Repression was a common tool used consistently by Russia’s rulers. Particularly in times of desperation, repression was the go-to tool for dealing with issues, with other tools such as political and social reform not considered as seriously. However, it would be inaccurate to say that repression was the only tool that was used and even to say that all Russian leaders used it as their most effective tool of government.
The reign of Alexander II can be seen to be a mixture of reform and repression. On the one hand, a vast array of social reforms were passed. Most notabley, this included the emancipation of the serfs, where peasants were freed from their masters in a bid to stop serfdom abloshjing itself ‘from below’. Furthermore, legal reform created an independent judiciary, public courts and trial by jury, whilst army reform led to the increased opportunity for non-nobles to rise through the ranks. However, the latter half of Alexander II’s reign was characterised by severe repression. Police sureveillance increased, radical journals were shut down and vocal critics were cracked down upon. Nevertheless, in his final years censorship relaxed as oppositional activity began to spread. Liberal ministers began to replace reactionary conservative ones, and a Supreme Commission was appointed to look into further reform. Therefore, Alexander II’s reign can be seen to be one where repression and social reform were used in equal measure, although the short reform period at the end of Alexander’s reign, before his death, may indicate that in his later years the Tsar ultimately saw reform as the most effective tool of government.
Alexander III’s reign was also a mixture of reform and repression. Alexander brought in the Statute of State Security, which increased police surveillance and created the Okhrana secret police. Police were given far-reaching powers to interfere with civil liberties and many revolutionary groups were forced into exile for up to a decade. Furthermore, the University Statute established state control over universities. This led to courses for women been phased out. Other repressive actions included banning dissenters who disagreed with the Orthodox Synod’s doctrine from building new centres of worship and wearing relgious dress outside their churches. However, Alexander did introduce some social reforms, most notably the end of temporary obligation and the abolition of poll tax. In addition, reforms to industrial labour were made including: cutting and regualting child labour; providing compulsory education for factory children; reducing the number of unjust fines; introducing a factory inspectorate to supervise living and working conditions; increase in wage pay. Therefore, Alexander III did see repression as the most effective tool of government yet he also saw the merits of social reform, which contarry to popular belief, he actually used to a fairly large extent.
Economic policy was another tool of government that was used frequently. One of the first major examples of Russia’s rulers using this tool was during the ‘Great Spurt’ of the 1890s. All in government recognised the need for modernisation to keep up with the developed western European powers. Therefore, Sergei Witte, Minister of Finance, led Russia onto the Gold Standard, which stablised the Russian currency. This was done to increase foreign investment in Russia, something which Russia’s alliance with France in 1894 and Entente with Britain in 1907 made easier. The Russian economy subsequently grew incredibly quickly, with an annual growth rate of 8% for many years. Economic policy can also be seen to be used towards the end of Nicholas II’s reign, in the form of Stolypin’s land reforms. The Peasants State Bank made all state and crown land available for purchase and allowed peasants to consolidate their land into single, more efficient holdings, in the hope that this would lead to an increase in productivity. Therefore, economic policy was an important tool of government during the 1890s and 1900s, and this was accompanied by a largely successful foreign policy as well.
Nicholas II viewed reform as an effective tool of government but only to be used in the short term. Whilst the October Manifesto might give the appearance that the Tsar thought reform to be a good tool, it was really just a short term solution that was overturned almost immediatley. In fact once the Manifesto came into being, the army was brought in to crush the soviets and after that the repression continued. The 1906 Fundamental Laws consolidated Nicholas’ power and authority, leading to a vigorous campaign against terrorists and revolutions. The repression during this period was so great that the hangman’s noose was renamed ‘Stolypin’s Necktie’. Nicholas can also be seen to have attempted to use foreing policy as a tool of government, through the Russo-Japanese War. It was hoped that the war would unite the country and avert attention from the various problems that the country was facing, as well as creating economic opportunities to exploit. Therefore, repression can be seen to be considered by Nicholas to be a more effective tool of government than political and social reform, and foreign policy can be seen to have figured on the Tsar’s mind as an effecitve measure.
