Domestic Convulsions, 1855–1905

The comprehensive defeat in the Crimean War triggered significant reforms, the most important of which was the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The reforms, however, failed to have a truly political dimension; Aleksandr II and his successors stopped short of ending the one-man ruling system. Only the 1905 revolution forced Nicholas II’s hand in this regard. Considering the historical experience of other industrializing countries, it cannot be doubted that Russia’s industrialization would always have been a difficult transition period. But the half-baked nature of Aleksandr II’s reform program and the obstinate refusal of his son and grandson to take any steps toward limiting the power of the monarch made the shocks that accompanied modernization everywhere reach an intensity in Russia that caused the collapse of autocratic tsardom.


Neither the intelligentsia’s deliberations nor Nicholas’s commissions brought Russian serfdom to an end. The catalyst was a disastrous war, the Crimean War (1853–1856), in the midst of which the tsar died. The gravest danger for any one-person ruling system is a war gone badly, because most of the justification for absolute rule rests on the successful defense (or even expansion) of one’s realm against foreign aggressors. If autocrats fail to acquit themselves well of this task, their governments are subject to criticism that may escalate into attempts to overthrow them. In modern times, this is all the more so the case, especially if the ruler can boast of few other accomplishments in furthering the “common good.”

Domestically, Nicholas had changed little for the better during his thirty years on the throne. Care for the well-being of all subjects had never been an item on the tsars’ agenda, nor had it been much of an issue for contemporary European counterparts of Aleksei, Peter the Great, or even Catherine the Great. But the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 and the decapitation under the guillotine of King Louis XVI in 1793 heralded the arrival of a new perception about the role of the government among the Europeans. The conviction spread quickly that governments should be held accountable by their constituents. The British system, in which the king’s government was controlled by parliament, was no longer an outlier after 1789. In addition, some sort of personal freedom became the norm for almost all Europeans as a consequence of the French Revolution. Even if the 1848 revolutions failed everywhere in their goal of implementing a parliamentary democracy, at least almost all adult men across Europe were legally free, while many enjoyed the right to vote for a legislature in their country.

But this was not so in Russia. The duty of the empire’s inhabitants was to serve the state and the monarch, as Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks, which survived until 1917, had underlined when it was introduced in 1722. This meant primarily working for the Russian military behemoth, whether as producers of food and other products to keep the army fed, clothed, and armed, or as soldiers, officers, or bureaucrats. The servants of the Orthodox Church (and the other religions in the empire) were to enforce obedience, by promising a better life after death to the meek and poor mass of the population, who performed the backbreaking work to keep the military machine running. Even merchants were valued primarily to the extent that they aided the state and the autocrat in waging war. Only the noble “estate” (soslovie) enjoyed any meaningful rights in exchange for discharging their duty.1

The tsars and tsaritsas had always been preoccupied with the defense of their realm. Most of the Russian government’s expenditure had been on military matters, ever since Moscow wrested its independence from the Tatars around 1500. Before Catherine II’s reign, it was not seen as a task of the government to improve its subjects’ standard of living or to provide them with an education. Catherine the Great was the first monarch who accepted a role for the state in furthering the public good, but she had accomplished little in this respect. Apart from Aleksandr I’s early years as tsar, her son and grandsons were far too absorbed by military matters to attempt to better in any sustained fashion the welfare of their subjects. For someone like Nicholas I, who saw everything through a sort of military prism, the public good was not a key concern for a Russian autocrat. But even he had intimations that serfdom’s end was nearing.

That the system no longer worked, though, became evident only in the course of the Crimean War, during which the Russian military proved incapable of handling a foreign invasion. This was quite the contrast to the brilliant victory against Napoleon forty years earlier. Before 1853, the Russian army enjoyed the reputation of being the best of Europe. By 1856, those who had feared the “Russian bear” could defy it with impunity.

Comprehensive reform was urgently needed. The main obstacle to it, Nicholas I, died in 1855. Aleksandr II, albeit by temperament not fond of drastic change, saw no other way for Russia to prosper once again than by abolishing serfdom. He encouraged the emergence of a society in which the old elite was increasingly joined by newcomers, ruled by a government that at least at local levels behaved less arbitrarily than previously. He hesitated too long about surrendering some of his absolute power over his subjects, however, perhaps because he came to fear the social forces that his earlier reforms unleashed. At the moment that he seemed to have finally accepted that his autocracy should end, he was assassinated. This murder had a lasting and tragic impact on the subsequent course of Russian history. Aleksandr II’s rule was probably the last best chance for Russia to embark on a relatively peaceful road toward modern society. The pig-headed stubbornness of his son and grandson in preserving the autocracy proved fatal, not just for the Romanovs, but also for the inhabitants of the Russian Empire, whose descendants are still recovering from that shortsightedness today.


The casus belli for the Crimean War was the tsar’s title of official protector of Christians and sacred Christian places in the biblical Holy Land, ruled by the Ottoman sultan. Russia had acquired this guardianship under the terms of the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji in 1774. But the Emperor Napoleon III (r. 1848–1870) attempted to have the sultan recognize France instead as the preeminent Christian champion in Palestine. Napoleon III tried to appease the more zealous Catholic faction in France, which considered it intolerable that Catholics had to defer to the Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem. Sultan Abdulmeçid I (1823–1861) moved back and forth between both countries but in the end decided that, because Russia infringed too much on Ottoman sovereignty, the time had come to end the tsar’s (and the Orthodox) preeminent role. The Turkish sultan skillfully enticed the British and French to render him military support.

Subsequent Russian threats against the Ottoman Empire fell well within the usual pattern of Russians bullying the Turks, as had been most recently seen in the Russian support for the Greeks during the 1820s and 1830s. Then, the British and French had sided with the Russians against the Turks; in addition, none of the five Great Powers of Europe had ever seriously objected to Russia’s periodic harassment of the Ottoman Empire, which had begun in earnest after 1750. But different from Abdulmeçid I, Nicholas failed to understand that a new international constellation had emerged by 1853. The French were willing to use force against the Russians in support of their claims as Christian champions in the Ottoman Empire. The Russian attempt at intimidation of the sultan caused the French (and, in their wake, the opportunistic British and Sardinians) to throw their weight behind the Turks.

While catering to the Catholics in his country was one motive for Napoleon III to challenge the tsar, the French emperor’s desire to restore the grandeur of the Bonapartes added to his belligerence. Napoleon III was eager to prove his military mettle and honor the glory with which his name was identified. The British, meanwhile, were motivated by more sober calculations. They surmised that, whereas the Ottoman Empire (which by then acquired the nickname of being the “Sick Man of Europe”) was not going to survive for much longer, for the time being they preferred the weak Turks over a strong Russia in the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, they worried about Russian expansion in Asia. For the British cabinet under Lord Aberdeen (1784–1860), the French-Russian quarrel seemed an excellent opportunity to cut the tsar down to size. Sardinia-Piedmont’s prime minister Count Camillo Cavour (1810–1861) saw a chance to further his ambitious goals; supporting the already pro-Italian Napoleon III in the war on Russia would yield him the promise of French support for his project of Italian unification. He was indeed to receive French aid when he orchestrated Italy’s unification around the house of Savoy, his monarch’s dynasty, at the end of the 1850s.

In addition, whereas Austria remained neutral, its government made it evident to the Russians that it would not tolerate Russian annexation of the so-called Danubian principalities (today’s Romania but without Transylvania). Russian expansion in this direction threatened Austria’s plans to replace Ottoman Turkey as the dominant power in southeastern Europe. Austria’s hostility took Nicholas aback, as he had recently been instrumental in helping the Habsburg Dynasty survive on the Austrian and Hungarian thrones. The Russian army had suppressed the 1848–1849 Hungarian Rebellion on behalf of the Habsburgs.

It was the Turks who attacked the Russians in late 1853. During the first months of the conflict, the Ottoman military was forced to retreat in Romania, and the sultan lost most of his Black Sea navy. Their hand thus forced, France and Britain came to the aid of the embattled Turks in March 1854. The French and British entry into the war was rather eager, as is underlined by the arrival in the course of 1853 of a combined British and French fleet at Istanbul, before the Turkish declaration of war. In the summer of 1854, this Western European navy landed an expeditionary force on the Crimean peninsula. The Russian defenders held out for a year at the Crimean naval port of Sevastopol, but by early 1855 the entire Crimea was in allied hands. Although on the other fronts the Russians held their own against the Turks, they hastened to conclude a peace treaty once the French and British began to threaten the mainland of Russian Ukraine.

The 1856 Treaty of Paris was a bitter pill to swallow for the Russians. The French were recognized as the protectors of Christians in the Holy Land, while the previous Russian influence over formerly Turkish Romania ended (with Romania gaining its independence in 1859). Russia lost territory (to the Turks) for the first time since Peter the Great’s defeat at the Battle of Pruth in 1711. The country was banned from maintaining warships in the Black Sea (a stipulation slightly amended to Russian advantage in 1871). Meanwhile, Nicholas I had died in the midst of the siege of Sevastopol, a year before the peace was signed.

The Crimean War was in several ways a turning point in modern history. It was the first major war of which photographs survive, while it saw both sides making drastic improvements in terms of the treatment of battle wounded at the front and in the rear. Florence Nightingale’s (1820–1910) name became legendary in this respect, while on the Russian side the medical doctor N. I. Pirogov (1810–1881) made a key breakthrough in using ether as an anesthetic in the field surgery he organized during the war. Alfred Tennyson’s 1854 “Charge of the Light Brigade” became one of the most famous nineteenth-century poems. On the Russian side, Count Lev Tolstoi served as an officer on the Crimea; he went on to use his wartime experience in describing another military conflict (that of 1812) in one of the greatest novels ever written, War and Peace (1869).

