The End of the Russian Empire
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The End of the Russian Empire

Prof. Michael T. Florinsky

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The End of the Russian Empire

Prof. Michael T. Florinsky

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THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION—FROM THE TSARS TO THE SOVIETSThis economic, political, and social study by a distinguished Russian authority uses a wealth of contemporary evidence—state documents, memoirs, correspondence, statistics—to analyze "the forces which brought about the fall of the Tsars and paved the way for Bolshevism" in the crucial years 1914-1917.Beginning with a survey of the state of the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I, Professor Florinsky shows how the Imperial system failed to meet the challenges raised by that conflict and why the Bolsheviks were able to assume control of the national Revolution.Every aspect of the collapse is scrutinized, from the absolutist tradition inherited by Nicholas II to the estrangement of the intelligentsia, from the peasant masses, whose only aims were peace and land. The principals are strikingly portrayed—Tsar Nicholas, Tsaritsa Alexandra, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, and Rasputin—as are the breakdown of the ministerial bureaucracy, the impotence of the Duma and Union of Zemstvos, and the colossal losses of the army. This richly documented account of the Provisional Government's failure to meet the nation's Revolutionary goals and of the Bolsheviks' spectacular success in formulating and giving voice to Russian aspirations is basic to an understanding of the origins of today's Soviet state.

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A Current Misunderstanding

AMONG the dramatic changes which took place in Europe at the close of the Great War none has the same appeal to popular imagination and is likely to exercise the same influence upon the political and economic ideas of our own and probably of future generations as the spectacular and tragic fall of the Empire of the Tsars. Little is known abroad about the Russian Empire, with its vast territory, its inexhaustible resources, its government which appeared to the western world as a survival of a bygone age, its refinement of culture at the top and the illiterate masses of its people living under almost primitive conditions, its cosmopolitan aristocracy speaking every language and equally at home in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, London, and New York, and its no less cosmopolitan revolutionaries who kept and still keep busy the secret police of the world. The number of foreigners who ventured across the Russian frontier was relatively small. The difficulties of the language and the immensity of the country greatly complicated the task of making detailed study of actual conditions. Some of the more flagrant abuses—and we shall see that there was no lack of them—attracted a great deal of attention abroad, and led to the creation of a strong body of public opinion decidedly unfavorable to the Imperial rĂ©gime. On the other hand the less spectacular, but perhaps no less fundamental developments in the field of education, public health, and economic progress, having little news value, passed almost unnoticed. The Russians themselves greatly contributed to these one-sided impressions as to conditions in their country, which became firmly established outside the frontiers of the Empire. With that disarming capacity for self-criticism which has so often surprised the foreign observer, they missed no opportunity to emphasize the grave and numerous faults of the Imperial rĂ©gime, and little if anything was ever said of the more favorable aspects of the situation. We are speaking here not of professional revolutionaries, but of those liberal-minded representatives of the middle classes who used to be frequent visitors to the capitals and health resorts of Europe. The newly-born patriotism of this group, which constitutes the bulk of the “White” emigration of recent years, does not belie this statement. It is a patriotism which may be traced to the same roots: a refusal to accept the existing order coupled with a sincere, if belated, regret for a past which, with all its imperfections, had a place for them now entirely denied them by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In approaching the Russian problem it is particularly important to keep in mind that Russia, as a modern State, is of very recent origin. In spite of the epoch-making reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine, in spite of the rebuilding of the State machinery by the able hands of Speransky under Alexander I, Russia, until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the Great Reforms of Alexander II, was still living in an age different from that of the rest of Europe. One can hardly speak of modern development in a country where the immense majority of the population were almost chattels and could be sold and bought at will. The fifty-three years which separate the emancipation of the serfs from the outbreak of the War are, undoubtedly, a very short time in the life of a nation, particularly short when the entire social, political, and economic framework has to be rebuilt from top to bottom, when experience in statesmanship, and the tradition of self-organization and initiative are completely lacking, and when general educational and cultural standards are unbelievably low.
No attempt will here be made to whitewash the Imperial Government and to represent its work in an unduly favorable light. Indeed, the general impression which will be given by the following pages will be anything but flattering. We believe that the breakdown of Imperial Russia was the inevitable result of its own internal weakness; but this does not necessarily mean that the Government and its many official and semi-official agencies, such, for instance, as its institutions of local government, intentionally barred the advance of the country along the path of progress. The policy of the Government of the Tsar may frequently appear to us unsound and reactionary; much of it deserves the severest criticism. In spite of that the fact remains that in the fifty years preceding the War Russia had gone far on the road followed several decades before by other European countries. Her financial position was immensely improved. Her economic development was undeniable. An agrarian reform of the utmost importance had been introduced and was being carried out with a surprising degree of success. It did seem indeed as if the “peasant question” with its innumerable complications was nearing a favorable solution. The number of schools, still grievously inadequate, was nevertheless rapidly increasing, and plans were made for the introduction of universal education by 1922. The organization of the public health service was also making progress. The form of government itself was evolving, slowly, it is true, but in the same direction as the great democracies of the world. Russia in 1914 was decidedly a very different country from what it was in 1861. To realize the importance of these changes is essential not only as a matter of justice toward a rĂ©gime which has ceased to exist, but also in order to be able to understand the developments of today and to provide them with a historical background. The ignoring of the past is a frequent source of grave errors.{1}

