Nicholas II


Source:  James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard, History of Europe (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1921), pp. 416-27.

This is an excerpt from Robinson and Beard's classic history textbook of 1921.


748. The Industrial Revolution overtakes Russia. It became increasingly difficult, however, to keep Russia "frozen," for during the last quarter of the nineteenth century the spread of democratic ideas had been hastened by the coming of the steam engine, the factory, and the locomotive, all of which served to unsettle the humdrum agricultural life which the great majority of the people bad led for centuries. In spite of her mineral resources Russia had lagged far behind her Western neighbors in the use of machinery. She had little capital and no adequate means of transportation across the vast stretches of country that separated her chief towns, and the governing classes had no taste for manufacturing enterprises.

The liberation of the serfs, with all its drawbacks, favored the growth of factories, for the peasants were sometimes permitted to leave their villages for the manufacturing centers which were gradually growing up. The value of the products of the chief industries doubled between 1887 and 1897, and the number of people employed in them increased from 1,318,048 to 2,098,262. If Napoleon could have come once more to Moscow in 1912, he would not have recognized the city which met his gaze in 1812. It had become the center of the Russian textile industries, and the sound of a thousand looms and forges announced the creation of a new industrial world. St. Petersburg and Moscow each had more than a million inhabitants.

749. Railway Construction in Russia. Along with this business development went the construction of great railway lines, built largely by the government with money borrowed from capitalists in western Europe. Some of the railroads were constructed chiefly for political and military purposes, but others were designed to connect the great factory centers. Railway building was first seriously undertaken in Russia after the disasters of the Crimean War, when the soldiers suffered cruel hardships in consequence of the difficulty of obtaining supplies. By 1878 upward of eight thousand miles had been built, connecting the capital with the frontiers of European Russia. In 1885 the railway advance toward the frontiers of India was begun, and within a short time Afghanistan was reached and communication opened to the borders of China. Important lines were also built in the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian.

750. The Trans‑Siberian Railroad. The greatest of all railway undertakings was the Trans‑Siberian road, which was rendered necessary for the transportation of soldiers and military supplies to the eastern boundary of the empire. Communication was established between St. Petersburg and the Pacific in 1900, and a branch line from Harbin southward to Port Arthur was soon finished. One could, before the World War, travel in comfort, with few changes of cars, from Havre to Vladivostok, via Paris, Cologne, Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow, Irkutsk on Lake Baikal, and Harbin, a distance of seventy‑three hundred miles. In addition to the main line, some important branches were built, and more planned. By means of these the fast plains of central Asia may, before long, be peopled as the plains of America have been. Russian migration has been moving eastward.

751. Autocracy under Nicholas II. When Nicholas II succeeded his father, Alexander III, in 1894, he was but twenty‑six years old, and there was some reason to hope that he would face the problems of this new industrial Russia in a progressive spirit. He had had an opportunity in his travels to become somewhat familiar with the enlightened governments of western Europe, and one of his first acts was to order the imprisonment of the prefect of police of St. Petersburg for annoying the correspondents of foreign newspapers. Nicholas, however, quickly dispelled any illusions which his more liberal subjects entertained. "Let it be understood by all," he declared, "that I shall employ all my powers in the best interests of the people, but the principle of autocracy will be sustained by me as firmly and unswervingly as it was by my never‑to‑be‑forgotten father."

The censorship of the press was made stricter than ever, one decree alone adding two hundred books to the already long list of those which the government condemned. The distinguished historian Professor Milyoukoff was dismissed from the University of Moscow on the ground of his "generally noxious tendencies," and other teachers were warned not to talk about government.

752. Russifying Finland. Nowhere did the Tsar show his desire for absolute control more clearly than in his dealings with Finland. When Alexander I had annexed that country in 1809 he had permitted it to retain its own diet and pass its own laws, although it of course recognized the Tsar as its ruler under the title of Grand Duke. The Finns cherished their independence and have in recent times shown themselves one of the most progressive peoples of Europe. In 1899, however, Nicholas began a harsh and determined Russification of Finland. He sent heartless officials, like Plehve, to represent him and crush out all opposition to his changes. He undertook to substitute the Russian language so far as possible for the Finnish.

Finally, on June 17, 1904, the Russian governor of Finland was assassinated by the son of one of the senators, who then killed himself, leaving a letter in, which he explained that he had acted alone and with the simple purpose of forcing on the Tsar's attention the atrocities of his officials. A year later the Tsar, under the influence of revolution at home and disaster abroad, consented to restore to Finland all her former rights.

