2. Imperial Russia: The last years of autocracy (1894 - 1914) (ATL)

This page covers a range of activities to help students understand the events of Nicholas II's reign: the growing tensions, impact of the 1905 revolution and outbreak of war.

Videos and ideas for using videos can be found on separate pages; see the menu on the left-hand side.

Guiding Questions:

What challenges faced Nicholas II when he became Tsar in 1894?

What was the nature of political opposition by 1905?

Why was a crisis brewing by 1905?

What was the significance of the 1905 Revolution?

Was Russia on the road to democracy by 1914?

1. What challenges faced Nicholas II when he became Tsar in 1894?

The first task aims to get students to consolidate their knowledge of Russia by 1894 before moving on to the causes of the February Revolution. Another way of doing the following task would be to divide the class into groups - each group taking a different area to give the presentation on.

Task One

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

It is 1894 and it is your task to give Nicholas II a briefing as to the state of the Empire that he has inherited from his father. You need to summarise for him the situation regarding (a) the peasantry (b) the urban workers (c) the national minorities (d) political opposition (e) the economy. This will involve summarising the impact of Alexander II and Alexander III's policies. Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Your presentation should end by giving advice to the Tsar on the direction his rule should take and possible reforms. (This depends on whether you are a Slavophile or a Westerner!)

Prepare a presentation of your conclusions and recommendations.

Click on the eye below for hints on what you should consider.


Impact of emancipation: grievances of peasants regarding redemption payments, small plots. Also impact of rising population, constraints of mir.

Urban workers:

How many? Working and living conditions, dangers of urban workers organizing politically - strikes?

National minorities:

Impact of Russification imposed by Alexander II and III - examples form Poland and Jews, pogroms.

Political opposition:

Impact of local government reforms and growing demands of liberals, Populism and The People's Will.


Agricultural methods re producing enough grain for Russia (but note that agricultural output rising by end of century...), industrial production - which areas growing fast (statistics?) Implications of this for urban areas and social unrest?

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

Read the following extract on Tsar Nicholas' character.

In pairs, discuss what aspects of his character would make it difficult for him to be an effective ruler given the issues facing Russia in 1894 that you will have identified in the previous task.

Nicholas II had taken the throne when his brother had unexpectedly died; he had not been prepared for the role and was not enthusiastic about taking it up. However, he retained the beliefs of his father regarding the importance of autocracy believing that he had a divine right to rule and that any moves towards a constitutional monarchy would be disastrous for Russia. He was no good at making decisions and disliked engaging in politics. He was also obstinate once he had decided on a course of action and he often kept his own views to himself rather than involving in a discussion as he disliked disagreements. His tutor, Pobedonostsev said that he could evaluate 'the importance of a fact only in isolation, without relation to the rest, without any link to the total of other facts, events, tendencies'. He was however a very sensitive and charming and a loving family man.

2. What was the nature of political opposition by 1905?

You have already read about the growth of Liberal opposition and about populism and The People's Will. By 1905 two new distinct political groups had emerged: the Social Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats.The Social Revolutionaries had grown out of the Populist movement. It was a loosely knit group which whose main policy involved distributing land to the peasants. This would follow a peasant-led popular rising which they hoped would overthrow the Tsarist government and establish a democratic republic. Before 1905 the SRs carried out many assassinations. The SRs also attracted urban workers (many of whom were ex-peasants) and intellectuals.

The Social Democrats based their beliefs on Karl Marx. Marx maintained that history always followed the path of 'class struggle' which ended up with the proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie and establishing a 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. Once all class enemies of the workers had been destroyed, conflict would end and there would be no need for a controlling government; society would be made up of people who were equal and who worked 'according to their ability' and lived 'according to their needs'. However the Social Democrats which were formed in 1898 then split into two groups at the Second Party Congress in 1903, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

Task One

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

Research further the aims, methods, structure and support of the key groups that made up opposition to the Tsar by 1900. You could complete the attached grid with your findings.

