Alexander II: The Rise of Russian Colonization

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By the early twentieth century, the Russian Empire was made up of various countries such as modern-day Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia, which meant that the monarch was responsible for vast numbers of national and religious minorities. The argument this essay will present is that the Russian Empire’s ability to manage diverse groups, through the policy of Russification, progressively became more aggressive as the Tsarist regime destabilised. It will be demonstrated that the empire’s non-Russian’s were managed ineffectively as they were not assimilated to the Russian culture and mutinied against the state. The collapse of the Tsarist system at the hands of many non-Russian is the ultimate example of their failure. Focus within the essay will remain solely on Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II and examine the policies towards the Baltic States, the Polish and the Jewish. This essay dedicates time to exploring cultural as well as legal Russification which is applied through education and linguistics. While this concentrates on the period after 1863, it is important to consider the impact of Russian colonization on national and religious minorities before Alexander II. By 1917 the ineffectiveness with both groups had caused widespread dissatisfaction throughout the empire and instigated revolutionary events. As it will be made clear, measures were not applied equally to all minorities and often the success rate was dependent on the aims of these groups as well as their social hierarchy. Historiography regarding the treatment of minorities within the empire focused on the progressively oppressive methods under Alexander III and Nicholas II and their unsuccessfulness in the long term.

As Russia’s colonization of large areas of Europe and Asia expanded, the control of national and religious minorities within the empire became an issue. These were the ‘territories of people who were culturally and religiously very different from the Russians’ and therefore it was of utmost importance that the Tsar was able to manage these groups. From the 1860s, Russification policies were implemented more consistently by Alexander II (1855-1881), yet still in a more moderate way than his successors. After the 1863-1864 Polish Uprising, it was clear to Alexander and his ministers that action was necessary to manage Poles in the Northwestern lands. Historian Darius Staliunas suggests that policies implemented against the Polish were not aimed at assimilation but were rather exclusionary. For instance, Poles were forbidden to become neither teachers nor civil servants and those of Polish descent were restricted to occupy only 10 percent in Russian educational establishments. Similar educational restrictions are applied later to the Jewish population as there is a suggestion that some non-Russians in positions of power were regard suspiciously. The Poles were ostracised among the Tsars as their Catholic beliefs served to undermine Russian Orthodoxy which was consistently linked to autocracy and upholding the legitimacy of the Tsarist system. Alexander II’s policies also restricted the use of language as Polish was forbidden in official correspondence as well as language lessons and ‘even Polish shop signs were outlawed’. This was not limited to just Polish and included both Lithuanian and Belarusian. On the 6 September 1865, the banning of all Lithuanian texts in Latin letter was made official as Russian officials believed that Latin had ‘Polonized the Lithuanians’ and instead ‘Cyrillic would Russify them.’ There is a suggestion these measures were also implemented as a protective barrier for the Lithuanians to halt Polish influence. The influence of a group who had caused an uprising only years earlier.

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The Russian policy appeared to be more interested in the cleansing of Polish and Catholic influences rather than incorporating non-Russians into Russian culture. Ivan Aksakov, a notable Slavophile, advocated for a more ‘deep and thorough-going russification of the Western provinces’ after attempts were made to introduce Russian into Catholic services. He highlighted the value of encouraging the connection between being Russian and Orthodox belief while discouraging and repressing any Catholic propaganda. Language played a significant role in the Russification of national and religious minorities to control the local population. To Alexander II, the Poles presented a ‘direct threat to the stability and integrity of the Russian Empire’ and essentially the aim was to resist the Polonization of Russian lands. These policies were successful to an extent as Estonians and Latvians, among other national minorities, sat in the Duma and spoke Russian fluently. Historian Edward Thaden notes that this was done without an accent in some case and they were able to participate in political life. Therefore, the policies enforced to manage the minorities were successful against the aim of the Tsar to encourage the Russian language and discourage Polish. Conversely, this is less convincing as those within the Duma were often composed of nobles or individuals with a higher social status and thus their interests varied to the interests of the peasants. The Georgian nobles were able to assimilate effortlessly and were regulated by the Tsar as they were able to retain their privileges and economic interests coincided with the interests of the Russian nobles. Historians have argued that it was not the advocating of Orthodoxy and Russification within schools but instead the economic progress that aligned the Baltic people’s interests with the interests of the native Russians.

