Fatal Foreign Entanglements and a Failed Revolution, 1877–1914

Although Russia was seething around 1900 with industrialization, cultural modernization, the spread of socialist movements, and nationalism all engulfing the empire at the same time, the deathblow to Romanov rule was the war that broke out in 1914, which was in considerable measure due to the disastrous foreign policy pursued by Nicholas II. The revolution of 1905 stopped short of ending Romanov rule because on that occasion the tsar extricated his country from war with Japan in a timely fashion. The 1917 Revolution, however, ended tsardom because Nicholas doggedly wanted to fight the war to a “victorious conclusion.” Although nationalism and socialism gave the last two tsars and their advisors fits, the undoing of the house of Romanov was its foreign policy. Because foreign affairs played such a decisive role in the fate of tsarist Russia, they are the primary focus of this chapter.


Map 5.1. Russian Far East, 1898–1945 (From Allen F. Chew, An Atlas of Russian History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967. Used by permission.)


Despite some setbacks, Russian diplomatic and military fortune from Aleksei’s reign until Nicholas I’s last years had been unusually good. From 1654 to 1856, the country grew massively in size, and few significant battles were lost. The worst defeats came in 1711 at the Battle of Pruth against the Turks and in 1805 and 1807 at, respectively, Austerlitz and Friedland against the French. But in both cases the setbacks were brief, and the Russians quickly recovered from them. From the loss in the Crimean War, however, Imperial Russia never quite recuperated. It is true that after 1856 the empire further expanded toward the Iranian and Afghan borders, but in Europe little was gained.

In 1877, Russia went to war with Ottoman Turkey. The ultimately comprehensive military victory (even if the Turkish defense proved stronger than anticipated) in this conflict was reflected in the advantageous terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, concluded in early 1878. But the Russian gains were reduced to a much less favorable outcome by the Congress of Berlin later that year. At Berlin, the powers decided to delete from the map a large independent Bulgaria, created at San Stefano as a client state of Russia (within a few years, the Turks nonetheless gave a smaller Bulgaria its independence). Of even greater consequence was the Berlin Congress’s handing over of the Turkish provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Austrian-Habsburg administration. This was territory the small Orthodox and Slavic kingdom of Serbia (with whom the Russians had allied in the war) coveted, too. In Serbian eyes, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s award to the Habsburgs was an unforgivable injustice, even if Serbia was officially recognized as an independent state by the Congress of Berlin. Some minor territorial gains along the Black Sea coast for Russia itself hardly compensated for the treatment the Berlin Congress meted out to its “little Slav brethren” on the Balkans. Russian Pan-Slavists in particular decried the concessions made at Berlin as an outrageous humiliation. But Aleksandr II and his foreign minister Aleksandr Gorchakov (who was the key Russian negotiator at Berlin in 1878) sensibly decided that this was the maximum their country could receive: the United Kingdom and Austria-Hungary seemed poised for war with Russia, if it was to insist on maintaining the terms of San Stefano.

After the loss in the Crimean War, then, the Russo-Turkish War was a case of a war won and a peace lost. For Russia, the settlement of the Congress of Berlin was, at the time and later, often seen as a further international humiliation on top of the Crimean War. After 1878, the Russians became impatient for an opportunity to recover some of their lost reputation as a military powerhouse. And Russian ire was ever more directed at Habsburg Austria. The Habsburgs had betrayed the Romanovs in the Crimean War and had been instrumental in forcing the Russians to accept the terms of the Treaty of Berlin. A series of further embarrassments worsened the Russian itch to settle the scores with the Austrians. Well aware of the impossibility of going to war on their own against any of the other Great Powers in Europe, the Russians concluded a firm military alliance with another power, France, which was joined by the United Kingdom in 1907. Once the Russian government was assured of allied backing, the tsar and his advisors felt sufficiently confident in the summer of 1914 to let the Sarajevo crisis escalate and embark on a fatal attempt to settle scores with the Habsburg Empire.

The thirst for revenge on the Austrians (and the desire for international rehabilitation) was intensified by Pan-Slavists. The aim of Pan-Slavism was to create a state in which all Slavic peoples would be united and, in its Russian iteration, specifically under Russian rule. Its key ideologue had been Nikolai Danilevskii (1822–1885), who in his Russia and Europe (1869), argued that the “Slav moment” in history was imminent. For Danilevskii, Slavs were the chosen people. Their Orthodox emperor would govern the rest of the world from his seat at Constantinople, after it was recaptured from the Turks. In some ways a nineteenth-century version of Catherine the Great’s Greek Project, Pan-Slavism was infused by quasi-scientific biological and social Darwinist ideas. Although a pipe dream, this ideology suited the last tsars rather well in its fanning of the flames of Russian belligerence. Since the Pan-Slav program in many respects aligned with the Russification policies of the last two tsars, Pan-Slav leaders were among the few “representatives of society” whom the tsars lent a willing ear (while some sympathetic to Pan-Slav ideas served in high positions within the tsar’s government).

During the final decades of the nineteenth century, European nationalism everywhere took on an extremist guise, categorizing peoples as those born to rule and those born to be led, whether in Europe or in the overseas European empires. Using spurious scientific findings to justify the concept of a hierarchy of human races, racism and nationalism merged. Pan-Slavism was a Russian iteration of the various theories that propagated that some peoples were culturally and even biologically further advanced than others. It provided an important impetus for those (among whom tsars themselves might be counted) who wanted Russia to seek revenge for the humiliations it had suffered since 1853. Pan-Slavism was racist, claiming a sort of biological as well as cultural Slavic superiority over Germanic-speaking and Romance-speaking peoples. Pan-Slavists considered non-Christians even more inferior to Slavs than Germans, British, French, or Italians.


While some of Aleksandr II’s generals laid claim to Central Asia in the wake of the Crimean War, other officers led campaigns that underlined Russia’s role as an East Asian power. In 1689, the early Qing (Chinese rulers from 1642 to 1911) and Romanov dynasties had concluded the Treaty of Nerchinsk. It regulated the borders, trade, and communication between the two empires, and its stipulations were more or less followed for the next one and a half centuries. Before 1800, the Russians were not strong enough to encroach any further on Chinese power in the Far East. Along the Pacific coast, they were forced to limit their presence to areas that were located too far north to be of any other use than as collection points for fur. The local population, as well as some Russian trappers, hunted the pelts.

But in the First Opium War (1839–1842), the British taught Qing China a bitter lesson. While the Qing had to open their huge market to British trade (especially in opium), the other Great Powers understood that they could force their way into China. In 1854, Britain and the United States concluded treaties with Japan, opening it up for Western goods as well. And in 1855, Russia signed an agreement with Japan that split the Kurile archipelago into two, with the northernmost islands going to Russia; the large island of Sakhalin was placed under a sort of joint rule. Russian merchants were now allowed to trade with Japan.

During an 1858 pause in the Second Opium War (which pitted both Britain and France against China from 1856 to 1860), Russia joined the Western powers at the negotiation table with the Chinese; underscoring Russian demands were troops under the command of Nikolai Muravyov (1809–1881), who threatened military action against China. A treaty between Russia and China was concluded, yielding Russia substantial territory along the Amur River near the Pacific coast. As with Sakhalin and the Japanese, however, the status of some territory remained in limbo. The Russians then proceeded to build their first substantial Pacific port, which was given the presumptuous name of Vladivostok (“Lord of the East”). However, it was not wholly ice free throughout the year. Therefore, Russia continued to pursue a navigable harbor in the region farther south.

By 1875 a compromise was struck; it saw Russia gain all of Sakhalin and Japan all of the Kuriles (Japan’s current claims to the Kuriles, which Stalin confiscated in 1945, go back to this treaty). But whereas most of the borders between Russian and Japanese East Asia were now clearly defined, the countries remained at odds over Korea and China. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Qing government grew too weak to support its traditional claims on Korea, which had historically been a Chinese protectorate ruled by a native dynasty. Both the Russians and the Japanese desired to take over Korea from the Chinese. At first Japan weaned Korea from China by signing a diplomatic treaty with its royal government, implying that Korea was an independent kingdom rather than a Chinese satellite state. But many Koreans disagreed with their country departing the Chinese orbit and entering that of Japan. Korean protests were expressed in violent clashes, and attacks on Japanese diplomats erupted in the early 1880s. The Chinese army restored order, thus underlining continued Chinese suzerainty over Korea. Tension between pro-Chinese and pro-Japanese Korean factions nevertheless continued. The Chinese government could not prevent Korea from opening its borders to the Western powers as well as Russia (in 1884), a move that seemed to underline Korea’s drifting away from China.

