Williams, Beryl. History TodayDescription: 5Description: (May 2005): 44-51.

Beryl Williams marks the centenary of the revolutionary year 1905, and discusses the impact of the massacre outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, and the complex events throughout Russia that preceded and followed Bloody Sunday.

Description: View Image - (Main picture) demonstrators fleeing the soldiers who have opened fire on them near the Winter Palace, January 9th, 1905. (Below) 'Invasion' by Boris Kustodiev in the journal Bugbear about the suppression of the Moscow uprising in December 1905.








THE CENTENARY OF THE Russian Revolution of 1905 comes as historians are re-evaluating the late tsarist period, and as recently available local archives are throwing new light on the revolutionary year. The term 'revolution' has remained unchallenged, although by most definitions it does not qualify. The monarchy did not fall, and there was little real social or economic change. The political consequences of the October Manifesto issued by Tsar Nicholas II in the light of the uprising fell far short of liberal hopes. Nevertheless the standard work in English, by Professor Aschcr, accepts the term, and the year should be seen as a genuine revolution in its own right, not just as a 'dress rehearsal' for 1917. If 'revolution' is defined, as Hannah Arendt defined it, as a spontaneous, popular upheaval, during which new forms of self-government were developed from below, then it certainly qualifies.

The causes of the revolution, however, have been subjected to considerable review. The old assumptions of the inevitability of the collapse of tsarism, and that the rapid growth of industry led to peasant poverty, an agricultural crisis and a revolutionary-minded proletariat, are being challenged. It is now argued that, far from being in crisis, Russian agricultural output was increasing at the end of the nineteenth century, and that peasant rather than landlord agriculture was most productive. The peasantry adapted more successfully to conditions of industrialisation and post-emancipation than had been realized. Peasants were buying and renting land from the nobility, experimenting with new crops, growing wheat for the export market and going into market gardening to supply the expanding towns. Railways enabled easy transport of goods and people, enabling young men to work in the cities. They did not, however, become a full-time proletariat. They retained land in the villages, left their families in the countryside, and sent money home. Ninety-two per cent of Moscow workers still had regular contact with their villages in 1905. There were new opportunities for labour in the new and expanding towns near the coalfields of the Donbass, or the oilfields of the Caucasus.

New wealth, often generated by newly rich industrialists, helped the modernization of cities. Old merchant families, like the Marnontovs, the Morozovs and the Tretyakovs became art patrons, founded museums and art galleries, theatres and public reading-rooms, in Moscow and many provincial towns. The most progressive employers, Russian as well as foreign, provided schools, medical care and subsidized housing for their workers. Such model factories were rare, but they provided the standard by which others, including state-run enterprises, were judged. Merchants, especially in Moscow, served on town councils, and supported various self-improvement schemes for their employees. A nascent civil society and a vibrant cultural scene were developing. Many skilled and literate workers responded to such initiatives, as Jonathan Steinberg has shown for the printing industry, co-operating with employers they deemed to be 'good'. Some employers agreed to workers' demands for improvements to prevent strikes, as in Baku, where, in December 1904, a huge strike in the oilfields led to the first labour contract in Russian history. In some ways this event, rather than Bloody Sunday, should be seen as the real beginning of the revolution.

So, if it is now believed that the Russian economy was growing at the end of the century, how do we explain 1905? Firstly, as de Tocqueville pointed out, revolutions tend to happen at a time of improvement and rapid, and unsettling, social change, rather than at a time of grinding poverty. Moreover overall economic growth did not apply to everyone, or every area, of the huge empire. The central agricultural region and the Volga suffered, compared with the developing south and west. Here peasants were further from new communication routes and over-population was more severe. Debt was still a factor holding back many families, especially if they lacked a surplus of sons to diversify the family income. For some, life got worse not better. Moreover, the old peasant dream of equal repartition, of all land belonging to those that worked it, did not fade. In the rapidly expanding cities many lived in appalling conditions, especially in St Petersburg, which had the reputation of being the most expensive, worst-governed and most unhealthy city in Europe. Exploitation was especially bad in small workshops unaffected by government labour legislation. Nevertheless an industrial growth rate of 8 or 9 per cent in the 1890s did produce some benefits for the skilled and literate members of the working class, and it changed attitudes and raised expectations.

