The Collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917

Categories: GovernmentRussia

Russia was a very unique country. It was huge and one of the last countries to use an autocratic system of government. However under the autocratic skin of the country laid terrible troubles. Troubles and problems that would continue to well up until they exploded. Starving people, poor conditions, hatred and opposition were included in this boiling cauldron. The cauldron did spill over in 1917. The public had a chance to avenge and revolt.

But what caused the breakdown of a once powerful and mighty nation to one of poverty and revolt? That is what I intend to find out.

Russia had a huge area and an equally huge amount of people living inside it. Russia was so large a country that it would take at least a week to cross it whole by rail and it is so big that the sun rises in the east at the same time as it sets in the west. In this huge country only 5% of the country was suitable for farm land and this left Russia as a very poor country, with food often being hard to find.

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Russia in 1900 was a very large empire that was ruled by an autocratic Tsar.

The Tsar was in command of some 125 million people. However many of these weren’t even Russian and many spoke Russian as their second language. In fact only some 40% spoke Russian as their native language. Russians tended to live on the areas that were suitable for farming and so they often lived in very overcrowded areas.

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Most Russian people were peasants. In fact four out of every five citizens was a peasant. These peasants had been living in Serfdom for years until they were finally set free in 1861, however they were not totally free yet as they were still tied to the land.

The peasants in this way had to work in the fields and help to get the harvest in for the landowner that they worked for whilst being paid a pittance and being given somewhere to live. People had to pay redemption payments back to the government to pay off the land that they were farming. The land was split into communes or mirs that the village shared out evenly between each family. The people would then pay a yearly rate for some land to grow their families crops on for that year. However despite the fact that people had to pay constantly for the land that was tied to them they also had very inadequate farming techniques.

In countries like Britain there were more advanced machines starting to take over the work but in Russia people were still using the old fashioned strip farming method that was used in Britain when it was an autocracy. As families grew the size of the plots that were on offer also shrunk and so life was very hard and it was often difficult to grow as much food as was needed. Nearly half of all children died before they were five and the maximum life expectancy was only fifty years old. This was a direct consequence of the poor conditions that these people lived in.

However they weren’t the only ones that had to live in this state. Many peasants thought that by going to the cities to look for work they would get paid more and live a much better life. However this was not the case. Russia was undergoing an Industrial Revolution as was seen in Britain in the last century. Conditions were terrible. They were paid very little for all the work that they did, they worked days in excess of eleven and a half hours and then they got overtime which many did to try and bulk out the already meagre wage. Conditions in the factories were terrible.

There was a tremendous amount of noise, dirt and accident rates were very high. They were very akin to the conditions that Britons faced in their Industrial Revolution when factories were in their early years. Many Russians therefore although they were working lived in abject poverty. The fact that they were treat badly at work and the fact that they had to like the small amount of money they got for all of the labour that they put in as they could have been easily replaced also echoed how bad the conditions were for these people. Again as in Britain living conditions were terrible.

There were people that lived in the cities that rented out rooms for the workers. It was not unknown to see “ten or more people living in one room and four sleeping in one bed” as quoted by Father Gapon a St. Petersburg priest (that was to arise later in Bloody Sunday fame). It was easy to see why so many of these people died from diseases and other conditions, as the work was terrible. However while these people (and the farm peasants) made up 99% of the population there was still a final 1% of the people that were different. They completely contrasted these others and lived in fabulously rich mansions and the like.

They were the rich capitalists. The Russian rich did exist in such a poor country. For example the Tsar, Nicholas, who was the head of the nobility had eight different palaces and employed some 15000 servants. The royal train carried twenty carriages just for the luggage alone when they moved from palace to palace. These rich nobles owned some 25% of all of the land in Russia even thought they only made up 1% of the population. Some people farmed their land successfully and made an honest profit whilst the lazy ones sold land to pay for their rich lifestyles.

By 1900 the factories had become a prominent way of making money and although the workers were paid next to nothing there was a huge amount of profit made by the rich capitalists that owned the factories. Sergei Witte the Finance minister made taxes for them low and so they made a huge amount of profit. With these people doing nothing and yet still making a huge profit there was a mass hatred of them beginning to spread around the workhouses and slums all over the Russian Empire. This minority of the population was to be one of the factors that encouraged the whole people to take a stand against the autocracy.

As has already been mentioned there was a great division between the rich and the poor in Tsarist Russia. One of the things that made Nicholas the 2nd unpopular was his much contrasting life to that of the many people that lived in the slums and the cities. These small nagging complaints would be ones that would later contribute to his eventual downfall as leader. Nicholas the 2nd was the emperor of Russia. The fact that he was emperor meant that he could do anything that he wanted to. He could write new rules and totally reform the country if he wanted t without having to consult a parliament or ministers.

