EVENTS BEFORE THE BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION

EVENTS BEFORE THE BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION

The defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war triggered widespread unrest and accelerated the rise of political movements among all classes and the major nationalities, including propertied Russians. There were strikes, mutinies, pogroms, lynching of landowners and industrialists and for a while anarchy ruled. There were severe anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia in 1903 and 1905-6. Vowing to "drown the revolution in Jewish blood," Russian Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve sent police and gangs of anti-Semites on a three-day pogrom through the town of Kishinev. Over 60 Jews were killed or injured and 500 Jewish homes were looted or destroyed.

By early 1904, Russian liberal activists from the zemstva and from the professions had formed an organization called the Union of Liberation. In the same year, they joined with Finns, Poles, Georgians, Armenians, and Russian members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party to form an antiautocratic alliance. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In January 1905, striking Russian workers marched on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, singing "God save the Tsar, to present a list of grievances to Nicholas II. According the some estimates the crowd was over 100,000 strong and included by women and children. Instead of being met by the tsar, who had left the city, the protesters were welcomed with a shower of bullets delivered by barricaded Cossack troops. The incident that became known as "Bloody Sunday." Disgust over the violence lead to an unsuccessful revolution later that year. Nicholas II was able to avoid an overthrow of his government by making concessions and establishing a relatively powerless Parliament (the Duma).

Bloody Sunday, combined with the embarrassing failures in the war with Japan prompted more strikes, agrarian disorders, army mutinies, and terrorist acts organized by opposition groups. Workers formed a council, or soviet, in St. Petersburg. Armed uprisings occurred in Moscow, the Urals, Latvia, and parts of Poland. Activists from the zemstva and the broad professional Union of Unions formed the Constitutional Democratic Party, whose initials lent the party its informal name, the Kadets. *

Russian Military in the Revolutionary Period

In the second half of the century, Russia waged a series of military campaigns to conquer the khanates of Central Asia, extending the empire and providing a domestic supply of cotton. With relatively little military resistance, the entire region had been incorporated into the empire by 1885. Russia's next military campaign, however, was not so reassuring. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 brought stunning defeats on land and at sea, capped by the naval Battle of Tsushima in which the Russian Baltic Fleet was decimated (see the Russo-Japanese War). Like the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War was a signal that Russia's war machine was not keeping pace with the modern world. Ten years later, World War I would confirm that evaluation, as an inept defense administration and poorly equipped troops suffered heavy losses to the Germans. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Despite those failures, it was growing dissatisfaction on the home front that ultimately undermined Russia's military effort in World War I. Under the direct command of the tsar, the army actually performed quite well in 1916, but by 1917 the war effort had crippled civilian society and readied Russia for the overthrow of the tsar. As the home front faltered in its moral and material support of the military, the results of 1916 were reversed. The Provisional Government that followed the tsar in 1917 was determined to continue the war; that policy was a major factor in the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in toppling the Provisional Government only eight months after it took power. *

Bloody Sunday: the Unsuccessful 1905 Revolution

Father Georgiy Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest who headed a police-sponsored workers' association, led the huge, peaceful march in January 1905 in St. Petersburg tsar that morphed into Bloody Sunday after nervous troops responded to the throng with gunfire. Hundreds died. By on estimate one thousand strikers were killed and another thousand were injured

Describing his experience on Bloody Sunday, Father Gapon, wrote: "'Shall we go straight toward the gate, or go by a roundabout route to avoid the soldiers? I was asked,. I shouted huskily, 'No straight through them, Courage! Death or Freedom!' and the crowd shouted in return, 'Hurrah!' We then started forward, singing in one mighty, solemn voice the Tsar's hymn."...On the flanks of the crowd ran the children. Some of the women insisted on walking in the first rows, in order, as they said to protect me with their bodies...At the start the police not only did not interfere with the procession but moved with us with bared head in recognition of the religious emblems...At last we reached with in two hundred paces of where the troop stood." File on infantry barred the road, and in front of them a company of calvary was drawn up, with their swords shining in the sun."