During the 1890s, using a variety of pretexts, various European powers (in addition to Japan) began to help themselves to territory in China itself. In 1891, a decree of Aleksandr III announced the plan to build a railroad across Siberia, underlining the Russian desire to become far more of a player in the Far Eastern theater. How far south the Russian ambitions extended in the region was not even clear to the tsar or his ministers themselves, but the Transsiberian Railroad would undeniably facilitate Russia’s ability to meddle in East Asian affairs. Apart from expressing Russia’s East Asian ambitions, the railroad’s construction was triggered by economic motives. It had by then become clear that Siberia’s soil contained almost inexhaustible raw materials that could feed the factories of the tsar’s industrializing empire.

In 1894, renewed tension in Korea escalated into a Chinese-Japanese war. The Chinese were no match for the modern Japanese army, and by 1895 Korea (as well as part of Chinese Manchuria) was occupied by Japanese troops. Russia stood by on this occasion. But in 1898, in concert with France and Germany, Russia forced the Japanese to cede Chinese Manchurian territory to Russia. The Chinese government (still formally ruling Manchuria) was subsequently pressured to lease the Liaodong Peninsula and its ice-free port of Port Arthur (Lushun) to Russia. In the view of the Russian government, all of Manchuria now fell within the Russian “sphere of influence.” But Russia’s stubborn refusal to relinquish its desire for a slice of Korea prevented the Japanese from recognizing Russian authority in Manchuria. Russia began to lay tracks for a branch of the Transsiberian Railroad across the province. Meanwhile, Russia continued to intervene in Korea, adding to the Japanese irritation with St. Petersburg. Clearly, the Russians were contemptuous of both Koreans and Chinese. Although many Russian diplomats treated the Japanese as equals, Russian racism, too, increasingly influenced the Russian attitude toward Japan.

Meanwhile, Britain, which continued to be Russia’s antagonist across Asia, became sufficiently worried by the Russian moves. By 1902, the United Kingdom signed a pact with Japan. When the Russians did not withdraw in a timely fashion their military from Manchurian territory (where they had dispatched troops during the 1900 Chinese Boxer Revolt), Japan decided to go to war. Tacitly supported by the British, the Japanese decided that the moment had arrived to check the Russian appetite for expansion. Thus the Japanese navy attacked Port Arthur in February 1904.


From a military point of view, the war with Japan was a disaster for Russia. Although the initial damage wrought by the Japanese stealth attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur was not especially great, foolhardy decisions ensured further severe Russian losses at sea in the subsequent months. In April and May 1904, neither Russian land forces nor Russian warships could prevent Japanese troops from crossing into Manchuria on land and across the sea from Korean positions. Port Arthur was encircled on its land side by June. In August and September 1904, the Russians were beaten back in their attempts to break the siege of Port Arthur. Finally, in the first days of January 1905, Port Arthur surrendered to the Japanese. Russia’s last serious offensive on land occurred in the Battle of Mukden in February and March of 1905. This battle involved six hundred thousand men in total, setting the record as the largest land battle in recorded history. It ended with a Russian retreat. A few months later, the Russian Baltic fleet (which had to sail around southern Africa, as the British refused to let it use the Suez Canal) reached the war zone, completing an eight-month journey. But before reaching its destination of Vladivostok, the Russian squadron was destroyed in the Battle of the Tsushima Straits (May 1905).


Figure 5.1. Siberian Cossacks on their way to fight in the Russo-Japanese War, 1905 (Library of Congress)

Militarily, Russia had comprehensively lost the war. After the disaster at the Tsushima Straits, the tsar needed a quick peace, as at home a revolution had broken out, threatening the survival of his regime. Despite their victories, the Japanese were close to exhaustion themselves, for their government teetered on the verge of bankruptcy because of the war’s cost to them. With the aid of President Theodore Roosevelt,1 the two countries swiftly concluded a peace at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 6 August 1905. Sergei Vitte led the Russian delegation in New England. Aware of the Japanese conundrum, Vitte managed to limit the damage. The Liaodong Peninsula and the Southern Manchurian Railway were lost to Japan, which Russia now also recognized as Korea’s overlord. South Sakhalin went to the Japanese as well. But it could have been far worse had it not been for Vitte’s negotiating skills.

It is clear that the budding anticolonial movements in Asia and Africa gained some confidence from the Japanese defeat of Russia. The Japanese triumph was generally read as a victory of an Asian country over a European empire, rather than one of an Asian power over a Eurasian (or only partially European) empire. But still some decades passed before European powers were confronted with broad-based uprisings against their rule in their overseas colonies. Japan, meanwhile, had now entered the path that was to lead to its ruin in 1945. Military historians have pointed at the parallel between the surprise attack on Port Arthur and that on Pearl Harbor. Whereas the first announced the arrival of Japan as a Great Power, the second ushered in its fall as an empire.

For the Russian government and military, the defeat in the war was obviously traumatic. A military overhaul was undertaken, and it was not quite finished in 1914. It is odd that in August 1914 St. Petersburg felt sufficiently confident to wage a war against the world’s supposedly best military, that of Germany, having been taken to task not long before by a military of such an “inferior nation” as Japan. The Russian armed forces redeemed themselves in the First World War, in fact, although this was masked by the implosion of the 1917 Revolution and subsequent German rout.

The Soviet leadership (which had also been confronted with a Japanese intervention in the Civil War) did not repeat the mistake of underestimating Japan. In 1938 and 1939, Stalin made sure that probing Japanese moves testing Soviet military strength were comprehensively rebuffed. Japan was sufficiently rebuked and declined to join the Nazi-led assault on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. Stalin, furthermore, showed great diplomatic skill (not always his strong suit) in capitalizing on the opportunity offered by the Japanese collapse in 1945. The Red Army occupied Manchuria, North Korea, Sakhalin, and the Kuriles in a matter of weeks. North Korea was given its independence (as a Soviet satellite), and Manchuria given back to China, but the Soviet Union kept Sakhalin and the Kuriles. Japanese resentment about this continues to cloud Russo-Japanese relations today.


The outbreak of a countrywide rebellion against the autocracy in 1905 appears unsurprising in light of another war gone awry. Different from the relatively tranquil 1850s (through which Aleksandr II was spared a revolution), 1900s Russia was a country already in turmoil because of the modernization it had embraced in the previous twenty years. The dramatic changes in the country’s economy and society caused great insecurity, not only among the uprooted peasants who had flocked to the cities to find work in the factories, but also within a regime that looked to the past rather than to the present (let alone the future) in making its decisions.


Figure 5.2. Prison in Siberian Irkutsk in 1885 (Library of Congress)

One could restate the American historian Leopold Haimson’s argument that the 1917 Revolution was inevitable irrespective of the First World War by suggesting that a revolution like the one in 1905 would have broken out even if Russia had not gone to war in 1904. Of course, both arguments belong to that attractive albeit pointless exercise beloved by popular historians and their readers: counterfactual history. In the case of the 1905 conflagration, it can be said that there are some strong parallels with the period following the Crimean War, when the tsar decided to change his country from above rather than wait for the moment when his subjects would change it from below. But Nicholas II was not as sober an observer of the circumstances as his grandfather had been. Rather than taking the initiative, he awaited events in 1905; as a result, he only barely survived on the throne. During the next crisis in 1916–1917, he was to show that he had learned nothing from his lack of decisiveness in 1905. This cost him his head.

Before 1905, unrest had plagued Nicholas II’s Russia as much as his father’s. Aleksandr III’s regime faced a severe crisis in 1891–1892, when a famine broke out. It showed that Russian agriculture remained unduly vulnerable to the vagaries of climate, while the country’s infrastructure appeared inadequate to supply timely relief. The government failed to offer much aid to the sufferers, even if it could now at last ship some emergency food supplies across the railways. Perhaps five hundred thousand people died of hunger and diseases associated with the famine. The government’s failure in coping with the crisis caused a renewed upsurge in oppositional activity, negating Aleksandr’s painstaking campaign of the previous decade to weed out most revolutionaries. Nicholas II, therefore, succeeded his father at a time when strikes were on the rise, students were restless, revolutionaries became bolder, nationalist movements were growing, and unrest in the villages was increasing.


Figure 5.3. Convicts in Siberia, late nineteenth century (Library of Congress)

Channeling the oppositional voices, Russian exiles organized political parties with an underground network within the empire from the late nineteenth century onward. In 1902, various factions of Populists founded the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR). The SR remained faithful to the Populist ideal of a decentralized Russia made up of primarily peasant communes, although it now acknowledged the emergence of the industrial working class by calling for workers’ control over their factories. The SR had a terrorist section (the “Combat Organization”) that killed a great number of tsarist officials, even if it was run for years by a tsarist double agent, Yevno Azef (1869–1918).