Nicholas also employed ministers but these did not inform him on running the country, they simply collected the taxes and run the civil aspects of his government. It was not unknown for these to be corrupt. In order to maintain his power Nicholas had at his disposal the Okhrana (a Gestapo style undercover police service) that would make sure that all of the media was free of radical ideas and to arrest people that criticised the way the country was being governed. The Tsar also had a protection force or Cossacks that were fierce soldiers on horseback to protect him, these were especially useful in breaking up mobs.

The church in Russia was also involved in the Tsarist system as it taught people to obey the Tsar and respect the autocracy. The government could therefore brainwash the minds of the people that were in the church. However with such a strong ruling system and such a large number of people to govern it would take a very strong willed and able man to be able to control the whole of this. This is where Nicholas stumbled as he wasn’t really any of this. When his father Alexander III died Nicholas had this to say “What is going to happen to me, to all of Russia? I am not ready to be the Tsar. I never wanted to become one.

I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to ministers. ” This was coming from someone that had just inherited the throne from his father and it shows no real confidence in the fledgling Tsar. The Russian Prime Minister in 1917 wrote that “The daily work of a minister he found terribly boring. He could not stand listening long or seriously to minister’s reports or reading them. He liked such ministers as could tell an amusing story and did not wary his attention with too much business. ” Even at the end of his career it seems that Nicholas didn’t really take his work seriously.

The Tsar was therefore a leader that was very weak and he was more of a kindly family man than ruler. There were another array of things that were against Nicholas. He and his wife Alexandra, a German woman, were both very strict autocrats and it is said that they frequently had to refuse plans for reform. This shows that people weren’t too pleased with the situation of the monarchy. Nicholas had always been interested in the Far East and so he put his country into a war with Japan in 1905. It would seem that a small island chain like Japan would have been easy pickings for Russia but they were wrong.

The Japanese beat the Russians in a series of landslide victories. Russia was pushed into poverty and people were beginning to show severe dislike of the Tsar. He had led them into a war that had absolutely no meaning whatsoever (i. e. it wasn’t a fight for peace). The Tsar was extremely wealthy. He had eight palaces and five children and employed 15000 servants. They had their own royal train and lived the life of luxury. In spite of the fact that most Russians were peasants and the Tsar was so wealthy they didn’t show much hatred towards him.

In fact many of them respected him, after all it wasn’t the Tsar that had ruled them and took their redemption money, it was his ministers. Even though the Tsar was liked by his people he still lacked at the important things that he needed to make him a successful ruler. The Tsar proved later that he could be sneaky and plot tactics as was used in the quelling of what I am to look at next but it was the gradual wind down from this and the fact that he wasn’t the ruler he made out to be that helped towards the Tsarist era’s close. The Tsar didn’t notice that there was a rebellion brewing amongst the public.

They were getting fed up with his reign and there were certain events that helped to provoke what was to be the Tsar’s first realisation of his unpopularity and the fact that something needed to be done. In 1905 the people of Russia were beginning to get extremely fed up. They had numerous reasons that were making them angry. To begin with Russia as it has mentioned was in a war with Japan. The war went terrible for Russia and it lost huge amounts of people and resources. Russian citizens were very demoralised by this and this began to wear cracks in the Tsars structure of power.

After all the Tsar was only invading Japan just because he had a personal interest in the Far East. The Russian people saw this as the fact that they were just suffering at the hands of the Tsar. In fact the reason that Nicholas wanted to go to war was to have a quick decisive victory and therefore make people drop the criticism on his government. The complete opposite of this was to happen however. Working conditions, terrible before with the war were now even more horrific. Food supplies ran out, workers found themselves out of jobs and thus the supply of materials and weapons ran exceptionally low.

The Russo-Japanese war was not the only reason that people took as a signal for the time for revolution. On Sunday the 22nd January 1905 there was an event that was to spark off the revolution. Father Gapon, the St Petersburg priest that had quoted on how poor the working conditions were held a demonstration with 200000 workers and their families to try and get better working conditions. They aimed to have a peaceful protest outside the Tsars Winter Palace to try and persuade him to improve the conditions in the factories, workers living conditions and to withdraw form Japan.

However when the demonstrators arrived at the palace the Tsar was out. He escaped the capital whilst the trouble was brewing. Scuffles broke out between he demonstrators and the security forces. The soldiers then aimed low and opened fire. In the ensuing chaos some 500 marchers were killed and thousands injured. This massacre became known as Bloody Sunday. As the news of the attack spread throughout Russia people started to revolt against the system. Hundreds of government officials were murdered and the Tsars uncle was killed in a terrorist bomb attack.

