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Russification

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Russification

How did the Tsars attempt to control the Russian Empire, when nearly half of all Russian citizens identified with other nationalities?

Russification definition

Russification was the forced cultural assimilation of minority groups within the Russian Empire. The Russian language, culture, beliefs, and traditions were enforced throughout the Empire, in order to create a ‘united Russia’ where everyone thought of themselves as Russian. Russification began under Alexander II but was more strongly pursued by Alexander III.

Why was Russification important to the Tsars?

Tsarist Russia was culturally diverse and inhabited by over 100 different ethnic groups. Only 55% of Russian citizens considered themselves Russian, with the rest identifying with other nationalities.

Russification Map showing the percentage of Russians per region of the Russian Empire StudySmarterMap showing the percentage of Russians per region of the Russian Empire, according to the 1897 consensus, Wikimedia Commons.

Northern European Russia consisted of Lithuanians, Latvians, Finns, and Estonians, each with their own national culture. In addition, most of the land in the Baltics was owned by Lutheran Germans. Western Russia was the home of Catholic Poles and most of the Russian Jews. The Ukrainians, Romanians, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis all considered themself separate nations. Russian expansion into Asia meant that the number of Muslims in the Empire was growing, reaching 10 million by 1900.

Ruling such a diverse empire was a challenge for the Tsars. The development of a national ideology from 1815 led to ethnic groups asserting their own foreign identity and independence from Russia. Supporters of Russification believed Russification was necessary to allow for modernisation and to reassert Russia’s greatness.

Other factors influenced the turn towards Russification. Germany had been growing stronger since 1870 and was imposing its own ‘Germanisation’ in minority areas. Russia’s economic development encouraged centralisation (consolidating power under central control, at the expense of local self-government). This in turn encouraged Russification. The historian Walter Moss argues that Russification can also be understood as part of the ‘counter-reform mentality’,¹ as a reaction to the changes threatening Russian autocracy and the stability of the Empire.

Russification under Alexander II

Alexander II was initially more tolerant of minority groups than his predecessor, Nicholas I.

This changed after the 1863 Polish uprising, in which more than 200,000 Poles rebelled against Russian rule. Alexander responded harshly, exiling, executing, and confiscating land from, the leaders of the uprising.

Russification Drawing of Polish soldiers fighting in the January Uprising StudySmarterDrawing of Polish soldiers fighting in the January Uprising, Wikimedia Commons.

In other areas, foreign national identity did not threaten the security of the Russian Empire and Alexander was more accommodating. He used concessions to keep control over rebellious provinces. For example, he allowed the Finns to have their own diet (parliament) and permitted Lutheranism amongst the Estonians and Latvians. These compromises reduced the risk of another uprising.

In Alexander II’s later years he became less tolerant of national differences. His conservative ministers believed that ethnic and religious diversity threatened Russia. Russian language and culture were promoted above all else. For example, Russian was made the only official administrative language.

Russification of Ukraine

Ukraine was targeted as part of Alexander II's russification strategy due to fears about Ukrainian nationalism. Faith and language were seen as binding elements so Ukrainian Sunday schools were abolished and Ukrainian publications censored. The Russian minister of the interior Pyotr Valuev brought in what came to be known as the Valuev Circular, which restricted Ukrainian language publications and banned all literature aimed at the common people. This came into law with the Ems Decree of May 1876, which stopped the printing and distribution of Ukrainian language publications in the Russian Empire. It remained in force until the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Russification under Alexander III

Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Alexander III’s tutor and Procurator of the Holy Synod, believed in ‘Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationality. Alexander III was heavily influenced by his views and pursued cultural Russification.

Cultural Russification aimed to unite all the Tsar’s subjects under a shared national identity. Pobedonostsev believed that political and religious unity was necessary to achieve a harmonious society, and any Western influence would degrade Russian culture. He argued for a policy of isolationism from non-Russian countries.

What were the effects of Russification?

Let’s study the main effects that Russification had on the different parts of the Russian empire.

On Russian language and culture:

  • Russian was declared the official first language.

  • Public office was limited to those who spoke Russian fluently.

  • The use of foreign languages was restricted, e.g. in 1864 speaking Polish or Belarusian in public was banned.

Russification of Finland:

  • In 1892, the Finnish diet’s influence was limited.

  • Russian coins replaced Finnish currency.

Russification of Poland:

  • Speaking Polish or Belarusian in public was banned.

  • All subjects except Polish language and religion had to be taught in Russian.

  • The Polish administration was changed to prevent attempts at independence.

Russification of the Baltic area:

  • Russian was made mandatory in state offices, schools, the police force, and the judiciary.

Russification of Ukraine:

  • In 1883, laws were passed to limit the use of Ukrainian.

  • In 1884, all theatres were closed.

  • Military conscripts were separated to prevent radical national groups from forming.

