Revolution of 1905 (Russia)

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great reforms
forces for change
revolutionary model
escalating unrest
general strike
october manifesto
anticlimax: 1906

Russia's first twentieth-century revolution began on 22 January (9 January, old style) 1905. In October a general strike paralyzed the country. The tsar responded by granting an elected parliament (the State Duma) with limited powers. This partial victory did not, however, put an end to the mutinies, unrest, and widespread lawlessness, which continued into 1906. Intensifying the level of repression, the regime continued to mistrust the newly legalized political parties. The first and second sessions of the Duma, despite their restricted franchise, proved more radical than the tsar and his advisors had hoped. On 16 June (3 June, O.S.) 1907 the Second Duma was dissolved by imperial fiat, and the electoral laws were altered to guarantee a more docile assembly. The Russian Revolution of 1905 thus ended in a coup d'état.

Once the Bolsheviks came to power, they celebrated 1905 as a link in the chain of revolutionary inevitability. Vladimir Lenin called it the "dress rehearsal" for October 1917. Leon Trotsky called it the "majestic prologue." While the experience of 1905 influenced participants and leaders in the next crisis, the political settlement offered statesmen and moderate public figures the chance to establish common ground. The autocracy's fate was not yet sealed. On both sides of the barricades, however, the spirit of intransigence prevailed. The tsar resented the concessions he had been forced to make and chose ministers who endorsed his attachment to outmoded autocratic principles. The Duma deputies, for their part, lacked parliamentary decorum and had little taste for compromise.

In retrospect 1905 seemed a milestone in the process of decline, but it can also be viewed as a product of the regime's positive achievements. The state had itself created the conditions for social and economic progress that its shortsightedness then undermined. The alliance of disgruntled entrepreneurs and professionals with exploited workers and impoverished peasants reflected the country's variegated social landscape. The movement that challenged the absolutist state relied, however, on modern forms of transport and communication—railroads, newspapers, and telegraph. Its leaders used the tools of modern political life—parties, programs, and propaganda.

great reforms

When Tsar Alexander II (r. 1855–1881) instituted the Great Reforms (1861–1874), he opened the door to economic and social advancement. The abolition of serfdom spurred the growth of wage labor and stimulated entrepreneurial activity. The creation of organs of local self-administration (the zemstvos), composed of elected representatives of the different social classes, provided experience in civic responsibility. The loosening of censorship and encouragement of scientific training promoted the emergence of a professional elite. Judicial reform introduced notions of due process and respect for the law that contradicted the principles of absolute rule embodied in the monarch. Military reforms stressed the importance of education and expertise in equipping the empire's armed forces to fight successfully in the modern age.

The Great Reforms were designed to remedy the underdevelopment so painfully manifested by Russia's defeat in the Crimean War (1853–1856). To the same end, the government also sponsored railroads and manufacture. In 1891 a devastating famine prompted ever more peasants to leave the villages for factories and towns. Along with poverty, slums, prostitution, and crime, the growing cities developed a western-style public culture: parks, movie theaters, department stores, and a boulevard press.

The reforms were important not only for their results but also for the process involved in their shaping and implementation. The gentry were allowed—indeed obliged—to take part, along with farsighted bureaucrats and statesmen, in committees that helped reshape the empire's legal and social foundation. These committees were not secret: Alexander II also introduced glasnost (greater openness, a slogan of that era as well as of the late twentieth century). The elites were disappointed, however, when Alexander finally refused to "crown the zemstvo edifice," as the saying went, with empire-wide political institutions. Political parties (not to speak of trade unions or strikes) were illegal—indeed, there was no context in which they could function. Even professional gatherings were monitored by the police. In this institutional vacuum, the zemstvo became the seedbed of a movement for moderate political reform based in local gentry circles.

forces for change

The dangers of change were underscored by another consequence of the reforms. The expansion of the universities in the 1860s, connected to the need for a technically literate elite, brought young men of nonaristocratic background into the lecture halls along with the sons of gentlemen (women were excluded from the universities in this period). While men of the older generation became contentious liberals, the students yearned for more radical change. Dreaming of a new social order, young men and women "went to the people," hoping the villages would rise in revolt. Their attempts failed, but the generation of the 1860s laid the ground for a radical culture that tried mightily for almost half a century to connect its vision of social transformation to the social animosities of the laboring poor. Frustrated and impatient, the radicals acted on their own, with dubious results. The assassination of Alexander II by the conspiratorial People's Will in 1881 ended the era of reform and ushered in the reigns of Alexander III (r. 1881–1894) and Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917), resolute enemies of compromise and progress.

