Towards the end of nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth century, most of Europe was going through a great deal of changes, many new ideas were introduced, causing people to dream of a better life, and more economic stability. Nowhere was this factor as true as in Imperial Russia. “The basic dilemma facing Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II was that it was impossible to ignore the demands either of external military security or of internal political stability and that these demands pulled hard in opposite directions. This helps to explain why the policies and governments of the last three Romanov monarchs often seemed crisis-ridded and at cross purposes.” The statement mentioned above basically describes the nature of the events which had taken place during the sixty-two years that separated the succession of Alexander II in 1855, and the fall of the monarchy in 1917. Also when we go deeper into the above mentioned situation, we need to note that Nicholas II inherited his Empire at a time when there was much agitation going on among the world powers, partially due to the fact that there was an extremely harsh competition going on throughout the world for territory and political influence. After taking all that into consideration, we also have the fact that Nicholas II was very unprepared to rule his country at the time when he ascended the throne, for the most part because of the unexpected passing away of his father, Alexander III. Then there are constant financial difficulties that Russia faced, mainly, that there wasn’t enough money for everyone. That caused the lives of the “ordinary people” to be generally classified as poverty stricken. Now to add to the above mentioned situation, factor in: the increasing number of educated people, the rapid industrialization of the country, the constant repression of the government, the Empire’s rapid population growth, the spread of nationalist ideas in a country whose population consists of many different ethnic regions, failure to act assertively on the part of the tsarism, and what we have is a country that is marching straight towards revolution. Yet as always, some factors played a much larger role in stimulating the growth, and then later triggering, the Revolution of 1917. From reading the two assigned texts I came to conclude that the key fundamental roles were: the Russian Worker, the governments’ inability to function as a unitary whole, and lastly World War I.
One of the major forces that was responsible for laying the foundation to the Revolution of 1917, was the Russian worker. Russian workers were underpaid, their living conditions, their lifestyles, their demands, and their problems were for the most part overlooked. And the already unstable situation among the millions of unsatisfied workers “was made far worse by the harsh conditions of exploitation most workers found in the factories. Throughout the period the situation remained almost unbearable for most workers. Wages were low, hours long, factories dangerous, living conditions squalid, discipline brutal…” Also there was little or no job security, employers had the power to hire and fire employees, without giving any explanation for their dismissal, and overall the whole system was designed in order to benefit the employer exclusively.
This careless treatment on the part of the employers, was one of the major reasons for the unhappy situation that Russian workers had to endure. That caused them to get angry at the government, since it was the most visible target, and it was blamed for whatever problems one might have been faced with. That’s where the revolutionaries came into place and encouraged the worker to seek alternate means for the fulfillment of their needs. This point is confirmed by many analysts, and in particular made evident by the Bolsheviks, who claim that “these hard-core workers were the backbone of urban political and social unrest.” This not so large, yet quite turbulent sector of the population was often overlooked by Nicholas II, who was assured that the Russian peasants were the key to the survival of the monarchy. When indeed it was the peasant himself who was leaving his home in the village and becoming the urban worker.
Another important element that played a crucial role in the deterioration of the Russian Empire, and largely contributed to the cause of the Revolution of 1917, is the actual Russian government itself. It doesn’t matter whose perspective you want to look on the situation from, Lievens or Reads, because despite their different opinions on the actual role that the government played, one thing they do agree on, is that it played it inadequately. Many believe that the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and the Revolution of 1917, was initially caused by Alexander III, who during his reign reversed the liberal reforms that were initially put in effect under his father, Alexander II. That is certainly the position that we see defended throughout Christopher Read’s book. And while that could have surely enough contributed to the overwhelming distaste that the masses held towards their government and their monarch, we also need to take into account that during the reign of Nicholas II the country was almost irreversibly, marching towards disaster. “It was the misfortune of Nicholas II that fate made him responsible for guiding his country through one of the most difficult periods in its history. Nevertheless what we are presented with in Imperial Russia, is a government whose departments where divided amongst each other, and therefore produced actions that were uncoordinated and tentative, causing the regime’s opponents to become more confident and optimistic in the governments inability to perform much longer. Also the constant repression, combined with yielding during the time when opposition was too high, caused the revolutionary leaders to see the government as weak and fearful of its opponents. For example when the government actually decided to answer the cries of its people and provide them with a constitution, “the revolutionary parties saw the October manifesto [Russian constitution] as a sign of weakness and redoubled their efforts to hasten tsarism to its grave.” That confirms even more the argument that there was very little that Nicholas II could do, without further sinking empire into the revolutionary swamp.
