(Photo credit – Wikipedia – Rasputin)
Following the abortive Revolution of 1905, catalyzed by the defeat in the war with Japan (1904-1905), the Russian Empire clearly needed to undertake serious reform in virtually every aspect of its society. Mere economic reform and modernization of industry and finances would not suffice. There was no imperial will for democracy, but an elected Duma was created to placate the literate middle-class and gentry who wanted some voice in the Empire’s government and developmental direction.
The dominant figure in the Duma was Pyotr (Peter) Stolypin, a staunch monarchist with reformist ideas regarding the plight of the peasants, and the growth of modern industry, education, and government. Peasants still made up the large majority of the Empire’s population, which in 1914 was estimated at 165 million, no census having taken place since 1897, when it had stood at 124 million. But new territories and a high birthrate had certainly substantially boosted that figure.
The leading political parties were the Social Revolutionaries, the Constitutional Democrats, the Social Democratic Party – Mensheviks, and the Social Democratic Party – Bolsheviks. There were many fringe parties, including some anarchist groups.
The Social Revolutionaries were idealists, believing in the nobility of the peasantry and the simple peasant way of life in communities that cared for their members. They hoped to win the peasants to accept individual private land ownership rather than remaining in traditions and methods of production based on rural communes. Their ideal was a tough sell, especially as the majority of peasants remained illiterate and slow to adopt modern methods of farming and production. The “Socials” believed that before a true revolutionary makeover of Russian society could happen, the peasants had to gain a sense of class and an understanding of modern economics. The deeply entrenched influence of the very conservative Russian clergy militated against the efforts of the SRs.
The Constitutional Democrats were nick-named the “Kadets”. As their name implies, they sought to get Russia to accept an actual written, modern constitution with a liberal, democratic system and defined limitations on the monarchy and the aristocracy. They were largely a middle-class, urban party, and in the first three Dumas after 1905 were relatively numerous.
As we have noted previously in this series, the Social Democrats were a divided party, with two Marxist factions who had strong differences of approach to creating a future Communist society in Russia. The Mensheviks believed that Russia was not ready for an immediate revolution and transition to a Communist system, but needed to become a bourgeois (middle-class, industrial) society first to create the prescribed conditions of class struggle in which a proper revolution could succeed. The Bolsheviks were the opposite – unwilling to wait for such a long interlude of, perhaps, several generations. They believed the urban working masses could be won over and used to overthrow the existing system, and then Russia could be forcibly leap-frogged into a Communist state.
Stolypin wanted to preserve the Tsarist state and a strong authoritarian regime, using the Duma to forward his agenda, and, as needed, using Imperial decrees to deal with serious opposition. He believed in fostering strong and rapid modern industrialization, banking and economic institutions, and professionalism in the bureaucracy, the military, education, and the beginnings of social services. To that end he strove to end nepotism and bring competition for positions in all these sectors.
Unfortunately for the monarchists, Stolypin was assassinated in 1911, leaving no strong monarchist leader to keep things in check in the Duma and provide a measure of sanity to the autocrats holding almost all political and social power. Reforms slowed after 1911, and the 1912 Duma elections demonstrated an alarming increase in radical support for the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Social Revolutionaries, despite the heavily slanted franchise giving right-wing candidates (nobles, gentry) more favourable voting conditions. The Leftists elected 152 members, the Rightists 153, and the Moderates (mainly the Kadets) 130.
Meanwhile, a sinister figure had emerged and increasingly inserted himself into the Royal Household – Grigori Rasputin. From 1906 on, Rasputin had wheedled his way into royal confidence as a faith-healer by allegedly stopping the Crown Prince’s hemophilia from killing him on several occasions. In 1912, the “mad monk” and “demon-charlatan” as his enemies dubbed him, had made himself indispensable to the Tsarina Alexandra as the only one who could keep her son alive. Rumours of sexual relations between the Empress and even the Imperial Princesses circulated rather freely. Eventually, he was exposed as an insatiable sex addict, but the Tsarina remained very attached to him, even after the Tsar reluctantly banished him from court.
To summarize the situation in 1914: The Tsar failed to embrace reforms which he was repeatedly told must be made to preserve the regime, especially following 1905’s near-miss revolution. His most trusted advisor and cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas, Stolypin, and many lesser advisors increasingly begged the Tsar to heed the voice of the people, grant some liberalization of society, and give a share of real power to the elected Ministers. The Tsar, weak-willed and not terribly intelligent, stood fast on his “Divine Right”, much swayed by the Tsarina, who in turn was under the spell of Rasputin. The legislation guided by Stolypin to disarm the increasingly popular revolutionary factions did not have time to bear fruit, given the assassination of Stolypin by a disgruntled rightist fanatic who thought he was undermining the Tsar’s tyranny rather than strengthening it by modernizing the autocracy.
Thus, the Russian ship of state continued on its erratic, stubborn course, stumbling towards a hurricane the likes of which the world had never seen. Ironically, any observant person following events in those years could see the clouds gathering and the Great Powers feverishly arming themselves for the inevitable showdown of Empires that would engulf them all in a world-scale struggle for supremacy.
The mass of the Russian people, still bound in poverty and with almost no civil rights, did not have the means to understand a great deal about the alarming international situation which blundered from one crisis to another between 1904 and 1914. They did understand that they were poor and living in often dreadful deprivation. They also knew that the rich proprietors and aristocracy would never willingly share their great abundance with them. Anger and desperation and resentment always ran just below the surface. They understood the Duma was but a shadow, and real change would not come from that quarter.
In mid-summer 1914, the Great Tempest slammed into the ship, seemingly very suddenly. This typhoon of typhoons was unlooked for in a year which, internationally, seemed to at last promise a respite from the litany of major European crises which had beset the continent almost continually since 1907.
What would this mean for autocratic Imperial Russia under a weak Tsar and an uncertain administration? Could it weather the storm?
Not if the Bolsheviks had anything to say about it. For them, the tocsin of war was the rallying bell of opportunity!
TO BE CONTINUED
One thought on “The Uses of History, 22 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 4 – 1905-1914”
Thanks for the continuing history lesson, Vince.
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