Uprisings were forcibly suppressed in Georgia, Bashkiria, and what would become modern-day Uzbekistan.

Russification and the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church taught that the Tsar was chosen by God. Any criticism of the Tsar or his rule was said to be an insult to God.

Laws were passed to benefit Orthodox Christians and encourage Russians of other faiths to convert. In Poland, Catholic monasteries were closed down and non-Catholics were encouraged to settle there. In Asia, missionaries conducted forced mass baptisms to convert ‘heathens and Muslims’.

Russification The Catholic monastery at Zimne, Poland, pre-1888 StudySmarterThe Catholic monastery at Zimne, Poland, pre-1888, Wikimedia Commons.

From 1883, members of non-Orthodox churches were forbidden to build places of worship, wear religious clothing outside of their meeting places, spread religious propaganda, or try to convert Orthodox Christians.

Negative effects of social and cultural change

Russification led to popular disturbances and increased resentment amongst national minorities, especially the more educated Finns, Poles, and Baltic Germans. For example, a Polish underground education network was established to secretly teach in Polish. Books in the local language were exchanged and some ethnic schools survived.

Russification was intended to unite the country, but instead, it intensified national feelings amongst minorities and fuelled resentment towards the Empire. Wealthier citizens emigrated to foreign countries, taking valuable talent and resources away from Russia. Others were persuaded to join opposition groups.

What effect did Russification have on Jews?

With their distinct ethnic background, religion, and culture, Russian Jews suffered under Russification.

Anti-semitism under Alexander II

Anti-semitism was common in the Russian Empire and Jews were excluded from everyday society, forced to live in a Western area of the Russian Empire called the Pale of the Settlement. Under Alexander II, some of these restrictions were lifted and Jews were able to integrate more into Russian society. However, this increased anti-semitism as many enjoyed commercial success, which led to resentment amongst poorer Russians.

Anti-semitism under Alexander III

Pobedonostsev, Alexander's advisor, was avowedly anti-Semitic and in the press, Jews were blamed for the assassination of Alexander II. There was a vicious circle of anti-Semitism:

Russification Diagram showing the vicious circle of anti-Semitism StudySmarterDiagram showing the vicious circle of anti-Semitism - StudySmarter Originals.

The Jewish pogroms 1881–84

In April 1881 pogroms (anti-Semitic attacks) broke out in Ukraine. The violence may have been encouraged by the Okhrana, and the ‘Holy League’ supported by Pobedonostsev helped coordinate early attacks. The riots spread across Ukraine and beyond, with around 16 major cities affected. Jewish property was burnt, shops were destroyed, and Jews were attacked, raped, and murdered. Governing authorities were slow to respond and the violence continued into 1884.

Anti-Semitic legislation

The May Laws of 1882 banned Jews from living outside major towns, from renting property, and from conducting business on Sundays. Anti-Semitic legislation increased, for example:

  • In 1887 quotas were introduced, restricting the numbers of Jews who could attend university

  • In 1892 Jews were banned from local elections and dumas

  • Laws were passed restricting Jewish movement and settlement, effectively creating Jewish districts in the Pale

Russification Map showing percentage of Jews during Settlement StudySmarterMap showing the percentage of Jews living in the Pale of Settlement, 1905, Wikimedia Commons.

What was the impact of anti-Semitism?

To some extent, anti-Semitism succeeded in segregating and driving away Jews. Many Jews left the country following the pogroms and others were forcibly expelled. In 1891, 10,000 Jewish artisans were expelled from Moscow, with over 20,000 expelled in 1892. The Jews that remained in Russia were forced to live in Jewish districts and had their rights curtailed.

Russification - Key takeaways

  • Russification was the forced cultural assimilation of Russian citizens to form one ‘united Russia’
  • Russia was ethnically diverse and contained over 100 different nationalities
  • Alexander II believed Russification would make the Empire stronger and more secure
  • He promoted Russian language and culture but initially allowed minorities (like the Finns) some independence
  • After the 1863 Polish Uprising Alexander II limited independence
  • Russification increased under Alexander III
  • Russian was made the official language, laws were passed benefitting Orthodox Christians, and minority national cultures were suppressed
  • Russification alienated minorities and drove some to join opposition parties
  • Jews were targeted in the 1881 pogroms and by anti-Semitic legislation

References

1. Walter Moss, A history of Russia since 1855, 2003.

Frequently Asked Questions about Russification

Russification is the forced cultural assimilation of minority groups within the Russian Empire. Russification began under Alexander II but was strongly enforced by Alexander III. The Russian language, culture, beliefs and traditions were enforced throughout the Empire, in order to create a ‘united Russia’ where everyone thought of themselves as Russian.

