When looking at the many disparate opposition groups active in Russia in the later half of the nineteenth century, it is important to consider the effects they had on the political situation both in the long and short term. While some of these groups may have had an extreme immediate impact, often their lasting effects have been negligible. On the other hand, while some groups met with what looked like failure, they may have been instrumental in the fall of the regime, when the consequences of their actions are viewed in the long run. Often, it is those who least intend it who sow the seeds of revolution.

The statement I am discussing here contains the phrases “too insignificant” and “serious threat”. These are terms I will be applying to a number of Russian opposition groups. However, it is important for me to define these two labels. “Too insignificant” is relatively straightforward, as groups which have little discernable effect are very easy to identify. On the other hand, a “serious threat” is a more slippery concept. A group which takes extreme measures of terrorism may be seen as public enemy number one at the time, but really achieve little, or even make things worse for their cause. Are these anymore of a threat than well meaning, if ineffectual pacifists who simply wish to spread ideas and ideals? What is more important, the genuine level of threat, or rather, the way in which the authorities perceived them? This is what I will be examining.

As mentioned earlier, the opposition to the Tsar in Russia was deeply divided. Cultural, ideological and practical differences separated the dissenters (which is not really an appropriate term for all those opposed to the Tsar. The difficulty in selecting on is illustrative of the sheer diversity of people who were unhappy with the regime in some way). Each of these groups had different goals and methods, and were met with differing levels of success. For this reason, it is impossible respond to “opposition to the Tsar” under one umbrella. It is important to assess the threat each group posed, and the effect they really had. Now, I will look at these groups, and attempt to ascertain what their contribution was (if any) to bringing about the fall of the Tsar.

The Populists/Narodniks

The Narodniks, like most organized opposition in Russia, were deeply rooted in the middle class. Made up mostly of students they did, however, have a social conscience, and their chief concern was the lot of the peasants. Their aim was educate, enlighten and liberate the peasants, perhaps in the hopes of sparking a peasant revolution. In 1874, they staged their “going to the people”. However, their results seem almost comical now. They lacked the basic understanding that poor, illiterate rural workers Russia could not possibly perform, or even really want, a revolution. Despite the peasants disinterest, the government fell upon the populist movement zealously. After rounding them up, they were put into huge “show trials”, known as the “50” and the “193”, that lasted from October 1877 to January 1878. It seems ludicrous that their total ineptitude for political activism should be met with such good fortune. While they were useless out in the country, these trials gave the well educated, passionate Nardoniks exactly the platform they wanted to spread their views. So, while on their own they were not a serious threat, the actions of the Tsar made them celebrities, and helped them establish a tradition of opposition in Russia, the likes of which had never existed before. To put it into perspective, a modern equivalent to this may have been the Tianemen Square incident in 1989, in which the government ruthlessly crushed what was simply a peaceful demonstration, thus creating public outcry. The show trials managed to turn some idealistic students into martyrs for a great cause, and the Nardoniks would go onto spawn some very influential groups.

Land and Liberty

Just one day after the disastrous show trials mentioned above, a much more direct problem spontaneously appeared. Unlike the high ideals of the Nardoniks, this was a simple assassination attempt. Vera Zasulich had made an attempt on the life of General Trepov, governor of Saint Petersburg. She was the daughter of an army officer, which obviously served to complicate matters. While she claimed to be in the most opposed to violence, her defences was that she was acting of moral obligation and outrage. Much like the show trials, many thought that she may well have been in the right, including the jury. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she was acquitted of the charge. I see this as a fatal mistake on the part of the Russian government. Many celebrated her release, and saw this as a sign of incompetence, perhaps even impotence on the part of the authorities. Such a move underlined the vulnerabilities of the regime, and once again, they had managed turn a relatively minor incident into a matter of great importance. All this served gain publicity for Land and Liberty, a group that had risen from the ashes of the Narodniks. Time and again, this group would successfully assassinate key public figures, and each time the government would fail to respond. This group did appear to be a serious short term threat to the government. They had a sizable amount of public support backing them, and this made them especially dangerous. However, internal power struggles would cause them to change once again, this time splitting into two distinct groups, The People’s Will and the Black Partition.