Grid on political opposition in Russia by 1900

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

Divide the class into groups.

Each group should take one of the opposition groups: liberals, Social Democrats, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks

Produce a propaganda poster setting out their views.

3. Why was a crisis brewing by 1905?

Economic factors

Sergei Witte was Finance Minister from 1892 to 1903. He put a lot of emphasis on increasing the railways, doubling the amount of state investment and doubling the amount of railway track in Russia. This was to help develop those industries associated with the railways, and to improve communications. However industry also needed massive state investment including expensive machinery which could only come from other European countries. To get the money for this he negotiated foreign loans and also increased taxation, both the state taxation and the taxation on essential items such as salt and kerosene. This hit the peasants hard. However the urban workers were also affected as their wages were kept low to enable as much money as possible to go towards industrial investment. Unfortunately, an international economic slump in 1902 meant that there was no market abroad for Russian goods and as the peasants and urban workers were unable to buy the goods due to being so poor, the manufacturing industry suffered and many workers lost their jobs. In addition, there were bad harvests in 1900 and 1902 which produced desperation in the peasants who were already suffering form Witte's taxation. There were widespread riots and disturbances which were put down by force.

The war with Japan

Hoping to divert attention away from the economic crisis at home, Nicholas decided to start a war with the Japanese where Russian expansionist ambitions in Korea and Manchuria were being threatened by the Japanese. The war however created more economic misery; shortages of food and rising prices. In addition, Russia was humiliated by Japanese victories at land and sea over the Russian army and navy. Anger was directed against the government because of its incompetence and there were growing demands for reform.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

The Giant of Brass, Brooklyn Eagle, May 2, 1904

  1. What is the message of this cartoon?
  2. How does this help to explain growing unrest within Russia?

The growing tension within Russia burst into revolution following the events of Bloody Sunday where the Tsar's troops fired on protesters in St Petersburg.

Watch the following excerpt from the movie Nicholas and Alexander which shows the events of Bloody Sunday before moving on the next task:

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

The workers who were fired on by the Tsar's troops were marching to the Winter Palace to present the Tsar with a petition. Read an extract from the petition below by clicking on the eye (the full petition can be found here) and answer the following questions:

  1. What do the workers complain about?
  2. What are their specific demands?
  3. What does the tone of the source tell you about the attitude of the workers towards the Tsar?


We, working men and inhabitants of St Petersburg, our wives and our children and our helpless old parents, have come to see You to seek truth, justice and protection.

Sire: we have no more strength. Our endurance is at an end. We have come to that terrible moment when it is better to die than to continue unbearable sufferings. And so we left our work and declared to our employers that we will not return to work until they meet our demands.

We do not ask much; we only want that without which life is hard labor and eternal suffering. Our first request was that our employers discuss our needs together with us. But they refused to do this...They regarded as illegal our other demands: to reduce the working day to eight hours; for them to set wages together with us and by agreement with us; to examine our disputes with lower-level factory administrators; to increase the wages of unskilled workers and women to one ruble per day; to abolish overtime work; to provide medical care attentively and without insult; to build shops so that it is possible to work there and not face death from the awful drafts, rain and snow.

..the bureaucratic administration has reduced the country to complete destitution, drawn it into a shameful war, and brings Russia ever further towards ruin. We, the workers and the people, have no voice in the expenditure of the enormous sums that are collected from us...The people are deprived of any possibility of expressing its wishes and demands, or of participating in the establishment of taxes and in their expenditure. Workers are deprived of the possibility of organising into unions to defend their interests.

Sovereign, examine our requests attentively and without any anger; they incline not to evil, but to the good, both for us and for you. Ours is not the voice of insolence but of the realisation that we must get out of a situation that is unbearable for everyone.

