Change and Continuity in Russian Politics and Culture During 1750-1914

During the period from 1750 to 1914, Russia, a land empire in the age of imperialism, sparked a series of political and cultural reformation that enhanced Russia’s power over much of its territory with preservation of some old monarchical rules that were later threatened by Western ideas.

The entire Russian Empire was under the rules of tsars at that time period, with Eastern Orthodoxy as the popular religion that was widely spread and accepted over the territory. But with respect to Western development, Russia faced problems that whether to put liberalism – a branch of enlightenment ideas – into this area. In 1750, Catherine the Great of Russia was at the height of her reign. Although she considered herself an enlightened despot and selectively tried to expose Russia to Western techniques, she was hesitant to let Western advances threaten her power. During this time, Russia was still relying on a method of serfdom that had been present in the country for many previous years. Catherine imposed tighter restrictions on the serf population, extracting labor from the masses and giving them little to no voice in affairs of the State. While she continued the method of serfdom in Russia, her reforms and restrictions on serfdom further exploited the working labor masses of her country which heightened their unrest. Suffered the disadvantages of being neighbors to the rising nations in Europe, Russia had its wins and losses during the era yet managed to retain its power.

In fact, the Russian Empire had turned its attention to the west under the late 17th and early 18th century rule of Peter the Great, but the change in attitude actually happened later. As exemplified by Alexander I, who undertook top-down westernizing reforms, a lot of western industrial technologies and enlightenment ideas were incorporated into this land. In the mid-19th century, due to the modernization efforts, Russia became a huge, diverse realm that was very difficult to rule from a central location, even with the power granted to an absolute tsar. However, later resistance to Alexander I’s bureaucratic reforms initiated the Decembrist revolt, which stiffened Nicholas I’s hostility to Western ideas. His suspicion of Western ideas stalled reform and slowed industrial development. What’s more, since Russia had been continually expanding, there existed some conflicts with regions east or south to Russian Empire. Frequent confrontation gave Russia a shortage of power distributed that kept them from expanding territories.

Rather, Russia got into trouble with powerful England and France, when its formidable army attacked the Ottoman Empire to seize access to warm water ports around the Black Sea. Fearful of an upset in European balance of power, England and France supported the Ottomans in defeating Russian troops in the Crimean War (1853-1856). This defeat clearly showed Russian weakness, and it led Tsar Alexander II to attempt reform by emphasizing industrialization, creating elected district assemblies called Zemstvos. Dissatisfied by Russian Empire’s rules that put itself into danger, a lot of intellectuals began seeking ways to save the whole society. For instance, after Russia’s humiliation in the Crimea, the Slavophile tendency, gave rise to Pan-Slavism, a militant political doctrine advocating unity of all the Slavic peoples, including those living under Austrian and Ottoman rule. Slavophile idea fostered Russophobia that kept Western Europeans from attacking Russian Empire any more.

There were also many people who thought the centralized government as malevolent force that impeded Russia’s economic growth. In 1861, Czar Alexander II reformed Russian society by emancipating the serfs, but the newly freed peasants still had limited mobility. Although the serfs had been freed and given limited rights, they continued to suffer poor working conditions as the majority of the work force in factories. Russia’s instability became apparent when Alexander II was assassinated by one of the many revolutionary groups that were growing rapidly within the country. Some of these revolutionary groups were Marxist, and their influence would eventually take over the country in 1917. However, Russia continued on under absolute rule until then, with an intense state-run industrialization program that did modernize Russia by the end of the 19th century.

Russian Marxists revolutionaries saw capitalism – or the free market – as an economic system that exploited workers and increased the gap between the rich and the poor. They believed that conditions in capitalist countries would eventually become so bad that workers would join together in a Revolution of the Proletariat, and overcome the bourgeoisie, or owners of factories and other means of production. They envisioned a new world after the revolution, one in which social class would disappear because ownership of private property would be banned. According to Marx, communism encourages equality and cooperation, and without property to encourage greed and strife, governments would be unnecessary. His theories eventually took new forms in early 20th century Russia. Nicholas II, the last tsar of the Russian Empire, though not an unsatisfactory emperor, was threatened, and, in 1917, eventually killed by internal ideological conflicts that would later shape Russia’s social and political status with brand new communism ideas that opposed imperial laws.


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