Russia: From Monarchism to Communismby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Describe changes in Russian government beginning with Czar Nicholas II to the Bolsheviks under Lenin and then Stalin.
Russia was one of the few countries to still have a monarch in the early 20th century. Ideas of government had changed the face of the rest of Europe. The Russian people’s discontentment had slowly increased. Revolution was imminent.
The Czars were the first to completely unify the Russian city-states. Since Ivan the Terrible became the first to take the title Czar in 1547, the Romanov dynasty had kept absolute power to itself. What power the Russian Orthodox Church held claim to slowly dwindled, and by the end of the rule of Peter the Great, disappeared completely. It became a puppet for the Russian Czars to manipulate, and the Czars often made reforms in the name of the Church. The majority of the Russian people and indeed the Czars themselves believed that the Romanovs were appointed by God to rule the vast area of land under the authority of the Holy Russian Empire. Few attempts were made by the Czars to create a regime where power was shared with the common people. This continued until the reign of Czar Nicholas II, the man known as the “Last Czar”.
When Czar Nicholas II began his reign in 1894, Russia was buzzing with ideas of a new government. The upper class intellectuals had been finding Western ideas of constitutional government attractive. These and other concepts had swept through Europe like wildfire, and they struck Russia with full force. The peasants grew tired of the serfdom imposed on them since Peter the Great, and discontentment among factory workers also increased. Czar Nicholas II ruled at a time that would have been challenging for any sovereign. Unfortunately, he was not a strong ruler, and simply lacked the skills to govern the large expanse of his empire. He firmly believed he was God’s anointed, and therefore knew what was best for Russia. He refused to institute the reforms desired by many people. Many factors contributed to his downfall. He made the disastrous decision to go to war with Japan, where Russia suffered humiliating defeats that shook the people’s faith in the Czar. He frequently acted on bad advice given by ministers he chose and by his wife, or did not act on good advice. The royal household was scandalized by the presence of Rasputin, an immoral monk who had healing powers. The royal family welcomed his presence, because they believed he could heal the crown prince, who was afflicted with hemophilia. The public did not know the reasons, and unsavory rumors regarding Rasputin’s corrupt lifestyle began circulating. To make matters worse, the Russian economy was on the verge of collapse. In January 1905, thousands of industrial workers peacefully demonstrated in St. Petersburg, desiring the Czar to respond to the petitions that an Orthodox monk had written up. Soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators, killing and wounding hundreds. August 1914 found Russia heavily involved in World War One, drawn in by the intricate system of alliances formed on the European continent. Russia's heavy casualties in 1915 coupled with the collapsing economy caused an upheaval among the people. Nicholas' departure for the German front left his German wife Alexandria in charge of the capital. This led to rumors that she was a German spy, and was therefore responsible for the losses the Russian army had sustained. Finally, in February 1917, the Russian generals deserted the Czarist regime. Nicholas had no choice but to abdicate. The Czarist regime fell, and the Church fell with it, victim to their close ties with the aristocrats.
Until 1917, the growing unrest of the people had to find an outlet, and the Jews were the primary targets. Russia has had a long history of anti-Semitism, yet under Czar Nicholas II, the Jews experienced particularly heavy persecution. They were accused of everything, from destroying the economy to killing Christians to being revolutionaries. Thousands of Jews were killed or wounded, their homes destroyed and belongings looted. The Russian Orthodox Church condoned these activities, calling Jews “Christ killers”. Average Russian workers could find a convenient scapegoat in the Jews.
The revolution of 1917 had put an end to hundreds of years of Czarist rule. However, this was its only accomplishment. The country quickly disintegrated into rival political factions vying for power. In April, Germany smuggled socialist revolutionaries into Russia, hoping to undermine Russia's war effort. One of these revolutionaries was Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who had German financial backing and orders to end the war as soon as possible. Germany had great faith that Lenin's political party, the Bolsheviks, had the best chance of seizing power, and put as much as 50 million gold marks at his disposal, a gargantuan sum at the time. They effectively blackmailed Lenin into doing all that they desired. If Lenin did not behave, the Russian people would be informed of his close ties with Russia's bitter enemy, and would consequently face the possibility of death.