In terms of military history, the war stands out as the first successful landing of a large expeditionary force in the modern age. The importance of military technology became apparent, as the victory of the allies over Russia was at least in part due to the use of superior weaponry. The Crimean War was also a key moment in the evolution of Austro-Russian relations. Russia and Austria had been allies for generations; suddenly, they found themselves on opposite sides. Whereas before the Habsburg and Romanov emperors had always been able to settle any serious disagreement amicably, the two empires now became increasingly embroiled in a conflict over the division of the spoils of the teetering Ottoman Empire in southeastern Europe. This dispute proved impossible to settle to mutual satisfaction. In the 1870s, 1900s, and early 1910s, war between the two powers was barely avoided; in 1914, war finally broke out.

Finally, the Crimean War had epochal consequences in Russia itself. It made Aleksandr II decide that his empire could survive only if serfdom disappeared. In the Russian analysis of the poor military performance during the war, the issue of the army’s morale was seen as crucial. It was extremely difficult to keep motivated an army composed predominantly of serf soldiers, who served for twenty-five years (and were recruited on the basis of a quota system among serf households). In addition, it was evident that Russia had fallen woefully behind the other powers in technological terms. Although in the early 1850s the first railroad line from St. Petersburg to Moscow had been completed, industrialization had not yet taken off in Russia, and the troops had reached the front exceedingly slowly during the war, contributing to the defeat.


Without the peasants enjoying the right to move, it would be difficult to find a large enough urban labor force if the Russian Empire were to embark on industrialization. It was not as if all enserfed peasants literally stayed in their villages, but permission to leave was usually granted only on a temporary basis by landowners, in exchange for monetary compensation by the itinerant serf. Collective responsibility for taxes and work for the landlord made village communities often resistant to the departure of their neighbors for employment elsewhere, too.

Factories and mines needed a permanent labor force, however, and a cheap one besides. If business owners could choose from only a small labor pool as existed in Russia before 1861, workhands would be insufficient and wages necessarily high. Meanwhile, even before serfdom’s abolition, it was becoming apparent that parts of the Russian countryside were overpopulated. These surplus workers needed to be released from the restrictions of bondage. Thus, not merely concerns about poor morale in the army informed the decision to end serfdom.

Aleksandr II jump-started the work toward an emancipation settlement that had been languishing in his father’s commissions. The key problem was how to ensure that the landowners were not deprived of most of their land as well as its cultivators in one fell swoop. It was concomitantly inconceivable to give the peasants their freedom without land, as this would likely trigger a rural uprising. The solution found was to allow the landowners to keep some of their land, with the rest given to the emancipated peasants. The peasants would have to reimburse their former masters for this land. As few peasants had any money readily available, a government bank would immediately compensate the landlords for the land they lost. The former serfs would then pay back their debt to this bank in installments.

On paper, the terms of the 1861 Emancipation Act seemed sound, but in practice few peasants proved capable of paying off their debt in the decades following serfdom’s abolition. Because the redemption payments (as well as taxes owed to the government) were to be the collective responsibility of the village community, it remained difficult for peasants to leave for the city. Villagers feared losing their neighbors’ share in remitting the compensation dues and taxes to the government.

Meanwhile, the government did little to encourage agricultural innovation by way of education (or through other means). The peasantry rarely learned about methods to increase yields by way of such things as crop rotation (with fodder crops alternating with grains) or fertilizing the soil. Crop yields remained low when the overwhelming majority of the peasantry was almost wholly illiterate. After general conscription was introduced in 1874, 75 percent of army recruits could neither read nor write. This percentage only slowly declined toward 1900.

The traditional manner of redistributing land, according to household need, also hampered agricultural efficiency. In much of European Russia, it was customary for village meetings (sel'skie skhody) to redistribute land according to the changes in family size every seven to ten years.2 This saw all members of the village commune (mir or obshchina) temporarily enjoying access to the best land (or suffering through the use of poor land). But it meant that no family had the usufruct of a parcel of land forever. Since households cultivated their lots for only a limited amount of years, they lacked incentive to try to improve the soil. It is no surprise, then, that Russian agriculture failed to obtain significantly higher crop yields or a greater production of milk or meat during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Although agricultural productivity remained stagnant and many villages barely met redemption or taxation payments, a steep population growth occurred after 1850. Rural family size reached an all-time high during the last decades of Romanov rule. This was caused by rapidly improving health care (especially the spread of inoculation of children) and somewhat better nutrition (the consumption of potatoes increased rapidly in the course of the nineteenth century, adding greatly needed variety to a primarily grain-based diet). But the countryside could feed only a limited amount of mouths: yields remained far too low to nourish the rural population and remit redemption dues and taxes to the government. Rural overpopulation became a major problem in many parts of European Russia, where the population grew by 60 percent between the Emancipation Act and the 1897 census. When poor weather caused a series of misharvests in many regions, a devastating famine ensued in 1891 and 1892, killing millions. The government ultimately ended the debt problem in the wake of the 1905 revolution by abolishing the compensation payments. This reform was followed by other measures that promised to relieve some of the population pressure on the land.

Meanwhile, the Russian nobility did not thrive as landowners, despite receiving the reimbursements for the land they lost in the 1861 settlement. Few noble landowners had ever taken the trouble to investigate how to prosper as farmers. Their estates were usually run by bailiffs, while the owners preferred residing in the city for most of the year. Many nobles quickly spent the money they received in 1861 on things other than the improvement of their manors, and many sank further into a debt caused by a profligate lifestyle mandated by noble peer pressure. Foreclosures and bankruptcies became rampant. Thus, there was not much sign of the development of the type of farms that began to become typical in North America toward 1900, with ever-growing production levels generated by ever fewer workhands.

Subject to such financial difficulties, the nobility became increasingly dependent on state employment in the government or military in order to survive financially. Rather than accepting the landholding aristocracy’s inevitable decline in their modernizing country, Aleksandr II’s successors continued to rely on nobles as the mainstay of their government. The last two tsars seemed blind to the fact that, after 1861 (despite all the shortcomings of the Emancipation Act), their country’s economy was rapidly changing from being predominantly agriculturally oriented to a mixed form in which the industrial and service sectors were increasingly important. They failed to realize that the estate society of the aristocracy’s heyday was disappearing. Nicholas II was to pay a high price for this error.

Of course, the developments sketched above do not do justice to the enormous diversity among the rural dwellers of the late Russian Empire. In regions with better soil (such as the Black Earth zone that consisted of European Russia south of Moscow and northern Ukraine), peasants received smaller allotments in the Emancipation settlement than in the area around Moscow and to the north of the old capital. North of the Black Earth region, climate and soil made crop cultivation more arduous, negating the benefit of the reception of more land in 1861. Because of better soil and climate in the Black Earth area, peasants might have done better there than in the north after 1861. Such prosperity, however, was frequently short lived when, in the second half of the nineteenth century, more children than ever before survived the first few years of their lives.

The less friendly environment of northern regions further strengthened the trend among the local peasantry there to find employment as (often itinerant) artisans (kustary), seasonal workers (on larger estates, in the lumber industry, etc.), or as factory workers and miners. This income aided village household incomes, while many peasants returned home from employment elsewhere for the busiest period (especially harvesting) of the agricultural season. Some of the peasants, especially when faced with few prospects in their ancestral villages, settled permanently in the cities, becoming part of the industrial working class.

At the time of their serfdom’s abolition (in 1863 in their case), peasants working the estates of the imperial family were given less onerous payment terms for the land they received. State peasants, who worked land usually located in more remote areas belonging to the state, had on the whole been treated better by the authorities than private serfs prior to 1861; by the decree of 1866 that formally released them, they were given somewhat better conditions in terms of land allotments and compensation fees. After another Polish revolt had been suppressed in Russian Poland, Polish peasants received a settlement in 1864 by which they did not have to pay any redemption payments. In the Baltic region, peasants had already been emancipated in the 1810s, albeit without land. According to an 1864 emancipation act in Georgia, local landowners received a far greater proportion of land than in Russia. Serfdom did not exist otherwise in the Transcaucasus region and was uncommon in Siberia and northern Kazakhstan (as far as it was under Russian rule in 1861).

In addition, whereas periodic repartition of village land within the mir was common in much of European Russia, in Ukraine and elsewhere this was much less the case. This and the more forgiving climate south of Moscow to some degree explain how, despite the difficulties encountered by most agriculturalists in the empire after 1861, there were some bright spots, and Ukrainian yields especially became quite bountiful. Thus “Little Russia,” as the tsarist government preferred calling Ukraine, became by 1900 “Europe’s granary,” shipping much grain westward from Odessa and other ports.


Once the peasants received their freedom, several other reforms became imperative. As the aristocracy now no longer substituted for the government at local levels, the state had to step in to compensate for its retreat. In 1864, a system of courts was introduced in which independent judges, sometimes with the help of juries, were to dispense justice fairly, without regard for class (or, to be precise, one of the “estates” to which each Russian formally continued to belong). While the courts’ independence was curtailed by the state of emergency that was introduced in the 1870s, the new courts constituted a dramatic improvement for many people, as henceforth, in theory, even the poorest person might turn to them to try to right a wrong. Accused people were entitled to legal support in court, another novelty.

Nonetheless, for the peasantry (the overwhelming majority of the population), litigation of most civil and criminal cases was usually pursued in district (volost') courts, which had jurisdiction over several villages, rather than the new government courts. The district court officials were chosen from among the heads of households in the villages that made up the volost', as were the local administrators of the districts. The latter were obliged to execute any decrees from the tsarist authorities without fail.

