The Twilight of Imperial Russia
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The Twilight of Imperial Russia

Richard Charques

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eBook - ePub

The Twilight of Imperial Russia

Richard Charques

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The fateful twenty-three years following the accession of the last of the Romanov Tsars formed the prologue to the Russian Revolution, and foreshadowed the motives and mental attitudes of Russian policy today. Richard Charques's detailed, vivid, and objective account of the reign of Nicholas II is based upon a wide study of Russian and other sources. It is given particular force and liveliness by the portrait gallery of the leading figures of the period; Nicholas II, the Tsaritsa Alexandra, Constantine Pobedonostsev, Sergius Witte, Lenin, Trotsky, Premier Stolypin, Miluikov, and Rasputin."Striking phrases, fine judgments, flashes of deep perception, flicker through these pages, illuminating the sad, sombre story, which Mr. Charques is not afraid to extend, by implication, into the present."—Observer (London)"Informative and well written, and the story of the last phase of the Romanovs is...movingly told."—New Statesman (London)"Mr. Charques writes with great lucidity and elegance; he has also unusual discernment, a healthy sense of historical reality, and a penetrating mind...Scrupulously fair."—Times Educational Supplement (London)"An uncommonly good book about the decline and fall of the Russian empire—lucid, incisive, well balanced, and extremely well written."—Chicago Sunday Tribune

