Striking parallels exist between the collapse of the Soviet regime
in 1991 and the downfall of tsarism in 1917. The peasant
emancipation of 1861 under Alexander II inaugurated the era of the
“great reforms” of a liberal nature that, instead of reinvigorating
autocracy, sped it to its collapse. Because much of Russian life had
been constructed around the institution of serfdom, its abolition
inevitably necessitated liberalizing changes in areas including
local government, the judicial system, and the military. The “great
reform” laws of 1861–65 fundamentally altered the structure of the
empire, launching Russia’s transition from a semifeudal to something
approaching a modern capitalist society.
the final decade of the nineteenth century, the tsarist government
sponsored a massive modernization program that boosted the
development of capitalist relations across the empire and gave birth
to modern classes of the bourgeoisie and the industrial proletariat.
In the six decades between the peasant emancipation and the collapse
of tsarism, the process of modernization of the country’s social and
economic structures brought about a more open, dynamic, and
politically mature society.
First World War and revolution caught the tsarist empire in the
middle of a process of transformation (industrial, agrarian,
educational, and military), when most of the reforms were beginning
to produce their first results. Yet the tsarist empire’s political
evolution could not keep pace with its rapid socioeconomic progress.
The failure to adapt Russia’s antiquated government structure to the
fast-changing social, economic, and international conditions was
among the principal reasons for the downfall of tsarism.
The Soviet regime picked up the torch of modernization and, in the
late 1920s, launched its “socialist onslaught” that also lasted for
six decades. Like the tsarist government before it, the Soviet Union
collapsed not because its modernization efforts had taken it to the
periphery of contemporary civilization or into a historical
cul-de-sac. Both regimes crumbled under the burden of the
contradictions that developed within an increasingly involved and
complex modern society.