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Russia and its Locomotive of History Essay

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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?

Jess Lawson

The concept of the ‘locomotive of history’ is one which indicates to us that change had taken place in a certain period which could not have been undone. It can be argued that this could be applied to Russia between 1855-1954, when their involvement in 7 wars led to dramatic changes that would affect the lives of Russians for ever. On the other hand, other factors – such as the role of influential leaders and attitudes towards the autocratic government – should be considered when analysing where the need for change stemmed from.

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Firstly, Russia’s terrible defeat in the Crimean War left the government significantly aware of their backwardness as well as the inhumane treatment of the peasants. Because of this, 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. 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 also 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.

Principally, ‘The Crimean humiliation had made emancipation seem vital’ [J. Gooding; ‘Rulers and Subjects: Government and society in Russia’]. However, one may argue that other elements linked with the serfs contributed to their ultimate emancipation by Alexander II. A significant factor to regard is the attitudes of the peasants. The serfs did not choose to associate any problems that they had with the Tsar; they directed the anger that they had about their poor financial situations at the ‘Mir’ (local village communes). 148 peasant uprisings occurred between 1826-34. Even though the serfs’ financial situation was made worse when they were forced to pay the 49-year redemption payments to the land-owners as a result of the Crimean War; liberalism was already spreading, and the Tsar feared that there may be a revolution. It could even be argued that Alexander II never really planned to change anything, but rather tried to appease all members of the society whilst in parallel maintaining the autocratic order with his powerful position. The lives of the peasants in some aspects did not dramatically change, as they were still tied to the ‘Mir’.

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 occurred during the 1850s 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 also 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 civilians 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.

In 1877, Russia then became involved in the Russo-Turkish war. Despite the fact that Alexander II did not want to fight Turkey, it primarily culminated a year later in an initial gain for Russia to increase supremacy as a Great Power and improve its position in the Balkans. However, when the Treaty of Berlin was determined in 1878, it could not cover up the fact that Russia had lost the war. 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; but 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. The internal opinion of Russia was yet to permenantly improve, and consequently there was a growing appearance of a revolution.

Although it can be argued that the assassination of Alexander II on March 13th, 1881 took place because he could be held responsible 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. Furthermore, 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.

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 she had greatly underestimated Japan’s strength. The Japanese were far better prepared and equipped – both on land and at sea – and there was a great deal more structure among the troops by military commanders than in the Russian army. Even Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway proved to be ineffective 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 Russia in the Russo-Japanese War played a major role in causing the build-up of tension and unrest that led to the 1905 Revolution. Many workers and peasants were still angered that they were not being treated equally and had lack of food due to the 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 demonstrations had taken place primarily for economic protests — 1905 saw hundreds of thousands of civilians protesting for political rights.

In 1904, Russia’s Minister of Interior named Plehve was assassinated by terrorists as people believed that he should be blamed for the war with Japan. The result of this was that Nicholas II decided to lift some restrictions on the Zemstva to satisfy his people: but this simply increased public meetings and discussions through the press. Therefore the pressure on the Tsar for reform grew, and this could be a reason other than the war as to why tensions in Russia intensified.

Although it could be said that the extension of press freedom and ‘Russification’ – whereby Tsar Nicholas II carried on Alexander III’s policy to impose Russian ways on everyone within the nation – assisted the cause of the 1905 Revolution, the event that initiated it was later to be known as Bloody Sunday. The march in St. Petersburg resulted in palace guards 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 the year that had led on from the Russian war. Father Georgy Gapon who led the march cried: ‘There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar’ [M. Lynch; ‘Reaction and Revolution: Russia 1894-1942’]. The Russo-Japanese War witnessed a great increase in freedom of speech: what began as 5 men demanding to be reinstated to the factory in which they were fired from concluded with 105,000 workers throughout the city marching on the Winter Palace. Bloody Sunday aided in escalating hatred towards the Tsarist regime as social unrest continued due to Russia’s backwardness, particularly in agriculture.

Afraid that the revolution may spiral out of control, Nicholas – against his wishes – was advised by his government to concede a constitution. Known as the ‘October Manifesto’, it allowed for the first time a Duma (representative government). Although on paper it seemed as if the scheme was going to be an important political change to Russia, taking the first step towards official democracy; realistically this was not as dramatic a change as it may seem. Once again the change in politics failed to satisfy enough of its people, causing ‘disturbances and unrest in St Petersburg, Moscow and many other parts [of Russia]’ [P. Oxely; ‘Russia, 1855-1991’].

By mid October the whole of Russia was engulfed in a general strike, where workers had set up their own councils. By this point, the Tsar’s opponents were all united. In addition, the Tsarist regime remained in power as Nicholas II dissolved the first two Dumas because they voted for an extension of their powers. Even though the third Duma was allowed to continue, its representation was reduced. In summary, the Russo-Japanese War was a key argument as to why the revolution broke out in 1905. The Tsar’s stagnant modernisation and industrialisation policies as well as the depression remained. Instead of taking away people’s attention from Russia’s problems, it added to them when they lost the war.

