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Government Reaction

 

The reign of Alexander III (1881-1894) and the reign of Nicholas II (1894-1917) until the Revolution of 1905 formed a period of continuous reaction. Narrow-minded and convinced traditionalists, the son and grandson of the Tsar Liberator not only rejected political change, but tried hard to reverse or limit the effect of the many reforms that had already been implemented.  

 
Alexander III. By I. Kramskoy

The chief characteristic of Alexander III’s reign was political stagnation coupled with growing aggressiveness towards any, however feeble, attempts to limit the monolithic power of the autocratic government. In the 1880s the arsenal of the autocratic ‘police state’ was augmented by the introduction of new instruments of control and repression, ‘departments on protection of order and public security’, which came to be known simply as okhrana. They took over many of the duties of the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery abolished by Loris-Melikov as a concession to liberal opinion in the last year of Alexander II’s reign. The okhrana had the functions of secret political police, including the setting-up of a network of undercover agents and informers in all social sectors.

New legislative measures were enacted designed to give the coercive apparatus of state unlimited prerogatives. Laws on local administration were revised in order to reduce the influence of the liberal element in the zemstvos and to strengthen the conservative gentry membership in them. As a result, the zemstvos were put under tight supervision of the central government. The popular press was subjected to rigorous censorship with many progressive periodicals forced to close down. Even book collections in public libraries came under the scrutiny of the censors, who purged them of any publications deemed ‘subversive’. These retrograde measures served to undermine the fragile foundations of formal legality laid down in Alexander II’s reign. 

The excessive aggressiveness with which the tsarist regime protected its power monopoly served merely to antagonize further the left-wing opposition and provided it with moral ammunition to justify the use of revolutionary terror. The radicals’ hatred of the authorities only grew more bitter, while their doctrines became ever more extreme. Alexander III’s government reaction was not, however, limited to the repression against the radical left. It rejected outright any compromise even with the liberal opposition. For many years the Russian press was forbidden even to mention the idea of a national representative assembly in whatever form. It would resurface again only in the conditions of a revolutionary crisis on the eve of the Revolution of 1905. 

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