Reign of Tsar Nicholas and how life was like in Pre-soviet Russia

The Russian Empire considered by some one of the most influential empires that has shaped history, ranging from the Baltics to the pacific. Its immediate influence felt from eastern Europe to Eastern Asia (Harbin was city in China which felt much Russian influence and many Imperial Russian buildings can be seen within the city, mainly due to Russian workers of the Chinese Eastern Railway. However, the Russian Empire is inseparable from one of the most important figures the Russian Empire ever had, the last tsar “Tsar Nicholas II” his rule was from 1894 to 1917, his rule had great impact upon Russia as he oversaw the empire shifting from an agricultural to industrial based Russia. He commanded Russian forces as they squared off against the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war, which led to a defeat which surprised observers as it was the first time an Asian power had beat a European power.  

Tsar Nicholas was responsible for Russia’s involvement in WW1 as he was the one who mobilised troops on the Austrian border, which alarmed the German government. Despite a letter from the legendary character and known advisor to the tsar “Grigori Rasputin” advising the tsar not to get involved, the letter read “Dear friend, I will say again a menacing cloud is over Russia lots of sorrow and grief it is dark and there is no lightning to be seen. A sea of tears immeasurable and as to blood? What can I say? There are no words the horror of it is indescribable. . . they will conquer Germany and what about Russia? If one thinks verily there has not been a greater sufferer since the beginning of time, she is all drowned in blood. Terrible is the destruction and without end the grief.”  Which later turned out to ring true as Russia lost the most soldiers in WWI, significantly weakening the Russian empire and paved the way for the downfall of the monarchy. It is also known Sergei Witte (finance minister and later prime minister) advised the Tsar not to get involved, however it came upon deaf ears.

When Nicholas first came to power, Russia was growing rapidly catching up to other European powers. Mainly thanks to Alexander the second who abolished serfdom in 1861 and ever since that period economic growth was moving up rapidly. The main cities to be affected by the industrialisation shift were the main population centres Moscow and St Petersburg which were designed to rival the powers of the German empire and the Austrian and Hungarian. Of course, with rapid industrialisation came a broader population from the countryside and since the serfdom was abolished in 1861 which was mainly due to the loss of the Crimean war (1853-56) of the Russian serf armies to the British and French free armies. The abolishment of serfdom gave people the freedom to move around and serfs were no longer obliged to the landowner. This led to the start of an urban working class. However, on March 1st 1861 Alexander 2nd was assassinated by an anarchist group and that marked the end of progressive government/civil reforms upon his death. Alexander 3rd dismissed the project and restored absolute monarchism which gave way to civil unrest, he managed to hold the empire with his iron will. Alexander the 3rd died of kidney disease and never took the time to teach Nicholas how to be a proper monarch maintaining peace and order. This paired with the anti-reformist policies inherited by Alexander the 3rd made civil unrest rather prevalent throughout society even causing ripples of discontent in the middle and upper classes.

In the first 10 years of coming to power, the empire had rapid economic growth, this is mainly thanks to a man known as Sergei Witte, his reforms helped modernize the Russian economy and encourage foreign investment in Russia. Due Russia’s new ally France, French loans helped develop Russian industry and infrastructure, making Russia become an industrial powerhouse, it also helped with completion of the Tran-Siberian railway, helping connect the capital to the Russian far east, which was completed in 1916. Along with that he introduced the Russian gold standard. Alexander formed the alliance with France, however Nicholas II emboldened that alliance supporting France and supported the French on an international level.

During 1904 is when things started to get rocky and the peace during the first decade of Nicholas II reign had finally shattered. In 1898 China granted Russia the right to build a naval base at Port Arthur. China had a major revolt known as the boxer rebellion; the Russians moved troops into Manchuria on the pretext of defending Port Arthur from the rebels. This brought the attention of the Japanese who wanted to exert their influence over Manchuria and Korea. On the 8th February 1904 is when war finally broke out upon the Japanese sneak attack on Port Arthur and the battle of Mukden (1904-1905). Upon the pacific fleets defeat the tsar ordered its Baltic fleet, Russia’s only major fleet halfway around the world to only the suffer a humiliating defeat at the battle of Tsushima. The Tran-Siberian railroad wasn’t up to the task of supplying Russia’s hundreds of thousands of soldiers As the line was single track this meant transit was slower as trains had to wait in crossing sidings for opposing trains to cross. troop train or a train carrying injured personnel travelling from east to west would delay the arrival of troops or supplies and ammunition in a train travelling from west to east. Due to Tsar Nicholas II stubbornness and belief the Russian empire will prevail despite major logistic problems Russia at that time had difficulty facing (Both naval and land based) Tsar Nicholas continued the war, which inevitably led to a humiliating peace treaty which was brokered by the US president Theodore Roosevelt. Meanwhile in St Petersburg (1905) just after the Russo Japanese war. Steel-workers had escalated and this formed into plans for a mass demonstration, in which thousands of demonstrators marched to the winter palace to present a petition to the Tsar, asking for better workers rights and more political freedom. However instead of negotiating and coming to a compromise troops opened fire in which led to the killing of more than 100 people. This became known as bloody Sunday and was the start of the Russian revolution (1905) Bloody Sunday was the catalyst which led to more strikes across the empire. The crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied, killing their officers and taking control, this was known as the Potemkin Mutiny. To defuse all this Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto, which was drafter under the finance minister Sergei Witte, who would later become prime minister due to the reforms put into place.  However, only after Grand Duke Nikolai (Tsars uncle) threatened to shoot himself if he did not agree to Witte's demands, following the Tsar's request of him taking the position of dictator. This manifesto promised an elected assembly (Duma) and new political rights, which included freedom of speech. The first Russian constitution was drafted in the year 1906. This meant the Tsar would have to share power with the duma, however the Tsar was still able to veto any legislation at any time.

