Tsar Nicholas II and the downfall of Tsardom
September 11, 1988

"How did the Policies of Nicholas II contribute to the downfall of Tsardom?"

Nicholas II was born in 1868, the son of Alexander III. His father got him a tutor: Constantine Pobedonostev. This man drummed the need for autocracy, the divine right of kings, the continued support of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the hatred of Jews into Nicholas. Because Nicholas was still a child and very impressionable, these thoughts stayed with him all his life; they affected his judgement on things when he was Tsar, and therefore certainly contributed to the revolutions.

When his father died in 1894, Nicholas was not ready for the Tsar's position. However, it was his duty to take it, and so at 26 he became Tsar Nicholas II.

Nicholas was not a strong man. He was impressionable (he kept this from childhood) and weak-willed. He did not want to make decisions, and put the nation third priority, after his position, which came after his family. He was more of a family man than a Tsar or a leader.

Nicholas was a poor judge of people and events, and frequently underestimated both. A good example of this is Bloody Sunday. Although he did not actually order the shootings, he knew the march was on, and a petition was to be presented. Despite this, he managed to get himself and his family away first. This shows insensitivity and a lack of care for the people. Bloody Sunday was a climax in a time of great tension, and this lack of care shows that he did not think that the people wanted or needed him.

He married, and his wife, Alexandra, backed up the tutor's ideals. She was domineering and had a great deal of influence on Nicholas, a fact that was to play against him later.

When Nicholas came to power, many people were already against the Tsarist system, and so he was greeted with several political movements all trying to get their feet in the doors of power.

One such was the Russian Socialist Democratic Party, or RSDP. It was an amalgam of several small Marxist parties, headed by George Plekhanov. Lenin was a member, but not under that name. He was yet to come to the fore.

The peasants were beginning to flock to the cities in search of work and better living conditions. This was the result of Witte's industrialization policies, where industry was encouraged. They found neither, and people became motivated enough to form councils, or soviets. These councils were the equivalent of Trade Unions, and one, the St Petersburg soviet, became large enough to have a reasonable amount of political clout. It was to play a large role in the revolutions later on.

Not so much a party, but more a class of people, were the liberals. They were a group of people, usually wealthy and well- educated, that had seen other countries and the changing conditions within them. They were able to criticize the backwardness of the country, peasants' hardships and such matters openly because they were upper class; if they were lower class they would have been executed or exiled. Several of this class were writers, and voiced their disapproval on paper. This was more dangerous because their sentiments were now available to the masses (those who could read, anyway). Two such were Turgenev and Dostoevsky. They were both exiled to Siberia for their efforts.

The classes at this time were clearly defined. There were the peasants, who were oppressed but did not know it, and the workers, who were also oppressed but had the power to do something about it (they went on strike). The educated middle class saw the oppression, were not part of it, but could not do anything to hinder it. The landowners, civil servants and other upper classes were quite content to do nothing about the oppression and they sat back and let the wealth flow. The government and its associates pretended not to notice anything wrong, as did the Tsar and his associates.

Under Sergius Witte, the Russian economy boomed, as did its borders. Expansion was the name of the game, and China was a large victim in this respect. While taking China's land, Russia was ignoring Japan. It ended that both nations wanted the same area of land, and they fought over it.

The Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and 1905 was a complete disaster for Russia. Japan opened the fighting in February 1904 in Port Authur, Manchuria, and quickly eliminated the small force Russia had there. Nicholas II sent the Baltic Fleet into the fray; it took them eight months to sail half way around the world, and when they got there they were destroyed in under an hour. Out of 40 ships, 38 were sunk or captured and only two made it to Vladivostok. Nearly 5000 Russian sailors died. Back on land, the Russians fought bravely, but bravery is nothing when you don't have any weapons to fight with. Food and ammunition were scarce because of corruption in the government and the Trans-Siberian Railway bottleneck. After a massive defeat at Mukden, in March 1905, the Russians asked for peace.