We need popular representation; it is necessary for the people to help itself and to administer itself. After all, only the people knows its real needs… ... Let everyone, whoever they are, elect their representatives. Let everyone be free and equal in his voting rights, and to that end order that elections to the Constituent Assembly be conducted under universal, secret and equal suffrage…


Task Three

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

Pull together the causes of the 1905 revolution under the following headings:

Long-term: grievances of peasants, urban workers, intelligentsia, revolutionaries, minorities

Short-term: actions of Nicholas II - his policies, Witte's economic policies, impact of Russo-Japanese war

Spark: Bloody Sunday

Create a clear diagram to show these causes and how they led to the outbreak of revolution.

4. What was the significance of the 1905 Revolution?

The 1905 Revolution went on for most of the year and consisted of a series of strikes, demonstrations, petitions, political meetings, mutinies. It involved workers, students, teachers, doctors, civil servants, sailors, national minorities. The demands of the different groups included representative government and civil rights (liberals), independence (Finns and the Poles), equal civil rights (Jews), improved working conditions (urban workers). In many cities soviets were established - these were councils of workers; the most important of these was the St. Petersburg soviet. The climax of opposition came with a general strike in October.

The government was forced to carry out a number of concessions which included the October Manifesto which appeased the liberals, and he also agreed to end the redemption payments of the peasants. However, force was also used. With the soldiers returning home from the Russo-Japanese War, Nicholas II was able to crush the soviets in the cities and bring the countryside under his control.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

1. Read the October Manifesto which you can read by clicking on the eye below or by going here.

  1. What are the key promises made by the Tsar here?
  2. What is the 'tone' of this source?
  3. Which social groups would this manifesto satisfy in particular?

'On the improvement of order in the state

The disturbances and unrest in St Petersburg, Moscow and in many other parts of our Empire have filled Our heart with great and profound sorrow. The welfare of the Russian Sovereign and His people is inseparable and national sorrow is His too. The present disturbances could give rise to national instability and present a threat to the unity of Our State.

The oath which We took as Tsar compels Us to use all Our strength, intelligence and power to put a speedy end to this unrest which is so dangerous for the State. The relevant authorities have been ordered to take measures to deal with direct outbreaks of disorder and violence and to protect people who only want to go about their daily business in peace.

However, in view of the need to speedily implement earlier measures to pacify the country, we have decided that the work of the government must be unified. We have therefore ordered the government to take the following measures in fulfilment of our unbending will:

1. Fundamental civil freedoms will be granted to the population, including real personal inviolability, freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association.

2. Participation in the Duma will be granted to those classes of the population which are at present deprived of voting powers, insofar as is possible in the short period before the convocation of the Duma, and this will lead to the development of a universal franchise. There will be no delay to the Duma elect already organised.

3. It is established as an unshakeable rule that no law can come into force without its approval by the State Duma and representatives of the people will be given the opportunity to take real part in the supervision of the legality of government bodies.

We call on all true sons of Russia to remember the homeland, to help put a stop to this unprecedented unrest and, together with this, to devote all their strength to the restoration of peace to their native land.

Nicholas II
Tsar of all the Russias

2. Now read and extract from 'The Fundamental Laws of the Kingdom' which the Tsar published a few months later. (you can read more of the document here)

  1. What is the tone of this source?
  2. What is the message of this source regarding the future direction of constitutional reform?

The Emperor of All the Russias possesses Supreme Sovereign Power. Obedience to His authority, not only out of fear, but in good conscience, is ordained by God Himself.

The initiative in all legislative matters belongs to the Sovereign Emperor. Only upon His initiative may the Fundamental Laws be subject to revision by (in) the State Council and the State Duma.

The Sovereign Emperor ratifies laws and without His ratification (approval) no laws can go into effect.

Total administrative power belongs to the Sovereign Emperor throughout the entire Russian State. At the highest level of administration His authority is direct; at subordinate levels of administration He entrusts a certain degree of power, in conformity with the law, to the proper agencies or officials, who act in His name and in accordance with His orders…

The Sovereign Emperor is in charge of all external relations of the Russian Government with foreign powers. He determines the direction of the Russian Government’s foreign policy.

The Sovereign Emperor declares war, concludes peace, and negotiates treaties with foreign states.

