Russian Empire, 1855-1881

Administration . Foreign Policy . Domestic Policy . The Economy . Demography . Culture

A.) Administration

Czar : Alexander II. (1855-1881); Chairman of the Committee of Ministers : Alexey Fyodorovich Orlov 1856-1861, Dmitry Nikolaevich Bludov 1861-1864, Pavel Pavlovich Gagarin 1864-1865, Alexander Mikhailovich Gorschakov 1865-1872, Pavel Nikolaevich Ignatyev 1872-1877, Pyotr Aleksandrovich Valuev 1877-1881,

B.) Foreign Policy

Alliances . In 1848/1849, Russia selflessly had sent their tropps to help the Austrian Emperor crush the revolution in Hungary; in 1853 Austria refused to come to Russia's aid, when Russia found herself attacked by an Anglo-French coalition in the Crimean War. Newly crowned Czar Alexander II. drew the conclusion of ending support for the Holy Alliance, the principal supporter of which Russia had been.
In 1863 the second Polish Rebellion broke out. Prussia closed its borders to Polish refugees, an act Russia responded to by remaining neutral during the wars leading to German unification (German-Danish War 1864, Prusso-Austrian War 1866, Franco-German War 1870/71).
In 1870/71 Prussia and her allies defeated France, Bismarck created the German Empire as the new leading power on the European continent. In 1872 Germany, Austria and Russia joined the League of the Three Emperors, conceived as a defensive alliance against France (not too seriously taken on Austria's side, which did not give up the idea of taking revenge herself for 1866 until 1879). A first Russo-German military convention on mutual defense in case of one of them being attacked was signed in 1873.

B.) The Balkans . The spirit of Nationalism had reached the Orthodox christian peoples living under Ottoman rule on the Balkans peninsula, which Russia since the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji (1774) claimed to protect. In 1876 and 1877 the Bulgarians rose in rebellion, rebellions which were quickly suppressed with extraordinary brutality by the Janissaries. Russia offered Austria a concerted action against the Ottoman Empire, as a result of which the Ottoman Empire's European possessions should be partitioned among the two. Austria declined. Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire, defeated the Turkish forces. In the Peace of San Stefano, the Ottoman Empire had to concede the creation of a large, independent Bulgarian state.
The British government was not willing to accept the new situation. With the threat of a repetition of the Crimean War looming, Bismarck invited the powers to send their diplomats to Berlin (the Berlin Cngress), where a new peace arrangement was signed, providing for a much smaller Bulgaria. Russia regarded the conference a loss of face.

C.) Asia . In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States, a purchase then severely criticized by U.S. Congress as wasteful ('Seward's ice-box').
Russia turned its view eastward. In 1858 the Amur Teritory was acquired from China in the Treaty of Aigun, in 1860 the Maritime Province in the Treaty of Peking. In the Maritime Province, the port city of Vladivostok was founded that year. Sakhalin was annexed in 1875, Japan's approval being gained by recognizing Japan's claims to the Kuril islands.
In 1859/1861, Chechnya finally was subjugated after a long war. In 1878 at the Berlin Congress Russia had been ceded the Vilayet of Kars, a territory mainly populated by Armenian christians (lost to Turkey in 1918/23). With this, Russian expansion in the Caucasus region reached its furthest limit.
In 1865, Russian forces occupied Tashkent. In 1868 a protectorate was proclaimed over the Emirate of Bukhara, and the Khanate of Samarkand was annexed. In 1871 Russian forces occupied the Ili Terrotory (evacuated 1881, when it reverted to Chinese rule). In1873 Russia proclaimed a protectorate over the Emirate of Khiva, in 1876 Russia annexed the Khanate of Kokand.

C.) Domestic Policy

When Alexander II. succeeded to the throne in 1855, the Crimean War was still going on. Technologically, Russia was backward, threatened to fall ever more behind. In order to catch up with rapidly industrializing England, things had to be changed.
Although not being a liberal, Alexander II., described as a man of short temper, engaged on a policy of thorough reforms. A peace treaty was signed in 1856 ending the Crimean War. In 1861 Alexander II. an act accomplished the Liberation of the Serfs, villages of whom were given adequate land, purchased from the nobles (the former owners of the serfs); as the ex-serfs had little to no money, 80 % of the land price was paid by the Russian government and had to be repaid over a period of 49 years (Redemption). In 1864 local and regional administration was reformed in the Zemstvo Act; the Zemstvo assemblies, elected, were to take responsibility for affairs in their respective region, such as road maintenance, hospitals, prisons, mail service, schools; they were to promote trade in the region. The Judicial Reform (1864) introduced a number of institutions shaped after western European models, such as trial by jury, representation by counsel for the accused; torture and physical punishments such as flogging were forbidden. Reforms in education (1863/64) were intended to open up universities to non-nobles and turn them into modern centers of science and study; a new censorship law of 1865 freed books over 10 pages of required presentation to the censor. The number of primary schools was extended. An Army Reform was to make the army more efficient
Another important reform was the Budget Reform of 1861 - all the reforms previously listed had to be paid for. This was accomplished by raising taxes, taking loans from foreign banks. The Russian government promoted the construction of Railroads (for which, again, Russia relied heavily on foreign investment).

