Russian Revolution (1905)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Russian Revolution of 1905

Dramatic shift in governing authority from the czar to something closer to a constitutional monarchy, the result of a two-year-long process of popular upheaval involving labor and general strikes, demonstrations, and the creation of alternative political institutions. The revolution in 1905 did not remove the czar — that would wait until 1917 — but it marked the end of monarchical absolutism in Russia.

The underlying causes of the revolution were the social, economic, and political problems that had been festering in Russia for a generation and more. The state had long been struggling under the strains of rapid industrial growth, an anachronistic and depressed agricultural system, and the government’s need to integrate or control the diverse peoples of the Russian Empire. Labor responded to its dire conditions at the turn of the century with an increasing resort to strikes. Between 1895 and 1904, for example, 1,765 separate strikes are reported to have taken place. Similarly, Russian peasants, constituting five-sixths of the empire’s total population, suffered increasingly under conditions of land scarcity, an inefficient system of communal farming, and crippling taxes that ultimately financed the burgeoning industrial infrastructure. Outbursts of peasant violence usually were directed against the landed nobility, from whom most of their lands were leased or to whom they owed “redemption dues” for the land they worked.

Opposition organizations and movements had begun to form in response to the state’s failure to adjust to the new realities of industrialization. Labor sought the creation of unions (although most of these organizations remained illegal). Revolutionary and liberal political organizations emerged — such as the radical populist Social Revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks led by V.I. Lenin, and liberal reformers sympathetic with the ideas of Social Democracy from Western Europe.

January 1904 was a critical month for the Russian autocracy. The First Congress of the Union of Liberation met to elect a council that immediately began to plan an action program designed to bring liberal opposition out of the shadows of Russian life. The union was a body of liberal professionals and intellectuals with political roots in the zemstvos, the organizations of provincial and county self-government created in the reforms of Czar Alexander II. They proposed to hold a series of public banquets that would be used as pseudo-political forums. It was planned that petitions would emerge from them, addressed to various branches of the government, embodying the liberal agenda of four-tailed suffrage (universal, secret, direct, and equal), a constituent assembly, and basic civil rights.

The banquets originally were planned to be held on or around February 19, the anniversary of the emancipation of the Russian serfs in 1861, but with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War on January 27, the events were postponed until November. At the end of the year, thirty-eight such banquets were held between November 5, 1904, and January 8, 1905 — the eve of Bloody Sunday.

Father Gapon on Bloody Sunday, January 1905Simultaneous with the liberal banquets were other events that increased tensions. On December 5 and 6 student demonstrations in Moscow were attacked by Cossacks and brutally dispersed. On the twentieth Port Arthur was surrendered to the Japanese after a costly struggle, in what could be construed as a cowardly act by the Russian high command. It was in this highly charged and expectant atmosphere that the drama of Bloody Sunday was about to take place. In addition, on January 2, 1905, a strike broke out at the Putilov shipbuilding and arms enterprise in St. Petersburg. Other enterprises came out in support of the Putilov workers and additional demands were advanced.

As the strike spread, one of the leaders, Father Georgii Gapon, decided it was time to unveil his idea of a petition to the czar. The procession began as planned, with an estimated 150,000 participants leaving from each of the assembly branches, intending to converge on the Winter Palace square by different routes at two in the afternoon. The crowds were weaponless and reverential, as instructed. They carried icons, portraits of Nicholas and his ancestors, and sang hymns. The various branches were all stopped by military contingents along the way and told to disperse. When the crowds pressed on, they were in several cases broken up by cavalry charges, using whips, clubs, and the flats of swords. Some gave up, frustrated, while others proceeded by smaller groups and circuitous routes to eventually reach the square itself.

The shooting began against branches of the march that were stopped fairly close to the center of St. Petersburg, including the branch led by Gapon himself. Disbelief turned to horror and rage as workers, with wives and children among them, found themselves under armed attack by the czar’s own elite guard units. Those who made it to the Winter Palace were attacked and driven out of the square in the late afternoon. In the end, perhaps as many as two hundred marchers were killed, and another eight hundred wounded.