The Tradition of Absolutism

To the outside world the Russian Empire was personified until recently by the Tsar, ruler of All the Russias, by the grace of God. In the course of a thousand years of Russia’s history the Tsars and their predecessors performed the important function of unifying the country and organizing the vast territory, which partook of the character of both Europe and Asia, into a fairly coherent whole. The nature of the autocratic rule of the Tsars may be traced to the influence of the Mongols, on the one hand, and to that of Byzantium, on the other. The Byzantine ideas of the sanction of the State by the Church, and of the close union between the two, found its external expression in the coronation of Ivan IV in the middle of the sixteenth century.{2} Then followed a period of struggle between Church and State which ended with the complete defeat of the former. In 1721 Peter the Great reduced the Church to the position of a mere government department; and in 1797 the Emperor Paul proclaimed the doctrine “the Tsar is the head of the Church,” which found its way into the Statute Books under Nicholas I.{3} Clothed with the unlimited powers of autocracy, and enjoying the added glamor of ecclesiastical rulers, the Russian Tsars of the nineteenth century dominated eastern Europe and their own realm from their snow-clad capital, created by the indomitable will of Peter the Great, on the marches of the northern outskirts of the Empire. The several attempts made in the nineteenth century to bring Russia into the current of constitutional reforms proved abortive. None of them had any serious chance of success until the abolition of serfdom which, it will be remembered, took place in 1861. But even after the Emancipation the tradition of absolutism was very strong in high places, and many were they who sincerely believed that autocracy was essential to the welfare of the Empire. One of the best-known advocates of this view was Constantine Pobedonostsev who as late as 1901, writing to the Tsar, spoke of the spread of “the foolish desire for a constitutional government which would be the ruin of Russia.”{4} It was also generally believed that the masses of the illiterate peasantry had a real and deep affection for their God-anointed ruler. There is little doubt that tsardom, as an expression of absolutism, was the only form of government within the grasp of the masses. The extraordinary ease, however, with which the Empire was overthrown in 1917 seems to indicate that the traditional devotion of the peasants to the throne had been greatly overrated. The peasants merely accepted the rule of the Tsars in that spirit of passive submission which seems to constitute so important a part of the Russian national character. They did nothing to defend the throne when it crumbled under the strain of the War.

