government’s policy of suppressing every current of opposition
thought and its refusal to engage in any meaningful political
interaction with society were combined with an attempt to resurrect
the outdated official doctrine of Orthodoxy-Autocracy-Nationality
devised in the conservative era of Nicholas I. It was now
‘repackaged’ as the theory of ‘people’s
autocracy’, which presented Russia’s autocratic form of
government as a most ideal and advanced political system.
ideologues of the new official theory, such as Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907), Procurator of the Holy Synod and one of
the key advisers to Alexander III, promulgated the notion of a close
unity of the tsar and the people. However, this notion was in
principle different from the ideas of the liberal-minded Slavophiles
who saw the clearest expression of such unity in a popular assembly.
By contrast, the official theory upheld the privileged position of
the nobility as ‘the live link between the tsar and the people’.
Based on the chauvinistic idea of superiority of all things Slavic
in general and Russian in particular, the official doctrine was
translated into the enforced policy of Russification, a policy that could
hardly cement together a multiethnic empire like Russia, where
ethnic Russians, at the end of the nineteenth century, made up only
45 per cent of the whole population. Jews, Polish Catholics, Baltic
Protestants, Central-Asian Muslims - all fell victim in a greater or
lesser degree to this ill-conceived policy. A whole battery of
discriminatory legislation was devised aimed at suppressing various
manifestations of non-Russian national identity and un-Orthodox
religious practices. Even the use of native languages - for example
Polish in Polish schools - was selectively banned and the learning
of Russian made compulsory in some of the non-Russian borderlands.
Even the East Slavs, Ukrainians and Belorussians, who were
ethnically and culturally most close to Great Russians, were denied
their cultural identity and were officially regarded as ‘Russians’,
while their language and culture were not recognized as being
separate from Russian.
The only national region which was allowed to retain its special
legislation, a representative assembly and its own monetary system
was Finland. However, its autonomy was constantly under threat. In
the period between 1898 and 1905 Finland was subjected to
particularly harsh Russification which provoked a violent
nationalist backlash culminating in the assassination of the
Governor-General of Finland, Bobrikov, in 1904.
The Jewish community was singled out for particularly vindictive
treatment and racialist attacks. It was an open secret that
Alexander III was a convinced anti-Semite. Under him special
legislation was introduced on the Jews which restricted their rights
and forbade them to live outside the so called ‘Pale of Settlement’
limited to 25 provinces on the territory of Russia and Poland. The
discrimination against the Jews eventually led to the emergence of a
‘Zionist’ movement in search of a separate Jewish homeland.
Despite the authorities’ preoccupation with maintaining a privileged
status for the Russians, the nationalities policy had no beneficial
effect on the economic well-being of the ethnic Russian population.
The standards of life in the Russian heartlands were often lower
than on the ethnic periphery. In Ukraine, the Caucasus, Poland, the
Baltic and Finland, the government’s policy of systematic Russification not only failed to halt the emergence of nationalist
movements, but stimulated ever stronger demands for greater cultural
and political autonomy.