Nicholas II never fully accepted the
view that his will was not above the law. This autocratic notion
was out of tune with the times and helps to explain much of what
happened after 1905. He had bad advisors, of course. There was
the sinister influence of a journalist by the name of
Meshchevsky, the dominating influence of a certain M. Philippe
and the notorious monk Rasputin. The latter two worked through
the tsarina, especially after 1911. Nicholas also retained the
ministers of the reactionary Alexander III, particularly
Pobedonestsev and Witte.
I. Revival of Opposition to the Tsar
A. Russian Marxism
The revival of opposition to the tsar came with the famine of
1891-1892. The Marxists, the populists and the liberals were the
main forces at work against the monarchy. Plekhanov, the grand
daddy of Russian Marxism, had founded the "Liberation of Labor"
back in 1883. Lenin and Martov organized the "Fighting Union for
the Liberation of the Working Class" in 1895. These groups
adopted new tactics: agitation among the ranks of the
proletariat. In part the result this agitation was a wave major
strikes in the late 1890s, like the St. Petersburg textile
strike of 1896-1897. A new coalition of Marxists took place in
1898 when the Russian Social Democratic Party was founded in
Minsk. Lenin had little to do with this since he was in exile in
Siberia between 1895 and 1900.
But Russian Marxism was still full of strife and as a result
ineffectual. Its newspaper, Iskra, founded in 1900, pushed for
unity among the various factions. At the famous Congress of the
Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903 there was a fight for
control of the newspaper and hence the main organ of propaganda
and ideology. Whoever controlled the newspaper could more or
less determine the ideological slant of the movement. At the
1903 Congress Lenin's group for a short time managed to get a
majority in the Central Committee and on the board of directors
of Iskra. They called themselves Bolsheviks, which means
majority. "In this inconspicuous manner Bolshevism...slipped
almost unnoticed into a hostile world."
A group led by Leon Trotsky had lost the fight in 1903 and thus
received the name of Mensheviks, meaning minority. But in 1904
the Mensheviks had captured control of the Central Committee and
hence Iskra. Lenin then resigned and began to publish his own
newspaper called Forward (1906). The conflict between these two
major marxist groups went on. A perfunctory reconciliation at
the 4th Congress in 1906 at Stockholm soon broke apart. At the
Prague Congress in 1912 the Bolsheviks expelled the Mensheviks
from the party. So the Mensheviks convened in Vienna under
The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks disagreed on two main points:
1. the philosophy of history which involved the attitude toward
2. the nature of party organization.
The Mensheviks believe there must be bourgeois democratic
republic as a necessary first stage toward revolution. So the
party should align itself with regular liberal parties to help
destroy monarchy and build a democratic republic. The Bolsheviks
insisted that they should set up a dictatorship of the
proletariat immediately. There could therefore be no alliance
with the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie could be used as a tool to
help achieve this aim, but never as an ally. The Mensheviks are
in favor of democratic administration of the party, while the
Bolsheviks insist on authoritarian centralism.
B. Social Revolutionaries
The populists transformed themselves into the Social
Revolutionaries during the 1890s. Formally the Social
Revolutionary Party was founded at Kharkov in 1900 with a
program of social democracy. Gershuni, Goetz,
Breshko-Breshkovsky and Victor Chernov were its leaders. At the
first congress of the party in Finland in 1905-1906 the
following program was announced:
The fall of the monarchy would lead inevitably to socialism
since Russian capitalism was weak. So the party was going to
cooperate with the liberal bourgeoisie.
The peasants were the most important class. The land should be
socialized, i.e., taken from the landlords and given to the
peasants. What they had in mind was quite similar to old idea of
the village commune.
They were against centralization and bureaucratism. They also
would have nothing to do with state socialism.
They believed in the efficiency of political terror and
propaganda (unlike the "People's Will").
The "Terrorist Organization" of the Social Revolutionaries had
been founded in 1901. It was purely an instrument of the
leadership since it took orders directly from the Central
Committee of the party. Between 1902 and 1907 this organization
launched a virtual wave of assassinations. While the Central
Committee of the Social Revolutionaries never fully accepted the
idea, a series of "expropriations" nevertheless supplied the
funds to keep the terror campaign and the party going. The
organizers of the terror were Gershuni, Azef and Savinkov. Azef
interestingly enough was also an agent of the tsarist secret
police until he was discovered in 1908. After this the terror
campaign slowly subsided.