In 1906 Tsar Nicholas II lost confidence in the prime-minister Sergei Witte, he was succeeded by Ivan Goremykin however he only lasted 2 months due to him not being able to function in a semi-parliamentary system, so he decided to retire. However the Tsar’s new prime-minister Pyotr Stolypin introduced land reforms which helped peasants while dealing with Russia’s would be revolutionaries, in a rather some would say brutal manner, he gained quite the reputation, so much that the hangman’s noose got the nickname ‘Stolypin’s necktie’.

1906 was a big year for the mysterious often times seen as a mythical figure Grigori Rasputin as it was the year, he arrived at the royal court to treat the Tsar’s son Alexei for his haemophilia. In 1911 this helped him gain into the family inner circle. Which helped him further expand his influence over the royal family, so much so that he later even controlled which ministers got appointed where, when Tsar Nicholas was away commanding his forces in WWI. He became associated with the Tsar’s in the mind of the public which paved way to much controversy. The next ten years in the Russian empire had a very fragile peace. Which the smallest event could shatter. The elected house of representatives (Duma) had no real power, it was like an ornament, just there to look nice and give the people a false sense of hope, things were truly changing. This is due to how frequently it got overruled by Tsar Nicholas II and dissolved sessions if he thought they may be heading in the wrong direction. However, the Tsar did make efforts to repair the damaged relationship with the British as they previously had a very long rivalry in Central Asia, this became to be known as the great game. Under the command of the Tsar he tried to mediate the growing conflicts in the Balkans region which went on from 1912 to 1914. During 1913 he held a grand celebration fit for a king. Celebrating 300 years of continuous Romanov rule. During 1911-1913 Russia had the fastest growing economy in all of Europe. Agricultural and industrial output were going to new heights, this resulted in most ordinary Russians remaining loyal to the Tsar and his family. Russia seemed like it was on the path to success.

However, in 1914 is when the greatest possible disaster the empire could have faced. In Sarajevo, a Slav nationalist (part of black hand gang) assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which sparked the July crisis. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, emperor Nicholas ordered for the Russian army to mobilise, to show support for a Slavic nation, despite not having much ties with Serbia at that time. The Russian army started to mobilise on the Austrian border to which the German Empire saw as a threat and declared war on the Russian Empire. Europe’s network of alliances came into effect, with Russia being part of the triple entente made up of France, UK and Russia. As Russia now had formed alliances with France and the British Empire. During the start Russia experienced a wave of patriotism. This even caused the capital St Petersburg to be renamed Petrograd so it sounded less German. The start of the war Russia gained ground in East Prussia; however, this was stopped with heavy defeats at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes. Russia gained ground against Austria-Hungary; however, it came at the cost at a very high price (huge loss of life). Due to Russian losses they were forced to retreat in 1915. In 1916 Russia pushed back and made significant gains, this was known as the Brusilov offensive and was one of the most successful attacks made by the allies. However, loses were so great no more major offensives could be made.  In 1916 Rasputin’s influence over the Tsar had reached boiling point and a plan was set in motion to kill the mad monk. Felix Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkevich decided Rasputin’s influence over the Tsarina was a threat to the empire. In 1917 things just reached the limit and a revolution broke out, which started in Petrograd. This forced the Tsar to abdicate. The main reason was of Tsar Nicholas’s mismanagement of the war and dragging Russia into a fruitless war. He was later exiled into his estate “Tsarkoye Selo”. A new provisional government was formed which was lead by Alexander Kerensky chose to continue the war which would later to prove to be a fatal error. Mainly due to war’s tremendous casualties, this gave rise to the soviets who used this opportunity to oust the provisional government and created a soviet republic headed by none other than Vladimir Lenin (birth name: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov). This caused Russia to withdraw from the great war and which led to a civil war between the monarchists and the communists (white vs red army) which eventually led to the USSR being formed. In 1918 the Tsar and his family were held in a house in Yekaterinburg, they were woke up in the middle of the night, they were brought down to a basement, the Ex tsarina asked for a chair for her and her son, which two were brough down, then the room began to fill with armed guards and to which said they will die and they fired a round of bullets. According to some sources the daughters survived the first round of bullets due to the heavy jewellery being worn and then the they were shot again in which they died. This was to prevent the white Army from escorting them to safety as they were advancing towards the house, so much so they could hear artillery fire and gunshots. The red army were ordered to prevent a rescue at any cost. Despite many soviet officials denying the order, changing their story many times, even in 1922 denying they even were dead.

The legacy of Tsar is widely disputed, some saying he was responsible for a great many deeds such as the modernisation of Russia, some say he was a devil, some say a saint. Some say an incompetent buffoon. I am not here to put ideas in the heads of anyone, I am here to discuss the facts, be it good or be it bad, was he good? Was he bad? That is up for you to decide.