Tsarist methods of control - state infrastructure

The Tsarist state system had developed over a long period. The Tsar's authority was supported by several features. These are known as the 'Pillars of Autocracy'. These referred to:

  • army
  • civil service
  • Orthodox Church

The Empire did not have an elected parliament (until 1905) and there were no elections for positions in the government. There were no legal or constitutional methods by which Tsarist power could be challenged.

Autocratic government

This vast, diverse Empire was ruled by a series of Tsars. They ran the country as autocrats. This meant that the Tsar, and only the Tsar, governed Russia:

Tsars believed that they had a divine right to rule Russia, their position and power had been given to them by God.

In 1894 Tsar Nicholas II ruled Russia. Along with his German-born wife Alexandra they were firm believers in the autocracy. However, he was a weak individual who found the daily work of a ruler boring. He also found it difficult to tell unpleasant news to people's faces. He preferred to write them a letter.

Nicholas II was also distracted by the illness facing his son, Alexei (the Tsarevitch), who was the heir to the throne. Alexei suffered from haemophilia. This prevented his blood from clotting and meant that Alexei’s life was constantly at risk. As a result Nicholas would often spend his time looking after his son rather than dealing with the business of state.

The Tsar's ministers

The Tsar chose his ministers. He could also remove them when he desired. They were often drawn from the members of the Royal family or nobility.

The civil service

The civil service helped the Tsar run the Russian Empire, performing his will and maintaining his authority. Their privilege was owed to and dependent on their service to the Tsar. This created loyalty as to oppose him would mean losing power and position.

At the turn of the century, the Russian civil service can be seen to be backward and selfish:

  • Many civil servants were poorly paid, resulting in widespread bribery.
  • Persuasive civil servants could easily influence Tsar Nicholas II, who was unsure of himself and indecisive.
  • Promotion relied more on years of service rather than competence.

The Okhrana

The Tsar's will was enforced by a large police system that would report suspicious behaviour and destroy subversive groups:

  • The secret police had a vital role in identifying and spying on enemies.
  • They had the power to arrest potential threats as required.
  • Agents of the Okhrana worked undercover, infiltrating ogroups that might present a danger to the Tsar.
  • They acted on the Tsar’s behalf, treating citizens how they saw fit.
  • Their methods included torture and murder.
  • A standard punishment for opponents of the Tsar was exile to the remote region of Siberia. Many thousands of people viewed as enemies of the state were sent to Siberia. They were so far away that they had little chance of threatening Tsarist power.


The Tsarist army was an important part of the autocracy. The senior officers were often from the nobility and loyal to the Tsar. Between 1883 and 1905 it was used 1500 times to put down unrest in the countryside. Much of this work was carried out by Cossacks who were cavalry units and considered to be amongst the strongest supporters of the Tsar.

However, many of the ordinary soldiers were peasants. They were faced with harsh discipline, poor pay and poor conditions. They were also poorly trained.