RUSSIA 1905 Williams, Beryl. History Today 55. 5 (May 2005): 44-51.



Hannah Arendt defines revolution as a spontaneous, popular upheaval, during which new forms of self-government were developed from below.


1.  What were the causes of the revolution?


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. de Tocqueville pointed out that revolutions tend to happen at a time of an improving economy  combined with rapid and unsettling social change rather than at a time of grinding poverty.

  • Russian agricultural output was increasing. 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 now enabled easy transport of goods and people. Young men left their villages to work in the cities, but ninety-two per cent of Moscow workers still had regular contact with their villages in 1905. They had not become a full-time proletariat.
  • New wealth, concentrated in the hands of industrialists, helped the modernization of cities.
  • A nascent civil society and a vibrant cultural scene were developing.
  • Industrial growth rate of 8 or 9 per cent throughout the 1890s
  • 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


However, the overall economic growth in the 1890's did not apply to everyone, or every area, of the huge empire.

  • A 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
  • St Petersburg had the reputation of being the most expensive, worst-governed and most unhealthy city in Europe.
  • peasant revolts in 1902-03, strikes increased, and opposition movements became more organized. The Union of Liberation, the Social Democratic party (SDs) and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs)


2. What was the character of the revolution? Who were its leaders? 

  • 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.
  • Workers  supported government-sponsored schemes of police trade unionism. The Zubatov movement: a legal forum for protest, even occasionally allowing strikes: the very success of the movement worried the government, which closed it down in 1903. 


3.  What precipitated the Bloody Sunday violence? (January 9th, 1905)

  • The management of the huge Putilov works in St Petersburg sacked four members of Gapon's Association, leading to a strike, which rapidly paralysed a large section of the capital.
  • Father George Gapon, a firm monarchist,  and his Assembly of Russian Working Men were allowed by 1904 to register with the city governor and given considerable autonomy.
  • a secret, more radical committee of 'worker assistants' within Gapon's organization was led by Aleksei Karelin, a reformist Social Democrats who broke from the party, and got support from workers by sticking primarily to economic rather than political issues. The Bolsheviks had no worker on their St Petersburg committee, and their leaflets were destroyed in the factories.
  • Father Gapon brought a petition to the Winter Palace with a list of worker demands. typical of worker demands throughout Russia in 1905.
    • Economic demands: 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.
    • Political demands:  a democratically elected constituent assembly, and freedom of speech, assembly and the right to form legal trade unions.  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 Tsar's Response: petitions to the Tsar were illegal….. The police and troops had been told by the minister of the interior to prevent the marchers from reaching their goal, and when requests for 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 200 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.


4.  In response to the international uproar, what reforms did the Tsar offer?

  • 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 central committee.
  • 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.
  • The Leaders: 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.

5. How did activists push the Tsar to accept a constitutional government?
  • The zemstvos, 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 Paul Milyukov),  who would lead the creation of the Kadets (Constitutional Democrat). The Kadets 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • October general strike paralysed the entire country.
  • 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.


5. The October Manifesto

  • Sergei Witte, back from negotiating the peace of Portsmouth with the Japanese, convinced the tsar 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


6. Conclusion:

  • the empire fragmented as central power weakened.
  • 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.