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Russia at the beginning of the 20th century


Russia in 1917
Russia in 1917

At the start of the 20th century Russia was an empire with an undemocratic political and social system that had evolved over several centuries. This system was headed by an absolute monarch, popularly known as the tsar but officially titled emperor, who ruled with an iron hand. Maintaining the tsar’s power were a vast bureaucracy, an army that swore loyalty to the tsar, and a repressive political police force that had a presence in virtually every city and town. The Russian political system, often referred to as the tsarist regime or simply tsarism, involved the repression of civil liberties, intellectual freedom, and human rights in general. Its policies included the persecution of various religious minorities outside the Russian Orthodox Church, which was supported by the state. The tsarist regime sought to expand its domination over neighboring non-Russian peoples and to secure its position as a major world power. It brutally subordinated many ethnic and national groups, so much so that the Russian Empire was sometimes referred to as a “prison-house of nations.”

The royal family was at the top of a small but immensely powerful layer of wealthy nobles, who owned most of the land. The nobility maintained itself in luxury at the expense of the great majority of the people, who were impoverished peasants. The peasants made up about 80 percent of the population in 1917. There were other social classes in Russia in addition to the landed nobles and poor peasants. These other classes included capitalists, workers, and professionals, and they became an increasingly important part of Russian society in the 19th century. To keep up economically and militarily with the other major world powers, the tsarist regime encouraged the development of industry in the later 19th century. One new class that resulted from the development of industry was the capitalists, or big-business men.

These were the people who put up the capital, or money resources, needed to develop industry. They played a key role in the building and operation of many large factories. The capitalists (sometimes known as the bourgeoisie, or middle class) were essential to Russian economic development. Yet they were little more than junior partners in the tsarist system.

The development of industry created another major, and much larger, social class: the wage-earning working class (sometimes known as the proletariat). Many of these people worked in the new factories. Some workers viewed the private ownership of the factories and the profit making of the capitalists as inherently unfair and exploitive.

The working class made up slightly more than 10 percent of the population in 1917. However, these workers lived in a few large cities, many knew how to read and write, and they were receptive to a growing variety of new social and cultural influences. Moreover, their labor was essential in producing the goods and services of Russia’s new factories and service industries. For all these reasons, the working class was a major force for social change. In growing numbers, the workers of Russia were inclined to organize trade unions to struggle for better working conditions and living standards. However, both the tsarist regime and the capitalists often repressed their efforts for reforms. This repression, combined with poor working and living conditions, led many workers to become highly political and to support revolutionary organizations.

A smaller but still important social class comprised intermediate layers of small-business people and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and writers. Some of these people strove to achieve the “respectability” associated with the upper classes, but others sympathized or identified with the lower classes of workers and peasants. A significant number of men and women from these intermediate layers—as well as small numbers from the upper classes—became critical-minded intellectuals who were drawn in a revolutionary direction. "Russia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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