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The Crimean War

The Revolutionary Masses

The age of Nicholas I represented in many ways the pinnacle of achievement for the Russian monarchy. Never in its whole history was it as powerful both at home and abroad. Nicholas I managed to maintain the status quo within the country by doing everything in his power to freeze its social and political development for the three decades of his reign. However, he turned away from reform at a time when the rest of Europe was undergoing rapid transformation under the influence of the developing capitalism. While capitalism was only slowly beginning to affect Russia, it was revolutionizing Great Britain, Belgium, and France. The great industrial revolution spreading across the continent of Europe stopped short of the Russian borders. In agriculture, the institution of serfdom and the inability of most landowners to modernize their estates blocked any major change. The empire of the tsars failed to keep pace with other European countries. By the middle of the nineteenth century it appeared to many ‘a colossus on feet of clay’.  

Map: wps.ablongman.com

Russian backwardness was dramatically revealed at the close of Nicholas’ reign during the Crimean war (1853-56) in which an isolated Russia was opposed by the British, French, Turks and Piedmontese. The war showed Russia to be military inferior to the more industrialized countries of Western Europe. The Russians’ weapons and military equipment proved obsolete. Russian infantry’s small-arms  were no match for modern West European rifles which could open fire at four times the distance of Russian antiquated handguns. The Black Sea fleet, composed of wooden sailing vessels, could not compete with the steam-propelled warships of the allies. In addition, the country’s transportation system failed to serve adequately the needs of the war. Unlike their stand in 1812 against Napoleon, in the Crimea the Russians were unable to defend their own territory against outside invasion.

Russia’s defeats in the Crimean War seriously undermined her military prestige and dealt a severe blow to national self-esteem. They even provided grounds for talks about Nicholas having deliberately taken his own life. The catastrophe of the war underlined the pressing need for fundamental reforms. It sounded a painful alarm call and was one of the causes of the series of important internal reforms which were carried out by Nicholas’s heir, Alexander II (1855-1881).

The Crimean War and the subsequent reforms of Alexander II  underscored with absolute clarity, for the second time since Peter’s reign, the significance of competition with the West as one of the key factors in Russian history. The entire Russian history of the past three centuries, ever since the days of Peter the Great, has been punctuated by reforms induced by the Russian government’s efforts to catch up with and overtake their Western rivals. Dominic Lieven presents Russian modern and contemporary history in terms of  three great cycles of modernization spread over the past three centuries, all of them triggered by the factor of competition with the West. Each of the three cycles was initiated from above, by the state, and each was designed to achieve parity or better in the competition with the leading Western Great powers.

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Alexander II

 

Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
Catherine the Great
Alexander I
Nicholas I
Alexander II
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Appearance of Marxism
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