The Marxists formed the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP or SD) in 1898. As Marxists, of course, the SD championed the cause of the urban working class. Since the party’s founders were (with one exception) immediately arrested upon the conclusion of its first congress in Minsk, the Social Democrats staged a second congress in Western Europe in 1903. This gathering first met in Belgian Brussels before moving on to London, after the Belgian authorities asked the Russian socialists to leave.

At their second party congress, the Social Democrats immediately split into two main factions: Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, believed in an elite party made up of professional revolutionaries. This so-called vanguard would lead the naive proletariat to the revolution. The revolutionaries themselves were to obey loyally the party’s highest leadership, its Central Committee. In contrast, the Mensheviks had in mind a mass membership party, which would routinely hold the leadership accountable. They were much more willing to champion the proletariat’s short-term wishes and desires, such as higher wages, better labor conditions, accident-and-illness insurance, or pensions. As with the SR, almost all SD leaders were middle-class intellectuals who claimed to speak in the name of the oppressed masses. They tacitly agreed with Lenin that it was best if actual toilers let others speak for them, as the Russian proletariat and peasantry lacked political sophistication.

A third political party deserves mention because of its influence on the events of 1904–1905 and beyond: the liberals, or Kadets. They stood for a constitutional monarchy on the British model, with an elected government chosen by a broad franchise. They supported the capitalist development of Russia but tended to advocate social legislation to protect workers and others against ruthless exploitation. The Kadets also advocated self-determination for the largest of the empire’s non-Russian peoples.

Some of the other political movements that cropped up were the nationalist parties (strongest of which was the Polish) and the Muslim-Tatar parties, as well as the parties of the extreme right. On the left, various smaller groups besides SR and SD can be identified, including a non-Marxist Labor Party, to which the future premier Aleksandr Kerensky (1881–1970) belonged, and the uncompromising anarchists. It should be noted here that, until 1917, sections that disagreed with their leadership’s policies often peeled off from their various parties, proceeding to establish themselves as independent parties. The Russian political landscape, underground before 1905, and mostly legal thereafter, rapidly acquired a bewildering complexity.

Before 1905, trade unions were prohibited, but in order to preempt the emergence of an illegal trade union movement, tsarist officials began to experiment with organizing government-controlled quasi unions in the early 1900s. Combining a defense of workers’ rights with loyalty to the autocracy, their founders (foremost among them was Sergei Zubatov [1864–1917], an Okhrana official) believed that these organizations would deprive workers of their militancy by wresting various concessions from their employers. Higher wages, sick leave, shorter workdays, and pensions would keep the working class away from the radical solutions advocated by the socialist activists.

The idea was not altogether outlandish: in 1902, the Bolshevik leader Lenin warned in his foundational pamphlet What Is to Be Done? that factory workers give in to a “trade-union consciousness,” if left to their own devices. The proletariat, Lenin argued, was inclined to acquiesce in its fate, once it accepted concessions regarding wages or labor conditions made by employers. Workers then lost sight of their real interest, which was ousting their bosses and taking control of their factories and society at large. Socialist agitators were to explain to the workers that such short-term gains changed nothing fundamentally in the long term. Raises and benefits would be taken away whenever owners deemed this necessary for their bottom line (and workers, obviously, were always in danger of being fired if they did not “have control over the means of production,” i.e., owned their own workplace). This is why Lenin emphasized the need for professional revolutionaries to be the mainstay of the Social Democratic Party (and why he polemicized so heavily against the Mensheviks).

Meanwhile, Zubatov’s scheme was not well liked even within the tsarist government (as some felt that it forced owners to make far too many concessions to their workers). In early 1905, the experiment with government-controlled trade unions ended abruptly in the bloody snow in front of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. Ironically, it was copied by the Bolsheviks after they gained power.


Even by traditional Russian standards, the legitimacy of Nicholas II’s rule was jeopardized by the defeat at the hands of the Japanese. Presumably all seeing and all knowing, the tsar’s regime failed in its key task of defending the realm (even if Port Arthur had been a rather recent Russian acquisition). The situation appears akin to Nicholas I’s autocracy losing its infallible aura because of Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War.

The first trigger for the revolution was the bad news from the Far East. In the summer of 1904, SR terrorists assassinated one of the tsar’s key aides, the interior minister V. K. Pleve (1846–1904), who had stood for a policy of no compromise with the growing opposition. Faced with an increasingly restless public, the tsar inched toward granting concessions. With Nicholas’s blessing, Pleve’s successor Pyotr Sviatopolk-Mirskii (1857–1914) began to consider the inclusion of some elected members to the tsar’s main advisory body, the State Council, which would be given more power over government policy. But the burgeoning opposition dismissed Sviatopolk-Mirskii’s proposals as too modest, when the government’s credibility sank further with news of each defeat in the East. In the fall of 1904, the liberals, in tandem with the zemstva, began to organize banquets across the empire that demanded substantial change. Initially, they backed Sviatopolk-Mirskii when the minister began to develop bolder plans for reform.

Then Bloody Sunday led to a radical turn. In the wake of a citywide strike in St. Petersburg, a demonstration was organized in January 1905 in the capital. The marchers voiced very mild demands regarding better working conditions and profusely professed loyalty to the dynasty (although a few demonstrators carried banners that called for general elections and an end to the war with Japan). The protest was inspired by one of the government’s trade union organizers, the priest Georgii Gapon (1870–1906). The protesters marched toward the Winter Palace, in the hope of delivering a petition to the tsar. The monarch, however, was absent. Misinterpreting the crowd’s mood as hostile, the governor of St. Petersburg ordered his troops to disperse the demonstration by using live ammunition. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of demonstrators were killed. Across the country, many held the tsar responsible for this excessive use of force against a peaceful demonstration. Strikes broke out from Riga to Vladivostok, expressing solidarity with the St. Petersburgers killed on Bloody Sunday.

Sviatopolk-Mirskii, responsible for public order as minister of the interior, was blamed for Bloody Sunday and resigned. He was succeeded by Aleksandr Bulygin (1851–1919). Tension further intensified when SR terrorists murdered the governor-general of Moscow, Sergei Aleksandrovich Romanov (1857–1905), the tsar’s uncle, in February 1905. Two weeks later, Nicholas II ordered Bulygin to draft a series of significant political reforms. Bulygin set to work but was still held to a very limited agenda. The tsar was now prepared to allow an elective assembly and to introduce the principles of freedom of speech and religious tolerance. Peasants’ compensation payments were to be reduced. But the assembly was to have only consultative powers. In other words, the tsar could ignore its advice whenever he pleased. When these proposals were published in August 1905, the unrest across the country escalated.

Strikes and peasant uprisings were rampant across Russia after Bloody Sunday. The crew of one of the Black Sea fleet’s battleships, the Potemkin, famously mutinied in June 1905. The zemstva became ever more vociferous in demanding change. Students had gone on strike in January 1905 and were still on strike in August. The Bulygin Constitution was soon followed by the news that peace with the Japanese had been concluded, but that, too, failed to calm the situation. The zemstva rejected the Bulygin concessions in September, and in October a railway strike was developing into a general strike. The end of the Romanov dynasty seemed near. Sergei Vitte, who as head of the Russian delegation at Portsmouth had acquired renewed clout and had just returned home in the early fall of 1905, implored the tsar to grant a constitution as soon as possible.

Rejecting the possibility of establishing a military dictatorship (in Vitte’s view the only other option the tsar had), Nicholas II issued a manifesto on 17 October 1905 that pledged far-reaching changes that would end the autocracy. The October Manifesto was, however, not a constitution but only the promise of it. Adding to the earlier concessions of the freedom of speech and religion were the assurance of equality before the law and an end to the prosecution without trial of those accused of political crimes. But the signal promise in the manifesto was for a parliament (Duma), elected by a broad franchise. The Duma was to vet every bill proposed by the government and oversee the executive’s operation. Nonetheless, it was the tsar who was to appoint this government.

The tsar’s concessions satisfied neither most of the liberals nor any of the socialists. But liberals and socialists fell out with each other, and the opposition to the tsar fatally weakened because of squabbles between various political parties. The socialists allied with councils of workers’ deputies (called sovety, or soviets) that began to emerge across the country. These councils were chosen from among industrial workers and functioned as a sort of local workers’ government or legislature. The most important soviet was that of St. Petersburg. Its leadership, the executive committee, consisted of representatives from the capital’s major factories and (now officially allowed) trade unions as well as the socialist political parties. Meanwhile, peasants, too, organized in unions. Local peasant unions united into a countrywide organization that was heavily influenced by the SR (whereas the urban soviets were more strongly influenced by the Marxist SD). The liberals, meanwhile, had no truck with the soviets, which they saw as a dangerously radical form of direct democracy in which the untempered and impulsive desires of the rabble found expression.

