Russia's 1st Revolution
Morison, John, History Review
Russia remained quiescent during 1848, Europe's turbulent year of revolutions. Yet this was as much a tribute to its backwardness as to the repressive capacity of its regime. It was very different by the end of the century. Russia's humiliation in the Crimean War (1853-56) threatened its great power status. Whereas Peter the Great had an absolutist model to follow in the ruthless centralisation that made Russia into a great power, Alexander II (Tsar in 1855-81) was reluctant to embrace a democratic model for his post-Crimean reform process. He hoped to combine the retention of political absolutism in its Russian autocratic form with economic and social modernisation. This reformed autocratic model was surprisingly successful if judged in such terms as economic growth, educational expansion and public health improvements. However, it was accompanied by a changing and underlying pattern of social tensions.
The towns: growth and unrest
A torrent of state encouraged but privately organised railway construction in the 1860s and 1870s was followed by a sustained state-sponsored campaign. Railways, along with the telegraph, facilitated and speeded the transmission of news, information and ideas, not all supportive of the established order. Railways were the motor of industrial development, not only creating a large new demand for coal, steel rails and rolling stock but also facilitating the movement of raw materials and finished goods. They accelerated urbanisation as expanding trade and new industries were supported by a flood of migrants from the countryside both into existing towns and into new urban settlements. New rail links with the grain-producing provinces of black soil Russia thus made Odessa into a great grain exporting port and a trade and industrial centre for the south. A state contract for the production of rails enabled the Welsh entrepreneur John Hughes to build his own factory town, Iuzovka, which developed into the modern steel city of Donetsk. The urban population doubled from 7.3 to 14.6 million between 1867 and 1897. Barracks in factory compounds, doss houses and shanty towns were thrown up to accommodate the new arrivals in appalling and overcrowded conditions. Up to ten persons could be crammed into a room in St. Petersburg. The elected municipal authorities had their hands tied by central government and were unable to provide adequate transport, drainage and sewerage facilities or pure water supplies. Typhus, cholera and other diseases flourished and syphilis became rampant as the number of prostitutes grew to cater for the sexual appetites of the inflow of young, unattached males.
The factories and workshops which sucked in the new arrivals from the villages were harsh and uninviting places. The migrants were confronted by an unrelenting work regime of long hours and harsh discipline, very different from that of the countryside. They deeply resented the arbitrary fines and petty injustices, and being addressed in the familiar form, reminiscent of the days of serfdom. Wages might be higher than rural earnings, but so were outgoings. Frustration at expectations which were not met were compounded by problems of adjustment, insecurity and perceived injustices. The migrants tended to be the younger and more literate peasants, who were more open to outside influences. They brought with them a tradition of violence from the villages where horse thieves were routinely lynched, and a favourite pastime was the ritual punch-up between the youths of rival villages. Often vodka-fuelled, this was an explosive cocktail. Increasing labour unrest accompanied industrial growth. Initially strikes tended to be localised, based on specific grievances, confined to individual workshops rather than whole factories, and short in duration. The large-scale strike of the St. Petersburg textile workers in 1896 was a turning point in the development of a more coherent workers' movement which was beginning also to embrace political objectives under the influence of increasing agitation by revolutionary groups and of its own experience.
The countryside: land problems
To an outsider's eye, the villages from which the new industrial workers had come might seem to be sunk in backwardness, but they were not immune from change. Serfdom was ended in the 1860s in the post-Crimean trauma, as both privately owned and state serfs received their personal freedom. The root institution of the old social order was thus removed, opening the way for the development of a modern society, with equality of opportunity and of rights replacing systematised stratification and subordination. However, emancipation was in reality only partial. The autocrat feared the social consequences of an uncontrolled influx into the cities, and hence made it very difficult for the peasants to leave the village. They received land, but collectively rather than individually, and in inadequate quantities. To add insult to injury, they had to pay for what they considered to be rightfully theirs. The inability of many gentry landowners to survive without ready supplies of free labour helped many peasants to lease or even buy more land. Nevertheless there was a genuine land hunger, compounded by an explosion in the rural population which significantly reduced the area available per head. The land problem was a festering grievance, with the peasants convinced that, like air and water, it was God's gift to man and should be distributed equitably among those who worked it.
