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How far did Romanov imperial power decline in 19C Tsarist Russia from 1855 to 1917?

What were the social, economic and political challenges facing the Tsars?


How successful were the attempts to change and reform Russia, and why were changes being made?


What impact did war and foreign entanglements have upon Russia up to 1917?


-     Alexander II (1855-1881): emancipation of the serfs; military, legal, educational, local government reforms; later reaction


-     Alexander III (1881-1894) and Nicholas II (1895-1917): backwardness + modernization; nature of tsarist; growth of opposition 


-     Significance of the Russo-Japanese War; 1905 RevolutionStolypin and the Duma; the impact of WWI on Russia

  • Click on the map next door

  • Read the information and prepare answers for....

  • How did Russia's geography affect its politics and history'

  • What type of Russian society existed in the 19C?

  • What type of Russian economy existed in the 19C?

  • What political system existed in 19C Russia?

Russia in the Nineteenth Century....


Task One 

Click on the box above and look at the sources.

What else do they tell you about 19thC Russia and what life was like..?

Task Two

Click on the eagle icon below to start watching the documentary

Click on book icon above for worksheet

       Key ideas and themes of Russian history 1855-1924​

  • Change from above - Russia had a strong tradition of political, social and economic change from above, i.e. brought about by the rulers.  Clear examples of this are both Alexander II's series of reforms in the 1860's and 70's and Lenin's attempt to establish a Communist state between 1917 and 1924.  This 'change from above' reflects the autocratic nature of political power in Russia and the absence of democracy, both under Tsarist autocracy and Communist dictatorship.

  • War as the "locomotive of history" (Trotsky) - War was also a key catalyst for change in Russia, with various wars between 1855 and 1924 leading to major social, political and economic changes.  Key examples here include the Crimean War (1854 -56, with defeat leading to Alexander II's reforms), the Russo-Japanese War (1904- 05, with defeat contributing to the revolutionary year of 1905) and the First World War (1914 - 17, with defeats undermining the Tsar's authority and, combined with the economic distress caused by involvement in the warm, helped bring the Tsar down in the February Revolution of 1917).  The Provisional Government's decision to keep fighting the war undermined its authority and assisted the Bolsheviks in seizing power in October.  Finally, the Civil War (1918 - 21) led to major political and economic changes under the Bolsheviks, most notably 'War Communism' and then the NEP.

  • Revolution also functioned as a key force for political change in Russia.  The 1905 Revolution led to the October Manifesto, and the creation of the Duma, Russia's first elected parliament.  The February Revolution in 1917 led to the end of 300 years of autocratic rule by the Romanov dynasty, and a brief period of liberal democratic government under the Provisional Government.  The October Revolution then ended the Provisional government and saw the creation of the world's first Communist state, leading to a transformation of Russia's social, political and economic structure. 

Russia Timeline 1855-1917

 1855   Alexander II becomes Tsar

 1861   Edict for the Emancipation of the Serfs

 1881   Alexander II assassinated by the 'People's Will'.

             His successor, Alexander III, begins a period of repression

 1892   Count Sergei Witte becomes Finance Minister.

             The 'Great Spurt' of industrial growth begins  

 1894   Nicholas II becomes Tsar

 1898   Social Democratic Party founded

 1901   Social Revolutionary Party founded

 1904   Outbreak of Russo-Japanese War

 1905   Year of Revolution, following Bloody Sunday

 1906   Pyotr Stolypin becomes Prime Minister

 1911   Stolypin assassinated

 1914   Outbreak of the First World War

 1917   February: Revolution - the Tsar abdicates 

             Provisional Government is established 

Alexander II - Tsar Liberator ?


Alexander II Overview - click left-hand picture for podcast

  1. Who was Alexander II?

  2. What did he reform, or change, in Russia?  Why?

  3. Why did he start to repress Russia in his later years?

  4. What were the results of his reign?

1861 Emancipation of the Serfs - click left for full text

    Alexander II's landmark piece of legislation resulted in his title of Tsar           Liberator...but was that title really justified?

