Russian Revolution (1905)

Demonstrators in Jakobstad
Demonstrators in Jakobstad

On January 9, 1905, a vast but orderly crowd of Russian workers approached the Winter Palace to present Czar Nicholas II with a list of both economic and political grievances. The petition included among its demands an eight-hour workday, increased wages, improved working conditions, and an immediate end to the Russo-Japanese War.

In addition, at the suggestion of liberal intellectuals, the petition urged the czar to convene a constituent assembly. The demonstrators, most of whom regarded Nicholas II as a father figure who would redress their grievances, carried with them portraits of the czar and of Orthodox saints. Father Georgii Gapon—a Russian Orthodox priest and the head of a police-sponsored trade union—led the procession, which included approximately 150,000 unarmed workers.

As the procession approached the Winter Palace, it found its way blocked by armed troops. When the crowd failed to disperse as ordered, the troops opened fire, killing nearly 200 and wounding several hundred more. The events of that day, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, sparked riots and demonstrations across Russia and marked the onset of the 1905 Russian Revolution.

Until that point, the Russian masses had played little if any role in the political turmoil that beset late-czarist Russia. In the months that followed, however, the working classes would play a key role in the revolutionary movement.

To protest the massacre of unarmed demonstrators, thousands of workers across Russia went on strike. Liberals used the occasion of worker unrest to press for constitutional reform, urging the czar to abandon autocracy in favor of a constitutional monarchy.

For the next several months the czar's regime was variously confronted with student demonstrations, workers' strikes, peasant disorders, unrest among ethnic minorities, and even mutinies in the armed forces.

Manifestations before Bloody Sunday
Manifestations before Bloody Sunday

Efforts to restore order were not helped by the fact that Russian troops remained in the Far East fighting the Japanese. Hoping to appease popular opinion, Nicholas II decided in late August to grant freedom of assembly to university students for the first time since 1884.

As part of the concession, the czar forbade police even to enter university grounds. The efforts at conciliation backfired; the universities became more of a radical hotbed than ever as students recruited workers from nearby factories to participate in political rallies without fear of police intervention.

By the second week of October, a general strike encompassing workers in several key industries forced the czar to make further concessions. Russia had negotiated a peace treaty with Japan (the Treaty of Portsmouth) in late August, but with the railway workers on strike the troops could not be brought home.

Meanwhile, with the autocracy apparently unable to restore order, the Russian economy was grinding to a halt. The minister of finance, Sergei Witte, convinced Nicholas II to grant concessions in the hopes of dividing the liberals from their more radical counterparts. According to Witte, there was no other way to save the monarchy.

In the October Manifesto, dated October 17, Nicholas pledged to grant civil liberties and to create a parliament (the duma) based in part on popular elections. Laws passed over the next several months abolished censorship and guaranteed freedom of assembly and association.

As a result of the October Manifesto, the liberals were divided into two factions: the Octoberists, who accepted the terms set forth in the proclamation, and the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), who held out for further reform.

Both groups, however, withdrew from revolutionary activity, at least in the short term, to prepare for the upcoming duma elections. Witte's objective of separating the liberals from the radicals was therefore accomplished, but order was by no means restored.

Workers became increasingly militant throughout the remainder of the year, and the socialist intelligentsia was further radicalized. In addition, bloody pogroms against Jews and intellectuals followed the proclamation of the manifesto.

In the countryside peasants continued to riot, sacking and burning manor houses and attacking landowners and officials. By the following winter much of rural Russia was under martial law, and over 1,000 peasants were executed in a campaign of village-by-village pacification.

The constitution promised in the October Manifesto was published in April 1906. The so-called Fundamental Laws (which continued to refer to the czar as an autocrat) established a two-chamber parliament, the lower house of which was made up of elected officials.

While this represented progress to many who favored liberal reform, the effects of the constitution were limited in practice. The franchise system for duma elections favored the propertied classes over ethnic minorities, peasants, and workers.

In addition, the Crown reserved the right to dissolve the duma at any time, and article 87 of the Fundamental Laws enabled the Crown to rule by decree when the duma was not in session.

After the first two dumas were arbitrarily dissolved, the government took advantage of article 87 to enact a new electoral law that further skewed electoral representation in favor of the propertied classes. Meanwhile, the continued activity of the secret police at least partially undermined any concessions that had resulted from the 1905 revolution.