Posted By Nick Shepley on October 24, 2011
In order to make sense of the collapse of the Romanov regime in February 1917, it’s important to take a historically long view of the century that preceded it. The journey from 1815 to 1917 was littered with opportunities to prevent the final crises of Czardom.
We have to step back into the 19th Century to examine why Russia, unlike the rest of Western Europe failed to industrialise. It was the last Czar, Nicholas II’s contention that most of Russia’s contemporary problems could actually be attributed to her greatest westerniser greatest moderniser, Peter the Great. Nicholas II disliked St Petersburg, Peter’s modern European city, modelled on the Neo-Classicist architecture that was prevalent in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Madrid. This architecture was steeped in European thinking, in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, in scientific revolutions, radical new thought on the scope and the role of government. These new ideas questioned the nature of the individual and his or her potential, and worst of all in Nicholas’s view, it challenged religion as a superstition.
The Enlightenment, a century and a half of radical new ideas that started with the likes of Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, swept away old superstitious ideas about the nature of the universe and established much of modern scientific thinking. The implications of this on economics, politics philosophy and culture led in no small part to the French Revolution. The sweeping away a bankrupt state in its entirety, by men armed with modern ideas had been resolutely resisted by most Czars that followed Peter.
Peter the Great, who ruled nearly a century before the revolution, had no interest in diminishing his power with anything as naive as liberal democracy, but he did take on board one new innovation from the West; modern bureaucracy and a restructuring of the army on European lines. Peter died just before the dawn of the 18th Century, but lived through a time where in Europe nations like England and Holland were becoming major maritime powers, establishing financial innovations such a national debts in order to punch well above their weight on a global level. Christopher Wren remodelled London as a modern planned stone built city, using the latest scientific architectural innovations and in the aftermath of the 30 years war the continent was awash with state of the art military know how. Peter was the first Czar to set foot out of Muscovy and saw the new Europe with his own eyes and was instantly taken with it, he knew where the future lay.
It was Nicholas II’s contention that when Peter the Great decided to create a modern civil service, he created an almost blasphemous barrier between the divinely appointed Czar and the ordinary Russians who were in Nicholas’s eyes the children of the Czar. What Peter established was an new and original, if schismatic direction in Russian society, known loosely as the ‘Petrine Tradition’, it was western looking, modern and assured of the notion that Europe held the answers. During Peter’s reign a steady stream of foreign experts in all fields came to Russia to assist in the Czar’s designs.
It is worth acknowledging at this point a few of the many shortcomings of Nicholas, and why exactly he was so adamant in his criticism. Nicholas II embraced a wholly different tradition in Russian discourse, one that commentators have described as being ‘Muscovite’.
Nicholas, who ruled from 1894 to 1917 moved his royal court to Moscow, capital of the ancient medieval kingdom of Muscovy. In doing this he symbolised to the rest of the country his desire to step back into the past. Instead of a uniform or a suit as befitted the modern 19th Century monarch, Nicholas sometimes indulged in dressing up as a medieval Boyar (Russian Noble of the elite rank), and the fact that this fantasy world existed in Nicholas’s mind at the same time that enormously pressing modern problem bore down upon him is no coincidence; as the pressure of modernity encroached on Nicholas, he retreated into a romanticised day dream world, imaging an idealised past.
The rot that Nicholas believed had set in during Peter’s reign, and never really quite left, was the break in the sacred bond between the Czar and his people. Nicholas assumed a lot of peasant Russia, he believed the average peasant an inherently loyal and benign character, but based this assumption on virtually no first hand experience. The only peasants he ever met were those who had been hand picked and groomed to be presentable to the Czar at the palace – Nicholas would have had very little to say to them anyway as he spoke far better French and English than he did Russian.
The birth of the modern world was due to the confluence of two revolutions, the British industrial revolution and the French political and social revolution, and a period of radical social and political upheaval marked the last decades of the 18th Century and the first decades of the 19th, it is a period of time that Marxist Historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the period of the dual revolution . The French revolution in particular sent shockwaves throughout Europe, from Spain to Poland, from England to Greece; the very idea that instead of being ruled by an autocrat, the people had the chance to renegotiate the terms, and that populations would simply not submit to be ruled any more if the basic requirements for living were not being provided changed the relationship between ruler and ruled across Europe for good.
The vast economic output and the new wealth of Great Britain, signified by her huge naval power and growing colonial acquisitions in Asia (and up until the late 1770s America) demonstrated how mercantilism had captured global markets in the name of the crown and the City of London.
These dual revolutions would be vigorously resisted by Russia throughout the 19th Century, but western ideas, in the form of Marxist Leninism would explode in Russia at the Dawn of the 20th; the arguments that Karl Marx set forth in the Communist Manifesto and in Das Kapital were the product of the meeting of both revolutions.