  1. What did the Emancipation Doctrine achieve?

  2. What did it not achieve?

  3. Do you think AII deserves his title as a result?

  4. Read the History Today article by Michael Lynch on Emancipation - what is his view and argument?  Do you agree?  Why/why not?

  5. Read Shane O'Rouke's chapter on Russian Emancipation from the Cambridge History of Slavery by clicking on the book icon bottom left - how does he see Emancipation?  Do you agree? why/why not?

  6. Open the Perspectives on Emancipation word document - read the summaries of the historian's positions and answer the qs at the btm..


For autocratic Russia under the Romanov dynasty, this was unprecedented reform. Even more striking were the additional reforms that continued until Alexander's death--the so-called Great Reforms. They can be divided into the following categories:

1. Local government reform: Since vast numbers of new citizens, i.e. former serfs, now populated the countryside, a system of elected local governments, or zemstvos, arose to replace the old institutions of landlord rule. These assemblies, with separate seats for peasants, townspeople, and private landowners, were responsible for maintaining the local infrastructure and industrial development. Through taxation of all classes, the zemstvo built bridges, roads, hospitals, and prisons and provided essential services such as healthcare and poverty relief. 

2. Education reform: At the call of the Elementary School Statute of 1864, a litany of elementary schools sprang up across the country, though funding was remanded to the local government, to overcome the massive illiteracy that plagued the former serfs. The 1863 University Statute reorganized colleges and universities into effective self-governing corporations, with considerable freedom for both faculty and students. 

3. Judicial reform: The Judiciary Statute of 1864 overhauled the Russian court system based on these liberal principles--equality of all before the law, an independent judiciary, jury trial by propertied peers, public legal proceedings, and the establishment of an educated legal profession.

4. Military reform: The Universal Military Training Act of 1874 established all-class conscription and called for technological improvement, elite reorganization, and new military schools. 

5. Expression reform: Alexander's Temporary Regulations of 1865 abandoned pre- censorship, or censorship of journals or groups before publication, in favor of punitive measures after the fact.

Teased by these halfhearted reforms from above, dissatisfied peasants, intellectuals, professionals, and even some liberal gentry sought greater freedom through recourse to violent revolutionary movements to overthrow the Tsarist government. Widely labeled as populist movements whose aims focused on giving all Russian land back to the peasants, these groups used clandestine terrorism in the late 1870s to kill Alexander II, finally succeeding on March 1, 1881. An era of modest reform in Russia was over.

Icon above - History Today article by Peter Watt on AII's reforms - how effective were they, and did they justify his label as Liberator?


PDF icon top left - History Today article review by Graham Darby arguing against Watt's conclusions - how dod they differ + why?

Icon top right - Populism p/point detailing how political ideological opposition evolved and developed from the rule of AII onwards

                     - Irving Berlin's judgement on Populism available below


Book icon - far right - class googledoc on assessing Aii's legacy as Tsar Liberator


Alexander III - Tsar Repressor?

Alexander III was crowned Tsar in the immediate aftermath of his father's assassination by the extremist terrorist group People's Will which he witnessed.  


His determination to keep power and ensure Romanov rule survived can be seen both as a direct result of the events at the start of his reign, and as a continuation of his father's reign. 


The reaction against the reforms of AII had created a political backlash as typified by the rise of mainstream Populism alongside the more sinister extremists of the People's Will - the world's first modern terrorist group. 


AIII was determined to keep these forces in check with social + political repression dovetailed with economic reform.  

Your task is to use the podcasts on the left alongside the HistoryToday article + powerpoint below in order to plan out a balanced argument assessing TWE was AIII a Tsar Repressor?

1891-2 Famine

For decades Russia had been suffering from a permanent harvest problem that varied in degree, and hunger was part of reality in the countryside. In 1891, however, the country was struck by a disaster of unprecedented proportions: some 15 provinces in European Russia, mainly in the Volga and black soil provinces, faced a 30% to 50% crop failure as a result of insufficient harvest in both the winter and the summer.


