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Russian Autocracy

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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.

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 StudySmarterMap of Russia from the 1856 edition of Colton's Atlas of the World, Wikimedia Commons.

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 StudySmarterRussia'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 StudySmarterPortrait of Tsar Nicholas I, Wikimedia Commons.

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 Ukrainian Cossack StudySmarterAn 1855 painting of a Ukrainian Cossack colonel by Sergiy Vasylkivskiy. Note the distinctive uniform and hat, Wikimedia Commons.

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

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.

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.

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 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

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

Final Russian Autocracy Quiz

Question

What proportion of the world's surface did the Russian Empire cover in 1855?

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Answer

One Sixth

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Question

What percentage of Russians lived in the countryside in 1855?

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Answer

90%

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Question

What percentage of Russians were serfs?


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Answer

> 50%

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Question

What was Russia's state religion?


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Answer

Orthodox Christianity

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Question

Who takes most of the political decisions in a bureaucracy?


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Answer

 State officials

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Question

What was the Tsar's official title?


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Answer

Emperor and Autocrat of all Russia

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Question

What was the importance of the Tsar and Russia to the Church?


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Answer

 The Church taught that the Tsar was the earthly embodiment of God and that Russia was God's land.


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Question

What percentage of the Russian population was literate in 1855?


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Answer

15% 


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Question

What was the group of nobles who personally advised the Tsar known as?


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Answer

 The Imperial Council (or Chancellery)

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Question

How large was the Council of Ministers?


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Answer

8 to 14 ministers


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Question

Where was the Tsar/government based?


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Answer

St. Petersburg

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Question

How did Russian bureaucracy work?


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Answer

The bureaucracy was made up of nobles holding 1 of 14 ranks. Orders were passed down from the central government (not in the other direction).

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Question

What was the name of Russia's secret police?

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Answer

The Third Section


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Question

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


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Answer

 False - it was actually the largest.

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Question

Which elite group of soldiers acted as the Tsar's bodyguard?


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Answer

The Cossacks

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Question

Give some reasons for the emancipation of the serfs.

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Answer

1. Emancipation of the serfs was a step closer to Russian industrialization. Serfs could not migrate to larger cities and work in factories. Serfdom also kept the quality of life rather low, decreasing the demand for domestic goods. Thus, the economy was stimulated. Notably, Russian agriculture was in stagnation, causing increased debt due to the lack of surplus to export. 


2. Emancipation of serfs would allow the Russian army to develop along the Western lines. The empire could no longer sustain a peacetime army, as the 25 year conscription (serfs had to serve in the army for 25 years) was too costly. In case of emancipation, the conscripts would spend less time doing active service, and receive more military training instead. 

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Question

Name two reforms implemented by Alexander II.

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Answer

1. Legal reform→ Court hierarchy was implemented: there were magistrate courts, town courts, and the senate. The judiciary was separated from the legislative power.


2. Education reform→ Alexander Golovin, the Minister of education, introduced the University Statue of 1863. It granted more autonomy to universities, and allowed women to attend courses (did not allow them to obtain degrees). 


3. Military reform → At the age of 20, all males were eligible for military service. Men with formal education had to serve a shorter term, which encouraged many parents to send their children to schools. Men without proper education were taught how to read. 


4. Local government reform→ Provincial governments had to be organized into local councils, zemstva. 

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Question

What did the Chaikovsky Circle advocate? 


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Answer

They preached the fact that a true reform could occur only if peasants supported a socialist change and rebelled against their unfair conditions (lack of proper land and heavy taxes). 

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Question

What were the duties of a Land Captain?

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Answer

1. Maintain control in the countryside

2. Enforce government orders 

3. Eradicate sedition

4. Remove inadequate village elders

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Question

What ethnic group suffered the most from Alexander’s III Russification campaign? 


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Answer

Jews

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Question

Identify two problems that Nicholas II was facing in the beginning of his rule? 


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Answer

1. Russia had to go through a period of modernisation and industrialisation in order to remain as a Great Power among other nations. Russia had to move away from being backwards and agriculture-centered. 


2. The country was going through poverty due to the economy being backwards, failing to feed the rapidly expanding population. 


3. Nicholas II feared that modernisation of the country would result in a challenge to the tsarist regime. There would be more calls for democracy as a direct result of a growing industrial class and an expansion of the educated workforce. 

Show question

Question

Why was Nicholas II advised to go to war with Japan? Name two reasons. 


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Answer

1. As Russia was going through a horrid economic situation, the Minister of the Interior, Phleve, suggested that the country could be revived by a short victorious war against Japan. War was used as a distraction tool - people would forget about domestic problems for a while. 


2. It was important to maintain influence in Port Arthur, allowing Russia to trade during winter months; Port Arther was ice-free as opposed to other trading points in Russia.

Show question

Question

What was Bloody Sunday? Briefly describe. 


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Answer

Around 150,000 men, women, and children marched to the Winter Palace on the 9th of Sunday, demanding better working conditions and new political reforms; the march being peaceful in nature. The protesters were met by the troops that opened fire, killing 130 and wounding 300. The protest is known as Bloody Sunday.