The Tsar, who was already beginning to lose command of his country had just been plunged into a situation of full revolt. In June of 1905 the crew of the Battleship Potemkin, which was the pride of Russia’s Black Sea fleet threw the officers overboard and took command of the ship. This mutiny was devastating for the Tsar. He had been quite openly shown that the armed forces could not be trusted. As Nicholas was worrying about his armed forces state he also was confronted by the fact that there growing revolts and rebellions by peasants. They butchered their landlords and burnt down their huge farms.

Also at the same time many non-Russians such as Poles and Ukrainians took the chance to declare freedom from Russian rule. Things got even worse in September when a general strike began. Nation-wide, factories, offices, shops, hospitals, railways and schools all closed down. In many instances the protesters set up councils or Soviets to run the towns during the strike. The Soviets became an alternative type of government for the strikers, with many of them choosing to obey the Soviet rather than the Tsar. Nicholas had no real options in this ‘battle’. He had to give in to the demands that the people made.

In October 1905 he issued a document called the October Manifesto. This said that Russia could have a Duma, or an elected parliament. He also gave the Russian people basic freedoms, for example freedom of speech. The Liberals, the supporters of the Tsar that thought Russia ought to be more democratic were very pleased with the outcome of the manifesto. However other revolutionary parties for example the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Revolutionary Party that believed in violence and terrorism to get across their views were not pleased however.

They didn’t trust the manifesto. They were right not to. In December the St Petersburg Soviet members were arrested and many sent to Siberia. In Moscow an army was sent to crush the rebellion and more than 1000 people died in the street fighting. An end was also put to the conflict in Japan, with Russia organising a cease-fire term. This allowed the Tsar to bring many of his best soldiers back to quell the rebellions on the streets. It didn’t take the Tsar very long to quash all of the other smaller rebellions that were breaking out all over Russia.

Band of thugs or Black Hundreds took the law into their own hands and they brutally killed masses of people in the streets whilst the security forces (police/army etc. ) didn’t pay any notice. This massacring happened in over 100 Russian cities. At least Russia had a Duma, or at least it thought it had a Duma. As elections were held a number of anti Tsar candidates were excepted into office. In order to protect himself the Tsar issued the Fundamental Laws. These said that he was to remain in command of the country, to quote the first one “To the Emperor of all the Russias belongs supreme autocratic power”.

This seemed to render the Duma useless as the Tsar still had a deciding say in everything. The Tsar had been very lucky this time. He had managed to get the rebellion quashed albeit at the loss of many innocent people. The Tsar had realised that there were a fraternity of people that were willing to stand against him and he really ought to have took this into his mind when it came to the last reason why the autocracy era was ended. The Great War. Russia was like the rest of Europe in 1914. It welcomed the First World War and there were, like in both Britain and France, patriotic demonstrations in favour of the Tsar.

Hatred of the German people was very apparent and as Nicholas thought that the city of St Petersburg sounded to German he renamed it Petrograd. However even with a patriotic country behind it there was nothing that could be done to stop Russia’s inevitable fate. Russia first attacked Germany with two armies and it should have been a very quick decisive attack that should have trounced the Germans. However behind the patriotic Russian army laid poor leadership and poor equipment. It was thought that nearly a million men didn’t even have rifles whereas many more didn’t even have boots!

With an army in this state it is pretty understandable why there were huge catastrophic casualties in the army’s first battles. In the first two battles, Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes there were more than 250,000 soldiers killed, injured or taken prisoners. This was only six weeks after the start of the war! By the end of 1914 the Russians had lost over 1 million men. The problems didn’t end on the battlefield. Back at home the economy was starting to crack. There had been a huge amount of people drafted into the forces, some 15. 5 million in all thus leaving none to run the businesses and farm the land.

Nearly 600 factories had to close down through lack of labourers. Fields in the same way went unturned as there was no-one to see to them. Russian people were also suffering. They were starving. However the ironic thing was that there was the food was already in the country and there was no short supply of it either. The truth was it was sat waiting in trains to be dispersed around the country to where it was needed. However there was a shortage of engines to move the trucks as many were unreliable or blew their boilers. This was really true of the whole Russian transport system.

It was highly inadequate and so it was hard to move not only food but also weapons and raw materials to the factories again making life harder for the soldiers. There was also a coal shortage with no trains to pull the coal around then power stations were also forced to shut for the majority of the time. To complete the vicious circle then as power went down then so did the factories with no power to run the machines. People were living in extreme poverty. As all of the before stated made it much harder to get food then of course the price of it rose.

