Trotsky described war as the ‘locomotive of history’. Can it be argued that change in Russia in the period 1855 – 1954 was caused primarily by involvement in wars?
It could be argued that Trotsky’s statement gives us a plausible explanation as to why there was a great amount of change that took place between 1855-1954 in Russia. Each war that Russia became involved in exposed her weaknesses and highlighted what needed to be changed On the other hand, it could also be argued that the wars in this period were not the major reasons as to why Russia witnessed so many changes – other factors, for instance the role of the Tsars and other leaders such as Lenin and Stalin, should be considered when analysing where the need for change stemmed from.
Firstly, the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 was finally passed as the Russian government saw that its state was the only left in Europe with a feudal system; however, it was Russia’s terrible defeat in the Crimean War that left the government significantly aware of their backwardness as well as the inhumane treatment of the peasants. During the Crimean War, fifty million out of the sixty million legal occupants in Russia were serfs: so it was not surprising that the army consisted almost entirely of serfs forced to serve in it, exacerbating the frailty of Russia’s military. This acts as a prime example as to why Russia was left extremely weak by 1856 because of their sheer lack of development socially and economically. Although it can be argued that when Alexander II became the Tsar in 1855, the war showed him that change was needed, the new Tsar seemed to be more sensitive and willing to deal with Russia’s problems than his father Alexander I. He realised even before he came to power that Russia was in need of reforms — in particular freedom for the serfs, as they were essentially Russia’s backbone (for instance they paid most of the taxes and produced grain which was Russia’s most valuable export). Therefore the Crimean War may not have been solely responsible for establishing the idea of “change”, but rather acted as a catalyst.
The impact of the Crimean War on social, political and economic stances was important as it highlighted the issues that were in desperate need of immediate improvement. These direct changes were a result of the reforms that occured during the 1950s and ’60s. For example, concerning the judiciary system in 1864, those on trial were given a legal right to have a defence, and the Tsar announced that the courts ‘are swift, fair, merciful and equal for all our subjects’ [ P. Oxely; ‘Russia, 1855-1991].
Although these reforms seemed appealing on the surface, they somewhat presented the government with a greater threat of a revolution, as those against the autocracy were given more opportunities to have their own say. In addition to this, the military reform to extend conscription to all classes – as well as provide better education to those in the army – also promoted revolutionary ideas, as civillians were able to communicate with each other and broaden their knowledge for such concepts. The economic reform of railway expansion gave even more opportunities to increase communication; and a similar result took place due to the mixture of state help and private enterprise. The Zemstva (small governments that represented peasants, townspeople and the gentry in each village) were also established in 1864 and extended a small level of democracy at a local level. The idea of a revolution was implemented notably during and after the defeat of the Crimean War – thus each of these reforms could have embedded the revolt notions that the war had brought to attention.
Principally, ‘The Crimean humiliation had made emancipation seem vital’ [L. Kochan; ‘The Making of Modern Russia’]. It can perhaps be argued that the effect of the war on the emancipation of the serfs created the most conflict: what seemed like an efficient scheme at first in fact made the lives of many peasants more difficult in the long-term. Although land-owners had granted the peasants half the cultivated land, the 49-year redemption payments that had to be paid to the land-owners were to make serfs’ financial situations worse, and they were still tied to the newly-introduced “Mirs” . 148 peasant uprisings had occured between 1826-34, so in this case a combination of the war and reforms three decades later lucidly increased tensions between peasants and the nobles.
Despite the fact that Alexander II did not want to fight Turkey, the the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 primarily culminated a year later in an initial gain for Russia to increase supremacy as a Great Power and improved its position in the Balkans. Because the Russians forced the Turks to sue for peace, Russia benefited greatly when the Treaty of San Stefano was signed: Russia obtained the right to occupy Bulgaria for two years; and Turkey was forced to surrender to nearby Russian areas such as Ardahan and Batum. However, the change made by the war that seemed favourable to Russia was short-lived. It was clear to Britain and Austria that Russia had gained too much from this treaty and it needed to be revised — thus, the Congress of Berlin was enforced. It was the outcome of the war that had fortified Alexander II’s reasons to go to Berlin for the called meeting, as the Russo-Turkish war had put greater strains on Russia’s economy, alongside the fact that there was a growing appearence of a threat of a revolt inside Russia.
So when the Treaty of Berlin was determined, it was seen as a defeat when compared to the Treaty of San Stefano. In summary, the Russo-Turkish War had improved Alexander’s II’s foreign policy aims by allowing Russia to secure its place as a state among the Great Powers; however, the economic difficulties of Russia were displayed before the war, and it seemed as if the views of many of Alexander II’s people remained dubious that he had gained personal respect in world affairs by the end of it. It seemed as if opinions of Russia from other countries in Europe were changing as began giving her more credit for greater powers than she actually possessed; however the internal opinion of Russia – which was more important to Russia if she was going to develop socially, politically and economically – had yet to permanently improve.
Although it can be argued that the assassination of Alexander II on March 13th, 1881 took place because he could be held resposible for exposing Russia’s weaknesses in the Russo-Turkish War, I believe that it was not chiefly responsible. Alexander’s reforms before the war had unsettled the liberals and the radicals, as they wanted a parliamentary democracy. Futhermore, many peasants were only just obtaining their promised land, 20 years on from the emancipation. Consequently, there were many against Alexander’s traditional Russian policies. Assassination attempts had already taken place in 1864 by a revolutionist, and then in 1879 by a former student. However, the attempt in 1879 was a lot more brutal – the student firing a revolver 5 times, Alexander narrowly escaping; so it could be said that there was a growing hatred for Alexander. Just two years later, he was assassinated, causing a great setback for the reform movement, thus lack of “change”.
The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5, indicates to us that Russia had not developed as a state as much as it first seemed. Russia had imagined Japan to be a state of extreme backwardness; when in fact had greatly undereastimated Japan’s strength. The Japanese were far better prepared and equiped – both on land and at sea – and a great deal more structure among the troops by military commanders than Russia. Even Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway proved to be not extremely effective as it travelled too long a distance to carry the adequate amount of troops and supplies. The defeat proved to be a national humiliation for Russia, which was to cause a rapid and worrying change.
The defeat of the Russo-Japanese War played a major role when understanding why the build-up of tension and unrest led to the 1905 Revolution. It was clear to see that many workers and peasants were still angered that they were not being treated equally and had lack of food due to the Russo-Japanese War. Others were becoming increasingly aware of the fact that the autocratic rule was not the only way to govern as gradually more diverse classes were coming together. The 1905 Revolution is often referred to as ‘the year of change’ [N. Kelly; ‘Russia and the USSR’] because an important factor to consider is that it was the first time that three separate classes had united to oppose the Tsar and government – the industrial workers, the middle-class and the peasantry. What is also significant about the Revolution is that pre-1905 strikes and demonstations had taken place primarily for economic protests — 1905 saw hundreds of thousands of civillians protesting for political rights.
The well-known event that commenced the 1905 Revolution was Bloody Sunday. The march in St. Petersburg resulted in police forces firing on the protestors, killing 200 and injuring 100s more. Although Nicholas II was not present at the bloody scene, the event caused an even greater change to Russia in that year that had led on from the war. Father Georgy Gapon who led the march cried: “There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar’. The Russo-Japanese War seemed to have escalated hatred throughout Russia, and in a short space of time a long-term change had taken place.