Russian Empire #90 (1913)

Russia #90 (1913)
Russia #90 (1913)

The Russian Empire (Россійская Имперія — Rossiyskaya imperiya), also known as Russia, existed from 1721 until it was overthrown by the short-lived February Revolution in 1917. One of the largest empires in world history, stretching over three continents, the Russian Empire was surpassed in landmass only by the British and Mongol empires. The rise of the Russian Empire happened in association with the decline of neighboring rival powers: the Swedish Empire, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Persia and the Ottoman Empire. It played a major role in 1812–1814 in defeating Napoleon’s ambitions to control Europe and expanded to the west and south.

The House of Romanov ruled the Russian Empire from 1721 until 1762, and its German-descended cadet branch, the House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov, ruled from 1762. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian Empire extended from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea in the south, from the Baltic Sea on the west to the Pacific Ocean, and (until 1867) into Alaska in North America on the east. With 125.6 million subjects registered by the 1897 census, it had the third-largest population in the world at the time, after Qing China and India. Like all empires, it included a large disparity in terms of economics, ethnicity, and religion. There were numerous dissident elements, who launched numerous rebellions and assassination attempts; they were closely watched by the secret police, with thousands exiled to Siberia.

Economically, the empire had a predominately agricultural base, with low productivity on large estates worked by serfs (until they were freed in 1861). The economy slowly industrialized with the help of foreign investments in railways and factories. The land was ruled by a nobility (the boyars) from the 10th through the 17th centuries, and subsequently by an emperor. Tsar Ivan III (1462–1505) laid the groundwork for the empire that later emerged. He tripled the territory of his state, ended the dominance of the Golden Horde, renovated the Moscow Kremlin, and laid the foundations of the Russian state. Tsar Peter the Great (1682–1725) fought numerous wars and expanded an already huge empire into a major European power. He moved the capital from Moscow to the new model city of St. Petersburg, and led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political mores with a modern, scientific, Europe-oriented, and rationalist system.

Catherine the Great (reigned 1762–1796) presided over a golden age; she expanded the state by conquest, colonization and diplomacy, continuing Peter the Great’s policy of modernization along West European lines. Tsar Alexander II (1855–1881) promoted numerous reforms, most dramatically the emancipation of all 23 million serfs in 1861. His policy in Eastern Europe involved protecting the Orthodox Christians under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. That connection by 1914 led to Russia’s entry into the First World War on the side of France, Britain, and Serbia, against the German, Austrian and Ottoman empires.

The Russian Empire functioned as an absolute monarchy until the Revolution of 1905 and then became a de jure constitutional monarchy. The empire collapsed during the February Revolution of 1917, largely as a result of massive failures in its participation in the First World War.

Map of the Russian Empire, circa 1912
Map of the Russian Empire, circa 1912

Though the Empire was only officially proclaimed by Tsar Peter I, following the Treaty of Nystad (1721), some historians would argue that it was truly born either when Ivan III of Russia conquered Veliky Novgorod or when Ivan the Terrible conquered Khanate of Kazan. According to another point of view, the term Tsardom, which was used after the coronation of Ivan IV in 1547, was already a contemporary Russian word for empire, while Peter the Great just replaced it with a Latinized synonym.

Peter I the Great (1672–1725) played a major role in introducing Russia to the European state system. However, this vast land had a population of 14 million. Grain yields trailed behind those of agriculture in the West, compelling nearly the entire population to farm. Only a small percentage lived in towns. The class of kholops, close to the one of slavery, remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter I converted household kholops into house serfs, thus including them in poll taxation. Russian agricultural kholops were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.

Peter enacted reforms making the postal system more uniform in its operations. Previously, the postal system had included 1,600 locations by the 16th century, and mail took three days to travel from Moscow to Novgorod. In 1634, a peace treaty between Russia and Poland established a postal route to Warsaw, becoming Russia’s first regular international service. The first general post offices opened in Saint Petersburg and Moscow in 1714. A regular post service was established along the Moscow and Riga routes. In February 1714, the postal service started biweekly runs from St. Petersburg to Riga; in June it started runs from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The field post office was founded in 1716, and the so-called ordinary post service in 1720, for fast conveyance of state ordinances and papers. Regular delivery of private parcels (the so-called heavy post) was organized in the 1730-1740s. In 1746, parcels and private correspondence were first delivered by courier, and starting in 1781 money, too, could be delivered to one’s door. The earliest known Russian postmark dates from July 1765; it is a single line reading ST.PETERSBOVRG (in Latin letters), but the first official recommendation to use postmarks did not come until 1781.

