Liberalism in Russia

Russia was ruled by the Tsarist autocracy for nearly 400 years, during which official political parties were prohibited by law. However, Liberalism as a political ideology had begun to influence Russian thought significantly after the French Revolution in 1789. Let's look briefly at how Liberalism spread throughout Russia, and specifically how it affected the changes to government with the Russian Revolutions in the early 20th century. 

Liberalism in Russia Liberalism in Russia

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Table of contents

    Liberal Definition

    The definition of liberal changes depending on the geographical and historical context. In Russia, Liberalism was shaped by the history of the Tsarist regime and other global events.

    Russian Liberalism can be partially attributed to Mikhail Speransky, a Russian statesman. Speransky advised Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I to introduce liberal reforms in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    The ideology generally champions some civil rights, suffrage for all men (and for some liberals, women), and a constitutional monarchy modelled after Britain.

    Liberalism can be contrasted to conservatism in Russia. The conservatism of the Tsars was defined by autocracy, the idea that one individual held control over an entire country. Many of the nobility, while supporting the Tsar, followed a brand of conservatism that called for non-intervention of the Tsar in local matters, seeing the Tsar's role only in national policy and defence.

    When the Tsars attempted to modernise Russia's largely agricultural economy, they were met with resistance for their liberal actions. The historian Robinson describes the legacy of these liberal policies:

    Russian conservatives’ views on economic affairs have been shaped by dislike of the top-down policies of rapid modernization enacted by the Russian state."

    - Paul Robinson, 'What is Russian Conservatism?', The Dorchester Review, 20191

    Conservatism was also deeply influenced by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which believed in the centrality of Christ.

    Liberalism in Russia Timeline

    Here are the key dates for liberalism in Russia.

    DateEventEffect on Liberal Movement
    1789French Revolution. The French Revolution showed that an overthrow of an oppressive monarchy was possible and generally marked the epicentre of liberal ideas. News spread throughout Europe, and in Russia the emerging liberal ideology was particularly aimed at freeing peasants from serfdom, where peasants were bound to the will of their landlord.
    1801Tsar Alexander I coronated.Since the Tsar engaged Russia in the Napoleonic Wars when France invaded in 1812, Russian troops had experienced other nations' societies whilst fighting abroad. They began to question the Tsarist autocracy in the face of post-French Revolution, liberal Europe.
    December 1825Tsar Alexander I died and succeeded by Tsar Nicholas I.Liberals expected Tsar Alexander I to be succeeded by his younger brother Constantine, a favoured reformer with liberal tendencies. However, Nicholas I took the throne and caused uproar with the liberals, known as the Decembrist Revolt.
    1855Tsar Nicholas I died and succeeded by Tsar Alexander II.Alexander II appeared open to reforms throughout Russia, and was particularly influenced by Western ideas of liberalism.
    1861Emancipation of the Serfs with Edict of Emancipation under Tsar Alexander II.Liberal reformers in the Tsar's government were able to work with the Tsar Alexander II to bring about reform to the country. This took the form of the Emancipation of the Serfs, granting peasants more civil liberties regarding land ownership and self determination.
    1881Tsar Alexander II assassinated and succeeded by Tsar Alexander III.Despite Alexander II's reforms, members of the radical Marxist group the People's Will assassinated the Tsar. This was a blow to the liberal movement because the Tsar was on the cusp of passing the Loris-Melikov constitution, which would have created elected bodies within the government.
    1894Tsar Alexander III died and succeeded by Tsar Nicholas II.Tsar Nicholas II weakened the liberal movement's main power base, the zemstvas. Nicholas II also carried on his father's repression, characterised by the poor treatment of peasants during the famine of 1891-2.
    1905The First Russian Revolution. Kadets established as a liberal political party.The Tsar's October Manifesto showed a move towards a constitutional monarchy in Russia and allowed official political parties to form. This pleased the newly-formed liberal party of the Kadets, but they still wanted further reform. The liberal party of Octobrists also formed.
    1906Fundamental Laws and Duma established.The Tsar was reversing the liberal promises of the October Manifesto. This lost him support from the liberal movement.
    July 1914Russia entered First World War.Liberals tended to support the war as a sign of nationalist pride for Russia.
    February 1917February Revolution. The Provisional Government established.As the War progressed, the Tsar demonstrated his incompetence at managing both the military and the country, losing him support from liberals. After the February Revolution, the resultant Provisional Government was made mostly of liberal politicians.
    March 1917Tsar Nicholas II abdicated.Mikhail Rodzianko, leader of the Octobrists, is credited with persuading the Tsar to abdicate after the February Revolution.
    October 1917Bolshevik Revolution. Provisional Government overthrown.The Bolsheviks took control of Russia, forcing the liberals out of power. The leading liberal party of Kadets were outlawed by the Bolsheviks in late 1917. Under Soviet control, all other political parties were outlawed, so the liberal movement did not have an official body with which to coordinate.

