Between 1855 and 1914, Russian opposition movements often exerted influence over the governments of Russia although they had mixed success in terms of influencing governments to reform the empire. In some cases they were able to gain concessions and benefits but on the other hand they were often ignored. In other cases opposition movements actually had the effect of convincing governments that reactionary measures were required, thereby resulting in a complete failure for the movements’ aims. Sometimes the oppo sition were capable of exerting a lot of influence but on other occasions they were unable to do so. By the end of the period, the level of influence that the opposition had with the regime had not permanently increased but its potential for doing so and even replacing the regime had dramatically increased.
Alexander II was keen to bring several reforms to Russia when he came to power in the 1850s. The main reason for this was the Crimean War, which had shown how backward Russia was compared to the strong European powers of Britain and France. The economy and army were clearly not working properly and Alexander put this down to the inefficient system of serfdom. Serfs paid most of the taxes and were responsible for producing Russia’s most valuable export, grain, so consequently they were a vital part of Russian society. If they were working inefficiently then the whole of the empire would feel the significant detrimental effects. Furthermore, serfs were the main source of recruits to the Russian army, the same one that had been so heavily beaten in the Crimea. Thence, Alexander decided to introduce the Emancipation decree in 1861, in an attempt to make serfs more efficient and thus make Russia a stronger world power. Other decrees during Alexander’s reign followed such as the legal reforms of 1864 and the army reforms of the 1870s. Whilst the decrees were largely ineffective in improving the efficiency of the serfs (the Emancipation decree in fact ended up putting many serfs in significant debt and with smaller land plots than before) the intention nevertheless existed to improve the situation for the serfs. Therefore, in the case of Alexander II’s early reforms, opposition movements did not wield much influence over the government and it was in fact the situation that Russia found itself in after the Crimean War that convinced the government to act.
Yet, this may be overlooking the importance of opposition. Peasants were suffering from a constant lack of food, caused by productivity growth not been able to match population growth. As a result, the number of outbreaks of peasant disobedience grew, ranging from insubordination to full-scale revolt. Between 1826 and 1834 there had been 148 outbreaks but between 1845 and 1854 this had increased to 348. Alexander himself recognised the peasant unrest and the effect that this could have on autocracy and the empire, leading him to describe the situation of serfdom as needing to be, “abolished from above so that it does not abolish itself from below.” Therefore, opposition movements in the shape of peasant rebellions had an impact on the government but it was arguably the Crimean War which speeded up the reform process and led to the reforms been much deeper than they would have otherwise have been.
The actions of opposition movements also had unintended consequences. Revolutionaries such as Dmitry Karakazov, who attempted to shoot Alexander II, started trying to use violent methods to bring about reform in Russia later in Alexander’s reign. However the spate of increased violence only sought to convince Alexander to increase repression, more as a means of personal protection than anything else. Surveillance was increased, the newly established zemstva were forbidden from communicating with each other, leading radical journals were shut down and pressure was placed on courts to interpret laws in the government’s favour. However, there is an argument that Alexander had already reached the limit of what he wanted to reform and that he was prepared to revert back to a traditional autocratic tsar. Yet, he probably wouldn’t have wanted to have undone many of his reforms, such as the greater autonomy given to universities, just because he was ‘finished’ with reforming as this would completely undermine all the work he had completed so far. Therefore, the threat to the tsar’s life, and therefore to the future of autocracy, that the violent revolutionaries exerted had a strong influence on Alexander wanting to increase repression and state intervention in the 1870s. Thence, whilst change came about it was obviously not the change the revolutionaries wanted.
The terror campaign that the revolutionaries subsequently carried out as a result of Alexander’s reactionary policies did eventually have the effect of bringing about reforms though. Once it was seen that the repressive measures that had been undertaken were not working to defend autocracy, Alexander sought to bring back reformist policies. Proposals were made for duma and zemstva representatives to be able to analyse proposed laws and submit views to the Council of State and tsar. However, the assassination of Alexander in 1881 prevented it from coming into effect. Thus, the radical revolutionaries certainly exerted a lot of influence over the governments but ultimately the influence that they exerted was detrimental to their aims. They were successful in both preventing reform, as their actions caused the government alarm in the late 1860s, but also in achieving it in the beginning of the 1880s. Therefore, they effectively wasted a decade in which Alexander’s early reforms could have taken shape with more moderate campaigners then being able to show the tsar why they might need reforming further.
Opposition movements during Alexander II’s reign were not solely violent. Many groups existed which wanted to attain reform through rational means, such as the Narodniks (Populists). The Narodnicks were disappointed with the limited reforms that Alexander had brought in so decided to preach their ideas to the peasants. However, there were three main problems that they encountered: peasants had just won the right to own property through emancipation so were against communal ownership; religion meant that the vast majority were still completely faithful to the tsar; the peasants simply weren’t educated enough to understand what they were been told. As a result, the Narodnicks could not garner enough support to be able to gain significant influence. Nevertheless, their activity did help encourage Alexander to bring about the reforms of 1880-81 so whilst they were for the most part irrelevant, the group did finally score some, albeit eventually fruitless, success.
