Tsarist government

The Holy Synod in 1917, which led the church and was a government department.

Russia’s political system at the turn of the 20th century was one of the most backward in Europe. It was one of the few remaining autocracies: all political power and sovereignty was vested in a hereditary monarch, the tsar (a term derived from the Latin ‘caesar’). The tsar was bound by only two restrictions: adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church and the laws of succession. In all other matters, the tsar and his will were considered supreme. Unlike most other nations, Russia had no constitution, no elected representative assembly, no democratic processes within the national government, no high court or court of appeal that could examine or restrain the tsar’s laws. Tsarist government was essentially government by decree: the tsar issued declarations or proclamations and his ministers, governors and bureaucrats implemented them.

Russia had several high level political bodies or councils but their function was limited to advice. They included the Senate (Russia’s highest court), the Holy Synod (the governing council of the Russian Orthodox Church) and the Imperial Council of Ministers. The Imperial Council was the most politically significant, acting as a de facto cabinet of ministers. From the outside it gave the appearance of a Westminster-style cabinet: there was a chief minister (prime minister) and several other ministers, each with portfolios, including foreign affairs, finance, justice, agriculture and defence. But these ministers were hand-picked by the tsar and served at his pleasure; they were not elected or selected on the basis of merit or achievement, nor were they accountable to the people. Since the tsar alone could hire and fire members of the Imperial Council, his ministers were prone to sycophancy: to curry favour they told him what he wanted to hear, rather than what he needed to know.

Russia’s size meant that tsarist government relied on a vast second-tier of officials and administrators. Beyond the boundaries of Saint Petersburg, the Russian empire was divided into 34 guberniyas (provinces) and oblasts (remote regions). Each of was administered by a governor, who had Imperial Army or police units at his disposal. Governors were responsible for promulgating, implementing and enforcing the tsar’s laws within each province. In reality, Russia’s enormous size and the distance of some provinces from the capital allowed governors a degree of autonomy. After reforms implemented in 1864 each guberniya also contained a number of zemstva: local councils that could collect taxes and provide services such as education, public health and transport. Though the zemstva were often dominated by land-owning nobles, they still contained representatives from all classes, including the peasantry. In 1890 Alexander III crippled the zemstva by reducing their autonomy and requiring their decisions to be endorsed by the royal governor.

‘Slaying the Hundred-Headed Monster’, a criticism of Russia’s bureaucracy.

To most Russians, the public face of the government was its bureaucracy. Russia’s huge public service was charged with enforcing regulations, collecting taxation and duties, maintaining records and so on. Bureaucrats were a visible presence in cities and large towns, where they wore distinctive uniforms and held one of 14 different ranks, equivalent to those in the military. The majority of bureaucrats were neither well educated or well paid, which made them susceptible to corruption and bribery. Even low-ranking bureaucrats had the capacity to make decisions arbitrarily – from issuing dog licences to approving land titles – so it was quite common for them to demand bribes or gratuities to facilitate approval. Some were little more than petty bullies. The Imperial Russian bureaucracy imposed itself on the lives of ordinary Russians more than any other arm of the government. The lower classes viewed the bureaucracy as petty, officious, greedy and corrupt; they were obsessed with paperwork and overly fond of wielding power for its own sake. Criticism or condemnation of bureaucrats was a consistent theme in 19th century propaganda and doggerel.

“The alienation of Russian society from its government grew steadily in the 1860s and 1870s. The intelligentsia defined itself by opposing the Russian state which allowed it no direct political role. The tsarist regime’s unwillingness to introduce even a conservative constitution meant that many middle-class professionals and businessmen could not see the tsarist state as supporting their interests. But the more immediate threat to the status quo came from radicals, mainly young university students who concluded that reform had run its course and failed.”
Theodore R. Weeks, historian

Tsarism was also propped up and supported in more informal ways, such as by the Black Hundreds. Formed around the turn of the 20th century, the Black Hundreds were small chapters of religious conservatives who were fiercely loyal to the tsar and his government. The composition of the Black Hundreds was diverse: different chapters were made up of aristocrats, businessmen, storekeepers, priests, petty bourgeoisie and loyal peasants. The motto of the Black Hundreds – samoderzhavie, pravoslavie, narodnost (‘autocracy, orthodoxy and nationalism’) was an adaptation of the tsar’s own motto. Their symbols, the Christian cross and the Romanov double-eagle, were similarly reflective of their ideas. The Black Hundreds demanded devotion to the tsar and, by implication, the aristocracy and tsarist social structures. The criticised and condemned political dissenters and reformists. The ‘Yellow Shirts’, a militant sub-group of the Black Hundreds, was known to perpetrate acts of violence against government opponents. Unsurprisingly, the Black Hundred received moral and financial support from the tsarist regime itself.

Nicholas II meets a group of Black Hundreds in 1907.

Other reactionary and pro-tsarist groups emerged during the first years of the 1900s, when the tsarist regime was under attack. Formed in 1905, the Union of Russian People was a conservative nationalist group which operated branches, recruited and produced propaganda in more than 900 cities, towns and villages. A breakaway group, the Union of Russian Men, was similar but was markedly less patient: it demanded retribution against anything anti-Russian or hostile to tsarism. Many of these groups were little more than a front for the frenzied anti-Semitism which had festered in Russia during the 1800s. Russia’s five million Jews, a small but visible minority, were easy scapegoats for the problems of tsarism. Between September 1905 and the following spring, bands of these so-called ‘Russian men’ patrolled the countryside, killing and expelling Jews wherever they could be found; more than 21,000 were murdered in the Ukraine alone.

1. Tsarist government was predicated on the tsar’s supreme autocratic power, which was inviolable.
2. Tsarism had no democracy, representation or accountability at higher levels. All officials were chosen by the tsar.
3. Beyond the capital, tsarist decrees were implemented and enforced by provincial governors and bureaucrats.
4. The bureaucracy was the public face of the government but was widely despised for its corruption and officiousness.
5. Tsarism was also supported by conservative groups like the Black Hundred that sprang up in the early 1900s.

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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, “Tsarist government” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/tsarist-government/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].