Russia 1905: A Dress Rehearsal for 1917 

 The beginning of the twentieth century forever changed the course of Russian history. Two revolutions occurred in Russia in 1917 – the February and October Revolutions.   The February Revolution toppled Tsar Nicholas II’s Russian monarchy and created a liberal-socialist Provisional government.  In October, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party seized power and ushered in decades of communist rule in what became the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1989.  These events evolved from longstanding developments, including Russia’s revolution of 1905, which saw an unprecedented challenge to Tsarist authority that almost toppled the government.  It was the first time in Russia that the Tsarist government faced a revolt from virtually all levels of society, including the liberals middle class, the workers, and the peasantry. These revolts revealed a groundswell of discontent that grew out of drastic social changes, economic inequalities, and a Tsar determined to retain absolutism in the face of widespread calls for reform. Nicholas II quashed the rebellions and retained power, but these events laid the groundwork for 1917. As Lenin mused in 1920, 1905 was a dress rehearsal for 1917.  =

Tsar Nicholas II and Autocratic Rule in Russia. Tsars had ruled Russia since the 15th century and were considered divine right monarchs with unlimited power. Nicholas II inherited the throne in 1894 after his father, Alexanders II, passed.  Only 26, Nicholas II lacked his father’s vision, experience and fortitude.  Yet, the new Tsar believed he was entitled to rule as he wished and that his subjects were loyal to him even during widespread protest and dissent.  He preferred to blame dissension on “foreign elements,” particularly Jews, rather than address the underlying causes, such as poverty and poor working conditions. Like his father, Nicholas used his secret police and armed forces to suppress revolts.  However, this approach could not last as seismic social changes, encouraged by rapid economic growth, would increasingly challenge Tsarist rule. 

Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s last Tsar from 1894-1917

Russia Industrializes. From the outside, Russia appeared to be an unstoppable power.  It possessed the world’s largest state territory, extending from Germany to China and Japan, and Europe’s largest population and army.  Russia also seemed set economically with abundant natural resources such as minerals and foodstuffs.  Culturally, Russia boasted the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Tchaikovsky as leaders in their respective arts. However, in many ways, Russia lagged behind European powers like England and France. The Crimean War (1854-56), which saw Russia lose to English and French expeditionary forces with superior navies and better weapons, highlighted Russia’s “backwardness.”

The loss inspired Russia to focus on industrialization.  Infused with foreign capital, Russia experienced large-scale industry growth as shops and largescale factories created products like textiles, printed materials and metalworks. By 1900, Russia had become the fourth largest steel producer and “turned out half of the world’s oil.” (Duiker, 15) Towns and cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg grew as they attracted people from the countryside seeking factory work.   Economic growth also required dependable transport. In the 1870s, Russia began developing an extensive rail network that facilitated the development of Russia’s mineral sector and the export of its grains to Western markets.  The vast Trans-Siberian railway linked Moscow to potential markets of the Far East – China, Manchuria, Korea and Japan.

Rapid Changes to Russian Society. Russia’s investment in industrialization and education fostered dramatic social changes destabilizing the regime. Industrialization led to increasing urbanization as more people moved to urban centres for work and school.  This urban migration altered class demographics, bolstering the numbers of industrial workers, commercial and industrial capitalists and the professional middle classes, including doctors, lawyers, and merchants.  State-sponsored basic education facilitated a rapid rise in literacy as universities arose in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Historian Orlando Figes writes that “Between 1860 and 1914, the number of university students in Russia grew from 5000 to 69000.”(Figes, PT, 163)

Russia also experienced significant rural changes.  Serfdom ended in 1861, liberating serfs from the authority of manor lords from the noble class, but it did not drastically improve their plight. The new peasant class still laboured the land and now paid rent to the aristocracy through labour or money. Some still faced hunger and poverty with unpredictable growing seasons and minimal resources to manage agricultural setbacks. However, some peasants fared well “either by improving the agricultural productivity or by diversifying into non-agricultural activities.” (Hoskings, 358) The nobility retained a high status, occupying the highest posts in the military and government administrations and still owned vast lands. However, the end of serfdom eroded noble privilege.  Moreover, the new urban classes that benefitted from industrialization and urbanization eroded the nobility’s status.

Russian peasants in a rural village circa 1900

The Limits of Tsardom. Events such as the Famine Crisis of 1891 highlighted the limits of Tsarist authority and a need for a less centralized political structure. The 1891 famine, made worse by cholera and typhus, killed half a million people by the end of 1892. (PT, Figes, 159)The Russian government could not provide adequate relief and needed to solicit help from private groups to facilitate relief efforts. District councils known as Zemstvos orchestrated the distribution of food and medicine.  Such demonstrations of Tsarist limitations and social change fed calls for political reform. For his part, Nicholas II dismissed these demands as stemming from foreigners, revolutionaries and Jews who needed to be vigorously repressed.

