Enforcing Russian autocracy

russian autocracy
A religious icon highlighting the divinity of the royal family.

Enforcing Russian autocracy required both ideological and practical measures. The tsar claimed to rule by ‘divine right’, his power and authority derived from God rather than the consent of the people. In the Fundamental Laws of 1906, Russians were told to obey the tsar, “not only out of fear but also for the sake of conscience”, as he had been “ordained by God”. The Russian Orthodox Church both supported and was supported by the tsarist autocracy. The church’s governing council, the Holy Synod, was run as a de facto government department; the tsar, a deeply religious man, consulted regularly with its archbishops. The church encouraged ordinary Russians to accept and embrace autocracy; its catechisms taught worshippers that it was God’s will that they should love and obey the tsar.

If the church was the mouthpiece of Russian autocracy, the military was its iron fist. The tsar’s Imperial Army was one of the most feared military forces in Europe, though more because of its size rather than its technical or tactical prowess. The army was the largest peacetime standing force in the world, fluctuating in size, but generally containing more than 1.5 million men. Soldiers in the lower ranks of the army were conscripts, requisitioned by the government from peasant communes as the need arose. Few conscripts were happy to go: life in the Russian military was stern, fatiguing and notoriously brutal. Officers imposed strict discipline; beatings, whippings or deductions of pay were common. Most soldiers lived in ramshackle barracks, victualled with sub-standard food and provided with poor uniforms and equipment. By the outbreak of World War I, around one-quarter of infantry soldiers had not been issued with a rifle while a few had not even fired one. These conditions created discontent and occasional mutinies, though they were swiftly dealt with and suppressed.

russian autocracy
A cartoon portraying Russia’s defeat at the hands of Japan.

One of the Russian military’s Achilles heels was its officer class. The army in particular had a shortage of career officers, possibly because there were inadequate prospects for promotion and reward. A large number of Russian officers obtained their commission through birthright, noble titles or sponsorship, rather than merit or achievement. As a consequence there was a real problem with motivation and competence. The inadequacy of Russian officers was exposed during the 1904-5 war with Japan and in the first months of World War I. Battlefield defeats in both conflicts suggested either a lack of tactical understanding of combat, a gross underestimation of the enemy, or both. These problems were no better at sea. Russia’s large navy, once a source of pride for the tsar, was not the imposing force it had once been. The late 19th and early 20th century naval spending programs undertaken by Britain and Germany were not matched by the tsarist government. By the war with Japan in 1904-5, Russia’s Pacific and Baltic fleets were ageing, cumbersome, slow and not particularly well commanded.

Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 was disastrous for both the tsar and his government. That one of the great powers of Europe could be defeated by a small Asian nation was humiliating and evidence that improvement and modernisation was needed – not just in the ranks of the military but also the industrial sector that supplied it. Historians Nik Cornish and Andrei Karachtchouk describe this process:

It became clear that reform of the armed forces and industrialisation would have to proceed together. Domestic production of small arms and field artillery was sufficient, but for heavier artillery, communications equipment and other modern necessities it was woefully inadequate. It was necessary to import these items until Russian industry could produce what was required. The period 1910-14 saw change on a scale unprecedented during peacetime: rates of pay were increased to encourage the retention of experienced men, hundreds of officers were retired as incompetent, conscription was expanded to create a larger reserve pool, and the military budget was increased. Inevitably there was some opposition to these reforms, which polarised into hostility … consequently reform was implemented only slowly.

Whatever its wartime shortcomings, the army remained a crucial component of tsarist autocracy. To the peasantry and to dissidents in the cities, the Imperial Army was an imposing deterrent. Though it was rarely deployed domestically in any significant numbers, it was always available. One historian described the army as “the visible broadsword, complementing the hidden dagger of the Okhrana (secret police)”. Despite its lack of the latest weaponry or technology, and regular shortages and under-equipment, the military drained almost 45 per cent of government revenue. In contrast, public education received just four per cent.

