The Latin Quarter
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The Latin Quarter

A Crumbling System

Could the Tsarist System have survived: A view from the Turn of the Century

Despite the problems faced by the tsarist government, appropriate handling in parts of the 19th century, with Alexander II’s reforms and the industrial policies of Sergei Witte, could (and did for a reasonably lengthy period of time) sustain the tsarist system. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861, followed by investment in heavy industry, would have theoretically provided Russian society with enough economically founded goodwill amongst the middle classes and the lower social strata of the population to allow the tsarist system to survive. The maintenance of a high degree of religious compliance across Russia would have also facilitated this belief in the divine right of rule binding the social hierarchy together in a more positive sense than military enforcement could have achieved.

The failings of the system, in overt repression of opposition by violent means, notable caveats to freedoms provided as well as partial mismanagement of industrial growth were to cripple the tsarist system’s attempts to change and modify their government and indeed country to survive. The assassination of Alexander II, followed by clampdowns from the Russian police and a number of political executions, showed a degree of vulnerability to the tsar’s rule, opening up the potential of alternatives to those radicalised against the system in the first place and creating a more hostile population that positive economic progress and religious compliance would struggle to mend. The limits and caveats of economic progress too, in the underinvestment in light industry resulting in reliance on imports for capital goods or harsh conditions faced by workers engaged in the new factories in the cities of European Russia, served to weaken the tsarist system, an attempt at modernisation hampered by a need for foreign injection of capital and finance to sustain itself. While well-intentioned, designed to employ Russia’s vast natural resources to fuel industrial revolution, Witte’s strategy for modernisation left a soft underbelly of undeveloped industry, goods needed to sustain a growing population left largely unconsidered in his plans for economic conquest.

The same sense of mismanagement emerged in the social reforms of late tsarist Russia, the emancipation of the serfs crippled by a financial debt owed to prior landlords or government that left many feeling slighted by an incomplete freedom. The lack of freedoms, accentuated by what the government had allowed in contrast to what it was still retaining, fuelled discontent within the system in other cases additionally, the removal of rights to assembly and increase of police powers marking a severe backwardness in tsarist management of society.

The changes that would have been necessary to facilitate a continuation or thriving in the tsarist system would have been such that the regime would become unidentifiable as the imperialist Russian system, greater civil freedom (which did arrive in 1905 as part of the October Manifesto) to the extent at which the lower classes would have been satisfied a transformation of the very nature of the tsar’s autocratic power. Rising political awareness over time as both the educated middle class and union-inclined urban workers increased in proportion of the population would have exacerbated the issue (and indeed it was arguably the trigger point for several points of unrest in the final decades of Nicholas II’s reign), making moderate change that satisfied the population incompatible with the inherent nature of the tsarist government system.

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