By comparison with the Social Revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks
appeared to be quite insignificant in 1905. The Bolsheviks were
not a closely knit party; nor had they worked out as yet what
their revolutionary tactics were to be. They only had about
8,000 members, although numbers and theory matter little in
those days. The country was seething with discontent and any
unique form of propaganda got a hearing--might even say eager
The third element in the anti-tsarist movement was the liberals.
Liberalism got invigorated by the relief work of 1891-1892. As
you would expect, the liberals rejected socialism, revolutionary
methods, and also bureaucratic arbitrariness practiced by the
tsar's government with abandon. The liberals longed for economic
and social reforms. The standard bearers of liberalism in the
1890s were the zemstvos. The liberals working within the zemstvo
institutions called for a representative assembly. The attempt
to form a central zemstvo organization was prohibited by
government minister Goremykin in 1896, but they keep pushing to
have one. A union of zemstvo employees was finally created, but
the government frequently refused to confirm elected zemstvo
officials. So, the government contributed to its problems by
eliminating the very groups on which it could have relied to
reinvigorate its administration and the people's loyalty.
II. Foreign and Domestic Policy Mistakes
In foreign policy the government also continued to make
mistakes. Many of the restrictive measures in Finland planned
under Alexander III were put into effect under Nicholas II.
Pobedonestsev and Goremykin were extremely hostile to the Finns.
The issued a manifesto in 1899 which turned the Finnish diet
into a mere advisory body and made the Russian state council
responsible for legislation in Finland. The Finnish army was
abolished and Russian became the official language in the
government of Finland. This clumsy policy of Russification
smacked on 19th century reaction and was strongly resisted and
criticized by Russian liberals.
None of these things, however, created a revolutionary
situation. Actual events were to do that. There was a major
famine in 1891 and a series crop failures in 1897, 1898 and
1901. This lead to a breakdown of the land arrangement following
the liberation of the serfs, and created massive poverty among
the peasants. On top of this was the enormous financial yoke put
upon the peasants by the land arrangement. This led to the
inevitable peasant uprisings and this time also to the awakening
of labor. So a "revolutionary situation" finally existed in
Strikes became a permanent feature of life. In 1894 some 17,000
workers were out on strike. Few of these strikes were very well
organized. They occurred largely in St. Petersburg and Moscow in
1897 and 1898. They were led by unions but few of their demands
were revolutionary in nature. The demanded shorter work hours
and higher pay, like unions everywhere. The government followed
a policy of conciliation and reprisals. Count Witte told the
manufacturers that the chief cause of the strikes was
mismanagement. A law was passed in 1897 which elevated the
situation by legislating an eleven-and-a-half hour day. In 1903
factory workers were allowed to elected so-called factory elders
to represent their interests. Yet no real improvement in working
conditions came in the period of 1894 to 1903. The law of 1897
merely wetted the appetite of the workers.
The government then began a sort of crackdown. Professional
agitators and strike leaders were rounded up and sent home.
Extra-judicial powers were used to repress unhappy workers. The
police decided to coopt the workers by creating labor unions
controlled by the police. A network of spies and agents
provocateurs were scattered among the workers. Even though the
police or "company unions" were little more than mutual aid
associations, Prime Minister Witte protested against them
No discussion of revolution would be complete if we did not
mention students. In the late 19th century students played a
large political role. Politics was much more fun than sports,
even then. According to the special university charter of 1884,
students were denied the right to organize their own corporate
representation. Since there was not formal means of expressing
the radical and revolutionary doctrines the young always find so
appealing, they had no choice but to get into the action
directly. So the charter of 1884 which was intended to suppress
political radicalism actually gave a monopoly to revolutionary
organizations. The students were also angered by the effort of
the education ministers Tolstoy and Delianov to make Russian
educational institutions the special preserve of the upper
classes. The Russian student thus became a vigorous advocate of
an equitable social order.
The stormy phase of academic life in Russia came in the 1890s.
The schools were frequently closed to dampen down the revolts.
