Russian Society: 1850 – 1914

Serfdom, which was developed during the 16th Century, solidified. This meant that the peasants were forced to provide either labor for a certain number of days a year or a fixed sum of money to their lords. The labor was when the lord needed it, during sowing and harvesting mainly, and had to be done even if the serf’s own land was not tilled in time. Some serfs lived in towns, especially after Russia began to industrialize around 1880. These industrial serfs worked in factories for no pay.

In 1861 the serfs were freed thanks to Alexander II’s Emancipation Manifesto, but they had to buy their liberty. They were granted land, mostly taken from common areas of land around the village, not the land on which they worked, the landlords kept that so the peasants now had to pay to work their land. Emancipation, coupled with a drop in grain prices in the latter part of the 19th Century, forced many to give up farming and to seek a new life in the newly industrializing cities.

The Abolition Of Serfdom (1914). Alphonse Mucha

Prior to Russia’s industrialization, workers set up Artels – a cooperative union or organization that protected their interests. There were metal-worker’s artels, logger’s artels, fishermen’s artels and even thieves artels. Artels were often set up in areas where workers migrated to work – such as logging camps – and were often communal.

The biggest change to the labor system was industrialization. From about 1880 onwards, Russia began to industrialize. This was fuelled by the Government who wanted to make Russia a major European power. To this end, the government invested in metal works for arms and railways, textile works for uniforms, and mines for raw materials and coal to power the industrialization process. Industrialization was on a massive scale and the towns and cities could not deal with the arrival of people. Dormitories, bars, gambling dens and brothels were established for the workers, and many towns became semi-lawless, since a lot of people flooded in from the countryside.

The Russian Empire was divided into “sosloviyes”, or social estates or classes, such as nobility (“dvoryanstvo”), clergy, merchants, Cossacks and peasants. A majority of the people belonged to the peasant class. More than 88 million of the Russians were peasants. A part of them were formerly serfs, the remainder being “state peasants” and “domain peasants”. [1]

The well-being of the Russian people declined during the most of the 18th century, but increased slowly from the end of the 18th century to 1914.

[1] “Russian Empire”. Wikipedia. Last Modified: 10 February 2013 at 10:05. 11/02/2013. <>.

The Last Czar:

   The last Russian czar was Nicholas II (1894-1917). It was partly to distract attention from internal problems that Nicholas became embroiled in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The war was a major victory for the Japanese. It set off widespread violence in Russia. The agitation accelerated after a group of peaceful protesters marching before the czar’s palace in St. Petersburg were shot on Bloody Sunday, January 22, 1905. Sailors mutinied and a general strike was called. The Revolution of 1905 forced Czar Nicholas to offer concessions. He allowed the creation of a Duma or legislative assembly. Representatives to the Duma had very limited powers and were elected under a very restricted suffrage. Government ministers were responsible to the czar, rather than to the Duma.

Bloody Sunday:

On January 22, 1905, a group of workers led by the radical priest Georgy Apollonovich Gapon marched to the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to make their demands. Imperial forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing and wounding hundreds. Strikes and riots broke out throughout the country in outraged response to the massacre, to which Nicholas responded by promising the formation of a series of representative assemblies, or Dumas, to work toward reform.

Internal tension in Russia continued to build over the next decade, however, as the regime proved unwilling to truly change its repressive ways and radical socialist groups, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks, became stronger, drawing ever closer to their revolutionary goals. The situation would finally come to a head more than 10 years later as Russia’s resources were stretched to the breaking point by the demands of World War I.


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