Tsarist Autocracy

What happened in Russia before the Soviet Union? It was a system of Tsarist Autocracy where all the power lay with a single person. This endured for hundreds of years, but how did it work, and what eventually led to its downfall? Read on to find out!

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    Tsarist Autocracy Definition

    For hundreds of years, the power in Russia lay with the 'tsar', who served as the monarch of the vast nation. Derived from the Russian translation of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, the name became simultaneous with an autocratic system.


    A governmental system where all the power resides with an individual.


    A crowned ruler of a state.

    The Romanov family held this position from 1613 until the abolishment of the monarchy in 1917. During this period, government bodies provided them with advice but could not take any practical action. The tsar only answered to laws of succession and the Russian Orthodox Church, of whom he was God's representative on earth. He surrounded himself with sympathetic councils and held absolute power over the state.

    Tsarist Russia Mikhail I StudySmarterFig. 1 - Mikhail I, the first Romanov tsar

    Tsarist Autocracy Leadership

    Let's fast forward a couple of centuries to examine the contrasting leadership styles of two influential tsars amid a period of immense change. It was during the latter half of the nineteenth century that the authority of the tsar came under real scrutiny. How would the monarchy react?

    Alexander II (1855 - 1881): The Reformer

    Alexander II ascended to the throne in 1855, just before the Russian defeat in the Crimean War. He inherited a country in desperate need of modernisation, as the Western Powers demonstrated their superiority during the conflict.

    Tsarist Russia Scene from the Siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War StudySmarterFig. 2 - Artist's depiction of a scene from the Siege of Sevastopol (1854-5) where Russian forces were defeated by the British and French

    Furious at their military embarrassment, this introspection led to a series of radical changes, the most important of which would be to address the complicated issue of serfdom.


    The condition of a tenant farmer, bound to work on land owned by a rich noble or the state, without any rights to property ownership. This was a common medieval form of enforced labour that continued into nineteenth-century Tsarist Russia.

    On 3 March 1861, Alexander II unveiled the Emancipation Manifesto, a decree that freed serfs from their owners and gave them the right to own property. At this point, 38% of all Russians were serfs. They had grown restless of their enforced position and were a barrier to economic growth. Although it is easy to cast Alexander II as a reformer who wanted to help his subjects, this move was pragmatic.

    It was Alexander's close personal identification with the interests of the state that enabled him to see the urgent need for fundamental reforms if autocratic Russia were to take her proper place on the world-historical stage.1

    - N. G. O. Pereira, 'Alexander II and the Decision to Emancipate the Russian Serfs, 1855-61', 1980

    The Emancipation of the Serfs backfired because land owners exploited peasants, selling them property and precipitating immense debt. This continued to enrage those who had opposed the tsarist regime.

    Alexander II's desire for modern Russia led to him transforming the railway system to allow the wide distribution of grain. Mass migration from rural areas to cities also took place during his reign. Politically, censorship (usually associated with autocratic regimes) was not present in the time of Alexander II. The release of political prisoners, allowance of free media discourse, and creation of zemstvo to help people at a localised level all seemed to point to a positive future.


    The control of media to fit the preferred narrative of the monarch or government.


    Established in 1864, these were local governments that helped people socially and economically. They were the first attempt of the tsar to group peasants and nobles based solely on location and repair their damaged relationship.

    Did you know? Despite his reforms, Alexander II was not radical enough for the peasants. He was unable to eliminate his opposition and there were at least seven attempts on his life. Finally, in 1881 a left-wing terrorist group known as the 'People's Will' orchestrated a bomb attack. Tsar Alexander II died in the explosion.

    Autocratic Rule of Tsar

    Alexander II's demise led to a period of repressive measures, ushered in by his son.

    Alexander III (1881 - 1894): The Oppressor

    Alexander III wasted no time in introducing a new, more autocratic method of governance. Even though his father's murderer had died in the blast, he rounded up 150 members of the People's Will, subjecting them to public execution.