Peter’s first military efforts were directed against the Ottoman Turks. His attention then turned to the North. Peter still lacked a secure northern seaport, except at Archangel on the White Sea, but the harbor there was frozen for nine months a year. Access to the Baltic was blocked by Sweden, whose territory enclosed it on three sides. Peter’s ambitions for a “window to the sea” led him to make a secret alliance with Saxony in 1699, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Denmark against Sweden, resulting in the Great Northern War. The war ended in 1721 when an exhausted Sweden asked for peace with Russia. Peter acquired four provinces situated south and east of the Gulf of Finland. The coveted access to the sea was now secured. There he built Russia’s new capital, Saint Petersburg, to replace Moscow, which had long been Russia’s cultural center. In 1722, he turned on his aspirations as first Russian monarch to increase Russian influence in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea at the expense of the at that time weakened Safavid Persians. To do so, he made Astrakhan the center of military efforts against Persia, and waged the first full-scale war against them in 1722–23.

Peter the Great portrayed on 500 ruble Russian Empire banknote
Peter the Great officially renamed the Tsardom of Russia to the Russian Empire in 1721, and became its first emperor. He instituted the sweeping reforms and oversaw the transformation of Russia into a major European power.

Peter reorganized his government based on the latest political models of the time, molding Russia into an absolutist state. He replaced the old boyar Duma (council of nobles) with a nine-member Senate, in effect a supreme council of state. The countryside was also divided into new provinces and districts. Peter told the Senate that its mission was to collect tax revenues. In turn tax revenues tripled over the course of his reign. As part of the government reform, the Orthodox Church was partially incorporated into the country’s administrative structure, in effect making it a tool of the state. Peter abolished the patriarchate and replaced it with a collective body, the Holy Synod, led by a government official. Meanwhile, all vestiges of local self-government were removed. Peter continued and intensified his predecessors’ requirement of state service for all nobles.

Peter died in 1725, leaving an unsettled succession. After a short reign of his widow Catherine I, the crown passed to empress Anna who slowed down the reforms and led a successful war against the Ottoman Empire, which brought a significant weakening of the Ottoman vassal Crimean Khanate, a long-term Russian adversary.

The discontent over the dominant positions of Baltic Germans in Russian politics brought Peter I’s daughter Elizabeth on the Russian throne. Elizabeth supported the arts, architecture and the sciences (for example with the foundation of the Moscow University). However, she did not carry out significant structural reforms. Her reign, which lasted nearly 20 years, is also known for her involvement in the Seven Years’ War. It was successful for Russia militarily, but fruitless politically.

Catherine the Great was a German princess who married Peter III, the German heir to the Russian crown. After the death of Empress Elizabeth, she came to power when her coup d’état against her unpopular husband succeeded. She contributed to the resurgence of the Russian nobility that began after the death of Peter the Great. State service was abolished, and Catherine delighted the nobles further by turning over most state functions in the provinces to them.

Catherine the Great portrayed on 100 ruble Russian Empire banknote
Empress Catherine the Great, who reigned from 1762 to 1796, continued the empire’s expansion and modernization. Considering herself an enlightened absolutist, she played a key role in the Russian Enlightenment.

Catherine the Great extended Russian political control over the lands of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Her actions included the support of the Targowica Confederation, although the cost of her campaigns, on top of the oppressive social system that required serfs to spend almost all of their time laboring on their owners’ land, provoked a major peasant uprising in 1773, after Catherine legalized the selling of serfs separate from land. Inspired by a Cossack named Pugachev, with the emphatic cry of “Hang all the landlords!”, the rebels threatened to take Moscow before they were ruthlessly suppressed. Instead of the traditional punishment of being drawn and quartered, Catherine issued secret instructions that the executioner should carry the sentence out quickly and with a minimum of suffering, as part of her effort to introduce compassion into the law. She also ordered the public trial of Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, a member of the highest nobility, on charges of torture and murder. These gestures of compassion garnered Catherine much positive attention from Europe experiencing the Enlightenment age, but the specter of revolution and disorder continued to haunt her and her successors.

In order to ensure continued support from the nobility, which was essential to the survival of her government, Catherine was obliged to strengthen their authority and power at the expense of the serfs and other lower classes. Nevertheless, Catherine realized that serfdom must be ended, going so far in her “Instruction” to say that serfs were “just as good as we are” — a comment the nobility received with disgust. Catherine successfully waged war against the Ottoman Empire and advanced Russia’s southern boundary to the Black Sea. Then, by plotting with the rulers of Austria and Prussia, she incorporated territories of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Partitions of Poland, pushing the Russian frontier westward into Central Europe. In accordance with the treaty Russia had signed with the Georgians to protect them against any new invasion of their Persian suzerains and further political aspirations, Catherine waged a new war against Persia in 1796 after they had again invaded Georgia and established rule over it about a year prior and expelled the newly established Russian garrisons in the Caucasus. By the time of her death in 1796, Catherine’s expansionist policy had turned Russia into a major European power. This continued with Alexander I’s wresting of Finland from the weakened kingdom of Sweden in 1809 and of Bessarabia from the Principality of Moldavia, ceded by the Ottomans in 1812.