A defensive approach to managing these minorities was replaced by Alexander III’s offensive and severe methods of Russification. The assassination of Alexander II convinced his son that liberalisation was not effective. He aimed to integrate these non-Russian regions ‘first by administration integration, then by inculcating in each of them as far as possible the language, religion and culture of Russia’ while abandoning their own backgrounds. Educational reforms increased as schools controlled by the capital, St. Petersburg, were opened and teaching was only allowed in Russian, with the native tongue of the province being prohibited. Russian was established as the official language to be used in Dorpat University and it had been ‘brought into conformity with that of law faculties of Russian universities’ while ‘professors and students were subjected to stricter control’ by authorities. This came after the Minister of Justice, N.A. Manasein, commented on the conditions at Dorpat which allowed the Baltic to be separated from the rest of Russia and linked closely with Germany. By governing the education system, it allowed the Tsarist regime to control the content of knowledge that was disseminated and would allow a greater saturation of Russian culture into these minority groups. In the short term, this was effective as it curbed their freedoms however the cultural repression was combined with the growing nationalist thinking of the 1890s. An increasing number of Estonians and Latvians preferred to develop their own national movements rather than to merge with the Orthodox Church and Russian national culture. This period under Alexander III also saw brutal repression through violent pogroms that became regular after 1881. Shortly after the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya) assassinated his father, pogroms were used against the Jewish who were deemed a scapegoat. Non-Russians had been subject to cultural Russification through educational means however this was applied unequally to the Jewish. In July 1887, the Council of Ministers voted to establish quotas that were ‘set at 10 percent for institutions within the Pale’ (a region designated for the Jewish), ‘5 percent outside the Pale’ and within Moscow and St. Petersburg the quota was set at 3 percent. Fears regarding the revolutionary actions of the Jews were one aspect of these limitations as well as fears that non-Russians would ‘soon dominate the professions and other public arenas’. Arguably, the attack of the Jewish was pursued more relentlessly as they were believed to be unassimilable. Jews and eastern inorodtsy (aliens) were placed within the same category as they were a ‘dangerous alien presence’ and their religious beliefs were ‘opponents of Christianity and thus dangerous opponents of the ruling church’. They represented a real, in the minds of the authorities, threat to the security of the native Russians. If assimilation into Russian society was not possible, domination was most effective. Anti-monarchy movements were formed out of these policies due to the unpopularity among victims. Thus, it became more difficult to encourage Russian nationalism and manage the multi-ethnic population.

At its most unstable in the early twentieth century, the Russian Empire saw the revolutionary threat of various minorities. In 1905-1906 places such as Poland, Finland and the Baltic states had seen radical uprisings. Policies enforced by Nicholas II contributed to the widespread discontent of the masses and prevented him from efficiently managing these groups. Between December 1905 and 1908, military forces were sent into the Baltic Provinces to contain unrest and consequently ‘thousands of Estonians and Latvians were executed or banished to Siberia’. Although this suggests the authorities were able to quell the revolutionaries, a grave signal of ineffectiveness was the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). Inability to manage both foreign and internal conflict forced Russia to retreat from Port Arthur and deploy military troops around the empire. Further evidence demonstrates that ethnic minorities were not well integrated into society from the representatives of the Baltic states in the first two Dumas. The Estonians and Latvians belonged to parties that were in opposition to the government, including the Kadets and the Social Democrats, which protested the illegality of the government’s exploitive measures in the Baltic provinces. Ineffective management of these national minorities resulted in vast numbers joining revolutionary movements. Moreover, it is important to consider the treatment of the Jewish people under Nicholas. As uprisings swelled around the Russian Empire, there was a wave of pogroms that swept the Pale of Settlement in 1903 -1906. The first of these took place in the city of Kishinev (modern Chișinău, Moldova) in 1903 and, in the next three years after, there were over 650 pogroms. Although scholars debate whether the Tsar was behind these attacks, the authorities certainly did not attempt to aid the Jewish. Official policy forbade troop participation in pogroms, yet there were many instances in which troops were encouraged to join pogromists. Besides the police, even if they had desired to cease these outbreaks, were insufficiently prepared. The city’s 50,000 Jews were vulnerable to the attacking Moldavian’s which resulted in 34 males (including 2 babies) and 7 females being murdered during the pogrom. These exceeded the total number of Jews killed in all the pogroms of 1881. Here is a clear example of the increasing violence that was the result of an anti-Semitic mentality that was approved from the top down.

In conclusion, the twentieth century revealed the ineffectiveness of the Russian Empire to incorporate its vast number of national and religious minorities into one Russia. The death of Tsar Nicholas II and his family at the hand of the multi-ethnic, revolutionary Bolsheviks which then led to the collapse of autocracy demonstrates this. If the tsar had been successful, then the Bolsheviks would not have had the political or social power and influence over the masses to be able to incite a revolt against the regime. When considering the effectiveness of the Empire and its methods of managing ethnic minorities, the low levels of satisfaction which are evidenced by the uprisings and rebellions, attest for the empire’s failures. Short term solutions throughout the period were used well to some extent however uneasy tensions were fostered between the masses and the state. The Tsar’s wanted loyal Orthodox subjects and instead they encouraged nationalist movements through their authoritarian strategies and involuntary Russification. This essay has shown that the management of ethnic minorities grew increasingly worse, and after the foreshock of the 1905 rebellion, the government was still unable to act accordingly to prevent a full-scale uprising only 12 years later.

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