To what extent was the Revolution of February/March 1917, in Russia, due to the nature of Tsarism and the policies of Nicholas II (1894-1917)?
The February/March Revolution of 1917 was predominantly caused by the nature of Tsarism and the policies of Nicholas II. The Romanov dynasty had reigned for several centuries as an absolute monarch, with the Tsar being the supreme autocratic ruler. It had created a dramatic division in Russian society, and when Nicholas II came to power, no ruler was so estranged from his people. Problems facing the tsarist regime compounded, and the Tsars “lack of willpower” (Sergei Witte) and inability to fix them, ultimately lead to his downfall. The policies of Nicholas II and his appointed ministers effectively failed to strengthen the regime. Such policies tried to address the agrarian problems and tried to industrialise and modernise the Russian nation. The declaration of war on Japan in 1904, the oppressive containment of the 1905 revolution, the creation of the October Manifesto as well as the decision of Russia’s involvement in WWI were also crucial choices made that ultimately hindered the Russian autocracy. Russia had been “a bottle of fizzy water that had been shaken and shaken and shaken for years and suddenly in February the top came off” (Christopher Read) after many signs of discontent towards the Tsar which had not been acknowledged.
The agrarian problem was a major issue in Russian society that had to be addressed. During the 1890s and 1900s there were a series of famines in the country. They “underscored the importance of the agrarian problem in alienating a once loyal peasantry from the Tsar’s government” (R.B. Rose). Not helping this issue, the overall distribution of land in Russia was very unequal, due to the Emancipation Act during the reign of Alexander II. Peasants who received poor and infertile land from this Act, also had to pay annual instalments or redemption loans for their allotments. To compound this issue even further, population increased, more than doubling between 1863 and 1914 (70 million to 155 million). With famine, land-hunger and a consciousness of exploitation, the Russian peasantry had turned into a potential revolutionary class. At the beginning of the 20th century surprisingly little had been done. This failure to recognise the enormity of the problem by the Tsar, contributed to the 1905 revolution. It was Stolypin, who was appointed after the revolution, that was an played a major role in agrarian reform. Instead of redistributing land, he abandoned the peasant commune, and made peasants have individual tile of their land. He thought that the hardworking would benefit and the lazy would become landless and be forced to leave the countryside and find jobs in factories in the city. Stolypin was probably the Tsar’s most able minister, and his assassination in 1911, was very important to the collapse. However “The agrarian problem had by no means been overcome … adventitious circumstance masked this failure – but only for a time.”
As industrialisation and modernisation were beginning to take place, so was the development and growth of a new social class, the proletariat (factory workers). In general, the working conditions in factories were dangerous, hours were long, pay was meagre, living conditions were appalling, being crammed into slum tenements and factory discipline was strict including fines and even corporal punishment. These factors all contributed to the growing unrest and discontent amongst the workers. They began to demand for better living and working conditions. Workers began to strike for their rights. However the Tsar indicated that he would not give into these demands of the people, through his oppression of these strikes. There were many indicators of the people’s discontent in the years leading up to 1917. A poignant example of this is the event known as “Bloody Sunday”, where a crowd of over 10,000 peaceful demonstrators made their way to Winter Palace, in January 1905, carrying a petition asking for better working conditions. The police were ordered by the tsar to eliminate any problems and so the police opened fire on the crowd killing several hundred. This oppressive course that the Tsar decided to take, ended up being one of the main contributing factors in causing the 1905 revolution. Such decisions of the Tsar exclusively show and point to the fact that Nicholas II’s policies and decisions caused the February Revolution of 1917. The task of modernisation was difficult within the framework of the autocracy. Most modern industrial countries had democracy and a parliament featuring the middle class, who often are become the majority in such a society. Also with the need for an educated workforce the middle class created pressure for political change and a more representative government. But as always, the Tsar did not take
heed to these pressures. So, to industrialise without representation of the middle class, was almost an impossible feat and proved to be disastrous for the Tsar.
