Edexcel AS exam revision – reform in Tsarist Russia 1881-1914

Questions about the extent of reform in late Tsarist Russia have often been set by the examiners. Copyright restrictions prohibit me from listing the actual questions here, but you can find them out for yourselves by following the process outlined here.

These questions ask variously about “change”, “modification”, “reform” or “transformation” – more or less the same, in terms of the issues you are required to write about.

You do need to pay careful attention to what exactly you are being asked about:

– economic change? political/governmental change? or both?

– the date range. This might cover the whole period 1881-1914, or just the period after the 1905 revolution (1906-14). You will need to have a decent grasp on the overall chronology of this period and be aware of which developments took place before the central watershed of 1905, and which after.

1881 accession of Alexander III after assassination of his father. Institution of repression and counter-reforms

1894 accession of Nicholas II – no real change in political strategy of regime

1905 revolutionary crisis shakes the system – but the regime survives by promising political reform

1906-14 the age of the Dumas and of Stolypin

What all these past questions have in common is that they are asking you to assess the extent of change. This means that you need an argument with two sides, that presents:

– evidence of change

– evidence of continuity and of limitations to the changes

Given that this topic divides neatly into political and economic aspects, you therefore need four sets of evidence and arguments at your fingertips in order to answer any of these questions:

1. Evidence of political change

2. Evidence of political continuity

3. Evidence of economic change

4. Evidence of economic continuity

1. Evidence of political change

The period naturally divides into two parts.

before 1905 – there was political change but in a reactionary direction. Alexander III introduced a range of measures, including: abandoning plans for representative government (the Loris-Melikov proposals); Land Captains; restrictions on the zemstva and universities; increased powers for the repressive apparatus of the state; intensification of Russification.

after 1905 – there is no denying that there was political change in this period, most importantly in the institution of the Duma. The question is whether this can be considered to be meaningful or significant change. Note that the issue here is not really whether Russia was becoming “democratic”, but whether government was becoming “representative” or “constitutional”. Evidence of change includes:

  • Russia had a constitution of sorts (the 1906 Fundamental Laws)
  • the Duma had a major constitutional role – its approval was required for new laws, and thus it significantly restricted the autocratic powers of the Tsar
  • the existence of an elected national assembly was a major change regardless of its actual power. It brought with it the legalisation of political parties, of public criticism and press discussion of government policy, and a political culture in some respects characteristic of “normal” constitutional politics.
  • by the end of this period the Duma was working as an effective partner in government, passing some significant reforms (the 3rd and 4th Dumas, including: the replacement of Land Captains by JPs, universal primary education; health and accident insurance for industrial workers).

Overall you can argue that a limited parliamentary system was emerging in Russia by 1914 as a result of the 1906 reforms – that Russia was a “demi-semi-constitutional monarchy” (Richard Charques).

2. Evidence of political continuity

before 1905 – as noted above, the early years of the reign of Alexander III did see major change, but all in a “backwards” direction of cementing and entrenching the powers of the autocracy. Subsequently, there was no real move towards reform, and Nicholas II affirmed the policies of his father when he came to the throne in 1894.

after 1905 – it can certainly be argued that the Dumas were merely window-dressing to mask ongoing autocracy.

  • the Fundamental Laws rendered the Duma nearly impotent from the outset, reserving control of ministers, the budget and the armed forces to the Tsar.
  • the Duma did not have proper parliamentary powers: it could not remove a government that lacked its confidence; it could not force government ministers to account; the Tsar could legislate without the Duma in an “emergency” via Article 87 (as he did in introducing Stolypin’s land reforms in 1906 and the revised electoral law in 1907)
  • the Tsar had no inclination to embrace constitutional politics and still regarded himself as autocrat. He refused to deal with the 1st and 2nd Dumas when they proved critical of/hostile to the regime; only once the electoral system had been amended (in violation of the Fundamental Laws, incidentally) to ensure compliantly conservative members were elected, did the Duma start to work in partnership with the regime, on a very slender electoral basis.
  • the repressive apparatus of the state remained intact and active: agitators were still arrested and deported; (revolutionary) parties with legal Duma representation were subject to police infiltration; the army was still used to suppress strikes (the Lena Goldfields massacre of 1912

Overall you can argue that the autocracy remained fundamentally unaltered: that Russia, a fully autocratic repressive police state in the 1880s, was in 1914 still a largely autocratic, repressive police state.

3. Evidence of economic change

The economy divides naturally into two further sub-sections: industry and agriculture

Industrial change

Overall Russian industry grew rapidly in this period (3.5% average annual growth, compare 1% for the UK). By 1914 Russia was the fourth largest global producer of coal, pig iron, steel, and the second ranking oil producer – in short Russia was the fourth ranked industrial economy (behind the UK, USA, Germany).

Before 1905 this growth was driven by the policies of Sergei Witte (Finance Minister 1892-1903), focused on: the development of railways; top-down state-sponsored growth, funded through foreign loans and heavy taxation of the peasantry [there is an interesting comparison between the industrialisation policies of Witte and those pursued on a greater scale 40 years later by Stalin].

