Russian Revolution (1905)

Russian Revolution (1905)

The 1905 Russian Revolution also known as the Failed Russian Revolution of 1905 was an empire-wide struggle of violence, both anti-government and undirected, that swept through vast areas of the Russian Empire. It was not controlled or managed, and it had no single cause or aim, but instead was the culmination of decades of unrest and dissatisfaction stemming from the autocratic rule of the Romanov dynasty and the slow pace of reform in Russian society as well as calls for national liberation by non-Russians within the Empire. The direct cause was the abject failure of the Tsar's military forces in the initially-popular Russo-Japanese War, which set off a series of revolutionary activities, sometimes by mutinous soldiers and at other times by revolutionary societies.

Although it was put down with a blend of accommodation and savagery, the Revolution did increase the pace of reform in Russia, but not enough to prevent the second revolution which overturned the Romanovs in 1917. The Revolution of 1905 was often looked back on by the Bolsheviks as an initial popular antecedent to their own revolution.


The liberal Tsar Alexander II, who had emancipated the serfs in 1861 and passed other social reforms, was assassinated on March 1, 1881 by Narodnik (populist) terrorists. His conservative successor, Alexander III, governed with an iron fist. Both the state and the church were subordinate to this autocracy, which in 1905 was headed by Alexander III's son, Nicholas II, of the House of Romanov.

Five percent of Russia's population consisted of the nobles, who owned most of the land. The peasants, with the small but growing industrial working class (proletariat), made up eighty four percent of the Russian populace. Their land, labour, and goods were fiercely controlled by the aristocracy and their socio-economic conditions were usually poor. In the Russian Empire serious disturbances had been rare in the decades prior to 1905. Nonetheless, political discontent had been building since Tsar Alexander II's 1861 decree which saw the emancipation of the serfs. Prior to this, the serfs had been penniless slaves, living on borrowed land and paying rent to the landlords with cash and labor; now (having been given the right to own land and freed from compulsory service and obedience towards the nobility), they were merely penniless. The emancipation was dangerously incomplete, however, with years of "redemption" payments to the nobility, and only limited, technical freedom for the "narod" (common people or society in the Russian language). Rights for the people were still embedded in a range of duties and rules which were rigidly structured by social class.

The emancipation was only one part of a range of governmental, legal, social, national and economic changes beginning in the 1860s as the country slowly moved from feudal absolutism towards market-driven capitalism. The growth of liberal and socialist doctrines had given rise to discontent under the autocratic regime, and there was a strong demand for reform. While the aforementioned changes had liberalized economic, social and cultural structures, the political system was left virtually unchanged. Attempts at reform were sternly resisted by the monarchy and the bureaucracy. Even agreed-upon administrative reform was limited; in fewer than 40 provinces, for example, Alexander had introduced a system of elected local councils (or "zemstva") - although this came about all of 50 years after the legislation had been passed. The raising of expectations, which had been offset by the limited implementation progress, produced frustration which eventually led to rebellion. The feeling among those who rebelled was that the demand for "land and liberty" could only truly be met by revolution. In spite of the changes that had been made, there was still much that the liberals regarded as unacceptable: the Tsars and their policies were greedy, self-absorbed and wasteful; they had absolute power; there was almost no land available to the peasants, who desperately needed it; and taxation was very high, especially for those who could least afford it.

Active revolutionaries were drawn almost exclusively from the intelligentsia. The movement was called "narodnichestvo", the term itself derives from the Russian expression "Хождение в народ" ("Going to the people"). This was not a singular and unified group, but rather an enormous spectrum of radical splinter groups, each with its own agenda. (The Nihilists, who rejected prevailing social and moral norms, and the Anarchists, who were more widely focused on eliminating governmental rule, were perhaps the most prominent of these. Led by Mikhail Bakunin, they engaged in a form of political terrorism. Fact|date=September 2008) The revolutionaries' early ideological roots stemmed from the pre-emancipation work of the noble Alexander Herzen and his synthesis of European socialism and Slavic peasant collectivism. Herzen held that Russian society was still pre-industrial, and he espoused an idealised view which considered "narod" and the "obshchina" ("commune") as the base for revolutionary change. In his opinion, the country lacked a significant body of industrial proletariat at the time.

Other thinkers argued that the Russian peasantry was an extremely conservative force; they were loyal to their households, villages, or communes, and nobody else. These thinkers held that the peasants cared only for their land and were deeply opposed to democracy and the liberal ideas of the West (as encouraged by a small group class of intellectuals and officers, who believed that these could bring about quicker reform). Russian ideologues later gravitated to the idea of a leading revolutionary "elite" or New class, a concept that was put into action in 1917.