    Aims of Liberal Movement in Russia

    The aims of the Liberals in Russia changed slightly depending on the socio-political context at the time. During the reign of Alexander II, for example, the liberal movement was focussed on ending serfdom in Russia. Once this was achieved, liberals continued to support the equal civil rights of Russia's citizens. Let's look at some of its aims as an ideology and eventually as a ratified party after the 1905 October Manifesto.

    The 1905 October Manifesto, written by one of Tsar Nicholas II's advisors to placate the 1905 riots, included the following:

    • Civil rights and freedoms of all people within Russia.
    • A State Duma (similar to Britain's Parliament) that would give all men the right to vote. This would transform Russia from an autocracy into a constitutional monarchy.
    • Powers of the Duma to approve or reject any new laws.

    It's important to remember that the October Manifesto was not a legally binding document. It was more of a promise from the Tsar, a promise that Nicholas never intended to fulfil.

    Liberalism and the Duma

    After the 1905 Russian Revolution, the Liberal parties of Kadets and Octobrists began to take seats in the newly-formed Duma, the indirectly-elected, representative, legislative body in the Russian government. Let's look at how Liberalism in Russia developed in this new environment.

    Kadets and Octobrists

    In the first two Dumas, the Kadets and Octobrists tended to disagree over the reforms proposed in the October Manifesto. The Kadets tended to be more left-leaning, wanting further reforms, whilst the Octobrists leaned more to the centre, arguing that the Manifesto issued enough reform. Let's look at these two liberal parties.

    The Kadets

    The Kadets were a politically party formed in October 1905 after Tsar Nicholas II allowed the establishment of multiple political parties in Russia. Let's look at the leading individuals of the Kadets within the Duma. Pavel Milyukov founded the Union of Unions in March 1905, which became the Kadets in October 1905. The Kadets became the centre of the Liberal movement.

    Milyukov opposed the Tsar's rule, and believed that he could only exist as head of state if restricted by a constitution, a constituent assembly and a democratically-elected government. He was inspired by the Western governments of Britain and America.

    Liberalism in Russia Portrait photograph of Pavel Milyukov StudySmarterFig. 1 Pavel Milyukov, an influential liberal reformer who founded the Kadets in March 1905.

    Milyukov had seats in all four successive Dumas. In July 1905, following the Tsar's dissolution of the first Duma, Milyukov drafted the Vyborg Manifesto, a Kadet document criticising the Tsar. This led to the Kadets' being severely limited by the Tsar in subsequent Duma elections.

    When the Provisional Government was formed in 1917, Milyukov was elected as Foreign Minister. He believed that Russia should continue World War One until victory for Russia was achieved. Given the severe famine and poverty the war was causing, this made Milyukov unpopular. He was forced to resign in April 1917. Another Kadet, Prince George Lvov, was elected as Prime Minister of the Provisional Government.

    Lvov's liberal beliefs in creating a fairly elected Constituent Assembly meant that he stalled with governmental decisions regarding the war and political opposition. He resigned in July 1917 after the July Days protests. Alexander Kerensky, a Socialist Revolutionary, became Prime Minister and the Provisional Government hence became more populated with socialists. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Kadets were outlawed throughout Russia. Many, including Milyukov, supported the Whites during the Russian Civil War.

    The Octobrists

    The Octobrists, formally the Union of October 17, was a centrist, even conservative-leaning, liberal party which got its name from the October Manifesto, which they thoroughly supported. They believed in a constitutional monarchy, like in Britain.

    Alexander Guchkov was the founder of the Octobrists in October 1905. The party believed that the October Manifesto listed the necessary reforms to improve Russian economy and society. The fact that they deemed further reform unneccessary demonstrated the more conservative views of the party.

    After the Kadets and Socialists had dominated the first two Dumas, which were short-lived for their radical views, the Octobrists held the majority in the Third Duma, with Guchkov as the chairman.

    The Third Duma saw land reforms under the Tsar's appointed Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. The Octobrists tended to agree with Stolypin's reforms to maintain the Russian Empire and the introduction of private farming. The conservative reforms and agreement between Octobrist liberals and the Tsar meant that the Duma lasted its full 5 year term and introduced moderate reform to Russian society.

    The Octobrists also held a majority in the Fourth Duma and their leader, Mikhail Rodzianko, became the Chairman. As the First World War was declared and the Tsar proved incompetent at leadership, many Octobrists became disillusioned with the Emperor.

    Liberalism in Russia Portrait of Mikhail Rodzianko StudySmarterFig. 2 Mikhail Rodzianko, renowned for his involvement in convincing Tsar Nicholas I to abdicate in March 1917.

    In 1915, the Octobrists and Kadets joined forces to form the Progressive Bloc, the new centre of Russian liberalism in the Duma. Following the February Revolution in 1917, Rodzianko elected the Provisional Committee with himself as chairman. He did not join the Provisional Government and then faded from the political spotlight.

