What were the causes of the 1905 Revolution? Why did the Revolution fail to overthrow the Tsarist Regime?




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What were the causes of the 1905 Revolution? Why did the Revolution fail to overthrow the Tsarist Regime?

The Revolution of 1905 was the first time the Tsar had faced open opposition from so many groups in Russian society at the same time. It involved peasant disturbances, strikes, naval mutinies, nationalist uprisings and assassinations. This essay aims to examine the different causes of the Revolution of 1905. Short and long-term causes will be considered, and economic, political, military and social factors will be discussed. The essay will also explain why the Revolution ultimately failed to overthrow the Tsarist regime.


A long-term social and economic cause of the 1905 Revolution was the continuing dissatisfaction of both peasants and landowners to the Emancipation Edict of 1861. Although this piece of legislation had brought an end to serfdom, peasants still remained tied to the village commune (mir) and were angry at the redemption payments they were expected to pay in return for the land they had received. They believed more, and better quality, land should have been given to them at no cost. Their anger was made evident during the peasant disturbances of 1902. The landowners were also unhappy with the terms of emancipation. They lost the free labour of their serfs and a large amount of land. As a result many were facing huge debts by 1905.
Another long-term cause of the 1905 Revolution was the general disappointment with which many Russian people viewed the reforms of the previous decades. As mentioned above, emancipation had promised much but delivered little. The reign of Alexander II had produced a number of similar reforms. Changes to local government and the legal system were both limited and led to the call for more liberal reform. The reactionary reign of Alexander III led to a tightening of government control and the persecution of minority groups, such as Jews, within the Empire.
The personal weaknesses of Nicholas II should also be considered as a cause for the 1905 Revolution. Nicholas had a tendency to place the needs of his family above those of his subjects. He also lacked the strength of character of his predecessors and the general view of historians is that he played a significant part in his own downfall. The fact that he was not at the Winter Palace to receive the demonstrators petition in 1905 was arguable a mistake that damaged the long accepted view of the Tsar as the father and protector of his people.
A further long-term social and economic cause of the 1905 Revolution was the worsening conditions of both peasants and urban workers. The famines in 1897, 1898 and 1901 had led to shortage and distress in the countryside. Living and working conditions in Russia’s industrial towns were no better. Workers worked in poorly ventilated factories for long hours and little pay. They had no trade unions for protection. Their homes were crowded and poorly built. Economic recession between 1899 and 1903 had also led to growing unemployment throughout the Empire.
A short-term military cause of the 1905 Revolution was the defeat of Russian in the war against Japan in 1904. It had been hoped that the war would lead to a growth in national pride and support for the Tsarist regime but Russia’s military leaders underestimated the Japanese forces and the difficulties in organising their own forces. It was inconceivable to the Russian people that Japan would defeat Russia. When defeat came it was a humiliating blow and proved devastating to the prestige and stability of the Russian monarchy.
Arguably, the most significant short-term cause of the 1905 Revolution was Bloody Sunday. On 22 January, a procession of unarmed demonstrators, led by a priest called Father Gapon, gathered outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to present the Tsar with a petition. Their demands included shorter working hours and a minimum wage. The armed guards turned on the demonstrators and many men, women and children were killed. The event shocked the Russian population and was swiftly followed by strikes and disturbances.
A range of other factors can also be viewed as causes for the 1905 Revolution. For example, revolutionary groups were becoming increasingly organised. The Social Revolutionaries were responsible for the assassination of Plehve, Minister of the Interior in 1904. However, leading figures of the revolutionary movement, such as Lenin, were not present in St. Petersburg during the Revolution.
Nevertheless, unlike in 1917, Nicholas II did survive the events of 1905, and there are four main reasons for this. Although a large proportion of the Russian population expressed their opposition to the Tsarist regime during events of 1905 it was not organised protest. Each group had its own grievances and separate set of demands. The nationalities in the Baltic area, the Ukraine, Poland and the south were each angry with the policy of Russification but their grievances were their own and they did not co-ordinate their activities or produce a unified programme. In Poland Catholic landowners lead the protests, in the Baltic states it was more likely to be ethnic Germans who felt little sense of common purpose with the Poles. This lack of unity is a key reason why the Revolution ultimately failed.
Another way in which it manifested itself was lack of common purpose between Russia’s different social classes. The leadership, such as it was, for the revolution came from the middle class liberals who orchestrated a banqueting campaign based on that of French middle class protesters in 1789. They were calling for political reform and a Duma and were broadly liberal in their views and demands. They clearly had little common ground with the urban working class who worked for them and were exploited by them. These workers had economic aims, better conditions, shorter hours, and better pay. They organised themselves by autumn of 1905 into soviets but spent most of the year protesting in spontaneous strikes and marches. The peasants were too widely distributed and isolated to have a common organised leadership. Their protests were traditional peasant ones of burning manor records and rioting against redemption dues. In other words they were limited to self-interested economic motives rather than any hopes for revolutionary change in the system of government.
Another reason why the Tsar survived the crisis of 1905 was that the army, unlike the navy, stayed loyal to him. They were to play a key role in the putting down of disturbances and the reassertion of the Tsarist authority in the towns. For example, they were used to break up and imprison the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet and then fought running battles with workers in Moscow who had occupied factories.
Finally, a true revolution was avoided because the government made, against the wishes of the Tsar, intelligent concessions to two of the main opposition groups thus isolating the third; the industrial working class. The middle class were granted the October Manifesto, which established fundamental civil and political rights, extended the franchise and set up an elected parliament, the Duma that would have to agree all future laws. The peasants were eventually quieted by the declaration that payment of redemption dues was at an end. With the peasants and middle classes bought off, the army and police were set on the workers in towns. At the danger of running ahead of the scope of this essay, it must also be noted that even these concessions, which would have ended autocracy and might, therefore, be seen as revolutionary; were later withdrawn and the Fundamental Laws of 1906 largely restored the primacy of the Tsar over the Duma. Yet another way in which the events of 1905 can be shown to have yielded little in the way of long term revolutionary change.
To conclude, a variety of short term and long term factors contributed to the outbreak of revolution in 1905. Bloody Sunday was the trigger to widespread unrest but a number of ongoing problems were also significant. In the final analysis, 1905 may be seen as a potential revolution, or as Lenin said: ‘a dress rehearsal for revolution’ but as it did not bring about lasting revolutionary change it must be seen as a failed revolution at best.
(1300 words)


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