These regions were considered Russia's granary, and in 1891 comprised an area one-third larger than Germany, and almost double the size of France. As a direct consequence of the crop failure, millions of peasants and their families had to endure a famine that lasted well into the summer of 1892, and which cost some 400,000 lives.

As a result, the government's incompetence and inability to avert tragedy refocused attention on reform of russia's power structure and provided fresh impetus to opposition groups whose influence under AIII + NII post-Populism had been waning

Causes of famine

Climate: Russia's long, cold winters and short, hot summers made transportation difficult and limited foreign trade as a majority of Russia’s ports were often iced over.

Poor soil: With the exception of the black earth belt, Russia has fairly poor soil, a short growing season, low precipitation, and large arid steppe regions unfit for agriculture except with extensive irrigation. These factors limited agricultural production and caused frequent of crop failures and famine.

Backwards farming techniques: The peasants used medieval technology like wooden ploughs and sickles. They rarely had modern fertilizers or machinery (the Petrovsky academy in Moscow was Russia's only agricultural school). 

Russia's size: Its sheer size caused major difficulties as Russia's primitive railways were not up to redistributing grain

Lack of incentive: Russian farmers did not produce to make a profit - instead they produced enough for themselves and their families to eat which gave them no incentive to improve efficiency of their land of mechanize, but every incentive to produce as many children as possible

Censorship: the government discredited the famine and banned the word famine (golod) they called it a poor harvest (neurozhai) and stopped the papers reporting on it.

Grain exports: were not banned till mid-August and merchants had a month's warning so they could quickly export their reserves. Even the Minister of Finance Ivan Vyshnegradsky opposed not banning it earlier.

Minister of Finance: Ivan Vyshnegradsky was seen as the main cause of the disaster as it was his policy to raise consumer taxes to force peasants to sell more grain. Even Russia's capitalists realized the industrialization drive had been too hard on the peasants.

Conscription: This reduced farm labor as the peasant sons could no longer work the land.
Taxmen: they were sent to seize livestock when grain ran out c as well as seizing grain and live stock to pay off redemption payments, this caused the peasants to stop/reduce production or kill off/hide their livestock.

Government failure - why were they so slow to react?

The official end of the famine was declared on July 1st 1892. The state had succeeded in averting the very real threat of mass starvation and had prevented total economic collapse in the stricken regions. Yet shortcomings at many levels, institutional, political, and infrastructural, had hampered the government in responding to the crisis quickly and efficiently.


The core problem was insufficient coordination between the ministries due to the absence of a cabinet capable of formulating a policy and monitoring its execution. Other defects in the state machinery were also obvious. These included a lack of gathering information by the command chain from the center to the countryside, the defiant attitude of both governors and zemstva, the lack of confidence and so cooperation with local authorities, the absence of any coordination of private efforts, and an completely inadequate transport network.


Tragically, there had been sufficient supplies of grain within the borders of the Empire to feed the people, but these food reserves were located at considerable distance from the starving black soil areas. The government also did not remedy the absence of an organisational institution at the most local level of the volost or village, which could have ensured proper distribution of food to the peasants' families.  These shortcomings were to provide a political springboard.....

Famine of 1891

Using the information above, construct a mind-map detailing the causes and effects of the 1891-2 Famine.

Next, what can the map next to us on the left tell us about Russia in 1891? (P1 - q1b - 2 mks)

("The Graphic" (January 9, 1892) - GB illustrated newspaper of 19thC)

Now, click on the map to access a source written by Lenin.

What relevance does the 1891-2 famine have for Lenin writing in 1912?  Why is this the case?  what does this tell you about what the effects of the Famine meant for political opponents of the Romanovs?

Next, with reference to origin, purpose and content assess the value and limitations of Lenin's work to the historian researching abot the effects of the 1891-2 Famine. (P1 - q2 - 4 mks)

Finally, use the other resources available (the podcasts and the academic PDF article left) to extend your notes on the 1891-2 famine


Nicholas II - The Last Tsar....

