Russia: Tsarist and Communist

By Anatole G. Mazour | Go to book overview

19
The Reign of Nicholas II: Early Period (1894-1903)

NOVEMBER 1, 1894, is a landmark in Russian history, registering the beginning of the end of autocracy. Yet the historical significance of that date was little realized by the new tsar, Nicholas II, who feebly took over the rule of the Empire, with unshakable faith in the perpetuation of autocratic sovereignty. When in January 1895 delegations came to congratulate the young sovereign on his marriage, a Zemstvo delegation from Tver voiced its hope 'that the voice of the people and the expression of its desires would be listened to, . . . that henceforward the law not only [would] be obeyed by the people, but also by the authorities that govern the people'. The reply of Nicholas II, undoubtedly inspired by Pobedonostsev, stunned the nation. Amid official platitudes, two sentences sounded with an ominous ring: one spoke of the intention of Nicholas II 'to maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unswervingly as did my late and unforgettable father'; the other was in the form of fatherly advice not to be carried away by 'senseless dreams' of Zemstvo participation in national affairs. The reply was nothing less than a slap at the Zemstvo representatives and an open challenge to the political consciousness of the people. It implied that autocratic bureaucracy intended to remain in power and make no concessions to constitutionalism. And the lesson derived from the ill-timed manifesto was that autocracy would not give in unless forced to do so by a political revolution. Even the mild liberal elements in the Zemstvos who hoped by legal means to bring about constitutional changes realized that official obduracy could be overcome by only an equally determined opposition. In an open letter those who reached this view expressed their reaction to Nicholas II's declaration. It read:1

You have told your mind, and your words will be known to all Russia, to all the civilized world. Until now nobody knew you; since yesterday you became a 'definite quantity,' and 'senseless dreams' are no longer possible on your account. We do not know whether you clearly understand the situation created by your 'firm' utterance. . . . Unhappily, your unfortunate expression is not a mere slip of language, not an occasional lapse; it reflects a deliberative system. Russian society realizes very well that not an ideal autocrat has spoken to them January 29, but a bureaucracy jealous of its omnipotence. . . . If autocracy in word and deed proclaims itself identical with the omnipotence of bureaucracy, if it can exist only so long as society is voiceless, its cause is lost. It digs its own grave,

____________________
1
Cited by P. Miliukov, Russia and Its Crisis, 327-28.

-314-

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