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An emergent power in Europe in the early years of the eighteenth century, when Peter the Great stretched the frontier of Muscovy to the Baltic and raised a ponderous structure of empire upon the needs of war, Russia became a Great Power in defeating Napoleon’s Grand Army in 1812. Yet even towards the close of the nineteenth century she was still almost a world apart from Europe. Peter had opened a window on the west, but in the deceiving mists of St. Petersburg the view on either side was distorted and for the nations of the west nineteenth-century Russia remained an enigmatic and cruel land with a rank flavour of barbarism. The foreigner entered it, as foreigners had entered Russia in earlier ages and as they would do again in later and more unquiet years, with some difficulty, and almost always with a sense of pursuing mystery. The mystery was seldom dissipated within Russia itself, but amid all that was impenetrably strange the impression which the western traveller habitually took away with him was of a continuing isolation from the life of the west and an age-long material backwardness. It was, as events proved, a peculiar isolation and a peculiar backwardness, and what in both instances was out of the ordinary affords a key to the history of the twenty-three years of the reign of the last of the Romanov tsars.
Part of the mystery, of course, lay in the vastness of Russia. The empire to which Nicholas II succeeded as ruler in 1894 was much the largest that had ever been known. From the Arctic circle to the Black Sea, from the Baltic and the Carpathians to the Pacific and the borders of China and India, it covered an area of eight and a half million square miles. It was an empire won for the most part in peace by centuries of migration across the illimitable and almost unpeopled Eurasian plain, though always in the last resort the advancing frontier had been secured by war. But more than two-thirds of the empire lay east of the Ural Mountains, and in the remote wilds of forest or steppe between the scattered townships that had sprung up on the eastern plain the land was still all but untrodden. Peasant colonization of Siberia on any considerable scale had scarcely begun at the accession of Nicholas II, and the sense of its infinite and empty spaces lent what was almost an extra dimension to the continental vastness of Russia.
The density of population in Russia west of the Urals was lower than that of any country in Western Europe. But in 1897, the year of the earliest official Russian census, the total population of the Russian empire was no less than 129.4 million.{1} This was not far short of the combined population of England, France and Germany. Three significant things should be noted in connexion with the Russian figure of population. First, more than five-sixths represented those listed in the category of peasants, and of these all but a few million were engaged in peasant agriculture. Next, the total population was almost double the population of Russia a half-century before. That rate of growth, though assisted by the absorption into the empire during the period of new territory, was largely through natural increase. As such it projected the worsening problem of peasant ‘over-population’ which dominated both society and the state during the half-century and which was carried over into the twentieth century. Finally, the national and racial composition of the total figure was of the utmost diversity.
Of the hundred and twenty-nine million people no more than fifty-five million were of Great Russian stock. Appreciably less than half of the inhabitants of the Russian empire, that is, were Russians—people whose mother tongue was Russian. In an empire comprising in all some eighty or more nationalities and ethnic groups there were, in 1897, twenty-two million Ukrainians, six million White Russians, eight million Poles, four million Balts, three and a half million Georgians, Armenians and other Caucasian peoples, more than twice as many Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Turkmens and other peoples of central Asia, four million Tatars, nearly two million Germans, half a million Mongols, together with smaller numbers of nomadic or semi-nomadic tribesmen in the Far East and the Far North. There were also five million Jews. As the most notable statesman of the reign put it, ‘there was, strictly speaking, no Russia, only a Russian empire’.
The principle of government in this multinational Eurasian empire was an unqualified monarchical absolutism. The restraints upon the tsar and autocrat were those of mortality only. In every sphere of Russian life law derived from his will alone, power and policy were concentrated in his person. In the contentious phrase of the English seventeenth century, the prerogative of the sovereign was a prerogative absolute. This was a dispensation which on the threshold of the twentieth century had behind it all the logic or seeming logic of Russian historical development. The tradition of Russian autocracy had sprung from Byzantium and had been fostered by the impulse of centuries towards national unity. It had been reinforced by the claims of order and security in an expanding and undeveloped empire. And it had withstood change not only because the very nature of autocracy implies the rejection of even the smallest encroachment upon it but because of the weight and mass of the social edifice constructed on so narrow a base. Disturb the political foundation and would not the whole vast and ordered structure collapse in anarchy? It was that spectre of dissolution which evoked from the reigning tsar throughout the nineteenth century the repeated warning that the principle of autocracy was ‘inviolable’ and ‘immutable’. And indeed the perils of attempting to modify by autocratic decree the supreme prerogative of the Russian autocrat were in no way imaginary, and are still too commonly slighted by the foreign historian bred in a liberal tradition. The fatality of absolutism, no doubt, is that it normally requires a revolution to unseat it, but that is all the more reason for recognizing both the irrelevance of western liberal standards to Russian history and the peculiar dilemma of the conservative reformer in Russia.
For, strangely enough, autocracy represented in some degree a faith and a hope for the masses. The Byzantine theocratic origins of the state were still reflected in the sentiment of the Russian village. For the peasantry the tsar was indeed an anointed ruler. Supreme judge and lawgiver, raised above all the appointed ‘estates’ of the realm, he was the father of his people who felt for them as a father should. It was not the tsar, the peasantry were convinced, but the tsar’s servants who had laid upon them an age-long burden of injustice. Do Boga vysoko, a do tsaria daleko—‘Heaven is high and the tsar is far off’, they said, but they still looked to the throne, however uncertainly, for protection.