On March 1 (Old Style), 1881, Tsar Alexander was assassinated in his vehicle by a bomb-blast from "Narodnaya volya", a splinter of the second "Zemlya i volya" party. There had already been a previous attempt on his life, resulting in increased censorship, the use of the secret police and the exile of liberals. Alexander II was succeeded by Alexander III, a deeply conservative and narrow-minded individual, heavily influenced by Constantin Pobedonostsev, a devotee of autocratic governance.

The new Tsar reacted to his father's death with repression. Local government was restricted, and the operations of the Russian secret police political service (the Okhrana) intensified; the police acted very effectively to suppress both revolutionaries and proto-democratic movements across the country (although many of these simply took their activities underground). The Okhrana scattered the revolutionary groups through imprisonment and exile. Members of revolutionary organisations often emigrated to avoid prosecution. It was this immigration into Western Europe that first brought Russian thinkers into contact with Marxism. The first Russian Marxist group was formed in 1884, although it did not reach any significant size until 1898.

In sharp contrast to the social stagnation of the 1880s and 1890s, there were the huge modernising leaps in industrialisation. The rise of urbanisation and the proletariat continued and intensified in the 1890s with the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway and the reforms brought about by the "Witte system". Sergei Witte, who became Minister of Finance in 1892, had been faced with a constant budget deficit. He sought to increase revenues by boosting the economy and attracting foreign investment. In 1897 he put the ruble on the gold standard. Economic growth was concentrated in a few regions, including Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Ukraine, and Baku. Roughly one third of all the capital invested was foreign, and foreign experts and entrepreneurs were vital. There were, nevertheless, disadvantages that stemmed from this growth: the rich became richer, while the poor became poorer as cheap labour was exploited.Fact|date=October 2007

After Alexander III died in 1894 of kidney disease, his 26-year-old son Nicholas II came to power. Like his predecessors, Nicholas stubbornly refused to allow any political change, eliminating unfavourable ideas, persecuting the Jewish minority, censoring the press and universities, and exiling political prisoners.

By 1905, revolutionary groups had recovered from the oppressive 1880s. The Marxist Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was formed in 1898 and then split in 1903, forming the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov (Lenin) published his work What Is To Be Done? in 1902. The Socialist-Revolutionary Party (SRs) was founded in Kharkov in 1900, and its 'Combat Organisation' ("Boevaia Organizatsiia") assassinated many prominent political figures up to 1905 and beyond; this included two Ministers of the Interior, Dmitry Sergeyevich Sipyagin in 1902 and his successor, the hated Vyacheslav von Plehve, in 1904. These killings drove the government to grant more draconian powers to the police.

The war with Japan in 1904-05, while initially popular, was now feeding discontent, as military failures and unclear war aims alienated the people. The deep inequality of the emancipation was being re-examined, and 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.

Bloody Sunday

In December 1904, a strike occurred at the Putilov plant in Saint Petersburg. Sympathy strikes in other parts of the city raised the number of strikers above 80,000. Father Gapon, a priest who is said to have worked for the Russian secret police, organized a peaceful "workers' procession" to the Winter Palace to deliver a loyal petition to the Tsar on Sunday, OldStyleDate|January 22|1905|January 9). The petition asked for reforms such as an end to the Russo-Japanese war, expanded suffrage, an 8-hour work day, higher pay and the end to forced overtime in factories. The procession was well stewarded by followers of Gapon and any terrorists and hot-heads were removed and all the participants checked for weapons. Troops had been deployed around the Winter Palace and at other key points.

On the fated Sunday, January 22, striking workers and their families gathered at six points in the city. Clutching religious icons and singing hymns and patriotic songs, they proceeded towards the Winter Palace without police interference. The demonstrators brought along their families in hope of arousing the Tsar's sympathy and the women and children were placed at the front of the demonstrationsFact|date=May 2008. However, the Tsar had left the city on January 8 for Tsarskoye Selo. Army pickets near the palace fired warning shots, and then fired directly into the crowds. Gapon was fired upon near the Narva Gate. Around forty people surrounding him were killed, but he was uninjured.Fact|date=October 2007

The number killed is uncertain. The Tsar's officials recorded 96 dead and 333 injured; anti-government sources claimed more than 4,000 dead; moderate estimates still average around 1,000 killed or wounded, both from shots and trampling. As reports spread across the city, disorder and looting broke out.

The official report of the head of the Okhrana on the events of 22 January 1905

"When a crowd of several thousand had assembled...Father Gapon said prayers...Despite pleas by local police officers and cavalry charges, the crowd did not disperse but continued to advance. Two companies opened fire, killing ten and wounding twenty...Towards 1 p.m people began to gather in the Alexander garden...The cavalry made a series of charges to disperse the crowd, but as this had no effect a number of volleys were fired into the crowd. The numbers of dead and wounded is not known as the crowd carried off the victims...In all some 75 people were killed and 200 wounded. It appears that among the dead are numbered women and children"


The government responded fairly quickly. The Tsar had hoped to resist any major change, and he dismissed the Minister of the Interior, Pyotr Sviatopolk-Mirskii, on January 18, 1905 O.S.. Following the assassination of his uncle, the Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich, on February 4 O.S. he agreed to give concessions. On February 18 O.S. he published the Bulygin Rescript, which promised the formation of a 'consultative' assembly, religious tolerance, freedom of speech (in the form of language rights for the Polish minority) and a reduction in the peasants' redemption payments. These concessions failed to restore order, and on August 6 O.S. he agreed to the creation of a consultative state duma parliament. When the slight powers of this and the limits to the electorate were revealed, unrest redoubled and culminated in a general strike in October.

