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Empire in the Nineteenth Century

 

At the turn of the eighteenth century Russias transformation into a powerful empire with a leading role in world politics was complete. Her position as one of the continents three or four greatest military powers was universally recognized. Russia had acquired vast new territories, her economic and human resources had considerably increased. Yet the main features of Russian life remained the same. The great empire was a poor, backward country with a predominantly agricultural economy and rural population. The potential of the traditional system had been exhausted. Catherine the Greats attempts to infuse it with the liberal spirit of the Enlightenment failed.  

With the impact of the French Revolution, Russian absolutism became unenlightened and reactionary. Having at least to some degree assisted the development of the Russian Empire in the first century of its existence, the autocracy now became a dead weight on progress in all the major sectors of the national life.

The Reading of the Emancipation Manifesto. By B. Kustodiev

In the economic sphere, serfdom was now clearly the chief obstacle to the process of modernization of the country. The perpetuation of the twin institutions of autocracy and serfdom led to the ever widening gap in levels of development between Russia and the leading countries of Western Europe.

The peasant emancipation of 1861 was a major turning point in Russian history. The Russian peasant was finally given his personal freedom. Yet the government did all it could to compensate the landowners for the loss of their servile labor and make the peasantry shoulder this compensation. The contradictory nature of the peasant reform aggravated the traits of backwardness in village life and in the final analysis led to a deeper crisis. By conserving some of the elements and relations of the old serfdom system the peasant reform hindered the development of the institution of small- and medium-scale private ownership, particularly the ownership of land. Village communes adhered to archaic production methods which perpetuated the backwardness of the rural economy and the poverty of the peasants. By the end of the century the economic well-being of the peasantry further deteriorated as a result of a vast increase in the size of the population and the growing burden of taxation imposed by the government to finance its ambitious industrialization program. The Great Famine of 1891-92, which struck twenty provinces of Russia, was symptomatic of the severity of problems in the countryside.

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The End of an Empire

 

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