From the marriage of the divine order of autocracy with Great Russian supremacy in the empire came the messianic character of Russian nationalism. For good and ill nationalism has been for centuries the shaping influence in the political life of the west, as today it is the creative force in the politics of the east. Russia, between east and west, nourished a sense of the distinctive inheritance she had acquired from Byzantium and Greek Orthodoxy. Through the force of nationalist assertion, the contrast she presented with Europe carried with it a feeling of superiority to Europe. Amid every appearance of material disadvantage or cultural inferiority the Russian people were encouraged to believe that they had a special destiny among the nations, even a mission to the rest of the world.
The duties of the Russian throne, stretching into the most recondite departments of policy, were inexhaustible. Only a ruler of prodigal strength of body and mind could seek to discharge them in detail, and none could attempt to discharge them all in person. The system of administration, therefore, was one of extreme centralization. The autocrat was all-powerful, but he was also the hub of a formidable apparatus of bureaucracy: Russia was, indeed, an absolutist-bureaucratic state. Yet in a wholly unconstitutional regime it is seldom possible to establish beyond doubt the source of delegated authority, and one of the commonplaces of Russian autocracy is that it bred an oriental system of place and power near the throne. The members of the always numerous imperial family caught a dazzling gleam of authority from the crown. The atmosphere of a court which was the scene of a struggle for influence at the highest level was necessarily Byzantine. Throughout the nineteenth century, too, the imperial practice was maintained of appointing special commissions of enquiry, either vested with official powers or expressly designated ‘private’ commissions, to report to the tsar in person. As supreme arbiter of the empire’s affairs he was in no way bound by the advice that might be tendered to him.
The appointed machinery of government functioned in strict and narrow grooves. It was commonly remarked that the country had ministries but no government. As departments of the central authority, the ministries—for foreign affairs, finance, the interior, war, the navy, justice, and so on—were instruments of the supreme executive will in precisely the same way as was the Ministry of the Court. The ministers were appointed directly by the crown. For purposes of joint consultation they met in committee, but it was left to each individual minister, who made his ‘most loyal report’ separately in audience with the tsar, to decide whether the affairs of his department required such consultation. The committee served no other purpose; its chairman, who had no departmental responsibilities, enjoyed no special powers. In these conditions ministers were rivals rather than colleagues and were constantly engaged in intrigue against one another. Much the most influential ministry, since it controlled the entire police system of the empire, was the Ministry of the Interior.
Though the right to make laws belonged absolutely to the throne, an advisory function in legislation was exercised by the State Council (Gosudarstvenny Soviet). This body consisted as a rule of between forty and sixty persons; all the ministers were members and the rest, similarly, were appointed directly by the crown. They were chosen for the most part from among ex-ministers, former ambassadors and governors-general of provinces; appointed for life at the end as a rule of a long period of state service, they were generally over-ripe in years and rigidly conservative in their bias. At the same time, at periods of extreme reaction there were almost always among them, as among the higher bureaucracy generally, some who favoured moderation as a course in better keeping with the times. The State Council had no powers of initiative; it merely submitted to the tsar at his command drafts of laws which in outline had usually been projected elsewhere, most often in narrow palace circles. The tsar might accept or reject as he pleased whatever proposals were made to him. The State Council, staffed by expert officials, was organized in three sections, dealing respectively with general legislative affairs, the civil and ecclesiastical administration, and the state economy (one of its principal tasks was to examine the annual budget). In 1899, five years after Nicholas II came to the throne, a fourth section was instituted for industry, science and commerce. Subservient in status and cramped in style though it was, as a government institution the State Council came nearest to exercising a tacit constitutional function in the scheme of tsarist absolutism.
A more shadowy quasi-constitutional function fell to the Senate, originally devised by Peter the Great to keep watch over both the civil administration and the law courts, and afterwards reorganized as the highest court of appeal in civil and criminal cases. Its members were likewise appointed directly by the tsar, as a rule from the ranks of the higher aristocracy in state service. Though in theory it had the right to pronounce upon the legal propriety of new measures, the Senate could only make recommendations in the framing of laws.
The local apparatus of central government was vast, cumbrous and notoriously inefficient. Though it left great gaps in the provision of the most elementary local needs, it also obtruded upon most private activities. Nowhere was the hand of officialdom more ubiquitous or more arbitrary than in Russia. The rigid centralization of authority in the capital left room for an all but unlimited local despotism. European Russia was divided into fifty provinces, each headed by a governor or, more importantly, a governor-general, on whom was laid the duty of sending annual reports to the emperor. A similar charge was laid upon the viceroy or other representative of the sovereign in territories farther afield. By this means the emperor was informed of local conditions throughout the realm. The reports were seldom, in fact, very informative, since governors were ordinarily chosen not for their disinterestedness or ability but because of their connexions at court, and since also they were under constant pressure from the Minister of the Interior, to whom they were subordinate, to put the best face on even the worst of all possible worlds. They executed his instructions and those of the other ministries in St. Petersburg with the aid of collegiate boards of officials. In theory, the separation of powers was strictly observed in the formal scheme of provincial government; in point of fact, the politics of the local representatives of the Ministry of the Interior rode roughshod over the due processes of law. So, in greater or less degree, did almost every other agency of provincial government. For, except in police matters, the writ of St. Petersburg did not easily run across poor communications a thousand or more miles away. The farther the scene from the centre the more tyrannical as a rule was the exercise of the powers of officialdom, above all of the police.
