laborer in the fields. The Russian government would have done well to pour some money and effort into revamping their educational system. Higher education on the other hand was a luxury afforded to too few. Such a wide gap in education and affluence is dangerous in any society and it's not hard to understand why those born into the lower rungs of society grew up angry, bitter, and susceptible to revolutionary propaganda...What is somewhat ironic is that many of those members of the imperial government - including the Tsars themselves - were actually more concerned that too many Russians becoming too highly educated were a threat to the order of society.

Exactly!

They freed the serfs and then seem to do nothing after as if everything would magically fall into place. They had no follow up plan after the liberation to help the serfs and as a result ended up not with subjects happy to be free and independent but subjects who were left either in limbo, no changed circumstances at all, or even worse off. They ended up falling for the revolutionary propaganda and by the time they realized the communists were nasty it was too late and Russia suffered seventy plus years of darkness.  

The serfs were completely unprepared to deal with their new freedom and were given no help in adjusting to it. Whatever the Tsarist government tried to do it was too little. They made the bold move to liberate them but weren't bold in their policies after.

I believe Alexander II became very disenchanted by the mid-60s and seem to be having some sort of mid-life crisis. The liberation of the serfs didn't yield the results he was hoping for with either the public or government, his beloved heir died, his other children were growing up, his wife was becoming increasingly more ill and he started an affair. He seem to lose the spirit the early years of his reign had and as a result reverted back to the oppressive policies of before.
« Last Edit: September 11, 2015, 04:14:17 PM by Maria Sisi »

Offline hockeywriter84

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I think Alexander II's father, Nicholas I, and his son, Alexander III, seemed more confident and secure in their visions and what they wanted. Maybe not the smartest of people but they didn't hesitate or let others walk all over them. Unfortunately they favored the more conservative autocratic ways then the more free liberal.

In terms of Russia being a constitutional monarchy does anyone think something like an Elizabethan type government could have worked? Or would the Russian people have rejected that as well.?

I agree that those two were stronger, but ultimately, I think Alexander III did further damage by rolling by the reforms. Had he kept them and been a "stern guide" for lack of a better way to phrase it, he might have made things a little easier on his son. As it was, I think he only set Nicholas II up for failure (in more ways than one). I think some "autocracy" was needed, but not a rollback. I think that was devastating.

A British-style monarchy might have eventually worked, but I have a feeling that would have taken a long time. The lack of education that was noted above would have probably caused major problems for that in 1905 or 1917. My guess is that you'd still get Lenin and the Soviet Union had that been attempted, because the damage to the tsar's reputation was already done.

Offline Превед

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Now I'm wondering a couple of new things. 1) How long the empire would have lasted without any changes under Alexander II? As the country modernized, is there a possibility that it have ended up in an authoritarian situation similar to the USSR, only with a monarchy instead of a communist system? If there was any chance of survival, it seems that would be just about the only route. 2) How far would decentralization under Nicholas II have to go for him to remain in power?

Good question. We must remember that all the imperial and / or multi-ethnic monarchies (Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottoman Empire and China) fell after WW1. The British one remained by downgrading back to the national monarchy it used to be. So it is indeed very difficult to imagine a constitutional monarchy in a multi-ethnic empire on a global scale, because there are none to compare with.
Березы севера мне милы,
Их грустный, опущённый вид,
Как речь безмолвная могилы,
Горячку сердца холодит.

(Афанасий Фет: Ивы и березы, 1843 / 1856)

Offline Maria Sisi

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I think Alexander II's father, Nicholas I, and his son, Alexander III, seemed more confident and secure in their visions and what they wanted. Maybe not the smartest of people but they didn't hesitate or let others walk all over them. Unfortunately they favored the more conservative autocratic ways then the more free liberal.

In terms of Russia being a constitutional monarchy does anyone think something like an Elizabethan type government could have worked? Or would the Russian people have rejected that as well.?

I agree that those two were stronger, but ultimately, I think Alexander III did further damage by rolling by the reforms. Had he kept them and been a "stern guide" for lack of a better way to phrase it, he might have made things a little easier on his son. As it was, I think he only set Nicholas II up for failure (in more ways than one). I think some "autocracy" was needed, but not a rollback. I think that was devastating.

A British-style monarchy might have eventually worked, but I have a feeling that would have taken a long time. The lack of education that was noted above would have probably caused major problems for that in 1905 or 1917. My guess is that you'd still get Lenin and the Soviet Union had that been attempted, because the damage to the tsar's reputation was already done.

Well when I say Elizabethan type government I mean Elizabeth I not II. It is parliamentary but still in a way authoritarian. Considering the fact that Russia seems to keep reverting back to a more authoritarian type government I would like to guess it would have worked.

Offline Превед

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So it is indeed very difficult to imagine a constitutional monarchy in a multi-ethnic empire on a global scale, because there are none to compare with.
Correction: .... a constitutional, democratic, 20th-century monarchy in a multi-ethnic empire on a global scale...

Well when I say Elizabethan type government I mean Elizabeth I not II. It is parliamentary but still in a way authoritarian. Considering the fact that Russia seems to keep reverting back to a more authoritarian type government I would like to guess it would have worked.

I think you'll find that that type of government has its modern equivalents in constitutions with a strict separation of powers and a strong executive: A monarchy, like the German Empire before 1914 or a republic, like the United States (just swap the president for a hereditary monarch.)

« Last Edit: September 11, 2015, 05:53:17 PM by Превед »
Березы севера мне милы,
Их грустный, опущённый вид,
Как речь безмолвная могилы,
Горячку сердца холодит.

(Афанасий Фет: Ивы и березы, 1843 / 1856)

Offline hockeywriter84

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Well when I say Elizabethan type government I mean Elizabeth I not II. It is parliamentary but still in a way authoritarian. Considering the fact that Russia seems to keep reverting back to a more authoritarian type government I would like to guess it would have worked.

I think a lot of people probably don't realize that some of the powers that have been devolved from the Crown to the Parliament in the U.K. have done so very recently. For instance, the ability of the Sovereign to dissolve Parliament wasn't removed until 2011. A hundred years ago, yeah, there definitely was a lot more power invested directly into the monarchy. That really might have been a good model for Russia. That said, there's no way Nicholas II could have pulled it off. Maybe Alexander II or Nicholas I, but they obviously weren't so minded.

Offline edubs31

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A little off topic here, but since we're talking about the freeing of serfs/slaves and the obvious comparisons between Alexander II and the 16th US President, I always enjoyed this quote from Lincoln...

"As a nation, we began by declaring that all men are created equal. We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right...