    Rodzianko remained loyal to the idea of a constitutional monarchy and convinced Nicholas II to abdicate in favour of a new Tsar in March 1917. Nicholas' brother Mikhail refused the throne as he first wanted approval from an elected constitutional assembly, leaving the position of Tsar in question and failing to solidify the Octobrist's support for a constitutional monarchy.

    Liberalism and Socialism in Russia

    While Liberals had gained a majority of the seats in the Duma and the Tsar had abdicated, further opposition was on its way. This time from those on the left: the socialists who saw liberalism as too little, too late.

    In March 1917, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies was established as a socialist group that represented the proletariat classes. This group would become crucial in the Second Russian Revolution, which would go on to establish the Soviet Union.

    Provisional Committee and Provisional Government

    The Provisional Committee was elected by the Fourth Duma and was made mostly of liberals from the Kadets and Octobrists. The Committee created the Provisional Government with Kadet Prince George Lvov as its leader.

    As a liberal Provisional Government, the staunch belief in democracy meant that Lvov continued Russia's invovlement in WWI, hoping for a swift victory so that a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly could decide Russia's political future.

    Liberalism in Russia Photograph of the Provisional Executive Committee StudySmarterFig. 3 The Provisional Committee, which became the Provisional Government after the 1917 February Revolution.

    The Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies initially supported the Provisional Government because they were a majority of Socialist Revolutionaries who accepted the bourgeois government's rule of Russia with Soviet advice regarding the proletariat. This shared governance was established with the policy of Dual Power. But just as the war broke support for the Tsar, so too did it break support for the liberal Provisional Government.

    In July 1917, Socialist Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky succeeded Prince Lvov as Prime Minister. In August 1917, Kerensky faced a crisis now called the Kornilov Revolt. Kornilov was an conservative army General, who was deeply supportive of the Tsar and only just tolerated the liberal Provisional Government. It seemed that Kerensky's socialist leanings was too much for Kornilov; he revolted and tried to overthrow the Provisional Government. Kerensky was forced to arm troops, many of whom were outwardly socialist, to put the revolt down. Many of these armed men would become the Bolshevik Red Guard, who would in turn support the overthrow the Provisional Government in October.

    The liberals' alliance with the socialists after the February Revolution appeared to have hailed in a new governmental structure with Dual Power representing many of Russian citizens' interests. However, the failures of the liberal government to make crucial decisions led to their downfall in the 1917 October Revolution. The Bolsheviks forbade political opposition, thus dissolving the official organisations for liberalism in Russia, which would not emerge again in any official capacity until after the USSR's collapse in 1991.

    Liberalism in Russia - Key takeaways

    • The main four tenets of liberalism in Russia was the abolition of serfdom, freedom of press and from censorship, suffrage for men, and an elected assembly or Parliament. Liberalism. also wanted to model Russia after the West, encouraging rapid industrialisation.
    • Liberalism became a popular political ideology after Russians were inspired by the events of the French Revolution in 1789 and through experience of the Napoleonic Wars.
    • A notable liberal reform was the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861.
    • After the 1905 Russian Revolution, political parties were allowed to form. The Kadets and Octobrists emerged as liberal groups which opposed Tsarist autocracy and fought to establish a constitutional monarchy.
    • Kadets and Octobrists gained seats in the Duma, allowing liberal ideas to be brought up officially in government. Octobrists tended to side with the Tsar.
    • The Provisional Government was formed in March 1917 and mostly contained liberal politicians. Supported by Socialist Revolutionaries, the Provisional Government formed an alliance of Dual Power with the Petrograd Soviet.
    • Lenin influenced the Petrograd Soviet toward Bolshevik ideology and used this to overthrow the Provisional Government in October 1917. Bolshevik power spelled the end for official liberal political opposition.


    1. Paul Robinson, 'What is Russian Conservatism?', The Dorchester Review, 2019. You can read the full article here:
    Frequently Asked Questions about Liberalism in Russia

    When did liberalism emerge in Russia? 

    After the French Revolution in 1789, ideas of Liberalism began to spread across Europe. After the Russian Imperial Army fought abroad in increasingly liberal Europe, they came home having experienced societies under political ideologies other than Tsarist autocracy and looked to other ideologies such as Liberalism.

    What are the main principles of liberalism? 

    In general, Liberals advocate 4 key tenets: civil rights, individual liberty, free enterprise and democracy. These principles change depending on the political, social and economic context of a country.

    Is Russia liberal or illiberal?

    Although the political ideologies of liberalism have been seen to emerge throughout Russia's history, generally Russia can be thought of as illiberal. This is because Russia has been ruled by authoritarian regimes such as the Tsars or the Soviets. Liberalism actively fights against authoritarian regimes, but has often been suppressed by the regime itself.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What event can be considered the starting point for the significant spread of Liberalism across Europe?

    What are considered the four key principles of Liberalism?

    Which figure is often attributed to the birth of Russia Liberalism?


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