Russia, 1905-24

Were the 1917 revolutions inevitable?


This is an extract from a exam revision book written in 1988 by Norman Lowe, who was Head of History at a Lancashire Tertiary (16-19) College - so, although it was aimed at GCSE pupils, it was really an A-level textbook.   Lowe shows a greater knowledge of the historiography of the subject (i.e. what other historians have said about it) than most textbook writers.




After 1905       Avoidable       Inevitable

Growing unrest       The February Revolution





3.1 AFTER 1905


Despite the title, the real focus of this text is: Did the First World War cause the Russian Revolution?


[There was a Revolution in 1905, which Nicholas survived by publishing the October Manifesto, in which he promised to accept a Duma a kind of parliament.]


Nicholas had survived 1905 because his opponents were not united, because there was no central leadership (the whole thing having flared up spontaneously) and because he had been willing to compromise at the critical moment.   Tsarism now had a breathing space in which Nicholas had a chance to make a constitutional monarchy work, and to throw himself in with the people demanding moderate reforms: improvements in industrial working conditions and pay, cancellation of redemption payments (annual payments to the government by peasants in return for their freedom, following the abolition of serfdom in 1861), which had reduced over half the rural population to abject poverty, more freedom for the press, and genuine democracy in which the Duma would play an important part in running the country.  


Unfortunately he seems to have had very little intention of keeping to the spirit of the October Manifesto, having agreed to it only because he had no choice.   The First Duma (1906) was not democratically elected, for although all classes were allowed to vote, the system was rigged so that landowners and middle classes would be in the majority.   Even so, it put forward far-reaching demands such as confiscation of large estates, a genuinely democratic electoral system and the right to approve the tsar's ministers.   This was far too drastic for Nicholas who had the Duma dispersed by troops after only ten weeks.   The Second Duma (1907) suffered the same fate, after which Nicholas changed the franchise, depriving peasants and urban workers of the vote.   The Third and Fourth Dumas were much more conservative and therefore lasted longer, covering the period 1907 to 1917.   Though on occasion they criticised the government, they had no real power, since the tsar controlled the ministers and the secret police.   Some foreign observers were surprised at the ease with which Nicholas ignored his promises and dismissed the first two Dumas without provoking another general strike.   The fact was that the revolutionary impetus had subsided for the time being, and many leaders were either in prison or exile.


After 1905

This, together with the improvement in the economy beginning after 1906, has given rise to some controversy about whether or not the 1917 revolutions were inevitable.


(a) One theory is that given time plus gradually improving living standards, the chances of revolution would fade, and that if Russia had not become disastrously involved in the First World War, the monarchy might have survived; three areas of evidence support this view:

(i)       Peter Stolypin, prime minister from 1906 to 1911, made determined efforts to win over the peasants believing that given twenty years of peace there would be no question of revolution.   Redemption payments were abolished and peasants encouraged to buy their own land (about 2 million had done so by 1916 and another 3.5 million had emigrated to Siberia where they had their own farms).   As a result there emerged a class of comfortably-off peasants (called kulaks) whom, Stolypin hoped, the government could rely on for support against revolution.

(ii)      As more factories came under the control of inspectors, there were signs of improving working conditions, and as industrial profits increased, the first signs of a more prosperous workforce could be detected.   In 1912 a workers' sickness and accident insurance scheme was introduced.

(iii)      At the same time the revolutionary parties seemed to have lost heart: they were short of money, torn by disagreements, and their leaders were still in exile.



(b) The other view is that, given the tsar's deliberate flouting of his 1905 promises, there was bound to be a revolution sooner or later and the

situation was deteriorating again long before the First World War.   The evidence to support this view seems more convincing:

(i)       By 1911 it was becoming clear that Stolypin's land reforms would not have the desired result, partly because the peasant population was growing too rapidly (at the rate of 1.5 million a year) for his schemes to cope with, and because farming methods were too inefficient to support the growing population comfortably.   The assassination of Stolypin in 1911 removed one of the few really able tsarist ministers and perhaps the only man who could have saved the monarchy.

(ii)      There was a wave of industrial strikes set off by the shooting of 270 strikers in the Lena goldfields (April 1912).   In all there were over 2000 separate strikes in that year, 2400 in 1913, and over 4000 in the first seven months of 1914 - before war broke out.   Whatever improvements had taken place, they were obviously not enough to remove all the pre-1905 grievances.