Napoleon, following a dispute with Tsar Alexander I, launched an invasion of Russia in 1812. The campaign was a catastrophe. Although Napoleon’s Grande Armée made its way to Moscow, the Russians’ scorched earth strategy prevented the invaders from living off the country. In the bitter Russian Winter, thousands of French troops were ambushed and killed by peasant guerrilla fighters. As Napoleon’s forces retreated, the Russian troops pursued them into Central and Western Europe and to the gates of Paris. After Russia and its allies defeated Napoleon, Alexander became known as the ‘savior of Europe’, and he presided over the redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna (1815), that ultimately made Alexander the monarch of Congress Poland.

Although the Russian Empire would play a leading political role in the next century, thanks to its defeat of Napoleonic France, its retention of serfdom precluded economic progress of any significant degree. As Western European economic growth accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, Russia began to lag ever farther behind, creating new weaknesses for the Empire seeking to play a role as a great power. This status concealed the inefficiency of its government, the isolation of its people, and its economic backwardness. Following the defeat of Napoleon, Alexander I had been ready to discuss constitutional reforms, but though a few were introduced, no major changes were attempted.

Decembrists Revolt, December 14, 1825
Decembrists Revolt, December 14, 1825

The liberal tsar was replaced by his younger brother, Nicholas I (1825–1855), who at the beginning of his reign was confronted with an uprising. The background of this revolt lay in the Napoleonic Wars, when a number of well-educated Russian officers traveled in Europe in the course of military campaigns, where their exposure to the liberalism of Western Europe encouraged them to seek change on their return to autocratic Russia. The result was the Decembrist revolt (December 1825), the work of a small circle of liberal nobles and army officers who wanted to install Nicholas’ brother as a constitutional monarch. But the revolt was easily crushed, leading Nicholas to turn away from the modernization program begun by Peter the Great and champion the doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.

The retaliation for the revolt made “December Fourteenth” a day long remembered by later revolutionary movements. In order to repress further revolts, censorship was intensified, including the constant surveillance of schools and universities. Textbooks were strictly regulated by the government. Police spies were planted everywhere. Would-be revolutionaries were sent off to Siberia — under Nicholas I hundreds of thousands were sent to katorga there.

After the Russian armies liberated allied (since the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk) Georgia from the Qajar dynasty’s occupation in 1802, in the Russo-Persian War (1804–13) they clashed with Persia over control and consolidation over Georgia, and also got involved in the Caucasian War against the Caucasian Imamate. The conclusion of the 1804-1813 war with Persia made it irrevocably cede what is now Dagestan, Georgia, and most of Azerbaijan to Russia following the Treaty of Gulistan. To the south west, Russia attempted to expand at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, using recently acquired Georgia at its base for the Caucasus and Anatolian front. The late 1820s were successful military years. Despite losing almost all recently consolidated territories in the first year of the Russo-Persian War of 1826–28, Russia managed to bring an end to the war with highly favorable terms with the Treaty of Turkmenchay, including the official gains of what is now Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iğdır Province. In the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish War, Russia invaded northeastern Anatolia and occupied the strategic Ottoman towns of Erzurum and Gümüşhane and, posing as protector and savior of the Greek Orthodox population, received extensive support from the region’s Pontic Greeks. Following a brief occupation, the Russian imperial army withdrew back into Georgia.

Post coaches in the Russian Empire appeared in 1820. In 1833, the St. Petersburg City Post was created, and the city was divided into 17 districts with 42 correspondence offices, which were located in trade stores. In 1834, reception offices appeared in the suburbs (in St. Petersburg there were as many as 108). Periodical press delivery in Russia was organized in St. Petersburg in 1838. The Department of Coaches and T-carts was opened in 1840 at the Moika Embankment; light cabriolets carried surplus-post, coaches delivered light post, and T-carts dealt with “heavy” post. Green colored street mail boxes were installed in 1848, the same year stamped envelopes were issued; orange mailboxes for same day service appeared near railway stations in 1851, and postage stamps appeared in 1857. In 1864, the City Post started sending printed matter and catalogues, and in 1866, they sent packages.

The question of Russia’s direction had been gaining attention ever since Peter the Great’s program of modernization. Some favored imitating Western Europe while others were against this and called for a return to the traditions of the past. The latter path was advocated by Slavophiles, who held the “decadent” West in contempt. The Slavophiles were opponents of bureaucracy who preferred the collectivism of the medieval Russian obshchina or mir over the individualism of the West. More extreme social doctrines were elaborated by such Russian radicals on the left as Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin.

Russian tsars crushed two uprisings in their newly acquired Polish territories: the November Uprising in 1830 and the January Uprising in 1863. The Russian autocracy gave the Polish artisans and gentry reason to rebel in 1863 by assailing national core values of language, religion, culture. The result was the January Uprising, a massive Polish revolt, which was crushed by massive force. France, Britain and Austria tried to intervene in the crisis but were unable to do so. The Russian patriotic press used the Polish uprising to unify the Russian nation, claiming it was Russia’s God-given mission to save Poland and the world. Poland was punished by losing its distinctive political and judicial rights, with Russianization imposed on its schools and courts.