753. The Harsh Rule of Plehve. We must now trace the history of the terrible struggle between the Russian people and their despotic government, which began openly in 1904. In 1902 an unpopular minister of the interior had been assassinated, and the Tsar bad appointed a still more unpopular man in his place, namely, Plehve, who was notorious for his success in hunting down those who criticized the government and for the vigor with which he had carried on the Russification of Finland.

754. Massacres of the Jews. Plehve connived at the persecution of those among the Tsar's subjects who ventured to disagree with the doctrines of the Russian official Church, to which every Russian was supposed to belong. The Jews suffered especially. There were massacres at Kishinef and elsewhere in 1903 which horrified the Western world and drove hundreds of

thousands of Jews to foreign lands, especially to the United States. There is good reason to believe that Plehve actually arranged these massacres. At all events he continued to tolerate them until a bomb put an end to his career in the summer of 1904.

755. The Liberals, or Constitutional Democrats. Plehve was mistaken, however, in his belief that all the trouble came from a handful of deluded fanatics. Among those who detested the cruel and corrupt government which he represented were the professional men, the university professors, the enlightened mer­chants and manufacturers, and the public‑spirited nobility. These were not at first organized into a distinct party, but in time they came to be known as the Constitutional Democrats. They hoped that a parliament elected by the people might be established. They demanded freedom of speech and of the press, the right to hold public meetings to discuss public questions, the abolition of the secret police system and of arbitrary imprisonment and re­ligious persecutions.

756. The Social Democrats. In the towns a socialistic party had been growing up which advocated the theories of Karl Marx (447). It desired all the reforms advocated by the Constitutional Democrats just described, but looked forward to the time when the workingmen would become so numerous and powerful that they could seize the government offices and assume the management of lands, mines, and factories, which should there­after be used for the benefit of all rather than for the small class of rich men who then owned them. Unlike the reformers next to be described, they did not believe in terrorism or in murderous attacks upon unpopular government officials.

757. The Socialist Revolutionary Party. In contrast with these were those Russian agitators who belonged to the Socialist Revolutionary party, which was well organized and was respon­sible for the chief acts of violence during the years of the revolu­tion. They maintained that it was right to make war upon the government, which was oppressing them and extorting money from the people to fill the pockets of dishonest officeholders. Its members selected their victims from the most notoriously cruel among the officials, and after a victim had been killed they usually published a list of the offenses which cost him his life. Lists of those selected for assassination were also prepared, after careful consideration, by their executive committee.

758. Russian Reverses in the War with Japan. The more the Tsar sought to stamp out all protest against the autocracy, the more its enemies increased, and at last, in 1904, the open revo­lution may be said to have begun. On February 5 of that year a war commenced with Japan (812-814 below), which was due to Russia's encroachments in Korea and her evident intention of permanently depriving China of Manchuria. The liberals attrib­uted the conflict to bad management on the part of the Tsar's officials and declared it to be inhuman and contrary to the interests of the people. Whatever the cause, disaster was the out­come. The Japanese defeated the Russians in Manchuria in a series of terrific conflicts. The Russian fleets in the East were annihilated, and on January 1, 1905, Port Arthur fell, after the most terrible siege on record.

759. Distress and Revolution. The war produced a stagna­tion of commerce and industry, and strikes became common. At the same time the crops failed, and the starving peasants burned and sacked the houses and barns of the nobles. It became known that the government officials had been stealing money that should have gone to strengthen and equip the armies; rifles had been paid for that had never been delivered, supplies bought which never reached the suffering soldiers, and--most scandalous of all--high Russian dignitaries had even misappropriated the funds of the Red Cross Society for aiding the wounded.

760. "Red Sunday," January 22, 1905. On Sunday, January 22, 1905, a fearful event occurred. The workingmen of St. Petersburg had sent a petition to the Tsar and had informed him that on Sunday they would march to the palace humbly to pray him in person to consider their sufferings, since they had no faith in his officials or ministers. When Sunday morning came, masses of men, women, and children, wholly unarmed, attempted to ap­proach the Winter Palace in the pathetic hope that the "Little Father," as they called the Tsar, would listen to their woes. Instead, the Cossacks tried to disperse them with their whips, and then the troops which guarded the palace shot and cut down hundreds and wounded thousands in a conflict which continued all day. "Red Sunday" was, however, only the most impressive of many similar encounters between citizens and the Tsar's police.