In 1914, when World War One began, Russia joined Britain and France to fight. The 3-year war for Russia was one which was to affect those who supported the Tsar and his position. The first half of 1914 reflected an optimistic view of the Russian government, with many propaganda posters displayed to ensure Russia’s people that they were going to help their side win for their country. Yet by the end of 1914, 1,000,000 men in the Russian army had been killed. Described as the ‘fatal mistake’ [N. Kelly; ‘Russia and the USSR’], Nicholas II dismissed his commander-in-chief and declared that he was to command on his own. Subsequently by the end of 1915, the Russian people now blamed Nicholas as opposed to his generals and ministers. Many believe that the mass change of opinion towards the Tsar was because of the First World War, as nearly everyone suffered in one way or another because the war had a devastating effect on Russia and its economy.

There was shortage of labour for the men sent to fight; families endured shortage of food and other essential supplies. Furthermore, the transport system once again could not carry enough men, and the Russian army was not well led because they were armed with hand-to-hand combat weapons such as the bayonet (exemplifying Russia’s lack of industrialisation), which could not suffice Germany’s well-equipped army. On top of all this, Rasputin, a Russian Mystic who was said to have helped to discredit Tsarist government, was adding his advice on how Nicholas should run the war. His manipulative behaviour shocked and angered people, and because of this Rasputin was murdered in December of 1916. But the damage to the government had already been done.

It seemed as if the more the war progressed, the more the Tsar created opposition for himself. For instance, because Nicholas refused to co-operate with the Zemstvo as it was becoming a significant liberal influence, the Zemstvo and the Union of Municipal Councils formed an organisation, Zemgor. They succeeded to highlight the government’s failures and suggested that there were alternative solutions to the Tsarist regime. This change of belief towards the Tsar was one which would be difficult to overcome. By focusing on the war, he was not able to concentrate on other situations that needed attending to.

By 1917, discontent with Nicholas and his government fuelled those against him to revolt. The rising prices and food shortages led to thousands of workers protesting in Petrograd. Only two months later, troops had resorted to rioting on strikers; yet the workers had taken over the capital and the troops, unlike the 1905 Revolution, refused to fire. The city was in the hands of the revolutionaries – and the Tsar was forced to abdicate. The largest change of all because of World War One occurred when Nicholas II’s brother, Granda Duke Michael, refused to become Tsar, it was clear to see that the Russian monarchy was over.

The considerable changes that had taken place since World War One left the public of Russia with high expectations – but the Provisional Government did not have enough power to maintain public support, and was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. One could say that the role of Lenin, a ruthless leader who changed the Bolsheviks from a small, insignificant party to one which held a lot of power among the workers in 1917, was another reason as to why there was a revolution. He also negotiated peace with Germany, gaining support from the Russian civilians.

Nonetheless the Bolsheviks soon found themselves embroiled in a civil war against anti-communist forces by 1918. Monarchists wanted the Tsar restored; those influenced by major leaders over the years, Kerenskyists, urged to re-establish a similar regime to the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks succeeded in retaining power, but millions were killed and grain taken from the peasants led to more famine, thus further death. It was a combination of Lenin and the ‘period of crisis’ [D. Murphy; ‘Russia 1855-1964’] Russia went through due to the war that had established a communist dictatorship: a dramatic change which was to last until 1991.

Lenin’s death in 1924 made Russians widely assume that their country was going to be structured under a collective leadership. But between the Civil War and World War Two, the position of Stalin, an authoritative figure within the Bolshevik party with a clear sense of class hatred, provided Russia with the drive to improve their industrialisation situation. This is demonstrated through his Five-Year Plans as Stalin increased the production of coal. Other actions, such as forming a tactical alliance with Germany through the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 where both sides agreed not to fight each other in case of a European conflict, portrayed him as a more efficient leader than Nicholas II. Compared with World War One, the war showed that Russia had significantly improved economically.

The war both caused a setback to Russia’s plans yet at the same time changed it somewhat for the better. The pact was broken in 1941 due to Operation Barbarossa, and F.Y.P.s were destroyed when it lost some of its industrial infrastructure when the German army invaded. Despite this, Russia was still considered to emerge as one of the world’s major industrial powers by the end of the Second World War.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, there was a widespread concern that the state could not survive without him as there was a barrier of ideological differences left between East and West Russia. Nikita Khrushchev, the general secretary of the Communist Party, denounced Stalin in 1956 when he claimed that ‘It is…a bad thing that Stalin launched into deviations and mistakes, which harmed our cause’ [D. Murphy; ‘Russia 1855-1964’]. This added to the tension and fear among the German people. At the same time, the Second World War caused tensions between Russia and the USA, as Russia felt that the Americans wanted most of the fighting to take place in Russia so that they would be left weaker at the end of it. I believe that the distrust in the USA and Britain from the Second World War contributed to Russia’s involvement in the Cold War by 1948; however the the dislike of Khrushchev who would create the 1955 Warsaw Pact treaty between communist states triggered it.

By analysing Russia between the period 1855-1954, it is clear to see that for each war that they became involved in, a particular form of change took place: some dramatic and permanent such as the abdication of the Tsar; some which only seemed to be a change on the surface such as the emancipation of the serfs. One could say that Russia’s character and structure of society was tested in many aspects. However, I feel that although a significant factor, war was not the main factor that triggered change because in most cases, it simply entrenched the need for changes that were already present in Russia.


~N. Kelly; Russia and the USSR 1905-1956 (1996)

~M. Lynch; Reaction and Revolution: Russia 1894-1924 (3rd edition, 2008)

~D. Murphy; Russia 1855-1964 (2008)

~R. Sherman; Russia 1815-81 (2nd edition, 2002)

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