After the disruption of 1905, growth to 1914 was rapid (6% annual rate), driven largely by rearmament after the Russo-Japanese War and military spending in the pre-WWI arms race – in short, still largely dependent on government contracts.

Overall it can certainly be argued (and has been, for instance by Alexander Gerschenkron) that Russia in 1914 was well on the path to becoming a successful modern industrial state.

Agricultural change

The key issue here is the reforms introduced by Stolypin from 1906. These allowed peasants to separate from the commune [mir], enabling peasant ownership of private farms. The objective was both economic (to increase efficiency and output, feeding the towns and funding industry) and political (to create a conservative class of peasants with a material stake in the regime). Grain output did increase 1909-13 (though this was possibly due more to good luck with harvests than to the benefits of the reforms) and by 1914 Russia was the largest cereal exporter in the world. Across the period 1883-1914 grain output grew by 2.1% annually (on average), whilst population grew by 1.5% each year. This indicates that Russia was developing away from a subsistence economy in the countryside and that problems of rural famine and poverty were gradually being overcome.

4. Evidence of economic continuity and limitations to progress

Industrial problems

  • industrial development was uneven and unbalanced – a mix of large modern factories and less productive small-scale workshops (employing 67% of workers but generating 33% of output)
  • industry was still heavily reliant on government contracts and foreign capital and technology
  • the industrial workforce may have numbered as many as 15 million (see figures here) – but this was still less than 10% of the population of the empire (166 million). Thus Russia’s economy remained fundamentally rural and agricultural
  • despite impressive growth, Russian industry remained far behind that of the USA, the UK and Germany. In 1913 per capita income in Russia was 10% of the US figure, and 20% of the UK. In relative terms, Russia was still a backward and impoverished country.

Although it may not be directly related to an exam question about the extent of economic change, it is important to be aware of the ways in which industrial growth was threatening social and political stability by the range of new problems it created. This is arguably the profound cause of the fall of Tsarism in 1917:

  • the new industrial working class suffered low wages, poor conditions and acute housing problems in the rapidly growing industrial centres
  • this led to a wave of strikes from the 1890s. Trade union militancy was squashed post-1905 but revived again after 1912 (the Lena Goldfields massacre)
  • the working class were more educated (64% were literate in 1914) and were concentrated in large industrial enterprises, often strategically located in the capital and other major cities. Thus they possessed a revolutionary potential which the peasantry lacked.
  • squeezing the peasantry via taxation to fund industrialisation heightened rural unrest.

Agricultural problems

  • before 1905 the countryside was largely left to stagnate in the conservative hands of the Ministry of the Interior – there was no strategy for transforming agriculture or rural society. This meant: inefficient strip farming persisted; rapid population growth and rising land hunger; higher taxation (to fund industrialisation) and ongoing redemption payments (established in 1861 to compensate for the emancipation of serfs). Inevitably this resulted in regular shortages and famine, particularly the great famine of 1891 in which 400,000 died.
  • after 1905, the impact of Stolypin’s reforms was limited. By 1914 only 20% of peasant households had separated from the commune, and half of these were still practising strip farming. Therefore 80% of peasants remained full members of village communes, largely untouched by Stolypin’s reforms. [One can note the counterfactual question: could Stolypin’s reforms have succeeded if they had not been interrupted by the First World War?]

Lenin’s comment of 1911 provides a useful summary:

In the half-century following the emancipation of the peasants, the consumption of iron in Russia has increased five-fold; yet Russia remains an incredibly and unprecedentedly backward country, poverty-stricken and semi-barbaric.

Throughout this period, Russia possessed a dual economy: small but fast-growing industry, large but stagnant agriculture. Arguably, this was not fundamentally altered by 1914. The period 1881-1914 saw significant economic progress, but not economic transformation.


The notes above should provide you with all the arguments you need to answer any question about reform in late Tsarist Russia. To help you to frame your answers and to produce impressive conclusions, I would encourage you to think about the genuine historical debate on the status of Russia by 1914. Decide which view you agree with, and argue for this view in your essays.

The “pessimist” view: Russia was on the brink of another revolutionary crisis in 1914 – working class militancy was rising; the constitutional experiment had failed; the regime had failed to adapt to or to adequately oversee economic growth; the middle class and liberalism remained weak, and liberal reform was proving unsustainable; the countryside remained a vast unresolved time bomb. Thus WWI if anything delayed, rather than caused, the fall of Tsarism, which was only a matter of time.

The “optimist” view: Russia was developing into a modern industrial state and was evolving a limited constitutional political system; conditions were improving in the countryside; the regime had stabilised after the crisis of 1905 and had shown the ability to mobilise new forms of support (the Octobrists and Right in the Duma, the Black Hundreds outside) via a cautious programme of reform. Thus the catastrophe of 1917 was an interruption to Russia’s organic development towards modernity, which can be blamed on the First World War and unscrupulous revolutionaries. [See here for my discussion and criticism of this line of argument]


2 thoughts on “Edexcel AS exam revision – reform in Tsarist Russia 1881-1914

  1. Pingback: Edexcel AS exam revision – the survival of Tsarism 1881-1914 | The Rational Colonel

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