Repression became even more of a common feature during the Lenin regime. During the Red Terror every area of life became subjected to increasingly rigorous control, with secret police agencies been developed by both Red and Whites. An assassination attempt on Lenin only made the situation worse, as the Cheka was let loose on all enemies of the revolution. Repression was also used by the regime during War Communism. The regime resorted to coercion and terror to get hold of vital grain supplies, with soldiers been sent to seize grain from the ‘kulaks’, supposedly rich peasants. However, economic policy was also used by Lenin, in the form of the New Economic Plan (NEP), in order to improve the economic, and particularly the agricultural, situation. This created a system of taxation whereby peasants would surrender a fixed percentage of grain priduced, with the remaineder been sold on the open market. Therefore, during the Lenin regime coercion and repression was a common theme and arguably the most effective tool of government as it helped the regime win the Civil War. However, economic policy in the form of the NEP was also an important tool of government, used to consolidate the regime’s postion.
Another tool of government used effectively by rulers of Russia, particularly Stalin, was propaganda. Lenin and the reevolutionaries had used the issues talked about in the April Theses to gain and hold onto power. Lenin denounced the bourgeois and attacked the old class-ridden Duma. This created anti-bourgeois sentiment and made the proletariat incredibly receptive towards the new regime. Propaganda was also used by Stalin in 1927 by advocating a ‘war scare’. This helped him put thorugh his proposals for the Five Year Plans and collectivisation as Russia needed to be self sufficient and build ‘socialism in one country’ if it was to survive the threat that the capitalist powers posed.
The Five Year Plans and the collectivisation of agriculture can be seen to be economic changes. These processes attempted to radically transform and improve the Russian economy through radical industrialisation and collectivisation of peasant farms. However, there was certainly a repressive side to the processes as well. In industry, opponents were labelled as ‘sabotuers’, leading to many experts and experienced managers been sent to labour camps. During collectivisation, force was only meants to be used against wealthy peasants, labelled Kulaks, but in reality anyone who opposed collectivisation was purged, leading to a wave of chaos, confusion and violence in the countryside. Therefore, it can be seen that even economic change as a tool of government was not able to stop repression and violence from taking hold.
The Great Purge is a clear example of where repression was considered the most effective tool of government. There was a massive purge of the party, leading to notable figures such as Bukharin been put on trial and executed. There was also a massive purge of the army with 14 out of 16 army commanders removed and 75 of 80 members of the Supreme Military Council been executed, a process which surved no military purpose, only political. Furthermore, there was also a purge of the people, where 1 in 18 were arrested and nearly every family experienced some sense of loss. Therefore, the Great Purge, under the regin of Stalin, can be considered to be the clearest example during the 109 year period of repression been used as the most effective tool of government.
The Cult of Stalin is another example of propaganda used as a tool of government. Stalin was able to use his incredible power that his image gave him to demand an instant return to the situation antte bellum. The country, including the party, was purged to improve ideological standards, which Stalin believed had corrupted the nation during the Great Patriotic War. Stalin was able to get rid of anyone who he wanted, with this most clearly been shown in the way in which he demoted the war hero General Zhukov. Therefore, propaganda, in the form of the Cult of Stalin, was a major political tool for Stalin after World War Two. It gave him vast unrivalled power, which was only eradicated after his death in 1953.
The Khrushchev era may be perhaps the only era of the 109 year period in which repression played a significantly lower part than other tools of government. The period after Stalin’s death was in fact known as ‘the Thaw’. Reforms were made including: granting citizens cheaper goods; the removal of tuition fees; improved pensions; a shortened working day; an increase in holiday entitlements. Furthermore, economic change took place, particularly in the agricultural sector, which ceased to be an exploited colony and in fact became a massive beneficiary of state subsidies. The Virgin Lands Initiative was one factor that helped this process, by cultivating 36 million hectares of land (equal to the total cultivated land of Canada). It would be naïve to suggest that repression wasn’t used during Khrushchev’s rule but it certainly was used far less frequently and on nowehere near the same scale as in previous periods. Therefore, the most effective tools of government during the Khrushchev era were social reforms and economic policy. Repression still operated but not in a way that it can be considered to be the most frequently used or important tool.
In conclusion, the tool of repression was consistently used throughout the period by Russia’s rulers, reaching is zenith under Stalin. However, arguably it featured very little under Khrushchev so to say that all rulers saw it as the most effective tool of government may be inaccurate. Other tools of government were also very important, most notably economic policy, social reform and propaganda, but these were not used as consistently as repression. Therefore, the majority of Russia’s rulers considered repression to be their most effective tool of government but by no means was it the only method they used.