The Revolution of 1905 emerged from the confluence of these forces: a growing class of literate or semiliterate, urban or semiurban laborers; a politically dissatisfied urban elite; a disjuncture between the expectations raised by the reforms and their institutional outcomes; the growth of an ideologically driven social formation known as the intelligentsia determined to provoke social conflict, unleash violence, and destroy existing institutions; and an empire weakly governed from the center and arbitrary in its manner of rule. The Revolution of 1905 was at once a triumph of solidarity—the simultaneous revolt of almost all social forces against the principles and representatives of the state; and an expression of deep social division—the emerging incompatibility of interests among the varied allies.

revolutionary model

The revolution, as Lenin and Trotsky claimed, established precedents for 1917. On the one hand, 1905 produced the State Duma and legalized political parties. Among the latter were the liberal parties central to the Provisional Government of early 1917. On the other hand, the revolution also created a new political formation, the soviets (councils) of workers' deputies, which were to confront the moderates in 1917 across the barrier of class and ideological conviction. The soviets constituted the other face of "dual power" in 1917, the organizational stalemate that opened the door to Bolshevik success. The events of 1905 also strengthened the myth of revolution as a glorious exercise in collective self-assertion and self-sacrifice.

In fact, radical leaders played almost no role in starting the conflict of 1905. The Marxist-inspired Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party, formed in 1898, was weakened by arrests; the Socialist Revolutionary Party (heir to nineteenth-century Populism) had emerged only in 1901. Their efforts to gain a foothold in the factories had met with limited success. Many leaders were in exile. Lenin, for example, spent 1900 to November 1905 in Europe.

The Revolution of 1905 began not at the bottom but at the top of the social hierarchy. In 1899 the students of St. Petersburg University protested official interference in university life. A group of liberal intellectuals founded the journal Osvobozhdenie (Liberation) in 1902. Two years later ill-considered expansionism drew Russia into war with Japan. When the war led to defeat and national humiliation, patriotic enthusiasm waned. The autocracy had again failed the test of military competence.

escalating unrest

It was the regime itself that stimulated action from below. Worried by the spontaneous labor protests of the 1890s and wishing to counteract the lure of radical ideas, it instituted police-sponsored trade unions. The experiment backfired. Georgy Gapon, a socially minded Orthodox priest, had started such an organization in St. Petersburg. Hoping to interest the tsar in the workers' cause, Gapon led his followers on a humble procession to the Winter Palace. Trudging through the snow on 22 January 1905, the petitioners were met by gunfire. More than one hundred marchers were killed, and at least three hundred more were wounded.

The shock of Bloody Sunday galvanized an array of social forces burdened by diverse grievances. Workers left their benches, demanding better conditions. Radical activists (Socialist Revolutionaries and Social Democrats, the latter now divided into factions: Lenin's Bolsheviks and the more cautious Mensheviks) were taken by surprise, but eager to gain some influence over the movement. Some of the most volatile episodes were linked only indirectly to labor issues. Some parts of the Caucasus, where Marxists enjoyed a certain degree of success, had been in revolt against Russian domination since 1903. Inhabitants of the Polish kingdom acquired by Russia after the Napoleonic Wars had twice risen against imperial rule in the nineteenth century. Strikes and protests mobilized all classes of the Polish population throughout 1905. Protests mixing economic and cultural resentments swept through the Baltic provinces and Finland. Meanwhile, peasants of the Russian heartland, following their own timetable, turned their wrath against the landowners.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1905, the regime attempted to defuse the crisis with halfhearted measures. A commission to solve the labor problem was disbanded without results. It left the worker delegates feeling both frustrated and self-important—a volatile mix. A proposed legislative assembly with minimal powers pleased no one. Educated society sympathized with the workers and mimicked their forms of association: teachers, agronomists, lawyers, and doctors joined in the Union of Unions. The soldiers and sailors mobilized in the distant war were affected by the political ideas of their junior officers. They were troubled by news of unrest at home. In June the sailors of the Black Sea Fleet seized control of the warship Potemkin (a mutiny that became the subject of Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, The Battleship Potemkin).