Whatever the peasants may have thought, it is often argued that the root of the problem lay not in the quantity of land at the disposal of the peasants but in the manner in which it was tilled. A commission under Count Witte concluded in 1903 that the communal system, which tied the peasantry into inefficient strip farming, should be replaced by individual ownership. The industrious and enterprising would no longer be held back by their more traditional fellows, and the pressure on land would be eased, if restrictions on movement were removed. It took a revolution for these views to be accepted on high, but serious peasant disturbances in three provinces in 1902-3 showed clearly that trouble was brewing in the countryside. Traditional explanations have focused on land grievances, compounded by a crisis of peasant agriculture dramatically demonstrated by the widespread famine of 1891. Some historians have challenged the extent to which this was a crisis, arguing that famine resulted from drought rather than the failings of peasant agricultural methods, that the fall in world grain prices had a marginal impact on the peasantry, who were purchasers rather than sellers of export grains, and that the new indirect taxes fell most heavily on the urban population. But there was certainly a crisis in gentry agriculture, which impacted on the peasantry. Peasants had to pay more for land they rented. Landowners enclosed common pasture land and ended traditional wood gathering rights in woodlands. Breaches of customary rights multiplied, raising the peasants' sense of grievance to dangerous levels.
Modernisation led to the emergence of new social groups who were to lead the political challenge to the autocracy in 1905. The judicial reforms of 1864 not only elevated law as an independent check on autocratic action but also developed a new class of lawyers resolved to uphold the rule of law against administrative arbitrariness. Local government reforms produced new elected zemstvo institutions which encouraged constitutional achievements and achieved significant advances in rural education and public health. In so doing, they created a new class of professional employees whose professional frustration at bureaucratic obstruction to their work fuelled their increasing wish to achieve political change.
The zemstvo movement, an alliance of enlightened gentry, lawyers, doctors, professors, teachers and other professionals, was to provide the organisational basis for a constitutional movement that became more radical as hard-line officials of the regime reacted by trying to undo the reforms and reassert firm central control. It was not wise for Nicholas II (Tsar 1899-1917) to dismiss as `senseless dreams' moderate constitutional aspirations. This challenge was taken up by university students in 1899 and then increasingly by unions of other professionals. The constitutional movement in its earlier stages would have been satisfied by a national consultative assembly, but soon came to demand a fully fledged legislative assembly elected by universal suffrage, which in the context was a revolutionary demand. Social modernisation had bred new social groups whose aspirations for rights and opportunities such as were enjoyed by their peers in Western Europe clashed with the political immobility of the regime.
Nationalism and ethnic conflict had been a potent force in the 1848 revolutions. The same was to be true of Russia in 1905.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Russia had expanded its frontiers to become a vast land empire, containing well over 100 ethnic groups with a bewildering diversity of languages and beliefs. These groups varied enormously, from sophisticated peoples like the Poles and Finns with a distinct national history to nomadic groups in Central Asia and the Far East. In these circumstances, a consistent imperial policy or ideology was hardly to be expected, and Russian policy tended to be reactive and so inconsistent, with much depending on the initiative of local officials. The needs of the state demanded assimilation of the local peoples into the administration, but this helped to create local intelligentsias and to develop national consciousness as the populace became more educated. In reaction to this, and also as a consequence of fast developing Russian nationalism, moves were made in some areas to impose Russian culture, language and Orthodoxy.
This russification process was deeply resented. But growing national tensions in the Empire also resulted from inter-ethnic rivalries and hatreds such as between Armenians and turkic Azeris in Baku. Perhaps most widespread and dangerous of all was the Judaeophobia which lurked close to the surface in the western provinces in which the six million Jews of the Empire were concentrated. Incited by the anti-Semitic outpourings of a local newspaper editor, a mob fell upon the large local Jewish population, looting, assaulting, raping and murdering, in the infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903.
