Was government and economy of Tsarist Russia transformed in the years between 1881 and 1914?
There were many changes made to the government and economy of Tsarist Russia between 1881 and 1914, however fundamentally I do not think either were completely transformed as the country was still under almost complete control of the Tsar and the majority of people had a very limited political voice, and also the economy remained a major issue with few problems solved. Considering that in 1881 Russia was incredibly underdeveloped and mainly based on agriculture, there were many changes made.
The first finance minister of Alexander’s reign was Nikolai Bunge and he introduced laws which reduced the tax burden on peasants in 1882, and also established the Peasant Land Bank offering loans to peasants to help increase their holdings and increase productivity. The “Great Spurt” under Witte between 1892 and 1903 was a period of great economic transformation. Much emphasis was placed on the production of capital goods like iron and steel, coal and machinery. Also, much investment was made from abroad mainly France, Britain and Belgium: within Russia the peasantry was also further taxed to pay for this.
The result of this was incredibly dramatic. Over half of the industrial workforce was employed in factories with more than a thousand workers by 1900 as industrial growth was concentrated in industrial areas like Moscow and Ukraine. The population also rose dramatically due to this rapid industrialization for example the population of St Petersburg doubled between 1890 and 1940 from 1 to 2 million. The completion of the Trans-Siberian also meant that influence in the East was increased and the economic potential of Siberia was opened up.
In some respects Stolypin was an economic reformer, as he wanted to create a prosperous peasant class to be loyal to the Tsar. In November 1906 he passed a law that freed peasants from the commune and later redemption payments were abolished. This had been a huge weight on the peasants since 1861 and could be argued to be a transformation in the countryside. Agriculture production rose from 45. 9 million tonnes in 1906 to 7 million in 1913. The October Manifesto is arguably a huge political transformation because reforms were promised like an elected national Parliament, freedom of speech, religion and civil rights.
The Dumas that came out of the October Manifesto had some successes for example: the replacement of Land Captains by justices of the peace, making the judicial system fairer. It could also be argued that there was political transformation because by 1914 political parties had been established legally and the Duma allowed political debate of elected representative. Now, due to a relaxation of censorship, radicals had the opportunity to influence public opinion: something that had previously been much harder.
However, the leaders of the country themselves were incredibly against political transformation: Alexander III was repressive and incredibly against political reform, partly due to his father’s assassination by the radical group the People’s Will, and also due to his own conservative views. This meant that he made sure to do as little as possible to transform the government politically during his reign. When coming to power Alexander almost immediately published his manifesto declaring absolute political power to the Tsar and to create the Statute of State Security to try government opponents without the need for a jury.
These courts stayed in existence up until 1917. Press freedom at this point was also severely restricted and fourteen major newspapers were banned between 1882 and 1889 for displaying “liberal” tendencies. Foreign books and newspapers were also censored by the secret police (the Okhrana) to prevent ideas like democracy and parliamentary government from reaching the Russian people. Land captains were also introduced in 1890 to undermine the Zemstvas created by the more liberal Tsar before Alexander, and in order to increase the political power of the landed classes doctors and schoolteachers for example could not be part of the Zemstva.
These repressive policies had huge long term effects and the secret police remained for the entirety of Alexander III’s reign. It also clearly shows Alexander’s conservative mentality and his attempt to undermine any transformation politically Nicholas II who succeeded Alexander III was also incredibly conservative and saw the plea of the zemstva for greater political responsibility as “senseless dreams”. We can also say that obviously not enough was done to transform Russia politically as radicals overthrew Nicholas in 1917. The 1905 revolution could be argued as showing very little change because of the
unrest caused by the lack of political reformation and political voice of the people. The country still had no democratically elected national assembly of any kind. It could also be argued that little had changed in 1905 because the amred forces did remain loyal to the Tsar and were incredibly important in the dispersion of the rebels. The October Manifesto, despite seeming like a huge political transformation, the Fundamental Law of 1906 which became the constitution of the Russian epire actually gabe the right o the Tsar to gvern by decree and ignore the new elected body.
He also retained the right to select his own government and so he retained much of his political power Also, the Tsar could dissolve the new parliaments at any time, and the first was dissolved after only 73 days showing that despite their existence, the Dumas hadn’t changed much because the Tsar still had political control. The first Duma passed only two resolutions despite making 391 requests against what it saw as illegal government action: the Tsar had ensured no definitive action would be taken against him.
The only Duma lasting its full term only did so because it was weighted so heavily in favor the Tsar that demand for reform was low and the Duma was unrepresentative of the population, so that though it lasted a long time it didn’t transform the country politically. Stolypin is another example where politically there was no transformation, even after the 1905 revolution. He used traditional and ruthless methods, distributing 1144 death sentences between October 1906 and May 1907. Six hundred trade unions and a thousand newspapers were also forced to close.
This directly goes against promises made in the October Manifesto showing the lack of transformation caused by it. Economically, despite attempts at reform throughout this time period, Russia remained backward and inefficient. Agriculture remained backward, despite attempts at reform by Vyshnegradsky, the demand for land stayed high and lead to the catastrophic famine of 1891, showing that not enough was done to prevent it; there had been no great transformation. Also, by 1914 90% of peasants were still strip farming and only 1/5 of of the peasants had even left the Mir, showing the failure to move peasants out and increase productivity.
Russia was also still behind the other great powers of Europe (UK, USA, Germany). In conclusion, I think that there were many reforms made to both the economy and the government, and that both were definitely somewhat transformed because industry was modernized and Russia did have a kind of national elected body for the first time in its history. However, these were not huge transformations because these reforms did not fundamentally change Russia at all: the Tsar still had supreme authority over ruling, and Russia was still a backward economy based mainly on agriculture.