Edexcel AS exam revision – the survival of Tsarism 1881-1914

Another popular area with the examiners is the question of why the Tsarist regime was able to survive in the decades before the First World War, often coupled with the weakness and divided nature of the opposition movements.

In my experience this can prove problematic for students; because of the tendency for teachers focus on the almost comical inadequacies and backwardness of Tsarist Russia, it can be hard for candidates to do justice to the strengths and tenacity of the regime, and easy for them to slip into the unhelpful simplification that all the Russian people were longing to rise up and overthrow the system.

Understanding the questions

All past questions on this topic are of the very common format which we could call “causation questions with a given factor”. That is, they ask “How far (or to what extent, or how accurate is it to say that) was X responsible for Y happening?”

It is an essential piece of exam technique to recognise that this question format is asking you to explain why Y happened, with particular reference to X (the given factor). This also provides the structure of your answer:

1. Explain factor X, with depth and detail, and how it contributed to Y [maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of your answer]

2. Consider some other factors that contributed to Y happening.

3. Come to a conclusion


Again, it is essential to pay careful attention to the date range specified in the question, and to have a sound grasp of the basic chronology of the period:

1880s – Alexander III’s repression smashes the Populist movement

1890s – Dramatic industrial growth. Opposition movements resurface towards the end of the decade

1905 – the central year of the period. The regime survives a profound crisis in the face of opposition from liberals, peasants, workers and national minorities. 1905 must feature in any answer about Tsarist survival, as it was the point at which the regime’s survival was most directly at stake

1906-14 – opposition at a low ebb following post-1905 repression and reform (the age of the Dumas, Stolypin’s agrarian reforms)

Reasons for Tsarism’s survival

1. Divisions within the opposition

Fundamentally the opposition was divided between liberals (who wished to reform the existing regime) and revolutionaries (who wished to overthrow it). Avoid giving the naive impression that the only thing holding back the opposition was the inability of the different groups to work together. The key piece of evidence to demonstrate HOW this enabled the regime to survive is the way in which the Tsar (or more accurately Witte) used the October Manifesto in 1905 to bring liberals onside and isolate and defeat the revolutionary/workers’ movement – perhaps the single key factor in the regime’s survival in this period.

Beyond this basic division, there were divisions within all of the individual strands of the opposition. You will need to write in some detail about the different groups, ideally with names, dates and so forth.

Liberals – divided between moderates who wanted minimal constitutional change (after 1905, the Octobrists) and more radical liberals who wanted something like a fullblown liberal democracy (after 1905, the Kadets)

SRs – more a loose coalition than a unified party – anarchists, moderates, terrorists

Marxists (SDs) – divided between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks from 1903

2. Other weaknesses of the opposition

– size – it’s not easy to measure the size of the opposition movements, particularly before 1905 when they were all illegal. However it is clear that none of them had a mass membership. The combined membership of the Marxist parties, for instance, may have been around 16,000 in 1905 and fewer than 10,000 in 1910.

– intellectual leadership – linked to the above point, all strands of the opposition were led by members of the intelligentsia, and thus can be said to have lacked mass support and deep roots in Russian society. As P.N. Durnovo (former Minister of the Interior) put it in a memorandum to the Tsar in February 1914:

The Russian opposition is intellectual throughout, and this is its weakness, because between the intelligentsia and the people there is a profound gulf of mutual misunderstanding and distrust.

You can therefore argue that there was a fundamental gulf, which was not really bridged in this period, between the political parties/movement for political change, and the economic grievances of the masses (expressed by industrial strikes and peasant jacqueries). Whilst clearly there were many reasons for widespread economically motivated discontent in this period, this did not automatically translate into mass revolutionary opposition to the Tsarist system.

3. Repression

The package of repressive measures introduced by Alexander III from 1881, strengthening the police-state regime, were successful in smashing the Populist movement, eliminating opposition for over a decade, and restabilising the regime after the crisis of Alexander II’s assassination.

