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Russian Revolution of 1905

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The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a country-wide spasm of anti-government and undirected violence. It was not controlled or directed, it had no single cause and no single aim. It is usually regarded as a signpost of changes in Russia leading to the Russian Revolution.


Dates followed by (J) are Julian rather than Gregorian

Unrest was an expected component of the Russian Empire, but in the decades up to 1905 serious disturbances were rare. Political discontent had been building, especially since the controversial emancipation of the serfs in 1861 by Alexander II. The emancipation was dangerously conditional, with years of 'redemption' payments to the dvoryanstvo and only limited, technical freedom for the narod (common people). They were still embedded in a range of duties and rules which were only for those of their class.

The emancipation was only part of a range of government, legal, social and economic changes from the 1860s as the country moved, ever so slowly, away from feudal absolutism towards market-driven capitalism. Most significantly the political system was almost unchanged while economic, social and cultural structures had been liberalised. Political change was sternly resisted by the monarchy and the bureaucracy, even agreed development was limited, for example less than forty provinces had zemstvo (rural councils) fifty years after the legislation was introduced. This raising of expectations and limited progress produced frustration. A feeling that the demand for 'land and liberty' could only be truly met by revolution.

The active revolutionaries were almost exclusively drawn from the intelligentsia and is encompassed by the term narodnichestvo, revolutionary populism. It was not a unified movement, but a enormous spectrum of radical groups, usually tiny, pushing in all directions. The early ideological came from the pre-emancipation work of the noble Alexander Herzen and his synthesis of European socialism and Slavic peasant collectivism. Russian society was still pre-industrial, and an idealized view saw the narod and the obshchina (peasant commune) as the base for revolutionary change - there was no industrial proletariat. More perceptive thinkers have argued that the Russian peasants were a force of extreme conservatism, loyal to their household-village-commune and no-one else, caring only for their land, and in a deep way anti-democratic, almost anti-freedom - at least in a Western sense. Later Russian ideologues moved more to the idea of a leading revolutionary 'elite', a concept put into action in 1917.

The most obvious outcome of the intellectual revolutionaries was the death of Alexander II on March 1, 1881. Killed in a bomb-blast by Narodnaya volya, a splinter of the second Zemlya i volya party. He was succeeded by Alexander III, a deeply conservative man and heavily influenced by Constantin Pobedonostsev, a devotee of autocratic government.

There was a country-wide suppression of revolutionaries and even existing proto-democratic forms. The Russian police political serive (Okhranka) was highly efficient. The most obvious feature was the scattering of the Russian intelligensia through imprisonment, exile or pre-emptive emigration. This exodus brought Russian ideas into contact with Marxism - the first Russian Marxist group was formed in 1883 (although a significant bloc did not form until 1898). There were also legislative measures against non-'Russians' and against followers of religions other than Orthodoxy. The Jewish community was especially singled out.

Against this social stifling the 1880s and 1890s were marked by huge leaps in industrialization - although from a miserably low base. This growth continued and intensified in the 1890s, with the construction of the trans-Siberian railway and the "Witte system". Sergei Witte was made Minister of Finance in 1892. Faced with a constant budget deficit, he sought to boost revenues by boosting the economy. He worked hard to attract foreign investment and in 1897 put the rouble on the gold standard. The growth was concentrated in a few areas (Moscow, St Petersburg, the Ukraine, Baku etc). Roughly half of all invested capital was foreign and foreign experts and entrepreneurs were vital.

By 1905 revolutionary groups are recovered from the 1880s. The Marxist RSDLP (Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party) was formed in 1898 and then split in 1903, creating the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. Lenin had published What is to be Done? in 1902. The Socialist-Revolutionary Party (SRs) was founded in Kharkov in 1900, and its 'Combat Organization' assassinated many prominent political figures up to 1905 including two 'Prime Ministers' (Ministers of the Interior), including the roundly hated Viacheslav Plehve on July 15 (J), 1904. These killings resulted in the granting of even more draconian powers to the police, but Plehve was replaced by the more liberal Prince Sviatopolk-Mirskii. Oddly the head of the 'Combat Organization' was an informer on the police payroll.