Siege of Sevastopol (1853-1854) by George Baxter, depicting the eleven-month siege of a Russian naval base at Sevastopol during the Crimean War
Siege of Sevastopol (1853-1854) by George Baxter, depicting the eleven-month siege of a Russian naval base at Sevastopol during the Crimean War

In 1854-55 Russia lost to Britain, France and Turkey in the Crimean War. It was fought primarily in the Crimean peninsula, and to a lesser extent in the Baltic. Since playing a major role in the defeat of Napoleon, Russia had been regarded as militarily invincible, but, once opposed against a coalition of the great powers of Europe, the reverses it suffered on land and sea exposed the decay and weakness of Tsar Nicholas’ regime.

When Tsar Alexander II ascended the throne in 1855, desire for reform was widespread. A growing humanitarian movement attacked serfdom as inefficient. In 1859, there were more than 23 million serfs in usually poor living conditions. Alexander II decided to abolish serfdom from above, with ample provision for the landowners, rather than wait for it to be abolished from below in a revolutionary way that would hurt the landowners.

The postage stamp idea had already swept much of the world when, in September 1856, the Russian authorities decided to follow suit. The first Russian postal stamp was issued on December 10, 1857, by the circular of the Postal Department “On the bringing of postal stamps for the common use” with the following announcement:

Starting from the 1st January of the next year 1858 usual private letters to all the places of the Empire, the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Finland brought to the post in usual envelopes or without envelope at all just with addresses written on the letter itself should be sent only with the stamp corresponding to the letter weight“.

The first stamp went on sale December 10, 1857, a 10-kopeck brown and blue imperforate typographed stamp bearing the Russian coat of arms (Scott #1). Officially, people started to use stamps to pay internal correspondence in Russia from January 1, 1858 (from March 1, 1858, in the Caucasus, Transcaucasia, and Siberia). All private letters were now sent only with postal stamps that were cancelled with two crossed lines.

The emancipation reform of 1861 that freed the serfs was the single most important event in 19th-century Russian history. It was the beginning of the end for the landed aristocracy’s monopoly of power. Further reforms of 1860s included socio-economic reforms which would clearify the position of the Russian government in the field of property rights and their protection. Emancipation brought a supply of free labor to the cities, industry was stimulated, and the middle class grew in number and influence. However, instead of receiving their lands as a gift, the freed peasants had to pay a special tax for what amounted to their lifetime to the government, which in turn paid the landlords a generous price for the land that they had lost. In numerous cases the peasants ended up with the smallest amount of land. All the property turned over to the peasants was owned collectively by the mir, the village community, which divided the land among the peasants and supervised the various holdings. Although serfdom was abolished, since its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants, revolutionary tensions were not abated, despite Alexander II’s intentions. Revolutionaries believed that the newly freed serfs were merely being sold into wage slavery in the onset of the industrial revolution, and that the bourgeoisie had effectively replaced landowners.

Alexander II obtained Outer Manchuria from the Qing China between 1858–1860 and sold the last territories of Russian America, Alaska, to the USA in 1867.

A 5-kopeck stamp for local postage in St. Petersburg and Moscow was introduced in 1863 (Scott #11), and in the following year a new common design, with the arms in an oval, was introduced for 1-kopeck, 3-kopeck, and 5-kopeck values (Scott #5-7). These were used to make up complicated rates for international mail, which had previously required cash payments at the post office.

Local postal systems used stamps referred to as Zemstvo stamps, from the term for local government begun under Alexander II in 1864. In September 1865, the Shlisselburg district became the first of the zemstvo offices to issue stamps; the system was officially organized by a decree of August 27, 1870.

After 1866, the stamps were printed on watermarked with a pattern of wavy lines, EZGB in Cyrillic plus a set of more or less horizontal lines and vertical lines running through the letters and halfway. Apart from that, the “grain” of the paper was always perpendicular to the watermark text. In the early years, the horizontal watermark prevailed, but for a minority of each value the grain was vertical. In later years, the vertical watermark prevailed. Contrary to common perception among collectors there was no laid paper involved. The “stripes” were always part of the watermark.

In the late 1870s Russia and the Ottoman Empire again clashed in the Balkans. From 1875 to 1877, the Balkan crisis intensified with rebellions against Ottoman rule by various Slavic nationalities, which the Ottoman Turks dominated since the 16th century. This was seen as a political risk in Russia, which similarly suppressed its Muslims in Central Asia and Caucasia. Russian nationalist opinion became a major domestic factor in its support for liberating Balkan Christians from Ottoman rule and making Bulgaria and Serbia independent. In early 1877, Russia intervened on behalf of Serbian and Russian volunteer forces in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). Within one year, Russian troops were nearing Istanbul and the Ottomans surrendered. Russia’s nationalist diplomats and generals persuaded Alexander II to force the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878, creating an enlarged, independent Bulgaria that stretched into the southwestern Balkans. When Britain threatened to declare war over the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, an exhausted Russia backed down. At the Congress of Berlin in July 1878, Russia agreed to the creation of a smaller Bulgaria, as an autonomous principality inside the Ottoman Empire. As a result, Pan-Slavists were left with a legacy of bitterness against Austria-Hungary and Germany for failing to back Russia. The disappointment at the results of the war stimulated revolutionary tensions in the country. However, he helped Serbia, Romania and Montenegro to gain independence from and strengthen themselves against the Ottomans.