In 1899 there was a serious student strike at the St. Petersburg
University. Many students were expelled and some professors were
sacked. In 1898 a young member of the Social Revolutionary
Party, Karpovich, shot the minister of eduction, Bogolepov. The
students demonstrated for Karpovich, not the slain minister.
This was the first political murder of Nicholas II's reign. It
ushered in a whole era of terror by the Social Revolutionaries.
Among the victims were V. K. Plehve, the minister of the
interior (1904), whose murder had been planned by Azef and
C. Union of Liberation
When Sipiagin replaced Goremykin as minister of the interior in
1899 he launched a crackdown on zemstvo "autonomy" by claiming
that they could no longer provision the populace. The zemstvos
replied by demanding a constitutional monarchy. The zemstvo
liberals also began to hold conferences and publish newspapers
abroad. They created the so-called Union of Liberation in 1903
which called for a constitutional monarchy. Since this was the
underground organization of the zemstvos, they had no longer any
recognized political organization. When Plehve succeeded
Sipiagin, who had been murdered in 1902, he (Plehve) began very
repressive measures which angered the liberals, who must have
been glad when Plehve himself was assassinated.
Russia was at war with Japan at this time, yet many felt Russian
autocracy rather than Japan was the real enemy. The inevitable
political explosion was in fact precipitated by the
assassination of Plehve and the appointment of Sviatapolk-Mirsky
as Plehve's successor in August 1904. For while Mirsky
introduced a kind of "political spring." But it did not last
long and merely stimulated further revolutionary activity.
In September 1904 a conference of radicals and revolutionaries
(with the exception of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks)
convened in Paris to form an alliance against autocracy and
issued a call for representative government and recognition of
the rights of national minorities. In October 1904 the Union of
Liberation came up with a plan of action:
1. the zemstvos were to demand a constitutional government;
2. a serious of banquets were to held which would promote
3. professional unions were to coalesce into a Union of Unions
to give them more political leverage.
A zemstvo conference was in fact held in November which launched
the nationwide campaign for a constitutional monarchy, despite
the fact that there was some disagreement about the exact role
of legislation and whether to have a consultative or a
III. The Russo-Japanese War: 1904-5
Then the war and the domestic unrest came together. In December
1904 Port Arthur in Manchuria fell to the Japanese; In January
the sporadic strikes in St. Petersburg began to spread rapidly.
Strangely enough these strikes were sponsored by the police
union and one of them, the Assembly of Russian Workmen was led
by an Orthodox priest, Father Gapon. When these strikers tried
to march to the imperial palace to petition the tsar, the tsar
sent out the cossacks to cut them down. Famous "Bloody Sunday"
(January 1905) was the result. The petitioners actually only
wanted to protest minor abuses and call for a constituent
assembly. Mirsky and some police officials had to resign after
"Bloody Sunday," but the zemstvos and municipal unions resumed
their agitation. Then grand duke Serge Alexandrovich was
assassinated. This produced another manifesto by the tsar
(February 18) which merely condemned political agitation and so
doing it seemed to invite and even legalize it in its effect.
To placate the populace the government handed out tidbits, like
the proclamation which promised religious toleration. The
government, however, was also sending signals which appeared to
approve the formation of a consultative assembly. This happened
at a time when what we might call the loyal opposition was also
moving in that direction. The Union of Unions, the Union of
Liberation, the Peasants Union, and the Zemstvo Conference all
agreed to call for a "fundamental law" based on the principles
of western political democracy. So the loyal opposition was
slipping into revolutionary action.
Then in February came the defeat at Mukden in Manchuria, after a
horrendous battle of attrition. And in May came the great naval
defeat at Tsushima Strait. President Theodore Roosevelt of the
United States soon made an offer of mediation which was accepted
by both sides. In June the sailors of the battleship Potemkin
mutinied in the Black Sea. You could not have had a more
disastrous series of calamities. It would have brought down any
other government. But not the Russian.
Meanwhile, the reactionary right was also organizing in Russia.