If the outbreak of war had contributed to popular discontent, its conclusion in August, with the Treaty of Portsmouth, did not calm the waters. In September new labor contracts were drawn up, workers returned to their shops, students returned to the lecture halls, and the strike movement resumed its course. The strikes rarely followed the direction of radical leaders, but they generated organizations that suited the radicals' plans. Thus, in Moscow, the neighborhoods and factories elected deputies who formed local councils (in Russian, soviets). By October the various strikes spurred by trade-specific problems (of bakers, printers, cigarette makers, and so on) had converged into an empire-wide movement.

general strike

The participation of railroad and communications workers was decisive in bringing the economy to a halt. The trams stopped, the lights went out, shops closed. Liberals and radicals differed in their goals, but they rallied behind the mass movement. A kind of organizational fever seized the population: waiters, nurses, even peasants, formed and joined organizations. In St. Petersburg, the Mensheviks had the notion of consolidating the various strike committees into a citywide Soviet of Workers' Deputies: this was the prototype of what in 1917 became the symbol and instrument of revolutionary governance. It was understood by its organizers and participants in 1905 (among them Trotsky) as an organ of grassroots democracy.

The general strike was not, however, an exercise in saintly self-restraint and ideological high-mindedness on the part of the masses. On the one side, violence was inflicted by the police, Cossacks, and troops sent to impose order. Violence also emanated from pro-monarchist mobs, egged on by right-wing organizations, which attacked intellectuals and Jews. On the other side, strike recruitment was often coercive: workers from one factory would threaten those next door or rough them up; foremen were treated without ceremony; workers sometimes combined anger at the bosses with anger at the Jews. The Socialist Revolutionaries observed the populist tradition of political assassination: having eliminated Vyacheslav Plehve, the minister of internal affairs, in July 1904, they dispatched the reactionary Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in February 1905. More generally, the revolution unleashed a flood of unfocused violence: laws were ignored, crime flourished, the streets became dangerous. Ordinary inhabitants felt not only exhilaration and hope but also anxiety and fear.

october manifesto

Reluctantly, Nicholas II heeded the counsel of his prime minister, Count Sergei Witte. As minister of finance in the 1890s Witte had promoted railroads and manufacture. He now believed the revolution could be checked only by serious concessions. On 30 October (17 October, O.S.) 1905 Nicholas issued a manifesto establishing the State Duma and promising the future extension of civil and political rights.

The October Manifesto brought an end to the general strike and gave rise to widespread rejoicing—the so-called Days of Freedom. While moderates hastened to form political parties, radicals at both extremes refused to abjure violence. Monarchist mobs, encouraged by the police, staged anti-Jewish pogroms. In early November the sailors of the Kronstadt naval base went from indiscipline to riot; in November the Black Sea Fleet mutinied once again, as did the troops returning from Manchuria. In December, as strikes escalated, radical leaders agitated for insurrection. Workers in sections of Moscow built makeshift barricades and traded shots with the troops summoned to stop them. The insurrection was crushed by artillery fire that left many dead. Arrests and executions followed.

anticlimax: 1906

The events of the year 1905 unfolded with an attractive symmetry: beginning with Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg and ending with insurrection in Moscow. It seemed in the new year as though political life had acquired a new moderation. In March trade unions were legalized and workers flocked to join. The Duma met in session from 10 May to 22 July. Its opening was clouded, however, by the government's enactment of the Fundamental Laws, alterable only by the monarch. The laws reaffirmed the tsar's autocratic power, guaranteed only limited civil liberties, and confirmed the endowment of the partially appointed State Council with legislative rights equal to those of the Duma. Liberals were disappointed by the conservative character of the constitutional settlement, yet peasants took advantage of the new institution to petition the deputies on the principal cause of their discontent: land shortage.

