Nicholas II and the challenge to autocracy


Government under Nicholas II 1894-1904

Demands for change and the government reaction

  • The years after 1894 were a time of serious unrest in Russia. Russian society became more politicised in the years after the Great Famine of 1891-92. The failure of the government to cope with the crisis had aroused anger. As a result there was greater public mistrust of the government's competence. Reformist groups had therefore gained further support and there were new outbursts of trouble in Russian universities.                                                                          
  • The governement responded with an increased use in the Okhrana (secret police), they made sure the rebellious students were expelled, exiled or drafted into the army.

The years 1902 to 1907 were marked by widespread disturbances in both towns and countryside. There were multiple instances of arson in the rural communities that the nickname 'the years of the red cockerel' was adopted. Peasants set fire to their landlords barns, destroying grain, or even physically attacked landlordsand officials. 

The Tsar's minister, Pyotr Stolypin, delt with these disturbances with a ferocity that aggravated the situation further. Peasants were flogged, arrested and exiled. The gallows (hanging) was so common it became known as 'Stolypin's necktie'. 

Industrial strikes escalated in the towns, numbering around 17,000 in 1894 to around 90,000 in 1904 

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The Russo-Japanese War

3 main motives for going to war with Japan in 1904:

  • to pressure an expansionist policy in the Far East, to make up for what it saw as its relative decline in Europe 
  • to obtain an ice-free port- all of Russia's major ports on its northern coastline were frozen up for some part of the year
  • to distract attention from Russia's domestic (home) troubles

The interior minister Vyacheslav Plehve was the main force pushing for war. He believed 'we need a small, victorious war to avert revolution'. The Russians looken on Japan as an inferior nation and they expected an easy victory. Territorial disputes between Russia and Japan over Korea and Manchuria were long-standing. Russian government deliberately rejected Japanese proposals in hope it would trigger a military response. It did: Japan began to attack the Russian fleet in Port Arthur

Russia's Defeat

Russian military commanders had not prepared effectively. The distance of which materials had to be transported from western Russia made it impossible to provide adiquate reinforcements and supplies. The Trans-Siberian Railway, incomplete in a number of sections, proved of little value.

Russia's dismal performance contributed considerably to the build up of tension which had led to direct challenge to tsardom: the 1905 Revolution.

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1905 Revolution

Reasons for the 1905 Revolution 

Prisons were overflowing with convicts innocent of any real crime, the city streets were full of soldiers ready to shoot any protesters and censorship restricted any freedom of religious and political expression. Unrest continued in the countryside where famine was a constant source of peasnat misery.

Bloody Sunday

On 22nd January, Father Gregory Gapon, an Orthodox preist, attempted to lead a peaceful protest of workers to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The marchers' intention was to present a loyal petition to the tsar, begging him to use his royal authority to relieve their desperate conditions. The march induced panic among the police forces in the capital. The marchers were fired on and charged by cavalry. Nicholas II, although not present during the protest, was damaged as his traditional image of tsar, the guardian of the Russian people, had been destroyed. Only after 4th February, following the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei, the Tsar's uncle, did Nicholas II finally agree to meet the workers' representitives. 

The immediate reaction to Bloody Sunday in Russia was a widespread outbreak of disorder, which increased as the year went on. Strikes occured in all major cities and towns. Terrorism against government officials and landlords, much of it organised by the SRs, spread to the countryside. The situation was made worse by the humiliating Russo Japanese defeat. The government was heavily blamed for the defeat, which led to further outrages, including the assassination of Plehve by SR terrorists. Public builidings in towns and large private estates in the country were attacked.

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1905 Revolution

The government's difficulties in containing the unrest encouraged the non-Russian minorities to assert themselves. Georgia declared itself an independent state, the Poles demanded autonomy (National self-government) and the Jews passed for equal rights. 