In 1905-7, the army was used heavily to suppress the Soviets in the cities (particularly in Moscow where there was extensive street-fighting in December 1905) and peasant unrest in the countryside (60,000 were executed or exiled). Crucially, in contrast to February 1917, the army for the most part loyally fulfilled its repressive role in our period.

Police surveillance and infiltration of the revolutionary parties continued even in the era of the Dumas.

Overall this point can be linked to the weakness of the opposition – a fundamental reason the opposition were weak and divided is the effectiveness of repression, forcing groups underground and preventing them from building mass membership parties.

4. Reform

See my previous set of notes for a full discussion of reform in late Tsarist Russia. You could argue that, after 1905, political and economic reform was a key reason the regime stabilised and survived. The creation of the Dumas drew the sting from the revolutionary movement and brought at least a section of liberal politics into an accommodation with the regime. Stolypin’s agrarian reforms aimed to derevolutionise the peasantry, though it is debatable how far they succeeded in this goal. Limited social reforms may have reduced industrial discontent, although this was rising again by the end of the period and overall, it seems clear that continued industrial growth actually increased social problems and potential opposition from workers.

5. Other strengths of the Tsarist regime

ministers – although Nicholas himself was an inept ruler, in Witte and Stolypin he had two shrewd, tough and unscrupulous ministers who were devoted to maintaining the autocracy and were capable of formulating strategic plans to do so. At crucial moments, above all in October 1905, Nicholas was guided by their advice. (You can contrast this with the situation in February 1917, when there were no figures of such stature among the Tsar’s advisers).

the nobility – Russia’s nobility numbered 1.8 million in 1897 and were the key social basis for the regime, playing a key role particularly in maintaining order in the countryside as well as providing the governing class of the empire. However, since emancipation in 1861 the status of the nobility was declining, and this erosion of the key social base of Tsarism could be seen as a key long-term reason for its ultimate fall.

ideological – centuries of traditional legitimacy sanctioned Romanov rule, and particularly the state-controlled Russian Orthodox Church, for which obedience to the Tsar and secular authority was a central tenet. The Church can be presumed to have exerted significant influence among the illiterate peasant masses, although the standard argument is that mass faith in the Tsar as “holy father” was broken irrevocably by the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905.

support – don’t underestimate the extent to which the regime was able to mobilise both new and old bases of support – both within the state machinery (army officers, civil servants, senior police officials, priests) and without (landowners, financiers, industrialists), there was up to 1914 sustained loyalty to the Tsarist regime and to the Tsarist ideology of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, and anti-Semitism. From 1905 the regime also showed the capacity to mobilise new forms of mass support, through the state-sponsored Black Hundreds (who conducted 700 pogroms in 1905-6), and the Union of the Russian People (formed in 1905, with 1000 branches by the end of 1906 and considerable influence with the Duma Right).


Returning to 1905, we can identify many of these factors at work in enabling the Tsarist regime to survive this year of crisis:

– divided opposition – the activities of workers, liberals, peasants, national minorities were disparate and uncoordinated. The basic division between liberals and revolutionaries saw liberals swing behind the regime by the end of the year, fearing working-class militancy and anarchy.

– government ministers – Witte was instrumental in resolving the crisis by swiftly ending the Russo-Japanese War, conciliating peasants and soldiers with concessions, and dividing the opposition with the October Manifesto and its promise of constitutional reform

– repression – used to dismantle the Soviets and crush peasant unrest

– the state apparatus – remained loyal to the Tsar and committed to fighting for Tsarism’s survival


Overall, we have identified four key reasons for Tsarist survival

1. The opposition – weaknesses and divisions

2. The regime – repression

3. The regime – reform

4. The regime – innate strengths

The different weight that you accord to these four factors will ultimately depend on your overall assessment of late Tsarist Russia: pessimistic (the regime staggering towards its inevitable demise), or optimistic (giving more credit to its strength, resilience and capacity to evolve – into a more modern and liberal state within an autocratic framework, like, perhaps, Wilhelmine Germany).


One thought on “Edexcel AS exam revision – the survival of Tsarism 1881-1914

  1. Pingback: Edexcel AS exam revision – the February Revolution and the fall of Tsarism | The Rational Colonel

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