Widespread Discontent. However, the problems lay far beyond the Tsar’s short-sighted explanations. Industrial growth benefited some more than others. In the cities, the growing working class resented the obvious income disparities. As historian Margaret MacMillan writes, “The magnates in Moscow and St. Petersburg lived in magnificent mansions and assembled great collections of art and furniture while the workers lived in squalor and laboured long hours in appalling conditions.” (176) Workers also had few legal protections that offered job security or promoted physical safety. Unions were illegal until 1905, so there were few options to express their grievances as unions. With limited options, it is unsurprising that labour discontent was “widespread in Russia’s industrial center for at least the preceding two decades” before 1905 (Snow, 7).

Russian workers in a textile factory.

Workplace culture was also evolving. As historian Neil Faulkner points out,  workplaces bred “the more determined of the proletarian militants into a political revolution, creating a new kind of Russian intelligentsia, one formed of self-taught intellectuals.” (49).  Since the Tsarist government tended to side with the industrialists against workers, the latter saw autocracy as a barrier to a better life. 

Tensions also grew in the countryside. Peasants were officially emancipated in 1861, but their situations remained generally dire. Emancipation still favoured the landlord. Nobility, gentry, and prosperous farmers retained two-thirds of the land, including most pastures and woodland.” (38). Peasants could not sell the land allotted to them, raise money by mortgaging it or renounce their entitlement. Consequently, they had to pay a kind of tax for many years to claim the property they might not have wanted. (Boyd 48) To make matters worse, the landed nobility often raised land rent beyond affordability, so many peasants fell into arrears and worked extra to compensate.  The more desperate committed petty crimes and looted prosperous landowners. Famines in 1892, 1898, and 1901 worsened their plight and led to peasant uprisings or jacqueries.

Meanwhile, a growing middle class in the cities intensified their demands for a greater political voice.  There were no political parties or parliament to address their concerns or aspirations.  The Tsar had created district councils or zemstvos to administer his agenda, but they did not impact national policies.  The zemstvos’ active role in famine relief and the Tsarist regime’s inadequacies encouraged them to seek constitutional reform, including limits to Tsarist authority.  Not surprisingly, Nicholas II would saw many zemstvos as potential havens of insurrection and “subjected them to a relentless campaign of persecution.” (PT, 164) 

 A growing number of students actively protested against Tsarist rule and policies. Urbanization and increasing literacy created a growing student population acquainted with the anti-autocratic ideas of western thinkers such as John Locke and Karl Marx, and Russia saw an upsurge in radicalism in the universities of St. Petersberg, Moscow, Warsaw and Kyiv.  Nicholas further antagonized students when he passed a decree in July 1899 that lifted military deferments for students guilty of political misconduct.  Predictably, as McMeekin writes, “many students who protested the decree were impressed into the army.” (McMeekin, 20)  In July 1904, Plehve, the Minister of the Interior, was “blown to pieces by a bomb planted by the SR Combat organization. 

Social Revolutionaries. Some Russians didn’t believe reforms went far enough and called for a revolution to create their vision of a better society.  These included the Social Revolutionary Party, which focused on supporting the peasants – 80% of Russia’s population as the revolution engine. Social Democrats, on the other hand, focused on the urban working class or proletariat.  By 1903 the Social Democrats would splinter/divide into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. These groups played a more critical role in events leading to 1917 but did contribute to unrest in 1905.

The Russo-Japanese War 1903-1905.

Russia’s domestic problems were exacerbated by its foreign policy, particularly its efforts to expand into the Fat East.  Since 1860, when Tsar Alexander II founded a military base on the Pacific coast and dubbed it Vladivostok – meaning Lord of the East – Japan feared Russian encroachment and watched the construction of a Trans-Siberian mainland that couldtransport European arms on its borders (Boyd, 41).  Japan expressed its concerns to Russia, whose leaders saw the Japanese as an inferior non-European power impeding Russian growth and progress.

Japan decided to act. On February 8, Japan launched a surprise torpedo attack on the Russian naval squadron at Port Arthur. This pre-emptive attack occurred before Russia could send reinforcements for its Far Eastern forces. A series of defeats on land and sea would follow Russia’s initial setback.”(32 Fitzpatrick)   The Japanese forces proved more formidable, and Russia could not overcome the numerous logistical problems of fighting a war 6000 miles away. 