The police, indeed, were very nearly masters of the human situation in Russia. They controlled the individual rights and liberties of the population. They supervised the internal passport system, by which all movement in Russia was regulated. They were the appointed agents for the collection of all state taxes and local dues. Their permissive powers lay at the root of the universal corruption in the lower reaches of authority; almost nothing could be attempted, nothing could be achieved, without the giving and taking of bribes. And beyond the civil police, and strictly separated from it, stretched the network of the political police—the gendarmerie—functioning independently of the governors, supported by secret agents, spies and informers and vested with summary administrative powers.
In much that concerned the everyday welfare of the masses, government at the centre mattered appreciably less than local administration. Throughout the country the same types of official worked under identical conditions of service. The higher ranks of the bureaucracy, among whom the governors afforded a principal source of recruitment to ministerial appointments, seldom failed to include men of ability and conscience; the best examples, conservative almost to a man though they were, belonged to the former German nobility of the Baltic provinces, the so-called ‘Baltic barons’. But the general level of energy or competence was low. The inertia, the indifference, the pedantry and the delaying punctilio of the Russian bureaucracy as a whole were indeed notorious. These qualities owed not a little to the system of grading in the state service which Peter the Great had introduced as a means of opening a career to talent, and which endured for two centuries after him. All entrants to the civil administration began on an equal footing in the lowest of the fourteen established ranks; promotion, which carried with it a Germanic style of honorifics like ‘excellency’ and ‘high excellency’ and even included the privilege of ennoblement, personal or hereditary, was ostensibly by individual merit. The effect of this hierarchical system, far from harnessing energy and ambition to the service of the state, was to encourage in the body of officialdom a vicious paralysis of will and servility of spirit. Only the form of things mattered; paper work was everything. All ranks of officials, together with numerous other sections of society, including the body of students, had their own distinctive and obligatory uniform. The absence of public initiative in nineteenth-century Russia, it has frequently been observed, was attested all too vividly by the prevalence of uniforms.
For public initiative ran counter to the medieval principles of the absolutist-bureaucratic state. There was no place in this order of government and society for independent political activity; the existence of organized parties or the declaration of public programmes would have infringed the prerogative. Yet on the eve of the twentieth century the absolutism of the tsar, whatever its historical justification, was the most flagrant anomaly of Russian life. It was maintained as an immutable principle in face of a record of Russian achievement during three generations in literature, learning and science which was comparable with that of any nation in the west, of the demonstrable ambition of the Russian educated classes to share in the tasks of government, and of the growing complexity of the problems of society as its fabric was transformed in the developing process of a belated industrial revolution.
At the time of the accession of Nicholas II the desire for political freedom in Russia lay very close, as always, to the sense of human dignity. Almost the only Russian voices raised in protest against the existing order were of those in political exile from their native land. But the overtones in the common use of a word like proizvol, a barely translatable word signifying the pervasive arbitrariness of authority in Russia—the absence of legality or indeed of defined law—echoed in the mind and heart of all who heard it. The word vlast, meaning power or dominion, was habitually substituted for the word pravitelstvo, meaning government, thus conveying a similar sense of the exercise of authority unhindered by law. The very word for ‘society’—obshchestvo—ordinarily stood for the body of opinion in opposition to the prevailing order of government, the quite untranslatable word obshchestvennost (‘society-ness’, or the mind of society) for hostility to the basic assumptions of autocratic rule. The title of a volume of reminiscences by one of the sanest and most practical-minded liberals of the reign of Nicholas II, V. A. Maklakov, in which the words vlast and obshchestvennost are used, would make no sense in English except in some such long-winded translation as The Structure of Autocracy and the Liberal Opposition of Educated Society in the Closing Period of Old Russia. That, in point of fact, illustrates a central theme of the reign of Nicholas II. Its most fateful aspect is the unremitting struggle of crown and opposition for the support of Russia’s peasant masses, the real arbiters of Russia’s destiny.
The Russian peasantry were not a social class; they were a legal ‘estate’ (sostoyanie or soslovie). Right up to the revolution of 1917 the population of Russia continued to be rigorously divided into separate estates of the realm: the nobility; the urban classes, consisting of the pe...

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Citation styles for The Twilight of Imperial Russia

APA 6 Citation

Charques, R. (2016). The Twilight of Imperial Russia ([edition unavailable]). Normanby Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)

Chicago Citation

Charques, Richard. (2016) 2016. The Twilight of Imperial Russia. [Edition unavailable]. Normanby Press.

Harvard Citation

Charques, R. (2016) The Twilight of Imperial Russia. [edition unavailable]. Normanby Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Charques, Richard. The Twilight of Imperial Russia. [edition unavailable]. Normanby Press, 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.