Tsarism was also protected and bolstered by a systematic program of censorship, counter-revolutionary espionage and police activity. The last and best-known tsarist secret police force was the Okhrana, formed in the wake of the 1881 assassination of Alexander II. The Okhrana had humble beginnings, starting as two separate secret police posts – but as the number of Marxist and anarchist groups expanded in the 1890s, so too did the number of Okhrana. By 1911 there were more than 60 security stations scattered around Russia, and even in European cities like Paris, where Russian revolutionaries-in-exile were known to be active. The assassination of Stolypin in 1911 and other internal scandals led to a winding-back of the Okhrana just prior to World War I. A significant amount of counter-revolutionary intelligence then shifted to specialist military units and branches of the gendarmes (civilian police).

russian autocracy
Inmates at a tsarist katorga muster for forced labour.
“Like many other espionage agencies, the secrecy surrounding the Okhrana meant that it has been the subject of rumour, exaggeration and myth. It was frequently referred to by the totalitarian school as a prototype of the all-seeing Big Brother police system, and yet the Okhrana was a relatively small organisation, with only a few thousand employees in a country of 140 million people. It has been cited both as one of the principal causes of the revolution and as the pillar of Russian reaction. Many have presented the Okhrana as evidence of the anachronistic and backward nature of the late imperial regime, yet it was a technological and methodological innovator in the arts of political control and surveillance.”
Ian D. Thatcher, historian

At its peak in the early 1900s the Okhrana used and refined secret police methods now considered as standard. They included, but were not limited to covert surveillance, infiltration, espionage, interrogation, the use of paid informants, agent provocateurs, torture and extra-legal killing. Many Okhrana methods were adopted and embraced by later secret police units and intelligence agencies. Historian Richard Pipes points out that KGB manuals written as late as the 1970s were little more than rehashed Okhrana manuals. Among the innovations implemented by Okhrana leaders like Zubatov and Plehve were the maintenance of comprehensive files on revolutionaries and suspected dissidents, containing background information, fingerprints, aliases and photographs. Another was forgery of provocative material, such as the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which was created to deflect criticism of the tsar and attribute social and economic problems to Russia’s five million Jews.

The Okhrana also kept a close watch on the industrial workforce, which was rightly viewed as a potential crucible for revolutionary ideas. Okhrana agents worked inside factories to form ‘official’ trade unions (zubatovshchina) as a means of monitoring and regulating worker dissent and activism. In 1910 the Okhrana had more than 20,000 paid informants and double-agents on the payroll, each receiving 100 rubles a month (more than double the monthly wage of the average industrial worker). Georgi Gapon, leader of the January 1905 march that ended with the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings, began his involvement with St Petersburg steel workers as an Okhrana plant. Illegal groups were also infiltrated by Okhrana agents and informers, who were tasked with identifying and monitoring potential trouble-makers. Agent provocateurs were instructed to stir up anti-government unrest, to flush out individuals with radical political beliefs.

Once the Okhrana captured suspects, there were few constraints on how it could deal with them. Examination of official files after the 1917 revolution suggested the Okhrana may have been responsible for more than 26,000 extra-legal killings. Those not executed were dealt with in other ways. The more fortunate were sentenced to ssylka, a form of internal banishment where individuals were sent to live and work in remote parts of the empire. Others were sentenced to long periods in the katorga – a network of remote labour camps in Siberia, the forerunners to the gulags later operated by Stalin. Katorga inmates were forced to undertake mining, farming or construction work in appalling conditions; some were conscripted to complete ongoing work on the Trans-Siberian Railway. By the time of the Russian Revolution the number of inmates in katorgas had dwindled to below 30,000. Among those to spend time in the katorgas were Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik security head Felix Dzerzhinsky and the renowned novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.


1. The tsar’s autocratic rule was reinforced by his claim to divine right and the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church.
2. The military also enforced Russian autocracy by serving as a deterrent to domestic dissent or uprisings.
3. Russia had Europe’s largest peacetime army, averaging around 1.5 million men – but it was poorly equipped.
4. The Okhrana secret police also played a lead role in identifying, tracking down and dealing with political subversives.
5. The Okhrana relied on paid agents and informers, other covert methods, forced labour and extra-legal violence.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Enforcing tsarist autocracy” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/enforcing-tsarist-autocracy/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].