The Triggers to Revolution
Russian society greeted the new century in a high state of tension, which was to be increased by the impact of economic recession. Tension was turned into revolution by the onset of war, and by governmental dithering, in 1904. Russian challenges to perceived Japanese spheres of influence in Southern Manchuria and Korea led directly to conflict and a series of humiliating Russian defeats. Initial popular enthusiasm was soon dissipated, and disillusionment bred disorder. The war exacerbated national tensions as Poles and Finns resented enforced conscription to fight a Russian war. Russia's industrial recession worsened and the regime was branded as incompetent and unworthy. As over a million reservists were called up, the impact on civilian society was unprecedented in its scale. Popular discontent was manifest on the streets but was also articulated by educated oppositionists. The regime was uncertain in its response. One wing of the government, personified by the Minister of the Interior, von Plehve, believed in an iron hand and harsh repression of disorders or dissent. But when a terrorist bomb destroyed yon Plehve on 15 July 1904, the Tsar listened to the conciliators, who included his mother, and appointed Count Sviatopolk-Mirskii as replacement. The conciliators believed in going at least half way to meet society by making sufficient concessions to achieve the co-operation of the developing liberal opposition. Since this opposition was by now for the most part demanding a legislative assembly and a fully constitutional regime, and was working with revolutionaries in the Union of Liberation, this was a forlorn hope. Sviatopolk-Mirskii's modest concessions satisfied no one, but encouraged the opposition to become bolder. The zemstvo congress and the reform banquets which he permitted became political events of huge significance and provoked an open clash between society and the regime.
Students took the protest onto the streets, to be followed by industrial workers. Prominent among the latter were strikers from the giant Putilov works in St. Petersburg, who were protesting against victimisation of members of their Workers' Assembly. Their charismatic leader, Father Gapon, a worker priest, was influenced by negotiations behind the scenes with liberals and revolutionaries to organise a petition to the Tsar which would add to routine economic demands a call for a constituent assembly elected by universal suffrage. Frightened lest events should spiral out of control, the Tsar ordered his troops to use the necessary force to disperse the enormous crowd of marchers. The resulting Bloody Sunday massacre of 9 January 1905 was counter-productive. It provoked sympathy strikes and demonstrations in many, though far from all, cities of the Empire and became a symbolic event of huge significance.
The Revolutionary Crescendo
In confronting this crisis, the regime continued to waver between repression and concession, as the situation moved further and further out of its control. Yet more street massacres enraged citizens in a variety of cities through the Empire, with the death of demonstrating schoolchildren in Kursk in February evoking a particularly horrified reaction. Simultaneous concessions were too halfhearted to satisfy the fast growing popular expectations. An elected consultative assembly, the so-called Bulygin Duma, would have seemed a radical transformation of the regime even a year earlier, but now it forced liberals into alliance with the lower orders to achieve a revolutionary resolution of the crisis. The Shidlovskii Commission was set up to investigate the workers' grievances but was not allowed to solve them. The commission was outlived by the elected workers' committees which it had established in the factories and so ironically created an organisational basis for the workers' unions which were to play a key role in the revolutionary situation.
In the spring and summer of 1905, the government seemed increasingly to be losing control of the situation, just as it was being humiliated by the Japanese in the Far East. The loss of the Russian fleet in the Straits of Tsushima on 14 May was the final straw as popular protest against defeat reached a crescendo.
The whole of Russian society seemed to be organising itself into professional unions, workers' associations and unions, peasants' unions and all manner of sectional groups which were striking out for remedy of their particular grievances. Factory workers demanded better wages and conditions, an 8-hour day, respectful treatment by employers and an end to arbitrary fines. Peasants showed their resentment at arbitrary interference with their customary rights by enclosures of woods and pasturelands, and voiced their belief that the land, like air and water, was God's gift to those who actually worked it but not to absentee or idle landlords. Non-Russians demanded rights for their own languages and faiths, but generally aspired to some degree of autonomy rather than to full-blown national independence. Bishops wanted restoration of the autonomy of the Orthodox Church; some of the lower clergy hoped to see the privileges of the bishops clipped. Schoolteachers wanted better pay and job security, but also a free school in a free society, or in other words full professional autonomy. Shop staff demanded proper holidays, Old Believers and other sectarians called for an end to discriminatory legislation, and some women voiced aspirations for equality of rights.
Every corner of Russian society seemed to be on the march to achieve its own particular objectives. The methods used varied from petitions, peaceful demonstrations and strikes in the cities to illegal gathering of timber and pasturing of livestock and withholding of rent in the countryside. As the year progressed, so violence became an increasing feature. `The red cock crowed' in the villages as peasants burned down gentry houses, whilst Socialist Revolutionary assassins and ordinary citizens took vengeance on hated local officials. Demonstrations could easily turn into looting expeditions, particularly when there was a local Jewish population to intimidate.