After Lenin's arrival in Russia, he quickly began to strengthen and radicalize the Bolshevik party, using the vast wealth at his disposal to distribute propaganda and to buy whatever was needed for his party's advancement. Lenin's use of simple slogans and his socialists ideas appealed to the poor Russian workers and peasants, who had been oppressed for centuries. Soldiers were won over. The Bolshevik movement gained momentum until finally, Lenin seized control of the government. The radicals seized the palace and other key structures, officially becoming the masters of St. Petersburg. Lenin became chairman of the new government, with Joseph Stalin also becoming a leader in the party. The new government quickly passed two degrees; the first one called for an immediate end to the war with Germany, and the second called for radical socialist reform, including seizure of privately owned lands. Religion was slowly eradicated and outlawed. Russia signed the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, which included terms that ceded large amounts of land containing half of Russia's industry and one third of its population to the Germans. This action by the Bolsheviks produced a strong opposition, and by 1918, civil war erupted. It raged until 1920, leaving the country devastated and the Bolsheviks, who came to be known as the Soviets, triumphant. Russia's agricultural and industrial output had plummeted during the two years of war, and the country was even more impoverished. Lenin attempted to set in motion sweeping socialist reforms, but years of war and political infighting had kept him from accomplishing his dream. Lenin died in 1924, leaving the country in turmoil and rival leaders in the party jockeying for the lead position in the government.
After four years of incredible turmoil, Joseph Stalin emerged as the new leader of Russian communism. Through clever political maneuvering, the formation of alliances within the party, and betrayal, the man Lenin had denounced at his death had become the pillar on which the ideals of Russian communism leaned. Stalin’s quest for power came at a price. The country had to endure even more adversity during the struggle for control. The communists crushed all uprisings by the peasants and workers; fear was prevalent. Stalin used his absolute power to bring about reforms, often with violent results. The county’s grain output had decreased dramatically, and Stalin sought to correct this whatever the cost. Peasants were forced to work on government owned communes. Stalin also saw the need for Russia to industrialize, and accomplished this by his usual method: fear and violence. His “Five Year Plan” required the use of many of the peasant’s resources. Peasants were taken from their farms and forced to work in factories. Stalin accomplished his goal of industrialization, but at great cost. Russia’s agricultural economy was almost destroyed, and millions of people starved to death.
Stalin’s power had been uncontested since 1929, but his fear of conspiracies grew. He began to seek the removal of party leaders he suspected of seeking to overthrow him. In 1934, Stalin began an extensive purge, arresting all that were under suspicion. In 1928, Stalin stood triumphant with a new generation of party leaders loyal to him. Experts estimate that 1.5 to 7 million people were killed during this time, and innumerable others were sent to labor camps.
The onset of World War Two caused Russia to form an alliance with Germany, which the Germans broke by a surprise attack in June 1941. Soviet retribution followed. Russia rallied behind Stalin, and the Germans were driven out. Stalin took this opportunity to seize control of Eastern Europe, extending communist influence and drawing the infamous “Iron Curtain” across half of Europe. The rest of Stalin’s life was spent trying to catch up with and surpass United States technology and its military. By 1950, Stalin’s mental and physical health began to rapidly decline. In his paranoia, he prepared to launch another purge, only to die in 1953 before the terror repeated itself. His more moderate successors were somewhat relieved, and set about to rebuilding the country and reversing some of Stalin’s more radical reforms.
The 20th century was one of the most tragic times in Russian history. The Russian people endured countless sufferings and terrors. The communists, who sought to build a better society by freeing the common people from the tyrant monarch only become tyrants themselves. The people experienced more death than they had under the Czar Nicholas II, and the serfs were freed from the nobles only to become slaves of the state. The best we can do now is look back and learn from these events.
"Lenin, Vladimir Ilich," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
"Stalin, Joseph," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
"Jewish Pogroms" http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUSpogroms.htm
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