Comparison of Tsar and Communist Rule

Tsarist rule in the years 1856 to 1917 and Communist rule to the death of Lenin and the death of Stalin both depended on high degrees of central power and control by the state. The similarities between the two forms of government were therefore much greater than were the differences. How far do you agree with this judgement?

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Both Imperial and Soviet Russia have a long and well documented history of autocratic rule. However, Russian autocracy in its various forms has been far from consistent in either its organisation or outlook. It is this inconsistency in structure and policy which has given rise to differing schools of thought. On the one hand is the view that the fleeting and unfulfilled promises of both the liberalist-socialist February Revolution and Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917 witnessed nothing other than a transition from one form of despotism to another. On the other hand lies the theory that the Revolutions of 1917 caused the destruction of the Russian feudal system, empowering the masses to invest their authority in a democratically elected central representative form of government, at least in appearance if not in essence. In order to examine the two forms of government and their attributes, this essay uses a comparative approach in its discussion of the absolute monarchism of Tsars Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II, and to the proletarian dictatorships of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. It will introduce the organisational structure of the monarchical and republican forms of government, and present a snapshot of Russian society in both cases. It will then analyse the similarities and differences of state control over various facets of society, and summarise these arguments in a logical conclusion.

At the time of the accession to power of Tsar Alexander II in 1855, the Russian Empire was a hereditary absolute monarchy ruled by the Romanov dynasty. The Tsar promulgated and enforced laws personally, albeit acting on the counsel of trusted advisers. The Tsar also controlled the official state religion of Orthodox Christianity through the Holy Synod. Through his personally appointed counsellors, the Tsar wielded absolute power over most national institutions, including the military, the judiciary and the press. Subjects of the empire were segregated into different social classes on various rungs of the feudal ladder, from the nobility down through the clergy, merchants, cossacks and peasants. The majority of peasants were classed as serfs – common labourers bound to the land, with no political representation. Imperial Russia had a proportionately larger population than its European counterparts of Great Power status, and the majority of its peasant population eked out a meagre existence below the poverty line. The Russian economy was based on a primitive form of agriculture, and as such economic growth was sluggish, lagging way behind the rapidly industrialising West, with which Russia was unable to compete financially. State intervention in industry tended to be more frequent than elsewhere in Europe, though in certain sectors it developed with private initiative, often foreign capital. In any case, due to the late onset of industrialisation, Russia remained largely agricultural until well into the twentieth century.

Certain aspects of state control were relinquished in the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly during the reforms of the 1850s and 1860s, in the areas of government, education and the judiciary. In 1861 Alexander II announced the emancipation of around 20 million serfs. Local commissions controlled by the landowning gentry gave rise to emancipation by giving land and certain privileges to the serfs, though stopping short of freedom per se. Very few former serfs moved outside their village commune, and they were required to make redemption payments to the government over a period of almost fifty years. Landowners were compensated in the form of government bonds.

Local government was reformed shortly afterwards in 1864, whereby the European part of Russia was reorganised into different regions and districts in a devolution exercise. Local government became fully responsible for health, education and transport, signifying a move away from centralised power. In the same year, judicial reforms took place in most urban centres. The major change was the introduction of juries into the courtroom. The judiciary functioned fairly well, though the government lacked the financial clout to enforce the measures, meaning that local peasant justice remained relatively unaffected, with little interference from the central government.

State control remained fairly strong in the military, marked by the government’s desire to effect the transition from a large standing army to a reserve army, made possible through the training of the newly emancipated serfs. In other areas, the State bank was founded in 1866, all school officials remained nominally subordinate to the Ministry of Education, and censorship laws were relaxed in the 1860s.

Soviet Russia presents a more modern, if not altogether different, concept of state control. In February 1917, a Provisional Government of liberal socialists ousted the autocracy with the intention of establishing a democratic form of government in a war-ravaged society. At the same time, the radical Bolsheviks representing the working classes called for nationwide socialist revolution, and eventually seized power from the Provisional Government in November of the same year. Only after a long and bloody fratricidal war did the Bolsheviks consolidate power and establish a one-party Communist state, which officially came into being in December 1922.

