In Russia the process of modernization took far longer than in western Europe. There was no parliament in Russia until 1905. Serfdom was not abolished until 1861. Each time reform came—in the 1860s and in 1905 and 1906—it came as a result of military defeat abroad.
The reforms of Alexander II (1855-1881) arose from Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1854-1856); the Revolution of 1905 was made possible by Russia’s failure in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). During most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even after the reforms, the Russian czars claimed for themselves the autocratic rights that Peter the Great had exercised. Thus the Russian people experienced long periods of repression and reaction.
The failure to adjust to the currents of the times and the attempt to preserve autocratic rule produced unparalleled discontent in Russia. Disillusioned and angry intellectuals in the 1830s and 1840s gave way to proponents of social change in the 1850s and early 1860s, and these in turn yielded to determined revolutionaries and terrorists in the late 1860s and the years that followed.
Although Marxist political groupings existed after 1896, the Marxists were neither numerous nor effective in the nineteenth century. Non-Marxist revolutionary parties performed the acts of violence that convulsed the regime and won the support of large groups of Russians. It was only V. I. Lenin’s transformation and adaptation of Marxist doctrine specifically to Russia that enabled his Bolsheviks to emerge as an important threat. And it was only Lenin’s supreme tactical skill and boldness that enabled him to bring the Bolsheviks, still a minority, to power during the Revolution of 1917.
Amid official attempts to preserve sixteenth-century patterns, Russia was experiencing the impact of nineteenth- and twentieth-century industrialization and modernization. New resources were developed, thousands of miles of railroads were built, and many factories were engaged in both heavy and light industry.
A new laboring class thronged the cities. Most Russian revolutionaries looked to the peasants to provide them with their political and social base, and they therefore considered the peasants’ problems paramount. The Marxists, on the other hand, recruited their following among the new urban proletariat and focused their attention on its problems; but they relied for their tightly organized leadership almost exclusively on a small body of intellectuals and theorists.
And despite censorship and repression, Russia experienced during the nineteenth century a substantial literary flowering, as poets, novelists, and playwrights produced works that rank with the greatest of all time.