War was an important cause of change in Russia during the period 1855-1964 and arguably was the most important cause but it was certainly not the only one. Other factors such as the influence of key individuals played a great part in determining change in Russia and should be considered to be very important as well.
One area where war was clearly the most important cause of change was in the reforms of Alexander II. Russia had been heavily defeated in the Crimean war by the British and the French. This was very embarrassing for the Russians and clearly showed that Russia was backward and couldn’t stand up to the modern European powers. The peasants, who were the main source of recruits for the Russian army that had been so comprehensively defeated at the Crimea, were seen as crucial to Russia’s weakness. As a result, several reforms took place. Most notably, there was the emancipation of the serfs, where serfdom was abolished and serfs had to right to own property. However, there was also reform to local government (zemstvas made responsible for local affairs), to education (class bias removed) and to the legal system. Therefore, it can be seen that war was the catalyst for this wave of reforms as it highlighted to the regime the necessity of changing the country.
However, it can be seen that war was not a factor for the changes that took place under Alexander III. In fact, Alexander managed to avoid war during his reign. Instead, the main catalyst for change during this period was Alexander himself. The tsar’s ideology was that autocracy must be preserved at all costs. He opposed his father’s reforms and views, largely due to the fact that his tutor as a child was the notable conservative, Pobedonostsev, somebody who had described parliamentary democracy as ‘the great lie of our time’. This conservative ideological belief led to Alexander bringing in many counter-reforms to overturn much of the work of his father. The Statute of State Security in 1881 was the most notable counter reform, leading to the Okhrana secret police being formed. Furthermore, the University Statute, reversed the work that Alexander II had done to give universities more autonomy by establishing state control over them. Over counter-reforms included extending the powers of the Ministry of Justice and developing the policy of Russification. Therefore, it can be seen that it was Alexander III’s personal ideological beliefs, and not war, that led to change in Russia, with change in this instance being one of regression rather than progression.
The period known as the Great Spurt was a period of immense economic growth for Russia. However, this was not caused directly by war either. The reason for the increased industrialisation came from the Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte, who undertook a number of policies, including bringing Russia onto the Gold Standard, increasing foreign investment and imposing high tariffs. The result was a massive increase in foreign investment to the extent that half of all investment cam from abroad, leading to annual growth rates of 8% per year. Oil production went up 243% and the overall value of output doubled in ten years. Therefore, it can be seen that war the cause of this incredible change came largely from the policies of one man, Witte. Although, this may be too much of a generalisation. The recognition that industrialisation was needed has been around for a long time, since the Crimean War, so it can be seen that the Crimean War indirectly led to the Great Spurt as it had been the thing that had highlighted the need for such a process to take place.
The 1905 revolution has been said to have been caused by the immense opposition that had built up over time. However, the real cause for the revolution was the incompetence of the regime to deal with the issues that it faced. The apparent stability and benefits of industrialisation were actually something of a chimera. There were terrible living and working conditions and severe unrest caused by the government’s heavy-handed response to strikes and trade unions. The government’s inability/unwillingness to change this led to revolution and the October Manifesto, which established a law-making Duma, granted basic civil rights and legalised trade unions. The opposition had been weak and fragmented and it had taken a crisis to lead to any sort of revolution. However, the change was only short-lived and not long afterwards, the situation reverted back to how it had been before. Therefore, the cause of the 1905 revolution, which produced change, albeit temporary change, was the result of circumstances created by the government’s incompetence. War had played a part, namely the disaster that was the Russo-Japanese War, but it was just a small part of the government’s failure to address any of the socio-economic issues that had emerged before the revolution.
An obvious case where war was the catalyst for change was the revolutions of 1917, caused by World War One. The war caused a social and economic crisis with the national debt increasing from 4 million roubles to 30 million roubles, food and fuel prices increasing by almost 400% and food supplies being almost non-existent for many people. This desperate situation allowed for revolutionary elements to take control fairly easily from a regime that had lost all control of the situation. Therefore, it can be seen that war was the major cause of the 1917 revolutions that toppled the tsarist regime.
War was also a cause of the change to war communism and then the NEP. The civil war head meant that the new regime had to secure and maintain control over the resources that it needed to defeat its enemies. This led to the regime taking control over the means of production and thus started the process of War Communism. However, as the agricultural economy soon became devastated it became clear that War Communism was contributing to a deterioration in support for the regime. Consequently, the NEP was adopted, which meant that peasants sold a fixed percentage of the grain produced and then sold the rest on the open market. Therefore, it can be seen that war, in the form of the civil war, caused the change to War Communism and then the subsequent change to the NEP.
The changes that occurred under Khrushchev after 1953 were again down to the role of an individual, although in a very different manner to the other individuals mentioned previously. Instead of change being caused by the actions of an individual, it was caused by the fact that an individual was no longer alive; this individual was Joseph Stalin. Stalin’s death allowed the Soviet regime to undertake a range of measures that due to Stalin’s immense personal power had not been possible before. Just a month after Stalin’s death, price cuts of up to 10% were announced on a broad swathe of consumer goods, including food and clothing. Further concessions were then made over the next few months. The consequence of this was to raise living standards. In 1953, standards had been equal to 1928 but in 1958 the index of consumption had risen to 185 (with 1928/53 being 100). None of this would have been possible if Stalin had been alive due to the former leader’s resistance to such projects and the fear that anybody had to go against him. Therefore, it can again be seen that the influence of one individual, or in this case the lack of influence, was vital to causing change in Russia.
Overall, war was certainly a major catalyst for change in Russia between 1855 and 1964. As has been shown, war played a part in nearly all periods of change in Russian history during the period, and had a big impact on many of them as well as smaller impacts in other periods. That is why it should be considered to be the most important factor but the influence of individuals is certainly not far behind in terms of importance. Other factors also played their part, most notably the incompetency of the tsarist regime to be able to deal with issues. Therefore, it should be seen that war was the most important cause of change, with individuals having a similarly important effect and other factors playing a smaller but by no means insignificant role as well.