Russian Autocracy

The Tsar: a monarch, a leader... a father figure? Autocracy gave Russia's leaders absolute power and the role of a father to the Russian Empire. This system of governance shaped Russia and helped create the environment for Stalin to establish his dictatorship years later.

Russian Autocracy Russian Autocracy

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Table of contents

    Nineteenth-century Russia was a vast empire, covering one-sixth of the world's surface (around 21 million square kilometres). It was primarily agricultural and rural, with over 90% of Russians living in the countryside. Over 50% of the population were serfs, peasants who were classified as the property of their owners.

    Serf

    Serfs were agricultural labourers in servitude, who had to obey the person whose land they worked on.

    Russia contained many different ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture, and sometimes religion. The largest minority groups were Ukrainians, at 22% of the population, followed by the Polish (8%). Just 55% of the total population identified as Russian. Although Orthodox Christianity was the state religion, it was not universally accepted.

    Russian autocracy Map of Russia of 1856 StudySmarterFig. 1 - Map of Russia from the 1856 edition of Colton's Atlas of the World

    Russian autocracy definition

    In order to understand the key features of the Russian state, and compare it with other states, we will define some key terms below.

    Key terms

    Bureaucracy is a system of government in which most political decisions are taken by state officials. We can contrast bureaucracy with democracy, in which decisions are taken by elected representatives of the people. Bureaucracy and democracy can co-exist if the state officials are democratically elected. This was not the case in Russia.

    Autocracy is a system of government in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a single person. The autocrat has unlimited power over the government and its citizens.

    A police state is one in which the government closely monitors and controls citizens' activities, especially by using secret police.

    How was Russia governed?

    In 1855, Russia was an autocracy ruled by the Tsar, who had the title 'Emperor and Autocrat of all Russia'. The Tsar was the head of the Orthodox Church and was considered by believers to be the earthly embodiment of God. Russians were taught to accept their condition on Earth as God's will. Church and state were closely linked. For example, a government minister known as the Over-Procurator of the Holy Synod was appointed to manage Church affairs.

    The Tsar's imperial edicts were the law. While the Tsar had ministers and advisers, they were hand-picked by him.

    Imperial edict

    A decree or a law issued by the Tsar.

    How influential was the Orthodox Church?

    Only 15% of Russians were literate, with the majority relying on the Church for theological and political instruction. The Church supported autocracy and taught that the Tsar was chosen by God. Russia was 'God's land' and any challenges to the status quo were an insult to God.

    While the Church as an institution was a trusted authority, the serfs increasingly regarded their priests as corrupt.

    Theological

    Relating to the study of religion or God.

    What was the structure of the Russian government?

    The Russian government was made up of several different bodies. Different groups had different responsibilities and powers. For example, the ministers of the Council of Ministers were responsible for entire departments, such as education, and had personal access to the Tsar. In contrast, the civil service was responsible for carrying out orders given by the government and had no personal access to the Tsar.

    The main bodies of government were:

    • The Imperial Council or Chancellery

    35 to 60 nobles, picked by the Tsar to personally advise him.

    • The Council of Ministers

    8 to 14 ministers who led different government departments. Ministers were usually chosen from the mobility.

    • The Senate

    10 senators, usually of noble birth, who observed the government's workings. Although the Senate continued to exist, it had become practically redundant by 1855. This was because although it still supervised ministers, it rarely intervened in government affairs.

    Russian autocracy Russian government structure StudySmarterFig. 2 - Russia's government structure - StudySmarter

    How was the Russian Empire ruled?

    The Tsar and central government were based in St Petersburg, the capital of Russia. The government relied on the provincial nobility for support. Nobles were expected to keep order on their estates and had a strong sense of obligation towards the Tsar.

    The Russian bureaucracy was made up of paid noble officials, each holding 1 of 14 ranks. Each rank had its own uniform, form of address, and statues. Orders were passed down the bureaucracy from central government to provincial governors, then to district governors and town commandants. The bureaucracy was corrupt and incompetent. The Senate conducted very few reviews of government institutions, meaning officials could be bribed without punishment.

    Changes in Russian autocracy in the 19th century

    Russian autocracy changed in the 19th century as new Tsars brought with them different means of ruling and control.

