Everybody knows about the Russian Revolution of 1917, but fewer people may know about the series of events that foreshadowed it a dozen years earlier.
The revolution of 1905 was the culmination of structural problems that had been plaguing Tsarist Russia for decades which ultimately caused massive unrest that took over the entire empire. While the regime survived the revolution, Tsar Nicholas II, the last Russian emperor, was eventually forced to issue the October Manifesto which marked the beginning of constitutional monarchy in Russia by granting the establishment of the Russian parliament, Duma.
In fact, the aftermath of the 1905 revolution was so far-reaching that it changed the country’s threads of fate as it planted the seed of a massive change in the Russian social and political landscape. It was the “Great Dress Rehearsal” as referred to by Vladimir Lenin.
Historians and analysts have theorized a number of reasons that contributed to the 1905 revolution, from long-term problems such as the chronic instability of Russian autocratic rule to the trigger events of the Russo-Japanese War and the Bloody Sunday.
The Long-term Problems
The Agrarian Economy
One of the major causes of the 1905 revolution can be traced back to the Emancipation Edict of 1861 that canceled the institution of Russian serfdom which brew long-running dissatisfaction in both peasants and landowners.
Before industrialization, Russia was primarily an agrarian country, and roughly a third of its population consisted of serfs who—in Russia’s feudal system—were owned by the oligarchic class of landowners. Prior to the abolishment of serfdom, peasants revolted on numerous occasions often violently which eventually led to the Emancipation reform, however, in a way that both the government and landowners profited from it. The lands were not nationalized outright, rather, the peasants had to continue working on the lands of their former owners and pay installments with interests for decades. The landowners were not so content with the terms of emancipation either as they had lost big portions of their lands along with the free labor the serfs used to provide. The dissatisfaction in both parties gradually turned into rage as the overall economic conditions became worse with the famines striking the empire from 1897 to 1901 and the economic recession leading to widespread unemployment.
The Radicalization of the Educated Class
Around four decades prior to the revolution of 1905, reforms in the higher education system led to the lifting and easing of many restrictions in the universities which gradually resulted in newfound intellectual freedom among the educated class. With the expansion of universities, there was a rapid growth of journals and newspapers enhancing the circulation of information and ideas across the country which reinforced the acknowledgment of the right to have an independent opinion among the educated class. In the 1890s, the literacy levels had increased among the Russian public, exposing them to more reformist and revolutionary ideas from the west.
Deplorable Work Environment
Because of its agrarian economy, Russia was unable to keep up with its western competitors such as Britain and France. This caused instability as the Tsarist regime was always afraid to get into conflict with the west. The rapid economic modernization and industrialization of Russia was an attempt to close this gap but it didn’t coincide with political modernization and resulted in unbearable living and working conditions. Thousands of workers worked 11 to 12 hours a day in large factories without any type of legislation to govern their working conditions.
This coupled with the ban of trade unionism resulted in general discontent and frequent worker strikes. These discontented and radicalized workers were central to the revolution as they made up the majority of the protests’ participants.
On rare occasions, there were industrialists who cared for their workers but they were harshly criticized for their liberal views by their peers and often were obligated to change their paths. One such industrialist was Savva Morozov whose death in 1905, according to the Russian historian Nataly Viko (Наталия Вико), “over eclipsed” the news of the revolutionary events. He was one of the firsts to introduce the idea of profit-sharing with factory workers but was removed from the Morozov family business as a result.
Like any empire ruling over a vast geographical area, Russia was home to many different races and ethnicities who were not necessarily treated equally. The oppressive nature of the Russian government led to the alienation of the national minorities as they harbored resentful sentiments toward the government’s Russification policies.
The Russo-Japanese War
In 1904, Russia faced a surprise attack from Japan and went to war with the country which resulted in repeated humiliating defeats. Nicholas II went to war hoping that a quick defeat of Japan would give him a popularity boost and portray him as a strong leader in the eyes of both his people and the world. However, it all went terribly wrong. In January 1905, the Russian forces had to surrender the Port Arthur naval base in northern China and were then defeated in Manchuria. The biggest defeat, however, came on 27 May 1905 when the Russian Baltic fleet lost 25 of their 35 warships at the battle of Tsushima.
These consecutive defeats were important factors in the 1905 revolution because they took a toll on the already weakened economy and cause more anger among the people of Russia. Moreover, a lot of the Russian army was fighting in Japan and was not present within the borders to protect and support the Tsar.
The Bloody Sunday
In contrast to the later ones, the revolution of 1905 began in a non-violent manner. In the February of that year, a peaceful procession of around 120 thousand unarmed civilians led by father Georgy Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest, approached Tsar’s winter palace in an attempt to present a petition asking for help from the Tsar himself. At that point, people still regarded him as their protector and accepted him as the autocratic ruler. They didn’t blame him for all of the problems in Russia, but his and advisors and the members of the civil service.
However, the Tsar’s army misread the situation and opened fire on the crowd, killing and injuring hundreds of protestors. This was perhaps the most important event that triggered the 1905 revolution and heralded a downward spiral in all the problems in Russia at the time.