Monday, October 3, 2016

AltHistory Scenario #24: What if the Russian Empire Never Fell?

Time for another Russian Alternate history! However, since most of my previous articles on the largest nation on earth focused on the Soviet Union, instead let's take a step further back to the old Czarist Russian Empire.

As if modern Russia wasn't big enough...

The Russian Empire, by the end of it's life, was a bloated, corrupted, decadent and anachronistic society, with great wealth, great poverty, modern industry, overstaffed bureaucracy and ancient beliefs all commingling together. The fact that it lasted until 1917 is amazing itself, as the writing was on the wall decades before.

However, Russia of the period was on the verge of altering itself: with industrialization running at full tilt and the lessons of the humiliating defeat in 1905 to the Japanese being absorbed, but the only way to prevent Russia from falling in 1917 is to make sure it doesn't go to war in 1914. Maybe later, say about 1920, but any time before that is a bit iffy. And the only way to prevent World War One from starting in 1914 is to not have Russia support Serbia, so that POD is out. And by 1917, with the pressures of a failing war, and Czar Nicholas' face on the defeat, it is apparent little would save the Czar now.

Not even a totally historically inaccurate film. 

However, we can look a bit further back, to 1881, to the last great chance for a reformed Russia, to the grandfather of Nicholas II, Alexander II, the man that liberated the serfs and Bulgaria and expanded his empire into Central Asia and deeper into Asia.

Point of Divergence

On March 13 (or March 1 by the old Julian calendar Russia was still using), members of an nihilist terrorist group, using bombs, attacked the bombproof coach of Czar Alexander II. Although the leader of Russia wished to step out to see what he could do to help the injured cossacks that were guarding him, the driver of the coach quickly hurried away to the military review the Czar was attending. While originally it was seen as cowardly, the revelation that two more men with bombs were in the crowd and ready to kill the Czar later changed public opinion.

"Yes, let's kill the man who might actually be able to address our grievances! That will totally convince them to give us what they want!" - Every anarchist/nihilist/nationalist assassin ever. 

The committees that Czar Alexander II had officially announced that day to look into parliamentary reforms presented their proposal to turn Russia into a constitutional monarchy, though along the lines of the system the German Empire had established decades earlier: the czar would remain head of state, and appoint the leading ministers including the Prime Minister, but an elected Duma, elected every five years by a limited male suffrage determined by property and education requirements at first but slowly expanded over time, would have a hand in passing laws including managing finances and the military.  The State Council, an appointed advisory body to the Czar, became the "upper house" of the new parliament and had to approve all laws as well, while the Czar had a final veto power. After careful deliberation, Alexander II accepted the proposals in July 1881, with orders to elect and assemble the Duma by November being sent out.


The Duma thus elected was a moderate body, with a strong Conservative bent but a vocal Liberal minority, and the first Prime Minister was the man who helped push the reforms, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov. However, it was a first step, and the members took advantage. The more Liberal members, using guaranteed parliamentary privilege, began to agitate for more reforms, including more liberal trade, reducing the bureaucracy, cutting taxes, funding railroads and other infrastructure. Alexander II, seeking to strengthen the Russian nation, was willing to accept many of these plans, and personally sponsored laws that gave charters to new railroads and canals, setting up new schools to train the young and the former serfs, and many other proposals. However, more conservative members, especially those with ties to the nobility and large landowners, were hesitant to agree to these new laws, seeing them as attacks on their privileged position in the Empire. However, with the popular Czar supporting some of these laws, the Conservatives found little ground to stand on. By 1886, new railroads were beginning to be built all over Russia, allowing small cities better connections to the outside world, as well as access to raw materials that not only the booming Russian economy demanded but also the other great powers in Europe.

