Tsarist government

tsarist government
Russian postage stamps showing various tsars and empresses

Russia’s political system at the turn of the 20th century was known as tsarism. Russia’s tsarist government was one of the most backward in Europe. It was one of the few remaining autocracies where all political power and sovereignty were vested in a hereditary monarch.

An all-powerful tsar

The power of the tsar (derived from the Latin ‘caesar’) was bound by only two restrictions: an 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, and 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 providing advice. These bodies 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

tsarist holy synod
The Holy Synod in 1917, a part of the tsarist regime

The Imperial Council, a de facto cabinet of ministers, was probably the most significant of these bodies. From the outside, it gave the appearance of a Westminster-style cabinet. There was a chief minister (prime minister) and several other ministers, each of whom had portfolios such as foreign affairs, finance, justice, agriculture and defence.

Unlike in Westminster governments, however, tsarist ministers were hand-picked by the monarch and served at his pleasure. They were not drawn from an elected legislature or selected on the basis of merit or achievement, nor were they accountable to the people.

Since the tsar could appoint or dismiss members of the Imperial Council at his pleasure, these ministers were often prone to sycophancy. To curry favour to secure or improve their position, they would tell the tsar what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to know.

Administrative divisions

Russia’s vast size meant the tsarist government relied on an enormous second-tier of officials and administrators.

Beyond the boundaries of Saint Petersburg, the Russian empire was divided into 117 guberniyas (governates or provinces), each of which was itself divided into oblasts (regions) and okrugs (districts). Each guberniya 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 in their guberniya. In reality, Russia’s enormous size and the distance of some provinces from the capital allowed governors a degree of autonomy.

After Alexander II‘s 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, the reactionary tsar Alexander III effectively neutered the zemstva by reducing their autonomy and requiring their decisions to be endorsed by the royal governor.

The Russian bureaucracy

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

For most Russians, the bureaucracy was the public face of the government. Russia’s huge public service was charged with enforcing regulations, collecting taxes and duties, maintaining records and implementing other policies. Bureaucrats were a visible presence in cities and large towns, where they wore distinctive uniforms and held one of 14 different ranks, loosely equivalent to military ranks.

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 supplement their meagre wages by demanding bribes or gratuities. Some bureaucrats were little more than bullies and petty tyrants.

The 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. Bureaucrats were seen as obsessed with regulations and paperwork and fond of wielding power for its own sake. Criticism or condemnation of bureaucrats was a consistent theme in 19th-century propaganda and doggerel.

The Black Hundreds

Nicholas II meets a group of Black Hundreds in 1907

Tsarism was also propped up and supported in more informal ways. One of these was through the activities of loyalist and conservative groups like the Black Hundreds.

Formed around the turn of the 20th century, the Black Hundreds were small chapters of religious conservatives fiercely loyal to the tsar and his government. The composition of the Black Hundreds was diverse and included 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 reflective of their valies and ideas.

The Black Hundreds demanded devotion to the tsar and, by implication, the aristocracy and tsarist social structures. They criticised and condemned political dissenters and reformists. The ‘Yellow Shirts’, a militant sub-group of the Black Hundreds, was known to organise and carry out acts of violence against government opponents. 

Unsurprisingly, the Black Hundreds received moral and financial support from the tsarist regime itself. The Black Hundreds also instigated or carried out numerous anti-Semitic pogroms, with the tacit approval of the government.

Other pro-tsarist groups

Other reactionary and pro-tsarist groups emerged in the early 1900s when the tsarist regime was under attack. These groups claimed to have legitimate political intentions but most became agencies of pro-tsarist propaganda and violence.

Formed in 1905, the Union of Russian People was a conservative nationalist group which opened branches, recruited volunteers 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.

Some of these groups were nothing more than conduits for widespread and sometimes frenzied anti-Semitism. 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 Ukraine alone. Terrorists associated with the Black Hundreds also carried out political assassinations, killing two Jewish members of the first Duma (Mikhail Herzenstein, 1906, and Grigory Iollos, 1907).

A historian’s view:
“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

tsarist government

1. Tsarist government was predicated on the supreme autocratic power of the tsar, which was limited only by his loyalty to the church and the laws of succession.

2. The tsar governed without the assistance from or accountability to democratically elected bodies. He appointed and dismissed ministers, who were accountable only to him.

3. Tsarist Russia was divided into 117 guberniyas, each administrated by a governor, whose main responsibility was to implement and enforce the tsar’s policies.

4. Most Russians viewed the imperial bureaucracy (public service) as ‘the government’ – but because of their low wages and standards, bureaucrats could be petty, intimidating or corrupt.

5. Tsarism was also supported by conservative groups like the Black Hundred that sprang up in the early 1900s. These groups attacked political dissidents and were also responsible for anti-Semitic pogroms against Russia’s five million Jews.

Citation information
Title: “Tsarist government”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/tsarist-government/
Date published: May 27, 2019
Date accessed: October 30, 2020
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