The Sovereign Emperor is the Supreme Commander of the Russian army and navy.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

1. In pairs discuss the following reasons which can be given for the failure of the 1905 Revolution. What evidence can be provided for each reason? Which of these factors do you consider to be most significant in bringing about the end to the Revolution?

  • The opposition lacked unity. The different social groups, liberals, workers, peasants all had different aims.
  • No revolutionary leaders emerged to provide direction or cohesion. (Trotsky was involved in the soviet in St. Petersberg)
  • Many of the protests aimed only for concessions rather than revolutionary change of government
  • The liberals were not interested in a Marxist style revolution and were happy to accept the October Manifesto and bring an end to violent unrest
  • The regime used right-wing forces, known as Black Hundreds, who were keen to preserve the monarchy, to attack different groups, in particular Poles, Finns and Jews

2. What do you think this liberal meant when he said, 'Thank God for the Tsar who has saved us from the people'?

Task Three

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

  1. Complete the attached grid to show the impact of the 1905 Revolution on Russia
  2. In pairs discuss whether you believe that the 1905 was a failure or a success

Grid on impact of 1905 Revolution

Task Four

ATL: Thinking skills

What, according to this account, was the significance of the 1905 Revolution?

The 1905 Revolution ended up not being a revolution at all; it had not resulted in the overthrow of the Tsar or brought about an end to the Tsarist social system. In fact, within a month, the Tsar had reasserted his authority with the Fundamental Laws of the Kingdom and his interference with the Duma prevented any kind of meaningful Parliamentary government. However, the fact that his promises were not fulfilled alienated large sections of the liberals and this would contribute to the causes and the success of the February revolution in 1917.

5. Was Russia on the road to democracy by 1914?

The years between 1906 and 1914 have been interpreted in different ways by historians. Some historians, 'the optimists', claim that social political and economic developments within Russia indicate that it was evolving into a more modern and broadly based state. Thus it was only the devastating impact of the First World War that brought about its collapse.

Conversely, the 'pessimists' argue that the lack of any substantial change by the Tsar towards his style of government combined with the continual repression and growing industrial unrest indicate that Russia was already on the brink of revolution in 1914. Thus the war only delayed the impending revolution. 

Task One

ATL: Thinking, research and communication skills

Your task is to research the political, economic and social aspects of Russia in the years 1906 - 1914 and to decide whether you follow the 'optimistic' or the 'pessimistic' views regarding Russia during this period. Research the following areas:

  • Constitutional and political developments
  • Stolypin's agrarian reforms
  • The situation regarding industrial workers and minority groups
  • Industrial development
  • Social reforms

1. Either make notes on each area, and/or complete the attached grid.

Was Russia on the brink of revolution in 1914: grid of evidence

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

1. Following your research, which of the two view points below do you now agree with?

'Had the war not intervened, the confrontation between the authorities and the rest of the population would possibly have come sooner than 1917'  Martin McCauley

'In spite of all of the imperfections and drawbacks of the new departures, it seems safe to say that [the political, economic and social reforms] contained the elements of the future progress of the nation along the road that had been followed by other countries' Michael Florinsky

2. Organise a class debate:

'This House believes that Russia was on the brink of revolution by 1914'

The instructions for students are as follows:

There should be three speakers for each side.

The first speaker should set out the main arguments that their team will be putting forward and give some evidence for at least two of these arguments.

The second speaker should respond to any points made by the first speaker on the other side and then go on to develop at least two more points.

After the first two speakers on each side have spoken, the debate should be opened up to questions from the floor and anyone who has not given a speech should ask a question.

Finally, the last speaker on each side should speak. They should address questions that were raised from the floor as well as refuting any arguments from the other side. They should summarise their team's key points again.

Note that your teacher will be deciding which side wins and points will be given for valid arguments backed up with precise evidence. Credit will also be given for using the views of historians to support your points as well as responding to arguments from the opposing team and to questions from the floor.

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