Away from the front, there was growing discontent. The people could see they were not winning, and they knew that it was the government's fault. Amid this, there were still bad living conditions for the workers and peasants, and despite their illiteracy, they were waking to the fact that their position was not perfect. They were starting to realize their oppression and felt aggression accordingly. In line with this, they, in partnership with the St Petersburg soviet, organized a petition that asked for an end to the war, the formation of a democratically elected parliament, and, for the workers, less working hours and more pay. The petition was signed by 135,000 people, and it was to be presented to the Tsar on Sunday the 22nd of January 1905.

On the appointed day, Father George Gapon, an ROC priest, led 150,000 people in a peaceful march to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Many of the peasants and workers marching carried pictures of the Tsar; they sang hymns and a song called "God Save the Tsar". When they arrived at the palace, they were greeted by massed troops. Suddenly, the troops attacked the marchers with both rifles and swords, charging them on horses. Hundreds were killed, and thousands wounded. This day became known, quite aptly, as Bloody Sunday.

After Bloody Sunday, opposition to the Tsar never really stopped. Even though he was not even at the Winter Palace at the time of the killings, or he did not order them, he was held largely responsible for what happened. People had looked to him as the "father figure", but now his popular faith had been destroyed. It became clear that the Tsarist system was living on borrowed time.

Bloody Sunday prompted strikes and rioting all over the country. Peasants burned and looted landowner's houses, and attacked and chased off the landowners themselves. That Sunday could really be known as the start to the 1905 Russian Revolution; one thing led to another. A strike started in a St Petersburg factory; it spread to other factories, and eventually that spread to all the industrial centres around the nation. Added to the injury of Bloody Sunday was the insult of the loss of the Russo-Japanese war; the existence and terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth became common knowledge. Both white and blue collar workers came out on strike, and criticism of the government and Tsarist system reached an all-time high. Disillusionment spread into the army and navy; the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied. However, this act failed to catch on and the crew ended up sailing off to internment in Romania. This signaled the beginning of the end for the revolution; the leaders lost the faith of their subjects and the whole lot lost momentum. The revolution ended when it dragged on too long without a satisfactory climax or conclusion.

Despite the anticlimax, the Tsar realized that something should be done to calm to public mood. He consulted Witte, and Witte drew up the October Manifesto. This document was a list of changes that were to occur in Russia; they were reforms. The October Manifesto signaled the end of autocratic Russia. The Manifesto detailed several changes. These included:

Most Russians wanted to see how the new reforms would go before getting rid of them. They quit while they were ahead (for a while, anyway) to give the reforms a go. The St Petersburg soviet, on the other hand, was annoyed at its sudden loss of power. It campaigned for an 8-hour working week, failed, and was then forcibly disbanded by the police. Witte gambled that he had the backing of the people on this, and he did have it.

The Constitution, otherwise called the Fundamental Laws, set out the way in which the government, Duma, and Tsar would all cooperate. In brief: The Tsar could pass laws by himself if the Duma was not sitting; All the ministers were responsible to the Tsar and not to the Duma, and could be appointed or dismissed at will; Legislation had to be approved not only by the Duma but also by the Tsar and a very unrepresentative Upper House (half of which was selected by the Tsar himself); The Duma did not have full control over the budget; The Tsar still controlled the Armed Forces. The Duma was probably the most significant thing contained in the Constitution.

The Duma was a democratically elected representative parliament. It comprised of 450 deputies, elected from all areas of the nation. The first Duma was elected in March and April 1906, and it first assembled in May the same year. There were no Bolsheviks or Mensheviks in the first Duma because they had boycotted the elections.

The Tsar refused to let go of his power, despite what was said in the October Manifesto. This made the Duma angry, and they retaliated with a list of demands. They wanted a proper say in government (they thought the Constitution was too binding), land reform in favour of the peasants, the release of political prisoners, and a say in the appointment and dismissal of ministers. Witte promised them a reply, and, predictably, it was negative. Shortly afterwards Witte was dismissed as Prime Minister, and Peter Stolypin was appointed. Two days later the first Duma was disbanded.

The second Duma was even more radical than the first, this being because it contained Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. It assembled first in February 1907, and met until June of the same year, where it was dissolved too.

