Historical Perspective

A The Napoleonic Wars

In 1789 the French Revolution swept through France, marking one of the true turning points in Western civilization. In part, this revolt was inspired by the success of the American Revolution, which had rejected the old English monarchy and established a new country based on democratic principles. Mostly, though, the French Revolution was a protest against the widespread abuses of the French aristocracy, who lived in decadence while the lower classes had to endure higher taxes and economic restrictions. When the peasants realized that the French government was going to use force against protesters, they became violent. The violence escalated as the people systematically began to eliminate anyone of aristocratic lineage. After a long fight, King Louis XVI was beheaded in Paris in 1793. There followed a two-year period called the Reign of Terror, during which the revolutionary leaders executed more than 17,000 people.

During this time, France’s enemies tried to take advantage of the situation. As a result, France was constantly at war. Out of all of this confusion, conservative elements in the government supported the rise of military commander Napoleon Bonaparte, whose solution to the government’s instability was to take control. He was appointed First Consul by the constitution of 1799, and in 1802 he appointed himself to that position for life. In 1804 a new constitution appointed him Emperor, a title which was to pass down to his heirs.

Napoleon’s influence was seen in almost all aspects of French social life. However, his true interest was in waging war. As England and France had always been enemies, he aimed to conquer England; but since England was the most powerful and important country in the world at that time, his plans were foiled. He turned his attention to Russia. The Treaty of Tilsit, which he signed with Russia’s emperor Alexander I in 1807, divided Europe into half: the French controlled Holland, Westphalia, Spain, and Italy. By 1809 Napoleon was the ruler of most Europe, except for Russia and England. In 1812 he invaded Russia with 500,000 troops, a situation depicted in War and Peace.

B Emancipation of the Serfs

From the 1600s until the middle of the 19th century, the Russian economy had been based upon an economic principle of serfdom. Serfs were agricultural laborers, legally bound to work on large estates and farms. Moreover, serfs were owned by the people who owned the land they worked on. The serf could buy his freedom or work it off, but this happened rarely (serfs were always males; female peasants were attached to spouses or parents and, likewise, were the property of the landowners). Landowners had a responsibility to take care of their serfs, and in hard times they might have to incur losses to make sure that their serfs were all adequately fed.

This social system was always fraught with tension. As in War and Peace, when the war broke up society and forced landlords to flee their land, open rebellion was only avoided by those serfs who felt loyalty to the tradition. In America the slave system that was in place at the same time was justified by theories of one race being inferior to another, but the Russian system had even less justification for saying why one human had a right to rule over another. Many members of the aristocracy realized this, and in the years after the Napoleonic Wars they banded together to form the secret societies that would lead the Decembrist uprising.

The Decembrist uprising was the first real revolution of modern Russia. In 1817 landowners started forming secret societies, patterned on societies such as the Masonic Order. These societies, such as the Society of Russian Knights and the Union of Welfare, started as gentlemen’s clubs; but as they grew in number their rhetoric became more revolutionary. When Tsar Alexander I died unexpectedly in December of 1825, there was confusion about who was to assume power, and in the temporary confusion about who was to be the next ruler the members of the uprising were able to gather 3,000 soldiers to their cause. Alexander’s successor, Tsar Nicholas, gathered 15,000 soldiers; the result was a massacre in Senate Square. Members of the secret societies were gathered up and jailed. After trials, the leaders were executed and over 100 received jail sentences, but revolutionaries in Russia since then have acted in the names of the Decembrists.

Not surprisingly, Nicholas’ reign was conservative in its nature and intolerant of dissent, but even he realized that the days of the old aristocracy were disappearing. He appointed commissions to study the question of serfdom. In 1855, when his son Alexander II took power, it was clear that the country was headed for chaos, that the serf system would not survive. He had a committee work for four years on the right way for Russia to evolve beyond the serf structure with the least change.

The system that Alexander announced with his Imperial Manifesto Emancipating the Serfs arranged for land to be divided: landlords were to keep half of their land, and communes, or mirs, were to distribute the other half equally between the serfs. The peasants had a 49-year period to pay back the cost of their land. This proclamation was read at churches throughout Russia in February of 1861, two years before Tolstoy began writing War and Peace. These reforms still left the former serfs, now peasants, under the control of a government ruled by an aristocracy. The issues of freedom and of class continued to boil in Russia, and eventually led to the Russian Revolution in 1917.

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