The October Manifesto’s promises peeled off the conservatives in the zemstva movement and elsewhere among the public. In the days following the manifesto, on the right side of the political spectrum the Octobrists parted way with the liberals. They were now willing to give the tsar the benefit of the doubt and await the implementation of the concessions made in the October Manifesto. Stauncher supporters of the tsar came to the fore after 17 October as well. Extremist right-wing movements had formed earlier in the year but had kept a low profile before the October Manifesto was issued, as the political pendulum was clearly swinging in the direction of the left. But upon the manifesto’s release several parties rose to prominence and postured as die-hard defenders of the tsar.

Especially notorious became the ultra-right-wing Union of the Russian People, led by Aleksandr Dubrovin (1855–1921) and Vladimir Purishkevich (1870–1920). It was soon better known as the Black Hundreds, after the moniker given to its violent activists. The Black Hundreds were resolute supporters of the autocracy. They were strongly anti-Semitic, Great Russian nationalists, who rejected any autonomy for non-Russian regions. They organized a series of pogroms in the fall of 1905 and spring of 1906. This violence not only intimidated the Jews in the Pale of Settlement but also distracted the attention of many people everywhere from developments in St. Petersburg. Nicholas, meanwhile, believed he heard the voice of the people in the vicious roar of the Black Hundreds, and their activities helped the tsar regain his confidence after October.

Whereas the Union of the Russian People was an extreme Russian nationalist party, in 1905 several nationalist parties of non-Russian groups were set up as well. The Polish National Democratic Party led by Roman Dmowski (1864–1939) was the most powerful one. It advocated a Poland united with Russia only through the person of the tsar, as head of the Polish state. Nationalist parties also arose in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldavia (then called Bessarabia, a largely Romanian-speaking territory along the Black Sea coast in the country’s southwest), but different from Dmowski’s National Democrats, they obtained limited support, primarily from intellectuals (including students).

A Muslim League was organized as well, led by Tatars residing in European Russia. Its program (loosely based on the Muslim renewal movement called Jadidism, which sought to marry Islam with modernization) was directed mainly toward cultural change, such as the introduction of Muslim schools and the spread of literacy. Ideas about autonomy of Muslim areas were not yet diffused to any significant extent, but some Muslim leaders began to ponder so-called Pan-Turanianism. This called for a unification of all Muslim Turkic-speaking peoples into a reinvigorated Muslim empire. It would replace the decrepit Ottoman Empire and the khanates and emirates of Central Asia that had submitted to the tsar after 1850.


The split among the revolutionaries, the October Manifesto’s promise, and Nicholas’s renewed sense of self-confidence led to a waning of the revolutionary mood. By the end of 1905, the tsarist authorities began to arrest radicals, including the executive committee of the St. Petersburg soviet,2without encountering much resistance. In Moscow a similar operation was undertaken, but there it provoked an uprising that saw tsarist forces kill hundreds of soviet supporters. It became evident that the tsar could call on sufficient numbers of loyal troops (who had now returned to Europe from the East Asian front) to restore order.

The tsar’s circle (especially Vitte, who for several months was prime minister) understood that, once the Duma convened, one of the key clashes between parliament and government would be over the budget. The tsarist ministers proceeded to do their best to limit the Duma’s clout in this regard. Electoral rules for the Duma were announced in February 1906. The bicameral parliament was to be elected in a complicated manner that still gave the nobility and those with property much greater weight in the voting process. In March, when the elections for the First Duma were staged, budgetary rules were announced that removed any Duma control over the greatest share of the budget, which was the money allotted to the armed forces. In April, just before the Duma met for the first time, “Fundamental Laws” were proclaimed, purporting to be the “constitution” as promised in the October Manifesto.

The Fundamental Laws conceded much less than had been hoped for by those who had given Nicholas the benefit of the doubt in October 1905. Only the tsar could amend the constitution itself. Ministers were appointed and dismissed by the tsar, without any input from the Duma. The Duma could merely indicate its displeasure with a minister’s performance. The Duma, then, remained a consultative body, with few legislative powers and very little right of oversight.

Despite its limitations, though, the establishment of the Duma was a major step forward in Russian political history. Elsewhere in Europe, the role of legislatures had only gradually been broadened after 1850. In Germany or Austria-Hungary in 1905, the government likewise could avoid being held accountable by elected representative bodies. Even in the 1900s, in most European countries the franchise remained restricted to men, with greater weight given to those with property. If developments in Europe were at all a reliable gauge, it was reasonable to expect that the Duma’s power was to grow after its establishment in 1906.

In the spring of 1906, Vitte managed to borrow an enormous sum of money from France. This allowed the government to ignore the Duma even more, because the government did not need to go to the Duma to have its budget ratified. Immediately before the Duma convened in April 1906, Vitte, who was loathed by the reactionary members of the government and by the tsar himself, resigned from the government. While a placeholder by the name of Ivan Goremykin (1839–1917) became prime minister, the leading light of the new government was the minister of the interior, Pyotr Stolypin (1862–1911).


Although Aleksandr II’s murder may have thwarted the best opportunity to reform Russia in a gradual and peaceful manner, not all was lost yet for the Romanovs in 1906. But the survival chances of Nicholas II on the Russian throne took a decidedly bad turn with another assassination, that of Pyotr Stolypin in 1911, exactly thirty years after the murder of the tsar’s grandfather.


Figure 5.4. Pyotr Stolypin, ca. 1905

In the Soviet-invented tradition that demonized late tsarism as pure evil, Stolypin was singled out as one of its great villains. He gave his name to no few than two hated symbols of tsarist repression, that of the hangman’s noose (the “Stolypin necktie”) and the railroad boxcars transporting prisoners (“Stolypin wagons”). The suppression of revolutionary mood in 1906 and 1907 was indeed accompanied by the hanging of several hundred ringleaders under martial law. Although even regular courts might have sentenced some of the condemned for their crimes to death, this undeniably was a heavy hand. Thousands of others were sentenced to jail or Siberian exile, the first convicts in Russian history to be transported by train in great numbers. Of course, latter-day admirers of Stolypin compared these numbers to those who fell victim to the Soviet, and especially Stalin’s, regime, which make the tsarist prime minister seem like a veritable humanitarian.3

After Stolypin replaced Goremykin (mere months after the latter’s appointment), he maneuvered the ship of state with great skill. Stolypin imposed his own agenda, often facing down the opposition of both the tsar and the Duma (as well as “public opinion,” now fully given a voice in the press). He had no patience for socialist radicals, who tried to assassinate him by blowing up his house (and killed twenty-seven people in the process). But he also defied the “real voice of the Russian people,” in other words, that of the Black Hundreds, despite the tsar’s fondness for their crackpot ideas. And although overseeing the disbanding of the first two Dumas, he did attempt to establish some sort of regular process by which the Duma was given a part in overseeing government policy. Most important was his effort at resolving the problems plaguing the Russian peasantry.

Stolypin was promoted to prime minister when the revolutionary wave still had force. In the first elections ever held in Imperial Russia in March 1906, a restricted franchise returned a parliament in which more than half of the seats were held by leftist parties, largest among which were the Kadets. If they allied with a group of moderate socialists, the liberals held the majority of seats in the First Duma, which gathered in St. Petersburg in April. Given this strength, the Kadet leaders (among whom Pavel Miliukov was recognized as chief) demanded that the Fundamental Laws be revised. They called for a government responsible to the Duma, reflecting the views of a majority of Duma representatives. But the tsar and Stolypin refused this demand, dissolving the Duma in July. Many of the liberal parliamentarians protested this dissolution by calling on the population to refuse to pay taxes or avoid the draft. Such defiance of the law was as illegal a move as Stolypin’s dissolution of the parliament. The perennial theme of disregarding the law in Russian history resurfaces here. Both sides undermined the principles of a Rechtsstaat (a state built on the rule of law).

New elections were staged in early 1907. The SD, which had largely boycotted the first elections, now participated, as did a number of SR candidates (although the party as such still refused to take part). Socialist gains caused the Kadets to lose their majority. But altogether, left-wing parties still occupied some 60 percent of the seats in the Second Duma. And the “nationalist” parties (Polish National Democrats, Ukrainian nationalists, and Muslim-Tatars) agreed with most of the left’s agenda. The Second Duma thus proved as uncollaborative as the first. Stolypin used the pretext of an SD conspiracy against the tsar’s life to dissolve the Second Duma in June 1907.4

Stolypin then further restricted the electorate: in the next election, the upper 1 percent of the population chose approximately two-thirds of the parliamentary representatives. The vote for the Third Duma was more pleasing to Stolypin. Octobrists and groups to their right were in the majority. This meant parliamentary representatives who would behave, at a minimum, as a loyal opposition to the government. This Duma, indeed, served the length of its five-year term. Although the Duma was dominated by Russia’s high and mighty, public discussion of politics continued in print. And even if the Duma was composed mainly of representatives of a narrow elite who were in theory loyal to the tsar, it often proved difficult to handle for the government. The parliament frequently used its right to call the tsar’s ministers to account, even if it had no power to dismiss them.