The Bureaucracy

Until the manifesto of October 17, 1905,{5} Russia was de jure an autocratic empire. But the unlimited powers of the sovereign were in practice greatly curtailed by the executive machinery which was created to carry out his orders. Its origins may be traced back to the reforms introduced in 1809-1811 by Speransky, the liberal-minded minister of Alexander I. Speransky was a staunch supporter of the theory of the division of power; and while he did not succeed in putting into effect the whole of his plan, he achieved the very important result of creating a State Council, appointed by the Emperor, it is true, but nevertheless enjoying wide legislative powers, including that of examining the budget.
The second most important part of his plan consisted in the reorganization of the administrative services on a new basis which included their subordination to a minister responsible for his department. The modern Russian bureaucracy was thus brought into being, and as time went on its influence upon the conduct of public affairs became more and more pronounced. Baron Nolde affirms that Nicholas I was the last Russian monarch whose personal will directed the course of the ship of State. After his death in 1856 the sovereign, it is said, was gradually reduced to the position of a mere cog in the complex machinery of State. He became the chief of the State employees, the head of a huge bureaucratic machine which produced the measures to which he affixed his signature. One should not, however, push this idea too far. While under normal conditions the Tsar was merely the head of the bureaucratic hierarchy, from time to time he also exercised his powers as a sovereign. The most important instance of the application of these powers was the selection of the ministers of the Crown. Then, again, they were called into play on those relatively rare occasions when the personal views of the Tsar happened to be in direct opposition to those of his official advisers. Such occurrences were extremely infrequent under Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II (with the notable exception of the period 1915-1916). On the other hand, it would be a mistake to minimize the influence of the fact that the tenure of office of the ministers depended on the pleasure of the sovereign. This necessarily forced them to exercise extreme caution whenever they had reason to suspect that their views and policies might not meet with the approval of their Imperial master.{6} In spite of these highly important limitations the Russian bureaucracy achieved a place of primary importance among State institutions.
We are not prepared to accept the rather extreme and paradoxical view advanced recently by the distinguished Russian historian and statesman, Baron Meyendorff, that the bureaucracy was the only bearer of the ideas of European civilization in the Russian State.{7} We see no reason why the relatively small but highly cultured group of liberal-minded intelligentsia who remained outside government service but were engaged in an important civilizing mission through the press, the universities, the Duma, the zemstvo, and the municipalities should be excluded from the list. But it is undoubtedly true that the bureaucracy succeeded in drawing into its ranks a very large number of educated men from all stations in life and in creating a strong and honorable tradition of public service. We shall see later that at a moment of national emergency the majority of the ministers of the Russian Crown did not shrink from their responsibility, had the courage of their opinions, and were prepared to sacrifice their personal well-being to what they understood to be the interest of the country. The list of Russian bureaucrats since the days of Speransky contains the names of many men whose intelligence, vision, and public zeal compare not unfavorably with those of the statesmen of democratic countries. The reign of Nicholas II has to its credit two Prime Ministers who displayed real statesmanship and unusual ability, although of a very different kind: Count Witte and Stolypin. Among the members of the Government of the last Tsar we find a number of men who commanded the highest respect, and whose culture, honesty, and keen sense of duty were above reproach.{8}
The Russian bureaucracy while, in a way, a civilizing force in the life of the nation, strong in its traditions and its relatively high cultural level, also suffered from the weaknesses common to all the bureaucracies of the world. To begin with, not all even of its most prominent representatives were using their high positions to further the progress of the country. Some of the outstanding figures of the bureaucratic Olympus were notorious reactionaries, for instance, Pobedonostsev, Maklakov, Shcheglovitov, Goremykin (about whom more will be said below); or, still worse, they were men, for instance Sturmer,{9} of so doubtful a character that it reflected on the whole system. The very wide powers enjoyed by holders of important offices and the impunity attached to them, were apt to create abuses. Most striking examples of this were the Ministry of the Interior and the State Police Department, of which we shall speak a little more in detail before the end of this chapter. And then, of course, the whole system was lacking in elasticity, it was rigid and unadaptable, and it developed that esprit de corps which made the State employee treat with hostile condescension all those who were not fortunate enough to belong to his privileged caste. This hostility manifested itself with particular force in the relations between the officers of the central administration and the institutions of local government. The whole history of the zemstvos and the municipalities is a long struggle against repression and outright persecution by the autocracy and the bureaucrats, who looked upon local representatives as mere intruders in a field which was rightly reserved for the central authorities. Concessions, no doubt, were finally made, but they were slow in coming.{10} This unfortunate lack of collaboration proved fatal during the War.

The Duma

The disastrous outcome of the Russo-Japanese War and the tide of labor and agrarian disturbances which swept the country in 1905-1906 were rightly taken to be an indication of the necessity of making concessions to the spirit of the age. These were embodied in the Imperial manifesto of October 17, 1905, which brought into existence the Duma, a legislative assembly elected by the representatives of various social groups. It became the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, while the State Council was reorganized and became the upper chamber. The powers of the Duma were limited. The ministers continued to be responsible to the Emperor alone. We shall see below{11} that the Duma suffered from serious constitutional disabilities, on the one hand, and, on the other, that the Emperor was never completely reconciled to the limitations it imposed upon his powers.{12} A number of influential bureaucrats of the old school took the same view and made no secret of their dislike of the new institution. The First and Second Dumas,{13} it will be remembered, were dissolved before the expiration of their term. The election law was altered, in violation of the Fundamental Laws, by the Act of June 3, 1907, which introduced a new and greatly restricted franchise; and only after it had been enacted was the new parliament allowed to function. In spite of these important handicaps one must admit that the introduction of an elective legislative chamber presented a striking and extremely important departure in the political and social life of the country. The first and most difficult step toward the establishment of a constitutional system of government had been made. Not only were the autocratic powers of the Tsar limited by the legislative control of the two chambers, the Duma and the State Council, but, what seems far more important, the country at large in the person of its chosen representatives was at last called to take a direct part in the conduct of public affairs. It is not denied that the franchise was limited an...

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