In the same year 1864, Aleksandr introduced bodies of local government in the various rural counties of which each Russian province consisted. In these zemstva (sing. zemstvo), representatives of all classes met to deal with issues ranging from health care (building and overseeing clinics and hospitals, hiring doctors and nurses, and providing inoculation) to education (building a network of schools, hiring teachers, and so on) and infrastructure (construction of roads and bridges, etc.). Local taxes were collected to pay the expenses toward these purposes. It is no coincidence that after 1864, literacy rates rose (although this was in part because the army began to educate its recruits). Elementary schools were founded in greater number and were better supervised thanks to the zemstvaZemstva doctors (including the literary genius Anton Chekhov [1860–1904]) and other medical professionals oversaw the drastic improvement of the health of the rural population (even if this was to some degree due to better nutrition thanks to the cultivation of new crops such as potatoes). The rural population boom between 1850 and 1900 was to a significant extent due the beneficial activity of the zemstva, which genuinely concerned itself with people’s well-being.

In 1870, a similar degree of self-government was given to the Russian towns. City councils (dumas) oversaw the construction of sewers, the opening of clinics and hospitals as well as schools, the paving of roads, the installation of street lighting, and so on. But following the time-honored practice of calibrating policies according to local conditions, the 1864 and 1870 reforms were not introduced everywhere in the empire. The predominantly non-Russian population of the empire’s western borderlands (from Estonia to Polish Mazovia) was not allowed to elect zemstva, for example.

The great differentiation within Aleksandr II’s Great Reforms reflects how much tsarist rule remained grounded in the idea of a composite empire (as argued by Matthew Romaniello for an earlier age), in which each distinct territory was governed in a specific manner. Before Aleksandr III’s Russification policies of the 1880s, the government followed no coherent policy to impose a uniform political system across the empire, from Warsaw to Vladivostok. This respect for local custom and specific privileges was wise in a country that remained utterly vast in spatial terms and harbored more than 140 different ethnolinguistic groups. The tsar ruled nomads, hunters and gatherers, and sedentary crop cultivators as well as university professors, grand dukes, artisans, priests, monks, factory workers, miners, carters, and barge haulers. And to further complicate matters, Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, Buddhists, and those adhering to shamanistic religions were all found among the tsar’s subjects. Throughout most of Romanov rule, the government had shown a prudent sensitivity to the customs of each of the larger communities of which the population of the Russian Empire was composed. This time-honored tradition, however, was abandoned after 1881, when Aleksandr III tried to forge a more uniform national identity. Such shared national characteristics were considered an essential component of the modern state.

Some other reforms deserve mention because they indicate the drastic change that hallmarked Aleksandr II’s early years. Preventive censorship was abolished, leading to a publishing boom. The universities were released from the utterly debilitating oversight the government under Nicholas I exerted over their activities and were given significant autonomy in 1863. Meanwhile, a far greater number of secondary schools was introduced, and children of all social groups were encouraged to attend them.


Aleksandr II’s key assistants in implementing the reforms were the two brothers Miliutin. Nikolai (1818–1872), employed at the ministry of the interior, had been the tsar’s key aide in implementing both the abolition of serfdom and the zemstva. The crucial reform of the armed forces, however, was overseen by his brother Dmitrii (1816–1912), who was minister of war for twenty years (1861–1881). Since the reforms were triggered by the debacle of the Crimean War, the capstone reform was bound to be that of the military.

This was an age in which the European powers (Britain excepted) introduced general conscription for young males, creating enormous armies in reserve consisting of those who had gone through basic military training. In 1874, a decree made all male Russians, if in good health, liable to military service. The term of initial service was made dependent on the education levels of the draftee. Illiterate recruits were to serve six years, after which they stayed for nine years in the reserves. The army was meanwhile obligated to teach illiterate recruits reading and writing. Those young men who could boast of completed primary education (a four-year curriculum) were obliged to render four years of initial military service, while those with completed secondary education served two years, and university graduates a mere six months.

The age of mass conscript armies thereby arrived in Russia, eighty years after its first appearance in revolutionary France. The military became a modern mass institution, the first of its kind in Russia. It strengthened the inculcation of a generic “Russian imperial” (rossiiskii) identity through the education of its recruits.3 The army’s role in strengthening a sense of “national” identity was mitigated by the fact that only Europeans were conscripted. The male population of Central Asia was exempted from military service until 1916, while ethnic units from the Caucasus or the Cossacks served as soldiers under different terms (usually in separate units organized in a traditional fashion). The organization of such ethnic units was usually rooted in historical treaties that had been signed between ethnocultural groups and the tsar, when the former had recognized Russian sovereignty. This was another sign of the survival of the composite empire. From a strictly military viewpoint, the strong coherence of Cossack or Caucasian units in battle proved the soundness of this policy. But because of it, the empire’s armed forces did not become a truly centripetal, or nationalist, force, encouraging non-Russian soldiers to adopt a Russian identity.

Regardless, Dmitrii Miliutin’s reforms went some way toward making military service a burden shared by all, rather than an army organized around the nobility and assisted by men who had been unlucky enough to be selected for a twenty-five-year army stint. Before 1874, selection for military service had meant an almost certain death, as most succumbed to battle wounds or disease long before completing this lengthy term. The days when Russian villages organized funeral processions for the departing recruits were now gone forever.


Aleksandr II inherited another complicated matter that was never resolved by his father: the fate of the Poles. Poland’s autonomy had been heavily curtailed after the 1830–1831 rebellion, but in theory the country continued to enjoy the status of a distinct territory, with a measure of self-determination (as did several other parts of the empire, of course). Aleksandr eased the anti-Catholic policy followed by his father and allowed the opening of Polish postsecondary educational facilities. Despite the new tsar’s display of goodwill, the cause of Polish independence continued to have the ardent support of a great number of Polish nobles, especially the university students and army officers among them. Similar to its Russian counterpart, the Polish intelligentsia was broadening its ranks and now began to include commoners. Most were fervent nationalists. Despite this growth of Polish nationalism, a significant part of the nobility remained in favor of collaborating with Russia.

Toward 1860, Tsar Aleksandr II asked Aleksander Wielopolski (1803–1877), his main advisor for Polish matters, to suggest measures to restore some of the Polish rights abrogated by his father in response to the risings of 1830–1831. But the tsar stopped far short of considering any steps toward full Polish self-determination. Aleksandr decided nonetheless to introduce a program (drafted by Wielopolski) that gave Poland greater autonomy. The tsar’s brother Konstantin Nikolaevich (1827–1892), who had a liberal reputation, was dispatched in the capacity of viceroy to Warsaw in early 1862 to oversee the implementation of this plan. But a Polish nationalist tried to assassinate the viceroy within days after his arrival. Wielopolski, now the main advisor of Konstantin, decided to bridle the rebellious Poles by conscripting them to lengthy terms in the Russian army. Demonstrations broke out in Warsaw; they were suppressed at the cost of several dozen deaths.

This blew the lid off. Young men went into hiding to avoid the draft. Everywhere revolutionary committees were struck. On 22 January 1863, Poland was in full rebellion. It was the first broad-based nationalist uprising the tsars had ever faced (this Polish uprising had significantly more support from nonnoble groups, especially when compared to the previous rebellion of 1830–1831). It heralded the arrival of nationalism as one of the greatest challenges to face both the last tsars and the Communist bosses who succeeded them. Whereas the tsars managed to subdue domestic nationalism only to fall victim to insurmountable problems raised by nationalist movements abroad, nationalism at home was to doom Communist rule.

The 1863–1864 Polish revolt, however, even though supported by a broad layer of Polish society, failed to win much of the still enserfed Polish peasantry for its cause. The Polish leaders were wary of promising emancipation terms to the peasants that were unduly favorable, because key support for the movement came from aristocratic landholders. And the nationalists overreached in trying to entice historic Lithuania to join their rebellion, in an awkward genuflection to the joint past of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Russian government considered historic Lithuania a full part of the empire, not a territory with a separate status such as Poland. The few pro-Polish Lithuanian groups that did answer the Polish call to arms were ruthlessly suppressed.

In Poland itself the rebels once again stood no chance against the Russian armies, but Aleksandr II did not deal with the nationalists in an excessively harsh fashion. In something of a cunning move, the tsar emancipated the Polish serfs at fairly generous terms. This was aimed to harm the nobles, the mainstay of the nationalist movement. But in the following decades, thanks to the excellent network of schools set up by Polish nationalists, and thanks to the close alliance of the movement with the pro-Polish Catholic Church, the liberated Polish peasants chose to support the Polish rather than the Russian side that had treated them so benevolently in 1864.


Aleksandr II was not a radical enthroned such as Peter the Great. Attempts to divide Aleksandr’s rule chronologically into a good part (1856–1866) and a bad part (1866–1881), as is sometimes done for Aleksandr I (1801–1812 and 1812–1825), seem attractive but are ultimately too simplistic. As was the case with his uncle, Aleksandr II often alternated between more progressive and more conservative policies. Most of the tsar’s actions responded to the political situation he faced, rather than being the fruits of a preconceived strategy. The exception to this was his bold proclamation of the Emancipation Act of 1861 (although it, too, was in a sense a response to the disaster of the Crimean War). Aleksandr II often appears to have embodied the ideal type of the Bismarckian “realpolitiker,” the politician as a pragmatist, adhering to the principle that politics is the art of the possible. Even when contemporary revolutionary fanatics accused the tsar of following a program that amounted to the darkest reaction, Aleksandr II was actually attempting to inch forward, very slowly remaking his country into a modern state. Unfortunately for him and for Russia, however, he was not given sufficient time to bring this process to a successful conclusion.

