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From Belle Époque to Great Depression

Europe before 1914: An Interactive Map

Russia- Rachel Wilcox



The Romanov Family

The Social and Economic Situation:

            Despite rich natural resources, one-sixth of the earth’s land within its borders, and a population 129 million strong, Russia was facing serious problems.  Discontent with the government had erupted into violence on occasion and given rise to revolutionaries intent on overthrowing the tsarist regime.  80% of the population were peasants, most of whom lived at very low standards of living and were essentially bound to a mir, a sort of commune, which was responsible for collecting the payment the peasants owed over a 49-year-period in return for the land they were “given”.  Despite their new “freedom” (they were emancipated from being serfs in 1861 under Alexander II), the peasants remained at a separate legal jurisdiction from the other 20% of their countrymen.  Land shortages spurred on industrialization as the answer to too many peasants and not enough property, but it brought with it low wages and hard hours with terrible living conditions in the developing towns.  A working class also began to grow­—“proletariat” was the Marxist term—in response to increasing industrialization.  However, Russia’s progress lagged in industry as well as agriculture, and profit was made only more difficult.

The Political Situation: (1890-1914)

The Government

            Despite the Marxist historians describing Russia as a feudal society, such a claim is not entirely accurate.  Alan Farmer offers a suggested definition of a feudal society as having “a weak ruler, a strong nobility, a weak middle class, large numbers of serfs, and no proletariat”.  Russia had a growing proletariat, no serfs (the peasants were the emancipated version), an increasingly influential and growing middle class, a nobility that was neither united nor strong (nor entirely Russian­—many of them were Polish), and most hereditary nobility held no land.  The tsar (Nicholas II as of 1894, following Alexander III) was, last of all, by no definition “a weak ruler”.

By 1890 Russia was one of only 3 European countries without a parliament, and the Tsar (Nicholas II, left) reigned supreme.  He controlled the largest army in Europe, a small force of secret police (the Okharna), had the Orthodox Church’s support, and ruled with ministers who were personally chosen. When in 1905 Nicholas reluctantly agreed to create a parliament (at the insistence of Count Witte, his Prime Minister), the new parliament—the Duma—was then only the lower house of two in the legislative body, while the upper house contained mostly Tsar appointees.  There were 4 Dumas between 1905 and 1912, each growing increasingly more conservative than the last.  The Tsar, moreover, retained control of the armed forces and reserved the right to dissolve the Duma (and rule by decree while it was out of session).  

Despite democracy’s shaky first few steps, Russia remained autocratic.  The tsar was still in control. 

The Revolutionaries


            In the 1870’s, populist students (narodnik) began trying to rally the people (specifically the peasants) to begin demanding personal rights.  The unrallying peasants tended to respond by turning them over to the police.  The largest revolutionary group, the SRs (Social Revolutionaries), having based all hopes for revolutionary success on the reluctant underclass, and finding them unwilling, had certain members who began turning to a much more willing and faster-acting alternative: violence.

            Alexander II (right) was assassinated in 1881.  Tsar Alexander III struck back against the revolutionaries with uncompromising force, as would his son, Nicholas II.  Hopes of a parliament were disbanded and the revolutionaries were driven underground.


In the early 1900’s, discontent began to increase.  Bad harvests and a war with Japan further damaged both the economy and the people’s confidence in the government.  By Autumn of 1904, demands for a parliament re-surfaced.  A peaceful demonstration on January 22, 1905, meant to present a petition to address worker’s grievances to the Tsar, culminated outside the Winter Palace with troops opening fire on the demonstrators.  Hundreds were killed or wounded.  “Bloody Sunday” (shown left) created a major shift in blame from Nicholas’s ministers to the Tsar himself (though Nicholas had neither ordered the attack nor been in the palace when it took place).

            Russia seemed to be collapsing.  A treaty was signed with Japan to bring the best troops home (who until then had been fighting in the war), unpopular ministers were dismissed and Count Witte was brought back as the Prime Minister.  The 1905 October Manifesto granted a parliament (the Duma is shown at right) and various civil liberties (including free speech and free assembly) were granted with it.  This, however, did not end the revolution (which was taking place with most of the leading revolutionary leaders, including Lenin, still in exile), including mutinies, the formation of soviets [councils] to try and coordinate strikes, calls for independence in non-Russian areas, and further assassinations. 

What diplomacy was unable to solve, force was called in to stop.  In December of the same year the St Petersburg soviet (the most important of the soviets) had its leaders arrested and its members dispersed.  An armed uprising in Moscow was crushed with as many as 1,000 people killed in the fighting.  Troops took to the countryside to forcefully restore order during the winter of 1905-06.

            The revolution, for then, was over.  A the parliament had been created.  Nicholas II seemed to have recovered popularity with the people.  Revolutionary numbers were dwindling (Lenin’s “party”, for instance, the Bolsheviks [created from a split in the Social Revolutionaries], had only between 5,000 and 10,000 members, and plenty of   police informers).  Order, for the time, seemed to have been regained, and Russia no longer teetered on the edge of total revolt.

Despite this, problems remained: historian Hans Rogger has said, “Of the major governments of Europe none had so little credit with the people it would shortly have to lead into war as that of Nicholas II”.  The predominantly agricultural country, for whom its sheer size often proved a hindrance (the issue of it being an empire was another  problem entirely), did not have enough land to support all its peasants.  Industry provided a possible solution but Russia remained industrially backwards.  The tsarist regime was in danger of being overthrown and clashes with revolutionaries and ordinary citizens attested to the growing discontent.  Yet, at the end of 1914, Russia did not necessarily seem to stand on the inevitable verge of revolution.

The temporary calm, however, was less sailing out of the storm and more drifting into the eye.  Serious problems, not unlike the revolutionaries themselves, remained—lurking, unresolved, and waiting.