Description: View Image - Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1905.

Description: View Image - Maxim Gorky, who protested against the suppression of the Gapon march and was subsequently arrested.

Above all, depression set in after 1900, causing sharp price rises, reversing wage gains, increasing unemployment, and affecting particularly the new boom towns of the south and west, where the Russo-Japanese war exacerbated the problem, as wheat exports to the Far East stopped. All areas of the economy suffered and all sections of society were disaffected by the regime's refusal to adapt. There were peasant revolts in 1902-03, strikes increased, and the opposition movements became more organized. The Union of Liberation, the Social Democratic party (SDs) and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) were all formed during these years, the SDs splitting into Bolshevik and Menshevik wings in 1903. However few workers before 1905 ever saw a revolutionary. Revolutionary groups functioning in Russia were often composed of students and intellectuals, and were mistrusted by the workers. More successful in getting support were mutual aid schemes, run by workers themselves who came from the same village or area.

Workers also supported government-sponsored schemes of police trade unionism. The Zubatov movement, named after the Moscow police chief who initiated it, was enormously successful in the early years of the twentieth century. Starting in Moscow it spread across the south and west of the empire and gave the workers a legal forum for protest, even occasionally allowing strikes. In towns like Odessa and Vilnius its activists, often ex-revolutionaries (previous members of revolutionary parties attracted by Zubatov), attracted huge crowds, and their programmes explicitly rejected revolutionary or political demands, and expressed loyalty to the Tsar. The very success of the movement worried the government, which closed it down in 1903. An offshoot survived, however, in St Petersburg, where Father George Gapon's Assembly of Russian Working Men was allowed by 1904 to register with the city governor, and given considerable autonomy. At first Gapon was only moderately successful and confined himself to encouraging temperance clubs and self-help organizations. As time went on he became more radical. By the end of 1904, although he rejected the revolutionary parties and remained a firm monarchist, he was out of control of the police. Gapon had a real conviction of his destiny to improve the lot of the Russian working class, and the label 'police spy' was unfair, but he had no political strategy other than a reliance on the Tsar to help him. He seems to have envisioned himself standing with Nicholas II on the balcony of the Winter Palace granting salvation to his followers.

Increasingly, however, the movement became dominated by a secret committee of his 'worker assistants' rather than by Gapon himself. Skilled and literate, these assistants included ex-Marxists, and many of the membership were in fact from the printing and metal working trades, the city's worker aristocracy. Typical of these was Aleksei Karelin, a lithographer and former Social Democrat, and his wife Vera, who was behind the creation of several women's sections, reflecting the fact that women were now 20 per cent of the capital's labour force. Karelin was not the only example of reformist Social Democrats who broke from the party, and got support from workers by sticking primarily to economic rather than political issues. The Shendrikov brothers in Baku, who dominated the labour movement in that town throughout 1905, were expelled from the Bolsheviks in 1904 as 'economists', after refusing to follow Lenin's political strategy.

Description: View Image - 'Repair works on the Railway Line', by K-A. Savitsky, 1874. The railways helped Russia's swelling urban proletariat retain links with the villages and peasant life.

The march on what became Bloody Sunday, January 9th, 1905 (old style), was sparked by the management of the huge Putilov works sacking four members of Gapon's Association, leading to a strike, which rapidly paralysed a large part of the capital. By January 7th, over 100,000 workers had stopped work across the city. Gapon supported the strike, although he was at first hesitant about the idea to present a petition, seeing this as too political. The membership of the Association more than doubled in the two weeks before January 9th, from about 9,000 to over 20,000. This was at a time when, as they admitted, the revolutionary parties in the capital were tiny. The Bolsheviks had no worker on their St Petersburg committee, and their leaflets were destroyed in the factories. The economic demands presented in the petition were typical of worker demands throughout 1905. They asked for the right to elect permanent representatives in the factories, who could negotiate with employers and participate in decisions on hiring and firing of labour. They also asked for an eight-hour day and increased wages, free medical care and access to education. In a phrase, which was to become common throughout the year, they complained that they were 'not treated as human beings'. In other words they wanted to be addressed by the formal second person plural, they demanded an end to harassment, including sexual harassment, at work and aspired to fair treatment, more equality, dignity and justice, rather than an overthrow of the system as a whole.