Aleksandr II’s measured response toward rebellious Poland shows some of his balanced approach, even if the suppression of the Lithuanian allies of the Poles may have been disproportionately harsh. He needed to respond firmly when in 1866 he was faced with the next crisis, triggered by the student Dmitrii Karakozov’s (1840–1866) effort to murder him. Karakozov’s attempt made evident that the opposition to the tsar was no longer confined to discussion circles. Some revolutionaries had concluded that the time for drastic actions had arrived. In response to Karakozov’s action, the tsar appointed a notorious conservative, Dmitrii Tolstoi (1823–1889), as education minister. Universities were once again placed under strict government surveillance. But whereas Tolstoi placed strong emphasis on a curriculum that seemed out of touch with modernity (the study of Latin and Greek was prioritized at secondary schools), during his tenure as minister (1866–1880) the number of boys and girls attending such institutions quickly grew. Under Tolstoi, women gained access to special postsecondary schools that were affiliated with the universities of Moscow, Odessa, Kyiv, and Kazan.

Meanwhile, zemstva invested heavily in health care and primary education, even after Aleksandr II had allegedly turned into a reactionary. By the 1870s, the focus of the Russian local and central government undoubtedly had shifted. No longer was the state apparatus almost solely an instrument enabling the tsar to wage war. The government was now expected to improve popular well-being as well. This was quite the shift even from the recent past of Nicholas I’s days. It shows how Aleksandr II was, far more than his father and uncle, or his son and grandson, attuned to his times.

The one piece missing in Russia’s evolution from a premodern or early modern autocracy propped up by serf labor to a modern government of a society of free laborers was any institution by which the central government could be held accountable for its actions. The bell seemed to toll for the autocracy itself, for, by 1880, no other major European power (or the new budding power in North America) was ruled by an absolute monarch. Everywhere, the executive was held in check by some sort of a representative body elected by a part of the citizenry.4 Even Russia’s former conservative allies, the new German Empire (succeeding Prussia and founded by the Prussian prime minister Bismarck in 1871) and Austria-Hungary had parliaments. The byword for backwardness in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, had begun to experiment with constitutional rule (even if such experiments were brought to a halt by Sultan Abdülhamid II [r. 1876–1909]). Surely Russia was not to be considered more backward than its long-standing Turkish foe. It is moot in how far precisely Aleksandr II and his advisors were haunted by the growing sense of Western superiority over Eastern “others,” but as is obvious from their justification of their colonization of Central Asia, the Russian tsar and his ministers did not want to be considered another “Oriental despotism,” on par with the (Turkish) Sick Man of Europe or imploding Qing China.

Given this international context, Aleksandr’s interest in a plan that would begin to curtail his omnipotence does not surprise (even if historians have pointed out that the proposals read by the tsar in his final days still fell far short of an actual constitution). In the midst of a crisis caused by revolutionaries who had embarked on a fanatic offensive to assassinate the tsar, Aleksandr had his main advisor Mikhail Loris-Melikov (1825–1888) developed a road map toward some sort of power-sharing agreement between him and his subjects. In the end, the terrorists won: in March 1881, before Aleksandr could take the first steps toward a constitutional monarchy, he was murdered. The killing of the tsar by the revolutionaries of the People’s Will was a key moment in the chain of events that led to the catastrophic human tragedy that was to envelop the Russian Empire in the course of the subsequent century.


For the most radical members of the first generation of the intelligentsia, such as Aleksandr Herzen or Mikhail Bakunin, the pen was still mightier than the sword. After persecution by the tsarist authorities in Nicholas I’s reign, both went abroad, never to come back to Russia. In his influential magazine The Bell (Kolokol'), Herzen preached a sort of peaceful transition to a new, socialist Russia. Bakunin, meanwhile, began to embrace the idea of a sort of cathartic violence through which humanity needed to move to reach the ideal of a world without government. Neither was a Marxist. Marxism began to spread in Russia only in the late 1870s, after Marx’s Capital was (legally!) diffused among students and intelligenty.5

Herzen’s socialism, while influenced by Western socialist thinkers, was a Russian ideology tainted by Slavophilism. He believed that Russia could become a society of equals because of the innate socialist character of the village commune, the mir. Although in the periodic repartition of land, for example, a sort of social justice could be recognized, this was based on myth rather than reality. In most villages, the shots were called by the (male) heads of the most prosperous households, who lorded it over their neighbors and behaved like patriarchs within their own families. Any true altruism was as hard to find in the village as it was in the rest of society.

Nonetheless, Herzen’s convictions about a future socialist Russia composed of equal village communes remained influential. The Populists (Narodniki) of the 1870s “Going to the People” (khozhdenie v narod) movement believed in the socialist nature of the Russian peasant, as did, a generation later, the Socialist Revolutionary Party (founded in the early 1900s). Lenin (Vladimir Ul'ianov, 1870–1924), too, flirted with the idea of primordial peasant socialism in justifying his strategy to found a socialist country based on an alliance of hammer and sickle, of workers and peasants, who would find each other in their socialist mind-set. And at least in part, Stalin (Iosif Dzugashvili, 1878–1953) may have genuinely believed that the innate socialist essence of the middle and poor peasants would make them understand the wisdom of his “dekulakization” (persecution of alleged rich peasants who exploited the labor of their neighbors) and embrace the collective farms he imposed on the Soviet countryside in 1929 and 1930.

The idea of a peaceful transition to a socialist Russia as entertained by Herzen lost its appeal fairly quickly. Urged on by inflammatory treatises as written by publicists such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828–1889; his What Is to Be Done? became an inspiration to Lenin), Nikolai Dobroliubov (1836–1861), and Dmitrii Pisarev (1840–1868), the young men and women who formed the opposition of the 1860s and 1870s were impatient for a drastic change in their country’s system of rule. Karakozov’s failed attempt in 1866 was only the first of several. Illegal revolutionary groupings were organized across the country (although most of the fervor was limited to the towns and cities of the European parts and the Caucasus). In 1873 and 1874, hundreds of young zealots eager to preach the socialist gospel to the peasants traveled the countryside as part of the “Going to the People” movement. The peasants proved unreceptive to its message. Arrests followed, and this ended the Populist movement’s first incarnation.

Some of those who had “gone to the people” then decided that more radical steps were necessary. They split off from the main organization (called Land and Freedom or Zeml'ia i Vol'ia) to form a terrorist group (the People’s Will, or Narodnaia vol'ia) that aimed at, and succeeded in, assassinating the tsar.

Others, led by G. V. Plekhanov (1856–1918), fell under the spell of Karl Marx. They abandoned the idea of a specifically Russian path to socialism. The Russian Marxists suggested that Russia’s socialist future would be brought about by its budding industrial working class, once its numbers had made it the dominant force in Russian society. But this would happen only in alliance with the proletarians of other (more advanced) industrialized countries, first and foremost those of Central and Western Europe. Plekhanov, together with two associates, Pavel Akselrod (1850–1928) and Vera Zasulich (1849–1919), voluntarily decided to go into exile to lead Russia’s fledgling Marxist movement from abroad.

Zasulich had acquired almost legendary status in the revolutionary movement after her failed attempt in 1878 to kill the police chief of St. Petersburg, F. F. Trepov (1809–1889), for which deed she had been acquitted in a jury trial. Zasulich was not the only woman who came to the fore in the Russian revolutionary movement around 1880. Whereas women were clearly the “second sex” in nineteenth-century Russia, they began to find their own voice, first and foremost in the revolutionary movement. Vera Figner’s (1852–1942) Memoirs of a Revolutionist is testimony to this process. In it, she presents one of the most evocative depictions of the revolutionary movement of the 1870s and 1880s.

Various theories about this public emergence of women have been proffered, none of them wholly convincing. Apart from the inspiration of the burgeoning women’s movement in contemporary Europe, the example of the eighteenth-century empresses may have been a factor. As we saw earlier, in Slavic tradition the role of a sort of earth mother (and of mother earth) was pronounced, too. This Russian worship of a mother of creation, which resembles classical Greece’s Gaia veneration, was never entirely erased by Christianity. In Russian Orthodoxy, the worship of the Mother of God (the Bogoroditsa) was intense, with Mary adopting some of the traits of the pagan earth mother.

It is certainly remarkable that so-called strong women came to the fore in many of the novels of the day. At the same time, however, women’s lives remained harsh. In most villages, Russian men seem to have routinely beaten their wives, a practice that was rarely frowned on by their neighbors. In the primitive material circumstances of prerevolutionary Russia, many women died from complications while giving birth (or soon after).


Figure 4.1. Aleksandr II’s assassins, Zheliabov and Perovskaia, sketched on the eve of their execution, 1881

Next to Zasulich and Figner, Sofia Perovskaia (1853–1881), daughter of a tsarist general, became famous as a revolutionary woman. She was one of the People’s Will’s key organizers of the tsar’s assassination in March 1881. Perovskaia was among the five executed for this act of terrorism. She had worked closely together with Figner, who barely managed to avoid execution after her own arrest in 1883.


Despite the attempts by Nicholas I to prevent this from happening, a civil society had emerged in Russia during the first half of the nineteenth century. Intellectuals associated with each other in discussion circles and published in journals alongside like-minded souls (or those who disagreed with them), while scholarly and scientific groups met on their own initiative rather than that of the state. The government tried to monitor virtually every group activity of its subjects, through the Third Department and the Okhrana, which succeeded it in 1880. But this was no longer a society that had to be prompted to find its voice, as had been the case during Catherine the Great’s reign. Despite the efforts of Dmitrii Tolstoi and others, the quickly increasing number of young people who received an education undoubtedly informed the spread of a critical mind-set in Russia after 1855.

Society’s voice found its most eloquent expression in Russian literature (in other languages that could be found within the empire, writers were prolific, too, but their works do not enjoy similarly lasting, worldwide acclaim). Its golden age reached a climax during Aleksandr II’s rule. Some of the radical political mind-set of the 1860s and 1870s has probably been most evocatively depicted in novels such as Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons (1872). This was also the era of Lev Tolstoi’s masterpieces Anna Karenina (1873–1877) and War and Peace (1869). In Oblomov (1859), Ivan Goncharov (1812–1891), oddly enough a government censor, depicted the twilight of the serf-owning nobility and its descent into lethargy. Poetry found some brilliant practitioners as well, such as Afanasii Fet (1820–1892) and Fyodor Tiutchev (1803–1873). Certainly, Pyotr Chaadaev’s dismissal of Russia’s failure to contribute anything substantially worthwhile for the benefit of humanity had been comprehensively countered by this literary brilliance.

In other areas of art, such as music and painting, a period of creative flourishing equally unfolded after 1850. In Glinka’s wake, composers brilliantly succeeded in weaving Russian themes into classical music. Most famous became Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), thanks to his music for the ballets Swan Lake (1877) and The Nutcracker (1892) and the opera Evgenii Onegin (1879), based on Pushkin’s novel in verse. Tchaikovsky befriended a group of composers collectively known as “The Mighty Five” (a rather loose translation of “Moguchaia Kuchka,” as they are called in Russian). They included Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), Aleksandr Borodin (1833–1887), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908). Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (1874, based on a Pushkin piece as well) remains a favorite the world over. His 1874 composition Pictures at an Exhibition aligned with other new trends in European art, such as French impressionism.

In painting, in which previously Karl Briullov (1792–1855) had been acclaimed for his work in the Romantic style, the “Peredvizhniki” (“Wanderers”) emerged; they depicted scenes from the Russian past and present in a naturalist style. Il'ia Repin (1844–1930) became the most famous Wanderer, for works such as Volga Barge Haulers (1872–1873) and Procession in Kursk Province (1881–1883). Vasilii Surikov’s (1848–1916) historically inspired works have also remained popular. The Wanderers still practiced a realist style (and thus met approval in Stalin’s Soviet Union), which was eventually challenged in the symbolist work of Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910), who married Orthodox imagery with a more experimental style. Vrubel’s art both recalls impressionism and seems to herald surrealism.

Russian genius was expressed not merely in arts and literature but in scientific research, too. The first great Russian scientist was the mathematician Nikolai Lobachevskii (1792–1856), who challenged several of the Euclidean axioms. In his wake, Dmitrii Mendeleev (1834–1907) became a giant in chemistry, responsible for developing the periodic table of elements. Another pioneer was Konstantin Tsiolkovskii (1857–1935), who designed rockets for space travel.

Nineteenth-century Russian historiography suffered from some of the same shortcomings as other European and North American history writing, with an unduly heavy emphasis on military and diplomatic history, and a particular preference to trace the development of the state in history (which was seen as a positive development, following Hegel’s guidance). Neither women nor non-Russians received much attention, for example, and the incorporation of non-Russian areas by the Russian state was uncritically portrayed as beneficial to such regions. But work by some of the greatest historians of the age has to some degree stood the test of time. Even if it is in some ways a comment on the one-sided character and paucity of Soviet historiography, it is telling that in recent years the history of Russia by Sergei Solov'ev (1820–1879) has been translated in full into English for the first time. No one has rendered such a detailed picture of the Russian past since Solov'ev. Similarly, some of the insights of his pupil Vasilii Kliuchevskii (1841–1911) are still discussed by historians today, both inside Russia and elsewhere. Among the non-Russians, modern historiography developed as well and was to supply arguments for national self-determination, in response to those applauding the seemingly irresistible rise in history of the Russian state. Best known, perhaps, were the Ukrainians Mykola Kostomarov (1817–1885, who wrote most of his work in Russian) and Mykhailo Hrushevskyi (1866–1934), who was to become the head of the briefly existing Ukrainian state in 1917 and 1918.


The Russian Empire embarked on full-scale industrialization at the time of Aleksandr II’s murder. His death at exactly that moment was most unfortunate because the rapid changes that overcame the empire’s economy and society needed to be guided by a responsive government. Aleksandr III’s method of rule, instead, was inflexible and unresponsive. He resembled a despot of the premodern age, preferring things to remain as they were (or, indeed, had been). He was thoroughly out of touch with the modern society that was taking shape in Russia. And when Aleksandr III suddenly died in 1894, his son and heir Nicholas was far from ready to take the throne. Nicholas had believed that his father had a good couple of decades ahead of him. Lacking imagination and boldness and without sufficient preparation for the task awaiting him, he decided to continue in his father’s footsteps. Nicholas II was rudely woken up from his nostalgic reverie in 1905, when he was suddenly confronted by his entire country in rebellion. After it had been overcome, he never quite grasped its significance.

The first signs of industrialization in Russia appeared even under Nicholas I, when a railroad line was completed from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1851. Its more than four hundred miles represented by far the longest double-track railway in the world. It was a prestigious accomplishment, but it was at the same time a mere drop in a bucket. Russia was vast, and railroad construction never fully acquired the momentum that would have provided the country with a sufficiently dense network (even if by 1876 track had grown more than tenfold). Apart from freight or passenger transport, this was required for fast troop movement, as was made once again evident in 1914 (it had already been apparent during the Crimean War). In the first days of the First World War, Germany moved its soldiers around fast enough to head off Russian offensives along the front line. More than sixty years after the first substantial rail line was completed, the development of Russia’s railways was nowhere close to that of its German foe.


Figure 4.2. Bashkir railroad switchman in the Urals, ca. 1910 (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, Library of Congress)

Besides railroad construction, early Russian industrialization occurred primarily in textile manufacturing. Even in the final years of serfdom, textile mills sprang up that were not unlike those of contemporary Manchester or Glasgow in Britain. They were founded in and around Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Ivanovo-Voznesensk in central Russia, as well as in Russian Poland. The workforce consisted of (former) peasants who already before the introduction of a mechanized production process had been earning supplementary income spinning and weaving at home, paying so-called quitrent to their lords. Outside of Poland, the textile workers hailed predominantly from the non–Black Earth zone, where people at best eked out a meager living in agriculture because of the poor soil and inclement weather. For decades, factory workers maintained fairly close ties to their ancestral villages, sometimes leaving their jobs at the looms to help out at home with farmwork in the summer.

Meanwhile, the abolition of serfdom and the steep decline in demand for Russian iron because of competition from technologically advanced mines in industrialized countries led to a decline in the production of the Ural metallurgical enterprises. Once they were liberated, the previously enserfed miners preferred to seek their luck in other pursuits, further encumbering the winning of ore. Altogether, industry under Aleksandr II grew very slowly. The number of factory workers and miners perhaps increased by 30 percent between 1860 and 1880, and barely surpassed one million workers by the latter year. In the 1870s, nevertheless, some groundwork was laid for the boom that was to follow, such as the completion of the railway link between the iron-ore and coal-mining districts in southern Ukraine, and the early exploitation of oil fields around Baku in Azerbaijan.

But the real takeoff period for Russian industrialization was the 1880s and 1890s. It was funded by private initiative (including that of some foreigners), foreign loans, and comparatively high taxation, especially of those who could least afford it, the peasantry, and in part levied on consumer staples such as vodka. The government protected fledgling industries from foreign competition by way of high tariffs on imports while it provided required infrastructure and actively jump-started various enterprises, for example in mining. The ministers of finance of the era (among whom Sergei Vitte [1849–1915] deserves pride of place) who guided this economic policy thus tried to copy the successful German road to industrialization of the middle of the nineteenth century.

Railway building accelerated (albeit far from quickly enough). Its showpiece was the Transsiberian Railroad, which began to be built under Vitte’s supervision in the 1890s. Railways linked key ports such as Odessa, Riga, and Novorossiisk with their hinterland, and budding industrial areas with each other. Coal and iron production boomed in the 1890s in the Donets Basin (Donbas), and oil production near Baku almost tripled during the same decade. Major cities in these booming regions, such as Baku or Ekaterinoslav (Dnipropetrovsk), saw their populations double in ten years. Still, much of the empire was hardly touched by the changes, for industry tended to be heavily concentrated in a few areas. By 1900, almost three times as many people worked as artisans (making products on a small scale without mechanized tools) than as industrial workers: eight to nine million were craftsmen and craftswomen, when approximately three million found employment in factories and mines.

Most of the new factories established in the final decades of the nineteenth century were large, employing thousands of workers. Their wages were low (partially because workers performed predominantly unskilled work), and labor conditions were harsh. The fluctuation of the labor force was high: many workers departed for their ancestral villages if their help was needed for farmwork back home. From fairly early on, the government countered the worst exploitation of workers by legislation. Legislation milestones included the outlawing of child labor in 1882 (for children younger than twelve); the limitation of the workday to a maximum of eleven and a half hours per day in 1897; and the 1903 decree that obliged employers to compensate those injured at work in their enterprises. Whereas government inspectors at first were often ignored or bribed, their honesty and the means to enforce factory legislation markedly improved during the 1890s.

Trade unions, though, were prohibited, and strikes forbidden, too. Work in factories and mines was dangerous for their labor force’s health in the long and short term. Accidents were common, with hundreds of workers dying across Russia every year in industrial and railroad accidents. Housing was dreadful, with workers sleeping on bunks in barracks, which often lacked running water and sewers. Illness was common, even if epidemic diseases became rare after the spread of inoculation programs in the 1880s and 1890s. Alcoholism was rampant, as was violence in factory districts. Bereft of the support from their families or from fellow villagers (and often from any priest or other religious servant), workers sought solace in the promises and community offered by various socialist agitators and sometimes in informal mutual-aid organizations of workers who hailed from the same region.

