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.

Arrival and Survival of the Christians in South India: A Historical Background

It is difficult to comment on the advent of Christianity in India with accuracy due to the lack of any direct evidence. The most accepted and persistent theory associated with the coming of the Christians in India dates back to 52 CE when St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, had sailed to Muziris (Kerala) with the mission to proliferate Christianity in the lands of the “heathens”. The arrival of the apostle, the patron saint of India, has been corroborated by the hagiologies and liturgies and also by the Syrian Christians themselves. Later some significant medieval treatises such as the one by the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo too picked up this tradition which speaks of the evangelical process in the Malabar region by St. Thomas, proselytizing a number of inhabitants there.

The 1st c. CE was also an era which witnessed active commercial relations between the Mediterranean regions and South India. This, in turn, led to the early migrations of the Jews and Christian communities to Malabar. Besides the merchants coming and settling down in the Malabar coastal areas, there were also refugees who were facing persecutions in their respective native places and had migrated to the tract. However, the commercial interaction between Rome and South India in the early centuries of the Common Era did not seem to contribute much to the propagation of Christianity in the peninsular India in the next few centuries. In the 7th c. i.e. in about 658 CE the churches in South India were in a dilapidated condition. Much later in the late 13th c. an Italian traveller and missionary named John of Monte Corvino is said to have travelled to the Malabar coast and he observed that the number of Christians in the region were not many on account of their persecution.     

A new dawn was seen in the history of the Christians in south India when in 1498 a Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama was successful in finding an alternative trade route to India via Cape of Good Hope. Earlier the Ottoman Turks in 1453 captured Constantinople (Istanbul) and completely established their monopoly over trade in spices and other oriental goods by controlling trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The loss of Constantinople proved unfavourable to the traders and merchants of Europe. European nations particularly Portugal and Spain were keen on finding a new trade route linking Europe to India. The sovereigns of these countries extended their patronage to the sea voyagers and also to the pirates. It was in this critical state of affairs that in 1498 Vasco da Gama reached Calicut (Kerala). The Arab merchants who were already stationed at Calicut showed hostility to the arrival of the Portuguese sailor. However, zamorin, the local ruler saw a trading opportunity and benefits in dealing with Vasco da Gama and therefore, he was received with open arms. The expedition to Calicut proved to be exceedingly profitable for Vasco da Gama since he received 60 times the profit of the entire voyage. But the expedition was not only significant for the riches it brought along with it but also it inaugurated the coming of the Europeans, an age of colonialism, and the vigorous propagation of Christianity in the Indian subcontinent as well as beyond it. Vasco da Gama on his second voyage to the Malabar Coast in 1502 provided protection to the Christian populace.

In the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were able to establish their naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese governor in India fought two consequential naval battles, viz., the Battle of Chaul (1508) and the Battle of Diu (1509) respectively. In the former battle, Almeida fought against a naval alliance formed by the Turks, Arabs, and the Sultan of Gujarat. The Portuguese governor lost the battle as well as his son, Don Almeida. In the next battle in 1509, he defeated the triple naval alliance and thus, laid the foundation of the Portuguese dominance in the Indian Ocean for the next 100 years. The succeeding Portuguese governor, Alfonso de Albuquerque embarked upon a policy which not only advocated the Portuguese supremacy at sea but it also strived to establish dominance over land. Accordingly, forts were set up at many strategic sites and a strong naval force was deployed to safeguard the forts. He expanded the Portuguese territories in India by conquering a critical natural harbour and port called Goa from the Adil Shahi dynasty of Bijapur (1490-1686). All these political actions paved the way for the further propagation of Christianity in South India. At Quilon (Kollam, Kerala) Albuquerque procured certain privileges for the native Christians from its ruler. Missionaries became more active in spreading the gospel.

St. Francis Xavier of the Jesuit Order arrived at Goa in 1542 and was instrumental in converting many natives in the South-East Coast along with Travancore. He is credited to have built 45 churches in Travancore. In his missionary work, sometimes he received hostile treatments such as the ones from the Vijaynagar rulers and at other times, he was accorded royal patronage from the Araviti rulers. His relics are preserved in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Robert de Nobili, Fr. Emmanuel Martin, etc. were other notable missionaries who contributed to the propagation of Christianity in South India.         

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