Postcard of Moscow in the 1870s
Postcard of Moscow in the 1870s

Another significant result of the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War in Russia’s favour was the acquisition from the Ottomans of the provinces of Batum, Ardahan and Kars in Transcaucasia, which were transformed into the militarily administered regions of Batum Oblast and Kars Oblast. To replace Muslim refugees who had fled across the new frontier into Ottoman territory the Russian authorities settled large numbers of Christians from an ethnically diverse range of communities in Kars Oblast, particularly the Georgians, Caucasus Greeks and Armenians, each of whom hoped to achieve protection and advance their own regional ambitions on the back of the Russian Empire.

In 1881 Alexander II was assassinated by the Narodnaya Volya, a Nihilist terrorist organization. The throne passed to Alexander III (1881–1894), a reactionary who revived the maxim of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” of Nicholas I. A committed Slavophile, Alexander III believed that Russia could be saved from turmoil only by shutting itself off from the subversive influences of Western Europe. During his reign Russia declared the Franco-Russian Alliance to contain the growing power of Germany, completed the conquest of Central Asia and demanded important territorial and commercial concessions from the Qing. The tsar’s most influential adviser was Konstantin Pobedonostsev, tutor to Alexander III and his son Nicholas, and procurator of the Holy Synod from 1880 to 1895. He taught his royal pupils to fear freedom of speech and press, as well as disliking democracy, constitutions, and the parliamentary system. Under Pobedonostsev, revolutionaries were persecuted and a policy of Russification was carried out throughout the Empire.

5-ruble coin of Alexander III, 1888
5-ruble coin of Alexander III, 1888

The movement south toward Afghanistan and India alarmed the British, who ignored Russia’s quest for a warm-water port and worked to block its advance in what observers called The Great Game. Both nations avoided escalating the tensions into a war, and they became allies in 1907.

In 1894, Alexander III was succeeded by his son, Nicholas II, who was committed to retaining the autocracy that his father had left him. Nicholas II proved ineffective as a ruler and in the end his dynasty was overthrown by revolution. The Industrial Revolution began to show significant influence in Russia, but the country remained rural and poor. The liberal elements among industrial capitalists and nobility believed in peaceful social reform and a constitutional monarchy, forming the Constitutional Democratic Party or Kadets.

On the left the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs) incorporated the Narodnik tradition and advocated the distribution of land among those who actually worked it — the peasants. Another radical group was the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, exponents of Marxism in Russia. The Social Democrats differed from the SRs in that they believed a revolution must rely on urban workers, not the peasantry.

In 1903, at the 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London, the party split into two wings: the gradualist Mensheviks and the more radical Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks believed that the Russian working class was insufficiently developed and that socialism could be achieved only after a period of bourgeois democratic rule. They thus tended to ally themselves with the forces of bourgeois liberalism. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, supported the idea of forming a small elite of professional revolutionists, subject to strong party discipline, to act as the vanguard of the proletariat in order to seize power by force.

Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) was a major blow to the Tsarist regime and further increased the potential for unrest. In January 1905, an incident known as “Bloody Sunday” occurred when Father Georgy Gapon led an enormous crowd to the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg to present a petition to the Tsar. When the procession reached the palace, soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. The Russian masses were so furious over the massacre that a general strike was declared demanding a democratic republic. This marked the beginning of the Revolution of 1905. Soviets (councils of workers) appeared in most cities to direct revolutionary activity. Russia was paralyzed, and the government was desperate.

In October 1905, Nicholas reluctantly issued the famous October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national Duma (legislature) to be called without delay. The right to vote was extended and no law was to become final without confirmation by the Duma. The moderate groups were satisfied. But the socialists rejected the concessions as insufficient and tried to organize new strikes. By the end of 1905, there was disunity among the reformers, and the tsar’s position was strengthened for the time being.

Nicholas II by Boissonnas and Eggler, circa 1909
Nicholas II by Boissonnas and Eggler, circa 1909

Russia’s first series of commemorative stamps were issued on January 2, 1913, to mark the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. The 17 stamps featured portraits of the various Tsars, as well as views of the Kremlin, Winter Palace, and Romanov Castle (Scott #88-104). In 1915 and 1916, as the government disintegrated under the pressures of World War I, several of the designs were printed on card stock and used as paper money (Scott #105-107 and #112-116). Contrary to regulations, these were also used for postal purposes. The backs of these stamps bore the coat of arms and an inscription in Russian which translates to “On par with silver subsidiary coins”.

