Russia - the Tsarist regime in the aftermath of 1905

"The Most Dangerous Moment For A Bad Government Is When It Begins To Reform Itself." Does De-Tocqeville’s Maxim Apply To The Tsarist Regime In The Aftermath Of 1905?
The situation at the beginning of the twentieth century in Russia was one of intense turmoil. The revolutionaries were once more organising, with the foundation of the Social Revolutionaries and the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Social Democrats. The countryside was starting to stir with discontent tracing back the Emancipation in 1861 as the peasants continued to be frustrated in their demands for land. The onset of industrialisation was changing the social structure of the country and creating new pressures which the regime had not previously had to deal with, especially the first large urban populations, living in poor conditions and easily organised politically. The growing numbers of professionals, especially lawyers, were adding to the numbers calling for liberal reform in Russia. Yet through all of this the Tsar, centre of governmental power in Russia, remained as committed to autocracy and convinced of his divine right to rule alone as his predecessors a century or more before had been.

This contradiction in Russia, of a government resolute in staying unchanged while all changed and organised around it, would not last long into the century. Within a few years it would experience military defeat and spontaneous uprisings, even from formerly placid groups, and would find it necessary to attempt to reform the system in order to preserve it. While such reform was long overdue, it was a dangerous gamble which 1917 would seem to suggest rather strongly did not work.

Vital in the decline and destruction of the Tsarist regime is the year 1905. By 1905 discontent in Russia was growing to near boiling point. The defeat at the hands of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War undoubtedly weakened the authority of the Tsar and his government. At the same time violence was greatly on the increase in the country, as peasants looted and seized the houses and land of the landowners. Violence flared in St. Petersburg and there were waves of strikes, general discontent against the system enhanced by economic depression. However, the event which was to start off a period of such extreme discontent that revolution at one point seemed very possible was the massacre on what became called "Bloody Sunday". Here a peaceful march to present a petition to the Tsar humbly asking for better conditions was charged by Cossacks armed with sabres and fired on by troops. The Tsar had not been present in the capital at the time but this terrible day, on which as many as a thousand people were killed, lost the Tsar any semblance of the old belief of the masses that he was their benevolent leader and protector, their "Little Father".

The massacre of 22 January 1905 was followed by huge protest, especially in the cities, where industry had nearly ground to a halt, but also throughout the Empire and abroad. The government still did nothing to placate the huge protest from almost every class, including the professionals and the middle classes in the cities, until the Tsar was shocked into action by the assassination of his uncle, Grand Duke Sergei, when he issued a decree calling for a consultative assembly. This satisfied almost nobody and the discontent continued, including a famous mutiny on the ship Potemkin and a general continuation of the violent uprising throughout the country. The Tsar was then faced with a choice of whether to carry on shooting or to embark on a process of reform to satisfy at least some of the disaffected elements of society. Since it was increasingly obvious repression was not calming the situation and the regime could not simply "weather the storm", the Tsar allowed some real measure of constitutional reform, the document known as the "October Manifesto". This was only after a virtual general strike and the spontaneous establishment of a democratically elected workers’ ‘Parliament’, the latter being a dangerous possible challenge to the authority of the government which was disbanded as soon as was possible.

The October Manifesto did its job very well. Once it was released, the cohesion of the forces ranged against the government was broken, as some groups accepted it and others did not. Most importantly, it won over many in the middle classes - the industrialists, professionals and commercial classes. A programme of repression finished off the other demonstrations over the following months, although the situation could never again be described as "tranquil". The October Manifesto had split the opposition as enough people believed it was a genuine step towards effective constitutional change, but the danger for the government came in that those who had returned their support for it (or at least stopped protesting against it) had done so because they felt their demands for meaningful change satisfied, where the government was in fact just as determined to cling onto absolute power as it had ever been. While the regime realised in 1905 it had to reform to survive, it needed to continue that reform in order to maintain its survival.

The October Manifesto promised a great deal, especially for a population used to resolute refusal to change. Full civil liberties were granted and, most importantly, an elected assembly was created - the Duma. This was reluctantly given a full legislative function by the Tsar and so power to make laws in the Russian Empire was finally shared. The country was in 1906 given a revised Constitution, in the Fundamental Laws, which had many guarantees of the concessions won in the October Manifesto, but which also contained some ominous phrases. Article 4 stated "Supreme Autocratic power belongs to the emperor of All Russia" and Article 9 said that "no law can come into existence without his approval". And so began the uncertain attempt at a form of shared power and constitutional government in Russia.