761. Protest of the Men of Letters. The day after "Red Sunday" all the leading lawyers and men of letters in St. Petersburg joined in the following declaration: "The public should understand that the government has declared war on the entire Russian people. There is no further doubt on this point. A government which is unable to hold intercourse with the people except with the assistance of sabers and rifles is self‑condemned. We summon all the vital energies of Russian society to the assistance of the workingmen who began the struggle for the common cause of the whole people."

762. The Tsar Forced to promise Reforms. Finally the Tsar so far yielded to the pressure of public opinion that on August 19 he promised to summon a Duma, or council, which should meet not later than January, 1906. It was to represent all Russia, but to have no further power than that of giving the ruler advice in making the laws, for the Tsar refused to give up his old autocratic prerogatives.

This was a bitter disappointment to even the most moderate liberals. It was pointed out that both the workingmen and the professional men were excluded by the regulations from voting. A more effective measure in bringing the Tsar and his advisers to terms was a great general strike in the interest of reform which began late in October. All the railroads stopped running; in all the great towns the shops, except those that dealt in provisions, were closed; gas and electricity were no longer furnished; the law courts ceased their duties; and even the apothecaries refused to prepare prescriptions until reforms should be granted.

The situation soon became intolerable, and on October 29 the Tsar announced that he had ordered "the government" to grant the people freedom of conscience, speech, and association, and to permit the classes which had been excluded in his first edict to vote for members of the Duma. Lastly, he agreed "to establish an immutable rule that no law can come into force without the approval of the Duma."

763. The Duma Dissolved. The elections for the Duma took place in March and April, 1906, and, in spite of the activity of the police, resulted in an overwhelming majority for the Constitutional Democrats. The deputies to the Duma assembled in no humble frame of mind. Like the members of the Estates General in 1789 (§ 210), they felt that they had the nation behind them. They listened stonily to the Tsar's remarks at the opening session, and it was clear from the first that they would not agree any better with their monarch than the French deputies had agreed with Louis XVI and his courtiers.

The Tsar's ministers would not cooperate with the Duma in any important measures of reform, and on July 21 Nicholas II declared that he was "cruelly disappointed" because the deputies had not confined themselves to their proper duties and had commented upon many matters which belonged to him. He accordingly dissolved the Duma, as he had a perfect right to do, and fixed March 5, 1907, as the date for the meeting of a new Duma.

764. Atrocities and Disorder Continue. The revolutionists made an unsuccessful attempt in August to blow up the Tsar's chief minister in his country house and continued to assassinate governors and police officials. The "Black Hundreds," on the other hand, murdered Jews and liberals, while the government established courts‑martial to insure the speedy trial and immediate execution of revolutionists. In the two months September and October, 1906, these courts summarily condemned three hundred persons to be shot or hanged. During the whole year some nine thousand persons were killed or wounded for political reasons.

765. Famine added to the Other Disasters. A terrible famine was afflicting the land at the end of the year, and it was discovered that a member of the Tsar's ministry had been stealing the money appropriated to furnish grain to the dying peasants. An observer who had traveled eight hundred miles through the famine-stricken district reported that he did not find a single village where the peasants had food enough for themselves or their cattle. In some places the peasants were reduced to eating bark and the straw used for their thatch roofs.

766. Village Communities Broken Up. In October, 1906, a decree permitted the peasants to leave their particular village community and join another or to seek employment elsewhere. On November 25 the peasants were empowered to become owners of their allotments, and all redemption dues were remitted. This constituted the first step toward a practical abolition of the system of common ownership by village communities, described above, which was finally achieved by a law of June 27, 1910. This was the beginning of the great social changes in Russia.

767. The Duma and the Autocracy. The Tsar continued to summon the Duma regularly, but so arranged the system of voting for its members that only the conservative classes of the nation were represented, and his officials did all they could to keep out liberal deputies. In spite of this the fourth Duma, elected in 1912, showed much independence in opposing the oppressive rule of the Tsar's ministers. Although parliamentary government was by no means won in Russia, many important reforms were achieved. The Tsar, however, continued to retain the title of "Autocrat of all the Russias," and his officials went on persecut­ing those who ventured to criticize the government, until the revo­lution of March, 1917, deprived them of all power (see §§ 989‑993 below).



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