Russia in the 19th century and the Rise of Revolutions

Russia by the turn of the 19th century geographically was a very big empire but it was landlocked and ice locked. During the Medieval times in Europe, the Genoese and Venetian merchants dominated the Mediterranean Sea routes and therefore, there was an upsurge of city-states in the Apennine or Italian peninsula. From the 13th to 15th centuries the Hanseatic League founded by the German merchant communities in the north German towns dominated commercial activities in the northern Europe. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Western European countries with expansive coastlines, Portugal (especially under Prince Henry “the Navigator”, King John II, and Manuel I) and Spain (under Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon and King Charles) were financing several sea voyages. England after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 emerged as a strong naval power. By the early 17th century several commercial companies were formulated in the continent. The Age of Exploration facilitated the European nations to expand from local areas to more widespread ones, crossing continents and oceans by colonising the discovered lands. More commodities such as sugar, spices, and textiles and also slaves were available which gave an impetus to the Commercial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution which began in Britain in the 18th century and later spread to other nations in Europe facilitated the transition from an agrarian based economy to industrialism and aided in expanding their control globally. Russia was expanding territorially too but owing to the lack of the availability of permanent warm water ports, the country was unable to establish robust overseas trading networks. One of the main concerns of Russia’s foreign policy was acquiring access to the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. In the 19th century, the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) were fought and one of the significant motivations for going on wars with the Ottoman Empire was to reach the Black Sea.

Besides the incorporation of various territories, to rule over such a huge land mass which encompassed widely different ethnicities required an efficient form of government which could foster and maintain cohesion among all. The Tsarist regime in Russia was autocratic in character and Russia in the 19th century was primarily an agrarian based economy with obsolete agricultural techniques and low agricultural productivity. 80% of the population comprised of peasantry who were former serfs. Serfdom which was forced labour had been in existence in Russia since the 16th century. During the reign of Peter I, the peasants’ condition deteriorated and it could be equated with those of the slaves. By the reign of Catherine II, i.e., in the late 18th century serfdom was widespread. The Pugachev rebellion (1773-75) was the result of the deplorable condition faced by the serfs and other dissatisfied sections like factory workers and miners. It was only when Alexander II, “Tsar Liberator”, came to power that in 1861, serfs were emancipated but even though now the peasants were not bound to the land, yet they were still left landless. To acquire a piece of land from the state, they had to make redemption payments and since the exploited peasantry was of meager means, the payments were made in several decades. And when finally the restitution money was paid completely, then also the peasants were not entitled for individual land ownerships. The distribution and redistribution of lands were done though village communes (Obshchina). Many of the landless impoverished peasants in order to earn money for the restitution payments opted to move to urban regions and work in factories and industries. The huge influx of peasants to cities and towns on one hand caused the swelling of urban population while on the other hand it affected the conditions of the gentry and landowners in the countrysides adversely as no longer their labour was abundantly available. And the living condition of the peasants who went to urban areas to work as workers in factories and industries remained pitiful. Many peasants also joined the Russian army but they were not well provided for either and lacked modern amenities and proper trainings. 

Alexander II also made endeavours to bring reforms in the industrial sector and industrialise the Russian Empire with the prospect of modernising it. However, when compared to Britain, Germany, and some other Western European countries, the pace of industrialisation was slow in Russia and there was no uniform development. It was a mélange of areas such as those in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Finland which were evidently industrialised with literate populace, fine architectural buildings and roads whereas the regions in Central Asia were grappling with low literacy rate. The buildings here were springing up in a disorderly fashion. Likewise, in Russia itself St. Petersburg was the manifestation of progress while Nizhniy Novgorod was not. In the sphere of religion too, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced no reform movements like that of the Reformation in the Western Europe. 

Finally, it was owing to various factors which led to the deplorable condition of the Russian peasantry who formed the majority of the population, the Russian intellectuals started to believe that there was a need to enlighten the peasantry class about their exploitation and transform them into a revolutionary force and bring a peasant uprising. The belief gave rise to the Narodnik movement which paved the way for further socialist revolutions in Russia.

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