Stolypin accepted the end of autocracy, but his tsar did not. Nicholas II was not fond of Stolypin, partially because the prime minister was willing to work with the Duma, partially because Stolypin rejected the extreme right wing’s bizarre ideas, and partially because the tsar thought that Stolypin was trying to outshine him. Nicholas II tried to avoid contact with the Duma politicians as much as possible. The tsar preferred to rule by decree. A loophole had been left in the Fundamental Laws that allowed the tsar to issue laws when the Duma was not in session. This strategy undermined the trust between government and parliament, preparing the ground for the Duma’s ultimate rebellion in 1917.

For advice, the tsar sought out some of the most reactionary characters. Increasingly, he followed his wife Aleksandra (1872–1918) in trusting the charismatic Siberian monk Grigorii Rasputin. Rasputin came to the couple’s attention in 1905, when he proved able to stop the bleedings that could be lethal to the heir to the throne, the hemophiliac tsarevich Aleksei (1904–1918). In Rasputin, Aleksandra and Nicholas thought they had met the Russian people personified. The eccentric monk’s advice began to be sought in political matters. Although Rasputin’s influence should not be exaggerated, his presence at the court and political influence was symptomatic of the sort of unsound advice the tsar was inclined to seek.


While Stolypin made significant progress in implementing an educational system in which all children would enjoy at least some years of primary schooling, his most imaginative policy was in the field of agriculture. Compensation dues were finally abolished in November 1905. At the end of 1906, Stolypin introduced a law that aimed at ending the communal tenure of land, with its periodic repartitions. Peasants could apply to own outright the soil they tilled. Stolypin expected that full ownership would give them far more incentive to improve their plots. The law was popular, but its complications slowed the process of individuals’ acquisition of consolidated parcels of land in private ownership. Still, by 1915 in European Russia (in which Belarus and Ukraine were then included), more than 20 percent of peasants had abandoned communal farming and established themselves as private farmers. These were promising signs for the government, but the trend toward private ownership was interrupted by the war that had broken out in the previous year.

Stolypin, too, improved the credit system for the peasants, so that money was made available for those keen on innovation of their farming operation. Furthermore, he began to offer attractive support programs for those who were willing to migrate from the densely populated rural areas to arable land in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Migration in that direction acquired significant momentum, easing the pressure on the land in the Black Earth zone.

While his policies were far more ingenuous than those of previous tsarist ministers, who had banked on industrialization at the expense of the peasants, Stolypin’s motivation for his pro-peasant strategy was political, rather than rooted in any great love of the Russian muzhik. Taking a cue from postrevolutionary France, he believed that the restless French peasantry, a driving force behind the unrest in France from 1789 to 1795, had become a solidly conservative segment of society, once the revolution gave the peasants title to the land they cultivated. In nineteenth-century elections, time and again, the French farmers voted for maintaining the status quo by electing the most conservative politicians to parliament. Stolypin announced that he was banking on the strong, on those who would be able to make a success out of their agricultural enterprise and would then want to keep the fruits of their labor. The revolutionary sting would be taken out of the countryside once it was populated by small property owners. As in France, they would be loyal backers of the Russian government that had made their success possible.

Stolypin’s reforms stood every chance of succeeding, were it not for the outbreak of war in 1914. It is counterfactual history to speculate on what would have happened if his policies had continued in peacetime, but their apparent success before August 1914 leads one to suspect that, even at that very late moment in the history of Romanov Russia, it was not too late to stave off revolution. Stolypin himself, meanwhile, did not live to see the outbreak of war. In September 1911 he was assassinated in Kyiv by a confused SR terrorist, Dmitrii Bogrov (1887–1911), who was also in the service of the Okhrana. Although Bogrov appears to have operated on his own, many continue to speculate to this day that his act was orchestrated by the secret police. The Okhrana was not fond of the straitlaced prime minister, who objected to some of the secret police’s more eccentric deeds (such as inciting pogroms). It is at least odd that Bogrov shot Stolypin rather than the tsar, who had been present as well in the Kyiv Opera House on the night of the prime minister’s murder.


The global economy underwent a veritable boom during the last two decades before the First World War. Russia very much partook in this growth. Its economic expansion was further encouraged when the peasantry was freed from the previous restriction on its mobility. After 1905, the mass of the population was no longer held back by the burdens of compensation payments or collective responsibility for taxes. Across the country, purchasing power increased and a significant rise in consumption occurred in the last years before the First World War. But even if wages were sometimes rising and new legislation further improved working conditions in industry, the industrial sector of the economy remained the most volatile. In 1912, an upsurge of strikes followed a massacre of strikers who were employed in the gold mines along the Siberian Lena River. This strike wave continued all the way until July 1914.

In part, workers protested the continued restrictions on their freedom to organize themselves. Whereas trade unions had become legal in 1905, the government prohibited unions or strikes that followed a “political” agenda. Unions were to restrict themselves to bargaining for economic improvements in the workplace. Furthermore (as in parts of the United States in those days), the police often colluded with owners in breaking up strikes, locking out workers, and so on.

The economic boom was accompanied by various developments that are encountered in periods of rapid economic growth in most places. The cities could not readily absorb the arrival of numerous workers, whose housing was extremely poor. Workers, with or without their families, shared one-room apartments, while others bunked in barracks. Without proper sewage, water supply, or electricity,5 this was no improvement over the village hut. In these slum-like conditions, people lived in a highly agitated state of mind. This frenzy was not mitigated by ministrations from priests or cautionary words from neighbors or family members, as had been the case in the villages in times of crisis. Inebriation, illness, violence, and even rape were common. The factory workforce in the textile centers (around Moscow, in Poland, and in Ivanovo-Voznesensk) was often predominantly female, and women workers’ fate was usually worse than that of men, although both sexes fell victim to industrial accidents at an alarming frequency.

This restless and even chaotic atmosphere became muted in the first years of the world war, but violence and anger continued to simmer underneath the calm surface of the home front, and the radical mind-set resurfaced emphatically in 1917. Outside of working-class neighborhoods, Russia was a sort of work in progress on the eve of the First World War, too. With the limitations on the Duma’s role; the unequal representation of the various social strata in the local zemstva (which had still not been introduced everywhere in the empire); the restrictions on personal freedom; and the lack of accountability of government officials at all levels, extensive change was still necessary if Russia was to become a truly constitutional monarchy, with a government representing all of the empire’s inhabitants. Frustration among the intelligentsia remained high. The liberals, who in the 1912 elections were returned to the Fourth Duma in a somewhat higher number, clamored for a government that “enjoyed the country’s confidence,” and even the Octobrist leader Aleksandr Guchkov (1862–1936) expressed similar ideas.

Apart from widespread anger at the tsar’s obstinacy in St. Petersburg or Moscow, the authorities did not gain popular support by some of their actions at the local level. In this sense, the trial against the Kyivan Jew Mendel Beilis (1874–1934) in 1913 was symptomatic. Whereas the prosecution of a Jew for ritual murder gained the approval of the rabid right extremists, the majority of the educated public was appalled by the obscurantist accusations against Beilis, which reeked of the superstitious Middle Ages. The government’s prestige suffered further through such incidents. Although the outbreak of war led to almost all social groups in European Russia and Siberia rallying behind the cause of tsar and country, support began to waver when the government (and its military) proved incapable of winning the war.6 After more than two years of unprecedented bloodshed, the belief in the government’s incompetence and arbitrariness was rekindled and the call for a government “enjoying the public confidence” resurfaced and was louder than ever before.


Russia’s road to the First World War was a lengthy and twisted one. Russia’s belligerence (or, to be more precise, that of the tsar’s government, some of its military commanders, and a minority of its articulate citizenry, i.e., the extreme right and Pan-Slavists) in 1914 was rooted in an intense desire to restore the country’s damaged reputation as a Great Power. Although the majority of the empire’s inhabitants never strongly cared about this issue, those who had been indifferent to it came to believe that it was their patriotic duty to answer the call to arms issued in the name of the tsar and the motherland in the summer of 1914.