The petition also had specific political demands, reflecting the climate of the time. By the end of 1904 the liberal movement was gaining strength. The Union of Liberation, composed primarily of intelligentsia and urban liberals, and the zemstvo movement of liberal landowners, were now openly demanding political reform. The 'banquet' campaigns of November 1904 saw large meetings calling for civil liberties, an amnesty for political prisoners and a democratically elected constituent assembly. Gapon, spurned by the revolutionaries when he at last approached them, turned to the Union of Liberation, who helped to draw up the petition. Workers were aware of the calls for a constitution, even if they did not always know what the word meant. The petition duly called for a democratically elected constituent assembly, and freedom of speech, assembly and the right to form legal trade unions. It was clear that the workers blamed government bureaucrats, as well as employers, for their plight. Nevertheless, although the demands were radical, they were not anti-monarchist and there was nothing socialist about them.

Description: View Image - The merchant Pavel Tretyakov (1832-98) in his Moscow gallery, painted by Ilya Repin. He presented his art collection to the city in 1892.

Description: View Image - The mutiny on battleship Potemkin and other vessels in the Black Sea fleet in June 1905, saw the red flag raised followed by riots and bloodshed in Odessa (above). Sailor Matyushenko one of the leaders on Potemkin, and crew members then sailed the ship to Constanza, Romania (right: on July 22nd, 1905). Here they surrendered to the authorities after scuttling the ship.

In fact petitions to the Tsar were illegal. Nicholas was in Tsarskoe SeIo, outside the capital, with his family, and was not advised that he should return. No one was empowered to accept the petition. The authorities were, however, well informed of the situation, by Gapon himself, and by a delegation of intellectuals headed by the writer Maxim Gorky and the liberal publicist I.V. Gessen, who tried, but failed, to see the minister of the interior, Prince P.D. Sviatopolk-Mirsky. A meeting of the authorities the night before the march, according to Count V.N. Kokovtsov, the finance minister, did not anticipate trouble, assuming that once Gapon was told the march could not go ahead the crowd would disperse. A last minute order to arrest Gapon was not carried out. The crowd, which assembled that Sunday morning, in their best clothes and accompanied by wives and children, has been estimated at between 50,000 and 100,000. They set off in columns from a variety of points round the city to converge on the square in front of the Winter Palace. Gapon had addressed them with an emotional speech, calling on them to die for freedom if necessary, but whatever the authorities may have thought, they held only icons and pictures of the Tsar, and death was the last thing on their minds.

The police and troops had been told by the minister of the interior to prevent them reaching their goal, and when requests to them to halt were ignored the troops fired. Estimates of the death toll were hugely exaggerated at the time, but the main Soviet source estimated ISO200 dead and 450-800 injured. Professor Ascher puts it rather lower. Whatever the figures, the impact was enormous, and the outcry, at home and abroad, deafening. The British ambassador wrote home in disgust that a few London policemen could have controlled that crowd, and that the Tsar had missed the best opportunity of his reign. The government quickly realised that it must placate public opinion and the Tsar duly met a small delegation of workers. More importantly a number of commissions were established to investigate labour conditions. One, headed by Kokovtsov, duly proposed concessions, which were not implemented. The other, headed by Senator N.V. Shidlovsky, concentrated on St Petersburg, and, although it never properly met, was to have wide repercussions. Shidlovsky allowed workers in factories in the capital with over a hundred workers to elect their own delegates, who would in turn appoint those to sit on the committee. The workers responded with enormous enthusiasm, seeing this as a response to Gapon's petition. They immediately demanded the reinstatement of Gapon's Assembly, inviolability from arrest for delegates, and press reporting. Shidlovsky regarded their demands as unacceptable and the project was aborted, but the principle of elected representatives at factory level had been established, and many of those elected went on to lead factory committees and soviets later in the year.

