The rule of the last two tsars,
Alexander III and Nicholas II, in the
years 1881 to 1904.
Alexander III
Alexander III (1845-94) was the second
son of Alexander II. He was in the
army until the death of his elder
brother in 1865. He was tutored by
Konstantin Pobedonostev, a firm
repression, who taught him that
indications of cowardice and failure
on his part.
Alexander had
watched his father die and was so
fearful of revolutionary activity that
he lived in a fortified palace in
Alexander was very
strong and looked like an autocrat.
He had a commanding character.
He married a Danish Princess,
Dagmar (Maria Feodorovna),
and had six children. He died
young, of a kidney ailment,
possibly brought on by heavy
Nicholas II
Nicholas II (1868-1918) grew up in his
father’s shadow and was never rated
very highly by him. He was small,
naturally reserved and regarded by his
father as a dunce and a weakling.
Alexander even referred to him as
‘girlie’. Nicholas had excellent manners,
a good memory and could speak
several languages, but he was not a
practical man. Politics bored him.
When his father died in 1894, Nicholas
said to his cousin, ‘What is going to
happen to me and all of Russia? I am
not prepared to be a tsar. I never
wanted to become one. I know nothing
of the business of ruling. I have no idea
of even how to talk to the ministers.’
However, he accepted his
inheritance as God-given
and set out to rule in the
‘Romanov way’, asserting
himself against the growing
reform movement.
reign was marked by
revolutions in 1905 and
The reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II were characterised by three things:
Repression and an end to
reform (up to 1904).
The development of
opposition groups.
The beginning of
industrial progress and
Both tsars believed that....
• their power was undermined by western ideas
and urban discontent.
• the solution was to turn back the clock and halt
reform, even avoiding the ‘western’ St
• strong centralised control should be reasserted
with the nobility and police given a central role.
• concessions were a sign of weakness. Neither tsar
was prepared to contemplate the dilution of
autocracy by a system of representative
assemblies (this can be seen as the influence of
Alexander III
• Wanted to re-assert the personal authority of the tsar – he began his
reign by hanging those who were involved in his father’s death.
• Alexander introduced new legislation to extend the powers of the
police. The Gendarmerie was the uniformed security police responsible
for law enforcement and state security. The Gendarmes investigated
political and criminal cases, tracked down fugitives, controlled riots and
was staffed entirely by noble army officers who relied on a network of
• The Gendarmerie operated around the country and the Okhrana was
based in St Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw. They intercepted mail,
checked up on factories, army and universities and detained suspects,
often resorting to torture and executions. Communists, socialists and
trade unionists were particular targets of their investigations but they
also watched members of the government.
• From 1882 any area of the Empire could be deemed an ‘area of
subversion’ and police agents could search, arrest, detain, question,
imprison or exile those who had committed a crime or were thought
likely to!
• Arrested persons had no right to legal representation.
• There was also a drive to recruit spies, counter-spies and ‘agents
provocateur’ who would pose as revolutionaries to incriminate others.
Alexander III
• Land -Captains - recruited from the nobility and
given wide-ranging powers, inculding the power
to overrule the zemstva and ignore judicial
process and overturn court judgments. Until 1904
they could publicly flog peasants for minor
offences. In 1889 they were given the powers of
• An 1885 decree re-introduced closed court
sessions without juries for a number of crimes.
• 1890 peasants’ vote in elections for the zemstva
Nicholas II
• Less suited to being an autocrat – indecisive/ fearful of capable minsters
• Profound misjudgement – dismissed the complaints of the zemstva and
ignored their calls for constitutional govt, purging the zemstva of liberals
in 1900
• He ignored the disturbances created by the growing working class in the
towns who, encouraged by the revolutionary groups of the 1890s began to
organise illegal strikes, demand higher wages and better conditions
• However, under Witte more police were recruited and surveillance
stepped up 1893 – army called out 19 times/1899 – 50 times/1902 – 522
• Under martial law, strikers could be arrested and executed without trial.
• Lower class children excluded from secondary education
• Universities state controlled/women barred/under both tsars student
demonstrations crushed e.g. In 1901 - Heavy-handed police action in St
Petersburg – mounted Cossacks charged into a crowd of students, killling
13. This radicalised others.
Both tsars - Nationalism and Russification
• Both tsars believed in ‘Nationalism’ which was spread through a
state policy of Russification which involved forcing the Russian
language and culture on different ethnic groups.
• It also involved anti-semitism which resulted in the pogroms against
the Jews, most horrifically in 1881 in the Ukraine. The authorities
turned a blind eye, with the Okhrana probably encouraging the
rioters. Troubles continued intermittently until 1884 – Jewish
property burnt, women raped and many killed.
• Pobedonostev was a partcular anti-semite and laws brought in
which discriminate against them.
• Poland and Finland suffered attempts to destroy their national
• Risings of ethnic peoples mercilessly suppressed.
• The effect was to drive many Jews abroad, others joined
revolutionary groups, especially Marxist ones.
• 1897 – General Union of Jewish Workers set up which played a
significant part in the growth of opposition to Nicholas II.
• Prominent Jews included Trotsky and Martov.
By 1904 Russia in turmoil
• Widespread unrest in towns and countryside and Nicholas
seemed powerless, dismissing competent men like Witte in
• No effective leadership in these years from the tsar and
where he did act he created resentment ‘autocracy without
an autocrat’.
• True – a difficult job in changing times but he lacked the
wisdom to change or take advice, indulging in a fantasy of
absolute power.
• 1903-04 turbulent - so much arson in countryside that time
known as ‘the years of the Red Cockerel’. Peasants set fire to
their landlords’ barns, destroying grain
• Industrial strikes escalated in the towns:- 17,000 in 1894 to
90,000 in 1904
• In 1901 the Obukhov factory in St Petersburg saw violent
clashes with armed police and whip-carrying Cossacks. Such
sights became common over the following years.

The rule of the last two tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas