Tsar Nicholas II ascended the throne of Russia in 1894, in which he effectively inherited a string of revolutions and wars which ultimately cost him his abdication. As Trotsky quoted, he “inherited not only a giant empire, but also a revolution.”
Nicholas II ascended on the throne believing that he was ruling by God’s divine right, succeeding the concept that the autocracy and religion were inexplicably linked. “It is impossible for the Christians to have a Church but not to have an Emperor” – Ivan III. This suggests that one autocrat needed to be God’s representative on Earth, and this role was fulfilled by Nicholas II, who believed he was the 14th apostle of God. The Orthodox Church was used as a weapon for conquering the people – especially those who had reservations about the Tsarist rule. Religion was considered by some revolutionaries to be “the opium of people” – Lenin, implying that faith was used as a method of sedating the people in a passive way, to make them obsolete from the Tsar’s motives and actions. The Church would teach what the Tsar ordered it to teach the population of Russia, meaning it could make justifications for what seemed like outlandish behaviour (for example when people were shot), and maintain respect for the Tsar. The Orthodox Church played an important role in that those who were not followers of the faith were not considered to be Russians, meaning they must be opponents of the Tsar.
Tsar Nicholas II continued the belief that autocracy, in that only he ruled Russia, was the only way in which the Russian Empire could be governed. “I shall devote all my strength, for the good of the whole nation, to maintaining the principle of autocracy” – Nicholas II. However, he had inherited an empire which would have seriously rebelled without an agitation for opposition, found in revolutionaries and people like Lenin. This resulted in the question of continuing an autocracy, or making an alteration in the way in which Russia was ruled.
Both the previous Tsars had failed to modernise Russia, and so now Nicholas II was left to finish the impossible task. Nicholas II knew that modernisation was essential; however, he dreaded the expansion of the urban proletariat since they were easy targets to revolutionary opposition eager to spread their ideas. Large workplaces became centres of Tsarist opposition, and Marxist theories of overthrowing the government could easily spread. For example, during the February 1917 revolution, the Putilov engineering works housed much opposition to the Tsar and revolutionary ideologies reached many proletariat. The previous assassination of Alexander II made the Tsarist regime appear vulnerable, resulting in new martyrs for a radical cause appear, ultimately resulting in political opposition throughout Tsar Nicholas II’s reign.
The impact of trying to modernise undoubtedly led to political unrest, in which a reactionary Tsar (Nicholas II) put down the upheavals; but in doing so, instigated more violence and resentment which led to political groups who opposed the Tsar and the way he operated. In addition, Alexander III had repressed the people of Russia, and their discontent was channelled into violence which Nicholas had to contend with. The Tsar repressed his political opponents, and used the secret police force, the ‘Okhrana’ to tackle extremists. “Between 1883 and 1903, Russian troops were used 1500 times to suppress local unrest” – John Etty.
Nicholas II had inherited a government whose structure as a regimental, hierarchical, and rigid autocracy was not suitable to modernise. In order to modernise, Nicholas II would have needed to give people unity and freedom to replace the middle class and industrialise, and to do this, he had to give the people power. However, his role as an autocrat, and his indifference to the world around him, meant he was unprepared to subside some of his power to make this happen. Furthermore, his tutor Pobedonostsev influenced Nicholas, and reinforced the concept of autocracy and ruling by divine right. He proposed that as Tsar you had to be infallible – however, to modernise and give up some power, he would be making concessions, and this was seen as a weakness.
Nicholas II unfortunately inherited a Russia which was undergoing enormous changes in terms of social and economic aspects. The industrialisation of Russia was to be met with serious social problems, for example: unrest, in cities which the authorities either didn’t, or couldn’t deal with. Russia’s defeat in the 1854 Crimean war created the need for economic reforms. Russia was severely behind the other Great Powers, such as Britain and France. Although Alexander II and III had tried to tackle this, the effect of the reforms, such as railway construction and foreign loans, affected Tsar Nicholas II. As a result of this, Nicholas II inherited a Russia which was financially attached to France. They had been (and still were), borrowing large amounts of money from France in order to industrialise and build railways – this loan developed a momentum and gave the industrialisation in Russia a pace.