    Seeking a return to traditional ideals, he committed to undoing much of his father's reforms, giving the nobles more power by using Lord Captains, who could override the zemstvo, to manage peasant communities.


    During Alexander III's reign, he pursued a policy of Russification. His advisor Konstantin Pobedonostsev sought a return to the traditional triumvirate of 'Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality'.

    Tsarist Russia Konstantin Pobedonostsev StudySmarterFig. 3 - Konstantin Pobedonostsev

    A re-emphasis on the monarchy and the Russian Orthodox Church flanked an enforced use of the Russian language across the diverse Empire. Public office was exclusively for those who spoke Russian and opposers of this new mandate suffered the might of the military. These methods were not conducive to the economic growth and industrialisation that Alexander II had pursued.

    A by-product of the tenets of Russification was the antisemitic scapegoating of the 5 million Jewish people who lived in Russia.

    With stringent adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church a priority, a series of pogroms erupted between 1881 and 1884. There was a precedent for this under previous Russian leadership but the police always quashed the riots in the early stages. This time, they were slow to react and even turned a blind eye at times, suggesting that the tsar himself may have been responsible.


    Discrimination against Jewish people.


    A Russian name for a riot targeting religious groups, usually Jewish people.

    A total of 259 pogroms occurred during this period of antisemitism, a dark hour in Russian history characterised by damage to Jewish property, rape, and murder.

    Tsarist Autocracy Russia 1905

    The extreme measures of Alexander III certainly went some way to silencing his opposition. However, by 1905, under the stewardship of Tsar Nicholas II, tensions were at their boiling point, heightened again by military failures.

    The Russo-Japanese War (1904-5)

    When Japan attacked the far-eastern naval base at Port Arthur in January 1904, the Russians assumed that they could secure a routine military victory akin to swatting an inconvenient fly. It would distract from the worsening economic situation brought forth by Alexander III's policies. By March, however, it was clear that they had severely underestimated the Japanese, who wiped out 90,000 Russians at Mukden.

    The situation deteriorated with another emphatic defeat at Tsushima in May and in December they finally lost Port Arthur. The war fostered feelings of discontent among the Russian population which continued even after peace was declared at the Treaty of Portsmouth on 5 September 1905.

    The Russo-Japanese War was a catastrophe and a humiliation for Russians. It helped precipitate another period of radical change, just as the Crimean War had when Alexander II was tsar.

    1905 Revolution

    1905 was a tumultuous moment for Russia, acting as a dress rehearsal for the end of tsarist autocracy. Let's examine the key events that defined this year.

    3 January 1905A Worker's Strike in St Petersburg triggered the unrest in 1905. It was a peaceful protest organised to improve working conditions.
    9 January 1905Protesting in St Petersburg snowballed and became 20,000 strong, though still peaceful. The protestors marched on the Winter Palace, one of the homes of Tsar Nicholas II. Without warning royal troops opened fire on the protestors, killing more than 100 of them in what became known as 'Bloody Sunday'.
    4 February 1905As retribution, the protestors assassinated Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich.
    27 June 1905Mutiny at sea on the Battleship Potemkin was another sign of unrest. Tsarist forces crushed the rebels but the episode left 2,000 people dead.

    As a means of halting any further dissent, Nicholas II unveiled a new proposal on 6 August 1905, which would become known as the October Manifesto: the creation of a State Duma.


    A legislative body formed to contribute to the creation of laws (at least on paper).

    The Duma seemed to herald a constitutional monarchy and suggested the ability of Nicholas II to relinquish his autocracy. The opposite became a reality, with the Duma completely neutered by the Fundamental Laws in 1906 which gave Nicolas II the power to appoint and dissolve it.

    The tsar had quelled the revolutionary zeal across his empire - or so he thought! In reality, the events of 1905 served only to heighten Nicolas' belief in an institution that had always kept their opposition at arm's length.