Outrage and shock at the murder of Alexander II swept across Russia in 1881. It may seem quite obvious that this would make the successor to the throne want to bring in many repressive measures to avenge his father’s death. That is exactly what Alexander III did but he probably would have done so even without the actions of the extremist groups. His natural instincts, nurtured through his education by the strict conservative Konstantin Pobedonostsev, led to him being very much against the reformist ideas of his father, as he believed that they undermined autocracy. Nevertheless, the violence at the end of his father’s reign gave Alexander a strong excuse for his counter reforms and reactionary policies and meant that he could implement them with little opposition as most Russians were mourning the death of the tsar.The Statute of State Security, which allowed government to interfere with civil liberties, and the creation of the Okhrana secret police were quickly introduced and soon many revolutionaries were forced into exile. Therefore, the extremist opposition groups may not have caused Alexander III to think the way he did but they did create circumstances in which Alexander could exploit.
Whilst Alexander III was mainly a reactionary tsar he did introduce some notable reformist policies such as the abolition of poll tax and the creation of the Peasants Land Bank, which whilst it may have created the possibility of increased debt for the peasants, allowed for them to increase their share of land. These policies were mainly motivated by Alexander’s desire to protect autocracy and to keep Russia as a first-rate power. He wanted to make sure that the peasants were productive enough so that Russia could grow whilst also creating stability within, as peasants would have nothing to complain about. Therefore, it can be seen that it was the tsar who was controlling policy and reforms would only be granted if the tsar thought it would benefit the empire and autocracy. Under Alexander III, opposition groups were simply repressed so severely that they were unable to command much influence over what policies should entail. However, the fact that Alexander wanted to create policies that would prevent unrest suggests that opposition had a strong influence over the priorities of government, making them want to create policies that would prevent opposition from being a threat.
The industrialisation process that started under Alexander III and began to take off under Nicholas II was instrumental in creating large waves of unrest across Russia in the late 1890s. The poor living and working conditions for industrial workers, coupled with the fact that the Peasant’s Land Bank was not working due to massive population growth, led to a large increase in strike action and protest movements. The unrest culminated in ‘Bloody Sunday’ in March 1905, where police murdered peaceful protestors. This coupled with simmering dissatisfaction resulting from a humiliating loss to Japan in the Russo-Japanese war the year before triggered mass rebellion, mutiny and violence across the country. The anger was only stemmed once the government agreed to a wide array of concessions, including the establishment of a national law making ‘duma’, civil rights freedoms and the legalisation of trade unions in the ‘October Manifesto’. Many of the revolutionaries (most of whom were this time more peaceful) accepted the government’s pledge and subsided. However, Nicholas announced the ‘Fundamental Laws’ in 1906, which effectively got rid of all pledges that had been made the year before. This shows that whilst the opposition were capable enough of extracting revolutionary pledges from the government, they were too weak to be able to influence them enough to force them to keep to their promises.
The main reason why the Fundamental Laws were barely challenged was due to the ineptitude of the opposition parties. The RSDCP was having difficulties with an internal power struggle between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and membership declined dramatically from 150,000 in 1905 to 10,000 by 1914. The SR party opposed standing in the duma and then found that a police spy was the head of the group. Meanwhile, the Kadets could not make any headway because the system of the duma was fixed to favour the government’s natural conservative supporters and the Octobrists had decided that the government’s concessions had been enough, although they still offered some criticism of the regime. As a result the influence that these parties had on the government was unsurprisingly small and thus the regime carried on almost as if nothing had happened.
In conclusion, although sometimes detrimental, opposition movements were capable of exerting quite a lot of influence over the various Russian governments between 1855 and 1914, although it was not very consistent. There were periods where other factors such as the Crimean War and the desperation to protect autocracy influenced the regime more but the most part opposition had the greatest influence over the period. However, the opposition was often not powerful enough to be able to build upon their progress and as a result autocracy was able to survive. It wasn’t until the 20th century that opposition movements had developed to the degree that the overthrow of the government was a possibility but even then they were not capable of offering a viable alternative to tsardom due to a lack of unity amongst the revolutionaries. For the regime to be overthrown, it could be argued that the 1905 revolution needed to be defeated so that the regime would have lost a lot of its authority. This would make another revolution more likely to succeed because the revolutionaries simply wouldn’t accept any government concessions, due to what had happened with the Fundamental Laws, and would sweep into power. All that was needed was another crisis, such as World War One.