Cossacks Attack and Soldiers Open Fire on Bloody Sunday

Father Georgiy Gapon wrote: "Suddenly the company of Cossacks galloped rapidly towards us with drawn swords...A cry of alarm arose as the Cossacks came down upon us. Our front ranks broke before them, opening to the right and left, and down this lane the soldiers drove their horses, striking on both sides. I saw some swords lifted and falling, the men, women and children dropping on earth like logs of wood, while moans, curses and shouts filled the air....At my order the front rows formed again...Again we started forward, with solemn resolution and rising rage in our hearts. The Cossacks turned their horses and began to cut their way through the crowd from the rear. They passed though the column.

"We were not more than thirty yards from the soldiers...when suddenly without any warning and with a moment's delay, was heard the dry crack of many rifle-shots...Vasiliev, who whom I was walking hand in hand, suddenly left hold or my arm and sank upon the snow. One of the workmen who carried the banners fell also...I turned rapidly to the crowds and shouted to them to lie down, and I also spread myself out upon the ground. As we lay there another volley was fired, and another, and yet another, till it seemed almost continuous."

"One of the banner carriers had his arm broken by a bullet, A little boy of ten, who was carrying a church lantern, fell pierced by a bullet, but still held the lantern tightly and tried to rise again, when another shot struck him down.. Both smiths who had guarded me were killed, as well as all those who were carrying icons and banners...At last the firing ceased, I stood up with a few others who remained uninjured and looked down at the bodies that lat prostate around me. I cried to them, 'Stand up!' But they lay still. I could not at first understand...I looked again and saw their arms were stretched out lifelessly, and I saw the scarlet stain of blood upon the snow."

Mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin

The Mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin was another key event before the Bolshevik Revolution. It began on June 13, 1905, while the ship, with 800 overworked men on board, was doing exercises, separated from the rest of the fleet, in the Black Sea. The mutiny reportedly began when two overworked sailors saw some maggot-ridden meat intended to be made into their dinner. The sailors together with a group including, Afansy Matushenko, complained but were reassured by the ship doctor the meat was fit to eat.

The doctors' assurances made the men even more angry. They began shouting Socialist slogans. The chief officer told the men to disperse, by they refused. Captain Golikove appeared and ordered that a tarpaulin be dropped on the disruptive crew members with the the understanding they might be shot.

Afansy Matushenko urged the crew members to fight and a mutiny ensued in which Captain Golikov was killed and thrown overboard. The mutineers took command of the ship . On June 17, five ships that sailed from the Black Sea port of Sevastopol arrived to stop the mutiny. One of the ships, George the Conqueror, joined the Potemkin and the two ships fled to Romania, where the 75 mutineers were captured by the crew of the battleship Tchesme.

Fifty-two of the mutineers were given prison sentence and three were executed. Afansy Matushenko escaped and was never heard from again. After the trial of the mutineers the Tsar released a statement stating that he "was far more impressed by the mutiny of the men on the Potemkin than by the disaster" experienced by Russia in the Japanese-Russian War of 1906.

Creation of the Soviets and Struggles in the Duma

Social Democrats formed worker's councils ( Soviets) in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Led by representatives chosen by their members, they provided a kind of shadow government while the tsarist regime crumbled and took up revolutionary activity to weaken the tsarist regime. The Soviets were very successful. The St. Petersburg Soviet, led by Leon Trotsky, organized a general strike that brought the country to it knees in 1905. Nicholas II gave in to its demands.

Some upper-class and propertied activists called for compromise with opposition groups to avoid further disorders. In late 1905, influenced tsarist minister Sergei Witte pressured Nicholas to issue the so-called October Manifesto, which gave Russia a constitution and proclaimed basic civil liberties for all citizens. In an effort to stop the activity of liberal factions, the constitution included most of their demands, including a ministerial government responsible to the tsar, and the creation of a national Duma—a parliament to be elected on a broad, but not wholly equitable, franchise.

