European nations gained world dominance between the 15th and 19th centuries through imperialism and industrialization. European nations competed among themselves for international influence, and established by the early 20th century a very intricate balance of power, the disturbance of which ignited World War I in 1914. Over this same period, the power of monarchs within European nations declined as a larger portion of the populace demanded political rights, leading to the democratization of most political systems throughout Western Europe. These shifts in political systems were fed by urbanization, by the rise of class consciousness within the masses, and by the spread of ideas of political and economic philosophers who challenged the power of autocratic government.
Russia from Tsarism to Bolshevik Dictatorship
Russia lagged behind Western Europe in its economic and political development. In the mid-19th century, Russia remained a feudal society with very little industrialization or urbanization, whose tsar had absolute power. Serfs, peasants who were bound to landowners and had no political rights, comprised the vast majority of the population. Tsar Alexander II (1855-1881) initiated an Age of Reform that he hoped would modernize Russia while maintaining the absolute power of the tsar. In 1861 Alexander II emancipated the serfs, on the grounds that “it is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until the serfs begin to liberate themselves from below.” This act put into place a complicated system by which the peasants acquired a “temporary obligation” to the landlord that could drag on for years, and had to pay to purchase land that they had considered their own and that was often much smaller than the amount of land of which they had previously had custody. The landlords resented the loss of their source of free labor, and the peasants continued to live much as before – in peasant communes called mirs, employing inefficient methods of farming. Industrialization quickened, but the workers lived in squalor and worked without the enforcement of safety laws or the aid of unions until soviets, councils of representatives from the working class, were formed.
Alexander’s reforms opened the door for state officials and others who wanted change to voice their ideas, premiere among which were proposals for zemstvas (local elected officials) to have a role, either advisory or legislatively, in the governing of the empire. Many intellectuals and community leaders called for a moderation of the tsar’s absolute power, and were incensed when Nicholas II (1894-1905) rejected these proposals. A few called for a conversion to constitutional monarchy, and some more radical groups called for violent revolution or dramatic change. A loose anti-autocratic alliance formed between many liberals, assemblies of nobles, professionals, workers, peasants, and minority nationality groups that had long resented rule by the Russian Emperor. ...