The decline of the emperor’s prestige that followed Bloody Sunday continued throughout the spring and summer of 1905, as new opposition organizations emerged and more and more of society aligned itself against the government. The Union of Liberation held its second congress in March, and the Second Zemstvo Congress convened in April.

By May there were enough unions or proto-unions to form a national Union of Unions, made up primarily of professional and white-collar organizations. The central bureau of the Union of Unions, directed by Pavel Milyukov of the Union of Liberation, would presumably be capable of coordinating strike activity in the pursuance of broad political objectives. In late May it announced its support for “any and all means of struggle.”

Also in May the first citywide workers’ council, or soviet, was formed in Ivanovo Voznesensk, a short way from St. Petersburg. A unique feature of the soviets, as they developed here and elsewhere, was that as the new repositories of authority for the working class, they began to usurp and exercise some of the normal prerogatives of the government. By arrogating authority and exercising power, they began to provide a kind of parallel government during the latter stages of the conflict, fulfilling vital functions and setting policies for the areas under their control. At their inception, the soviets had no exclusive ideological commitments, and were genuinely democratic vehicles of worker self-organization.

The Russian Revolution of 1905The last great strike wave of 1905 began on September 19, when printers at the Sypin press struck for an increase in wages and were supported by the newly formed Moscow Printers Union, which called out the rest of the city’s printers on the following day, Harcave writes that “within ten days they were joined by the city’s bakers, wood workers, machine tool workers, textile workers, tobacco workers, and workers from the railroad shops.” On October 2, the Moscow Soviet, comprising representatives of five trades, was formed. Its task would be to direct the strike, which by that time seemed to be losing energy in Moscow.

The impulse to strike had spread to St. Petersburg, however. Printers there struck in sympathy with the Moscow printers, and a few large factories joined them. The momentum proved sufficient to keep the strike movement going. On October 4, the Central Bureau of the Union of Railroad Workers in Moscow called for a work stoppage. This proved to be the crucial step in extending the strike throughout the empire. Moscow was the hub of the entire Russian railway system. Its shutdown sent an irresistible message far and wide. By October 8, the strike had spread to Nizhny-Novgorod, Riazansk, Yaroslavl, Kursk, and the Urals railway system, eventually including 26,000 miles of railway line and 750,000 workers. Telegraph and telephone services shut down along with the trains, and by October 10, when a general strike was declared in Moscow and the major cities of the Baltic region joined in the movement, all normal communication in the empire had ceased.

The Great October Strike was the first of its kind and scale in history. Yet it lacked the benefit of any prior planning. Many authors have used the words “contagion” and “infection” to describe what happened, but the biological analogy is faulty in at least one respect. While germs travel from one individual to another, strikes spread by occupational groups. It is hard to imagine October 1905 without the preceding months of organization building and unionization. The St. Petersburg Soviet, convened on October 13, was but a continuation of this trend. Everywhere members of society were exercising power collectively. Even the corps de ballet in the capital went on strike. Finally, the government realized it was faced with a serious challenge to its existence.

Czar Nicholas II consulted his chief ministers on October 14 and 15. One by one, they acknowledged that the situation was beyond their control. General Trepov opined that the armed force at his command would be sufficient to put down an armed uprising in the capital, but not enough to restore railroad traffic or to quell the widespread strike. Sergei Witte, the czar’s minister of finance, could see only two alternatives. Either the czar could appoint a military dictator with unlimited power who would not hesitate to crush every sign of opposition, or he could announce the first really meaningful political reforms. Witte favored the latter, which could only amount, at this stage, to the summoning of a true constituent assembly.

Their collective admission that repression would produce “rivers of blood” and might lead only to a repetition of the cycle of the previous year shows that Nicholas, in the face of widely dispersed resistance, finally accepted that there were limits to his repressive power. It was this realization that led him to order Witte to draft the imperial manifesto of October 17. Taken at face value, the manifesto looked like a complete capitulation to the extreme liberal agenda. Its provisions were as follows:

(1) To grant the people the unshakable foundations of civic freedom on the basis of genuine personal inviolability, freedom of conscience, speech, assembly, and association; (2) to admit immediately to participation in the State Duma, without suspending the scheduled elections and in so far as it is feasible in the brief period remaining before the convening of the Duma, those classes of the population that are now completely deprived of electoral rights, leaving the further development of new legislative order; and (3) to establish as an inviolable rule that no law may go into force without the consent of the State Duma and that the representatives of the people must be guaranteed the opportunity of effective participation in the supervision of the legality of the actions performed by our appointed officials.

