Past Questions:
  • Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Key dates and/or facts/details on this topic:

If you look at the past question, it only considers the second half of the century, so be aware of this.


Nicholas I Dies 1855

Alexander II 1855-1881
Alexander III 1881-1894

Nicholas II 1894-1917

Crimean war 1853-56

Famine 1891-1892 (use as an example of backwardness) .


Political -

The only clear political strength that the autocratic system possessed was it total dominance over the legal system in the country. There were no juries or lawyers in courts, and people were presumed guilty until proven innocent. Even though Alexander's II legal reforms limited the state's ability to exericise its power over the legal system, political crimes were removed from the courts and dealt with in special martial courts behind closed doors. The secret police during the reign of all Tsars was also effective, and brutally put down any political opposition in the second half of the 19th century.


1881 Law passed to reduce peasants redemption payments (emancipation of serfs) + 1883 peasant landbank established. These two economic measures opened up the Russian economy, and led to greater enterprise.

Strengths of the economy after Witte had become finance minister in 1893.
-Growth of railways led to better communication (establishment of the Trans-Siberian railway)
-Proctive tariffs introduced to helped Russian economy. As a result foreign investment in Russia trippled. Rouble set on gold standard. As a result of all of these policies, there was 8 percent growth per year in economy

Social -

During the 19th century the education possibilities became better, between 1856-1878 the number of children attending primary school doubled from 500 000 to one million.

There are no clear strengths!

Military -

In many ways, the state of the Russian army improved after Alexander's II military reforms in 1861. The reforms reduced the length of service from 25 to 6 years and introduced universal conscription for males over 20. This led to that the army became more civilized and efficient. However, the problem of constant lack of weapons + supplies as well as difficulties in mobilizing the army persisted. The seriousness of these problems were highlighted when Russia, a supposed "Great Power" lost a war against the underdog Japan in 1905-1906.

Political -
Nature of Tsarist autocratic political system

The nature of the Tsarist system meant that in order for the Tsar to rule the country he had to rely upon the nobility and upon smaller governments. There were in total 13 local governments for different regions in Russia and 114 000 administrators. This meant that the Russian political system was very fragmented, leaving the Russian state in only partial control of the country. The nobles who helped to govern Russia saw government service as a way to increase their wealth by bribery.

The complete lack of political freedom led to that anyone who opposed the Tsar had to resort to the violence. This is highlighted by the growth of political opposition in the end of the 19th century, and have opposition groups, such as the People's will assassinate Alexander II to achieve political change.

Nicholas I, Alexander III and Nicholas II all exercised the policy of Russofication of the empire's national minorities. Russia is a vast country, where people speak well over 100 languages. When the state during the reign of these three Tsars surpressed the cultures of these minorities in order to maintain the control of the empire, widespread opposition grew in the minority regions in the country, For example, the polish rebelled several times, in 1863-64 and in 1905.

Economic -

Backwards agriculture:
-Peasants used medieval farming techniques/equipment
-Little knowledge of how to farm your land effectively.
-This led to poor harvests and in conjunction with Russia's growing population it also led to severe famines 1891-92.

Industrially backwardness:
By 1855 Britain was producing ten times as much Iron as Russia. Russia's failure to modernize + develop can be attributed to an underdeveloped banking system + and the Servile economy that acted as a brake on the Russian economy.
Development was also prevented by by Russia's backwards communications and transport system, making the transport of raw materials and goods virtually impossible. By 1860 Russia had 1600 km railway compared to Britain's 15000km.

Social -

During all Tsarist regimes, government spending on the military was always sky-high. During Alexander's III reign, gov spending on military was never less than 50 percent. This led to that the social welfare of the Russian people was neglected. This is highlighted in the famine in 1891-2, where a major cause of the famine is that the government spends money on the army instead of helping peasants to develop much needed farming technology.

The servile social system, wherein about 20 million were private serfs and 20 million state owned serfs hindered Russia from modernizing. For example, it hindered the growth of an urban working/middle class that was essential for the development of Russia. Later on, when the serfs were emancipated in 1861, litte change was brought to Russia. First of all, the emancipation edict was slow to implement. Second of all, Serfs were now indept to landlords + state (redemption payments) and this hindered the development of peasants as consumers in Russia's capitalist economy. This severely slowed down the process of modernizing the Russian economy.

Military -

Here we have to us the Crimean war and not the Russo-Japanese war as it is not within the time frame of the past question.

Weaknesses in the Russian army during the Crimean war. To clarify, Russia lost the war because of its military weaknesses:
-Russian soldiers suffered lack of supplies and weapons, due to lack of effective railway communications, disorganization in the army and Russian industry, which could not produce an adequate amount of weapons + supplies. Only 50 percent of soldiers had a gun and only 4 percent had a "modern" gun in contrast to the British who had "modern" guns for 50 percent of their troops.
-Russian army was also ineffective and mobilized slowly. In the Crimean war only 60 000 thousand Russian troops could be summoned out of 1 million soldiers!
-The Russian army was not based on conscription (such as the countries in western Europe), instead serfs and peasants were selected by the government to serve in the army for 25 years. This demoralized the troops, as serving in the army was seen as a prison sentence!

Concluding reflections: to what extent do you think the weaknesses outweigh the strengths? Is this important when thinking about how far the 1917 revolutions were "inevitable"?

Weaknesses outweighs the strengths. There were numerous rebellions + uprisings + disastrous and humiliating wars + famines in Russia during the 19 th century. Yes one has to think about the underlying weaknesses (especially political) of Russia when determining if the revolutions were inevitable. It was the long-term economic, social and political conditions in Russia that lay the foundations of the revolutions. However, as AJP Taylor says, "nothing is inevitable before it happens".

Notes by Jorden Olton