Tsar Nicholas II and his subjects entered World War I with enthusiasm and patriotism, with the defense of Russia’s fellow Orthodox Slavs, the Serbs, as the main battle cry. In August 1914, the Russian army invaded Germany’s province of East Prussia and occupied a significant portion of Austrian-controlled Galicia in support of the Serbs and their allies — the French and British. Military reversals and shortages among the civilian population, however, soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets.

By the middle of 1915, the impact of the war was demoralizing. Food and fuel were in short supply, casualties were increasing, and inflation was mounting. Strikes rose among low-paid factory workers, and there were reports that peasants, who wanted reforms of land ownership, were restless. The tsar eventually decided to take personal command of the army and moved to the front, leaving Alexandra in charge in the capital. The illness of her son Alexei led her to trust the semi-illiterate Siberian peasant Grigori Rasputin (1869 – 1916), who convinced the royal family that he possessed healing powers that would cure Alexei. He had gained enormous influence but did not shift any major decisions. His assassination in late 1916 by a clique of nobles restored their honor but could not restore the Tsar’s lost prestige.

While the central government was hampered by court intrigue, the strain of the war began to cause popular unrest. Since 1915 high food prices and fuel shortages had caused strikes in some cities. Workers, who had won the right to representation in sections of the War Industries Committee, used those sections as organs of political opposition. The countryside also was becoming restive. Soldiers were increasingly insubordinate, particularly the newly recruited peasants who faced the prospect of being used as cannon fodder in the inept conduct of the war.

The situation continued to deteriorate. Increasing conflict between the tsar and the Duma weakened both parts of the government and increased the impression of incompetence. In early 1917, deteriorating rail transport caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes. On March 3, 1917, a strike was organized on a factory in the capital, Petrograd (as Saint Petersburg had been called since September 1914, to Russianize the Germanic name); within a week nearly all the workers in the city were idle, and street fighting broke out. Authorities summoned troops to quell the disorders in Petrograd. In 1905 troops had fired on demonstrators and saved the monarchy, but in 1917 the troops turned their guns over to the angry crowds. Public support for the tsarist regime simply evaporated in 1917, ending three centuries of Romanov rule.

With his authority destroyed, Nicholas abdicated on March 2, 1917. The execution of the Romanov family at the hands of Bolsheviks followed in 1918.

Postcard portraying a Russian Empire postman
Postcard portraying a Russian Empire postman

As the period of the Russian Revolution and Civil War began, post offices across the country were thrown on their own devices, and a number of the factions and breakaway republics issued their own stamps. The Russian Provisional Government (Временное правительство России —Vremennoye pravitel’stvo Rossii) was established immediately following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on March 2, 1917. This government lasted about eight months, ceasing to exist when the Bolsheviks gained power after the October Revolution. The Provisional Government reprinted the old Tsarist designs, but sold them imperforate (Scott #119-135). The first stamps of the independent state of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Российская Советская Федеративная Социалистическая Республика — Rossiyskaya Sovetskaya Federativnaya Sotsialisticheskaya Respublika) were released in 1918 and were replaced by those of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Союз Советских Социалистических Республик — Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik) with the first Soviet Union stamps being released on August 19, 1923. During the period of the Civil War (1917-1922), the old tsarist stamps and postal stationary also remained in use due to shortages of the RSFSR issues).

Scott #90 is a 3-kopeck rose red stamp portraying Tsar Alexander III, printed by typography, perforated 13½, and released on January 2, 1913, marking the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich (Алекса́ндр Алекса́ндрович — Aleksandr Aleksandrovich) was born on March 10, 1845, at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, the second son and third child of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and his first wife Marie of Hesse.

In disposition, Alexander bore little resemblance to his soft-hearted, liberal father, and still less to his refined, philosophic, sentimental, chivalrous, yet cunning great-uncle, Emperor Alexander I of Russia, who could have been given the title of “the first gentleman of Europe”. Although an enthusiastic amateur musician and patron of the ballet, Alexander was seen as lacking refinement and elegance. Indeed, he rather relished the idea of being of the same rough texture as some of his subjects. His straightforward, abrupt manner savored sometimes of gruffness, while his direct, unadorned method of expressing himself harmonized well with his rough-hewn, immobile features and somewhat sluggish movements. His education was not such as to soften these peculiarities. More than six feet tall (about 1.9 meters), he was also noted for his immense physical strength. A sebaceous cyst on the left side of his nose caused him to be mocked by some of his contemporaries, and he sat for photographs and portraits with the right side of his face most prominent.