1905 Revolution - Dress Rehearsal or one-off event?

Why was there an uprising in 1905 + what impact did it have?

- Orlando Figes argues that 1905 was the first in a a long line of revolutions that came to dominate Russian and Soviet politics throughout the 20thC - using his text 'Revolutionary Russia ' (left)

research the following .

- Why was there a revolution in 1905?

- How did Bloody Sunday impact on Nicholas II as Tsar?

- How did the population react to events on Bloody Sunday elsewhere?

- What was the Petrograd Soviet and why was it formed?

- How did the Tsar react to these protests and the Soviet?

How strong was Tsarist control by 1914?

- Figes argues not much

- the article on the left argues the alternative....

Impact of WWI on Tsarist rule + Russia
feb rev antiwar.jpg

Orlando Figes - 'Revolutionary Russia' - WWI

  • Figes is one of the leading Western historians to have emerged since 1991

  • His archive based research has allowed him to answer qs concerning the USSR unanswered at the time because of the limites access westerners had to information

  • This chapter on the left deals with WWI

  • Research how WWI affected Russia using:

    - Patriotic Hopes; Russia's Military Weakness​

    - War as a Rev Force; The Great Retreat

    - The Patriotic Revolution; War to Social Rev

Why did the Tsar abdicate in 1917?

To what extent was the Provisional Government doomed to failure?

Why was the Bolshevik seizure of power successful?

How important a role did Lenin and Trotsky have during the Bolshevik seizure and consolidation of power?

Why did The Bolsheviks win the Civil War?  Why did the Whites lose?

How successful was Lenin in establishing a Marxist state by 1924?

  • 1917 Revolutions: February/March Revolution; provisional government and dual power (Soviets); October/November Bolshevik Revolution; roles of Lenin and Trotsky

  • Lenin’s Russia/Soviet Union; consolidation of new Soviet state; Civil War; War Communism; New Economic Policy (NEP); terror and coercion; foreign relations as the USSR

Click on the video on the right - what do they say about why there was a revolution in Russia in 1917?

What is their opinion about events in your opinion?

Next click on the icon above and research where this video was made and by whom.  

How does this impact on your previous conclusions?

Click on this video on the right next - what do they say about the leaders of the Bolshevik Party?

What is their opinion on these two individuals?

Again, click on the icon above and see if you can deduce whether this video was made by the same people who produced the first video above.

If you think they have been made by the same people, then explain...if not, then explain why not.

What does this tell us about the purpose and value of historical sources?

February Revolution + Dual Power

Revolutionary Russia - Orlando Figes

 Figes' argument is that Russia 1891-1991 was consistent in its desire for change that favoured the masses.  His view of the events of 1917 are that it was a popular revolution that wanted to change the world, but that it was one of many.


The section accessed by clicking the above image explains what the people wanted and how they tried to get it.  Start reading about what the Provisional Government was and what they tried to do and continue to examine the rest of the sections (July Days detail in Figes' 'People's Tragedy' handout pp421-433)

Your job is to complete the powerpoint started below using both the information available above, and the handout given (Figes 421-33)

February 1917 sees the discontent and unhappiness which has increased dramatically over the war years explode into action.  What starts off as a series of unrelated marches and strikes and demonstrations eventually combine into a popular street-led revolution which ultimately persuades the Tsar that he should leave the throne and abdicate.  

Once it becomes clear that there are no other Romanovs willing or able to take up the sceptre and rule as Tsar, absolute monarchy ends.  The Government of Russia now passes into the hands of two rival institutions - the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet of Soldiers and Workers.

The job they face is to ensure that the country does not dissolve into anarchy and confusion, whilst at the same time trying to ensure that the multitude of demands and pressures it faces are dealt with effectively.  Most notably, the y have to decide what to do about Russian participation in World War One; and how to feed the people whilst be seen to be examining how to introduce fundamental land reform.

