Sunday, September 28, 2008

An Allegory

Crowned in 1894, Russian Emperor Nicholas II went down in history as one of the worst rulers Russia ever had. A champion of liberalism, Nicholas called the first parliament Russia ever had, the State Duma, in 1905. He appointed Sergei Witte Prime Minister, a first for Russia, which had hitherto been ruled autocratically by its Tsars and Emperors. He issued the October Manifesto, promising civil liberties, universal male suffrage and freedom of religion among other things. The following year, he further abandoned the autocracy that had served his country so well by introducing the first ever Constitution of Russia.

Nicholas' reckless liberalisation of Russia's polity reversed the sensible autocratic reforms of the Emperor Nicholas I, who ushered in the "Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationalism" policy after the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. The unprecedented openness allowed the unfettered forces of political expression to expand and gain new adherents. Radical new parties, such as the Social Democratic Labour Party (famous for its extremist, or Bolshevik, wing) were formed. The extreme liberal ideology championed by the Emperor encouraged anarchists, who assassinated among others Sergei Witte and numerous members of the aristocracy.

The Emperor used a shock-doctrine to force his policies on an unwilling policies. The October Manifesto and 1906 Constitution, for example were enacted after the disaster of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. At the outbreak of the Great War of 1914 (known to us as the First World War), Nicholas doubtless planned to use the emergency situation to force more liberal programmes on an unwilling public. However, his extreme liberalism finally bore fruit in February 1917, when a political crisis of unexpected proportions forced his government out. In the November of that year, a further crisis engulfed Russia as the Bolsheviks launched a further revolution. The following year, Nicholas himself succumbed to the revolutionary forces he had unleashed.

What was worse, the trend of liberalisation of thought to which Nicholas had contributed meant that the contagion of revolution spread across the world. Within three decades, all of Eastern Europe and large part of Asia were part of the new world order that replaced the stable polities of the 19th Century. If Nicholas had only stuck to the tried policies of his predecessors (Nicholas I and Alexander III in particular) and avoided a programme of political deregulation, the Russian Empire might have survived to this day.

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