Nicholas II succeeds his father on October 20 (November 10), 1894, who died of illness in the Crimea. Educated by Pobedonoscev, accustomed to accepting every wish of his father as a sacred thing from an early age, knowledge of the main foreign languages and all the good rules of aristocratic society is certainly not enough to counterbalance the absence of any lively intelligence, of any decisive personal will. Convinced of the sacred nature of autocracy, on this point he does not want to accept compromises with liberal thought, “non-Russian” according to the theorists of reaction: but he is nevertheless willing to compromise on many “secondary” issues as soon as the water appears to rise to the throat; the concession therefore almost always comes too late,
Determined not to grant a “constitution”, in the “Western” sense of the word, he does not find the courage to publicly reveal his views to more or less “progressive” ministers, but strikes behind those who believed, after an interview with him, to have its approval and support.
Among the various kinds of influences he undergoes, that of the empress Aleksandra Fedorovna and later that of the monk Rasputin (v.), Who must have made a lot of talk about himself during the world war, are particularly strong. His distrust of any personality, even showing a minimum of independence and frankness, will be continually tested by his advisers and ministers, perhaps in the forefront perhaps by the minister of finance, S. for his uncommon qualities; at the head of the Ministry of Finance, from 1892 to 1903, he gave a great impetus to the development of the railway network, to the textile and metallurgical industry, and above all endeavored to reduce and eliminate the continuous “deficit” of the state budget).
According to Usaers, the industrialization process of Russia is in fact accelerating more and more, especially thanks to the influx of foreign capital; there will certainly remain a striking disproportion between the fundamentally agricultural aspect of the country and the very young industrial organization: however, during the reign of Nicholas II the “workers’ problem” comes to the fore; in the large industrial centers that have recently arisen, the strikes and workers’ unrest are added to the peasant unrest, student riots, the frond or the open opposition of a large part of the intelligentsia. We try as best we can to combine workers’ legislation, the working day for adults is fixed at eleven and a half hours; despite the legal ban on striking, one turns a blind eye if the strike is only economic; Sometimes pressure is put on employers to make some concessions: but despite these measures, workers’ unrest, temporarily suppressed, is resuming everywhere.
Alongside this rapid industrialization (which entirely changes the appearance of certain regions: for example the Donets region), the Russian railway network doubles its length between 1894 and 1905: this fact naturally promotes national industry in its turn. and it also benefits the large landowners who export their grain abroad, increasingly. The rate of the ruble is stabilized by Witte; the state monopoly on vodka is also created.
Meanwhile, the opposition forces are increasingly organizing (legally or illegally) among all strata of the population.
Liberalism, which arrived late in Russia, without a tradition and without a strong enough middle class on which to leverage, had already shown its ideological weakness in 1863, during the Polish uprising: in the face of the postulates of the Poles, the Russian liberals they do not know that to accept the tsarist repression in full, just as at other times they had been a watchful rearguard of the revolutionaries. With the rise of a modern industry, with the rise of industrial and financial capitalism, whose interests do not always coincide with those of the landowners and the semi-feudal state apparatus, liberalism seems to be gaining ground: and we are witnessing a liberalism in Russia. sometimes looking much more “to the left” than in the European countries, which had had their 1848. But the strengthening of liberalism very quickly appears as something ephemeral: if the industrial class has an interest in raising the standard of living of the Russian masses and therefore in a greater capacity for consumption, if it has every reason to ask for a constitution from the European that limits or demolishes the feudal residues that prevent the development of industry and – taking into account all this – supports certain workers’ agitations, calculating on the more moderate wing of socialism, as soon as the agitations begin to become seriously threatening, the industrialists they appeal to the same state apparatus that at first they had fought – without fully evaluating the consequences. Always calculating on concessions from the Tsar and on the support of the more moderate wing of the workers’ movement, much more than on his own strength, liberals will always be taken aback by any new situation. When theDuma, the left-wing liberals (the “cadets”) will constitute an opposition always willing to collaborate with the government, while the right-wing liberals (the “Octobrists”) will represent the bridge to the opposition in the tsarist government. At the dawn of the 1917 revolution, liberals will be equally uncertain between “crowned democracy” and republic.