Using the clip above, research why the Kornilov Affair in August was the deathknell of the Provisional Government, and how it enabled Lenin to start his preparations for another attempt to seize power.

TWE was the PG doomed from the outset?

The October Revolution and Brest-Litovsk

Trotsky, Revolution and the USSR

Ian Thatcher podcasts:

- who was Leon Trotsky?

- what was his relationship to Lenin?

- what were his strengths?

- what did he achieve?

- why was he successful?

- what were his weaknesses?

- why did he ultimately fail?

Assess Trotsky's role in the Russian Revolution + creation of the USSR

Trotsky - rise + fall of a revolutionary
Trotsky: Rise + Fall of a Revolutionary
Chomsky on Lenin, Trotsky, socialism + USSR
Civil War + the birth of the USSR

Ian Thatcher podcasts:

How did the Bolshevik State emerge over the years 1917-1924?

What were the key reasons they were able to both organise a revolution, but then go on to survive and claim control ?

What role did the Civil War play in this process?

Lenin's USSR
30-12-22-USSR born.jpg
30 December 1922 - USSR is officially born

Assess the extent to which Lenin's USSR lived up to the expectations of 1917 

Access the googledoc by clicking the icon on the left

Using your Waller notes and Figes handout build up a picture of the political, economic and social goals of 1917, and the extent to which they had been realised 5 years later

Cult of personality


Democratic centralism


War Communism


New Soviet Man

Art + Silver Age

Women's liberation


Religion up to 1921

Religion after 1921

Figes 627-29

Figes 630-1; 642; 645-7

Figes 502-04

Figes 765

Figes 613-15

Figes 769-772

Figes 732-34

Figes 738-40; 742

Figes 740-42

Figes 743-745

Figes 745-748

Figes 748-751


- civil war - In Our Time - Radio 4 - Lenin - In Our Time - Radio 4 - Assassination of AII

Russia : Land of the Tsars (ep 4 most relevant; 1-3 b/ground & context)

A History of Russia (Tsars & Revolution)

History of the Russian Empire

"Russian Imperial History" - US History Channel documentary (20 parter - only really need latter episodes!)

"Battleship Potemkin" - Soviet produced 1925 silent classic about 1905 naval mutiny which accompanied the Rebellion that year

"Rasputin" 1996 US film about Siberian holy man and the Tsarina (Hollywood nonsense but still...)

Russian Revolution - BBC documentary in 2 parts - Freedom & Hope / Fear & Paranoia 

 "Animal Farm" 1954 French cartoon - animated version of George Orwell`s account of the Russian Revolution and its results - Roads to Revolution) - Smashing the Mould)

"The Art of Russia" - BBC documentary on how art served the state before helping to destroy it amidst the Revolution and establishment of the USSR



Alexander II 

Brief introductory notes - 3 segments - bullet points please



Reforms of Alexander II 


Assassination of Alexander II - "Peoples Will"


Historiography of Alexander II - Lynch



Alexander III 


Death of AIII - AIII death and summary sheet


Assessment of AIII - Haffendale - What was AIIIs influence on Russian history?


AII & AIII - contrasts and comparisons - To what extent are the reformer v reactionary labels justified?  



 Nicholas II and Russia at the turn of the 20th century

  • Was NII domed to fail from the start?  How much impact did his handling of affairs have?

  • To what extent were factors outside of his control responsible for the demise of the Romanovs? - link to activehistory (champittet - champittet) - simulation of imperial Russia at the start of NIIs reign.  Work through and use information to fill in worksheet 


Russo - Japanese War & the 1905 Revolution 

  • How did these 2 events play vital roles in the 1917 Revolutions? - summary worksheet about events test yourself on the events of 1904-05


Industrialisation and Land Reform 




  • February/March Revolution

    • How did 100s of years of Russian autocracy come to an end?



  • Provisional Government

    • Was the PG doomed from the start of its tenure?



  • October/November Revolution

  •  How did the Bolsheviks get into power?



Historiography of Russian Revolution

here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.

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