An extract from S Reed Brett, European History 1900-1960 (1967)

S Reed Brett was a textbook writer from the 1930s to the 1960s.





Autocracy before the Revolution          The End of Czardom


for other passages on the Russian Revolution by Reed Brett, see here.





















Autocracy before the Revolution

When war broke out in 1914 Russia was the only considerable State in Europe that still had an autocratic government. The Czar and his immediate circle ruled all the Russias European and Asiatic through two sets of people, namely, a vast set of uniformed officials (the bureaucracy), and the secret police. Among the mass of his subjects the Czar's power was immensely increased because he was the nation's religious head as well as its political ruler: he was the 'Little Father' venerated as the protector of the Orthodox Church.

This dual autocracy, political and religious, had long continued unimpaired in spite of repeated efforts to change it. Since the middle of the nineteenth century there had been two attempted revolutions, each of them resulting in some superficial changes but without much practical reduction in the Czar's autocratic authority. Each of these revolutions like the greater one to come in 1917 followed a disastrous foreign war.

The first was the Crimean War of 185456 when Russia was defeated by the combined forces of Britain and France. This failure, which was almost as great a shock to the Czar as to his subjects, discredited the Government of Nicholas I, and in March 1855, only half-way through the war, he died. The new Czar, Alexander II, was very different from his predecessor: instead of being a stern soldier he was a simple, kindly man well disposed towards his subjects. Faced with general demands for reforms, he made a series of changes: political prisoners were released, the Press was freed from some of its restrictions, and industries were encouraged. The climax of this process came in 1861 when the serfs were set free. This step was of enormous importance. It was truly revolutionary. But it did not of itself end the peasants' troubles. Often the peasants were compelled to pay more now that they held from the Government than formerly they had paid in dues to their lords; and they were too poor and ignorant to use the land profitably. During the latter part of Alexander II's reign extreme revolutionary ideas spread in Russia not only among the poor peasants but also among the educated classes. Many thou sands of revolutionaries known generally as Nihilists were exiled to Siberia, but this only drove the rest to more extreme courses. In March 1881 Czar Alexander II was killed by a bomb thrown into a street.

The next two Czars, Alexander III (188194) and Nicholas II (18941917), adopted a policy of merciless repression, and for a time they seemed to hold their own. But in fact the discontent was only being driven underground whence it emerged as the result of yet another disastrous war, the war against Japan in 19045. Once again the Czar's Government was shown up as corrupt and inefficient. Early in 1905 strikes and riots broke out. There was a general demand for a Duma, that is, a Parliament, and this demand the Czar was compelled to grant. Russia's first Duma met in May 1906. This contained so large an anti-government majority that it was soon dissolved. The second Duma, of March 1907, was similarly composed and similarly dissolved. Thereafter the franchise was so drastically restricted that only land owners had votes. Hence the next two Dumas, of November 1907 and of 1912, had government majorities. Such were the political conditions in Russia at the outbreak of war in August 1914.

The incompetence of the Czarist Government in the conduct of the war, and the consequent defeats and privations, led to the Revolution of March 1917 and to the overthrow of the Czarist regime. It is the further story of that Revolution and its consequences that we now have to follow.


Autocracy before the Revolution 

The End of Czardom

The occasion of the outbreak was a gala performance in Petrograd on 8th March 1917. The contrast between the luxury and wealth of those attending the theatre and the starving, shivering queues outside the bakers' shops seems to have stirred the people to anger. There was some looting that day; and as, during the following days, the crowds grew denser and the feeling among them more intense, there began to be trouble when the police tried to restore order. The soldiers, however, fraternized with the people and mutinied when ordered to fire into them.

When the outbreak began, the Czar was with the Army at the front. Though he sent troops to restore order in Petrograd, they deserted on the way. When he dissolved the Duma it remained in session; and on 12th March it appointed a Provisional Government. This consisted of moderates under Prince Lvov as Premier. Its most forceful member was Alexander Kerensky, the Minister of Justice. When two delegates from the Government visited Czar Nicholas II on 15th March, without any fuss he signed his abdication in favour of his brother the Grand Duke Michael. The latter, more justly assessing the situation, declared that he would not accept the throne unless it was offered by a Constituent Assembly elected by universal suffrage. This, therefore, was the end of the long history of Czarist Russia...


The End of Czardom 

S Reed Brett, European History 1900-1960 (1967)