Conditions in the Russian Empire Before 1861
August 1, 1988

The empire was ruled by the Tsar, the royal family, the nobles and the church. They owned the bulk of the land and occupied all positions of power in the government and civil service. They combined to keep the serfs in slavery and poverty and persecute the middle classes. The Russian Tsars were autocrats. They fought every challenge to their authority until finally the Tsarist system collapsed and the Tsar Nicolas II was deposed by the revolution of 1917.

The Russian Orthodox Church was the strongest supporter of the Tsarist regime and the biggest landowner in the empire. It was supported by the state and in turn it preached loyalty to the Tsarist government. In the minds of those who opposed the Tsar, the Russian Church was the symbol of everything in the Empire. The Russian middle classes eg. businessmen, traders, industrialists and bankers were insignificant as a social and economic force because industry and trade developed very slowly. The Russian intellectuals eg. teachers, lawyers and doctors, was too small to be effective in its opposition of the Tsarist system which ruthlessly suppressed the middle classes at the first sign of opposition to it. The intellectuals had really little power except to influence late revolutionaries.

The Russian serfs who formed the bulk of the population were in a sorry state. Unlike their West European counterparts, they were bound not to the soil they cultivated but to the landlord masters. They could be sold, mortgaged or rented out. They paid dues to their landlords and performed manual labour for them. They were subjected to corporal punishment and exile in Siberia. They were illiterate and revolted against their masters when conditions became unbearable. Five hundred unsuccessful revolts were recorded between 1825 to 1855.

Russian Historian: Mikolai Karamzin (1766-1826)

"Only an absolute Tsar could hold the state together and call on the loyalty of so many conflicting elements." Autocracy, therefore, was the basic of all Russia's past/present greatness. Karamnin's idea was a state in which the Tsar ruled wisely and paternally, according to the precepts of Orthodox Christianity and Christian gentry dedicated themselves unfailingly to the service of the Tsar, and peasants toiled uncomplainingly, patriotically and devoutly for the glory of Russia.

At the beginning of the 19th Century the Russian political system represented unquestionably the political and economic interests of a selfish serf-owning nobility or gentry. The position of gentry now depended on its monopoly of the ownership of serfs and of the land they worked. About 1500 of the richer families owned more than 1000 serfs each, while about 17000 families owned more than 200; 40000 families of the lesser gentry owned about eight serfs each.

Life in Russia before 1861 - an overview