In 1913 5 Roubles would have bought: 2 bags of flour, 5 bags of potatoes and 20 kilograms of meat. However in 1917 it would have bought 1/3 of a bag of flour, 3/4 of a bag of potatoes and 4 kilograms of meat. Back on the battlefield the Tsar himself had taken up the role as military commander and was now personally commanding his troops. This was a potentially damaging move as it made the Tsar to blame for any part of the operation that went wrong. Whilst the Tsar was in his forward command post he left the Tsarina and Rasputin to take care of the country.

Alexis, the Tsar’s son had a very bad blood disease called haemophilia. This meant that his blood couldn’t clot and so any slight bump or cut could lead to excessive internal bleeding and it could lead to death. Anything that could be done to help Alexis was sought out and eventually the Tsarina stumbled upon Gregory Efimovich or Rasputin (the disreputable one). Rasputin was a Siberian Monk that was said to have healing powers. It seemed that through hypnosis and by praying at his bedside Rasputin could calm down Alexis and therefore release the tension of his haemophilia.

The Tsarina thought this was a miracle and she allowed him to ‘worm his way into’ the royal circle. In no time at all Rasputin was giving the Tsar and Tsarina tips on how to run the country. In fact Rasputin was all the Tsar had after his only decent minister, the Prime Minister Stolypin was assassinated by a double agent. When the Tsar left to command his troops he left the Tsarina and Rasputin in charge. What happened then was described as “dark forces destroying the throne”. From August 1915 until the end of 1916 these two wreaked havoc upon the government.

During the sixteen months they appointed and sacked four different Prime Ministers, five Ministers of the Interior, four Ministers of Agriculture, three Ministers of War and two Ministers of Foreign Affairs. They were replacing good politicians and ministers with hopeless ones. The government was thrown into a terrible state. Food and ammunition were now totally unobtainable. Even though the Russian army won some victories in 1916, it’s casualty rates were still topping 1 million. When ugly rumours about the Tsarina and Rasputin started to emerge people finally ‘realised’.

Alexandra was German and she and Rasputin were German agents! In December 1916 three politicians decided to get rid of Rasputin. After poisoning his wine, shooting him six times and battering him with a chain they finally managed to tie him up and drown him! However the damage was done. This rogue minister had done his damage. The public were disheartened, starving and poor. There was a terrible winter in 1916/1917, which caused many to die in the cold and many went starving and cold. People were turning it over in their heads.

Now was the time for revolution. It can be seen from all of the evidence and information that spans a period of twenty one years that the time was numbered for the Russian royal family and it’s autocratic system. The Tsarist system did collapse in a revolution that was totally overpowering. So which of the factors that were given at the start was to blame for the end of the last great Tsarist country? I have come to the conclusion that not one of the reasons can bear the total blame for the collapse.

Each of these reasons did contribute to the breakdown of the system ,some more than others but there cannot be a reason that stands out from the rest as being the most prolific. They all need to rely on each other to make the system collapse. Take for example the Tsar’s personality. He was very interested in the Middle East so he commanded his army to go out and fight. The fighting was intense and the troops were fighting for no reason whatsoever. This not only made Russia look a poor country that could not fight very well but it severely disheartened the people.

Many of them were suffering consequences of the war such as food shortages and supply shortages. The fact that there was a huge amount of poverty and poor working conditions that this partly contributed to caused Bloody Sunday which eventually led to the 1905 Revolution. This showed that the Tsar could face serious opposition that were bent on getting what they wanted. Although this was a victory for Nicholas it warned him of the future and the fact that the Duma was set up. This made Stolypin Prime Minister and when he was shot it made Rasputin become a minister advising the Tsar and Tsarina in and pre war.

The above is just a small example of how all of these things can be linked together. Out of all of the reasons that have been given for the break-up of the Tsarist system then not one seems to stand out as being the most major one. People may have not liked the Tsar and wanted him out because of what revolutionary group the were in, they may have not liked the conditions that they had o live in while he had his palaces or they may have not seen the point of endless Russians being used as cannon fodder to the German army. Whatever reason people may have had for not liking the Tsar then there would have been other reasons interlinked.

The four reasons that were given in the title did all contribute to the final breakdown of the Russian autocratic system but what they didn’t do was stand out in a ranking order as to which was the most important. Therefore I think that the reason why the Tsarist system broke down was a mixture of all of the reasons and that not one can be justified as the most important. What is for sure however was the fact that there was a huge reform after the First World War. It was caused by all of these factors and it led a new way in Russian society up until only a few decades ago. That of communism.

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The Collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-collapse-of-tsarist-russia-in-1917-essay

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