What Were the Difficulties in Governing Russia in 1900?

by KathleenDuffy

Tsar Nicholas II ruled over a vast Russian Empire. Governance was hard due to Russia's vast size, harsh climate, varied nationalities, and travel difficulties.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Russia was still a backward country ruled over by an autocratic Tsar. A number of practical problems contributed to the difficulties of governing this vast land.

The main difficulties were:

• The size of the Russian Empire
• Travel/Communication difficulties
• Existence of different national groups

The Size of the Russian Empire in 1900

Map of the Russian Empire 1800-1900
Map of the Russian Empire 1800-1900

From east to west the Russian Empire spanned over 4,000 miles and from north to south, approximately 2,000 miles. It measured one-sixth of the world’s total land mass.

Countryside between Moscow & St Petersburg
Countryside between Moscow & St Peter...
c. K Duffy
Dachas in the forest
Dachas in the forest
K Duffy

The frozen tundra, miles of impenetrable forests, huge areas of grassland known as the Steppes, as well as the desert areas to the south, made up the complex features of the Russian landscape. In addition, each location had its own, often harsh, climate.

In 1900 governing such a land and its varied inhabitants was a bureaucratic and technological nightmare.

In addition, Russia’s industrial backwardness meant that movement between towns, cities and rural communities was fraught with difficulties.

Travel in Russia in 1900 - Roads

Troika by Perov
Troika by Perov
Troika in Winter by Sverchkov
Troika in Winter by Sverchkov

Roads in Russia were extremely primitive outside of the large cities. Major centres like St Petersberg and Moscow might boast paved roads but in the provincial towns rutted earth, which      turned to mud, was the norm.

In winter these ruts became ice, making travelling by horse-drawn sleigh a hazardous business.

Roads were often blocked and even when clear, travel was slow and tedious.

Travel in Russia in 1900 - Rivers

View to the Academy of Arts from the Neva River - Logorio
View to the Academy of Arts from the ...
Barge Haulers on the River Volga - Repin
Barge Haulers on the River Volga - Repin

Since many of the main towns and cities were situated  near rivers, steamboats were a popular means of transport for people taking long journeys.

In particular, the River Volga played a vital role in the movement of people from Moscow to cities as far as Astrakhan.

In winter, when the rivers froze solid, sleighs replaced boats.

It's interesting to note in the painting above by Repin that the barge is being hauled by human power whilst in the very distance there is a steamboat visible by the smoke from its funnel.  A commentary perhaps by the artist on the waste of resources by the state and a disregard for the welfare of its citizens?

Travel in Russia in 1900 - Railways

The Railway Guard by Repin
The Railway Guard by Repin

Although there had been a railway boom in the 1890s, by 1900 Russian railways were still confined to European Russia. This was the main agricultural area where the population was greatest.

The exception was the Trans-Siberian railway. Work began on this route in 1891 and the last stages were completed in 1904. It ran from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok on the east coast.

The journey took more than a week, yet  proved vital in opening up the Siberian wilderness to settlement and  trade, in a similar way to the development of the American west.

Bashkir switchman on the Trans-Siberian, European Russia
Bashkir switchman on the Trans-Siberi...

The People of the Russian Empire in 1900

Tartar Women of the Caucasus, 1895
Tartar Women of the Caucasus, 1895
Portrait of a kalmyk by Repin
Portrait of a kalmyk by Repin

In 1900 the Russian Empire was made up of approximately 150 million people. The majority lived west of the Ural Mountains, in European Russia, and had developed a deep pride in their customs and religion.

However, less than half the population of the Empire regarded themselves as true Russians, belonging to nationalities conquered by the European Russians of the west. They had their own languages and cultures.

Therefore, a major problem in governing Russia at this period was the deep resentment amongst many of the national groups towards their conquerors. A policy of ‘Russification’ (being forced to speak Russian, wear Russian clothing and adopt Russian customs) brought about widespread dissatisfaction.

Areas such as Finland, Poland and Latvia were overseen by Russian bureaucrats who ensured the Russian language was spoken in key areas such as law courts, schools and in local government.

In addition to seething resentments, divisions between national groups themselves exacerbated the situation.

Siberian Cossak
Siberian Cossak

The Cossacks were an exception.

Their skills at fighting on horseback made them invaluable to the Russian government. They were rewarded with land in return for service in the army and, as a result, were extremely loyal to the Tsar.

Books About the History of Russian Groups

A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990

This is the first ethnohistory of Siberia to appear in English, and presents to an anglophone audience a vast corpus of previously inaccessible ethnographic and linguistic mater...

View on Amazon

A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present

Now back in print in a new edition!A Century of AmbivalenceThe Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the PresentSecond, Expanded EditionZvi GitelmanA richly illustrated s...

View on Amazon

The Cossacks

This book covers 500 years of the history of the Cossacks -- the recklessly brave, wild horsemen, or the romantic hero of the steppe, or the brutal mounted policemen, as they ha...

View on Amazon

Russia's Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800

"Khodarkovsky provides a detailed chronological narrative of Russia’s steppe relations, which conveys brilliantly the depth of Moscow’s engagement in the world of steppe politic...

View on Amazon

Main Problems in Governing Russia in 1900 - Summary

Ice on the River Neva, St Petersburg
Ice on the River Neva, St Petersburg
c. K Duffy

These key stumbling blocks:

  • size and varied climate
  • lack of efficient means of communication
  • and the existence of different, often hostile, national groups

were all contributing factors to the difficulties of governing Russia in 1900.

Despite a vast network of spies, informers, police and army officials spanning the Russian Empire, Tsar Nicholas II would find it increasingly difficult to cling to power.

The spectre of revolt was ever present.

Source:  Russia & the USSR 1905-1942 by Terry Fiehn (John Murray, 1999)

Updated: 07/10/2013, KathleenDuffy
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


KathleenDuffy on 07/25/2013

Jo - Thanks so much for the comment! Appreciated! :)

JoHarrington on 07/25/2013

It fascinated me to see just how many people were subject to 'Russification'. Great article. Thank you.

KathleenDuffy on 07/11/2013

I would love to do the Trans Siberian railway too - going to Russia was something I had always wanted to do - it was a great experience. so glad you found the article interesting. Thanks for your post! :-)

EliasZanetti on 07/11/2013

It was definitely a time of poitical and social turmoil leading eventually to one of the most important turning points of the 20th century. Great article. I enjoyed in particular the Trans-Siberian Railway and the suggested books. It is one of the my most promonent bucket list entries :) I just hope one day to take the ride!

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