• Haozhen Xu

What Made Russia, Russia?

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, aristocratic monarchies transited to the more democratic constitutional monarchy. Following the industrial revolution in the 1700s and 1800s, well-constructed societies across the globe, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France, and Japan all benefited from technological, agricultural, and industrial advancement. In Tsarist Russia, however, neither democracy nor industrialization succeeded. Instead, Russia suffered from internal poverty and instability. The twenty-six years old Nicolas II, succeeding his father Alexander III from 1894, had the responsibility to industrialize, modernize, and sustain the empire. The fall of the monarchy can be credited to the poor decisions of the last Tsar, as well as the inferior circumstances of the nation in the early 1900s.

The poor governance of Tsar Nicolas II and his failure to adopt appropriate advice from his advisors triggered the loss of public faith, which ultimately resulted in the February Revolution. In 1896, Nicolas II made his first attempt to reduce poverty and increase public morale with the Khodynka Feast. Unfortunately, the disorganized nature of the event caused caused the crowd to panic, which resulted in the death of more than a thousand. This prompted a loss of faith in the new Tsar and Tsardom system, especially from the already starving peasants. Not only has Nicolas’ policies failed, but he also lacked the ability to comprehend the value of his advisors. In The October Revolution by Roy Medvedev, Prince Yevgeny Trubetskoi wrote to Nicholas II “Sire, the peasants’ desire for land has irresistible force...Anyone who is opposed to compulsory alienation will be swept from the face of the earth...Civil war is only a matter of time.” Yet, the Tsar remained faithful in the legacy of his ancestors, relied on the already outdated monarchal system that has been replaced by more democratic systems in most of Europe, and enjoyed the luxurious life with the upper class. This clearly presents the ignorance of the Tsar, and his outdated belief, which ultimately led to the internal uprising of the lower classes, resulting in the February revolution.

Although Nicolas II failed to sustain his empire, he is not all to blame. Surrounded by frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean and Tundras, the highly agricultural Russia lacked international trade routes in the age of globalization to sustain its economy. In Raymond W. Goldsmith’s article, "The Economic Growth of Tsarist Russia 1860-1913," we can see that “the volume of total agricultural output may be estimated to have increased at a rate of not more than 2 percent per year”, however, “As late as 1913 approximately two-thirds of the population was attached to agriculture and almost one-half of the national income was derived from it”(Goldsmith). These statistics present an apparent imbalance between the economic output of the empire and its heavily agricultural population in its natural state and the importance of international trade to Russia. If trading was limited, then the Russian population was destined to Xu 2 starve. Unfortunately, the biggest problem that Russia faced was exactly the lack of warm water trading ports to sustain its inputs and outputs. Located in the north, Russian ports were frozen for the most time of the year, and warm water trade ports were crucial to the Russian economy. After the loss of the Pacific ports in China to the Japanese in 1905’s Russo-Japanese War, the only possible access to warm water and safe its economy was through the Balkans. This encouraged the Russian monarchy to establish an alliance with Serbia, which also threatened Austria-Hungary’s interest in the region. Considering the involvement of Britain, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, we can see that fixing the economy of the Russian economy seemed impossible, especially knowing that industrialization failed in most parts of the empire. Thus, by 1914, 85% of the population still remained as peasants, and the overall economic growth of Russia dropped from an average of 9% between 1894-1900 to 5% from 1900-1914 (Revisionworld). Furthermore, when tensions escalated in the region in 1914, Russia was dragged into the turmoil of the Great War, resulting in the loss of the faith of the Russian people in the Romanov Monarchy. Therefore, the poor geographical conditions that limited the number of warm water ports during Nicolas II’s rule were the main causes of the economic collapse of Tsarist Russia in the early 1900s and can be considered as one of the biggest factors for the fall of the monarchy.

The fall of the monarchy marks one of the biggest tragedies of Russia, but it is also a remarkable transformation of Russian society. Tensions between classes built up through the years of the hierarchy system under the Tsardom finally erupted with the unbearable circumstances of the nation and the last Tsar’s poor decisions in the early 20th century, which allowed Russia to redevelop itself as a modernized nation. Extreme political ideologies such as Communism thrived in these conditions, and mass destruction of the past and rapid development of up-to-date projects allowed Russia to boost in every way possible, and thrive on the world stage till this day.


“A History of the World - Object : Coronation Cup 1896 Tzar Nicholas 2nd.” BBC, BBC,

ROLLIN HU | April 14. “Spring Fair and the Khodynka Meadow.” Letter, 14 Apr. 2016,

Medvedev, Roy A. The October Revolution. Columbia Univ. Pr., 1979.

Chamberlin, William Henry. “The First Russian Revolution.” The Russian Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 1967, pp. 4–12.

JSTOR, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Gottschalk, Louis. “Causes of Revolution.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 50, no. 1, 1944, pp. 1–8. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Basil Maklakov. “On the Fall of Tsardom.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 18, no. 52, 1939, pp. 73–92.

JSTOR, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Heyking, Baron. “The Root Causes of Bolshevism.” Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, vol.

10, no. 4, 1928, pp. 248–258. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993, pp. 22–49. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021

Photo by Irina Grotkjaer on Unsplash

To read more articles from Haozhen Xu click here