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Russians campaign for democracy and economic justice (Russian Revolution), 1905
In the late 19th century, Russia’s autocracy, led by a Tsar (also czar), came under increasing attack. Alexander II was forced to liberate the serfs, but he was still assassinated in 1881 by a group called The People’s Will. His heir, Tsar Alexander III was badly shaken by this and launched a massive crackdown. In 1894, Nicholas II became Tsar and attempted to make a number of liberal reforms. For most, however, the reforms didn’t go far enough. In addition, a disastrous war with Japan from 1904-1905 shattered confidence in the Tsar’s ability to rule. For a European country to be humiliated militarily by an Asian country was shocking to many people.
Prior to Nicholas II, Tsar Alexander III's attempts to preserve his rule had increased opposition and driven many of his opponents underground. Nihilists, who wanted the entire establishment, including the tsar and the Russian Orthodox Church destroyed, and terrorist groups kept up a steady stream of assassinations and bombings against the state. Alexander III's Russification policies--aimed at homogenizing the Russian empire-had also angered many ethnic and religious groups. Nicholas II appears to have arrived too late to undo the damage of Alexander III, and his liberal reforms may have only emboldened the reformers and revolutionaries.
The groups seeking change were a diverse and very loose coalition, if united at all (see additional information for more on the beliefs of each group involved). Many of the first revolutionary groups were Marxist-inspired. While liberals sought reforms and the creation of a constitutional monarchy, the Marxists wanted an entirely new government. However, many Marxists wanted the liberals to first reduce the power of the tsar before the Marxist revolution occurred. Peasant anger also increased, as emancipation turned out to be little better than serfdom. In the cities, the number of factory workers increased dramatically due to a loan from France to increase Russia’s industrial infrastructure. These workers were very underpaid (many made less than half what industrial workers in Western countries earned) and worked long hours.
In late December, ironworkers in St. Petersburg went on strike in protest of the firing of four workers. Eventually the entire workforce of the Putilov ironworks was on strike and soon a number of workers from other industries were on strike. With 25,000 workers striking, this action had become a general strike in the capital of Russia. Led by Father Georgii Gapon, the strikers circulated a petition that called for shorter working days, higher wages, universal suffrage and representation, and an elected representative government assembly. By January 7, 85% of the workforce had joined the general strike.
On Sunday, January 9, 1905, Father Gapon led a group to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to deliver the petition signed by 135,000 people. According to some accounts, as many as 150,000 marchers joined them, carrying pictures of the tsar, whom they still saw as their national father, and Russian flags. Guards at the palace panicked and opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing several hundred and destroying the image of the tsar as a benevolent father to the country. Angry factory workers went on strike in St. Petersburg and other major Russian cities to protest the Bloody Sunday Massacre.
Nicholas II hoped to undo the damage of Bloody Sunday by announcing in February that he would allow a national advisory council. His effort to undercut reformist/revolutionary demands failed and the strikes continued to grow, in part because factory workers would be excluded from the proposed national assembly. Liberal groups were unsatisfied with Nicholas II’s offers, and formed the Union of Unions to organize their protests. Peasants began protesting in large numbers as well, and formed the All-Russian Peasants’ Union to press their demands. In other parts of Russia minority groups joined in, hoping to take advantage of the unrest to press for greater local autonomy. With schools closed by either student strikes or government orders, students and professionals participated almost full time as well.
The workers’ strikes quickly became a nationwide general strike that crippled the country. Workers’ anger and desperation was so great that the strikes grew with seemingly very little leadership. Some accounts of the Revolution suggest that previous attempts at strikes had helped the workers gain basic organizing skills. By the fall workers were organizing Soviets to help govern and lead their strikes. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks competed heavily for the leadership of each Soviet, with the Mensheviks usually winning. These revolutionary governments spread across Russia’s industrial regions. Meanwhile rolling coordinated and random strikes were being used by different kinds of workers throughout the Russian empire during the summer and autumn.
The Russian Army also experienced a number of uprisings. A mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin was one of numerous incidents of mutinies and refusals to follow orders during the revolution. The crew of the Potemkin convinced and forced other ships to join it, while parts of the Russian Army’s land forces refused orders to crack down on protesters or defected. The military was demoralized from its defeats in the Russo-Japanese War, and soldiers in the lower ranks generally came from lower classes.
Nonetheless, the reformers and revolutionaries met significant repressive violence from the government, the worst of which had been the Bloody Sunday Massacre. In addition, non-governmental groups like the Black Hundreds assassinated revolutionaries and terrorized groups that they considered responsible for the unrest, in particular Jews.
On September 19, printers struck in Moscow. Although they were striking for mainly economic goals, the Moscow Printers’ Union called on all printers to strike. Workers from multiple industries joined them within two weeks. Although the workers in Moscow returned to work soon afterwards, the printers in St. Petersburg had gone on strike in sympathy and took on the political goals of the rest of the Russian Revolution campaign.
In early October all railroad workers near Moscow went on strike, paralyzing train transportation around the area. This was the beginning of a climax of the campaign: the Great October Strike, a countrywide general strike. From Moscow the strike spread to St. Petersburg and then across Russia. More than 1.7 million workers, from all industries and professions (including within the government), were striking. During the strike campaigners formed alternative governments and police groups to maintain order. The previously established soviets also took on some of this work.
On October 17, 1905, the Tsar, under pressure from fearful nobles and upper class advisors, issued the October Manifesto, promising a Duma—an elected national assembly—and reforms that placated many workers and liberals. In St. Petersburg and other cities, many workers went back to work, and the government was able to crack down on the remaining strikers. Although limited fighting between protesters and government troops in Russian cities, a bloody suppression of the Revolution in the Polish territories, and other incidents continued into 1906, the Revolution was basically over by the end of 1905.
For some liberals, the Revolution was more or less a success. They had achieved a constitutional monarchy and gained several promises of greater freedoms. These were codified in 1906 as the Fundamental Laws. However, communists still sought the full overthrow of the Tsar, and many workers, peasants, and minority groups remained deeply dissatisfied. Most revolutionary leaders, including Leon Trotsky, were arrested and many were exiled to Siberia.