The longest festering wound informing the government’s behavior in the crisis of the summer of 1914 was the humiliation of the Crimean War. In that conflict, Russia’s reliable ally Austria had unexpectedly turned against Russia. The Habsburg emperor (Franz Josef I, r. 1848–1916) and his advisors had become worried about Russia’s designs regarding the southeastern European possessions of Turkey, commonly known as the Balkans. No attempt to reconcile the two sides succeeded thereafter, although during his tenure from 1871 to 1890, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck exerted himself toward this goal. But even Bismarck favored the Austrians over the Russians. With Bismarck’s connivance, at the 1878 Congress of Berlin the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary gained more than Russia, again without spilling any blood.7 This had been a hard pill to swallow for, in defense of the Balkan Christians, the tsar’s army had fought the Turkish army for almost a year.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Habsburgs, more than the Romanovs, were increasingly confronted by nationalist movements that made their empire ever harder to rule. Hungarian discontent had been appeased by the creation in 1867 of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. By way of the 1867 Compromise (Ausgleich), Hungarians had become equal partners of the German speakers in Emperor Franz Josef’s realm. But Franz Josef and his ministers proved incapable of placating many of the southern Slavs—Croatians, Serbs, and (Muslim) Bosnians—who lived inside their borders. Most Croatians lived within the Hungarian half of the empire, as did a good number of Serbians. In the middle of the nineteenth century, meanwhile, the Serbians established a monarchy of their own outside Austro-Hungarian borders, which was recognized as independent by the powers at Berlin in 1878. Unfortunately, the Treaty of Berlin also awarded Bosnia and Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary, which led to a sharp increase in the number of Croats and Serbs inside the Habsburg Empire. The Bosnian Serbs in particular cast a longing eye across the border, preferring to join a state in which Serbs ruled themselves.

Since the Croatians were subjected to attempts to “magyarize” them, that is, make them Hungarian, a policy bearing resemblance to “Russification,” they were tempted to join the Serbs in a common cause. Serbs were religiously Eastern Orthodox, and Croatians Catholic, but the two groups shared a common language, which the Serbians wrote in the Cyrillic script (similar to Russian script) and the Croatians in Latin script. Joining the Serbian monarchy seemed to promise more equitable treatment to the Croatians (although many, probably rightfully given subsequent developments, were skeptical about this). For the Habsburgs, any satisfactory solution to the south Slav problem was difficult to conceive, but the best option seemed to incorporate all southern Slavs (with the possible exception of the Bulgarians, because of their remote geographical location) into their empire and to give them a measure of autonomy. To allow the creation of a greater Serbia that united all Serbs as well as many Croats and Bosnian Muslims would merely replace the old Turkish foe with one that was likely more formidable than the tottering Ottoman Empire.

After 1856, the Austrian(-Hungarian) government detected a growing Russian involvement in fanning the flames of south Slav nationalism. Russian diplomats, as well as the Pan-Slavists who influenced them, did not provide much reassurance to the Habsburgs in this regard. Russia championed the cause of their little Slav brethren on the Balkans (especially the Orthodox ones), playing on the contempt for the “barbaric” Muslim Turks in Western public opinion. But Russian support for the southern Slavs was inconsistent. Ham-fisted behavior cost them much Bulgarian sympathy even before 1885, in which year, during another crisis that engulfed the Turkish Empire, the kingdom (or tsardom) of Bulgaria received what amounted to full independence.

After “losing Bulgaria,” Russia proceeded to do its utmost to cultivate its friendship with Serbia. Different from Austria, the Russian claim on the Balkans was not based wholly on strategic considerations. There was the centuries-old Orthodox bond between the Russians, Greeks, Serbians, Montenegrans, and Bulgarians. All had been struggling to overcome the rule of Islamic potentates, and all shared a memory of a lost Eastern Orthodox Empire. The Russians had cast covetous eyes on Tsargrad, Constantinople, since Peter the Great’s days.

The Habsburg aims toward the Balkans were much more pragmatic: to ensure peace within their borders and replace an allegedly uncivilized government with one that was to bring enlightenment and economic development to the region. But the Austro-Hungarians did face the dilemma of where to draw the borders of their expanded empire. Besides the uncertainty of whether to annex independent Serbia, the cultural or ethnic identities of territories such as Montenegro, Albania, or Macedonia were moot. To complicate matters further, there was Orthodox Romania, which might claim part of Habsburg Transylvania. In Transylvania, a plurality of the population consisted of Romanian-speaking Orthodox believers. Should Romania then be incorporated into the Habsburg Empire as well?

Russian designs were likewise muddled. Catherine II had conceived of her restored Greek Empire as an independent country. Pan-Slavists, however, advocated the annexation by Russia of Romania (as an Orthodox country with a language heavily influenced by a Slavic vocabulary), Bulgaria, Serbia, and so on, further adding to the plethora of peoples populating the tsar’s empire. A large independent Orthodox empire rivaling Russia was not something the Pan-Slavists desired.

Meanwhile, both military strategy and economic reasons made the Russian government and army command desire control over the straits that linked the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea (and separated Europe from Asia) at Istanbul. In 1856, Russia had been prohibited from keeping a war fleet in the Black Sea, a ban soon (in 1871) rescinded, but Russian access to the Mediterranean remained restricted. The Russian navy could easily be holed up in the Black Sea, for, according to the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, if war broke out involving any of Europe’s Great Powers, the Turks were supposed to close the straits to all belligerents. Russia’s diplomats continued to seek freer access for their navy into the Mediterranean Sea.

Mutual distrust between Vienna and St. Petersburg always prevented a durable solution from being negotiated. But there were moments when most problems between the two countries seemed close to being resolved (as when Franz Josef visited St. Petersburg in 1897). Especially after 1900, however, attitudes hardened.

The Russian government had for the longest while been distrustful of France, the country that had invaded it in 1812, defeated it in 1856, and had become a republic in 1870. But both France and Russia were hostile to Britain by the early 1890s (because of clashes over Africa and Asia respectively), while Russia’s antagonism to Austria-Hungary was matched by the French thirst for revenge on Germany for the loss of the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871. Meanwhile, Germany and the dual monarchy had become close allies after the creation of the German Empire in 1871. Thus, France and Russia concluded that the enemy of their enemy should be their friend. The vast gulf that separated an autocracy from a parliamentary republic based on the principles of liberty, equality, and brotherhood was conveniently ignored. France, too, helped matters along by financing Russia’s industrialization with generous loans from 1888 onward. Many small investors bought Russian government bonds that were floated on the French financial markets.

In 1891, Aleksandr III listened to a rendition of the “La Marseillaise,” the national hymn that was a symbol of the French Revolution, on a French warship visiting the Russian naval harbor of Kronstadt. At that time, the first agreement between France and Russia about mutual defensive aid was concluded. The terms of military collaboration in case either country was attacked by Germany and its allies (Austria and, at the time, Italy) were ever more precisely determined in the following few years. By 1894, the agreement had become a full-fledged military alliance.

Meanwhile, Germany’s attitude toward Russia was ambiguous and inconsistent. Emperor Wilhelm II (r. 1888–1918) and Nicholas were cousins, and their empires had few territorial or other disputes. They agreed on the delineation of their mutual border and in keeping their Polish minorities subjugated. They respected each other’s sphere of influence elsewhere in the world. The Russians did not object to the German economic penetration of the Ottoman Empire, of which the construction of a railroad from Berlin to Baghdad became the most celebrated example. In exchange, the Germans promised to leave northern Iran to Russia. They supported each other in China.

In the midst of the 1905 revolution, Nicholas seemed close to reversing his alliances and joining Germany in a pact against France. But the tsar decided against this, in part because his country was deeply indebted to France (and Wilhelm, too, was dissuaded from a German-Russian pact by his strongly opposed government). French money kept the Russian government afloat throughout the revolutionary crisis at home in 1905.

Soon after the revolutionary mood in Russia calmed down, the tsarist government began to make overtures toward Britain, aiming to resolve the various disputes regarding Asia. In 1907, a treaty was concluded that split Iran evenly into two zones, with the north primarily given over to Russian influence and the south designated as a zone for primarily British economic penetration. The Russians allowed the British to deal with Afghanistan and Tibet in a manner that they saw fit. With British encouragement, Russia and Japan improved their relationship in the Far East by ironing out some problems that had not been resolved by the Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905. The two countries firmed up the division between a Japanese sphere of influence in Korea and southern Manchuria and a Russian one in northern Manchuria and (Outer) Mongolia. Mongolia declared its independence from China in 1912 (capitalizing on the opportunity provided by the fall of China’s Qing dynasty the previous year) and became a Russian protectorate, which it was to remain until 1991. At the same time, Britain oversaw the separation of Tibet from China.