The Soviet government initially attempted to centralise the economy through Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP). Threatening encirclement from capitalist powers, Lenin stressed the importance of rapid industrialisation through direct state control, as dictated by Marxist doctrine. However, these efforts did not come to fruition, and some private enterprise was permitted to coexist with the heavily nationalised industrial sector. Yet following Stalin’s accession to power in 1928, the state assumed control of all existing businesses and initiated intensive programmes of industrialisation in the form of three pre-War five-year plans. In agriculture, the state seized peasants’ property to establish collective farms. The plan proved hugely unpopular and caused much hardship. Millions of common labourers starved to death or were murdered during periods of forced collectivisation. Social unrest continued well into the 1930s as Stalin embarked on a purge of his own party. This gave rise to a campaign of terror not dissimilar to that witnessed in Revolutionary France, leading to the imprisonment and/or execution of anyone who was suspected of being an opponent of the Communist regime. Literally millions of citizens were expunged from all sections of society.

However, there were certain advantages of this rigorous state control. Stalin’s industrialisation programme required that workers be adequately educated. This led to an increase in the number of schools. More importantly, for the first time women were given equal status in education and employment as men, marking an improvement in household income and family life. Universal access to health care gradually became readily available, increasing the standard of living and life expectancy. Engineers, architects and medical personnel were sent abroad to learn new technologies, and exchange programmes enabled foreign input into the expanding Soviet knowledge base.

The outbreak of the Second World War served only to intensify the Stalinist system of state control. Forced labour rapidly accelerated Soviet industrial output, allowing the USSR to outstrip Nazi Germany’s initial advance, while conscription swelled the ranks of the Red Army, enabling the military to push back the eastward thrust of the German army in the winter of 1941-42. The post-War era saw no reduction in this trend as the Soviet government sought to rebuild the infrastructure decimated by war and roll out its policy of extreme levels of state control over the countries of Eastern Europe placed in its sphere of influence in the post-War settlement. It was not until the death of Stalin in 1953 and the accession to power of Nikita Khrushchev that repressive controls over government and society were eased.

So how do the two forms of pre-Revolutionary monarchical and post-Revolutionary republican autocracy compare? Let us first examine the political ideologies on which the two forms of state centrism were founded. The initially obvious assessment is that they were almost as far apart on the political spectrum as is possible, from the ultra-conservative monarchical despotism of Imperial Russia to the extreme left-wing one-party Communism of the Soviet Union. The monarchical despotism of the Tsars was concentrated in the person of the Emperor alone. He functioned as both Head of State and Head of Government, and was responsible for all branches of government. The serf majority of the population had no political rights or representation, and only the most fortunate amongst the nobility and intelligentsia had sufficient status to make their views heard. Admittedly, given the vast expanse of Russia and its poor transport and communication links under the Tsars, logistics would always dictate that imperial power was unlikely to filter down to every citizen from the Baltic to the Pacific. However, individual liberties remained severely restricted, if not non-existent.

On the other hand, Soviet Russia was a proletarian dictatorship in pursuit of the ideal of world revolution. The Bolshevik effort in the civil war was founded on the belief that only a coherent and secretive organisation could overthrow the government. Following the revolution, this belief was transposed to the machinery of government, in that only this kind of organisation could resist foreign and domestic enemies. According to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, this revolutionary esprit could only be achieved through the efforts of a Communist party which assumes the role of revolutionary vanguard, achieving its aims through a disciplined organisation known as democratic centralism, where party officials discuss proposals but do not question decisions once they have been made. Similarly, the electorate were simply expected to approve of the laws enacted and policies pursued by the party they had voted into power. Any form of dissent, either expressed or implied, was punished in the most severe manner.