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Question

Why were Dumas limited in their powers? 


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Answer

1. Nicholas II could block any legislation proposed by the Duma.


2. The Duma lacked representative nature due to Fundamental laws and the altered electoral laws, giving voice mainly to middle classes rather than the peasantry or the working class. 


3. Nicholas did not cooperate with the Duma effectively; he refused to allow the Duma an active role in WWI.

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Question

Did Nicholas’ arrival at the front benefit Russian troops during WWI? 

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Answer

No. The Tsar’s presence at the front was insubstantial as he rarely intervened.

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Question

Why was the government unstable during WWI? 

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Answer

1. Incompetent ministers who were chosen either due to their close bonds with the Tsarina or them being liked by Rasputin.


2. The Tsarina and Rasputin running the country that was looked down on by the people.

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Question

Briefly describe what the Kadets believed in? 

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Answer

The Kadets desired a constitutional monarchy, meaning Tsar’s powers would be restricted by a democratically elected national assembly. Kadets also pushed for enhanced civil rights, the ending of redemption payments, and a possibility for free education. 

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Question

What two things restricted Tsar's powers? 

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Answer

1. Russian Orthodox Church

2. Laws of succession

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Question

What opportunity for the other European powers did the decline of the Ottoman Empire (from 1820) represent?

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Answer

An opportunity to expand their influence

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Question

What did Nicholas style himself as?

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Answer

The Father of Slavs and Christians

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Question

 Which three powers opposed Russian expansion?


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Answer

Turkey, Britain, and France

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Question

When did Nicholas first send a Russian army into engagement?


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Answer

June 1853

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Question

Which power first declared war, and when?


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Answer

Russia - June 1853

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Question

In September 1854, France and Britain began a joint Crimean campaign. Where did they attack?

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Answer

Inkerman

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Question

 How many troops did France and Britain commit to their joint campaign (in total)?


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Answer

40,000

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Question

When did Tsar Nicholas die?


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Answer

March 1855

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Question

What treaty was signed as a result of the Crimean War?


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Answer

The Treaty of Paris

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Question

What effect did the Treaty of Paris have on Russian influence?


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Answer

Broadly, it was humiliating to be forced into signing a treaty which limited Russian powers. Specifically, the Treaty prevented Russian warships from using the Black Sea in peacetime.

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Question

How many Russians died during the Crimean War?


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Answer

200,000

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Question

How did the Crimean War affect the Russian economy? (2 ways)


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Answer

1) it prevented international trade (Russia was fighting a war in a major shipping route)

2) It used up much of Russia’s grain and industrial capacity (to feed and equip troops


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Question

How did the Crimean War lead to peasant unrest? (2 ways)


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Answer

1) Peasants protested against forced conscription during the war

2) Peasants protested against the delay to their freedom once the war had ended


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Question

Give 2 (of 3) major Russian weaknesses revealed by the Crimean War.


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Answer

Poor transport, inferior technology, outdated leadership

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Question

Give an example of how Russian technology was inferior to Western technology.


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Answer

 One of: 

1. One musket to every two soldiers

2. Navy used sailboats, wooden ships, galley boats rowed by slaves

3. Navy was not steam-powered or metal-clad (unlike the West)


Show question

Question

To what extent was the Crimean War a catalyst for future reforms?


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Answer

For: failure in the Crimean War was surprising and embarrassing. It revealed structural inadequacies in Russian transport, military equipment, and military leadership. Russia had prided herself on her military strength, so losing a war led to a reevaluation of the future of the Empire. Significant thinkers (e.g. Dmitry Milyutin) called for reforms.


Against: Alexander II’s ascension signalled that change was coming to the Russian Empire, regardless of the outcome of the Crimean War. Nicholas II had headed a repressive police state. Growing peasant unrest and economic stagnation made it clear that this couldn’t continue for much longer. Losing the Crimean War was a symptom of Russia’s problems, rather than an issue that demanded reform in its own right. 


Show question

Question

Give 3 (of a possible 4) political reasons for Emancipation.

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Answer

Any three of the following (NB some reasons overlap areas):

Losing the Crimean War

Influence of progressive tutors and nobles on Alexander III

Increase in peasant uprisings 

The Tsar’s reliance on the nobility


Show question

Question

Give a social reason for Emancipation.

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Answer

 Reducing class tensions

Show question

Question

Give 2 (of 3) economic reasons for Emancipation.


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Answer

Any 2 of the following:

Reduce Russian state debts

Encourage economic migration

Encourage agricultural development


Show question

Question

Give 3 (of 4) ideological reasons for Emancipation.



Show answer

Answer

Any 3 of the following:

Pressure from the West

Preserve ‘Great Power’ status

Pressure from Slavophiles

Opposition from nihilists and anarchists


Show question

Question

When did Alexander’s Emancipation Edict come into force?


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Answer

February 1861

Show question

Question

What did Alexander become known as after his Edict?


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Answer

Tsar Liberator

Show question

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