The deputies, however, demonstrated a pattern of mutual intolerance and political impatience. Their sense of grievance was stoked when police raided private homes, dispersed public meetings, fired schoolteachers, and harassed the press. When Peter Stolypin became minister of internal affairs in May 1906, the popular movement was far from exhausted: rural unrest reached a climax in the summer months. Mutiny in the armed forces was endemic. The Socialist Revolutionaries continued to target officials, including Stolypin himself. The minister responded with intensified repression. Prisons throughout the empire overflowed, as the authorities made mass arrests. Punitive expeditions staged public hangings, floggings, and random shootings. Officials themselves encouraged mob action: the Bialystok pogrom in June 1906 left eighty-two Jews dead and seven hundred injured. The tsar himself applauded pro-monarchist vigilantes.

When the Second Duma, which opened on 5 March (20 February, O.S.) 1907, proved as intractable as the first, the tsar ordered its dissolution and redefined the electoral laws to further restrict the franchise. Doing so violated the provisions of the Fundamental Laws, and therefore the decree of 16 June (3 June, O.S.) 1907 was considered a coup d'état. Stolypin had the premises locked and radical deputies arrested. At the same time, he instituted a series of agrarian reforms. Designed to instill respect for private property and promote rural prosperity, the reforms encouraged ambitious peasants to separate from the commune.

Both Witte and Stolypin, the most capable of the tsar's ministers, believed modernization was crucial to imperial survival. Their model was a managed modernity under old-style political control. The concessions promulgated by Witte were entirely pragmatic. Stolypin did not hesitate to violate the letter and spirit of the October Manifesto, which Nicholas himself disdained. Yet the Duma was not abolished. Combined with relaxed censorship and expanded freedom of association, it provided the public and the masses with new opportunities for political participation. The Revolution of 1905 in the end had a constructive result. But it also served as a stepping-stone to October 1917 rather than as a salutary jolt that might have saved the autocracy from its own worst instincts.

See alsoGreat Reforms (Russia); Nicholas II; Russia; Stolypin, Peter; Witte, Sergei.


Primary Sources

Bely, Andrei. Petersburg. Translated, annotated, and introduced by Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad. Bloomington, Ind., 1978. Originally published serially, 1913–1914. Symbolist novel set during the revolution.

Gorky, Maxim. Mother: A Novel in Two Parts. Translated by Margaret Wettlin. New York, 1962. Translation of Mat' (1906). Socialist realism–style novel with a worker-hero, set in 1905.

Luxemburg, Rosa. The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions. New York, 1971. Translation of Massenstreik, Partei, und Gewerkschaften (1906). Luxemburg's polemic with Lenin about popular revolution.

Trotsky, Leon. 1905. Translated by Anya Bostock. New York, 1971. Translation of Tysiacha deviat' sot piaty (1922). Participant's Marxist account.

Weber, Max. The Russian Revolutions. Translated and edited by Gordon C. Wells and Peter Baehr. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995. Translation of Zur Lage der bürgerlichen Demokratie in Russland (1906) and Russlands Übergang zum Scheinkonstitutionalismus (1906). Famous sociologist's analysis of current events.

Secondary Sources

Ascher, Abraham. The Revolution of 1905. 2 vols. Stanford, Calif., 1988–1992. The best scholarly account.

Blobaum, Robert E. Rewolucja: Russian Poland, 1904–1907. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995.

Bushnell, John. Mutiny amid Repression: Russian Soldiers in the Revolution of 1905–1906. Bloomington, Ind., 1985.

Engelstein, Laura. Moscow, 1905: Working-Class Organization and Political Conflict. Stanford, Calif., 1982.

Surh, Gerald D. 1905 in St. Petersburg: Labor, Society, and Revolution. Stanford, Calif., 1989.

Weinberg, Robert. The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: Blood on the Steps. Bloomington, Ind., 1993.

Laura Engelstein