Before the election of the third Duma, Nicholas changed the electoral boundaries to suit the landowners. This is called gerrymandering, and 30 votes of the peasants was equal to one landowner vote. As a matter of course the new Duma, as with the fourth, was very conservative, and they both ran the full course of five years.

There were no more Dumas, as the fourth Duma went right up to 1917, and we all know what happened then... The Dumas were unique in Russia, as they were, and still are, the only form of democratically elected representative government that Russia has ever possessed. The Dumas were not really effective; they succeeded in getting a few reforms past, but they were not really what the people wanted. However, no one blamed the Duma - it was the Tsar who was blamed.

It was during the reign of the fourth Duma that World War I broke out, that is, in the August of 1914. Austria started the war after there was trouble in its Serbian province. Russia, seeing a chance to defend its Slav brothers, mobilized its troops against Austria. Germany sided with Russia, and then Britain, France and Italy mobilized against Germany and Austria. Turkey joined in with Germany and Austria (in the hope of gaining some territory) and later, in 1917, the United States joined in with Britain, Russia, France and Italy.

Back in Russia, there was a wave of nationalism and enthusiasm when the war started. The Russian people saw it was a chance to help fellow Slavs in Serbia, and at the same time fight the traditional enemy, Germany. Huge crowd arrived at the Winter Palace to pledge their support for the Tsar, and revolutionaries and the army buried their differences in the face of a common enemy. The army was massive, and victory was predicted quite confidently by everyone.

Nicholas changed the name of the capital, St Petersburg, to Petrograd, saying that the former was too German. This is a bit ironic, because he was married to a German woman.

Despite their enthusiasm, the Russians were not prepared for war. They had a huge army, but it was ill-equipped and ill- trained. It used antique weapons (such as swords) and horses to a great extent. Not only this, but there was corruption in all levels of government, and nothing was assured of getting where it was intended to get to (like supplies). It was these two factors, preparedness and corruption, along with the Tsar himself, which were the main causes of Russia's downfall in the war.

After a few small victories, the Russians were soundly defeated at the battle of Tannenburg, and after that they were constantly pushed back in toward the centre of Russia by the Germans. There were tremendous losses, with one million men being killed, wounded or captured within the first five months of war.

As with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/05, the army was hampered by lack of supplies, chiefly food and ammunition. There was next to nothing in the way of medical treatment, and weapons were so scarce that soldiers were sent to the front without rifles and being told to use those of dead comrades. By 1915 the Germans had taken Poland and had advanced well into the Ukraine. Morale was very low here.

The Russian economy was severely strained - there were less men to do the farming, and consequently there was less food and that meant higher prices. There was widespread and long-lasting rationing. Also manufacturing was down (due to labour shortages) and distribution of what there was was disorganized due to inadequacies of the transport systems, eg. the roads and railroads.

In September 1915 the Tsar sacked the commander-in-chief of the army and appointed himself to the position. This was extremely silly, as he had no idea about military strategy. Also, he left the court in the control of his wife Alexandra, who, while not evil herself, was under the influence of Gregori Rasputin.

Gregori Rasputin was born in Siberia as a peasant. Wanting to get in to the court of the Tsars, he posed as a mystical monk" with strange healing powers". The Tsarina, Alexandra, had called for help to this type of faith healer in the hope that they could have more success than the doctors with her haemophiliac son. Rasputin earned Alexandra's devotion by being able to stop Alexei's bleeding during a spell, supposedly by using hypnotism.

Many people were concerned about his influence over the governing of Russia - ministers were appointed and dismissed at his will, and he often gave advice that was against the interests of the country. He was assassinated by nobles in December 1916.

Meanwhile the war is still raging. The people are starving due to lack of food, the army and navy are extremely demoralized, hundreds of thousands of men have died, and amid the chaos the Tsar still reigns supreme. All his advisers plead with him to pull out of the war, and people beg for food, but he does nothing. The time was ripe for revolution.

The initial problem, on the 4th of March, came when workers were refused their paypackets. They stopped work, raided food stores, and went on strike. After a few days, the strike turned political, with the people, among other things, chanting "Down with the German woman", meaning the Tsarina. The Tsar's only reaction was to order the problem to be put down by force.

