Russian Revolution of 1905

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The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a country-wide spasm of both anti-government and undirected violence. It was not controlled or managed, and it had no single cause or aim. It is usually regarded as a signpost of changes in Russia leading to the Russian Revolution of 1917.See also "Russian history, 1892-1920" for the general frame of events.


Dates followed by (J) are Julian rather than Gregorian

Although unrest had been a regular part of the Russian Empire, serious disturbances had been rare in the decades prior to 1905. Political discontent had been building since the controversial 1861 emancipation of the serfs by Alexander II. The emancipation was dangerously incomplete, with years of 'redemption' payments to the dvoryanstvo, and only limited, technical freedom for the narod (common people). 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 and economic changes began in the 1860s as the country slowly moved from feudal absolutism towards market-driven capitalism. While these reforms had liberalised 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 development was limited; for example, less than forty provinces had zemstvo (rural councils), fifty years after the legislation was introduced. The raising of expectations, 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 be truly met by revolution.

Active revolutionaries were drawn almost exclusively from the intelligentsia. The movement was called narodnichestvo, revolutionary populism. This was not a singular and unified group, but rather an enormous spectrum of radical splinter groups, each with its own agenda. 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 espoused an idealised view which considered narod and the obshchina (peasant commune) as the base for revolutionary change; as the country lacked an industrial proletariat at the time.

Other thinkers argued that the Russian peasantry was an extremely conservative force, loyal to their household, village, or commune, and no one else. These thinkers held that the peasants cared only for their land and were deeply opposed to democracy and western liberalism. Later Russian ideologues gravitated to the idea of a leading revolutionary 'elite', a concept that was later put into action in 1917.

On March 1, 1881, Alexander II was assassinated 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 who was heavily influenced by Constantin Pobedonostsev, a devotee of autocratic government.

Under Alexander III the Russian police political service (the Okhranka) acted very effectively to suppress both revolutionaries and proto-democratic movements across the country. The Okhranka scattered the Russian intelligentsia through imprisonment and exile. Legislative measures were taken against 'non-Russians' and followers of religions other than Orthodoxy. The Jewish community especially was singled out. The intellectuals, 'non-Russians' and Jews often emigrated to avoid persecution. It was this exodus into Western Europe that first brought Russian thinkers into contact with Marxism. The first Russian Marxist group was formed in 1883, although it did not reach any significant size until 1898.

In sharp contrast to the social stagnation of the 1880s and 1890s were the huge modernising leaps in industrialisation, relative to Russia's relatively low technological level at the time. This growth 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, St Petersburg, Ukraine, and Baku. Roughly half of all the capital invested was foreign, and foreign experts and entrepreneurs were vital.

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. 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 widely hated Vyacheslav von Plehve, in 1904. These killings drove the government to grant even more draconian powers to the police.

The war with Japan, while initially popular, was now feeding into the 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. In 1903 one-third of the Russian army in western Russia had engaged in "repressive action".

Nicholas II came to power in 1894. Like his predecessors, he stubbornly refused to allow any political change.


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

This event was the spark to push many groups in Russian society 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 and anti-industrialism), 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 without unified leadership, each splinter sought its own objectives. Unrest was spread across the year, reaching peaks in early summer and autumn, culminating in November. Renters wanted lower rents; hirelings wanted better wages; and land-holders wanted bigger plots of land. Activities included land-seizures, sometimes followed by violence and burning; looting of 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.

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 massive 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 short-lived 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 were almost no active railways in all of Russia.

With the unsuccessful and bloody Russo-Japanese War 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 dissatisfied - and was widely used by the government to control the 1905 unrest.

Nationalist 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. Muslim groups were also active -- the First Congress of the Muslim Union took place in August 1905. 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. When the slight powers of the Duma and the limits to the electorate were revealed, unrest redoubled, reaching an almost general strike in early October.

On October 14 (J), the October Manifesto was written by Witte and Alexis Obolenskii and presented to the Tsar. It closed 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 October 17 (J), owing to his desire to avoid a massacre, and a realization that there was insufficient military force available to do otherwise. 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 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 ended in December when a final spasm in Moscow. Between December 5 and 7 (J) a Bolshevik committee enforced a general strike by threats of 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 Octobrists), 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 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 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 Pyotr 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 Vene revolutsioon lt:1905-07 revoliucija nn:Den russiske revolusjonen pl:Rewolucja 1905 roku ru:Революция 1905-07 fi:Venjn vuoden 1905 vallankumous


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