On the 1st of November 1894, Tsar Alexander III of Russia died of nephritis. Upon his death, his son Nicholas assumed the throne, becoming the Tsar of the Russian people being known as Nicholas II. He ascended at the age of 26 and had little political or imperial experience in how to run a nation; he had spent much of his father’s reign performing administrative role while his father had run policy, Alexander III felt Nicholas was unsuited to power and declined to train him. This meant that Nicholas II had little practical knowledge of the country he now ruled. Russia was divided politically with ideological opposition to the government growing due to political repression, struggling economically due to failure to modernise Russia’s economy and increasing debt levels due to Russia’s reliance on borrowing money from other countries. Also, the social structure was on the verge of collapse due to a surging peasant population and discontent with the way that the nobility controlled much of the land despite not contributing significantly to production & agriculture. Finally, Russia’s large land mass made it difficult for communication and travel resulting in delays in enterprise and modernisation.
Alexander III had been a conservative autocrat who during his reign in power (1881-1894) had reversed the reform of the political & social system begun by his father Alexander II. Alexander II had realised that Russia needed to modernise in order to compete against growing nations such as the US, France, Germany and the British Empire. He emancipated the serfs, giving them greater freedoms. While a popular move, Alexander II failed to understand the problem that radical change of the social system would mean that a radical change in the political system was needed.
While Alexander II was willing to concede some of his powers to local councils, he did not want to lose his autocratic will. His reforms were designed so that personal freedom came at the price of safeguarding autocracy, holding on to power. The implications of this were not fully understood, Alexander II began a reform which frequently stopped and started, in fact making political and social tensions worse. The government wanted industrial growth, peace in the nation thus strengthening the country and army however they faced opposition from radical political groups such as the SR and the Marxists and more moderate political groups such as the liberals, this opposition was known as russification. Alexander II began to crack down on the revolutionaries with violent force resulting in further discontent. This culminated with his assassination by the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) movement in 1881 and the ascension of Alexander III to the throne.
Having seen what happened to his father when he tried to reform, Alexander III did not want to concede anymore power and in fact begun taking it away by removing power from the zemstvos and instituting policies of one language and nationality, being Russian , with minorities having this imposed upon them. He strengthened the secret police and introduced new methods of cracking down on the revolutionaries and numbers of arrests increased for those who criticised the government. The sudden mix of reforms and anti-reforms resulted in an unstable political system that Alexander III controlled by tyrannical measures such as cracking down on revolutionaries and silencing opposition to the government, while Alexander III was a tyrant, he was more competent than his son but taught him the value that Tsars had a “divine right” to rule that was becoming outdated. He also had Konstantin Pobedonostsev, his former tutor become tutor to Nicholas; Pobedonostsev instilled the value in Nicholas of divine right to rule. He was also the Procurator of the Russian Orthodox Church; the Church had significant influence in the governance of Russia and was opposed to significant reform. It also opposed the Jews and the Tsar’s before Nicholas had taken precedence in persecuting the Jews.
By the time of Alexander III’s death in 1894, the political and social system were badly damaged as due to Alexander II’s policy of emancipating the serfs, there was a ballooning working class and increases in poverty and hunger in addition to the peasants wanting their own land and becoming politically aware. This coupled with an outdated autocratic system meant that Russia and Nicholas II were ill prepared to deal with the demands of its people meaning that the political system was dangerously on the verge of collapsing due to the changes in the social structure of Russia during the 19th century.
The social structure in Russia at the time of Nicholas II’s ascension in 1894 had undergone several changes in the past few decades. The nobility who were the ruling class made up just over 1% of the population but owned 25% of the land, creating a massive equality gap and meaning that the key to agricultural and industrial development was in the hands of a small amount of people. Some of the nobility held positions in the government and military but were there because of influence, not merit meaning that many key officials were corrupt or incompetent, resulting in a problem of how to deliver efficient government. Also, an increasing number were moving to cities so communication between them and the peasants on their land was difficult.
The middle classes were far smaller and were made up of professionals such as bankers and merchants who were in privileged jobs and cultural life. This left the large peasant population, around 80% of Russia to do the major work such as harvesting food. The peasants were mostly ex serfs and were subject to economic restrictions. This meant that life was hard for them as they struggled to provide for their families; especially during bad harvests many were poor and uneducated. Some peasants such as the Kulaks were better off. Disease was widespread and living conditions for them were poor. The inequality in the social structure led to much resentment among the large peasant population who turned to radical groups such as the Bolsheviks and along with the repression from the previous Tsars, Nicholas II got a social system that was at risk of declining due to the inequality and lack of modern political and economic rights.
The economy was a key issue for the government; both Tsar Alexander II and III believed that a strong modern economy would lead to a stronger government and military. Russia was an overwhelmingly rural country and as such was an agricultural based economy relying on production and exports to survive. By the time Nicholas II became Tsar in 1894, Russia’s wool, coal and cotton industries were behind other developed nations such as Britain, France and Germany.
These economic difficulties were due to industry being held back by taxes on foreign imports, transport problems as Russia was a large country with an outdated transport system, restrictions on stock companies and a loss of cheap labour due to the emancipation of the serfs. All of these problems meant that a working class was needed to produce goods, this did happen due to the emancipation of the serfs but a freer working class wanted rights, rights that the government did not want to give and so led to a never ending cycle of modernisation that was repressed by the Tsar, hampering Russia’s economic development. Finally, Russia was indebted to France after successive loans which affected their foreign policy as they were essentially being held to ransom by the French. So Nicholas II inherited an economy that was struggling to keep up with its rivals and failing to help society.
Russia’s geographical imbalances meant that while it was a large country with strengths such as large amounts of land for building and industry, large amounts of energy resources and a large area to build up an army, it was impractical for many things. The climate in Russia is cold, a lot of cold weather caused delays in transport across the country and communication was difficult over such a large area. While many would think a large country would be an advantage, with an outdated political and economic system, defending and controlling it were very difficult with their major cities at risk in the West and difficulties in defending the coastline. While perhaps it is no fault of the Tsars that Russia is such a large country, it can be said that their economic policies hampered modernisation of the transport and industrial system. They had no idea about how to control this so in effect, Nicholas II inherited a large country that was struggling to travel across its own land.
To conclude, Nicholas II suffered mostly because of the mistakes of the previous Tsars. He ascended as an autocrat, but the autocracy in Russia was becoming outdated and the position was unable to cope with a modernising country, especially with it now being occupied by a weak man. The political system had lost much credibility due to the failure of reforms and the unequal social structure meant that increasing numbers of peasants were disenchanted with the way that they were being treated, leading to social tensions. The economy was restricted and outdated and unable to cope with industrial demand, meaning that it could not effectively modernise. So, Nicholas II inherited an effectively outdated Russia struggling to modernise.
“There is a radical difference between Russia and a colony: Russia is an independent and strong power. She has the right and the strength not to want to be the eternal handmaiden of states which are more developed economically.” – Sergei Witte