However, one thing that the Conservatives and the Czar refused to consider was land reform to break up the estates of the nobles to give to the peasants and, perhaps most importantly, reduce the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was a beacon of reactionary thought in Russia. Extremist Liberals saw the Church and it's massive influence as an anachronism in the modern world, and wanted to move to a more secular society. The lower class was divided on this point: many wished to be able to own and farm the valuable land held by the Church, but were scared that they would be seen as heretics and be damned to eternal damnation. But as the years went on, and land reform continued to be ignored, peasant agitation increased throughout Russia. Many left their lands for the promise of the New World, but many others simply left the land and to the factories in the cities which promised better wages (though also a higher cost of living).

It wasn't all slap stick comedy in old-timey factories.

By the time of Czar Alexander II's death in 1892 at the age of 73, the reform efforts had begun to slow, until only simple military acts that were desperately needed but also uncontroversial such as reorganizing the general staff, changing the curriculum in military schools, and making promotion merit based rather than at the whims of the Czar and his adivsors, as the State Council became more conservative while the Duma began to push more liberal and reformist, with several socialists being elected in the 1891 Duma, leaving the Czar in an uncomfortable middle position. But the accession of Nicholas II raised many questions as to what way he was going to go. His father, though in his forties, died of a sudden illness the year before, leaving the young, twenty-seven year old as Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias.

Nicholas II, though was woefully unprepared for the position, having received no experience in government or management at all. Because of this, Nicholas was reliant on his grandfather's ministers, many of whom were still reformist in nature. Nicholas' experiences in Britain and America and seeing democracy in action impressed him as well, and when a delegation of peasants and workers came to present a petition in the first weeks of his reign, the Czar carefully listened to them, and promised to look into it. While the petition wasn't enacted in its entirety for years, several proposals were: the suffrage was extended to all men by the 1901 Duma election, censorship was reduced, and taxes were overhauled and reduced.

Not paying taxes is great, eh?

It wasn't until 1902, with clashes between peasants and landowners reaching new highs that land reform finally came to the forefront. With the Duma's majority now composed of various members elected on the platform of land reform and helping the long suffering peasants, they began a series of political maneuvers to force the issue. However, the Prime Minister, Sergei Witte, was caught in a quandary. While he saw the benefits of giving the peasants their own land, he saw no way the act could be passed through the State Council, and he had no idea if the Czar, easily influenced by those around him, would accept the law or if he would veto it. With Duma members like Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and Alexander Kerensky, leaders of the Russian Socialist Party and the Liberal Party of Russia respectfully, threatening to not pass the annual budget of 1903 unless some action was undertaken, PM Witte was desperate. So he proposed a sweeping land reform act that would break up many of the largest estates, enough to guarantee every peasant family at least 250 acres of land, in return for each to repay a low interest loan in 25 years to the landowner which could be paid for in cash or in kind.

Before Witte even finished proposing the law he had written up without the help of either Ulyanov, Kerensky or even notifying the Czar himself, the howls and threats from all sides in the Duma chamber nearly threatened to cause a riot. The State Council vowed to never accept such a demeaning law, and Nicholas II was blindsided by his minister and furious. However, when the press reported the law, many peasants were ecstatic, some believing that it had already come to pass. When armed guards fired on peasants on the estate of one of the largest landowners in Russia who were simply offering their first instalment of the loan, killing 26, the outcry was even larger. Mobs and riots broke out all over Russia.

So... not a lot has changed, huh?

With Russia on the verge of a civil war as peasants began to attack the landowners and their families and burning their homes, Nicholas II, who had fired Witte the day after he proposed the law, recalled him a few days later, rescinded the order, and told him to get the law passed through the parliament before "the anarchist and the Marxist kill us all."

Using ever political maneuver he could think of, and with the support of Kerensky and, reluctantly Ulyanov, and the threat to ask the Czar to create enough members to the State Council to over ride the conservatives blocking the bill, the Land Reform Act of 1903 was passed. The Conservatives and even some liberals saw it as the death knell of the Empire seeing their land ripped apart by dirty peasants who were on the march to kill them all as the communists wanted, the vast majority of peasants were just happy to finally have their own piece of land. While extremist socialists, many of whom splintered from Ulyanov's party, demanding full state ownership of all the land, and some reactionaries demanding the death of every agitator, they were increasingly marginalized as public protests turned overnight from near riots to massive outpourings of gratefulness. 

The outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 further pushed the memory of the land reform into the back of people's minds as the public rose to support the Czar and the Empire, and recruitment soared. With a strong industry and an army that was well equipped and trained, the Russians managed to hold the line, preventing the Russians from seizing the city of Port Arthur and capturing Vladivostok. A daring maneuver to send the powerful Baltic Fleet half way around the world (with the aid of traveling through the British controlled Suez Canal) to reinforce the fleet that had been crippled by a surprise Japanese attack in the early days of the war resulted in an inconclusive battle that, while it didn't destroy either fleet, did force the Japanese to withdraw. With the aid of American president Teddy Roosevelt, the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in early 1906 when the war turned into a trench like stalemate in Manchuria. Japan managed to inflict some defeats, but wasn't able to win the sought after victory against an European power, so retreated to lick its wounds.

Yay old timey racist propaganda!

The result of the war lead to serious questions being raised in the Duma as loyal and brave Russian troops were nearly defeated by an upstart Asian power. Many generals were cashiered out of the service, and young, smart officers took their place. When the war finally broke out in 1914, Russia was ready, and easily captured East Prussia in the first weeks of the war and bore down on Berlin. Only a desperate defense on the Oder River and the overextension of Russian supply lines prevented the war from ending in three months. However, the unstable situation in Germany that forced troops that were marching on Paris to turn around to stop Russians from capturing Berlin meant that by mid-1915, Germany was in no position to continue the war as reinforced Russian troops pushed on again in the spring and were besieging Berlin. The war lasted only 11 months, mostly thanks to Russia. Austria-Hungary collapsed, but Germany, still with Kaiser Wilhelm II in charge, became a Russian ally in the aftermath, though it was increasingly seen as a vassal.

The Russian Empire would continue to prosper for years, pushing their influence deeper in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. But in 1923, when a Russian ship exploded in the Dardanelles, the Russian Empire sought to force Ottoman Turkey, who stayed out of the last war, to pay compensation. Nervous of their former ally, Britain and France instead supported Turkey, and the Great War broke out, with Russia invading Turkey through the Balkans and the Caucasus. While Russia was strong, it wasn't strong enough to face all three nations at once (especially when the vengeful Kaiser Wilhelm, now just King of Prussia, refused to aid Russia. It took four long years, millions of casualties, and the unveiling of new weapons like the landship and poison gas, during but Russia was eventually driven from Turkey. However Nicholas II died and his son Nicholas III came to the throne during the war, but he wasn't on the throne long, as he was forced to abdicate in the aftermath of the war. Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine all became independent, and Russia became a republic, with Alexander Kerensky as first President. Russia has remained a massive, isolationist power: a strong military that could defend Russia, but rarely engaging in conflicts outside it's borders. The rise of Communism in Germany was crushed by the Russians, along with the French, but soon after Russia returned back inwards, turning into a mighty capitalist economic powerhouse.

And totally not ruled by a corrupt, megalomaniac who looks like a James Bond villain.
Please don't poison me...


Is this possible? If I had to rate it, I'd give it a 3 out of 10 chance. While Alexander II was a reformer, I'd think he would be bogged down by a Duma that would be wanting to take more than the Czar, the nobility and the landlords were willing to give. And if Alexander II died sooner than I said, then his son, Alexander III would have undone all of it. I decided to just skip Alexander III altogether, because this was a better story and outcome, wouldn't you think?

Also, would Russia go isolationist after such a war? I highly doubt it. But at the same time, this article was long enough, and I kinda wanted to wrap it up. Most likely a communist or fascist style government would try to take over, launching a new world war... but again, this article was long enough.

But what do you think? Could the Russian Empire have lasted longer? Or if you have a topic or idea you would like me to talk about, please leave comments below, email me at, or tell me on Twitter @tbguy1992.

1 comment:

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