As with Gapon the socialist parties at first tried to boycott Shidlovsky, to change their minds as worker enthusiasm became obvious. Revolutionary groups benefited from the events of Bloody Sunday, but not as much as frequently supposed. Gapon had fled abroad after January 9th and was to be assassinated the following year, but workers continued to organize themselves and many remained suspicious of intellectual interference. The immediate response to Bloody Sunday was a wave of strikes and demonstrations across the country. Factory committees formed at enterprise level, and by the summer trade unions were mushrooming everywhere. Worker leaders were often local figures, concentrating on local demands, and, even if members of the main revolutionary parties, were successful only so long as they concentrated on what their membership wanted. They could be former Zubatov activists, anarchists, leaders of existing mutual aid schemes, or nationalists in the minority areas, or merely a local charismatic worker. Demands were economic, often for human rights, or more educational opportunities or pensions, and where calls for a constituent assembly were added, the workers often told their employers to concentrate on the economic requests.

On February 18th, the Tsar ordered A.G. Bulygin, the new minister of internal affairs, to draw up plans for a representative assembly on a very limited franchise, and with a consultative role only. (When the final scheme emerged in August it was obviously far too conservative to have any impact.) He also encouraged petitions to the government with suggestions for reform. The result was a flood of paper, from intellectuals, zemstvos, and, above all, from peasants. The zemslvos, until now seen as the conservative wing of liberalism, veered sharply to the left over 1905, calling for a legislative assembly with male adult suffrage, and civil freedoms. The Union of Unions, a non-party organization, which acted as an umbrella group for the thousands of newly formed trade and professional organizations, and was headed by the future Kadet (Constitutional Democrat) party leader, Paul Milyukov, was created during the petition movement. It had a membership of 100,000 by the late summer. Its policy, and that of the liberals as a whole, was 'no enemies on the left'.

From Bloody Sunday until October all sections of society stood united against the government. Lawyers promised full solidarity, including sanctioning the SR policy of assassinations, with the revolutionaries, to force a constitution; white collar workers formed trade unions and supported a general strike; doctors refused to co-operate with the government over a cholera epidemic, and the Kadets, when the party was founded in October, talked of universal suffrage, and some even called for a republic and votes for women. The Kadets had much popular support, with a radical programme and over 350 local branches by 1906. Schoolchildren came out on strike, and students, when the government made the mistake of closing the universities, acted as messengers for the revolutionary parties. Some landowners even supported peasant revolts. The All Russian Peasant Union, a non-violent body, acted under the patronage of the Imperial Agricultural Society. A few industrialists paid strike pay, formed protective militias of their labour force against so-called 'Black Hundred' mobs, and, occasionally, for example, the textile magnate Sawa Morozov, gave money to revolutionary funds.

Description: View Image - Naval students demonstrating in St Petersburg, October 18th, 1905.

Description: View Image - TIMELINE

Description: View Image - Barricades formed from upturned trams and iron railings in Niejinskaia Street, Odessa, October 1905. Protests took place in the city throughout the year.

Peasant revolt started by the summer, with the peasants, as was clear from their petitions, demanding land, reduction of rents and taxes, and the abolition of redemption payments. Most violent were the peripheries of the empire, especially in the national minority areas. In towns like Tbilisi or Baku or Odessa racial conflict added to class conflict, and could be antisemitic or anti-Armenian or just anti-foreign, and workers organized on national rather than on class lines. The Caucasus was particularly volatile, with the government losing control of major cities and parts of the countryside by the autumn. Guria, in Georgia, influenced, unusually for a rural area, by the Mensheviks, became famous, with the peasants ousting government representatives, refusing to pay taxes and demanding to run their own affairs. The breakdown of law and order and the rise of crime and what contemporaries called 'hooliganism' added to the general disruption. The climax of the year came in October with a general strike, which paralysed the entire country. It started with a printers' strike in Moscow on September 20th, and spread quickly to the capital and to the railway network. On October 13th, St Petersburg created a soviet of workers' deputies, not the first but by far the most important. During the general strike it effectively ran the capital, organising its own militia, bakeries, press and sanitation. With Trotsky as one of its leading lights, it included party members, but was mainly run by worker delegates. By November there were over eighty soviets across the country, including several peasant soviets and three soldier ones. They became effective local governments on a city or district basis, sometimes controlling the railway network around them.

Description: View Image - The Workers Council of St Petersburg whose members were sent to Siberia after the Soviet was disbanded in December 1905. Leon Trotsky is marked with a cross.