The October strike was losing steam, however, at the time the manifesto was issued. A unified, confident movement might have recognized an opportunity at this critical moment and declared itself victorious. After all, the manifesto represented significant change, and it had been coerced out of the government by widespread popular noncooperation. If the czar was going to play himself false, why not let him do it after the movement had time to recoup its resources, and could thus repeat the October strike performance at full strength the moment the terms of the manifesto were threatened? But the movement was not united and there is no evidence that anyone was reasoning along these lines.

Russia 1905At this juncture, the leading opposition organ contending for power and legitimacy was the St. Petersburg Soviet. Having managed to perpetuate itself beyond the end of the strike, it took several initiatives in the final weeks of 1905 that forced the government’s hand and impelled the crisis toward its conclusion. Shortly after the manifesto the soviet declared an end to censorship. This was not an idle boast. Printers, responsive to the call, simply refused to print anything that had gone through the censors’ hands. Less successful was the attempt to initiate the eight-hour day in the same manner. Workers who walked off the job after completing eight hours were subjected to lockouts and soon gave up the tactic. The defeat left the soviet needing to prove its strength again.

The St. Petersburg Soviet issued its response to these measures on December 2. Its “Financial Manifesto” amounted to a declaration of economic warfare against the government, so long as it remained “in open war against the whole nation.” The manifesto called for mass refusal to pay taxes or government debts, insistence on gold as the medium for all major transactions, and the withdrawal (in gold) of all deposits in government banks. The government recognized this as the soviets’ most serious threat since mid-October and acted accordingly. The papers that had published the “Financial Manifesto” were forcibly closed and their editors arrested. The next day the soviet’s meeting place was surrounded by a massive armed force, and 250 arrests were made. These included all elected deputies to the soviet and most of its executive committee.

Members of the committee who remained free called for a new empire-wide general strike to begin on December 8. The Moscow Soviet followed suit with a call to strike on the seventh, and accepted a Menshevik proposal that the strike would ultimately become an armed uprising. (The Bolsheviks had wanted to begin both simultaneously.) The strike took hold in all of the major cities of the empire within a week. It was less comprehensive than the first general strike, but much more bitter and militant.

The violent uprising turned out to be quixotic in the extreme. It began when small groups of armed workers, incensed by attempts to arrest the Moscow Soviet on December 8, erected barricades on the main streets of Moscow and began exchanging fire with the police. The violent uprising was consistent with Bolshevik theories of how change would come, but it never had popular support, and did not spread to other cities. Although two thirds of the troops garrisoned in Moscow were deemed unreliable, those remaining, with some reinforcement, were sufficient to defeat the two thousand or so rebels in just over a week. With a thousand civilians dead and their stronghold in the Presnya district shelled nearly out of existence, the Moscow Soviet halted violent resistance and called off the strike on the nineteenth.

By the spring and summer of 1906, the most important reforms gained in the czar’s October Manifesto largely evaporated. Unions were legalized, improvements were made in the legal status of certain minorities, and significant improvements were made in the system of land tenure. But the elections provided only limited expansion of suffrage and the Duma remained highly circumscribed by the czar’s retention of powers to veto its decisions, dissolve the body, and declare martial law. As a result, the social tensions that had generated the previous two years of popular mobilization were left unresolved and the potential for moderate reform diminished.

Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about the Russian Revolution of 1905
  • Ackerman, Peter, and Christopher Kruegler. Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.
  • Bonnell, Victoria E. Roots of Rebellion: Workers, Politics and Organization in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
  • Harcave, Sidney. First Blood: The Russian Revolution of 1905. New York: Macmillan, 1964.
  • Sablinsky, Walter. The Road to Bloody Sunday: Father Gapon and the St. Petersburg Massacre of 1905. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.
  • Ulam, Adam. Russia’s Failed Revolutions. New York: Basic, 1981.
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