Let us now turn to the practicalities of state control. As noted previously, levels of state control in Imperial Russia witnessed a marked decline throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Admittedly, continued state control and supervision, heavy financial obligations, and communal regulation of peasant affairs made life in the countryside seem not entirely different from that prior to the emancipation. The gentry still filled high posts in the army and bureaucracy and occupied a dominant position in the new institutions created by the reforms; and government officials viewed independent actions on the part of Russian society with much the same suspicion and distrust that they had previously. However, the reforms made a genuine difference, in the sense that the granting of personal liberty to the peasants freed them from total dependence on the landowning gentry, and it encouraged social mobility. The educated minority of the lower classes of society were able to engage in education and banking. This new direction in government policy gave Russian life new dimensions and possibilities of social and economic development. Either way, this revolution from above certainly marked a watershed in Russian history, and fuelled the embryonic Revolutionary movement in its build-up to the events of 1917. A measure of the success of the reforms is that the government survived them unscathed, unlike those of Gorbachev in the 1980s.

The immediate post-Revolutionary period witnessed conditions which were not dissimilar. Lenin’s Communist government faced the immediate challenges of severe economic recession and working class hostility. Alienated by the brutalities of civil war and famine, peasants, urban workers and many soldiers demanded the creation of a more democratic socialist government. The Politburo were unwilling to compromise, maintaining a one-party state and demanding total discipline and unity within the party. Economically, however, direct methods of mobilisation were abandoned, allowing a revival of private trade on a small scale. These changes paved the way for the NEP, which in turn led to an increase in agricultural and industrial production. Critics of the NEP complained that flourishing markets in agricultural produce benefited a revived class of rural entrepreneurs as opposed to the urban proletariat. They insisted that the government find the resources to invest in industrial growth to counter this trend. Unable to secure these resources, the government became increasingly unpopular amongst the peasantry, who still made up over 80 per cent of the population. Following Lenin’s death and Stalin’s consolidation of power, the government dealt with this crisis by experimenting with the direct, coercive mobilisation of resources from the countryside. This collectivisation marked the end of market relations in the countryside, meaning the government could determine what happened to rural produce and where the profits were invested. By 1934 the government had successfully taken control of the huge human and material resources of the countryside.

The collectivisation of these resources were subsequently diverted to the towns in Stalin’s intense programme of industrialisation. Only a hugely powerful centralised state was capable of such a programme, and it is no accident that it was managed by a highly coercive and autocratic state system. Building on a long tradition of Russian autocracy, Stalin created a modernised autocracy in which his authority grew to the point where he no longer depended on the party, but established a unique system of personal rule. The atmosphere of crisis created by collectivisation and party purges generated a crucible of paranoia which strengthened the leadership by making any form of opposition look like treachery. However, despite this severity, the Communist government enjoyed much popular support, and many ordinary citizens accepted the patriotic promises of Stalinist propaganda.

In conclusion, it would appear that while the ideologies on which Imperial and Soviet Russia were founded lay at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the machinery of government operated in much the same way in both cases. It is difficult to assess which form of government was more autocratic, and it would be unwise to assume that the political currents at the beginning of the period in question form a valid basis for comparison with those at the end. However, it is safe to assert that the two forms of autocracy were as intense as they were efficiently managed. There were certainly huge differences in the ultimate aims and objectives of the two forms of government. While Imperial Russia strove to secure the succession of the Romanov dynasty through maintaining the hereditary monarchy, Soviet Russia sought to achieve world revolution in pursuit of the Communist ideal. However, the similarities in the intensity of state control appear more striking than these ideological differences. While the concentration of government dominance appeared greater under Communism, especially during the Stalinist era, the state in both cases to all intents and purposes retained almost full control over agriculture, industry, the military, education and the judiciary. In this respect, the similarities seem to be greater than the differences. It is not without a certain sense of irony that such state control was nominally approved by the electorate in Soviet Russia, in spite of the hardships it often caused.


David Christian, Imperial & Soviet Russia – Power, Privilege & the Challenge of Modernity (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997)

Terence Emmons, The Russian Landed Gentry and the Peasant Emancipation of 1861 (Cambridge: CUP, 1967)

J. N. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour, Russian History 1812-1992 (London: OUP, 1973)

Edward C. Thaden, Russia Since 1801: The Making of a New Society (New York: Wiley, 1971)

US Library of Congress, Federal Research Division Country Studies Series (Russia),