(iii)      Apart from one or two exceptions there was little relaxation of the government's repressive policy, as the secret police rooted out revolutionaries among university students and professors and deported masses of Jews, thereby ensuring that both groups were firmly anti-tsarist.   The situation was thus particularly dangerous since peasants.   industrial workers and intelligentsia were all alike discontented.

(iv)     As 1912 progressed, the fortunes of the various revolutionary parties, especially the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, revived.   Both groups had developed from an earlier movement, the Social Democrat Labour Party, which was Marxist in outlook.   (Karl Marx (1818-83) was a German Jew whose political ideas were set out in The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867).   He believed that economic factors are the real cause of historical change, and that workers (proletariat) are everywhere exploited by capitalists (middle-class bourgeoisie), which must inevitably lead to revolution and the setting up of `the dictatorship of the proletariat'.) One of the leaders was Vladimir Lenin who helped to edit the revolutionary newspaper Iskra (The Spark).   It was over an election to the Iskra editorial board in 1903 that the party had split into the Lenin supporters, the Bolsheviks (the Russian for `majority') and the rest, the Mensheviks (minority).   Both believed in strikes and revolution, but the Bolsheviks felt it was essential to win the support of peasants as well as industrial workers, whereas the Mensheviks, doubting the value of peasant support, favoured close co-operation with the middle class; Lenin was strongly opposed to this.   In 1912 appeared the new Bolshevik newspaper Pravda (Truth), which was extremely important as a means of publicising Bolshevik ideas and giving political direction to the already developing strike wave.

(v)     The royal family was discredited by a number of scandals.   It was widely suspected that Nicholas himself was a party to the murder of Stolypin, who was shot by a member of the secret police in the tsar's presence during a gala performance at the Kiev Opera; nothing was ever proved, but Nicholas and his right-wing supporters were probably not sorry to see the back of Stolypin, who was becoming too liberal for their comfort.   More serious was the royal family's association with Rasputin, a self-professed `holy man', who made himself indispensable to the Empress Alexandra by his ability to help the ailing heir to the throne, Alexei.   This unfortunate child had inherited haemophilia from his mother's family, and Rasputin had the power, apparently through hypnosis, to stop the bleeding whenever Alexei suffered a haemorrhage.   Eventually Rasputin became a real power behind the throne, but attracted public criticism by his drunkenness and his numerous affairs with court ladies.   Alexandra preferred to ignore the scandals and the Duma's request that Rasputin be sent away from the court (1912).



According to Richard Freeborn, there was a `growing agitation among the workers, which, in July 1914, in St Petersburg, had assumed the proportions of incipient revolution with street demonstrations, shootings and the building of barricades'.   However, the government still controlled the army and police and may well have been able to hold on even if a full-scale revolution had developed.   What historians are sure about is that Russian failures in the war made revolution certain and caused troops and police to mutiny so that there was nobody left to defend autocracy.   The war revealed the incompetent and corrupt organisation and the shortage of equipment; it caused tremendous social upheaval with the recruitment of 15 million peasants and ruined the economy, bringing rising prices and chronic food shortages.   Nicholas made the mistake of appointing himself supreme commander (August 1915) and thus drew upon himself the blame for all future defeats, and for the high death rate, which destroyed the morale of the troops.   Even the murder of Rasputin by a group of aristocrats (December 1916) could not save the monarchy.



Growing unrest



The revolutions are still known in Russia as the February and October Revolutions.   This was because the Russians were still using the old Julian calendar which was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used by the rest of Europe.   Russia adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1918.

(a) The first revolution began spontaneously on 8 March when bread riots broke out in Petrograd (St Petersburg).   The rioters were quickly joined by thousands of strikers from a nearby armaments factory, and when troops were ordered to open fire they refused and joined in the demonstrations.   Mobs seized public buildings, released prisoners from jails and took over police stations and arsenals.   Some of his senior generals told Nicholas, who was on his way back to Petrograd, that he would have to renounce the throne; on 15 March, in the imperial train standing in a siding near Pskov, the tsar abdicated in favour of his brother, the Grand Duke Michael; when he refused the throne, the Russian monarchy was at an end.   There had been nothing organised about this first revolution; it was simply a spontaneous reaction to the chaotic situation which the imperial government had allowed to develop.

The February Revolution