From 1850 to 1875, the coal production in Russia more than quintupled from 300,000 tonnes to 1,700,000 tonnes. Although this seems like huge progress, Nicholas II had come to power when Russia needed more resources than the other Great Powers, since the Russian Empire was huge but undeveloped, especially in comparison to Britain. This resulted in Russia ostensibly inhabiting the weakest industry in relation to its enemies who they were incapable of matching the power of. From 1850 to 1875, railways in Russia grew from 1,049km to 19,029km. Despite this appearing to be an increase in progress, Russia was again nevertheless lacking in comparison to countries such as Britain, who by 1875 had over 27,000km of railway. This shows that despite being more than 70x the size of Britain, Russia’s communications were still undeveloped for its enormous size, resulting in difficulties for Tsar Nicholas II when trying to industrialise Russia since it becomes hard to maintain control under one autocrat in such a vast place. “A country that had already possessed more land than it could usefully exploit kept on indulging its gargantuan appetite” – Norman Davies. This suggests that Russia wanted to be even bigger and better and expand, except it couldn’t deal with the problems it already had.
Both Alexander II and III had failed to modernise Russia under the autocratic rule – it remained a backward country which Nicholas went on to acquire. For Nicholas II to modernise, it required a degree of political hardship and social dislocation of the proletariat. Due to urbanisation, Moscow tripled in its size. The modernisation of Russia would have to seemingly be imposed from the top down, since there was a lack of a bourgeoisie. Conversely, Tsar Nicholas II was unprepared to subside some of his power to make this happen and for a middle class to evolve, and furthermore the peasants didn’t want to be under Tsarist rule (bitterness from corruption of emancipation of Serfs under Alexander II) and to do as he said. The structure of the government also made it difficult to modernise since those who would lead the urbanisation (the peasants), had no say since there was a lack of parliament. Those at the top of the social structure were incompetent and there as a result of nepotism. Resentment for Tsar Nicholas II stemmed from the winners and losers in this capitalist system of industrialising. Nicholas II inherited this hatred, which threatened Russia’s culture and tradition of autocracy.
Nicholas II bequeathed a Russia whose social structure of society was bottom heavy – in that there were too many people with too little. 90% of Russia’s society was peasants, and 1% was nobility, meaning 1.8 million people in the upper classes of the social hierarchy owned 25% of all land – something the peasants were hungry for. Despite the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the peasants were still restricted under Tsarist rule, which affected the way they farmed and their personal freedoms. Nicholas II inherited a society in which the peasants wanted to be able to think for themselves and have freedoms, not a Tsar telling you what to do. This led to resentment and many peasants wanted to overthrow the Tsar. Nicholas II continued the way in which the previous Tsars disliked the emergence of an educated middle class (as a result of urbanisation). This is because they were exposed to radical ideas which undermined the autocracy.
The Tsar also succeeded a Russia which had to tax the peasants in order to gain further money to modernise. However, this led to further resentment of the Tsar since the peasants were in debt to the autocrat. Nicholas II inherited Russia post emancipation of the serfs. Consequently, this made the peasants ‘land hungry’ because the land they were given was uncultivable and this meant they would starve, and so needed more land. However, the Tsar was unwilling to give them this and instead wanted them to relocate to urban areas in order to lead the industrialisation of Russia.
The pressure on land use also resulted in less land feeding increasing numbers of families, and the ignorance of the Tsar to this problem led to violent unrest and resentment towards the Tsar. Jewish people in particular were targeted and blamed for leading the revolution, resulting in attacks called ‘pogroms’ against them. “Some 90% of revolutionaries are Jews” – Plehve. This shows that the Tsarist regime considered those not responsible for the political opposition towards the Tsar, to be responsible simply because they were scapegoats since they weren’t of Orthodox Christian faith or compliant with Russification.
Tsar Nicholas II also inherited a society in which the peasants’ views were heard by the Zemstvo who voiced local affairs, instead of the Tsar since the autocracy was not prepared to listen to the peasants. This threatened the position of the Tsar and belittled the autocracy because it made people think that they might not need the Tsar and could therefore solve their own problems. Nicholas II fell heir to a society who was so fed up of the tyranny and betrayal of the previous Tsars, that they were not afraid to use radical methods. Thus, terrorist methods against the Tsar emerged. For example, the People’s Will organisation became a heavy influence when 2 million peasants died of starvation, and the Tsar did nothing to help and worsened the situation by exporting surplus grain. This terrorist activity radicalised political opponents and their groups, and it further discredited the autocracy.
