Assess the strengths & weakness of Russia around 1855

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Russia was once described by Winston Churchill as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Russia had its own alphabet, calendar and is completely unique with entirely different strengths and weakness compared to the west. From 1825 – 1855 Tzar Nicholas I was in power of this puzzle of a country, he represented the highest development in autocratic monarchy in the country. In 1855 Tzar Alexander II assuming the throne was in absolute power of the entire Russian empire. He solely controlled the country stretching across 6000 miles and through 9 different time zones.

With over 100 different cultures many with their own individual language; Of course these consist of both strengths and weaknesses as does the other elements of the Russian Empire which will be evaluated in this essay. The large population of Russia was a strength because it enabled them to have the largest army in Europe nicknamed the Steamroller. However it was also a huge weakness because it meant that it was hard for the Tzar to unite the population because it was so large in fact greater than that of France and Britain combined.

In addition to this there were countless different religions with 15-20% being Muslim who had diverse values and individual needs required by the Tzar far different to the majority of Russians who were Christians. Moreover in 1855 90% of the population were peasants living in amongst the poorest condition in all of Europe, clearly the living conditions of the peasants didn’t make the current Tzarsist system to appealing to them. Thus making the system open to revolt and rioting; as a result making it a weakness of Russia.

Another aspect of Russia is its climate it varied from 40oc in the summer to – 60oc in winter; this is a weakness because trade was very restricted because all the rivers and ports were nearly always frozen and unusable. Not to mention this caused famine nearly all the time in Russia this mixed with traditional agricultural methods resulted in there always an area in Russia where people were dieing of starvation, this is a major weakness to Russia society.

On the other hand the Russians extreme climate was an asset because as proved in World War II by the Nazi’s failing to invade Russia; a key factor being the climate because it’s hard for other countries to invade where as the Russians and Russian army were accustomed to the extreme temperatures. It is also a huge negative because it makes it tremendously hard to unite the country and makes trade and exports a challenge with transport problems, again suggesting overall that this is another weakness of Russia in 1855.

The backwardness of Russia is also element which is strongly indicating a weakness, due to industry remaining very low however some growth. Despite its obvious economic backwardness, which resulted in a humiliating defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56), Russia was gradually moving down the road of technical progress. In 1837 the first Russian railroad was opened. It connected St. Petersburg with the royal residence at Tzarskoye Selo (Pushkin). In 1851 another railroad connected St. Petersburg with Moscow and in 1850 the first permanent bridge across the Neva River was opened.

Before that there were only temporary (pontoon) bridges which could not operate in winter. This is a strength of Russia as progress is being made to unite the country which will improve trade links to modernize Russia. Also railways enable the transport of troops around the country to where there needed far quicker than on foot, yet another advantage. Under Alexander II 2,200 miles was increased to 14,200. All this may sound good; however it’s misleading as Russian had a tiny amount of rail track compared to the size of their country and to the west.

On the other hand Russia was the world’s greatest producer of pig iron by 1855, conversely this merely shows the backwardness of Russia as pig iron was a raw material and Russia didn’t even have the means to turn it into finished iron. Autocracy and Tzardom is another element of Russian society. It involved total control and absolute power over the whole country and all its occupants. The name Tzar is from Tzarder former emperors of Europe. Tzars believe in ‘Divine rights of kings’ this means that they are a gift from god so every decision they make that is questioned is questioning God.

Also any lessening of power would be virtual blasphemy. The problem and weaknesses of this system is that unsuitable leaders inherit power; a prime example of this is Nicholas II. This again enforces the backwardness of Russia because this resembles France in 18th century. This kind of old fashioned system leads to revolution with new ideas to satisfy the peasant majority. Another weakness is the Tzar having complete economic control, with very limited knowledge of economics, this is not maximising the economic potential of the country.

Under Alexander II the industrial workforce expanded from 860,000 – 1,320,000 people by 1887 this is tiny compared to the population of Russia. Some economic strengths of Russia include some oil success and new industrial areas such as Ukraine & Urals not to mention textile industries around Moscow expanding. The main strength of the Russian empire was the abolishment of the serfdom system. A Serf was basically a slave. There were more the 22 million serfs compared to 4 million slaves in the United States.

They were around 44 percent of Russia’s population. Serfs were the property of a little over 100,000 land owning lords (pomeshchiki). Some were owned by religious foundations, and some by the tsar (state peasants). Some laboured for people other than their lords, but they had to make regular payments to their lord, with some of the more wealthy lords owning enough serfs to make a living from these payments. It was the landowner who chose which of his serfs would serve in Russia’s military for twenty-five years (long enough for a wife to claim a divorce).

In the first half of the 1800s serf uprisings in the hundreds had occurred and serfs in great number had been running away from their lords. But in contrast to slavery in the United States virtually no one in Russia was defending serfdom ideologically. Those who owned serfs defended that ownership merely as selfish interest. Public opinion overwhelmingly favoured emancipation many believing that freeing the serfs would help Russia advance economically to the level at least of Britain and France. Those opposed to emancipation were isolated among them the Tzar’s wife and mother who feared freedom for so many would not be good for Russia.

Nicholas I recognised the need to abolish serfdom “Better to abolish serfdom from above rather than below” this means to abolish it under command of the Tzar rather than a revolution destroying the serfdom system. Freedom for the serfs didn’t come at a price though; they had to pay a tax and very long process to free them it even took years, this created unrest within the serf community which wouldn’t have occurred if the abolishment had never taken place. To add to this there was little incentive for peasants to invest in any land because it would be taken away at a later date.

Other reforms introduced by Alexander II included reforms of local government. This consisted of most local government in the European part of Russia being organized into districts, which were made up of representatives of all classes and were responsible for local schools, public health, roads, prisons, food supply and other concerns. The regime implemented judicial reforms. In major towns it established Western style courts with juries. In addition the regime instructed judges to decide each case on its merits, chance changing the old system to “innocent till proven guilty”.

In the financial sphere Russia established the State Bank, which put the national currency on a firmer footing. Another reform involved with the military was connected to the emancipation of the serfs which was to make possible the change from a large standing army to a reserve army. Before emancipation serfs could not receive military training and then return to their owners. But the army remained backward despite these military reforms. Officers often preferred bayonets to bullets expressing worry that long-range sights on rifles would induce cowardice.

In spite of some notable achievements; Russia did not keep pace with Western technological developments in the construction of rifles, machine guns, artillery, ships, and naval ordnance. Russia also failed to use naval modernization as a means of developing its industrial base in the 1860s. On the whole these vitally important reforms where a colossal strength to Russia, they were modernizing the whole country. Alexander was simply copying western ideas which he discovered on visits there. However there still remained weakness involved with these new reforms in the form of opposition.

The new openness encouraged by the reforms provoked expectations that the Tzar could not satisfy. This made the political stability of the Tzarist system questionable and looking forward a few years ahead of the question this does escalate into an assassination of Alexander II. In conclusion, when Alexander II came to the throne in 1855 he faced many problems, the most drastic I think was the existing serfdom system. Alexander decided to resolve these problems b introducing new reforms, the most famous and most needed in my opinion is the abolishment of serfdom.

But as actual abolishment was after 1855, Russia’s serfdom community was still very much alive consequently was still a huge weakness, and illustrated their backwardness in 1855. So overall after weighing up the strengths and weakness of Russia at that time, I would definitely consider there to be more weakness in the Russian empire. I do acknowledge that Alexander II employed some key reforms; however Russia remained 50 – 100 years behind the west in sheer development of the country in 1855.

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