Russification was the name given to a policy of Alexander III. Russification was designed to take the sting out of those who wanted to reform Russia and to bind all the Russian people around one person – the tsar.

Russification was first formulated in 1770 by Uvarov. He defined three areas of Russification – autocracy, orthodoxy and ‘Russian-ness’. Of the three, Russian-ness was the most important. Before Alexander III, Russification meant that all the tsar’s subjects, whatever their nationality, should be accepted by the tsar as being ethnic groups in their own right provided that they acknowledged their allegiance to the Russian state, which included the government and the church.

Under Alexander III, Russification took a new turn. He believed that all cultures and nationalities within the empire should be wiped out (though not physically) and that all the people within the empire should become ‘Great Russians’. Russification had no time for small ethnic groups that were more concerned about their culture at the expense of Russia’s as a whole. To be loyal to Russia and therefore the tsar, you had to be a Russian first rather than, for example, a Kazak or Cossack.

Why did Alexander III pursue such a belief? Russia had, at times, been a dominant force in Eastern Europe – the era of Peter the Great is one such example. By the second half of the C19th, Russia had ceased to play a major part in Europe’s foreign affairs. Germany and Britain were the dominant players. Alexander III wanted to get Russia in to this league. To do this, Russia had to develop. Alexander II had used Western European ideas in his attempt to modernise Russia. However, these caused confusion as such ideas struggled against centuries of Russian peasant conservatism. This is why Alexander III wanted Russian ideas to move Russia forward. If the ideas were Russian, no-one would have the right to obstruct them.

Ironically, Russia’s elite also looked to the growing power of Germany and identified that Germany’s rise to dominance in Europe had been swift and effective. Therefore, there must be something within Germany’s system that allowed for this. As a result, despite the efforts of Alexander to make all in his empire Great Russians, Russia looked to the German model – or, more precisely, the Prussian model, for it was Prussia that dominated Germany.

It was arranged for 500 Russian civil servants to go to Berlin to be trained in the German methods within their civil service. These 500 men, it was believed, would bring back modern ideas that could be ‘Russified’. The end result would be a modern Russian civil service that could be used to further expand the power of the tsar. The process of sending 500 men to Germany to be trained continued right up to 1914 and ended because of World War One. Clearly, the system could not continue when both were on opposite sides of the war!

The biggest supporters of this attempt to modernise Russia’s civil service was the army’s hierarchy. They were particularly concerned that Russia had so many national minorities. They viewed them as a threat to the internal security of Russia – especially areas such as the Baltic coast and Transcaucasia. Any success in improving the quality of the civil service to advance the standard of government in these areas was well supported by the army’s leaders.

The Church also supported Russification in that the policy called on Poles to convert to the Orthodox Church from Catholicism and for Muslims in Central Asia to do the same. All Russians under the same church would have done a great deal to expand the power of the Holy Synod, a body that was created to give its support to an expansion in the power of the tsar.

Supporters of Russification did not try to intellectualise the belief. They believed that it was for the greater good of all of Russia – and that was enough.

The victims of Russification were those who were of non-Russian nationality but lived within the empire. Any weakening of their culture had to lead to resentment. As there were no constitutional means by which they could voice their anger, the Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians etc turned to revolutionary action. Any support for the national minorities was seen as support for a weakening of Russia’s true identity.

Those in power had two ways of dealing with those who were deemed to be enemies of Russification. First they had outright repression. With an improving police force and a civil service that was being modernised, this could prove to be effective. The second method of dealing with ‘enemies of the state’ was to use the chauvinism of the Great Russian people themselves in support of the tsar. These people could be used to advance the cause of Russification – playing the race card was not just a C20th phenomenon! If things were going well, the Great Russian people got the credit; if things went wrong, the blame went on the disloyal national minorities who were anti-Russian. The government encouraged groups to form that openly displayed their loyalty to the tsar. The most famous was the Union of Russian People founded in 1904.

The Union of Russian People was a very active party – as active as any revolutionary group. It believed in the use of peaceful propaganda and the major figures in it were Prince Gagarin and Dr Dubrovin Purishkievich. They made direct appeals to the workers to root out of factories and coal mines those who were anti-Russia. They made the same appeal to the peasants. But their work was passive. This was not enough for some.

In September 1905, the Union of Russian Men was founded by the brothers Sheremetiev. They had a much more direct approach and believed in action. In this they received the support of Vladimir, Archbishop of Moscow. Those who joined took an oath to bring the tsar and the Russian people together. The more militant joined the Black Hundred gangs. The men in these gangs went around the countryside urging the peasants to rise up against anyone they knew who hated Russia. The Jews took the full brunt of the work of the Black Hundred gangs. In the autumn of 1905 and the spring of 1906, pogroms took place in the Ukraine and an estimated 21,000 Jews were killed for being ‘anti-Russian’. The Black Hundred gangs also took part in assassinations. They murdered Professor Herzenstein in July 1906. He was a Kadet deputy and a journalist. Some of his articles were deemed to be ‘anti-Russian’. While it is generally considered that Peter Stolypin was assassinated by members of the Social Revolutionary Party in 1911, some believe that the Kiev Black Hundred may have been responsible. Some saw Stolypin as weak as he wanted reform. Bogrov, the man who killed Stolypin, had a very complicated past. He may well have laid the blame for Stolypin’s death on the Social Revolutionaries as it would have further blackened their name. However, there is vague evidence that he may have been a member of the Kiev Black Hundred and carried out the assassination on their behalf.

Before his murder, few could have claimed that Stolypin was soft. He gave governor-generals the right to hand over an accused person to a court made up of a chairman and four army officers. Such courts were responsible for 8,856 executions in Russia between 1906 and 1911. An estimated 40,000 more died in prison. The bulk of these deaths/executions were in Russia’s outlying regions where there had been opposition to Russification. The Baltic area executed the most during this time – 993 in six years. Second was Poland with 979 executions. Areas such as Yaroslavl, an area where Russification was well received, executed no-one during this time.

Stolypin also used the law to strengthen the tsar’s position. Stolypin especially distrusted the Poles. In 1907, all Polish schools had to teach in Russian. In 1908, all Poles had to register their place of occupation – this was an attempt to control their movement. The senior posts within the Polish civil service were given to Russians and all council business had to be done in Russian. When the Poles complained that their treatment made them second class citizens, Stolypin told them to become Russian citizens after which they would be treated as first class citizens. He used similar methods on other national minorities.