Meanwhile, in 1908, the Russian conflict with Austria-Hungary over the Balkans took on a renewed acuity. The catalyst was a rebellion against the sultan in Istanbul by the Young Turks, military officers who had been converted to modern-style nationalism. They planned to reinvigorate the Ottoman Empire through economic modernization and rallying its population behind Turkish nationalism. It appeared that part of their program was to reincorporate the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, still formally under Turkish rule, even if they had been administered by Austria-Hungary since 1878. Citing the alleged breakdown of public order that attended the Young Turkish coup, however, Austria-Hungary quickly annexed the two southern Slav provinces instead. This met with strong protest from the kingdom of Serbia and among those Bosnians and Herzegovinians who identified with the Serbian cause. The Serbs believed that Russia supported them.

In fact, the Russians abided by an agreement between the Habsburg and Romanov empires that was more than a quarter century old. It had the Russians accede to the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in exchange for Austrian support to force the Turks to allow the Russian navy to enter the Mediterranean from the Black Sea (even when Russia was at war with the other Great Powers). But when the Austro-Hungarian government announced the annexation of the two provinces, the Russian foreign minister Aleksandr Izvolskii (1856–1919) encountered strong British opposition to any resolution of the straits issue to Russian advantage. While Bosnia-Herzegovina became Austrian in 1908, neither Russia nor Serbia received any compensation.

Diplomatic maneuvering led to the subsequent creation of an anti-Turkish alliance of Balkan states. This alliance declared war on the Ottomans in the fall of 1912. The aim was to conquer the last pieces of territory in Europe still in Turkish hands. While Russia backed the Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgarians in their effort, Austria made it clear that it would not allow Serbia to establish a bridgehead on the Adriatic Sea, preferring to keep Serbia landlocked. The Turks quickly surrendered in this Balkan War, but soon quarrels between the victors broke out over the division of the spoils. Austrians and Russians meddled in this conflict as well and threatened each other with war.

A compromise was stuck regarding the Adriatic coastline by creating an independent state of Albania in the spring of 1913. An Albanian port connected by rail to Serbia gave the kingdom access to the sea. In the early summer of 1913, war broke out anew, mainly about the division of Macedonia, between Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece. This time Romania, desirous of some territory on its southern border that was part of Bulgaria, sided with Serbia and Greece, and Turkey saw its chance to recover some of the land lost the previous year on the embattled (and ultimately defeated) Bulgarians.

On the eve of the 1913 Balkan War, the Bulgarian government, which had enjoyed some Russian support until that time, had managed to antagonize the Russians. Russia thus stood aside, and at the conclusion of the war, it was evident that Russia’s most consistent ally in the region remained Serbia. In the course of 1913, Russian relations with Bulgaria’s foe Romania also improved. Romania was, as we saw previously, eager to defend the interests of the Romanian speakers in Hungarian Transylvania, and thus hostile to the Habsburgs.

Meanwhile, Russia became suspicious of the German designs in Ottoman Turkey, where German military advisors were becoming prominent alongside German civilians modernizing the empire’s infrastructure. Toward 1914, not all politicians in St. Petersburg, however, supported the alliance with France and Britain, despite the humiliations to which the Russians had been exposed at the hands of the Austrians (often with forceful German backing). Some on the political right advocated the revival of the post-Napoleonic pact of the conservative powers of Eastern Europe and abandoning the far too liberal British and French. As the former interior minister Pyotr Durnovo (1845–1915) pointed out in early 1914, no real conflict existed between Russia and Germany.

But when faced with the crisis caused by the assassination in Bosnian Sarajevo in late June 1914 of Franz Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir to the throne, the alliance system worked better than some had anticipated. What started out as a Serbian-Austrian conflict quickly escalated into a war that pitted Germany and Austro-Hungary against Russia, France, and Britain, with each side being joined by numerous other countries in the course of the war.


As elsewhere in Europe, the “women’s question” was raised in late Imperial Russia. As elsewhere, too, women were disenfranchised, although before 1905 they were of course in this regard no different from men in the tsar’s empire. In some respects, Russia’s women may have been marginally better off than their counterparts in other European countries or North America around 1900. Educational institutions for women had existed since the reign of Catherine the Great. While women did not gain access to university education until the 1870s, in 1881 already two thousand women studied at universities. This was a number that compared well to the rest of Europe. But in 1897, the literacy rate among Russian women was three times lower than among Russian men, and six times lower among Ukrainian women when compared to Ukrainian men.

Legally women were not considered the equal of men. The degree to which the law treated women as inferior to men depended on the social stratum to which they belonged, as well as their marital status. Widows in villages sometimes wielded remarkable power as de facto heads of households, as did female landowners. But female professionals remained rare before 1900 in Russia, most of them being schoolteachers. The first female member of the Academy of Sciences was Lina Shtern (1878–1968), but this genius of medical research received her education in Switzerland, and her election to the academy occurred only in 1939.

Certainly, apart from class and gender, women’s lives were calibrated by their ethnicity and religion. Especially in Central Asia, hardly any women escaped the restrictions placed on their public role, while, as a rule, the opportunities for women to carve out a more independent existence were greater in European Russia. Nonetheless, along the Volga, among such non-Russian groups as the Chuvash or Mordvinians, women were universally illiterate in 1897 (although a mere 10 percent of their men could read and write). Meanwhile, literacy rates among (Muslim) Tatar women in the Volga area were actually higher than among their Russian counterparts.

Of course, whether living in steppe nomad communities or Ukrainian or Russian farming villages, or employed in factories or as shopkeepers, most women worked. In some branches of industry, such as in the textile mills, women sometimes made up the majority of the workforce. With the accelerated urbanization that accompanied the postemancipation era, and especially once industrialization took off, came a growth of prostitution, which was legal. It is with great empathy portrayed in novels such as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Even though writers such as Dostoyevsky admired “strong women,” it is evident that many women were brutally treated, with beatings and rape being a rather common occurrence in the burgeoning cities.

In the countryside, women’s fate was unenviable, for physical abuse was common; few frowned on men beating their womenfolk. And everywhere Russian health care lagged compared to that of Western countries. Therefore, infant mortality was high, as was the death of women in childbirth or as a result of complications afterward. Frequently, this was the result of a lack of understanding about the key importance of hygiene (and the inability to maintain any decent hygienic standards).

Notwithstanding the presence of several women among the leadership of the Russian political parties in the 1900s, women remained deprived of political rights, with one important exception. In 1905–1906, the autonomous rights of the Grand Duchy of Finland were restored for a while (only to be abolished again later), and Finnish women received not only the right to vote but also the right to be elected, one of the first places in the world where this was the case.

Despite this not particularly bright picture of women’s lives in late Imperial Russia, women did begin to find a voice. Female authors and artists began to emerge, such as the poets Zinaida Gippius (1869–1945) and Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966), the painter Liubov Popova (1889–1924), the pianist Anna Yesipova (1851–1914), and the ballet dancers Matilda Kshesinskaia (1872–1971) and Anna Pavlova (1881–1931).


The 1897 census enumerated eighty-seven million Eastern Orthodox believers. Some two million people belonged to one of the many sects that had sprung from the Old Belief, although it is likely that a number of Old Believers, suspicious of authorities who had persecuted them across the centuries, may have called themselves Orthodox in fear of repercussions (while others may have evaded the census takers).

Almost forty million non-Orthodox inhabitants resided in Russia in 1897. Eleven and a half million people were Roman Catholics, and 3.5 million were Lutherans. Other Protestant sects were small, having fewer than one hundred thousand adherents. More than five million people professed the Judaic faith, and fourteen million were Muslims. Half a million were (Lama) Buddhists, and some three hundred thousand belonged to “other non-Christian” religions. The Ukrainian Catholics (or Uniates) were not separately distinguished in the census: some of them seem to have been counted as Orthodox (they had been subjected to a long-term campaign by the Russian Orthodox Church to leave the Catholic Church), although others were counted as Catholics.

The census takers apparently did not find atheists among the almost 126 million subjects of the tsar. This omission was of course not reflective of reality. Certainly since the rise of the intelligentsia, atheism had spread and was especially strong among left-wing revolutionaries toward 1900. But it remained primarily a worldview popular among intellectuals, and their proportion of the general population was relatively low. It is interesting that even Lenin seems to have married before an Orthodox priest, perhaps partially because his marriage could otherwise not be registered in the late 1890s, when civil unions did not legally exist.

Historians today are interested in questions of identity and have pondered what was more important to the tsar’s subjects in identifying themselves, nationality or religion. Projecting back from later evidence and through comparison with other countries, it seems that around 1900 most of the empire’s inhabitants first saw themselves as members of their religious community. In Russian-speaking Orthodox villages, the standard answer before 1917 (or even 19298) to the question to which larger community one belonged seems to have been “Ia pravoslavnyi/pravoslavnaia” (“I am Orthodox”), not “Ia russkii/russkaia” (“I am a Russian”). Apart from Poland and Finland, one surmises that elsewhere in the empire the mass of the population similarly identified with religion rather than nation. This, too, shows the short-sighted side of the last tsars’ Russification policies in non-Russian areas. Mass nationalism had still not arrived in a country in which “mass media” had yet to arrive, and in which the means of communications and transport remained far less advanced than in contemporary Europe or North America. Even more important in preventing nationalism’s spread were the low levels of literacy. Thus, the population’s “cosmology” was determined by long-standing tradition, passed on through the generations, and the religious concepts taught by priests, rabbis, shamans, or mullahs.

