Who were the tsars?


Prof. Dr. Hans-Henning Schröder

Prof. Dr. Hans-Henning Schröder

To person

Prof. Dr. Hans-Henning Schröder is a research group leader in the Russia / CIS research group of the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP). His main research interests are current political developments in Russia, the history of the Soviet Union and Russian foreign and security policy.

(1850 - 1917)

Western ideas influenced the emergence of a political movement in Tsarist Russia. Even before the First World War, tensions threatened tsarist rule. The Tsar finally resigned in 1917 - but the provisional government also came to a swift end.

Nicholas II on an oil painting by Earnest Lipgart (around 1900). Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on March 15, 1917. He and his family were taken to Yekaterinburg, where they were murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. (& copy public domain)

Russia's position in the concert of the great European powers brought the Russian upper classes into close contact with the intellectual and political life of the continent. The reception of ideas from the world of the French Revolution and the awakening of national states in Western and Central Europe led to an alienation between parts of the Europeanized upper class and the autocratic regime. The tensions first found expression in the Decembrist uprising in 1825, in which noble officers tried to prevent Nicholas I from being enthroned, and from around 1830 in the debate between "Westerners" and "Slavophiles". While the former endorsed the opening towards the "West" and expected Russia's salvation from growing into this "West", the Slavophiles emphasized Slavic and Orthodox traditions and saw the future of the country in a return to these roots.

In this dispute, a group emerged for the first time that gave form and expression to social conflicts in Russia well into the 20th century - the intelligentsia. This term does not so much describe a social class as a community of ideas that gained its social and political identity from a shared worldview. Their self-image was based on three guiding principles: the will to overthrow the autocratic tsarist rule, the awareness of responsibility for the socially disadvantaged and the belief that they had a scientifically founded worldview. From the intelligentsia emerged those political groups that took up the struggle with the tsarist system in the second half of the 19th century.

Overthrow of the tsarist rule

In the Crimean War (1853-1856), which Russia waged against the Ottoman Empire, France and Great Britain, the tsarist empire proved to be militarily and economically hopelessly backward in relation to the major European powers. The government of Alexander II (1855-1881) therefore embarked on a comprehensive reform of the state, economy and society. The core of the reorganization was the peasant liberation in 1861, which abolished serfdom and was accompanied by restructuring of the judiciary, the armed forces, the education system and the local constitution.

The reforms did not bring about any domestic political calm. A political movement developed out of the intelligentsia, the "Volkstümler", who sought to overthrow tsarism by enlightening the peasant masses. Some groups rely on individual terror. In 1881 Alexander II was killed in a bomb attack.

The government of his successor Alexander III. (1881-1894) partially restricted the reforms, but continued to pursue the course of economic modernization. The expansion of industry, which got underway in the 1970s, gained rapid pace in the 1990s. In the wake of industrialization, society also changed. Although Russia was still an agricultural state and in 1897 over 86 percent of the population lived in the countryside, the cities grew rapidly and became socially disadvantaged. The population of Moscow rose from 350,000 to 1.7 million between 1867 and 1914, and that of St. Petersburg from 500,000 to 2.2 million.