While the reforms were welcomed by many Russian intellectuals, Russia was still a very autocratic state, limiting political participation of her subjects to the Zemstvo level. There were a number of political groups criticizing the political system; the radical Nihilists even advocated the assassination of those who were responsible for an administration they regarded oppressive and evil. Political Nihilism - a theory blaming the state authority for abuse of power and social misery - began in Russia in 1862, had turned violent in 1866 and organized a series of assassination attempts since 1877. In 1881 a group of them succeeded in assassinating Alexander II..
The Polish Rebellion of 1863 (which had extended into Lithuania) had lead the Russian administration to rethink their policy on religion and nationalities. The Catholic church was blamed for supporting the rebels; a policy of Russification included the Catholic dioceses forcibly placed under the Russian Orthodox Church, the introduction of Russian as language of education, an administrative reform etc. Polish noblemen in Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine were deported, their estates confiscated, resettled with Russian or local peasants. This policy alienated the nationalities and, in the cases of Lithuania and Belarus, was responsible for causing Lithuanian etc. nationalism to emerge.

D.) The Economy

For her industrial expansion, for keeping up a large army, for the many political reforms Russia needed money. Much of the money for Russia's railways etc. was raised in form of loans abroad.
Alexander II.'s reforms were well-intended, but threatened to over-extend Russia's ability to pay for them. The peasants often were unable to pay their redemption dues; the massive international debts were a constant strain on Russia's finances, and the war of 1877/1878, although militarily a brilliant success, was too much for Russia to handle; she had to default on her debt payments. The industrialization took off; the mining industry expanded, particularly the Oil industry (Baku) went through a boom.
When Alexander ascended to the throne, Russia had a combined total of c. 1,000 km of railroads. In 1860 it were 1,626 km, from then on growing rapidly, to 3,842 km in 1865, 10,731 km in 1870, 19,029 km in 1875, 22,865 km in 1880; Russia's railroad network still being shorter than those of highly industrialized - and considerably smaller - nations such as the United Kingdom and Germany.
Russia's output of pig iron had increased from 251,000 metric tons in 1855 to 359,000 metric tons in 1870 and 449,000 metric tons in 1880, only a fraction of what the industries of the United Kingdom (7,873,000) and Germany (2,468,000) were producing (1880). Russia's figures, in comparison, are even worse when it comes to the output of her coal mines - 0.3 million metric tons in 1860, 3.3 million in 1880 compared to 149 million (UK), 59.1 million (Germany).

The pace of industrialization was faster in Russia than in the industrialized nations of western Europe. Russia, however, had to cope with a number of problems - a population that grew faster than those in the industrialized nations (1855 : 71.1 million, 1870 : 84.5 million, 1880 : 97.7 million), an infrastructure which was clearly inferior (railroad net density), vast distances and an adverse climate, lack of skilled labour and qualified engineers, and a comparatively weak domestic market - the peasants and workers had little money to spend.

Russian Government Revenue and Expenditure, 1855-1881
Source : B.R. Mitchell, International Historical Statistics 1750-1988, pp. 798, 814
figures in Russian Silver Roubles







F.) Culture

The political background - Autocracy, Censorship and a Secret Police suspicious of liberal-minded intellectuals continued, although Czar Alexander II. was perceived by many as a liberal reformer.
Russia's writers - Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, Anton Chekhov turned out novels respectively short stories which gained fame at home and abroad. By describing the socio-political conditions as they were they did so much to have the reader critically judge them, as censorship permitted.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) began the tradition of great Russian composers; similar to those of contemporary composers (Verdi, Wagner) his operas focussed on topics from the nation's history - Boris Godunov (1869/70, in Russian language). Other composers of the time include Nikolay Rimsky Korsakov (1855-1908) and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893); through their effort, Russia caught up with the traditional centres of classical music, in an art which enjoyed support from official side. In 1862 the St. Petersburg State Conservatory was founded as the first institution of its kind in Russia.
Russia's painters Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) and Alexey Bogoliubov (1824-1896) chose topics from Russia's military history and sceneries in and around Greece. Ilya Repin (1844-1930) painted portraits and scenes depicting the life of Russia's peasants.

Article Nihilism, from Catholic Encyclopedia
Reform and Reaction under Alexander II. and III., by G. Rempel
Article Turkestan, from Catholic Encyclopedia 1912 edition
L.S. Stavrianos, Balkan Crisis and the Treaty of Berlin 1878, posted by Serbian Unity
Kevin Fink, The Beginnings of Railways in Russia, 1991
The History of Oil in Azerbaijan, from Azerbaijan International
Industrial Revolution in Baku and the Founding of the Azerbaijan Republic, from ITSC Nasiraddin Tusi
Russian Monetary System. Historical Overview : Alexander II. (1855-1881), by Andrey D. Ukhrov
DOCUMENTS List of Russia's Chief Ministers etc., from World Rulers by Ben Cahoon
Historical maps featuring the Russian Empire, from FEEFHS
Peter Kropotkin on the Assassination of Czar Alexander II. (publ. 1908), from SHSU
Portrait of Alexander II. (1850), from Helsinki University Museum
Medal : Visit of Czar Alexander II to London, 1874, from Medal Web, Collection Benjamin Weiss
Russian silver coins issued under Alexander II. and III., from S. Sekine's Collection
REFERENCE Reforms and Reaction, pp.260-293, in : Melvin C. Wren, The Course of Russian History, Prospect Heights 1994
John Channon and Robert Hudson, European Russia, 1801-1881, and Economic Development, in : , The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia, London : Penguin 1995, pp.68-71
Article : Russia, in : Statesman's Year Book 1878 pp.363-399 (on events of 1877) [G]
Article : Russia, in : The American Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events 1862 pp.749-751, 1864 pp.727-731 [G]
John S.C. Abbott, The Empire of Russia, from the Remotest Period to the Present Time (1859), posted online by Gutenberg Library Online

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on March 28th 2008

Click here to go Home
Click here to go to Information about KMLA, WHKMLA, the author and webmaster
Click here to go to Statistics

Impressum · Datenschutz