On October 30, the October Manifesto, written by Sergei Witte and Alexis Obolenskii, was presented to the Tsar. It closely followed the demands of the Zemstvo Congress in September, granting basic civil rights, allowing the formation of political parties, extending the franchise towards universal suffrage, and establishing the Duma as the central legislative body. The Tsar waited and argued for three days, but finally signed the manifesto on OldStyleDate|October 30|1905|October 17), owing to his desire to avoid a massacre, and a realisation that there was insufficient military force available to do otherwise. He regretted signing the document, saying that he felt "sick with shame at this betrayal of the dynasty" - "the betrayal was complete".

When the manifesto was proclaimed there were spontaneous demonstrations of support in all the major cities. The strikes in Saint Petersburg and elsewhere 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. Although Jews were a minority in Russia, they had a higher average education and thus were disproportionately represented in the ranks of the literati. Also, Jews were understandably resentful after generations of Tsarist anti-Semitism.

The uprisings ended in December with a final spasm in Moscow. Between December 5 and December 7 O.S. there was a general strike by the Russian worker class. The government sent in troops on December 7, 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 workers' districts. On December 18 O.S., with around a thousand people dead and parts of the city in ruins, the Bolsheviks surrendered.


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 Octobrists), and the reactionary Union of Land-Owners.

The electoral laws were promulgated in December 1905—franchise to male citizens over 25 years of age, electing through four electoral colleges. This was a 'weighted' electoral system where the votes of some sections of society were worth more than others. For example, the vote of an aristocrat was worth more than the vote of a peasant or industrial worker. 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 political order. The Tsar was confirmed as absolute leader, with complete control of the executive, foreign policy, church, and the armed forces. The Duma was shifted, becoming a 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, after having negotiated a loan of almost 900 million roubles to repair Russian finances, Sergei Witte resigned. Apparently the Tsar had "lost confidence" in him. Later known as "late Imperial Russia's most outstanding politician", Witte was replaced by Ivan Goremykin, an Imperial lackey.

Demanding further liberalisation 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 widespread popular reaction. However, an assassination attempt on Pyotr Stolypin led to the establishment of field trials for terrorists, and over the next eight months more than a thousand people were hanged.

In essence the country was unchanged, political power remained with the Tsar, wealth and land with the nobility. 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 of whether they should join the Duma or stay outside. The resulting splits and internal divisions kept the radicals disorganized until the stimulus of World War I.


In the Grand Duchy of Finland the Social Democrats organized the general strike of 1905 (October 30November 6). First Red Guards were formed, led by captain Johan Kock. During the general strike the "Red Declaration", written by Yrjö Mäkelin, was given in Tampere, demanding dissolution of the Senate of Finland and universal suffrage, political freedoms, and abolition of censorship. Leader of the constitutionalists, Leo Mechelin crafted the "November Manifesto", that led to the abolition of the Diet of Finland of the four Estates and to the creation of the modern Parliament of Finland. It also resulted in a temporary halt to the russification policy started in 1899.

On July 30 1906, Russian sailors rose to rebellion in the fortress of Viapori (later called Suomenlinna), Helsinki. The Finnish Red Guards supported rebellion with a general strike, but it was quelled by the Baltic Fleet in sixty days.



See also

*Battleship Potemkin uprising in Odessa; for the film, see "The Battleship Potemkin"


Abraham Ascher; "The Revolution of 1905, vol. 1: Russia in Disarray"; Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1988
Abraham Ascher; "The Revolution of 1905, vol. 2: Authority Restored"; Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1994
Abraham Ascher; "The Revolution of 1905: A Short History"; Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2004
Donald C. Rawson; "Russian Rightists and the Revolution of 1905"; Cambridge Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995
François-Xavier Coquin; "1905, La Révolution russe manquée"; Editions Complexe, Paris, 1999
François-Xavier Coquin and Céline Gervais-Francelle (Editors); "1905 : La première révolution russe (Actes du colloque sur la révolution de 1905)", Publications de la Sorbonne et Institut d'Études Slaves, Paris, 1986
John Bushnell; "Mutiny amid Repression: Russian Soldiers in the Revolution of 1905-1906"; Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1985

External links

* [ The Year 1905] by Leon Trotsky

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