The Political Development of the Russian State

Read this text which explores the roots of Russian discontent. Think about the connections between these Russian protests and the social upheaval we discussed in earlier units on the Industrial Revolution.

The Origins of the Modern Russian State

While the modern nation of Germany did not emerge as a unified territorial state until 1870, a territory comparable to modern Russia existed by the middle of the 17th century. It was under the rule of Ivan III (The Great) and Ivan IV (The Terrible) that Russia expanded to include parts of modern Poland and Ukraine, as well as much of its post-Soviet territory. Ivan IV declared himself Tsar in 1547 and consolidated control over Russia's feudal noble class with brutal repression. Peter the Great ruled from 1689-1725; he modernized the state and military and Russia became a powerful nation within the emerging system of states in Europe.

During these periods of consolidation and wider territorial control, Russia developed several characteristics as a great power that had important consequences for the development of its state over the next several centuries and into the 21st century as well. While Peter the Great modernized the state through the establishment of a stronger bureaucracy, the civil service positions were concentrated in the nation's small noble elite. Unlike in Britain and Germany, Russia's landed elites were not wealthy. Individual holdings tended to be small and remained under conditions of feudalism until the emancipation of the Russian serfs in 1861.

Peter and subsequent Tsars sought to keep the nobles dependent on the modest wages of their civil service positions. Whereas landed elites in Germany and Britain became important sources of wealth and investment capital that fueled industrialization, Tsarist rule constrained similar development. Thus, the commercial powers and forces that were transforming Western and Central Europe were largely absent in Russia. Among the great powers of Europe in the 18th and 19th century, Russia was militarily powerful, because of its size and population, but economically weak; it has remained so in many ways up to the present. While Europe was urbanizing, Russia remained an overwhelmingly feudal society. Small elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg interacted with the networks and processes of the larger European culture, but the vast majority of the population were illiterate peasants locked into serfdom. While it retained its great power status, it fell further behind the rest of Europe over time.

Another significant source of cultural and state unity was the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia believed that it was the 'third Rome,' or the true center of Christianity after the fall of Rome, and the Byzantine Empire. Orthodox Christian doctrine was the official religion of the Russian state and a central way in which Tsars legitimized their power. It became the central unifying force by which some Russians leaders and intellectuals drew a strong distinction between "western" civilization, and a unique and separate Russian identity. A Westernized urban elite pushed back against these conservation forces, generating tensions between "Westernizers" and "Slavophiles".

Most movements for reform, including the Decembrists of the 1830s, and more radical socialist and communist movements later in the 19th century, came from the small urban population. The tsar had his own secret police force to root out these liberal and radical reform movements. The vast cultural divide between these elites and the mass of illiterate serfs made building support among the masses for such movements very difficult. Even after Tsar Alexander emancipated the serfs in 1861, peasants were tied to the land. Despite legal freedom from their landlords, the serfs were legally required to pay a land tax to the lords' overtime that would eventually lead to land ownership. However, the serfs made little money and still had to work the land to survive. These so-called redemption payments were not abolished until 1907. Peasants continued to live in small village level cooperatives providing little basis for the expansion of production and commerce in agriculture.

Source: Marc Belanger and Mary Coleman,'s_College_(Notre_Dame_IN)/Introduction_to_Comparative_Politics/04%3A_The_Political_Development_of_the_Russian_State
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