    Tsarist Russia Nicholas II StudySmarterFig. 4 - Nicholas II in 1915 with two war generals

    Tsarist Autocracy Collapse in 1917

    By 1917, faith in the tsarist regime had w.o.r.n. out. Let's unpack the factors that ultimately led to its demise.

    WWorld War IAnother humiliating performance in the significant conflict of WWI led to economic turmoil. By 1917 there were inflation levels of 20% and St Petersburg (now known as Petrograd) only received 48% of the grain quotas that it required.
    OOpen dissatisfactionWith the backdrop of military failure, protests and strikes grew into a cacophony of unrest. In 1914 10,000 workers went on strike. By 1916, this figure grew to 880,000. Rural areas suffered because young men went to fight in the army.
    RRoyal family Chinks in the royal armour appeared because the Tsarina (Nicholas' wife) was of German descent. Russians believed she was pulling the strings behind the scenes and making decisions for Nicholas. In addition, the holy man Rasputin had influence over the royal family. He could heal their sick son and thus held sway with the tsar before Rasputin's assassination in 1916.
    NNicholas IINicholas II commanded the war effort with little military knowledge or prowess. He was also far too arrogant to learn from the warning of the 1905 Revolution. Above all, he believed that those close to him would stay loyal. This would not be the case!

    A combination of these factors led to open rebellions in February 1917. After the tsar's troops joined 200,000 protestors in Petrograd, he sensed the game was up. Representatives from the Duma met him aboard his train and accepted his abdication on 2 March 1917.


    The voluntary resignation of a royal office.

    The final death knell for tsarist autocracy was the disobedience of the army. Finally, even Nicholas had to admit that he had no control.

    Thunder-struck by this attitude on the part of whom he considered his most loyal supporters, the Tsar accepted abdication much more quickly than he consented to a responsible government.2

    - William Henry Chamberlin, 'The First Russian Revolution', 1967

    On 15 March 1917 Nicholas II agreed to a provisional government, and by the end of the year, Russia would be in the midst of a Civil War. 300 years of autocracy vanished and in 1918, revolutionary forces executed the entire Romanov family, wiping the slate clean for a new historical chapter without a monarch. By October 1917, the communist Bolsheviks had taken power, and Tsarist autocracy was well and truly a thing of Russian past.

    Tsarist Autocracy - Key takeaways

    • Tsarist autocracy refers to the absolute power that a monarch held in Tsarist Russia. One family, the Romanovs, had this power from 1613 to 1917.
    • Some tsars sought reform in times of crisis such as Alexander II, but this ended in his assassination.
    • Alexander III used repression as a method of maintaining his authority.
    • The 1905 Revolution warned Nicholas II that tsarist autocracy was under threat.
    • Finally, events in 1917 led to the abdication of the tsar and a new method of governance, without a monarch.


    1. N. G. O. Pereira, 'Alexander II and the Decision to Emancipate the Russian Serfs, 1855-61', Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, Vol. 22, No. 1, CONFERENCE PAPERS 1979 (March 1980), pp. 99-115.
    2. William Henry Chamberlin, 'The First Russian Revolution', The Russian Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan 1967), pp. 4-12.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Tsarist Autocracy

    What is tsarist autocracy?

    Tsarist autocracy refers to the system of governance in Russia until 1917. In this system, all power lies with the monarch or the tsar.

    Why is it called a tsar?

    'Tsar' is the Russian translation of Caesar, the great Roman Emperor.

    Why did the tsarist autocracy collapse in 1917?

    A combination of factors led to the collapse of the tsarist autocracy in 1917. These included World War I and its effect, open unrest around the nation, mistrust in the royal family and the arrogance of Nicholas II.

    How was tsarist society structured?

    Tsarist society concentrated power in the tsar and those who surrounded him. The majority of the citizens were peasants who worked in rural areas until a period of mass migration to cities that coincided with industrialisation.

    How was the tsars rule ended?

    Nicholas II abdicated on 2nd March 1917 followed by the formation of a responsible government.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who introduced zemstvos?

    What ethnic group suffered from pogroms? 

    What preceded the 1905 Revolution?

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