Alexander III succeeded his father in 1881 when Alexander II was assassinated. Many historians see this event as the point of no return for the Russian monarchy. The assassination was felt through every layer of Russian society. It also clearly demonstrated the two choices Russia had after Alexander II’s murder – total and vigorous repression on the one hand or wholesale reform of Russia on the other. Any reform to Russia would almost certainly lead to the decline in the power of Russia’s autocracy. Any reduction in the power of Russia’s autocracy might also impact the power of Russia’s monarchy. Alexander II’s assassination showed that any reforms that were deemed half-hearted would not be tolerated by those who wanted a lot more. The two choices for any future tsar of Russia were simple – repression or total reform.
Russia had a society that was nearly bereft of a typical middle class. The vast bulk of Russians in the C19th were extremely poor; a few were extremely rich. The educated middle class were small in number and invariably outside of politics. Though small in number, the middle class did have one great advantage – it was an educated class and many in the middle class saw that Russia could not carry on as it was before Alexander III. It is not surprising that Lenin and Trotsky came from the middle class.
That the middle class was educated put a barrier between them and the peasants in the fields and the workers in the factories. Their ideas must have seemed totally alien to the vast bulk of Russia’s population that was still very much under the influence of the church. The church was very much a believer that your rank and status on Earth was determined by God and if you were poor, it was because He ordained it. Such a view swept throughout Russia in the early to mid-C19th. Only the educated middle class saw fit to challenge such notions. The Russian Church also preached that the tsar was the father of his people and many of the poor followed the tsar with seeming blind obedience. Clearly this was not a view shared by those who murdered Alexander II.
Those who wanted change knew that they would have to take it as they could not expect major reform to come from the government of Russia. To take what they wanted, they needed the support of the masses. To get this, they had to break the stranglehold the establishment had in the psyche of the poor. These reformers themselves were also facing serious problems as each revolutionary group that developed in Russia had different ideas as to what to do and they were, at times, more at war with themselves than they were with those who governed Russia.
Russia pre-1880 was primarily an agricultural nation with all the social conservatism and superstitions this brought. This very much played into the hands of those who wanted Russia to remain as it was. However, after 1880, Russia started to industrialise and all the problems associated with a quick transition flooded into the main cities of Russia. The urban proletariat was a social class Russia had not witnessed before – they were to play a major part in supporting those who wanted major change in Russia. By 1910, Russia had an industrial growth rate of 10% - the fastest in Europe. In the short term, it brought riches to those who owned the industries that thrived – coal, oil steel etc. It also brought a huge amount of social misery to those who were to turn to the revolutionaries.
However, such was the outrage and shock created by the murder of Alexander II, that the upper hand lay with those who wanted to repress society even more than before. The assassination of the father of the people was the simplest excuse that was needed to introduce even more draconian measures into Russia. This view was also supported by the new tsar – Alexander III.
Alexander III had an uncompromising view as to the powers that he believed he had as of right of his position. He had seen one tsar murdered and he was determined that he would not be next. He made it very clear to those who served in his government that he wanted Russia rid of anyone associated with what the government would determine as revolutionary views. Repression became the rock of Alexander III’s reign.