Those who accepted this arrangement formed a center-right political party, the Octobrists, and named Witte the first prime minister. Meanwhile, the Kadets held out for a ministerial government and equal, universal suffrage. Because of their political principles and continued armed uprisings, Russia's leftist parties were undecided whether to participate in the Duma elections, which had been called for early 1906. At the same time, rightist factions actively opposed the reforms. Several new monarchist and protofascist groups also arose to subvert the new order. Nevertheless, the regime continued to function through the chaotic year of 1905, eventually restoring order in the cities, the countryside, and the army. In the process, terrorists murdered several thousand officials, and the government executed an equal number of terrorists. Because the government had been able to restore order and to secure a loan from France before the first Duma met, Nicholas was in a strong position that enabled him to replace Witte with the much less independent functionary Petr Stolypin. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

General elections in April 1907 produced a leftist majority into the Duma. After the new legislators called for more reforms Nicholas II disbanded it. New elections later in 1907, brought in an even more leftist government. It too was disbanded. The elections that followed required candidates to members of the upper classes.

The First Duma was elected in March 1906. The Kadets and their allies dominated it, with the mainly nonparty radical leftists slightly weaker than the Octobrists and the nonparty center-rightists combined. The socialists had boycotted the election, but several socialist delegates were elected. Relations between the Duma and the Stolypin government were hostile from the beginning. A deadlock of the Kadets and the government over the adoption of a constitution and peasant reform led to the dissolution of the Duma and the scheduling of new elections. In spite of an upsurge of leftist terror, radical leftist parties participated in the election, and, together with the nonparty left, they gained a plurality of seats, followed by a loose coalition of Kadets with Poles and other nationalities in the political center. The impasse continued, however, when the Second Duma met in 1907.

Stolypin Government and Peasant Reforms

In 1907 Stolypin instituted a series of major reforms. In June 1907, he dissolved the Second Duma and promulgated a new electoral law, which vastly reduced the electoral weight of lower-class and non-Russian voters and increased the weight of the nobility. This political coup had the desired short-term result of restoring order. New elections in the fall returned a more conservative Third Duma, which Octobrists dominated. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Even this Duma quarreled with the government over a variety of issues, however, including the composition of the naval staff, the autonomous status of Finland, the introduction of zemstva in the western provinces, the reform of the peasant court system, and the establishment of workers' insurance organizations under police supervision. In these disputes, the Duma, with its appointed aristocratic-bureaucratic upper house, was sometimes more conservative than the government, and at other times it was more constitutionally minded. The Fourth Duma, elected in 1912, was similar in composition to the third, but a progressive faction of Octobrists split from the right and joined the political center. *

Far-reaching agricultural reforms were also passed. The agricultural reform freed peasants from their redemption payments and created a large class of land owning peasants (kulaks). The kulaks worked their land efficiently and generated record harvests. Peasant were also free to leave their villages. This provided a pool of labor for industry.

Stolypin's peasant reform program allowed, and sometimes forced, the breakup of communes as well as the establishment of full private property. Stolypin hoped that the reform program would create a class of conservative landowning farmers loyal to the tsar. Most peasants did not want to lose the safety of the commune or to permit outsiders to buy village land, however. By 1914 only about 10 percent of all peasant communes had been dissolved.

Nevertheless, the economy recovered and grew impressively from 1907 to 1914, both quantitatively and through the formation of rural cooperatives and banks and the generation of domestic capital. By 1914 Russian steel production equaled that of France and Austria-Hungary, and Russia's economic growth rate was one of the highest in the world. Although external debt was very high, it was declining as a percentage of the gross national product (GNP), and the empire's overall trade balance was favorable.