The "Russian Assembly," founded in 1901, was engaged in
nationalistic, monarchical counter-propaganda. The Union of the
Russian People," more recently established in 1905, was
promoting militant nationalism and hatred of Finns, Poles, and
Jews. This was approved by Nicholas II, Plehve and other
government officials. Most of the members of the Union of the
Russian People came from the middle class, were minor government
officials or members of the clergy. Ultra-nationalism became the
order oft he day and with it came pogroms. In 1903 there had
been a wholesale massacre of Jews in Kishenev, Bessarabia. It
was soon followed by a wave of pogroms throughout the south and
southwest of Russia between 1903 and 1905.
A. Creation of the Duma
When the tsar's government finally issued a law about the
election to a State Duma in August 1905 it was met by derision.
The franchise provision clearly favored the peasants and
disenfranchised the bulk of the urban population, especially the
intellectuals and the industrial workers. When the universities
were granted autonomy a flood of revolutionary oratory was
emitted from the campuses. A by-product of this oratory was the
creation of the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers Deputies.
In September the bakers and printers called for a general strike
in St. Petersburg. In October the railway workers in Moscow
start a strike which soon spread to the entire network of the
railroad. The demands of the strikers are more radical now too.
They call for a democratic republic and are willing to do away
with monarchy entirely. They also want political amnesty and
demand the workers be armed. The professional unions, mainly
liberals support these new demands. The Banks, shops, hospitals
and other institutions closed their doors. The Russian economy
came to a standstill.
B. The St. Petersburg Soviet
On October 13 the St. Petersburg Soviet convened with 30-40
delegates. By the end of November it had 562 delegates. Since
the Mensheviks were the strongest group in the Soviet, their
leader, Trotsky, became the leader of the Soviet. Lenin is
behind the scenes since he did not return to St. Petersburg
until November. On October 17 two important things happened: the
first issue of a now famous newspaper appeared, Isvestia; and
Nicholas II issued his so-called October Manifesto which turned
Russia into a constitutional monarchy.
Count Witte was called back into the government to save the
dynasty with a liberal program. The Manifesto, as a matter of
act was written by him. It promised
extension of the franchise, thus revising the law of August;
no law was to be promulgated without the Duma which was also
promised the right to approve and control officials of the
The response to the October Manifesto was mixed. Trotsky said:
"Witte has come but Trepov remains." Trepov was the chief of
police. Nevertheless, there was a lot of excitement on both the
left and the right. The Hundreds, loosely organized groups of
thugs which perpetrated the pogroms, are especially on the
rampage in Kiev and Odessa which had large Jewish populations.
So increased racial persecution and terror was one of the first
consequences of the October Manifesto which granted civil
liberties to all Russian subjects!The flames of revolt were also
stirred in the borderlands. Finland had its liberties restored
by Witte, but in Poland he declared a "state of emergency."
Russian sailors at Kronstadt and Vladivostok mutinied but
suppressed. The center of revolutionary activity, however, was
the St. Petersburg Soviet and other soviets. But since there
were no immediate economic benefits, the Soviet was forced to
call off a general strike by a spontaneous back-to-work movement
which began on October 21.
Yet, the St. Petersburg Soviet made an impact and became a model
for the soviet of 1917. The Soviet made some detailed plans for
an armed uprising should the occasion demand it. Since the
government was in a state of confusion, the Soviet achieved a
kind of quasi-official status by simply acting as if it knew
what it was doing. The countryside meanwhile was ablaze with
disturbances and widespread looting of manor houses. The
Manifesto had opened the country to the agitation and propaganda
of the liberal zemstvos and the Social Revolutionaries.
But the tsarist government had not disappeared from the scene.
It declared a state of emergency in some areas and began to
suppress riots and arrest agitators. The Moscow Bureau of the
Peasants Union was arrested en masse on November 14.
Eventually the St. Petersburg Soviet lost its hold on the
workers and the call for a general strike issued in November was
a complete failure. Witte ordered the arrest of the president of
the Soviet, Nosar, a Menshevik. A new committee is quickly
formed, including Trotsky, which appeals to the armed forces and
urges non-payment of taxes. Witte's response is to arrest the
committee. The Soviet of Soldiers in Moscow does manage to start
an uprising, but is quickly crushed by government troops.
Insubordination in the army and the navy is also crushed. The
strike on the Trans-Siberian Railway is brought under control.
So the economic and social order remained unscathed. Trotsky
"The revolution is dead, long live the revolution!"