With Russia in a state of anarchy in 1905, Nicholas II felt sufficiently threatened and had no choice but to make concessions. He announced the October Manifesto where he declared the enhancement of civil liberties and the right to form an elected congress, which became known as the Duma. The high hopes of the liberals who thought this marked a real constitutional advancement were dimmed quite quickly, through the tsar’s promulgation of the Fundamental Laws. This declared that the Tsar had “Supreme Autocratic Power, and the formation of two chambers in the Duma: Elected Duma and State Council. The Tsar appointed the Imperial Council. Both the Imperial Council and the Tsar had the power to veto any laws that the Elective Duma passed. The Tsar also could legislate by decree without agreement of the Duma. So although “these Laws agreed to the existence of the Duma, … they put so many limitations on its powers that it could do virtually nothing” (Ben Walsh). Whenever the Duma began to create pressure on the Tsar to more fundamental reform, the Tsar responded by quickly dissolving them. This could be seen by the creation of four Duma’s throughout Nicholas II’s career: First Duma (April-June 1906), Second (February-June 1907), Third (November 1907-June 1912) and the Fourth (November 1913-August 1914). It became quickly evident that the Tsar had no intention of relinquishing his power whatsoever and that for as long as he remained the ruler, Russia would never revolutionise into a democracy. Clearly Nicholas II had not learnt his lesson in 1905, and as a result he would ultimately pay with his forced abdication, more than a decade later.
The decision and commitment of Nicholas II to take part and remain in the war was a major mistake. WWII played a major role in bringing about the February Revolution. The major defeats and great number and casualties lead to anger of the general population on the conduction of the war. An example of a military failure was the defeat to the Germans in the Battle of Tannenburg. It resulted in 170,000 casualties in the Russian army, whereas the German army only suffered 12,000. After such defeats, on the 5th of September 1915,
Nicholas II went to the front to take personal charge. This course of action had many flaws. Firstly, the tsar, being neither an able commander nor a gifted military tactician, held the full and direct responsibility of numerous military failures. Also, by directing his attention to the front, he left Tsarina Alexandra to run the country. The Tsarina was very susceptible to influence as she suffered distraught from the heir’s suffering of haemophilia. A monk named Gregory Rasputin took advantage of the situation, exploiting Alexandra’s interest in spiritualism and faith healing, by appearing to have the ability to stop Alexis’ bleeding. Rasputin was very notorious for his sexual escapades, and rumours spread of an affair between Alexandra and Rasputin. So when the Tsar had relied on the Tsarina to take charge while he was away, he had chosen the wrong path. Major decisions in the country now arrived in the hands of the Tsar’s wife, and these were passed on to the advice of Rasputin, meaning that Rasputin was effectively running the country. The government had become incompetent and completely inadequate to rule, so the situation in major cities such as Petrograd dramatically deteriorated with food and fuel crises. Not only did this appointment affect ordinary people, but it also affected many ministerial positions, which were constantly being changed to suit Rasputin’s desires. As a result, ministers were changed frequently. The Tsar made a fatal mistake when placing Alexandra in charge, as he began to lose the support the support of the noble Royal family, higher intelligentsia and even army generals. As Professor M. Florinsky states, “The War … brought to the top, the powers of discontent and social antagonism.”
Due to Russia’s economic backwardness, involvement in the war caused another problem: inflation. To finance the war, Russia had to borrow huge foreign loans, meaning that a great deal of money was being injected into the economy when there were fewer and fewer goods available to buy, resulting in a steady inflation. Cost of living had increased fourfold from July 1914 to January 1917. Inflation of this scale made it unprofitable to trade and this caused peasants to stop marketing their goods. Also there was a full-scale mobilisation of a force of over 15 million men dispatched from the countryside and factories. With the agricultural workforce reduced, supply of food was also reduced. Of the grain being produced, most was being
transported to the fronts, meaning that food distribution to civilian areas was inadequate. Insufficient supply of food to these densely populated regions, coupled with the intense winter created hardship, privations and acute distress in the cities. Women lined up all night to receive bread rations. However these rations declined in amount from 2.7 pounds (Jan 1916) to 1.8 pounds ration (March 1917). Through these food shortages and overall terrible conditions, “the war played a crucial role in the radicalisation of both the industrial workers and the peasants” (Steve Philips).
The Tsar was responsible for “The Russian government’s failings in the war and its weakness at home (which) led to the self-destruction of the autocracy on a wave of discontent” (Dimitri Volkognov).
In conclusion, the February/March Revolution of 1917 was mainly due to the policies and decisions of Nicholas II. As the Tsar became progressively more estranged from his own people, he was concurrently disabling the authority of his own rule. As industrialisation and modernisation began to occur and the people were becoming more educated and literate (as a result), they also became more aware of the flaws in their country’s political system and began to express ideas of democracy and equality. The government responded to problems with violence and oppression on the rising number of opposition, as the Tsar was utterly intolerant and unwilling to compromise, which only increased resentment. A series of scandals, military defeats and unceasingly poor conditions for workers and peasants further deteriorated the image of Nicholas II. Thus, it can be concluded, that the causes of the 1917 February revolution were due to the nature of Tsarism and policies of Nicholas II.
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