Another factor that had a tremendous impact on the ongoing creation of the Revolution of 1917, was World War I. Russia’s financial and economical situation in 1914 was far from perfect, and the Central Powers not only realized that, but also used it to their full advantage. That is why “Vienna and Berlin agreed that it was better to start a war now than to delay matters, since Russia’s resources, together with the rapid growth of her economic and military strength, would make victory for the Central Powers unobtainable in a few year’s time.” Yet we also need to understand the Russian perspective for engaging in the war. Despite the fact that the Russian Emperor knew that Russia wasn’t militarily prepared in comparison to the Germany, there was a widespread belief circulating the European countries during that time, “that a vigorous and self-respecting nation must assert itself aggressively and must compete, by war if necessary, to be the standard-bearer of progress and history.” This type of mentality was also widely accepted among the Russian ruling class, and needs to be taken into consideration as, one of the reasons for Russian entry in World War I. And to add to that, the Russians believed that “so long as the war was relatively short and ultimately victorious national unity would prevail.” However the consequences that followed upon Russian entrance in the war, were quite different then some might have hoped, or anticipated. The ‘short, victorious war’ that the Russians might have desired turned out to be three years long, not so glorious, and with terrible penalties. It caused the living conditions within the country to suffer tremendously, since most of the economic effort was geared towards supporting the military, and winning the war. This left the ‘ordinary people’ half-starved, distressed, and exhausted by the influences of war. It also caused one of the biggest downfalls of the Russian history, the destruction of tsarism. Which in return created even more instability and consequently pushed the unsatisfied masses even further, creating the Revolution of 1917.
Dominic Lievens, author of Nicholas II: Twilight of the Empire, published his book at St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, NY in 1993. He is a political historian at the London School of Economics, and his specialty is imperial Russia: Russia’s Rulers Before the revolution. Some of his other works are: Aristocracy in Europe: 1815-1914, Russia’s Rulers under Old Regime, Nicholas II: Emperor of all the Russia’s, The Russian Empire and its Rivals, and, Russia and the Origins of the First World War. Lievens is a traditional historian, therefore his approach in writing this book, reflects that model in many aspects. Traditional historians mainly attribute the collapse of the Tsarist regime to World War I. They also believe that the country’s deteriorating was due to inadequate political organization. And that after the collapse of the tsarist regime, the rule was picked up by the Bolsheviks, who were the strongest political party during that time. In writing this book, Lievens, often uses a comparative approach, where he draws comparisons between Nicholas II, and other monarchs. Lieven also draws comparison between the fall of the Imperial Russia, and the collapse of the Communist Russia. He attempts to fit both regimes into a certain pattern where it could aid us in predicting the future, and possibly shine some light on many current and upcoming situations. He practices topical organization in his book, where he has one main topic Nicholas II, and then brakes it down into smaller topics, relating them back to Nicholas II. His main point throughout his book is that, during the reign of Nicholas II, the political instability, and the stagnant atmosphere throughout his constantly changing empire, made ruling very difficult and even impossible in certain aspects, therefore making the Revolution of 1917 inevitable. He also points out that one of the main reasons for Nicholas II’s inability to rule the empire with a firm grip, and without so many shifts between policies, is due to his father’s unexpected death, which cut Nicholas short of his training. The latter making him ascend the throne when he hardly knew anything about ruling a country, causing him to be susceptible to many different opinions.
Christopher Read, author of From Tsar to Soviets: The Russian People and their Revolution, 1917-21, published his book at Oxford University Press, New York, NY, in 1996. He is a historian at the University of Warwick, UK, and he specializes in Russian Revolution, Russian intelligentsia 1900-1930, Communism, and cultural revolution. Some of his other publications include: Religion, Revolution and the Russian Intelligentsia (1979), and, Culture and Power in Revolutionary Russia (1990). He is a revisionist, which means that he pays more attention to the masses. Revisionists are mainly interested with what the ‘ordinary people’ believed in, and their social and economic history. Read could also be classified as a ‘post-revisionist’, which basically tells us that he is a type of historian who looks at the revolution as something that is in the past. Something which has gone, something that no longer has any importance. In writing this book, he uses thematic organization, which means that he carries a certain theme throughout this book, and branches out from it. His main point was that revolutions are not created by revolutionaries, but by the masses. That the Revolution of 1917 was not created by the Bolsheviks, and their party, but by regular people: peasants, factory workers, etc.