A History of 19th and 20th Century Russia

Topics: Soviet Union, Russia, Russian Empire Pages: 8 (2263 words) Published: May 10, 2013
A History of 19th and 20th Century Russia
A society's understanding of its history is crucial to a society's perception and definition of itself. During the 1980s the Soviet Union underwent a cultural revival, whereby the Russian people, prompted by Mikhail Gorbachev's invitation to glasnost (more openness), began critically re-examining Soviet and pre-revolutionary history. As the nation engaged in oral discussions and literary readings to study their past, they started to reassess the Soviet Union's theories and practices. Only through untainted assessments of their history could the Soviets truly grasp the present state of affairs in the 1980s.


At the opening of the nineteenth century, Russia was an imperial nation ruled by Tsar Alexander I (1801-1825). By this time, the Russian Tsars had achieved virtually autocratic rule over their nobles, who, in turn, enjoyed a sort of despotic relationship over their serfs. Alexander I made several domestic advancements but focused most heavily on foreign affairs, joining the fight against France's invading Napoleon in 1805 and helping to defeat him in 1814.

Though such victory strengthened Russia's international political role, at home the people faced an inefficient government and economic turmoil. When Nicholas I (1825-1855) succeeded his older brother Alexander I in 1825, he faced a public grieved by the peasants' hardship and influenced by the neighboring French Revolution. The result came as an uprising, with a group of liberal western-minded nobles and army officers engaging in the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. Tsar Nicholas I crushed the rebellion, and in the aftermath he became increasingly authoritarian--sending police to detect revolutionaries, abandoning Peter the Great's established Westernization Program and rigorously censoring written materials.

After Nicholas I died in 1855, Alexander II came to power and began a reign of steady, much-needed reform. In 1861 he radically abolished serfdom in Russia--ending the monopoly of landed aristocracy, fueling a rush of free labor to the cities, stimulating industry and contributing to a growing middle class. However, because peasants often received the poorest lands, and because they were often forced to pay lofty taxes for it, revolutionary tensions continued to stir.

These tensions were further fueled by an emerging Nihilist movement in the 1860s. Nihilists deemed all human institutions and laws as basically corrupt, arguing that aristocrats should listen to the wisdom of common people. The Nihilists engaged in terrorists activities and in 1881 a group of anarchists assassinated Tsar Alexander II. His son Alexander III then rose to the throne in 1881, though unlike his father, he was not interested in catering to demands for reform. Instead, he instilled an autocratic system of leadership and attempted to bar all Western influences from Russia. His advisor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, taught him to reject freedom of speech and to abhor democracy, constitutions and the parliamentary system. Alexander III tried to stamp out revolutionaries and enforce "Russification"--or the assimilation of non-Russian regions into Russian culture--throughout the empire.

After Alexander III, Nicholas II (1894-1917) ascended to power, and under his reign Russia embarked on an age of industrialization and political revolution. Opposition forces began to emerge, including the Constitutional Democratic Party (founded in 1905, and known as the Kadets), the Socialist-Revolutionary Party (founded in 1901, and known as the Esers) and the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (founded in 1898, and known as the RDSLP). This last group was the most liberal, attracting support from intelligentsia and the working class, affirming Marxist ideologies and calling for a complete social, economic and political revolution in Russia. The RDSLP split into two groups, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks, led by Julius...
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