During the period 1856 – 1964 it could be viewed that there were many events, both political and economical, which could be considered turning points in the development of modern Russia for the impact they had on the country, and there is much historical debate over which was most significant. The strongest argument is that the fall of the Tsars was the most significant turning point, as it signified the beginning of the rule of the people and the Bolsheviks who replaced state capitalism with war communism in 1918.
Historian Kevin Ramage supports this view and wrote that the end of Romanov rule “culminated in the coming to power of the working class, led by the Bolshevik Party”. However, there are other turning points which could be considered to be the most significant, such as events during Tsarist rule or in that of Stalin or Khrushchev, or even World War One, which Glenn E. Curtis believed “exposed the weakness of Nicholas II’s government”, which allowed it to fall, which could make it the most significant turning point as without it, the Bolsheviks would not have come to power.
The fall of the Tsars was the most significant turning point in the development of modern Russia as after the abdication of Nicholas II following the 1917 February Revolution and the refusal of the throne from his brother Michael, imperial rule in Russia ended, which was particularly significant as it made way for “the working class”1 and this argument is given weight by Dr. J. E. Swain who believes that the event “set up standards for a new way of living and thinking”, meaning that this political event changed the social order in Russia.
By removing the ruling class who believed that they were born with the right to rule, the politics of Russia changed greatly as they moved away from the 300 years of oppressed Romanov rule. This change had a great impact on the people as, hypothetically, they had the power in 1917. This can be seen as a large number of factories had been taken over by the workers through elected committees and peasants – after they melted away from the army – expropriated land which had belonged to the state, the church, nobility and gentry, showing that they were no longer under autocratic rule and were in a better position socially.
This Romanov success is reinforced by Christopher Hill, who wrote, “Lenin deserves great credit in leading the oppressed of Russia”. However, since Hill was an English Marxist who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, he is not an entirely reliable source as his political beliefs would obviously favour the Bolsheviks which suggests that his opinoin on the fall of the Tsars could be rather one sided.
However, it could also be viewed that the fall of Tsars was not as significant a political modernisation as it may first appear as after the fall of the Provisional Government to the Bolsheviks, Russia was certainly not a democracy as, according to Michael Lynch, “Lenin had no faith in democratic elections” and “The rule of the Bolsheviks was a continuation of the absolutist tradition in Russia” which also undermines Hill’s glorified opinion of Lenin. Even though the three hundred year rule of the Romanovs had ended, Russia was still a dictatorship, having a totalitarian government of Communists.
This can be seen in Lenin’s dissolution of the Constituent Assembly after the Bolsheviks gained barely a quarter of the seats. This lack of modernisation can also be viewed socially because when Russia had limited economic resources in 1918, “the government nationalized industry and subordinated it to central administrations in Moscow” and “rejected workers’ control of factories as inefficient”6, so the social modernisation that the end of Tsarist rule brought was short lived.
This lack of modernisation can also be seen by the increase of force and terror under Bolshevik rule because after the revolution the Cheka, a more effective form of the Tsarist secret police, was created with the purpose to “counter – revolution and sabotage”, and its powers of arrest, detention and torture were unlimited. This is supported by Sheila Fitzpatrick, “The Cheka became an organ of terror, dispensing summary justice such as executions”.
This judgment is realistic, especially such as there is evidence from the time to support this view, such as the extreme execution of the abdicated Tsar and his family in 1918. This fear control was significantly worse after the 1917 revolution as the Bolsheviks had considerably more power to impose themselves upon the Russian people, demonstrating a lack of modernisation.
A strong argument would be that World War One was actually the most significant turning point in the development of modern Russia between 1856 and 1964 because it “exposed the weakness of Nicholas II’s government”2 so it could be seen as the trigger of the fall of the Tsars. This weakness in the government can be seen when Nicholas decided to take direct command of Russia’s armed forces in 1915, leaving his wife Alexandra in charge, which led to the greater political influence of Rasputin.
It can be seen from the historian Alex De Jonge that Rasputin’s power was not appreciated by Russia as he wrote that Rasputin’s enemies charged him of being “cynical”8 and of “using his religion to mask his drive for sex, money and power”. This weakness, when looked at with the other impacts of the war such as food shortages and economic problems, makes World War One a key turning point as it triggered the unpopularity of the government and made way for the rise of opposition.
The politics of Stalin could also be viewed as a significant turning point in the development of modern Russia as the first Five Year Plan was created to “catch up with the rest of the industrialized world” and the plans could be seen as very affective, as Stephen J Lee (a British historian who has written many books on Europe during this period, strengthening his argument) states that “industrialisation was accomplished rapidly and an infrastructure was built up so effectively that it guaranteed the very survival of the Soviet Union” showing that without Stalin and his Plan, Russia would not have been capable of surviving World War two. This argument is given weight by another British historian, Oxford University tutor Robert Service who, regarding the second Five Year Plan, wrote “gross industrial output in 1937 … had increased by three fifths over output in 1932”.
