How Successful was Opposition To The Tsarist Regime Between 1861 and 1881 in Achieving Its Aims?
Opposition to the Tsar during this period came from four main areas during this period; the liberal intelligentsia, Populists, Marxists (from the 1870s onwards) and reactionary nobles and landlords. While only arguably the latter group was successful in achieving its aims, all of the groups achieved some successes during the period
The liberal intelligentsia had as their aim the furthering of Nicholas II’s policies, and in particular desired to turn Russia from an autocracy to a parliamentary state modeled on those in western Europe. The Nihilists, for example, wished to sweep away the ancien regime, in the shape of the Tsar and the Orthodox Church, and replace it with a completely new system, influenced by Enlightenment values, based on reason and science. By 1881 this had clearly not happened and, indeed, Alexander II had already begun to roll back some of his earlier reforms, particularly in the spheres of political freedom, education and the judiciary where many of the Intelligentsia were based.
The Populists also sought to transform Russian society by winning the peasants over to socialist ideas through stirring among them a sense of resentment over their exploitation (i.e. their lack of land and tax burden). Like the Intelligentsia, the Populists also largely failed in this, finding that the peasants were too backward, conservative and supportive of the Tsar to wish to replace the status quo with socialism. When the Populists split into two groups in 1879, the moderate Black Partition, which wished to redistribute black soil land to the peasants had, by 1881, been weakened by arrests. In contrast, in 1881 the more radical People’s Will had assassinated the Tsar, although this did not weaken the state.
Marxism also became a source of opposition in the 1870s among intellectuals. However, by 1881 it had made little impact beyond this group and largely seemed un-applicable to Russian society which seemingly lacked the basic preconditions for a Marxist revolution, such as a capitalist society and a class-based society.
Finally, there were also a number of nobles and landowners, many who had opposed Alexander’s reforms from the beginning, and found their situation worse after the reforms who continued to oppose them.
Looking at these four interest groups, it is clear that none of them, aside from to an extent the reactionary nobles and landowners, had fully achieved their aims by 1881. While the growing calls for revolution ‘from below’ by the intelligentsia was gaining momentum, Russia still remained an autocracy - indeed, one that was becoming more and more so. Equally, the Populists attempt to produce socialism among the peasants had also failed, although the show trails of its members during this period gave them a platform to air their views publicly. While the splinter group, The People’s Will ultimately succeeded in fulfilling one of its aims by assassinating the Tsar, this did not bring about the social change that they desired. Indeed, in many ways it backfired by bringing the more ruthless and autocratic Alexander III to the throne. By 1881, Marxism also had made few inroads into Russian political life, although it would become successful decades later. Arguably, the opposition group that succeeded most in its aims during this period were the reactionary nobles and landowners who were able to use their influence to persuade an increasingly disenchanted Nicholas II to roll back his earlier reforms.