The People’s Will

While The People’s Will were impressive in that they were the first group fully achieve their goals, perhaps the old adage of “be careful what you wish for” is particularly apt. This group, after numerous attempts, coordinated the assassination of the Emperor. Surely, this must have made them a genuine threat to power? To topple the God-like leader of a continent spanning empire? However, the gift of hindsight allows us to prove of how monumentally, if accidentally, stupid this manoeuvre would prove to be. While this may have seemed a big step forward for violent opposition, the distance it moved them back must probably be measured in light years. With the disposal of Alexander II, Russia had lost a relatively progressive and benign ruler. Now instead, not only had his tyrannical son, Alexander III come to power, he also had a grudge against all radicals and liberals in the country, who he saw as responsible for the death of his father. While Alexander III repression could not crush rebellion in Russia, which by now was inevitable, it certainly helped delay it. So while in the short term, The People’s Will appeared to be a monstrous threat to the Russian regime by blowing of the legs of its leader, they came close to crippling their own cause.

The Black Partition

The effects of this faction would be much more subtle and far reaching than that of The People’s Will. While they did not kill a Tsar, they were much more instrumental in the chain that would eventually result in modern Russia. Unlike The People’s Will, they were a peaceful organisation, and concerned itself with giving the rich, fertile black soil provinces back to the peasants. However, these activities are not the ones that they would achieve fame (or possibly infamy?) for. Their leader, Plekhanov, would go on to join the Social Democrats, and in the words of one historian “become the father figure for Russian Marxism”. So, while The Black Partition was in no real sense an immediate threat to power, had it been attacked as ruthlessly as some other groups, perhaps the whole of Russian history may have had a different outcome.

The Social Revolutionaries

In the 1890’s, the phoenix of populism emerged once again, this time in the form of Social Revolutionaries. They made use of terrorism, much like the People’s Will (many PW veterans were amongst their ranks), but however they had more focused goals. Their aim was the institution of a true Socialist Republic. However, despite their socialist inclinations, they were not orthodox Marxists, by any means. Their focus was not on the massed urban proletariat, but rather on the old populist concept of peasant communes. This put them at odds with the Social Democrats, who followed Marxism much more closely. While they were not yet openly enemies, a clear rivalry had appeared. However, the Social Revolutionaries had a key advantage: their views were supported by the peasants. While they had little interest in socialism, the idea of acquiring land quickly was very appealing to them. While the Social Democrats proposed the utopian future of the classless society, the Social Revolutionaries promised quick results. Their use of terror, which the Social Democrats thought of as irrelevant, made this possibility seem very real. Under other circumstances, the Social Revolutionaries would have been a huge threat, and probably would have gained power. It was, however, not to be.

The Social Democrats

This is it, as far as Imperial Russia is concerned. While the second half of the nineteenth century saw the Tsars slowly but surely losing power, this is the point at which, with hindsight, their fate seems certain. The Social Democrats believed that Russian society would follow the Marxist dialectic. As I am only looking at the nineteenth century, I will not go into the later activities of The Social Democrats, as well as those of their later incarnations, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Suffice it to say, by the 1890’s, the party contained one Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, who would go on to become a rather influential figure in Russian politics. So, we must see The Social Democrats as both the short and long term threat to Tsarist power. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, it was becoming plainly obvious to those “in the know” that the Imperial days of Russia were numbered.


One can see by examining the entry for the Nardoniks, and then reading that of the Social Democrats, that opposition in Russia had changed beyond all recognition in under fifty years. It seems incredible that a bunch of disgruntled, middle class students could set off a chain reaction that would eventually lead to a formidable force preparing to topple the traditions set forth by thousands of years worth of Russian history. If you ever have the opportunity to go to a bookmakers in 1860’s Russia, I would strongly advise putting money on the Nardoniks to bring about a revolution in the largest nation on earth- I’d imagine you’d get very good odds.