OCTOBRISTSorigins in revolution of 1905
collaboration with stolypin
declining influence and disintegration
The Octobrist Party, or the Union of 17 October, was for a time an important political grouping in the Russian State Duma in late imperial Russia. First organized in 1905 and 1906 around the personalities of the zemstvo activists Dmitri Shipov (1851–1920) and Mikhail Rodzianko (1859–1924) and the textile industrialist Alexander Guchkov (1862–1936), the party occupied a moderate position in a polarized political spectrum dominated by revolutionary and radical forces on the left, and extreme anti-Semitic nationalist forces on the right. It expanded to become the largest party in the Third Duma (1907–1912), and positioned itself as a staunch ally of Prime Minister Peter Stolypin (1862–1911). The party survived in fragmented form into the Fourth Duma (1912–1916), and several of its leaders played an active role in politics until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
The Octobrists took their name from the October Manifesto, the promise of reform issued by Tsar Nicholas II in the midst of the Revolution of 1905. Fearing further disorders, the Octobrists rallied to the defense of the tsarist regime against both reaction and revolution, under the condition that the tsar carry to completion his pledge to rebuild Russia "on the unshakable foundations of civil liberty." Representing moderate landowners of the Shipov wing, who emerged from the zemstvo movement of the 1890s, and elements of the nascent entrepreneurial stratum led by Guchkov, who organized themselves into the Petersburg Association of Industry and Trade in 1906, the Octobrists put forward a nationalist-monarchist platform that called for the transformation of the unlimited tsarist autocracy into a "state of laws" (Rechtsstaat, or pravovoe gosudarstvo). In the Octobrist vision, the emergence of a civil society and democracy was to occur within the firm confines of the Russian Empire, on whose "unity and indivisibility" the patriotically minded Octobrists insisted. Their aspirations toward parliamentary democracy were tempered by their fear of continued unrest, the weakness of the empire's military forces, and the international challenge posed by the rise of imperial Germany on Russia's western frontier. Thus the Octobrists offered their support to the government in the Duma during the period of the Stolypin reforms.
The fledgling political parties of the Duma period tended to form around charismatic personalities rather than programs. More than anyone else, it was Guchkov who personified the Octobrist movement. Called "a liberal with spurs" by Leon Trotsky, Guchkov embodied the vitalist and militarist spirit of the age. Descended from a family of Old Believer textile manufacturers, educated in Moscow and Berlin, Guchkov embodied the exuberance of the nascent entrepreneurial bourgeoisie in Russia. A tireless adventurer, he fought against the British in the Boer War (1899–1902), headed the Russian Red Cross during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), fought numerous duels, and was an admirer of the "Blood and Iron" chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck.
Guchkov's activist temperament embraced democratic values in theory, but nonetheless betrayed an admiration for strong political leaders who promised the restoration of order and national prestige. For the Octobrists, Stolypin was that leader. In the radicalized Second Duma (1907) the Octobrists were an inconsequential presence. But with Stolypin's "coup" of 16 June (3 June, old style) 1907, in which the prime minister illegally altered the electoral laws in favor of conservative property owners, the Octobrists emerged as the dominant party, with 154 delegates, in the Third Duma.
Though Stolypin's manipulation of the law was patently unconstitutional, Guchkov defended the action as "a sad necessity" to restore order. The Octobrists saw Stolypin as "the Russian Bismarck" who could master the chaos of revolution and move Russia toward constitutional monarchy and great-power glory. In this the Octobrists distinguished themselves from the more liberal Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), who insisted on the strict rule of law and opposed Stolypin's often high-handed tactics. The Octobrists became the bulwark of the Stolypin reforms, helping the prime minister to enact his agrarian reforms and other measures.
Octobrism represented, in Guchkov's words, "an act of faith in The Sovereign," a calculated political gamble that the tsar and his retainers were sincere in their promise to reform. It was not long, however, before the Octobrists realized that the autocracy had not changed its stripes, and that the concessions of 1905 were being reversed as the forces of order recovered the initiative. A series of political crises, beginning with the Naval General Staff debacle of 1909, soon demonstrated that the tsar and his court were unreconciled to reform. Even Prime Minister Stolypin found himself increasingly thwarted by the resurgent forces of reaction. The Octobrist compromise with the government began to fail, to the deep chagrin of Guchkov and his party. The assassination of Stolypin by a police double agent in 1911 accelerated the rightward shift of power, and by the eve of World War I the abolition of the Duma itself was being discussed at court. Guchkov admitted later that Stolypin, his erstwhile idol, had "died politically long before his physical death."
The collapse of Octobrist hopes occasioned the disintegration of the party itself. A reduced presence in the Fourth Duma (98 delegates) and growing disillusionment with the government resulted in an eventual division of the party into Left Octobrists and Zemstvo Octobrists. The leaders of the party continued to play an active role in politics during World War I. Increasingly disillusioned by the reactionary course of the regime and its failing war effort, Guchkov dabbled in schemes to overthrow and replace the tsar. When the autocracy collapsed in February (March, new style) 1917, he led the Duma delegation that secured Nicholas's abdication. He later served as minister of war in the first Provisional Government but was unable to master the forces of disintegration at work in the Russian armed forces. With the increasing radicalization of politics during the revolutionary year, moderates such as Guchkov were swept aside. After the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Octobrists served in various anti-Bolshevik governments, and most emigrated abroad after the defeat of the White armies in the civil war (1918–1920).
On his deathbed in 1936, Guchkov pronounced a final benediction on the Octobrist effort to save the Russian monarchy from its own worst instincts: "The attempt had to be made, however small the chances of success. And the chances were small, indeed."
Hosking, Geoffrey A. The Russian Constitutional Experiment: Government and Duma, 1907–1914. Cambridge, U.K., 1973.
McCauley, Martin. Octobrists to Bolsheviks: Imperial Russia, 1905–1917. London, 1984.
Menashe, Louis. "Alexander Guchkov and the Origins of the Octobrist Party: The Russian Bourgeoisie in Politics, 1905." Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1966.
Pinchuk, Ben-Cion. The Octobrists in the Third Duma, 1907–1912. Seattle, Wash., 1974.
James L. West