Like anywhere else, modern mass society in Russia was not merely composed of the industrial proletariat and its employers, together with government officials overseeing the factories and facilitating their operation. Urbanization also involved a growth in the number of those engaged in the service sector, from artisans, shopkeepers, clerks, janitors, and teachers to transport workers. The 1897 census counted almost two million people as belonging to the nobility, most of whom lived at least part of the year in the empire’s towns and cities as well. Three hundred and fifty thousand people were enumerated as clerics (many of whom lived in the countryside, but a significant number lived in the towns). Businessmen, lawyers, secondary-school teachers, professors, doctors, and so on, formed a predominantly urban upper middle class of slightly more than six hundred thousand people. With just as many rurally based as living in towns, artisans amounted to some 8 million people, while 2.6 million were enumerated as factory workers. Altogether, the empire’s urban population amounted in 1897 to almost seventeen million people (the remaining 108 million were counted as rural dwellers). Such numbers remain tentative: millions were hard to categorize, as they lived for part of the year in their ancestral village and part in an urban community. In the census, 93.5 million peasants (including people who fished or hunted as a living) were counted, and almost 3 million people were identified as Cossacks.


Figure 4.3. Il'ia Repin’s Volga Barge Haulers, 1872–1873

Russia was thus a country in the throes of industrialization by 1900, but it was not an industrialized country. For example, in the United Kingdom, half the population lived in an urban environment by the middle of the nineteenth century, indicating that it had become an industrialized country with people finding employment primarily in the cities. In Nicholas II’s empire, less than 10 percent did so in 1900. The early phase of industrialization is a most unsettling stage of development for any country, and this was certainly the case for Russia around 1900. The changes that this process wrought in the mushrooming cities were accompanied by a dire situation in much of the countryside, which was plagued by overpopulation and underproduction.


Although the Russian peasantry cultivated half the available arable land by 1880 in European Russia, yields remained anemic. We saw earlier how rarely knowledge was diffused about more efficient methods of farming, and few advanced tools were in use. While the government was heavily involved in nurturing the empire’s fledgling industry, it stood aside when it came to improving agriculture. Peasants bore much of the brunt of financing industry, through direct and indirect taxes, and compensation payments (which were sluiced into things such as infrastructure projects). Even if interested in sophisticated equipment, most peasants could not afford to purchase any advanced tools because high import duties were slapped on foreign imports and little farming machinery was made in Russia. Crop yields thus often did not surpass those common in Britain in the seventeenth century. In 1900, yields in Britain were four times as high as in Russia.

Because so much land was unsuited for agriculture as well, Russia faced rural overpopulation by 1900. This was the case even though the strong reliance on manual labor meant that farms needed far more workhands than in Western Europe or North America. The worst overpopulation was encountered in the region best suited for agriculture, that is, the Black Earth region, especially in the Ukrainian provinces of Chernigov (Chernihiv), Poltava, and Kharkov (Kharkiv) and the Russian provinces of Kursk, Oryol, and Tambov. Peasants tried to rent additional land from private landowners (apart from nobles, more and more middle-class town dwellers acquired land toward 1900), but this was expensive and few peasants had ready cash, given the meager surplus they marketed. In 1883, a special Peasant Land Bank began to operate, furnishing peasants with loans allowing them to buy more land, but it was difficult to qualify for these loans. In addition, many peasants were loath to take on further burdens in addition to the redemption fees and taxes they owed the government. Lacking sufficient land, families increasingly saw members leave the village to find part-time or full-time work in nonagricultural occupations. These people sought their luck as itinerant or sedentary artisans, as seasonal workers on the farms of richer neighbors or on noble and nonnoble estates, or as workers in the factories in the towns.

Gradually, too, some peasants moved from densely populated regions to areas where there was still sufficient land for farming, as was the case in western Ukraine, the Kuban, and Stavropol regions north of the Caucasus, or in western Siberia and northern Kazakhstan. Migration to Siberia and Kazakhstan stepped up with the expansion of the Transsiberian Railroad. The settlement of Slavic peasants there, however, came at the expense of the grasslands of the local nomadic population and led to sporadic clashes as well as smoldering resentment between settlers and nomads.

For years the government pondered the introduction of a policy that would end the periodic redistribution of land in the villages. Full perpetual ownership of a clearly demarcated piece of land might help peasants acquire a greater interest in improving their land, but nothing was undertaken in this regard until 1905.6 Similarly, nothing substantial was undertaken to alleviate the burden of the compensation payments for the land received by the former serfs at the time of their emancipation. As with much else, of course, there were bright spots in agriculture, through which the Russian Empire was able to export agricultural products. The government’s share of the proceeds from these transactions was sunk into the industrialization program.


By definition, an autocracy cannot tolerate political opposition. The autocrat is infallible, all seeing, and all knowing. Aleksandr III unhesitatingly subscribed to this theory. In his eyes, his father’s murder confirmed that Russia needed to be ruled by a firm hand. The tsar ordered his security police to round up all Populists. Some were jailed and banished to Siberia; some went abroad. But the example of the People’s Will nevertheless inspired others to continue to commit acts of terror. Among them was the biology student Aleksandr Ul'ianov (1866–1887), who hailed from the Volga town of Simbirsk. He unsuccessfully tried to assassinate the tsar in the spring of 1887. Ul'ianov was arrested and hanged. He had a younger brother, Vladimir (better known as Lenin), who at the time was preparing to study law at university. Vladimir became as fanatically opposed to the tsar as Aleksandr had been but decided that his older brother’s methods to end the tsar’s rule had been wrongheaded. Perhaps he had a point: after first acquiring power in Russia, Lenin had the last tsar killed in 1918.

The difference between the brothers Ul'ianov reflected the transformation taking place within the Russian revolutionary movement in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. The Populists remained faithful to the idea that Russia’s peasantry consisted of budding socialists. It would be sufficient for revolutionaries merely to nudge them to see tsardom replaced by a decentralized state of equal peasant communes. This view was most eloquently expressed in the work of N. K. Mikhailovskii (1842–1904). But the wave of repression unleashed by Aleksandr III in response to the assassination of Aleksandr II was a setback for the revolutionary movement, as the tsarist authorities’ arrest wave almost wholly eradicated the opposition. It made Populists such as Mikhailovskii reject the terrorism advocated by the People’s Will as counterproductive. After 1900, however, when the Populists founded the political party of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR), terrorism made a comeback as a revolutionary tactic. The impatient young leadership of the SR party considered it once again a valuable weapon in the fight for the overthrow of tsarism. The number of attempts on the lives of government dignitaries rapidly increased. In a few cases, perhaps, the terrorists may have actually triggered the desired effect; for example, the murder of the interior minister V. K. Pleve (1846–1904) ushered in a less repressive atmosphere in the country.

The infatuation with terrorism is of course not uniquely Russian. In the Russian case, it was unusually strongly developed, going back to Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchism. Bakunin suggested that a society of equals would be brought about in one fell swoop, through a sort of purifying conflagration. It was not quite clear what this revolutionary catharsis would consist of, but Bakunin and his allies thought that it would entail some sort of violent orgy in which the oppressed settled scores with their oppressors. The murder of the symbol of inequality, the tsar, might bring about this transformative moment. Anarchists in other countries murdered dignitaries,7 but nowhere did such assassinations have the desired effect. Quite the opposite, in fact, was usually the case, as it was in Russia. Apart from Aleksandr II’s murder in 1881, the terrorist murder of prime minister Pyotr Stolypin (1862–1911) stands out as a supremely tragic moment in Russian history. Stolypin’s death quashed perhaps the last chance for Russia to modernize in a relatively peaceful and gradual manner.

Few Populists, Socialist Revolutionaries, or anarchists believed in the possibility of a nonviolent transformation toward a society of greater justice. The world needed to be cleansed from the exploiters, who were not expected to surrender voluntarily. And terrorist violence, precisely because it led to harsher government repression, would awaken the toiling masses to their true friends and enemies, increasing their desire for an overthrow of the government and an end to the rule of the privileged classes. Finally, it should be noted that not all agreed that equality and justice would come about only through violence. The other great leader of Russian anarchism, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin (1842–1921), was a strong opponent of violent methods. His ideas seemed akin to the quirky Christian socialism championed by the writer Lev Tolstoi.

Certainly, the Marxists who organized themselves abroad under the lead of Plekhanov, Akselrod, and Zasulich rejected terrorism. They, too, believed that a better world could come about only through a violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie (or middle class composed of factory owners and their ilk) but argued that this revolution should begin only when society’s support for socialism had become overwhelming. Then the proletarians (the industrial working class) would sweep away the bourgeoisie, ending its control over the economy (and therefore the government, in the Marxist view). But such a revolution could occur only if Russia was sufficiently industrialized and had such a proletariat, that is, if it could boast of an industrial working class that outnumbered all other social groups (including the allegedly backward peasantry). In addition, socialist agitators needed time to convince this proletariat that its true interest lay in the creation of a society of equals, who shared the fruits of their labor in an equitable manner. Since Russia was far from industrialized even in the 1880s, Plekhanov and company thus believed that patience was needed. Capitalism was in its infancy in the tsar’s realm. Looking at the example of Britain or Germany, the Russian Marxist pioneers concluded that a level of modernization of the economy that would bring Russia to the brink of a socialist revolution might take half a century.

Although Marxist socialism was an attractive political philosophy, since it promised the arrival of a sort of paradise on earth and built its predictions on a supposedly scientific study of long-term historical trends (thus it was called “historical materialism” by Marx himself), some of its premises were murky. Marx suggested that the revolution would begin in the most advanced industrialized countries, after which the lesser-developed countries would follow suit. It would therefore be an international, global revolution. But it remained vague how many countries needed to be sufficiently industrialized and how such a level of industrialization could be measured. In addition, Marx had suggested that in mature capitalist societies capital would be increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. These capitalists would exploit their workers to the hilt. The vast majority of the population would sink into poverty and join the proletarians, who would realize that they had “nothing to loose but their chains.” Vastly outnumbering the capitalists and their cronies in the government, the proletariat would start the inevitably triumphant socialist revolution.

