Tsars and Strikes, Part 2: Cossacks to Comrades

So, where we last left off (about 1584, if you’re interested), Russia was looking successful, if a little oppressed. Powerful, expansive, but under the iron rule of an oppressive autocrat (oh god, feel like I’m talking about the USSR already), the Russian Empire was fully prepared to stretch east into the steppes of Asia and create the largest land empire since…well, since the empire of their Mongol oppressors. The Renaissance had arrived in full force and culture was flourishing across the brand new nation as huge, holy onion-things were built alongside grand imperial palaces and the ruins of everywhere that stood in the Empire’s way. Things were looking good, for the emperor at least…until the Poles got involved.


Congratulations! Your POLAND evolved into POLAND-LITHUANIA!

Poland and Russia have never been on good terms, but their relationship is perhaps a little less one-sided than you’d think. For years before they got involved in Russia, the Polish had dominated everything East of the Holy Roman Empire – bashing pagans in the Baltic, inheriting duchies around Belarus, actually resisting the Mongols unlike so many of their neighbours – and were often called an empire in their own right. And because of their myriad disagreements with Russia – Catholic vs. Orthodox, Feudal vs. Autocratic, Poland should own Russia vs. Russia should own Russia – they were constantly looking for ways to bring down their eastern cousin. The death of Ivan the Terrible and the crowning of Feodor I, a Tsar whose mental disabilities made him much more interested in ringing church bells and playing with clowns than ruling, they saw their perfect chance to strike. The result was the Time of Troubles, an era that cost Russia a third of its population through famine, chaos and war with Poland. Eastern European nobles launched almost constant campaigns against the Tsardom, each claiming to be Ivan IV’s long lost son and each bringing with them huge hired armies that tore up and oppressed the country like the lovechild of the Mongols and the Oprichnina. This would have killed many a nation. But Russia found its salvation in its mercantile past.


The main benefit of the Russian Enlightenment for the serfs was, of course, looking at the elite class being all fancy in their new coats.

For a nation built from trade routes, it seems fitting that it should be saved by a group of merchants. Under the leadership of a butcher and a prince (surely the first mismatched crime fighting duo in history) the Russian monarchy reasserted themselves, this time under the control of the Romanov family, who would be the second and last ruling dynasty of the empire. This time around, things were a little different in the empire – in came the Enlightenment, scientific Northern European sister to the Renaissance, which brought with it a wave of science, technology and philosophy that would change next-to everything about European life. And just as the Renaissance was embraced by Ivan the Terrible, the Enlightenment was embraced by Peter the Great, first of the Romanovs, rationalist and reformer extraordinaire. While a great deal of his “progressive” actions look strange in hindsight – he had a vendetta against that so old-fashioned of institutions, the beard, and so enforced shaving across the empire – he brought the technology Russia needed to remain a world power, from military technology that would win Russia yet more land in Europe to the administrative system that could keep it there. 40 years later, Russia (under Catherine the Great, who is unfortunately more famous for having sex with the original Casanova than the extraordinary feat of being a successful and mostly benevolent autocrat in a world of imperious men) would swallow its old enemy Poland in the West, even colonise Alaska in the East. Things were clearly good in Russia. But a new storm was coming, and this one would create more social change than the Renaissance and the Enlightenment put together.

The Industrial Revolution was made for some countries. The British Empire had huge amounts of coal to power factories, and a strong democratic and capitalist system that encouraged profitable new technology. France had an upper class of revolutionary thinkers and philosophers and a working class of urban, literate craftsmen. But Russia still had an absolute regime based on a tiny enlightened elite and a huge peasant class of rural and illiterate workers, one that even still operated under the serf system that had been created by everyone’s favourite despot some two centuries before. Industrial Revolution did not come and class unrest rose as more people questioned Russia’s status – huge but backwards, it still seemed like the Renaissance remnant of a 15th century reshuffle, with a bit more Siberia and a few less beards. It goes without saying that this unrest, this resistance to move with the times, would lead to…well, not nice things in the long term. Russia made progress, of course, and by abolishing serfdom in 1861 it almost started the Russian Industrial Revolution overnight, but the tensions of an increasingly urban working class only increased. They had only gone from slaves to wage slaves, in their eyes, and now they weren’t even guaranteed land to work on. To them, Russia needed an end to the class system that had been established in the old Grand Duchies, and in a world without any elected officials, any working or middle class representation, the seeds of revolution were already sewn.


The one thing that united the revolutionary groups was an appreciation of how freaking terrible the Tsar was.

In 1917, it all sort of happened at once. Three movements emerged at once in opposition to the incompetence of the Tsar and his outdated system: peasant revolts, parliamentary opposition and worker’s revolts. They all wanted the system that would work best for them – the peasants generally wanted a system of very, very local government where land belonged to everyone; parliament wanted an intensely liberal and tolerant society with parliament in charge, the workers wanted something weird and Western called Communism. You can guess who won. That’s right, parliament. Seriously. For a few short months after the Tsar abdicated, Russia was run by an amazingly liberal, free-press-and-free-speech loving parliament. But Russia hasn’t got a good record on liberal movements. The army still wanted peace, the workers still wanted bread, the peasants still wanted land. Eventually, a small communist party, once discredited for their anti-war, autocratic views, made promises that appealed to all three parties. Their motto was “Peace, Bread, Land”. And their leader was Vladimir Lenin.  The new Soviet Republic – so named for the districts called Soviets or self-governing communes that it divided the country into – survived, Lenin (somewhat ironically) using all the same techniques Ivan the Terrible had used to create his empire 500 years previously – secret policemen; brutal treatment of political enemies; terrible, terrible choice of heir. For all the progress of the Russian Enlightenment, it was returned to a system of autocracy and corruption. The main difference was that anyone in Russia could rise through the ranks do do the oppressing. For many, that wad the best that they could hope for.

Communist RussiaIn the end, Russia was left – along with the other states in the USSR – in the same rut it was in under the Ivans: oppressed by an autocrat, at constant war, and, most ironically of all, with laws that tied the peasants to their farmland. It’s definitely worth a Holistic History of its own someday. Now, of course, communism has fallen, but the transition has led millions into poverty with little to no financial assistance and there’s talk of whether the new system is democratic at all. Even now, it seems Ivan, Peter, Katerina’s legacy of control and aristocracy lives on. Maybe it always will.


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