Russification was intended to unite the Russian Empire, which was vast and ethnically diverse. Supporters of Russification believed that enforcing one Russian culture would produce solidarity and unity amongst Russia’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Jews and Germans were mistreated under the russification policy.

One of the major results of russification was the emergence of opposition groups. Russification intensified national feelings amongst minorities and fueled resentment towards the Tsar and Russian Empire.

Final Russification Quiz

Question

According to the 1897 census, what percentage of Russian citizens were of Russian nationality?

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Answer

45%

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Question

Give 5 (of a possible 6) explanations for Russification.

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Answer

1. National ideology of minority groups threatened the Empire’s stability

2. Believed to be necessary for modernisation

3. Russia believed to have a unique culture, which should be preserved

4. “Germanisation” since 1870s

5. Economic development led to centralisation, encouraging a similar ‘centralised’ national culture

6. ‘counter-reform mentality’ - a reaction to the changes threatening Russia

Show question

Question

Which 3 explanations do you think are the most important factors for Russification? Justify your answer.


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Answer

No one correct answer. Possible explanations for each factor include:

1. Just 55% of Russian citizens identify with Russian culture - minority national culture was relevant for a large minority of Russians, could potentially seriously threaten Russia’s stability.

2. Alexander II’s liberal reforms had not achieved stable modernisation - historical evidence suggests another approach might be more successful.

3. Slavophiles were prominent in the government and media, e.g. Pobedonostsev and Mikhail Katkov (Moscow News editor). Russia had a long history of celebrating its unique traditions, e.g. the Orthodox Church reinforces the idea of Tsar as a god-figure.

4. International developments influenced Russia. Recent failures in war embarrassed her on the world stage and the Tsar and government wanted to keep up with the West. Germany was a successful European power and therefore could influence Russia’s development.

5. Economic centralisation made Russification practical and to some extent necessary. It’s easier to enforce Russification from strong central institutions, and a uniform culture aids uniform development.

6. Russian nobility and government felt threatened by reforms - e.g. Alexander III’s fear of assassination, increasing opposition and unrest due to educational and censorship reforms. Russification makes sense as a return to the relative stability of pre-reform Russia.


Show question

Question

How many Poles rebelled in the 1863 Uprising?


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Answer

Over 200,000

Show question

Question

What 3-word slogan sums up Pobedonostev's beliefs?

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Answer

‘Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationality’

Show question

Question

Give 3 (of a possible 4) key features of cultural Russification.


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Answer

1. Shared national identity

2. Political and religious unity

3. Removal of Western influence

4. Isolation from other countries


Show question

Question

Give an example of changes affecting the Russian language and culture.


Show answer

Answer

1. Russian was declared the official first language

2. Public office was limited to those who spoke Russian fluently

3. The use of foreign languages was restricted


Show question

Question

Give an example of changes affecting Finland.


Show answer

Answer

1. From 1892 the Finnish diet (parliament)’s influence was limited

2. Russian coins replaced Finnish currency


Show question

Question

Give an example of changes affecting Finland.


Show answer

Answer

1. From 1892 the Finnish diet (parliament)’s influence was limited

2. Russian coins replaced Finnish currency


Show question

Question

Give an example of changes affecting Poland.

Show answer

Answer

1. All school subjects except Polish language and religion had to be taught in Russian

2. The Polish administration was changed


Show question

Question

Give an example of changes affecting the Baltic area.



Show answer

Answer

Russian was made mandatory in:

1. State office

2. Schools

3. The police force

4. The judiciary


Show question

Question

Give an example of changes affecting Ukraine.


Show answer

Answer

1. From 1883 the use of the Ukrainian language was limited

2. From 1884 all theatres were closed

3. Military conscripts from the Ukraine were separated


Show question

Question

Did Russification increase Church power, state power, both, or neither?


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Answer

Both. Laws were passed benefitting Orthodox Christians, and from 1883 to restrict the activities of non-Orthodox religious believers.

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Question

Give 4+ examples of the negative effects of social and cultural change.


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Answer

1. Increase in popular disturbances and resentment

2. Secret exchanges of books in local language

3. Underground survival of ethnic schools 

4. Increase in national feeling amongst minorities

5. Emigration of wealthier citizens

6. Growth of opposition groups


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Question

Where did most Russian Jews live?


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Answer

The ‘Pale of Settlement’, in south-west European Russia.

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Question

When did the Jewish pogroms begin?


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Answer

1881

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Question

How many major cities were affected?


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Answer

16

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Question

What effects did anti-Semitism have?


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Answer

1. Segregation - many Jews moved to live in Jewish areas

2. Suppression - Jewish jobs and political influence was curtailed

3. Expulsion and emigration - many Jews left Russia entirely, or were forcibly expelled

4. Growth of opposition groups - Jews were disproportionately represented in opposition groups, e.g. Leon Trotsky or Grigory Zinoviev


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