But a countervailing trend could be discerned in the developed industrial countries in the late nineteenth century. Through trade union activism (as in Great Britain), the advocacy of strengthening socialist movements (in Germany or France), or positive government measures (as in the German Empire), the labor conditions and standard of living of the Central and Western European proletariat markedly improved. Pensions were introduced, as were accident and health insurance, while wages were rising and slums torn down and replaced by better housing. Education levels improved. And this occurred at a time when the world economy was mired in a long-term slump (1873–1896). Marxists such as Lenin and Trotsky later argued that these improvements in the mature capitalist societies were in effect meaningless. They argued that the workers remained powerless, bereft of any control over their labor. Only when workers owned their own factories would they be truly empowered and could the vagaries of the free market and capitalist competition be overcome. Purist Marxists such as Lenin argued that capitalist businessmen, and their allies who ran the government, attempted to distract the proletarians from pursuing their true interest by making a few cosmetic concessions. Only socialism would bring true relief from capitalist oppression.

A new generation of Marxists appeared in 1890s Russia that witnessed firsthand the industrialization boom and the dreadful labor conditions and living circumstances of the workers who were employed by the factories. This second generation (not unlike those who led the SR after 1900) was much less patient than Plekhanov and company. Since workers were not allowed to form trade unions that could defend their interests and bargain for better wages and labor conditions, exploitation was indeed frequently extreme, despite the government’s efforts to overcome the worst excesses. Owners often hired and fired at will, as the labor pool seemed inexhaustible. The workers lacked almost any means of defense against such practices, although strikes broke out with regularity. In these dire circumstances, socialist agitators seemed to offer solace and even ultimate salvation.

Driven by the impatience of youth, the young Lenin, together with such allies as Yuli Martov (1873–1923), worked hard at whipping up the revolutionary inclinations of St. Petersburg’s proletariat. Lenin’s activities quickly drew the attention of the tsarist authorities, who sent him for several years of exile to Siberia during the late 1890s. Deciding that the danger of renewed arrest would be too great if he stayed in Russia and that his writings could influence the Russian working class more profoundly if he lived abroad, Lenin joined the Plekhanov group in Switzerland upon his release in 1900. Meanwhile, the tsarist government was fighting a many-headed Hydra in its attempts to suppress socialist agitation. For every one socialist rounded up, another two cropped up.


Because of the ultimate outcome, a socialist (or communist, as the Bolsheviks preferred to call their state) Soviet Union, historians used to neglect the considerable support in late Imperial Russia for political movements that took their cue from Western-style democracies. Both democratic liberalism and conservatism might have worked in Russia in the long term, if the country had been given sufficient time to adjust to the promising changes brought about from 1905 onward. Instead, however, the First World War terminated the brief Russian experience with constitutional government.

Nonetheless, before August 1914 it had become obvious that the tsarist regime, although no longer ruling unchecked, was even reluctant to work with the conservatives. The tsar and his advisors preferred to seek advice from extremist politicians and political movements, believing that they represented the “healthy viewpoint of the common folk” (as the Nazis called it a generation later8). It was undoubtedly true that still after 1905 many peasants had little political awareness and that their lodestars were the little lord (the tsar, or “Tsar-Batiushka”) on earth and the great lord in heaven. But the tsar mistook the political demagoguery of the leaders of the Union of the Russian People (also known as the Black Hundreds) as the voice of the people. Nicholas was even loath to condemn the flaring up of pogroms of Jewish communities in the Pale of Settlement (which became a recurring phenomenon from 1881 onward), as they, too, were seen as expressing authentic popular sentiments. No one was prosecuted for forging the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a document about an alleged Jewish world conspiracy that was to be used by Hitler), and no one was convicted for conjuring up the ritual murder that placed Mendel Beilis (1874–1934) on trial in Kyiv, both signs of an utterly vile anti-Semitism. Compared to the perverse ravings of the Black Hundreds’ ringleaders, Grigorii Rasputin’s (1869–1916) advice to the imperial couple was far less baneful, but contrary to Aleksandra’s and Nicholas’s beliefs, the Siberian monk’s views hardly reflected those of the majority of the tsar’s subjects.

In seeking advice, Aleksandr III and Nicholas II could have turned to people of liberal or mainstream conservative convictions, if they had cared to find them. Once in a while, a more enlightened figure was appointed to a ministry, such as Vitte or Stolypin. Even though these men were utterly loyal servants, the monarchs never listened very well to them. And these ministers lacked any sort of backing by a broad-based political movement within Russian society. Instead, the key advisor of the last two tsars before 1905 was an archreactionary who rejected the modern world wholesale. Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827–1907) was the former tutor of Aleksandr III and subsequent lay chief (Oberprokuror) of the Russian Orthodox Church. Pobedonostsev wanted Russia to revert to a state in which religion combined with autocracy existed in a felicitous harmony and to a country in which all accepted their station in life without complaint, selflessly serving their sovereign and awaiting their rewards in the hereafter. Such ideas were pleasing to Aleksandr and Nicholas, but they were wholly out of touch with reality.

The problem for those who could have formed his tsarist majesty’s “loyal opposition” was that political opposition was outlawed. Thus, mild critics might be treated like rabid revolutionary firebrands. Liberal critics sometimes found an outlet in journals and magazines, but even then they had to avoid bringing down the censor’s wrath on themselves and their publications. Eventually, Pyotr Struve (1870–1944) organized the Soiuz Osvobozhdenie (Union of Liberation) abroad; members of the liberal party that in 1904 emerged from the Union of Liberation were known as Constitutional Democrats, or for short, K-D or Kadets. One of the key leaders of the Kadets was the historian Pavel Miliukov (1859–1943). The liberal leaders, unfortunately, were so traumatized by more than twenty years of tsarist persecution that they missed the chance to lead Russia to a better future when it was offered to them. When they and their sympathizers received more than half of the seats in elections for the new Duma (parliament) in 1906, they did not trust the tsar’s offering of an olive branch and instead boycotted the proceedings.

Their competitors, the Octobrist Party, were willing to work with the tsar, but they were backed by a rather smaller part of the electorate.9 When they received a greater share of the vote after the franchise was restricted for the elections of the Third Duma in 1907, the Octobrists (led by Aleksandr Guchkov, 1862–1936) were not invited to join the government. Instead, they became a very critical, albeit loyal, opposition.

One can easily imagine a government made up of elected liberal or conservative leaders ruling Russia in the name of a constitutional monarch, a more conciliatory or enlightened character than Aleksandr III or Nicholas II. After all, governments of such persuasions alternated in the United Kingdom and other countries around 1900. But Russia’s misfortune was to be ruled by men who somehow had convinced themselves that they possessed a sort of superhuman charisma and wisdom, thanks to their divine appointment. God’s will obliged them to rule as autocrats in the image of the Byzantine emperors. In the half millennium that had passed since the fall of Constantinople, however, the world had evolved beyond such concepts of sacred kingship.


According to the 1897 census, out of a total of 125 million inhabitants of the tsar’s empire, approximately 84 million people spoke an Eastern Slavonic language (the breakdown was made according to mother tongue), of whom 55.7 million were Russians, 22.4 Ukrainians, and 5.9 million Belarusyn. Numerically, the third-largest group was the almost 8 million Polish speakers. Five million Yiddish-speaking Jews lived in the empire. The 1.8 million German speakers outnumbered Latvians (1.4 million), as well as the Georgians, Lithuanians, Moldavians, or Estonians, each of which nation numbered slightly more than a million people. Almost 14 million Turkic-Tatar speakers (4 million Kazakhs and 3.7 million Tatars among them) were enumerated. The exact breakdown of this group (who spoke related, albeit different, languages) remains vague, since census takers often failed to grasp the distinction between Kyrgyz and Kazakh, or Uzbek and Tajik. It is more than likely than many Central Asian Muslims avoided the census takers (and some numbers were forged), as was the case for the Caucasian mountain dwellers (a million were counted) and Azeris (of whom 380,000 were counted). There were identified several million others whose mother tongue was a language spoken by fewer than one hundred thousand people. Ninety three and a half million people lived in European Russia (excluding the Caucasus), with slightly over thirty million in Asiatic Russia. Seventy percent were Orthodox believers, 11 percent Muslim, 9 percent Catholic, and 4 percent Jewish, with many belonging to smaller religious groups.

The 1897 census was the first and last comprehensive counting in the history of Imperial Russia that detailed the linguistic and cultural allegiances of the tsar’s subjects as well as their places of residence. Its staging reflected how, toward the end of the nineteenth century, matters such as religious affiliation or mother tongue had suddenly acquired importance for the Russian Empire’s authorities. During Nicholas I’s rule, when the official ideology was one of “nationality,” “autocracy,” and “Orthodoxy,” the tsar’s subjects’ common bond was primarily their loyalty to the monarch, whose empire they had joined, forcibly or voluntarily, across the centuries. “Nationality” did not mean much beyond a certain recognition that the monarch and the state (and the administration’s language) were Russian. “Orthodoxy” was not meant to be exclusive, and the tsar’s flock harbored millions of Muslims, Lutherans, animists, and Catholics.

Before 1880, only perhaps the Poles living in historical Poland had adopted modern mass nationalism. Especially by way of Polish-language schools and to some extent through the Polish-Catholic clergy, a belief about their nation’s unique shared cultural and historical identity had spread among all social strata in Poland. This sort of conviction usually implies a sense of superiority. As a result, Poles proved highly resistant to any government efforts to have them adopt a Russian identity (so-called Russification) after 1881. But this policy did not meet with much success among other non-Russians either.

