Russia's 1st Revolution

By Morison, John | History Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Russia's 1st Revolution


Morison, John, History Review


Russia remained quiescent during 1848, Europe's turbulent year of revolutions. Yet this was as much a tribute to its backwardness as to the repressive capacity of its regime. It was very different by the end of the century. Russia's humiliation in the Crimean War (1853-56) threatened its great power status. Whereas Peter the Great had an absolutist model to follow in the ruthless centralisation that made Russia into a great power, Alexander II (Tsar in 1855-81) was reluctant to embrace a democratic model for his post-Crimean reform process. He hoped to combine the retention of political absolutism in its Russian autocratic form with economic and social modernisation. This reformed autocratic model was surprisingly successful if judged in such terms as economic growth, educational expansion and public health improvements. However, it was accompanied by a changing and underlying pattern of social tensions.

The towns: growth and unrest

A torrent of state encouraged but privately organised railway construction in the 1860s and 1870s was followed by a sustained state-sponsored campaign. Railways, along with the telegraph, facilitated and speeded the transmission of news, information and ideas, not all supportive of the established order. Railways were the motor of industrial development, not only creating a large new demand for coal, steel rails and rolling stock but also facilitating the movement of raw materials and finished goods. They accelerated urbanisation as expanding trade and new industries were supported by a flood of migrants from the countryside both into existing towns and into new urban settlements. New rail links with the grain-producing provinces of black soil Russia thus made Odessa into a great grain exporting port and a trade and industrial centre for the south. A state contract for the production of rails enabled the Welsh entrepreneur John Hughes to build his own factory town, Iuzovka, which developed into the modern steel city of Donetsk. The urban population doubled from 7.3 to 14.6 million between 1867 and 1897. Barracks in factory compounds, doss houses and shanty towns were thrown up to accommodate the new arrivals in appalling and overcrowded conditions. Up to ten persons could be crammed into a room in St. Petersburg. The elected municipal authorities had their hands tied by central government and were unable to provide adequate transport, drainage and sewerage facilities or pure water supplies. Typhus, cholera and other diseases flourished and syphilis became rampant as the number of prostitutes grew to cater for the sexual appetites of the inflow of young, unattached males.

The factories and workshops which sucked in the new arrivals from the villages were harsh and uninviting places. The migrants were confronted by an unrelenting work regime of long hours and harsh discipline, very different from that of the countryside. They deeply resented the arbitrary fines and petty injustices, and being addressed in the familiar form, reminiscent of the days of serfdom. Wages might be higher than rural earnings, but so were outgoings. Frustration at expectations which were not met were compounded by problems of adjustment, insecurity and perceived injustices. The migrants tended to be the younger and more literate peasants, who were more open to outside influences. They brought with them a tradition of violence from the villages where horse thieves were routinely lynched, and a favourite pastime was the ritual punch-up between the youths of rival villages. Often vodka-fuelled, this was an explosive cocktail. Increasing labour unrest accompanied industrial growth. Initially strikes tended to be localised, based on specific grievances, confined to individual workshops rather than whole factories, and short in duration. The large-scale strike of the St. Petersburg textile workers in 1896 was a turning point in the development of a more coherent workers' movement which was beginning also to embrace political objectives under the influence of increasing agitation by revolutionary groups and of its own experience. …

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