Book Review: Governing Tsarist Russia

By Peter Waldron

When one has studied a particular historic period at GCSE, A-Level, Undergraduate and Postgraduate one's perspective on the course of events can become blurred and confusing, having been exposed to materials coloured in different ways to suit their own educational requirements. Recently I started a new project on late Tsarist Russia, a period I have covered time and time again and wanted to find some works which would clear my head, streamline my perspective and find some grounding. That's when I came across this book entitled Governing Tsarist Russia.

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Price: £19.99
Publication Date: 2007
ISBN: 978-0333717189
Classification: Noodle Scratcher

This book delivered exactly what I hoped it would, a short and competent introduction to imperial governance - ideal for undergraduates. One of the strengths of Waldron’s text is the abundant quantities of statistical data he uses to support his arguments. In the introduction, Waldron makes a somewhat unexpected refreshing point that, by focusing too much on explaining the causes of the 1917 revolutions, both Western and Russian historians have ‘obscured important issues’ in Imperial Russian history to which he intends to draw the reader’s attention. The first part of the book explores the ‘Ethos of Autocracy’. Although in the opening chapter Waldron argues that the ‘supposed predilection of the Russian people for rebellion’ played into the state’s autocratic ideology, he leaves unclear whether the predilection was ‘supposed’ or real. He is on much firmer ground when he argues that the costs of a contiguous empire made the Russian state more sensitive to – and heavy-handed about – perceived threats. Waldron reduces the role of the Orthodox Church to an administrative arm of the state in the nineteenth century, when the priesthood outnumbered the police. The second chapter deals with certain individual monarchs. Tsar Nicholas II, who worked ‘without a secretary’ and ‘had to carry out the most basic tasks, such as addressing envelopes for his letters’, symbolized the disproportionate distribution of responsibility in Russia’s top-heavy governing structure. In the third chapter, on state service, Waldron argues that the state’s social authority began to decline as a result of Emancipation when the Russian nobility ‘showed their disdain for their traditional lives and embraced modernization with enthusiasm’, thereby turning away from their traditional role as the state’s local representatives. No direct evidence exists of the nobility’s enthusiastic embrace of modernization, but there is plenty of evidence that the rapid post- Reform changes found Russian landowners in extreme difficulties and unable to adapt.

The second part of the book is entitled ‘Ruling an Empire’. The fourth chapter deals with state institutions. Waldron is at his best when he covers the Finance Ministry, which together with Internal Affairs and Justice ‘formed the core of the Russian government during the nineteenth century’. The increasing professionalization of Russia’s bureaucrats did not hide the fact that Russia was under-administered, which Waldron demonstrates in figures: even after doubling between 1855 and 1913, Russia’s bureaucracy was one quarter (per head of population) of the French and British. Recruitment policies based on patronage and corruption even at the top levels further hampered the bureaucracy’s efficacy, while the low salaries of local officials contributed to corruption and arbitrariness – something true to this day. Waldron’s fifth chapter, on provincial authority, I found the most well written and enlightening section of the book. The section on local officials provides very helpful administrative statistics for imperial, provincial, and district levels. The nine-page section devoted to the zemstvos is an excellent digest of this unique and complex phenomenon. Once again, the statistical details shed much light on the subject and Waldron’s particular emphasis on the role of the zemstvos during the Great War – transportation and care for the wounded, production of goods for the front, food and munitions supplies, and placement of refugees – is quite enlightening.
The sixth chapter entitled ‘Coercion, Police and Justice’ is also full of helpful statistical data. Waldron maintains that since only 30 per cent of Russian men eligible for military service (as opposed to 80 percent in France) performed it after the reform of 1874, the Russian army failed to become a ‘school of the nation’). In the seventh chapter on ‘National Challenges’, Waldron posits that Russian expansion took place more peacefully than European colonization. Assimilation, not suppression symbolized Russia’s expansion, but this form of imperialism became synonymous with statehood, which set the stage for painful break-ups in the future. Waldron opens the eighth and last chapter on finances by noting that in Russia the needs of the state determined revenue, over half of which was consistently absorbed by the army and navy from the eighteenth until the mid-nineteenth century. In his brief conclusion, Waldron points to two persistent problems that spanned the 1917 divide: the ‘fluid boundaries between administration and justice’ and the preservation of political power at the cost of ‘progress towards modernization’.