In the midst of this breakdown of authority it was clear that the government had to act. The Tsar would have preferred some form of military dictatorship, but was persuaded by his chief minister Sergei Witte, back from negotiating the peace of Portsmouth with the Japanese, that concessions were necessary. The October Manifesto essentially accepted the main zemstvo demands, a representative assembly with some legislative power, an extension of the Bulygin franchise to include peasants and some workers, although on an indirect voting system, and freedom of speech, religion and association. Above all, and this was the important clause which was to be severely modified when the Duma met the following April, no bill was to become law without Duma consent. As Nicholas recognised, this effectively ended autocracy, although the word 'constitution' was not used. The Manifesto split the united opposition. It was not everything the liberals wanted, but it was seen as enough, and class attitudes increasingly hardened. Celebratory demonstrations took place across the empire, but were often disrupted by right-wing, promonarchist, rival marches, leading to violence and often to pogroms. Odessa, which had suffered major antisemitic riots in mid-summer, in the aftermath of the 'Battleship Potemkin mutiny, saw renewed pogroms in October, together with other southern cities. Peasant revolt merely increased, as the peasants interpreted the document as a licence to seize land.

Description: View Image - Demonstration in Moscow during a general strike, October 1905.

November and December heightened the revolution, and increased class conflict. On December 2nd, the St Petersburg soviet urged a run on the banks. This failed, but the executive committee was arrested. A call for a new general strike had little impact, but in December a series of armed uprisings occurred throughout the country, the most famous in Moscow, where the Bolsheviks took their only real initiative of the year. It was put down, with great bloodshed, by loyal troops brought in on the only railway line not on strike. Army mutinies also increased, but on the whole the troops remained loyal. In towns across the country soviets took control of their cities, or of workers districts, and declared themselves 'republics', expelling government representatives and declaring autonomy. Novorossisk, Yekaterinoslav, Rostov and others were all under 'people power' for a few days or weeks until the army moved in.

In many ways this demand for autonomy, whether from national minority areas, or from individual towns and districts, was what characterised 1905 as a revolution. As with other 'times of troubles' in Russian history - the mid-seventeenth century, the civil war, or after 1991, the empire fragmented as central power weakened. As the workers of Gapon's assembly had put it in January 1905, 'Russia is too great, its needs too varied and profuse, to be governed by bureaucrats alone. Popular representation is essential. The people must help themselves and govern themselves'. At a local level during 1905 they tried to do so. The central authorities gradually regained control during the following months, but the demands of 1905, and the organizations formed during it, resurfaced twelve years later.

Description: View Image - The statesman Sergei Witte, who drafted the October Manifesto.



A.Ascher, The Revolution of 1905. vol .I.Russia in Disarray (Stanford, l988);Moira Donald, 'Russia 1905:the Forgotten Revolution', in M. Donald and T. Rees (ed), Reinterpreting Revolution in Twentieth Century Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001 ); P. Waldron, The End of Imperial Russia (London, 1997); G. Suhr, 1905 in St Petersburg: Labour, Society and Revolution (Stanford, 1989);W. Sablinsky, The Rood to Bloody Sunday (Princeton, 1976); Ed. L H. Siegelbaum and R.G. Suny, Making Workers Soviet: Power, Class and Identity (Cornell, 1994);A.J. Heywood and J. D. Smele (ed), The Russian Revolution of 1905 (Centenary Perspectives, 2005, forthcoming).


Charlotte Alston,'Witnessing a Revolution' (January 2005); AlanWood.'Russia 1905: Dress Rehearsal for Revolution' (August 1981);Edward Acton,'Imperial Russia: Marxism a Ia Carte' (August 1991 ); D.A. Longley/Makers of the Twentieth Century: Lenin', (April 1980); For access to these and other articles see and click on Editor's Choice.


Beryl Williams is Emeritus Reader in History at the University of Sussex and the author of Lenin (Longman, 2000).

Indexing (details)




Publication title







Number of pages


Publication year


Publication date

May 2005






History Today Ltd.

Place of publication


Country of publication

United Kingdom





Source type

Scholarly Journals

Language of publication


Document type


Document feature



Russian Revolution, Social impact, Massacres, Economic conditions, Royalty, Demonstrations & protests

ProQuest document ID


Document URL


Copyright History Today Ltd. May 2005

Last updated



2 databases

View list