Nicholas II obtained a Russia which appeared invincible to strangers – it was viewed as “a great power which seemed undeniable”. Nicholas II had taken over a huge Empire and suddenly had control of over 22,400,000 sq miles of land – the largest country in the world; with it stretching from Europe to Asia. Nicholas II had also inherited the biggest army in the world. By 1853 the Russian army had over 911,000 soldiers, and growing. This was of significance to Nicholas II especially, since he had a great passion for the army and loved the superficialities of military life. Furthermore, the Romanovs, of which included Tsar Nicholas II, were considered one of the richest European families. This means obeisance and respect was expected and when he inherited Russia he would have expected everybody, including the peasants, to follow his autocratic ruling and the way he ran Russia.
Nicholas II bequeathed the concept of Russification throughout the empire, in that unity and cohesion was achieved through the widespread use of Russian language. However, this suppressed the minorities and caused resentment, particularly from the persecution of Jews, and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities were undermined. Alexander III had previously repressed educational opinions, which had left Nicholas II to take them into account – however this was perceived as a weakness because Nicholas II had to subside power to do so, since he had to give the peasants freedom of speech etc. Furthermore, some countries within the Russian Empire, such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Ukraine, wanted independence from Russia. Nicholas II had inherited this dissatisfaction of these countries not wanting to be part of the Russian Empire, and this was a problem because the idea was to maintain the Russian Empire and spread the Orthodox Christian religion.
Nicholas II also had many personal inadequacies, which although weren’t inherited, played a role in the above aspects he inherited. The Tsar was said to live a dream, as if he didn’t enter into reality. He was described as unorganised, unwilling to make decisions, and unengaged in politics; “He was unfit to run a post office” – Unknown cabinet minister. Nicholas II was isolated from the population of Russia due to his fear of the constant threat of terrorism and overthrow of the autocracy. Nicholas II was said to be ideologically incapable of accommodating the new middle class since they didn’t receive any time or attention and were not seen as a significant part of his plans to industrialise. “Incapable of tolerating people who did not fit his true conception of Russia” – A.Ascher. This suggests Tsar Nicholas II did not care or take interest in any person not part of his autocratic plan to modernise. “He sticks to his insignificant, petty point of view” – Konstantin Pobedenostsev. This further suggests that he was “wholly ignorant” – Olga, and did not care for what anybody else thought.
Dominic Lieven described it as his “Imperial crown seemed to crush him to the ground”, implying that the demands of being an autocrat ruined him. Nicholas II’s parents had shielded him from liberal ideas resulting in him developing a narrow attitude regarding honour and tradition, which went on to harm his ability to rule Russia effectively. Nicholas II also lacked experience in politics, “He should have been taught statesmanship and he was not” – Olga. He was described as indecisive, “the Tsar can change his mind from one minute to the next” – Rasputin, and as lacking ‘personal drive and ambition to instil a sense of purpose and ambition” – A.Ascher. Tsar Nicholas II also had confidence issues, “nobody wants to take orders from a dwarf” – Nicholas II, and his wife Alexandra described his role as “My poor nicky’s cross is heavy”, which suggests there was lots of pressure to fit the standard that his father had left behind. Orlando Figes generalised Tsar Nicholas II’s role as “autocracy without an autocrat”, implying that Nicholas was not cut out to be a Tsar, the ruler of Russia, and to continue autocracy.
The ascendancy of Tsar Nicholas II to the Russian throne is part of what I believe to be the structuralism of history – its chosen path and destiny. The downfall of the previous Tsars was always going to happen, and a new Tsar was always going to need to succeed. Tsar Nicholas II was always going to be next in heir to the throne; however he wasn’t cut out to be a Tsar. I think there always was going to be a point when modernisation became essential – no matter who achieved it. Tsar Nicholas II was tolerated because although incompetent, it didn’t change the mission of the Orthodox Church – to spread Orthodox faith in the limitless Russian Empire.
In conclusion, many different inter-related aspects, ranging from political to cultural, played a part in the Russia that Tsar Nicholas II inherited, essentially contributing to his downfall and abdication in 1917. I believe the most salient feature is that of the autocracy, and therefore the political aspect of Russia, which was as the biggest hindrance which Nicholas II inherited. The autocracy was a fundamental obstacle in trying to modernise Russia – the overall aim of the Tsar – and to overcome the economic backwardness of the country.