The start to this was promising - the first Duma elections had a fairly generous franchise which gave great representation to the peasantry, who were expected to be a broadly conservative force. The many newly-legalised parties put up candidates (although some Socialist groups boycotted) and the Duma met for the first time in 1906. Yet immediately, the Tsar showed his true colours. While on paper power was fairly equally shared with the Duma, the Imperial council (appointed by the Tsar) and the Tsar himself, the latter showed quickly that he had the upper hand in this arrangement. The first Duma was very radical, the electorate being far less conservative than expected. Here the Tsar used a very important power he possessed - to dissolve the Duma. The first Duma was meant to last for 5 years - it sat for less than three months. The second Duma was nearly as radical and was dissolved shortly after it met in February 1907. During the time when the Duma was not sitting, the constitution allowed the Tsar to rule by decree on his own, with the condition that his actions must be ratified by the next Duma. The effect of all this was, in the first two years of the "constitutional experiment" the Tsar did not behave much differently than if 1905 had never happened. The reforming tendencies of the Dumas, showing a desperate need in the people for change, were ignored just as before, and the Tsar continued to pass what laws he wished.

The Tsar’s lack of commitment to the constitutional changes his government had brought in was shown with the third Duma, the first to sit for its whole course of 5 years. Simply ignoring the Fundamental Laws, he changed the franchise with the result that the Duma was far more right wing and willing to agree to his rule and suppress its own radical tendencies than its predecessors. The Tsar still suspended it every so often and ruled by decree for a time, but he seemed to have found an assembly he could work with. The forth Duma was similarly conservative and lasted until the revolution.

This all represented an enormous opportunity for the tsarist government. In 1905 it had been recognised that reform was needed, but in practice there was little change in the way the Tsar ruled the Empire and the people would not settle with this for long. The way forward for the Tsar was to place himself at the head of the reform movement, reforming the country from above and retaining some stability and a position for himself. He might have been able to work with such groups as the Constitutional Democratic Party, or Kadets, who wanted to continue reform to create a true Western style Parliamentary government. This could have led to the evolution of Russia into a modern democracy, while keeping continuity with the Tsarist monarchy. Yet Nicholas was far too inflexible and far too convinced of his divine right to rule alone to allow such a transition and so this chance was lost. There were many factors which worked to increase dissatisfaction with the government over the years after the second Duma was dissolved - the Lena Goldfields massacre, the further suppression of the Jews and other nationalities, the famously detested influence of Rasputin - and finally the war, with its food shortages, military defeats and horrific casualties. All these, and many other less famous examples of repression and scandal, worked to make the people more and more disillusioned with the Tsarist system, until finally its former supporters would not lift a finger to help the Tsar.

The assertion that "the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform itself" is a very valid one, especially in the case of the Russian Empire. This reform process went right back to the Great Reforms of Alexander II in the 1860s, but the constitutional changes in 1905 were an integral part of the process. Of course, it is just as dangerous for a bad government to remain exactly as it is, but to reform partly and not continue is a recipe for disaster. There were men who realised this in Russia’s government. Alexander II may have had some idea of this, as his modest plans for constitutional reform at the time of his assassination show. Able men in Nicholas II’s government, especially Witte, may have realised further change was needed, but this was not forthcoming. In the revolutionary frenzy of 1917 liberals as well as Tsarists would be swept away, yet before the war began, and certainly in 1905, the grip of the revolutionary parties over the masses, especially in the cities, was not great, shown by the lack of real leadership by the revolutionary parties in the 1905 rising. Had the Tsar collaborated with liberal reformers and the many willing to democratically rule jointly with the Tsar for the benefit of the people, the history of Russia in the twentieth century might have been far different.


Greville, J A S, History of the World, HarperCollins, 1994

Kochan, L, Russia in Revolution, Granada Publishing, 1978

Seton-Watson, H, Decline of Imperial Russia, Methuen and Co, 1960

Wood, A, The Origins of the Russian Revolution 1861-1917, Methuen, 1987

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