Kokovtsov and the Possibilities of Constitutional Government

In 1911 a double agent working for the Okhrana assassinated Stolypin, and Finance Minister Vladimir Kokovtsov replaced him. The cautious Kokovtsov was very able and a supporter of the tsar, but he could not compete with the powerful court factions that dominated the government. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Historians have debated whether Russia had the potential to develop a constitutional government between 1905 and 1914. The failure to do so was partly because the tsar was not willing to give up autocratic rule or share power. By manipulating the franchise, the government obtained progressively more conservative, but less representative, Dumas. Moreover, the regime sometimes bypassed the conservative Dumas and ruled by decree. *

During this period, the government's policies waivered from reformist to repressive. Historians have speculated about whether Witte's and Stolypin's bold reform plans could have "saved" the Russian Empire. But court politics, together with the continuing isolation of the tsar and the bureaucracy from the rest of society, hampered all reforms. Suspensions of civil liberties and the rule of law continued in many places, and neither workers nor the Orthodox Church had the right to organize themselves as they chose. Discrimination against Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and Old Believers was common. Domestic unrest was on the rise while the empire's foreign policy was becoming more adventurous. *

World War I Exposes Weaknesses in the Tsarist Government

The onset of World War I exposed the weakness of Nicholas II's government. Military reversals and the government's incompetence soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets. In addition, inept Russian preparations for war and ineffective economic policies hurt the country financially, logistically, and militarily. Inflation became a serious problem. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Because of inadequate matériel support for military operations, the War Industries Committee was formed to ensure that necessary supplies reached the front. But army officers quarreled with civilian leaders, seized administrative control of front areas, and refused to cooperate with the committee. The central government distrusted the independent war support activities that were organized by zemstva and cities. The Duma quarreled with the war bureaucracy of the government, and center and center-left deputies eventually formed the Progressive Bloc to create a genuinely constitutional government. *

After Russian military reversals in 1915, Nicholas II went to the front to assume nominal leadership of the army, leaving behind his German-born wife, Alexandra, and Rasputin, a member of her entourage, who exercised influence on policy and ministerial appointments. Rasputin was a debauched faith healer who initially impressed Alexandra because he was able to stop the bleeding of the royal couple's hemophiliac son and heir presumptive. Although their true influence has been debated, Alexandra and Rasputin undoubtedly decreased the regime's prestige and credibility. *

World War I and the Russian Revolution

World War I created a situation in which a revolution was almost inevitable. By 1917, Nicholas II had struggled for three years to keep the armies of Germany and Austria from sweeping over the Eastern front and the country was racked by inflation, hunger and desperation. Protests were put down with police bullets and perhaps a million men deserted from the army, many of them ending up in St. Petersburg, where they joined the growing revolutionary movement. "The terrible nature of war," wrote historian Jack Keegan, "not the terrible nature of industrial capitalism, exerted the push to revolution in Russia." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

While the central government was hampered by court intrigue, the strain of the war began to cause popular unrest. In 1916 high food prices and fuel shortages caused strikes in some cities. Workers, who had won the right to representation in sections of the War Industries Committee, used those sections as organs of political opposition. The countryside also was becoming restive. Soldiers were increasingly insubordinate, particularly the newly recruited peasants who faced the prospect of being used as cannon fodder in the inept conduct of the war. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The situation continued to deteriorate. In an attempt to alleviate the morass at the tsar's court, a group of nobles murdered Rasputin in December 1916. But the death of the mysterious "healer" brought little change. Increasing conflict between the tsar and the Duma weakened both parts of the government and increased the impression of incompetence. In early 1917, deteriorating rail transport caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes. Authorities summoned troops to quell the disorders in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been called since 1914, to Russianize the Germanic name). In 1905 troops had fired on demonstrators and saved the monarchy, but in 1917 the troops turned their guns over to the angry crowds. Public support for the tsarist regime simply evaporated in 1917, ending three centuries of Romanov rule. *

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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