The defeat was humiliating and far-reaching.  Russia approached the peace table as the first European power to lose to an Asian foe in the imperialist era.  The war undermined Tsarist prestige and faith that Nicholas II could steer Russia in the right direction feeding the growing political unrest from all directions – students, workers, peasants, liberals and social revolutionaries.   An event in the first month of 1905 would spark widespread unrest and threaten to topple in Tsarist government.    

Bloody Sunday On Sunday, January 9, 1905, a crowd of almost 250,000 – workers and their families – approached the Tsar’s White Palace in St. Petersburg, intent on presenting Nicholas with a petition calling for political and economic reforms, including an eight-hour work day, the right to strike, civil liberties and a constituent assembly.   Unbeknownst to the protesters, the Tsar had already left the city.  As the unarmed peaceful protesters approached, Tsarist security forces panicked and fired on the crowd. More than a hundred protesters were killed or wounded in what became known as Bloody Sunday. 

Tsarist soldiers face protesters in front of the White Palace

The event triggered seismic outrage and sparked the 1905 revolution.  As William Duiker writes, it was a cataclysmic eruption of social disorder. (Duiker, 13).  Indeed, the event intensified dissent across Russia as “Wave upon wave of protest strikes rolled over the land….” (Lindemann, 159). Within a week, industrial workers across Russia were on strike. Revolutionary councils (soviets) sprang up in urban centers to help organize strikes that continued into the summer and the fall. Print workers protested in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Railroad workers went on strike a month later, paralyzing rail travel.  By the end of October, strikes had brought St. Petersburg “to its knees.” (Boyd, 58)  Revolts spread to the countryside with the 1905 Spring thaw peasants rose, refusing to pay rent, looting, seizing and burning estates.

However, these protests were generally disorganized. Tsarist forces readily quashed peasant uprisings village by village.  In the cities, they infiltrated and arrested organizers of worker strikes and student revolts.  As McMeekin writes, “So long as the army remained loyal, revolutionary schemes to topple the tsar remained little more than fanciful wish dreams.” (McMeekin 28)

Nonetheless, Russia’s government officials feared ongoing discontent that could eventually topple the regime and encouraged Nicholas II to make reforms. The Tsar resisted but finally conceded. Secretary of the Interior Witte publicly committed to drafting a proposal for a State Duma (Parliament), universal male suffrage, and fundamental civil liberties, including freedom of religion, assembly, speech, and association, to present to the Tsar for consideration.

The October Manifesto.  Nicholas agreed to what became known as the October Manifesto. The Manifesto legalized unions and political parties and established a nationally elected Parliament, the Duma. The Manifesto offered no solution to worker grievances, such as the eight-hour workday, respectful treatment by the employer, and better pay and conditions. (Figes, 33)  It would not be until the Tsar’s decrees of March 4, 1906, led to the legalization of strikes and worker’s unions.  For the peasantry, Tsar eased the peasantry’s redemption payments.

 Despite its limitations, the Manifesto was initially well received, with people celebrating the proclamation in the streets.” (Figes, 32)  However, this euphoria would be short-lived.  Tsarist actions would soon dispel hopes that Russia was en route to becoming a constitutional monarchy.  Nicholas II agreed to sign the Manifesto to appease a growing revolt rather than any conviction that he should share political power. Moreover, the defeat of the revolution proved to him that the Russian monarchy could triumph over adversity, that it was destined to lead Russia out of a time of trouble… (Wortman, 216)

Convinced of his righteousness and perceived need to weed out bad Russia’s harmful elements, Nicholas II resumed his suppression of those involved in the uprisings.  In December 1905, Nicholas II ordered the leaders of the St. Petersburg soviets arrested and put on trial for armed rebellion.” (Lindemann, 159). By 1906, the Tsar had curtailed the power of the Duma and fell back on the army and bureaucracy to rule Russians.” (Duiker, 15)

Conclusion. The 1905 Russian Revolution presented Russia’s Tsardom with a historically unprecedented challenge to its authority.  Members of all classes – workers, middle-class liberals, students, and peasants – protested Russia’s political system.  To stave off his usurpation, Nicholas II agreed to sign the October Manifesto that established Russia’s first Duma (Parliament) and offered long-demanded concessions, including the right to strike, legalizing unions, etc. Tsar also retained power because he retained the loyalty of the Russian Army and state police that could repress uprisings in the city and countryside.  

While the Tsar survived 1905, it was on borrowed time.  Widespread discontent would not wane as various classes continued to struggle. Nicholas II’s unwillingness to make meaningful reforms that would include more Russians in the political process lent credibility to the social revolutionaries who insisted that revolution was the answer.  With the added strains of the Frist World War (1914-1918), Russia toppled the Tsarist regime and embarked on a new path that would change the course of Russian and global history.     


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