3.18 Russia continued

The Politics of the Nineteenth Century

In 1861, following Russia’s defeat, Alexander made the momentous decision to emancipate the serfs, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States freed the African-American slaves. It was thought by many Russian elites that one of the reasons Russia had lost the war was its backwardness, a backwardness that Alexander and many others believed could not be mitigated with serfdom weighing down the possibility of progress. The emancipation, however, had surprisingly little immediate impact on Russian society, because the serfs legally owed the government the money that had been distributed to buy their freedom from the nobility. Thus, for generations, serfs were still tied to the same land, laboring both to survive and to pay off the debt incurred with their “freedom.” The emancipation of the serfs was the single most significant reform spearheaded by a Russian Tsar of the nineteenth century. It is thus ironic that Alexander II was the only Tsar assassinated by a radical terrorist group. The group that killed him, The People’s Will, believed that the assassination of a Tsar would result in an enormous uprising of the newly-“liberated” peasants (i.e. the former serfs). In this, they were inspired by the anarchist socialism of the exiled Mikhail Bakunin, whose vision of an apocalyptic revolutionary transformation spoke directly to the social and political conditions of his native Russia.

Before the assassination, young members of the intelligentsia formed a social movement known as the Narodniks. The Narodniks advocated going “back to the people,” living among and trying to educate the former serfs, which they did during the spring of 1874. The Narodniks believed that the serfs would form the nucleus of a revolutionary class that would rise up and dismantle Tsarist autocracy if properly educated. Instead, the serfs were deeply suspicious of the urban, educated Narodniks, and in many cases the serfs actually turned the Narodniks in to the local authorities. It was disappointed Narodniks that formed the People’s Will, and in March of 1881 they succeeded in killing Alexander II.

While The People’s Will had hoped that their assassination of Alexander II would result in a spontaneous uprising of the peasants against Tsarist despotism, nothing of the sort occurred. Instead, another reactionary Tsar, Alexander III, came to the throne and ruthlessly hunted down the terrorist groups. What had changed by the 1880s, however, was that there were terrorist groups, not just intellectuals guilty of discussing politics, and the one thing that practically every intellectual in Russian society (terrorist or not) believed was that meaningful change would require a significant, even radical, restructuring of Russian society. To many intellectuals and terrorists, there was no room for weak-kneed reformism; it was revolution or nothing. This is the context into which Vladimir Lenin and the other future Bolsheviks, the leaders of the Russian Communist Party who seized power in 1917, were born.

Lenin was a brilliant intellectual who synthesized the writings of Marx with the tradition of Russian radical terrorism, producing a potent combination of theoretical and practical political concepts that were realized in 1917. Thus, by the late nineteenth century Russia had changed the least among the great powers of Europe. Whereas the other states, from Austria to the new Germany to France, had all adopted at least some form of representative government, Russia remained staunchly autocratic and monarchical. The Russian economy was overwhelmingly agriculture and rural, with industrialization only arriving at the very end of the century in and around some of the large cities of western Russia. Russia was, in a sense, stuck in a historical impasse. That impasse would only end with outright revolution, first in 1905 and again in 1917.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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