With Russification, the archconservative Aleksandr III offered one truly novel major policy to his peoples. The tsar tried to Russify the non-Russians by abolishing many of the special rights and privileges various ethnocultural groups had historically enjoyed in Russia’s composite empire. Clearly, in some places that were less diverse, nationalism could be a unifying force strengthening allegiance to the state. Such was the case in Imperial Germany, where it was manipulated by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898).

In post-1870 Germany, Bismarck galvanized German nationalism in several ways, most notoriously by scapegoating certain allegedly disloyal groups, such as the Catholics and socialists. During his campaigns against these “un-German” elements, the German chancellor invited those who did not belong to the Catholic Church or the socialist movement to join his attacks on the “enemy within.” After Catholics (in 1878) and socialists (in 1890) had been pardoned for their alleged flirtation with disloyalty, they made sure that they behaved like good Germans, chastised by Bismarck’s offensive. The genius of his strategy became apparent in July 1914, when almost all Germans supported their government’s decision to go to war.

More subtly, Bismarck compelled all German citizens to receive a primary education that followed curriculum taught in High German (Hochdeutsch). Subjects such as geography and history were taught in a manner that depicted the creation of a united Germany with its 1871 borders as the goal of history. Military conscription, too, increased German citizens’ inclination to obey their authorities loyally. What perhaps was least obvious at the time was that Bismarck’s social insurance program and the general economic boom of his country made many Germans feel that they had a vested interested in the country that had so drastically improved the material condition of their lives.

In their Russifying policies, Aleksandr III and his advisors appear to have taken their cue from Bismarck (who once had been Prussian ambassador to St. Petersburg). But it should have given them pause that Bismarck was least successful in “Germanizing” the two largest non-German groups residing in Imperial Germany, the Poles and Alsatians. Neither group was numerically very large, however, and the failure to turn these people into loyal Germans did not seem to matter much in the German Empire. In contrast, as the census numbers show, the tsar ruled a country in which less than half of the population spoke Russian as its mother tongue. After all, although the tsarist government denied that they spoke a distinct language, the more than one-fifth who spoke Ukrainian or Belarusyn should not be counted as Russian. In addition, a fair number of Ukrainians belonged to the Uniate Church, a sect that since 1596 recognized the Catholic pope as their spiritual leader (even if it continued to observe Orthodox rituals), and thus did not share a common religion with the Russians either. Already among the Eastern Slavs, therefore, any Russification proved to be problematic. And then there was the one-third of the population that was neither Orthodox nor Eastern Slav.

In addition, Aleksandr III’s government lacked the means to Russify the non-Russians. The Russian Empire was still far from implementing an all-encompassing system of primary education. Although a Russifier, Aleksandr III did not want to oblige all pupils in the non-Russian regions of his empire to learn their lessons in Russian, fearing that this would provoke an anti-Russian reaction, but this watered down Russification even further. Most non-Slavs were exempt from the basic training and garrisoning that came with the Slavs’ military conscription after 1874. Furthermore, late Imperial Russia’s standard of living was far lower than that in contemporary Imperial Germany. With the exception of a few prosperous businessmen, very few of Aleksandr III’s subjects enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity.

The tsar’s strategy to Russify his peoples, therefore, could hardly go beyond singling out saboteurs who were accused of doing harm to the cause of Russia for ethnic, religious, or political reasons. This was a weak echo of Bismarck’s campaign against Germany’s Catholics or socialists. Such scapegoating was an easy strategy. Catholics, Jews, socialists, and so on, were thus targeted in efforts to rally people behind the tsar. But this policy had its limitations: it was hard to convince any non–Eastern Slavic speaker or Orthodox believer that the government’s fury might not soon fall on them as well.

Lacking positive incentives to encourage non-Russian to Russify, the government relied on coercion. It had been tried earlier in Poland, where it had been shipwrecked on the rather more subtle strategy by Polish nationalists to cultivate a Polish identity through concerted educational efforts. In the course of the nineteenth century, most Poles came to believe that they shared a glorious historical past and boasted of a language and civilization superior to that of Russia. In other regions, however, Russification also faltered, often having the opposite effect from that intended. In this way, the Finns, who had without protest joined the Russian Empire in 1809, were faced with the loss of their extensive autonomy.10 Instead of meekly submitting to the tsar and Russifying, they formed an articulate and well-organized nationalist movement, which was sophisticated and popular enough to achieve Finnish independence in 1918. In other non-Russian regions, nationalist movements often linked with socialist movements in protest to Russification policies.

Rather than galvanizing a shared sense of Russian identity, then, Aleksandr III (and Nicholas II, who continued these policies until 1905) frequently accomplished quite the opposite. In response to the Russification campaign, in many regions a nationalist movement took shape, gaining enough strength to proclaim the independence of the majority ethnocultural group in 1917 and 1918, as happened in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and all of Turkestan.

Only at the cost of a strenuous effort (and with much bloodshed) did the Soviet successors of the tsars manage to patch back together an empire in which most of those territories were reabsorbed. But the Soviet leaders realized that they needed to propitiate the newly awakened nationalist sentiments that had been provoked by the Russification policies of the tsars. Stalin returned after 1929 to the tsarist Russification policies with ever greater conviction, but the consequences of his offensive, too, were ultimately counterproductive. His brutal enforcement of pro-Russian policies corroded the promising potential of the “affirmative action” policies of the 1920s, as Terry Martin has convincingly argued. By 1991, few outside Russia mourned the collapse of the multiethnic Soviet Union.


1. And the clerics of the Orthodox Church and other religious dignitaries enjoyed some sort of autonomy, but the state could easily strip them of their privileges.

2. This was probably a habit rooted in Peter the Great’s taxation system.

3. In the Russian language, a distinction was (and sometimes still is) made between an “all-Russian” or “Russian imperial” identity (in Russian, rossiiskii) and a strictly ethnocultural and linguistically based Russian identity (in Russian, russkii).

4. No country yet had a full democracy, of course. France came closest, but all her women were excluded from the vote, as they were in the United States, where Jim Crow laws were spreading as well.

5. Marx’s first part of Capital was published in the original German in 1867. The censors deemed the book too difficult for a Russian audience to be subversive.

6. In 1903, the commune’s collective responsibility for taxes was abolished, and the next year peasants were no longer to be subjected to corporal punishment.

7. For example, anarchists murdered the French president Sadi Carnot (1837–1894) and the American president William McKinley (1843–1901).

8. In German, this viewpoint was called Gesundenes Volksempfinden.

9. The Octobrist Party was named after the tsar’s 1905 October Manifesto, the realization of which it took as the party’s platform.

10. The Finns’ move to join the empire was one of the consequences of the Tilsit Treaty between Aleksandr I and Napoleon I.


Translated Primary Sources

Denikin, Anton I. The Career of a Tsarist Officer, Memoirs, 1872–1916. Translated and annotated by Margaret Patoski. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Demons. Translated by Robert A. Maguire. Edited by Ronald Meyer. London: Penguin, 2008.

Figner, Vera. Memoirs of a Revolutionist. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Goncharov, Ivan. Oblomov. Translated by David Magarshack. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Gorky, Maxim. Autobiography of Maxim Gorky. Translated by Isidor Schneider. Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2001.

Kanatchikov, Semen I. A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia: The Autobiography of Semen Ivanovich Kanatchikov. Translated and edited by Reginald E. Zelnik. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga. Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia. Translated and edited by David L. Ransel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Scholarly Literature

Avrutin, Eugene M. Jews and the Imperial State: Identification Politics in Tsarist Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Brower, Daniel, and Edward Lazzarini, eds. Russia’s Orient: Imperial Borderlands and Peoples, 1700–1917. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Confino, Michael. Russia before the “Radiant Future”: Essays in Modern History, Culture and Society. New York: Berghahn, 2011.

Eklof, B., J. Bushnell, and L. Zakharova, eds. Russia’s Great Reforms, 1855–1881. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Emmons, Terence, and Wayne Vucinich, eds. The Zemstvo in Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Engel, Barbara Alpern. Breaking the Ties That Bound: The Politics of Marital Strife in Late Imperial Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Engelstein, Laura. Slavophile Empire: Imperial Russia’s Illiberal Path. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Grant, Jonathan A. Big Business in Russia: The Putilov Company in Late Imperial Russia, 1868–1917. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999.

Henze, Charlotte E. Disease, Health Care and Government in Late Imperial Russia: Life and Death on the Volga, 1823–1914. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Herlihy, Patricia. The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Khachaturian, Lisa. Cultivating Nationhood in Imperial Russia: The Periodical Press and the Formation of a Modern Armenian Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2009.

Khalid, Adeeb. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Klier, John. Imperial Russia’s Jewish Question, 1855–1881. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. The Great Reforms: Autocracy, Bureaucracy and the Politics of Change in Imperial Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1990.

———. In the Vanguard of Reform: Russia’s Enlightened Bureaucrats, 1825–1861. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Moss, Walter. Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. New York: Anthem, 2002.

Nathans, Benjamin. Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Plokhy, Serhii. The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

———. Unmaking Imperial Russia: Mykhailo Hrushevsky and the Writing of Ukrainian History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Pomper, Philip. Peter Lavrov and the Russian Revolutionary Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Radzinsky, Edvard. Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Raeff, Marc. Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Schrader, Abby M. Languages of the Lash: Corporal Punishment and Identity in Imperial Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.

Venturi, Franco. Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Verhoeven, Claudia. The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity and the Birth of Terrorism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Wcislo, Francis. Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Worobec, Christine, et al., eds. The Human Tradition in Imperial Russia. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Yekelchyk, Serhy. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.


Russia photographed by S. M. Prokudin-Gorskii around 1900: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire


The Brothers Karamazov. DVD. TV series. Directed by Yury Moroz. Russia: RBC Video, 2008.

Oblomov. DVD. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. New York: Kino Video, 2004.

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