Alexander III
Alexander III

Though he was destined to be a strongly counter-reforming emperor, Alexander had little prospect of succeeding to the throne during the first two decades of his life, as he had an elder brother, Nicholas, who seemed of robust constitution. Even when Nicholas first displayed symptoms of delicate health, the notion that he might die young was never taken seriously, and he was betrothed to Princess Dagmar of Denmark, daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and Queen Louise of Denmark, and whose siblings included King Frederick VIII of Denmark, Alexandra, Queen of the United Kingdom and King George I of Greece. Great solicitude was devoted to the education of Nicholas as tsesarevich, whereas Alexander received only the training of an ordinary Grand Duke of that period. This included acquaintance with French, English and German, and military drill.

Alexander became Tsesarevich upon Nicholas’s sudden death in 1865; it was then that he began to study the principles of law and administration under Konstantin Pobedonostsev, then a professor of civil law at Moscow State University and later (from 1880) chief procurator of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Pobedonostsev instilled into the young man’s mind the belief that zeal for Russian Orthodox thought was an essential factor of Russian patriotism to be cultivated by every right-minded emperor. While he was heir apparent from 1865 to 1881 Alexander did not play a prominent part in public affairs, but allowed it to become known that he had ideas which did not coincide with the principles of the existing government.

On his deathbed the previous tsesarevich was said to have expressed the wish that his fiancée, Princess Dagmar of Denmark, should marry his successor. This wish was swiftly realized when on November 9, 1866, in the Grand Church of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Alexander wed Dagmar, who converted to Orthodox Christianity and took the name Maria Feodorovna. The union proved a happy one to the end; unlike his father’s, there was no adultery in his marriage. The couple spent their wedding night at the Tsesarevich’s private dacha known as “My Property”.

Later on, the Tsesarevich became estranged from his father; this was due to their vastly differing political views, as well was his resentment towards Alexander II’s long-standing relationship with Catherine Dolgorukov (with whom he had several illegitimate children) while his mother, the Empress, was suffering from chronic ill-health. To the scandal of many at court, including the Tsesarevich himself, Alexander II married Catherine a mere month after Marie Alexandrovna’s death in 1880.

On March 1, 1881 (O.S.), Alexander’s father, Alexander II, was assassinated by members of the terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya. As a result, he ascended to the Russian imperial throne in Nennal on March 13. He and Maria Feodorovna were officially crowned and anointed at the Assumption Cathedral in Moscow on May 27, 1883.

On the day of his assassination Alexander II had signed an ukaz setting up consultative commissions to advise the monarch. On ascending to the throne, however, Alexander III took Pobedonostsev’s advice and canceled the policy before its publication. He made it clear that his autocracy would not be limited.

 

All of Alexander III’s internal reforms aimed to reverse the liberalization that had occurred in his father’s reign. The new Emperor believed that remaining true to Russian Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality (the ideology introduced by his grandfather, emperor Nicholas I) would save Russia from revolutionary agitation. Alexander’s political ideal was a nation composed of a single nationality, language, and religion, as well as one form of administration. He attempted to realize this by the institution of mandatory teaching of the Russian language throughout the empire, including to his German, Polish, and other non-Russian subjects (with the exception of the Finns), by the patronization of Eastern Orthodoxy, by the destruction of the remnants of German, Polish, and Swedish institutions in the respective provinces, and by the weakening of Judaism through persecution of the Jews. The latter policy was implemented in the “May Laws” of 1882, which banned Jews from inhabiting rural areas and shtetls (even within the Pale of Settlement) and restricted the occupations in which they could engage.

Alexander weakened the power of the zemstvo (elective local administrative bodies resembling British parish councils) and placed the administration of peasant communes under the supervision of land-owning proprietors appointed by his government. These “land captains” (zemskiye nachalniki) were feared and resented throughout the Empire’s peasant communities. These acts weakened the nobility and the peasantry and brought Imperial administration under the Emperor’s personal control.

In such policies, Alexander III had the encouragement of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who retained control of the Church in Russia through his long tenure as Procurator of the Holy Synod (from 1880 to 1905) and who became tutor to Alexander’s son and heir, Nicholas. Other conservative advisors included Count D. A. Tolstoy (minister of education, and later of internal affairs) and I. N. Durnovo (D. A. Tolstoy’s successor in the latter post). Mikhail Katkov and other journalists supported the emperor in his autocracy.

Encouraged by its successful assassination of Alexander II, the Narodnaya Volya movement began planning the murder of Alexander III. The Okhrana uncovered the plot and five of the conspirators, including Alexander Ulyanov, the older brother of Vladimir Lenin, were captured and hanged on 20 May, 1887. On October 29, 1888, the Imperial train derailed in an accident at Borki. At the moment of the crash, the imperial family was in the dining car. Its roof collapsed, and Alexander supposedly held its remains on his shoulders as the children fled outdoors. The onset of Alexander’s kidney failure was later attributed to the blunt trauma suffered in this incident.

Postcard picturing  Cathedral of Christ the Savoir in Borki near Kharkov, circa 1890, one of many churches built all over the empire to commemorate the Tsar's
Postcard picturing Cathedral of Christ the Savoir in Borki near Kharkov, circa 1890, one of many churches built all over the empire to commemorate the Tsar’s “miraculous” survival in the train crash.