Autocracy in danger
The unfolding events of 1905 served as a political education to the population. The lowest common denominator was a demand for basic civil rights, such as freedom of assembly and the press. But soon nearly all the new professional unions were demanding a fully-fledged constitutional system with an elected legislative assembly in control. This call was taken up by many workers' unions, and even by peasant unions and petitions. On 27 August the government foolishly reopened the universities as totally autonomous institutions. This gesture of conciliation backfired as troops and police were forced to stand helplessly outside the university gates as crowds of workers, revolutionaries and oppositionists swept in to hold fiery meetings and to store arms. This anarchic epidemic of meetings led directly to the general strike of October 1905, hailed by Abraham Ascher as `a classic example of a momentous historical event that developed spontaneously'.
As the country ground to a halt, the railways, telegraph, telephones, gas and electricity and post offices ceased to work. The general strike became a direct political challenge to the autocracy as Soviets or councils sprang up in the cities, as well as in some regiments and rural communities. These elected bodies of deputies assumed leadership of the struggle, with the St. Petersburg Soviet regarding itself as a direct rival to the government. The fate of the autocracy seemed to be in doubt as threats merely provoked even greater crowds of demonstrators into defiance, and the troops were showing signs of disloyalty. A repressive military dictatorship was seriously considered, but ruled out as too risky. The Tsar was reluctantly persuaded to appoint his former finance minister Count Witte, whom he had never liked or trusted, as the head of a reformist ministry, and to issue his famous October Manifesto. This effectively promised a constitution, with civil liberties and a legislative assembly elected on a relatively wide if far from universal franchise.
Witte, having already extricated Russia from its disastrous war with Japan by negotiating the decidedly lenient Treaty of Portsmouth on 25 August 1905, now emerged as the saviour of autocracy, albeit with its wings clipped. The immediate impact of the Manifesto was far from calming. Although moderate oppositionists reacted positively, large numbers were only encouraged to push for a much more radical solution. They were countered by patriotic demonstrators who proclaimed their loyalty to the Tsar by assaulting identifiable constitutionalists and going on the rampage. The violence, in particular against the Jews, was frightening. Witte kept his nerve and combined modest reform with resolute repression of disorder. Mutinies among conscripts returning from the Far East were alarming, but were mostly in Siberia, and at the key points the troops remained loyal. A renewed general strike in November attracted less support. Becoming desperate, radicals and revolutionaries became more militant and staked all on an unsuccessful armed uprising in Moscow in December. The tide had turned, even if disorders continued through 1906 and 1907, particularly in the countryside and the borderlands.
The summoning of the firsts two Dumas, or parliaments, provoked a flurry of politicking and the emergence of political parties. Both Dumas were dominated by radical liberals and revolutionaries, but soon overreached themselves and were summarily dismissed by the Tsar. Witte had departed, but the Tsar found a new strong man in Stolypin, who used field courts martial to extinguish the last of the revolutionary stirrings and to exact revenge. He also tamed the potential political threat of the Duma by his constitutional coup of 3 June 1907, which drastically restricted the franchise and transformed the political composition of the Duma, to change it from a dangerous rival into a relatively tame partner.
Contrary to the views of some historians, Russia underwent a genuine revolution in the years 1904-1907. Wide swathes of the population were involved in spontaneous demonstrations and actions, and developed organisational forms which challenged the regime and came close to achieving its total destruction. Educated professionals even more than revolutionaries articulated mass aspirations in a formidably broad-based coalition of opposition. For all its indecision, the regime survived because it still retained the will to resist, along with the means in the shape of sufficient loyal troops and policemen, in stark contrast to February 1917. And when it came to the point, most of educated Russia also feared the anarchic violence of the inflamed lower orders. But Russia had changed irreversibly. The experiences of the revolution had turned ordinary Russians into politically aware persons, and the concessions extracted and retained enabled the fundaments of a civil society to be established.
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V.E. Bonnell, Roots of Rebellion (Berkeley, Calif., 1983).
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T. Shanin, The Roots of Otherness, 2 vols. (New Haven, Conn., 1986).
A.M. Verner, The Crisis of Russian Autocracy: Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution (Princeton, N.J., 1990)
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J.N. Westwood, Russia against Japan, 1904-1905 (Basingstoke and London, 1986)
John Morison is Senior Lecturer in Russian and East European History at the University of Leeds. He is currently writing a book on the 1905 Revolution for Routledge.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Russia's 1st Revolution. Contributors: Morison, John - Author. Journal title: History Review. Publication date: December 2000. Page number: 28. © 1999 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.