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‘In the years 1894-1905, liberal opposition was more challenging to the autocracy than the opposition of radical groups’
By the 1890s – in part due to Sergei Witte’s reforms - Russia was progressing rapidly, and such extensive change will almost always impact the political ideals of the majority. The urban working class was growing swiftly and with them so were revolutionary ideas, but were they strong enough to pose a serious threat to the autocracy? In this essay I will argue that whilst the revolutionary opposition challenged the Tsar and his power to some extent, it was the liberal ideas, mostly of the Intelligentsia, that challenged autocracy and had a lasting impact on the Tsar and his policies.
In 1892, Sergei Witte was appointed both Minister for Finance and Minister of Transport and set about creating massive reform in what would later be referred to as ‘The Great Spurt’. He championed the building of the Trans-Siberian railway, saw the need for foreign investment – and managed to acquire $4bn dollars from investors overseas - and in 1897, he moved the Russian rouble to the gold standard, strengthening not only trade but also the stability and the value of the currency. These reforms had a huge impact on the Russian economy – they accelerated the migration of urban workers to towns, made space for a burgeoning middle class and allowed the Russian economy to progress more in a decade than it had in the last hundred years. By 1900, the Russian empire was the world’s 4th largest producer of steel and the 2nd largest supplier of petroleum. A result of this was massive urbanization and the economic advancement of many people, many of whom would have supported revolutionary ideas if their situations were different. This is because at the time the two main revolutionary parties were the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and the Social Democrats (SDs). The SRs had grown from the populist movement and were known for carrying out almost 2000 political assassinations in an attempt to grow support and find a link with the urban workers, this however failed, and the SDs were often seen as terrorists and lacked a lot of support from the general population. The SDs were also very extreme, following the ideas of Karl Marx and his theoretical ‘class war’. At a time where the economy was progressing and people were beginning to see hope, extremism was not well received and people were, on the whole, afraid of revolution. This meant that the revolutionary parties did not pose much of a threat to autocracy however the Intelligentsia, who were often wealthy and influential and held positions close to the Tsar had the opportunity to influence things from above, and they managed to gather a lot of support from the moderate lower classes who liked how things were progressing but still desired change.
However, rapid urbanization also led to incredibly poor living conditions and the increase in population – 250,000 migrated to St Petersburg alone between 1890 and 1900 – allowed revolutionary ideas to spread quickly. The SDs had a lot of influence over the workers and often encouraged them to go on strike and at its peak in 1899 these striking workers numbered 100,000. The response of the government was to simply put in place a factory police force who were able to dispel strikes using violence – this created a lot of disillusion with the regime and set the scene for the now industrial proletariat to stage a revolution – the workers began to find that the revolutionary parties mirrored their views and were easily radicalised.
Another reason that the liberal opposition posed more of a threat to autocracy than the revolutionaries was organisation. The Intelligentsia had influence throughout Russia and held seats in the zemstva and close to the Tsar whereas the revolutionary parties were split and plagued with infighting. Trotsky described the SRs as two competing groups - the left SRs and the right and after Lenin joined the SDs in 1900, the party was irreversible changed. Lenin fundamentally disagreed with Plekhanov (the founder of the SDs) and thought him too ‘theoretical’. This eventually led to the SDs becoming the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks after the 1903 Second Party Congress. This focus on infighting and refusal to work with others left less focus on their shared aim – revolution and was one of the major factors in the failure of the 1905 revolution, which proved that while dangerous, revolutionaries were not something the autocracy could overcome as long as they lacked the support of the majority. The liberal opposition, however, managed to achieve a majority of their aims – such as a national duma and votes for people - with the October Manifesto and were generally more successful in bringing about meaningful change than the revolutionaries.
In conclusion, I believe that while the revolutionaries had the capacity to pose a serious threat, they were too caught up in their own politics and infighting to make much of an impact on the autocracy, whereas the liberal opposition was organised, focused and most importantly, influential, as they held an incredible amount of support due to their moderate leaning ideas.
I would make your pro-radical argument a little bit bigger e.g. talk about the 1905 revolution and the fact the Marxists were heavily involved, that would then be countered by your third argument about their lack of effectiveness.
The only other thing would be to formally introduce your first argument.