What to Mate of Multi-Ethnic Late Tsarist Russia?

When Russia grew in its empire, they also grew in the number of ethnicities within its empire. Since Russia grew in the number of ethnicities it had within its empire, Kappeler’s chapter on ethnicity in late tsarist Russia felt like a whirlwind. But, as much as a whirlwind as the chapter may have felt, one takeaway I did get was that a great number of nationalities, if not all nationalities, were treated relatively equally.

I believe this because of the high number of non-Russians who were in the upper echelon of Russian Empire society. Regardless of the russification that non-Russians may have gone through/did go through, it is still impossible to ignore the fact that, for example, “the Muslims of Aderbaidzhan (3 per cent) and the Germans (1.4 per cent) had a considerably higher proportion of hereditary nobles than the Russians.”[1] There is also the fact that the most literate groups were not Russians, but Estonians, Latvians, and Germans.[2] If the Russian goal was to thoroughly subordinate non-Russians, then the high number of literate and noble non-Russians demonstrate that they were either doing a poor job of that…or not doing the job at all.

But at the opposite end of the spectrum-peasants and how long the average person lived-Russians were still worse off than many other ethnic groups. With peasantry, our class has talked about how peasantry was abolished in certain ethnic areas of the empire, but not in Russia itself. Furthermore, Russian peasants faced poor conditions, even compared to many non-Russian counterparts.[3] Even more damning for anyone who argued that there was a “Russian master race” was the fact that Russians also had lower life expectancy (and therefore probably a lower quality of life) than those of many other ethnicities, including the Jews (who many would think would be particularly oppressed.[4]

Is it possible that there is evidence which shows oppression instead of equality? Probably, but the statistics presented by Kappeler gives me more of a rhetoric of ethnic equality than one of ethnic inequality.


How did the treatment of non-Russian ethnicities change over time in the Russian Empire? Is it a narrative of progress, or not?

[1] Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. Trans. Alfred Clayton. Pearson Education: 289.

[2] Ibid., 310.

[3] Ibid., 322.

[4] Ibid., 323.


Kappeler, Andreas. The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. Trans. Alfred Clayton. Pearson Education.

Cold Truths: The Failed Decembrist Revolution

The Decembrist movement, named after the month of the failed revolution, was a movement championed by military men of higher standing from educated backgrounds.  The leaders of the movement were officers who couched their positions in the military amidst assumed political responsibility derived from positions in secret societies.  The “Northern Society,” responsible for the formation in the Senate Square in St. Petersburg, kept the rank and file men supporting them unaware of the purpose for their insurrection.  The “Southern Society,” in Ukraine, was much more inclusive, ideologically speaking, allowing the soldiers at the bottom to understand their goals in rebellion.

The Decembrists sought general improvements of government administration and the betterment of the lives of commoners, but lacked specific plans to achieve these goals.  The Decembrists intended to lessen the burden of serfdom on the lowest levels of society, but failed to actually craft plans to that end.  The movement featured a belief in the responsibility of the soldiers to serve the state as an entity separate to the ruler, marking the first time in Russian history a major political group marked a difference between the two.

For all its lofty ideals, the movement ultimately saw only failure.  The defiance in St. Petersburg was hindered by confusion and failure to receive support from additional units, while uprisings in Southern Russia met only slaughter at the hands of loyalist units.  Given the confusion surrounding the whole affair, it is understandable that so little success was borne out by the revolutionaries, who were largely isolated, both physically and in terms of the information available to them.

A Look into Peasant Life in Tsarist Russia

After reading Village Life in Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia and edited by David L. Ransel, one has gains new insight into what the world of a peasant in tsarist times looked like.  For instance, as they lived in the countryside and were not a part of urban society, their views on religion were much different than citizens living in cities.  While in the city, people were practiced Russian Orthodoxy quite strictly; however, in the countryside, peasants did not receive formal education when it came to religion, and this led to an odd mixture of paganism and Orthodoxy.  Semyanova recounts that children would learn eventually that the icon in the corner of their huts was God, and would imitate family members in crossing themselves, learning especially to do so upon hearing thunder so “Elijah Thunderbolt” would not strike them dead.  Additionally, as was the norm in peasant society, much of a child’s education was from oral tradition.  They would simultaneously learn about Elijah the prophet and “changelings, witches, house-spirits [known in Russian as domovoi], and wood-goblins.”

Something else that was fascinating in Semyanova’s findings was the medicinal practices of the Russian peasantry.  For instance, because Russian women were almost immediately called back into the fields for hard labor after childbirth, uteral prolapse was quite common.  Midwives in the villages had a few remedies for uteral prolapse, but perhaps the most bizarre remedy for “fixing the stomach,” as it was called, a midwife would soap her hands, manually push the uterus in place, “then [push] a peeled potato into the vagina and [bind] the lower abdomen tightly with a kerchief.”  While some medical advances had made their way to Russia even in the times of Catherine the Great, it seems as though much like other aspects of society, advances in the field of medicine were not reaching the peasants, making quality of life in the villages extremely challenging.  This speaks volumes about the resilience of peasants who survived such harsh conditions.


One thing that struck me in the reading was the language the peasants used to talk about themselves.  They always compared themselves (and especially women) to animals.  Why was that so?  Was it a matter of the peasants not understanding the concept of humanism, or was it that they held such little value to their own lives?