    Tsar Nicholas I

    A military uprising against his rule in 1825 led Tsar Nicholas I to impose a repressive regime. Despite the spread of Western liberalism, which attracted Russian intellectuals, he led a strict autocracy and distanced Russia from the West. Under Nicholas, censorship increased, national minorities faced strict restrictions, and the Third Section (the secret police) was established.

    Russian autocracy Tsar Nicholas I StudySmarterFig. 3 - Portrait of Tsar Nicholas I

    To what extent was Russian autocracy a police state?

    As defined earlier, a police state is one in which the government closely monitors and controls citizens' activities, especially by using secret police.

    To maintain autocracy, Russia had developed into a police state. Many things were forbidden, including:

    • Freedom of speech

    • A free press

    • International travel

    • Political meetings

    • Strikes

    Censorship by the State and Church was enforced by the police. The secret state security network was run by the Third Section of the Imperial Council. Its agents had unlimited powers to raid, arrest, imprison or exile anyone suspected of 'anti-Tsarist behavior', such as criticism of the government. Agents used informers, ordinary Russians who were paid to report suspicious behaviour, and surveyed the population to identify suspects.

    The Third Section was small, with just 40 agents in 1855. This meant its surveillance focused on the nobility and intelligentsia, rather than on workers. Its greatest success was creating an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. Russians knew that anyone could be spying on them. This made public criticism of Tsar Nicholas rare.

    How powerful was the Russian army?

    In 1855, Russia had the world's largest army. It included 1.5 million conscripted serfs, who had to serve for 25 years, and a smaller group of nobles, who bought and sold commissions in the higher ranks. Noble officers would lead soldiers into battle or, at the higher ranks, decide military strategy. 45% of the government's annual spending went towards the army and navy.

    An elite group of mounted soldiers, the Cossacks, acted both as personal bodyguards to the Tsar and police reinforcements. Cossacks came from traditionally self-governing communities in the Ukraine and Southern Russia. They were highly skilled riders and enjoyed social privileges, such as exemption from taxation.

    Russian autocracy Fig. 4 1855 Painting of Ukranian Cossack Colonel StudySmarterFig. 4 1855 Painting of Ukranian Cossack Colonel

    The collapse of Russian autocracy

    By the 1900s, there was widespread discontent in Russia about Tsarist rule. In 1905, after what many saw as Russia's humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, this discontentment grew and led to the Revolution of 1905. This marked the first stage of the Tsar's autocratic rule crumbling. His powers were greatly limited by the Duma, an elected parliament.

    Autocracy and the Russian Revolution

    The Tsar's autocratic rule truly ended, however, after the Russian Revolution of February 1917 when the Tsar was forced to abdicate.

    Russian Autocracy - Key takeaways

    • Nineteenth-century Russia was a vast and ethnically diverse empire.
    • Russia was an autocracy ruled by Tsar Nicholas I.
    • The Tsar appointed his own officials and advisers.
    • The Orthodox Church and the state were closely linked.
    • The Church taught that the Tsar was chosen by God to rule.
    • The Russian bureaucracy was made up of nobles and was widely corrupt.
    • Nicholas I led a repressive police state.
    • Russia's political system was maintained by a police state enforced by the Third Section.
    • Free speech, free press, international travel, and 'anti-Tsarist' behavior was forbidden.
    • Political uprisings were put down by Russia's army.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Russian Autocracy

    Who was the opposition of the Russian autocracy?

    In reality, no one. The Tsar had the title of 'Emperor and Autocrat of all Russia'. He was the head of the Orthodox Church and was considered by believers to be the earthly embodiment of God.


    The Tsar's imperial edicts were the law. While the Tsar had ministers and advisers, they were hand-picked by him.

    How was the Russian Empire ruled?

    The Tsar and central government were based in St Petersburg, the capital of Russia. The government relied on the provincial nobility for support. Nobles were expected to keep order on their estates and had a strong sense of obligation towards the Tsar.

    What is the definition of Russian autocracy?

    Autocracy is a system of government in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a single person. The autocrat has unlimited power over the government and its citizens.

    To what extent was Russian autocracy a police state?

    To maintain autocracy, Russia had developed into a police state. Many things were forbidden, including:

    Freedom of speech

    A free press

    International travel

    Political meetings

    Strikes

    How did the Russian autocracy collapse?

    The Russian autocracy collapsed with the 1917 October Revolution, when Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the Bolsheviks took power.  

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In 1855, Russia's army was the second-largest in the world.

    Who introduced zemstvos?

    What ethnic group suffered from pogroms? 

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