And there I’ve done it again. I’ve made a bit too much of a supposition on the beginnings of the revolution in Russia. The fact is that the causes of the revolution went much deeper and farther back than we can imagine. Perhaps the very revolution itself can be traced back to the revolution that the communists eventually tried to say they were mimicking-The French Revolution. Even though the correlations at the time were relatively weak, the two countries did have some similarities, but perhaps, many more differences. At the time, the French nobility was under extreme duress as it had incurred a huge debt helping the Colonies fight the British. France had embraced the ideas of liberalism and even when they hadn’t, writers like Voltaire found safety from “enlightened monarchs” monarchs like Elizabeth I of Russia. But whereas in Russia most of the peasantry still worked the land as serfs, many of the French serfs had moved to cities to escape serfdom leaving a large population of unhappy peasants whose rights were no longer being represented by their feudal country lords.
I know I’m vastly oversimplifying history, and I’m moving at a fast pace. I say all this merely to point out differences, and why historians would fault me for making too big of a correlation. But the correlation is there, and it’s found in Napoleon’s ambition. After he marched on Moscow, and the Russian forces withdrew, burning the city. The war was all but over. The Russians hounded Napoleon back to Paris and eventually marched there themselves, defeating the greatest empire at the time. This one act meant that Russia, backwards Russia, the country Peter the Great realized was backwards and tried to force into the modern era, suddenly had eclipsed the very power it was trying to catch up to.
After the victory, Russia returned to the state it had been so comfortable with before Peter the Great. That of isolation and stagnation, and it remained that way till the Crimean War, a war, which jolted Russia back to reality. It had fallen behind again. Even though at the time, Russia still fielded the largest army, it was vastly outgunned by the modern machinery of the British. Wave after wave of men was condemned to die, brutally chastised by the guns of the unforgiving British. Russians needed change. A rebellious atmosphere was developing.
But just when revolution seemed to be taking seed, a new leader came to power. This leader was Alexander II. He immediately struck a treaty ending the Crimean War, renounced Russia’s claims to the Black Sea, and he set about reforming the country. In 1861 he emancipated the serfs, but under heavy stipulations added for the nobility, which left almost all free serfs indebted to their lords for the rest of their lives. He ended government censorship of the press and left it up to the presses as to what to censor. In 1864 he created a new set of judicial reforms including trial by jury and independent judiciaries that couldn’t be removed by the whims of the governing officials. He created the Zemstvo for the classes to have a voice, but the reforms were weak, just like the Etates General in France, the lower class found themselves immensely underrepresented.
During this time period, two important things take place. First of all, in 1872 even though the press was still somewhat censored, Das Kapital by Marx was allowed to be printed in Russia. The second important event occurred in 1878 and just like that of the start of World War I, it was an act of terrorism…assassination to be exact.