The war with Japan, initially popular was now feeding into the discontent, as military failures and unclear causes alienated the people. The deep inequality of the emancipation was being re-examined - the peasants were burning farms all across Russia. The boom of the 1890s had fallen into a slump and workers were expressing their grievances at their abysmal conditions. In 1903 one-third of the Russian army in western Russia had engaged in "repressive action". Nicholas II had come to power in 1894 but, both incompetent and stubborn, steadfastly refused any political changes.


On January 22 (January 9), 1905, the day known as "Bloody Sunday", there was a protest march in St. Petersburg that was put down by armed force with more than 1,000 killed or injured.

This event was the needed spark for many groups in Russian society to move into active protest. Each group had its own aims and even within similar classes there was no overall direction. The main protestors were the peasants (economic), the workers (economic, anti-industrialist), intelligentsia and liberals (civil rights), the armed forces (economic), and minority national groups (political and cultural freedom).

The economic situation of the peasants was appalling, but leaderless each splinter sought its own objectives. Unrest was spread across the year, reaching peaks in early summer and autumn before culminating in November. Renters wanted lower rents, hirelings wanted better wages, land-holders wanted bigger plots of land. The actual activities were land-seizures, sometimes followed by violence and burning; looting the larger estates and illegal hunting and logging in the forests. The level of animosity displayed had a direct link to the condition of the peasants - the landless of Livland and Kurland attacked and burned, while the better-off in the neighbouring Grodno, Kovno and Minsk took little destructive action.

However, after the events of 1905, peasant unrest returned in 1906 and lasted until 1908. The government concessions were seen as support for the redistribution of land, so there were attacks to force landlords and 'non-peasant' land-holders to flee. Believing a country-wide redistribution was imminent, the peasants took the opportunity to 'pre-empt' the decision-makers. They were strongly suppressed.

The workers act of resistance was the strike. There were widespread strikes in St. Petersburg immediately after Bloody Sunday; over 400,000 workers were involved by the end of January. The action quickly spread to other industrial centres in Poland and the Baltic coast. In Riga 70 protestors were killed on January 13 (J), and in Warsaw a few days later over 100 strikers were shot on the streets. By February there were strikes in the Caucasus and by April in the Urals and beyond. In March all higher academic institutions were forcibly closed for the remainder of the year, adding radical students to the striking workers. In October the ephemeral St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers' Deputies, a Menshevik group, organized over 200 factories to strike, the 'Great October Strike'. This action quickly spread to Moscow and by October 13 (J) there was almost no active railway in all Russia.

With the unsuccessful and bloody conflict with Japan there had been unrest in army reserve units since 1904. In February 1905 the Russian army was defeated at Mukden, losing almost 90,000 men in the process, in May Port Arthur was lost and the Russian fleet mauled at Tsushima. Witte was quickly dispatched to make peace, negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth (signed September 5). In 1905 there were naval mutinies at Sevastopol, Vladivostok and Kronstadt, peaking in June, with the mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin - some sources claim over 2,000 sailors died in the restoration of order. The mutinies were disorganized and quickly crushed. The armed forces were largely apolitical and remained mostly loyal, if dis-satisfied, and was widely used by the government to control the 1905 unrest.

Non-Russian national groups had been angered by the Russification undertaken since Alexander II. The Poles, Finns, and the Baltic provinces all sought autonomy, and also freedom to use their national languages and promote their own culture. Moslem groups were also active, the First Congress of the Moslem Union took place in August 1905. Although certain groups took the opportunity to settle differences with each other rather than the government. Some nationalists undertook anti-Jewish pogroms, possibly with government aid.