On the 10th of March troops and protesters clashed and sixty people died. The deaths only served to anger the people, who proceeded to attack police stations and managed to free many political prisoners. After a while the troops became converted to the revolutionaries' ideology and joined them.

When Nicholas heard, he ordered the Duma to disband. The Duma refused, and went along with the revolution. Nicholas attempted to return to the capital (as he was away), but the way was blocked by rail workers. The Duma demanded that he resign; he bowed to their pressure and did so, nominating his brother Grand Duke Michael as his successor. However, Michael refused, and with this, the monarchy fell completely. This was the end of 304 years of Romanov family rule, and just over a year later all of the Romanov family (or what remained of it) was executed. Russia became a republic on the 16th of March 1917.

The Provisonal Government, which was simply a renamed and slightly changed Duma, took control of the country. It passed many laws to prevent human suffering, and released all political prisoners, but it failed to fix most of the basic problems of the country. This prompted the rise of another source of power.

The Petrograd soviet, which was a replica of the one in existence in 1905, was this new source. In contained both the Bolsheviks and and the Mensheviks, as well as many other small time revolutionaries. It issued orders that the army (which was still fighting) elect its own small soviets, and these would be responsible to the one big Petrograd soviet. The army was also told to disregard any orders from the Provisional Government, and it was this conflict in authority that put the army in disarray and eventually forced it out of the war.

Lenin was in Switzerland when he heard of the revolution, and understandably he wanted to get back as quickly as he could. The Germans wanted to make as much trouble in Russia as was possible, and so they got him through Germany, Sweden and Finland. Lenin finally arrived at Finland Station, Petrograd, on the 16th of April 1917.

Once back, Lenin immediately showed his aggression for the Provisional Government. He planned to get control of the soviets, and then undermine the government from there.

Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, believed that what the government needed was a quick decisive victory that would rally the people and get them on side. The Russian forces launched an offensive, but they were beaten easily.

At home, things got worse, with even less food than before, and even higher prices. There were violent demonstrations and armed men roamed the streets calling for an overthrow of the Provisional Government.

The uprising got worse, and eventually Kerensky ordered the troops to fire on the demonstrators. 400 people died in two days. Kerensky blamed Lenin for the deaths, and called him a German agent. Lenin went back into exile for a while, other Bolshevik leaders were arrested, and the party newspaper Pravda was closed. But Kerensky had not won.

General Kornilov, the commander-in-chief of the army, wanted to overthrow the government himself. He marched on the city, and Kerensky's position looked hopeless. Suddenly, the Petrograd soviet pitched in and helped the Provisional Government. With Bolshevik help, Kornilov did not even make it to the city.

For this, the people admired the Bolsheviks, and their popularity grew rapidly. Soon there were many Bolsheviks in the Petrograd soviet, and by October the Executive Committee of the soviet was dominated by Bolsheviks.

Lenin saw that if there was going to be a Bolshevik revolution then it was to be now. A rumour circulated that the Provisional Government was going to move to Moscow because of the fear of invasion by Germans. The soviet set about fortifying the city, and it managed to get control of the army and navy. The committee formed by the soviet was actually preparing for a Bolshevik overthrow, and on the 6th of November Bolsheviks took over all the key buildings in the city. The Provisional Government was no more.

At last the final revolution had taken place. The people were in real control of their nation, and the Tsar had been abolished. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was born.

In summary, there were many aspects of Nicholas' policies that contributed to the fall of the Tsarist system. Possibly the greatest of these was his undying faith in autocracy. This triggered the 1905 revolution and both 1917 revolutions, and made the people frustrated, stifled industrial development, and prevented humanitarian progress. In fact, everything in this essay can be brought back to autocracy. From the denial of power to the Duma to seizing power in the army, the Tsar always emphasized his autocratic ways.

I would say that Nicholas' autocracy, coupled with his complete resistance to change and his failure to give way quick enough at the right time, were his undoing. And they opened the way for a whole new type of ideology to come into being - communism.


Focus On Nations A.J. Koutsoukis, Longman Cheshire, Perth, 1984

The History of the World - the Last 500 Years Viscount Books, Middlesex (England) 1984