The famine of 1891–1892 and the ensuing cholera epidemic permitted some liberal activity, as the Russian government could not cope with the crisis and had to allow zemstvos to help with relief (among others, Tolstoy helped organize soup-kitchens, and Chekhov directed anti-cholera precautions in several villages).

In foreign affairs Alexander III was a man of peace, but not at any price, and held that the best means of averting war is to be well-prepared for it. Though he was indignant at the conduct of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck towards Russia, he avoided an open rupture with Germany — even reviving the League of Three Emperors for a period of time — and in 1887, signed the Reinsurance Treaty with the Germans. However, in 1890, the expiration of the treaty coincided with the dismissal of Bismarck by the new German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II (for whom the Tsar had an immense dislike), and the unwillingness of Wilhelm II’s government to renew the treaty. In response, Alexander III then began cordial relations with France, eventually entering into an alliance with the French in 1892.

Despite chilly relations with Berlin, the Tsar nevertheless confined himself to keeping a large number of troops near the German frontier. With regard to Bulgaria he exercised similar self-control. The efforts of Prince Alexander and afterwards of Stambolov to destroy Russian influence in the principality roused his indignation, but he vetoed all proposals to intervene by force of arms.

In Central Asian affairs he followed the traditional policy of gradually extending Russian domination without provoking conflict with the United Kingdom, and he never allowed the bellicose partisans of a forward policy to get out of hand. His reign cannot be regarded as an eventful period of Russian history; but under his hard rule the country made considerable progress.

Alexander deprecated foreign influence, German influence in particular, thus the adoption of local national principles was off in all spheres of official activity, with a view to realizing his ideal of a Russia homogeneous in language, administration and religion. These ideas conflicted with those of his father, who had German sympathies despite being a patriot; Alexander II often used the German language in his private relations, occasionally ridiculed the Slavophiles and based his foreign policy on the Prussian alliance.

Some differences had first appeared during the Franco-Prussian War, when Alexander II supported the cabinet of Berlin while the Tsesarevich made no effort to conceal his sympathies for the French. These sentiments would resurface during 1875-1879, when the Eastern Question excited Russian society. At first the Tsesarevich was more Slavophile than the government, but his phlegmatic nature restrained him from many exaggerations, and any popular illusions he may have imbibed were dispelled by personal observation in Bulgaria, where he commanded the left wing of the invading army. Never consulted on political questions, Alexander confined himself to military duties and fulfilled them in a conscientious and unobtrusive manner. After many mistakes and disappointments, the army reached Constantinople and the Treaty of San Stefano was signed, but much that had been obtained by that important document had to be sacrificed at the Congress of Berlin.

Bismarck failed to do what was expected of him by the Russian emperor. In return for the Russian support which had enabled him to create the German Empire, it was thought that he would help Russia to solve the Eastern question in accordance with Russian interests, but to the surprise and indignation of the cabinet of Saint Petersburg he confined himself to acting the part of “honest broker” at the Congress, and shortly afterwards contracted an alliance with Austria-Hungary for the purpose of counteracting Russian designs in Eastern Europe.

The Tsesarevich could refer to these results as confirmation of the views he had expressed during the Franco-Prussian War; he concluded that for Russia, the best thing was to recover as quickly as possible from her temporary exhaustion, and prepare for future contingencies by military and naval reorganization. In accordance with this conviction, he suggested that certain reforms should be introduced.

In 1894, Alexander III became ill with terminal kidney disease (nephritis). In the fall of that year, Maria Fyodorovna’s sister-in-law, Queen Olga of Greece, offered her villa of Mon Repos, on the island of Corfu, in the hope that it might improve the Tsar’s condition. However, by the time that they reached Crimea, they stayed at the Maly Palace in Livadia, as Alexander was too weak to travel any further. Recognizing that the Tsar’s days were numbered, various imperial relatives began to descend on Livadia. Even the famed clergyman, John of Kronstadt, paid a visit and administered Communion to the Tsar. On October 21, Alexander received Nicholas’s fiancée, Princess Alix, who had come from her native Darmstadt to receive the Tsar’s blessing. Despite being exceedingly weak, Alexander insisted on receiving Alix in full dress uniform, an event that left him exhausted. Soon after, his health began to deteriorate more rapidly. He eventually died in the arms of his wife at Maly Palace in Livadia on the afternoon of November 1 [O.S. October 20], 1894, at the age of forty-nine, and was succeeded by his eldest son Tsesarevich Nicholas, who took the throne as Nicholas II. After leaving Livadia on November 6 and traveling to St. Petersburg by way of Moscow, his remains were interred on November 18 at the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Imperial Standard of the Emperor of Russia, used from 1858 to 1917
Imperial Standard of the Emperor of Russia, used from 1858 to 1917

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