The government responded fairly quickly. The Tsar had hoped to resist any major change, he dismissed Sviatopolk-Mirskii on January 18 (J). Following the assassination of his relative, Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich on February 4 (J) he agreed to certain concessions. On February 18 (J) he signed three declarations, the most important of which announced a consultative assembly, a State Duma, was to be created. On August 6 (J) electoral rules were issued, the so-called Bulygin Constitution, but when the powers of the Duma were revealed and the limits to the electorate, unrest redoubled. Reaching an almost general strike in early October.

Finally on October 17 (J) the Tsar signed a manifesto, the October Manifesto. It was written by Witte and Alexis Obolenskii and closed followed the demands of the September Zemstvo Congress, in granting basic civil rights, allowing the formation of political parties, extending the franchise some-way towards universal suffrage, and establishing the Duma as the central legislative body. The manifesto was written on October 14 (J) and the Tsar waited and argued for some days before signing, only a desire to avoid a massacre and a realization that there was insufficient available force made him sign. He regretted signing the document, feeling it had been under duress.

When the manifesto was proclaimed there were spontaneous demonstrations of support in all the major cities. The strikes in St Petersburg and elsewhere were either officially ended or quickly collapsed. A political amnesty was also offered. The concessions came hand-in-hand with renewed, and brutal, action against the unrest. There was also a backlash from the conservative elements of society, notably in spasmodic anti-Jewish attacks - around five hundred were killed in a single day in Odessa - the Tsar himself claimed that 90 % of revolutionaries were Jews.

The uprisings finally ended in December when a final spasm in Moscow. Between December 5 and 7 (J) a Bolshevik committee enforced a general strike by threatening violence on these who worked. The government sent in troops on the 7th and a bitter street-by-street fight began. A week later the Semenovskii Regiment was deployed, and used artillery to break-up demonstrations and shell worker's districts. On December 18 (J), with around a thousand people dead and parts of the city in ruins, the Bolsheviks surrendered. In the subsequent reprisals the number beaten or killed is unknown.

Among the political parties formed, or made legal, was the liberal-intelligentsia Constitutional Democratic party (the Kadets), the peasant leaders' Labour Group (Trudoviks), the less liberal Union of October 17 (the Octobrist s), and the positively reactionary Union of Land-Owners.

The electoral laws were promulgated in December 1905, franchise to the over 25's electing through four electoral colleges. The first elections to the Duma took place in March 1906 and were boycotted by the socialists, the SRs and the Bolsheviks. In the First Duma there were 170 Kadets, 90 Trudoviks, 100 non-aligned peasant representatives, 63 nationalists of various hues, and 16 Octobrists.

In April 1906 the government issued the Fundamental Law, setting the limits of this new order. The tsar was confirmed as absolute leader, with complete control of the executive, foreign policy, Church, and the armed forces. The Duma was moved to become the lower chamber below the tsar-appointed State Council. Legislation had to be approved by the Duma, the Council and the Tsar to become law and in 'exceptional conditions' the government could bypass the Duma.

Also in April Sergei Witte, having negotiated a loan of almost 900 million roubles to repair Russian finances, resigned. Apparently the Tsar had 'lost confidence' in him. "Late Imperial Russia's most outstanding politician" (even if that is hardly a resounding compliment) was replaced by Ivan Goremykin, an Imperial lackey.

Demanding further liberalization and acting as a platform for 'agitators' the First Duma was dissolved by the Tsar in July 1906. Despite the hopes of the Kadets and the fears of the government there was no wide-spread popular reaction. However, an assassination attempt on Petr Stolypin led to the establishment of field trials for terrorists and over the next eight months over a thousand people were given Stolypin neckties.

In essence the country was unchanged, political power remained with the tsar, wealth and land with the nobility, society was unchanged. The introduction of the Duma and the clamp-down did, however, successfully disrupt the revolutionary groups. Leaders were imprisoned or exiled and the groups were confused and uncertain, should they join the Duma or stay outside? The resulting splits and internal divisions kept the radicals disorganized until the stimulus of World War I.

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45