September and October of this year have marked a number of anniversaries related to the 1905 Revolution. On this day, October 16, a railroad strike paralyzed Russia completely; the following day, October 17, faced with no choice, Tsar Nicholas II signed the October Manifesto, finally guaranteeing Russians constitutional rights: freedom of thought, speech, assembly, and others.
Ask someone what the Russian Revolution was, and they’ll probably tell you it was when the Soviets came to power in Russia. If they’re good with dates, they’ll tell you it was the October Revolution, so it happened in late October 1917 – but the anniversary is in November, because of the old calendar.
Push them a little more, ask they if they know any other events that might fit the bill, and they might recall that there was another revolution in 1917, known as the February Revolution (but actually occurred in early March), when the monarchy fell. Ask them again, and they’ll probably think you’re asking a trick question.
But you wouldn’t be! The first Russian revolution actually took place in 1905 – it just got overshadowed by the more life-changing events of 1917. Just like in the more famous revolutions, in 1905 unrest was triggered by a war that was not going well for Russia, the Russo-Japanese War to be specific. The greatest irony? The war had been started in part to avoid the exact outcome it created: in the infamous words of Russian Interior Minister Vyacheslav Plehve, “to stave off revolution we need a triumphant little war.” And as we know from the analogous 1914 promise “we’ll be home by Christmas,” wars that start with the intention of finishing soon have an unfortunate tendency to keep dragging on.
Things came to a head back in January 1905, on Bloody Sunday, when the guards of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg shot into an unarmed crowd of protesters carrying a petition to the tsar. As many as 200 people were killed, hundreds more were injured, and the number of factories on strike skyrocketed. Revolutionary thinkers from Peter Struve to Vladimir Lenin wrote outraged articles about the ever-widening gap between the people and the monarchy, so callously demonstrated by the shootings.
Strikes and frenzied government activity continued all year. After asking a committee to look into creating a parliament back in January, in August Nicholas II signed a decree establishing the Duma, Russia’s first parliament. And yet strikes continued. In October a general strike rolled through Russia, and as industry and transportation ground to a halt, the tsar was forced to give the liberals what they wanted: freedoms.
The result, the October Manifesto, was a mini-constitution establishing civil rights and putting a check on the previously-absolute Russian monarchy – at least on paper. When, two years later, a mostly powerless Duma was disbanded entirely, Russians found out just how empty many of those promises were. Still unsatisfied, the Russian people geared up for 1917.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
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