Slavic History Pre-Soviet Times 1894-1918

The history of the end of the Russian Empire is inseparable from the character of Tsar Nicholas II himself. As Emperor of All Russia from 1894 to the tumultuous year of 1917, his reign was perhaps the most significant of all the Emperors in Russian History. He oversaw the attempted transformation of an agrarian Russia to an industrial Russia, he presided over the stunning Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the subsequent 1905 Revolution, he tried to stem the tides of Russian democracy, and eventually he led Russia into the First World War which proved to be the undoing of the monarchy. As quite a controversial figure, the legacy of Nicholas II is still debated by many today.


When Nicholas Romanov acceded to the Imperial throne in 1894, the Russian Empire was going through a period of immense change. Serfdom had been abolished thirty-three years prior by the reformer Alexander II and since then economic life in Russia was moving at a rapid pace. The Empire attempted to build up modern industry in its major population centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg to rival neighbors like the German Empire and Austria Hungary. This attracted many from the countryside, now free to travel since the end of serfdom, and now an urban working class was being built. Politically, Nicholas II inherited the anti-reformist political programme from his predecessor, Alexander III, although undercurrents of discontent were brewing among the middle and lower classes in society.


For the first decade of his rule, the Russian Empire knew peace and rapid economic gains. Financial reforms were undertaken by the Tsar’s influential advisor, Sergei Witte, and the introduction of the gold standard and attraction of foreign capital helped build the Russian state into the beginnings of an industrial powerhouse. The Trans-Siberian Railway was completed in 1902 which furthered Russian investments and trade with its farflung holdings in the East. The Franco-Russian alliance was strengthened by Nicholas II and he remained firm in his commitment to supporting the French Republic internationally.


Peace could not last forever though, and tensions in the East with the rising Japanese Empire would lead to the outbreak of war in 1904. A Japanese naval squadron, under the cover of darkness, launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur on February 8, 1904. The Tsar immediately ordered the Baltic Squadron, Russia’s only other major fleet, and multiple Russian armies eastwards to help their comrades in Manchuria. The Baltic Squadron was practically annihilated by Japanese forces at the disastrous Battle of Tsushima, and the newly completed Trans-Siberian Railroad struggled to accommodate the supply needs of hundreds of thousands of Imperial soldiers. The war went badly for Russia but Nicholas, stubborn and refusing to believe the Japanese could defeat the Russian Empire, pressed on. Demonstrators in January, 1905 attempted to petition the Tsar for constitutional reforms, but his soldiers fired on the protests. The events, known as Bloody Sunday, left ninety-two citizens dead and sent shockwaves of outrage throughout the Empire. Shortly after, general strikes and anarchy broke out in what has since been called the 1905 Revolution. Workers refused to go to the factories, the economy ground to a halt, and famously the Battleship Potemkin mutinied. These events forced the Tsar to grant a constitution and convene a parliament, known as the Duma. Peace was signed with Japan shortly thereafter.


The following year, the Russian mystic and advisor Grigory Rasputin arrived at the Imperial Court and began to treat the Tsar’s son Alexei for his hemophilia. He would soon gain immense influence over the ruling Romanovs and become associated with them in the mind of the public. The next decade in the Russian Empire was a very tenuous peace: the Duma operated as “representatives of the people” but in functionality had no real power over the policies of Russia and Nicholas II very often overruled them or outright dissolved sessions when he felt like it. During this period, the Tsar travelled around and made diplomatic trips. Relations with the British were repaired after their century-long rivalry in Central Asia (known as the Great Game), and Russia attempted to mediate in the multiple crises that shook the Balkans from 1912-1914. In 1913, the Tsar and his family celebrated three hundred years of Romanov rule in Russia with all the pomp and circumstance befitting an Emperor.


In 1914, perhaps the greatest crisis of Russian history struck the empire: the First World War broke out. Russia, supporting the Serbs in the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, were dragged into a war against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The results were disastrous. Russian armies were annihilated by the Germans at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, while an invasion of the Carpathians was quickly bogged down. Throughout 1915 and 1916, Russian offensives failed and Poland in its entirety crumbled before the Germany Army. Rasputin, deemed too influential over the royal family, was assassinated by aristocratic conspirators at the end of 1916. Finally, in February 1917, the situation got so serious that a revolution broke out in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) and the Tsar was forced to abdicate the throne - the centuries old monarchy was abolished. Nicholas, blamed for mismanaging the war effort and dragging Russia into this “fruitless imperialist war” was exiled to his estate at Tsarskoye Selo. The new Provisional Government of Russia, headed by the charismatic lawyer Alexander Kerensky, chose to continue the war effort: this would prove to be a fatal mistake. Harnessing popular discontent at the war’s enormous casualties, Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin ousted the Provisional Government during the October Revolution and declared a Soviet Republic. This effectively ended Russian participation in the First World War, and a brutal civil war broke out that led the establishment of the USSR. In July, 1918 the Tsar and his family, then being held at the city of Yekaterinburg, were taken into a basement and gunned down by Bolshevik soldiers to prevent them from being captured by the advancing White Army.


The legacy of the Tsar is much contested today - was he simply a hapless monarch who attempted to do his best in the confusing world of European geopolitics, or was he an outdated romantic who clung to outdated ideas and brought ruin and defeat to his country? That is up to you to decide.