In May, the Kadets, led by Paul Milyukov, persuaded the other liberal groups to join them in forming the 'Union of Unions', with the aim of organising a broad-based alliance that would include the peasants and the factory workers

The Potemkin mutiny 

The crew of the Prince Potemkin, a battleship of the Black Sea naval squadron, mutinied while at sea. The protest began by the sailors at having to live in terrible conditions and eat putrid food and drink foul water. The sailors elected a representitive, Peter Vakulenchuk, to approach the captain with their complaints. The captain's immediete response was to shoot him. This triggered the sailors to attack the officers of which they killed several of them and then took over the ship.

Hoping to gain support on land, the mutineers sailed to the port of Odessa where a serious anti-government strike took place. The sailors were welcomed and respected. Troops were ordered to disperse the crowds. The civilian death toll ran into thousands. 

The massacre forced the Potemkin to leave Odessa. This event caused problems for the government as they could no longer rely on the loyalty of their own armed services 

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1905 Revolution

Soviets Formed

By October 1905, the industrial unrest had grown into a general strike. In a number of cities workers formed themselves into an elected soviet (council made up of elected representitives). The soviets began as organisations to represent the workers' demands for better conditions. The Menshevik Leon Trotsky became chairman of the St Petersburg soviet and organiser of several strikes in the capital.

The October Manifesto

The liberals were the first to be appeased. On Witte's advice, the tsar issued the October Manifesto in which he made the following concessions:

  • the creation of a legislative duma (can pass laws)
  • freedom of speech, assembly and worship
  • the right of political parties to exist 
  • the legislating of trade unions

The appetite for reform was satisfied, for now.

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1905 Revolution

Pacifying the Peasants

An announcement in November that the mortgage repayments were to be progressively reduced and then abolished all together. The response was an immediete drop in the number of land seizures by the peasants and a decline in the general lawlessness (disorder due to a law)  in the countryside.

Crushing the Workers

The government felt strong enough to crush the soviets. Despite the mutinies earlier in the year, the troops who returned to Russia at the end of the war proved sufficiently loyal to be used against the strikers. After a 5 day siege, the headquarters of the St Petersburg soviet were stormed and the ringleaders, including Trotsky, were arrested.

Moscow Uprising Supressed

On 7th December, a group of Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and SRs came together in the recently formed Moscow soviet to organise a general strike. They then siezed a number of key installations, including post offices and railway stations, in an attempt to take over the whole city. Tsarist regiments (army) used heavy artillery to force the rebells to surrender on 18th December. The 12 day uprising had led to the deaths of over 1000 people.

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The New Constitution

Lower Chamber (The state Duma)

  • Lower chamber- members elected under a system of indirect voting (Voters do not choose between candidates for an office, but elect people who then choose) by estates- heavily weighted in the favour of the nobility and peasants 
  • Deputies were to be elected for a 5 year term.

Upper Chamber (The state Council)

  • Half elected by zemstva, half appointed by tsar  - noble representitves from the major social, religious, educational and finacial instituitons.

The 2 houses had equal legislative powers and all legislation also had to recieve approval of the Tsar.

Government (Council of ministers under the PM)

  • The government was to be appointed by the Tsar.
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The era of Dumas

The Fundamental Laws

5 days before the first Duma met, Nicholas issued a series of Fundamental Laws reasserting his autocratic power and claiming the right:

  • to veto legislation
  • to rule by decree in an emergency or when the Duma was not in session
  • to appoint and dismiss government ministers
  • to dissolve the Duma as he wished
  • to command Russia's land and sea forces
  • to declare war, conclude peace and negotiate treaties with foreign states and control all foreign relations
  • to control military and household expenditure
  • to control the Orthodox church 

Political Groupings

There were to be 4 Dumas between 1905 and 1917. 

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Political groups

The main political parties that contested the elections;

  • Social democratic Workers' Party (SD)- Divided between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks

Bolsheviks (Led by Vladimir Lenin) believed in: discipline, centrilisation, organisation, and the role of the prolatariat under party guidence. From 1905 favoured a peasant/prolatariat alliance.

Mensheviks (Led by Julius Martov) believed in: coorporation with bourgeoisie/liberals rather than peasantry and the use of legal channels of opposition.

  • Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) (1901)

Led by Viktor Chernov. Favoured populist ideas of redistribution of land and nationalisation. Left of party favoured terrorism to achieve aims.

  • Trudoviks (Labour Groups)

Favoured nationalisation of non-peasant land, democratic representation, a minimum wage and an 8 hour working day. Supported by peasants and intelligentsia

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Political Groups

  • Kadets (Constitutional Democrats)

Led by Pavel Milyukov (1859-1943). Favoured a constitutional monarchy with parliamentry government; full civil right; compulsory redistribution of large private estates with compensation and legal settlement of workers' disputes.

  • Octobrists

Accepted the October Manifesto and opposed further concessions (adjustment) to workers or peasants. Supported by wealthy landowners and industrialists.

  • Progressives

A loose grouping of businessmen who favoured moderate reform

  • Rightists 

Extremely right wing, favouring monarchism, Orthodoxy, chauvinism (agressive patriotism), anti-semitism. Promoted violent attacks on the left wing and pogroms through its street-fighting gangs, the 'Black Hundreds'.

  • Nationalists and Religious groupings all seeking rights and greater independence
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The 4 Dumas

1st Duma (Duma of National Hopes) May-July 1906

The first Duma was boycotted by the Bolsheviks, SRs and the extreme right wing Union of the Russian People. It was therefore overwhelmingly radical-liberal in composition with 1/3 of the new deputies coming from the peasantry. It was strongly critical of the Tsar and his ministers and this led to Witte's resignation.

It requested a political amnesty (pardon), the abolition of the State council, the transfer of ministerial responsability to the Duma, the compulsory seizure of the lands of the gentry without compensation, universal and direct male suffrage (right to vote), the abandonment of the emergancy laws, abolition of the death penalty and a reform of the civil service. Nicholas didnt accept these demands, whereupon the Duma passed a vote of 'no confidence' in the government and demanded the resignation of the Tsar's ministers. 10 weeks later the Duma was dissolved and Goremykin was replaced as PM by Pyotr Stolypin.

2nd Duma (Duma of National Anger) Feb-June 1907

Stolypin's government tried to influence the elections to the next Duma but the number of the more extreme left wing increased enormously because the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and SRs decided to participate. The second Duma was therefore even more oppositional than previously. Stolypin struggled to find any support for the agrarian (land) reform programme he had drawn up and resorted to passing legislation under the Tsar's emergancy powers while the Duma was not in session.

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The 4 Dumas

3rd Duma (Duma of Lords and Lackeys') Nov 1907-June 1912

This produced a more submissive (conformist) Duma which agreed 2200 of 2500 government proposals. However there were disputes over naval staff, Stolypin's proposals to extend primary education, and his local government reform. In 1911, the Duma had to be suspended twice, while the government forced through legislation under emergancy provisions. By 1912 it was clear that the Duma system was not working.

4th Duma November 1912-1917

The new PM, Count Vladimir Nikolaevich, who replaced Stolypin after his assassination in 1911, simply ignored the Duma and its influenced declined. It was too divided to fight back 

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Political developments by 1914

By 1914, the agrarian situation was improving, and with the Dumas weakened to the point of meaningless, the future looked brighter fot the traditional governing classes. The revolutionary groups which had led the opposition were weakened, partly because of the police activity, and partly because of their own internal quarrels.

The courts distance from reality was summarised by the rise of the peasant-born Grigorii Rasputin, so-called 'faith healer' with supernatural abilities. By the time Rasputin drifted to St Petersburg in 1903, he was claiming special spiritual powers and he found a receptive (accepting) audience at a time when an interest in spiritualism, astrology and the occult was strong among those of high society who preffered to turn their backs on the political problems. 

When Alexandra discovered that Rasputin appeared to be able to lessen the pain endured by her haemophiliac son, Aleksei, she was persuaded that he was a 'man of God'

Nicholas' failure to take action, despite Rasputin's obvious misdeeds (illegal act) and the damage caused to the royal family, damaged the reputation of the Tsar with politicians, civil servants, Orthodox bishops and army officers.

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