This lack of nationalism has at times been linked to the ultimately faltering performance by the Russian army during the First World War. One reason Russian morale flagged, according to this hypothesis, was the insufficient nationalist enthusiasm among the troops, which was far lower than among, particularly, the highly motivated German soldiers who faced them. But why did Russian morale begin to weaken only after more than two years of warfare, as recent studies have found? And since Russian nationalism clearly had not made much headway, why did the Russians (including the Ukrainians, etc.) answer the call to arms in 1914 without much demurring?

There was indeed very little protest against the mass mobilization of the summer of 1914. Enthusiasm to go to war at the time was as great (or as decent) as it was elsewhere in Europe. In the first place, support for the dynasty may have been stronger than has been suggested ever since 1917. This challenges the Soviet-infused conventional wisdom that the tsar had lost his subjects’ trust through Bloody Sunday (and that in 1914 most soldiers only very reluctantly went to war). Additionally, given the evidence regarding the manner in which people identified, support for the Orthodox cause against heretics may have played more of a role than previously thought. Perhaps, then, a sort of premodern nationalism that combined a defense of the Orthodox patrimony, Holy Russia, and the semidivine monarch held most Russian troops under its spell until the home front (more than the actual front) became fed up with the war.9

Meanwhile, the importance of nationalism in motivating soldiers to go to war in the massive conscript armies of modern times may have been exaggerated. Military historians have found that localized loyalties played an important role in morale in both world wars: soldiers tended to be markedly more tenacious if they fought shoulder to shoulder with their fellow villagers or high school classmates than if they ended up in units in which troops did not know each other before being deployed. Such loyalties might trump loyalty to the abstract concept of the nation. Because of the Russian soldiers’ low level of schooling and lack of exposure otherwise to nationalist propaganda before 1914, the soldiers’ almost unwavering cohesion before 1917 might be explained by such solidarity and other hitherto underestimated factors.

Historians need to investigate further the reasons behind the continued Orthodox allegiance of the absolute majority of the Russian or Ukrainian population. The church had been bereft of a patriarch since 1700, and the tsarist authorities used the church as if it was a branch of government. Priests read government decrees from the pulpit and were even asked by the government to inform on their flock’s political mood. The church was supportive of the society of inequality that was tsarist Russia, preaching acceptance of the status quo (it was no coincidence that one of its last secular chiefs was Konstantin Pobedonostsev). Priests and monks were often corrupt or imbibed heavily (Rasputin was by no means an exception), hardly setting an example of a true Christian life in their communities. Saintly figures as can be found in Dostoyevsky’s great novels (Father Zosima, Alyosha Karamazov) were rare in late Imperial Russia.


Figure 5.5. Jewish schoolboys in Samarkand, ca. 1910 (Library of Congress)

At the same time, religious belief remained strong among the non-Orthodox, often in the teeth of discrimination and harassment by the authorities, which especially befell the Jews and the Catholics. Apart from this intimidation strategy, the Russian government offered little incentive to wean people away from the religion of their ancestors. In sum, the 1897 census numbers, showing a country in which every inhabitant was religious, were inflated, but there is no denying that religious belief remained quite important in the lives of almost all of the tsar’s subjects. As elsewhere, such beliefs began to wane only before the combined onslaught of education and industrialization, accompanied by the idea that people are called on to make a better world for themselves and others in this life, rather than meekly await improvements in the afterlife.


Perhaps great social turmoil is conducive to great art. In the waning days of the Russian Empire, this was certainly the case. The period was given the modest epithet of the “silver age” in Russian literature, giving pride of place to Pushkin’s era, but in truth Russian creativity in all the arts was never as flourishing as it was around 1900. Some of the great composers of the previous age were still at work, but it was also the age of Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), composer of the ballet scores Petrushka, the Rites of Spring and The Firebird, staged by Sergei Diaghilev’s (1872–1929) Ballets Russes. Diaghilev’s troupe showcased dancers such as Vachlav Nijinskii (Nizhinskii; 1890–1950) and Anna Pavlova. Diaghilev’s work was seen as the epitome of the avant-garde, as were the paintings and designs by Russian visual artists such as Vasilii Kandinsky (1866–1944), Marc Chagall (1887–1985), Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935), and Liubov Popova. Russian poetry was at its height, as can be seen from the works by futurists Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922) and Vladimir Maiakovskii (1893–1930), and the symbolists Aleksandr Blok (1880–1921) and Zinaida Gippius, or the more classical lyrical poetry by Sergei Esenin (1895–1925), Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941), and Osip Mandelshtam (1891–1938). In prose, Ivan Bunin (1870–1953; the first Russian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1933), Fyodor Sologub (1863–1927), and Andrei Bely (1880–1934) stood out. In literary criticism, Boris Eikhenbaum (1886–1959) and Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) developed the study of semiotics. Around 1900, Russian science could boast of the physiologist-psychologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), among many others who continued to be active, such as Tsiolkovskii.

It is of note that a great number of the scientists, scholars, and artists, even if critical of the political and social environment in which they worked, turned away from monistic political theories that promised to bring revolutionary salvation for the oppressed masses. The most famous critique of the intelligentsia as the beacon leading Russia to a radiant future came from a group of former left-wing theorists (including Pyotr Struve) in an essay collection called Milestones (Vekhi), which was published in 1909. They argued that Russia could only improve through a moral regeneration of the individual and harshly criticized the idea that the implementation in practice of some sort of enlightened political philosophy would bring salvation. They seemed to imply that matters might even turn out worse if such an effort were undertaken. Their words proved prophetic. Indeed, in Russian art and literature some sense of impending doom and premonition can be discerned, although here the benefit of hindsight undoubtedly influences us, who know about what unfolded in the Russian Empire from the summer of 1914 onward.


1. Roosevelt went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

2. One of the committee’s chairs was the young Marxist Lev Bronshtein, better known as Trotsky (1879–1940).

3. Among these admirers of Stolypin was the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Nobel Prize winner.

4. Such a conspiracy was an unlikely scenario, as the Marxists rejected terrorism as a tactic.

5. Grids for electricity began to be installed around this time in middle-class neighborhoods.

6. Central Asia remained almost oblivious to the war until conscription was introduced there in 1916.

7. The Habsburg Empire had split into two equally sized parts in 1867.

8. A census was staged in the Soviet Union in 1926.

9. This premodern nationalism was not unlike Nicholas I’s and Uvarov’s ideology propagated in the first half of the nineteenth century.


Translated Primary Sources

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———. The Russian Idea. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1979.

Miliukov, Pavel. Political Memoirs, 1905–1917. Translated by Carl Goldberg. Edited by Arthur P. Mendel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967.

Shulgin, V. V. Days of the Russian Revolution: Memoirs from the Right, 1905–1917. Translated and edited by Bruce F. Adams. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1990.

Scholarly Literature

Ascher, Abraham. P. A. Stolypin: The Search for Stability in Late Imperial Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

———. The Revolution of 1905. 2 vols. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Bernstein, Laurie. Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Brower, Daniel R. Turkestan and the Fate of the Russian Empire. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Crews, Robert D. For Prophet and Tsar: Islam in Russia and Central Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Ely, Christopher. This Meager Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Engelstein, Laura. The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Happiness in Fin-de-Siècle Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Frank, Allen J. Muslim Religious Institutions in Imperial Russia. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001.

Fuhrmann, Joseph T. Rasputin: The Untold Story. Boston: Wiley, 2012.

Geraci, Robert. Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Imperial Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Gerasimov, Ilya. Modernism and Public Reform in Late Imperial Russia: Rural Professionals and Self-Organization, 1905–1930. Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Gleason, W. E. “Alexander Guchkov and the End of the Russian Empire.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, 73, no. 3 (1983): 1–90.

Haimson, Leopold H. “The Problem of Social Stability in Urban Russia, 1905–1917.” Part 1, Slavic Review 4 (1964): 619–42; part 2, Slavic Review 1 (1965): 1–22.

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Morrissey, Susan. Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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Wolff, David, Bruce Menning, et al., eds. The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2007.


Battleship Potemkin. DVD. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Berlin: Kino International, 2007.

Dersu Uzala. DVD. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. New York: Kino Video, 2003.

Prisoner of the Mountains. DVD. Directed by Sergei Bodrov. Beverly Hills, CA: MGM, 2003.

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