This was definitely necessary to do before the war as Stalin had to equip Russia’s large army, so had to modernise the country industrially. It could also be seen that Stalin’s politics regarding the Five Year Plans modernised the education of Russia as the initial ideas of Lenin and the Bolsheviks included an “attack on book learning and traditional academic standards”. This then meant that during the time of Stalin, people were entering the work place with inadequate education. To address this problem, Stalin introduced a new education system during the 1930s, which included ten years of compulsory education for children and a curriculum which taught the key subjects, so that they were prepared to join the workforce and help modernise Russia.
Additionally, it has been suggested that it was Khrushchev’s reign from 1953 and not that of the Bolsheviks which was a key turning point in the development of modern Russia as Khrushchev criticised Stalin for his personality cult and therefore, the de-Stalinisation of the Soviet Union began. This view is supported by Glenn E. Curtis, “Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s tyrannical reign in 1956” as he was “signalling a sharp break with the past”. This sharp break from the past can be seen when considering the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis because this event could be viewed as the beginning of the end of the Cold War, as a consequence of Khrushchev attempting to install missiles in Cuba was the signing of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the Soviet Union, the United States and Great Britain, which meant that Russia could now enjoy more peaceful negotiations with America and move on from the Cold War.
However, Russian historians Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali do not believe that Khrushchev was a key turning point in Russia’s modernisation as they wrote that during the negotiations with Kennedy, Khrushchev was “desperately trying to save face by achieving at least a small shift in the nuclear balance of power”14, and that he “sensed that he could no longer wait to end the crisis”. When considering the background of the historians writing about Khrushchev, it is interesting to see that it is the American and not the Russians who are supporting him. This could be because Khrushchev promoted peace which may have been viewed by the Russians as weakness. This is certainly the view of his son, Sergei, who “believes that Americans have a better attitude toward his father than Russians” because “he is more understandable to them”15. Alternatively, the Tsars also aided the advancement of Russia.
The 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs could be viewed as a significant turning point in the development of modern Russia as before this event, the peasantry (about 85% of the population) “had been in the grip of a regime of harsh oppression” (Joel Carmichael). However, since Carmichael was an American historian who wrote at the end of the Cold War in 1964, his view of the Tsars treatment of the Serfs could be overly harsh because at this time, the Americans were rather anti Russian, which undermines his argument. However, his opinion is supported by historian another American historian Honna Michele Eichler who wrote in 2003 (so she is less likely to be unreliable) that the serfs suffered “inhumane treatment, rape and torture”.
This meant that the emancipation “was an extraordinarily key event which catapulted Russia into the 20th century”17 as “the serfs were free” (Huge Seton-Watson) from the unrestricted power of a small class of noble landlords and were permitted to buy their own land which ultimately liberated them, so this political move was unquestionable a key turning point in social modernisation. Another key turning point during Tsarist rule was the Russo – Japanese War as its unpopularity led to Bloody Sunday and the Potemkin mutiny, which could be viewed as the beginning of the end for Nicholas II and this argument is given weight by Glenn E. Curtis who believed that this war “accelerated the rise of political movements among all classes and the major nationalities” so without this, the Russion Revolution may not have taken place so soon.
It could also be viewed that these two rebellious events helped to modernise Russia under the Tsar because after the war, the country took its first steps into becoming a more democratic state. This can be seen by the persuasion of Sergi Whitte, the Chief Minister during 1905, who advised Nicholas to make concessions to the public. As a result, the October Manifesto was published which granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. This led to a political modernisation as parties that had previously been illegal such as the Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionary Party emerged which shows the lessening of autocratic dictatorship and “the foundation seemed to have been laid for a responsible and liberal opposition”.
This modernisation can also been seen through a new organisation, the Duma, a consultative body with representatives elected by the peasants, the townsmen and the gentry, to aid the Tsar and stand for the opinions of the Russian people. In conclusion, it could be argued that the most significant turning point in the modernisation of Russia came during the time of the Tsars as the allowance of political parties following the Russo – Japanese War was a lessening of the rule of Nicholas II and the introduction of the Duma did give the people of Russia a platform to air their grievances. If this development had been permitted to continue, a more modern form of politics could have followed, as “the foundation”20 was established.
Furthermore, it could also be viewed that the most significant development was that of Khrushchev as even though he was unpopular with his own people, he did come to an agreement with Kennedy to end the Cold War and tried to move away from the past. However, the strongest argument is that the fall off the Tsars was the most significant turning point in the development of modern Russia as even though it could be viewed that the rule of the Bolsheviks was still a dictatorship and little opposition was permitted the (Stalin’s purges), and the country remained under a harsh regime (the Cheka), the Communist state that formed remained until 1989 so could easily be viewed as modern Russia. Moreover, even though the rule that followed the Tsars was totalitarian, its political and economic principles were very different.