1905 Russian Revolution | History Empire

1905 Russian Revolution

17th October 1905 by Ilya Repin

17th October 1905 by Ilya Repin

Known as the ‘dress-rehearsal’ for 1917, the events of 1905 caused widespread changes in Russia’s government and society, although ultimately were unsuccessful in the aims of their participants.

Causes – Working Class Discontent

Industrialisation in the 1880s and 1890s had led to a substantial growth in the working class of Russia, particularly in the city of St. Petersburg. Unlike in countries of Western Europe where a lengthy struggle for the workers’ rights had won some concessions, Russian workers had no right to independently organise while being faced with harsh working conditions: 12 hour days of factory work (for some even longer), dangerous working conditions in all industries, but particularly acute in extractive industries such as mining and oil, combined with no insurance for work place accidents. Further pay was low, and you couldn’t rely on your monthly pay arriving on time. Private family life for most workers did not exist, as their poverty forced them to live with other workers in communal accommodation or factory barracks, often grossly overpriced. This had all become worse following an economic depression in 1900 which increased hours and decreased pay further for many workers. The conditions were unbearable, but there wasn’t an outlet which could change them. Trade unions existed, but were strictly controlled and monitored by the police to the extent they were almost completely ineffective and if anything served as a block on the formation of genuine, but illegal, trade unions. Striking was strictly banned, meaning that the traditional ‘stick’ to force employers into negotiations wasn’t present for the legal trade unions.

The working class had demonstrated it’s militancy in the face of its exploitative conditions before. In 1896 a major strike took place in St. Petersburg, followed by a major miners’ strike in 1900 in the Donetz Basin. The Tsarist state didn’t take such threats lightly however, and in 1903 the army prevented a general strike in St. Petersburg after they had been successfully used to end a strike in Rostov-on-Don the previous year. These had been organised through illegal trade unions with the assistance of the socialists in the RSDLP among others. 1903 also saw the formation of the Assembly of Russian Workers, reaching a membership of 9000 by year end, by the priest Father Georgi Gapon who later would play an important role in the march on Bloody Sunday. This organisation led a strike of 110,000 in 1904 when four of its members were sacked at the Putilov Iron Works and would lead directly to the march on Bloody Sunday.

Socialist Movement in Tsarist Russia

Savva Morozov

Savva Morozov, who contributed funds to the RSDLP paper Iskra

It is therefore unsurprising that educated, intelligent workers would be drawn towards opposition movements. Chief among them was Marxism, and pamphlets by Marxists as well as books by Marx and Engels, among others, were widely read by those who could read and their ideas shared with those who could not. Marxism had taken hold in Russia largely due to the failings of previous radical groups whose attempts to lead peasant rebellion or individual terrorism had failed to bring about change leading those involved to switch their focus to the working class, who had been more receptive to their propaganda and whom Marxists saw as the only social force capable of bringing about a equal society, in the 1880s starting with the Emancipation of Labour group, and ultimately the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which had split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions in 1903.

Scene from the film Battleship Potemkin

Scene from the film Battleship Potemkin showing Tsarist violence against demonstrators. We’ve embedded the film below this article for you to watch.

Membership of socialist groups had initially largely come from the intelligentsia. This group included students, professionals such as lawyers and those in the bureaucracy, and small business owners. Along with the workers and peasants, they were excluded from the political process while in other countries it was members of their class which had begun to take positions in governments. They saw that attempts to modernise from above had failed and that the Tsarist regime would not give away power, thus they sided with the working class who they saw as the only social force with the agency to create change. The extent of this can be seen that even some industrialists such as Savva Morozov contributed funds to the RSDLP. While members of the RSDLP started out being largely from the intelligentsia, more and more were ordinary educated workers by the time of the 1905 revolution. Semeon Kanatchikov is a prime example, a worker who had moved to Moscow, got a job in machine-making, read Marx in his spare time and would become a full time revolutionary just before the start of the 1905 revolution.

The other major socialist group apart from the RSDLP was the Socialist Revolutionaries. There strategy in this period was one of terror and assassination. There biggest victory had come with the assassination of Minister of Interior Plehve in July 1904.

Rural Malcontent

While for many peasants the situation had improved since the emancipation, and by the time of the Revolution the peasantry owned 68% of the land, this had been combined with an increasing population which had meant for an individual peasant the situation still wasn’t great and life was still a struggle for survival. Those landowners who rented the extra land many peasants needed to survive often charged high rents or converted their land into commercial farms, which forced many peasants to sell their land and becoming rural workers subject to the threat of unemployment. This was particularly true as these farms, which largely grew sugar beat and wheat, became more mechanised and thus required less labourers. There appears to be a correspondence between the level of mechanisation and peasant discontent, as is illustrated by the Poltava province which saw peasant risings in 1902. Many of those unable to find work in the countryside moved to the cities to find work, bringing their experience of protest with them and taking back the experience of strikes in the city to the countryside when they returned. The shared experience undoubtedly led to the involvement of the countryside in the 1905 revolution which began in the cities as many in the countryside had direct experience from the cities and knew what the workers experienced.

Tsarist Repression

Almost everyone in Russia suffered from the repression and constraints of the Tsarist state. You could not speak your mind on political topics for fear of being reported to the Tsarist police – the punishment for political offenses being indefinite detention without trial. While the state had made some concessions towards democracy, as seen by the zemstva, those involved, numbering around 70,000 of the intelligentsia, resented the massive limitations these organisations had placed upon them. Those at university were unable to form societies, with discontent boiling over into 1901 into a huge demonstration in St. Petersburg. This was attacked by Cossacks on horseback, killing thirteen and leading to 1500 being imprisoned. The effect was to cause many students to become militants, most joining the Socialist Revolutionaries who reacted with a wave of terror, but many also joining the RSDLP, and others the more liberal Union of Liberation.

Defeat in the War against Japan

Treaty of Portsmouth

Negotiations of the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the Russo-Japanese War, taking place in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA

The Russo-Japanese war had been caused by Russia’s expansion into the Far-East where it had taken control of Manchuria and Korea. Ignoring Japanese negotiations with the view that any war would be easily won by the Russians, they had provoked Japan into attacking their navy in Port Arthur, Manchuria. Japan was quickly able to occupy Korea and continued to attack Port Arthur while the Russian army and navy began the long trip to fight them. Port Arthur eventually surrendered in January 1905, while the Baltic navy took until May to reach the port where it was quickly destroyed. This showed that the Russian state was far from invincible and that it’s failure to modernise had left it weak, giving confidence to those who opposed it.

Bloody Sunday 1905

In reaction of the growth of strong anti-aristocratic sentiment, a protest march was organised for Sunday 9th January by workers in St Petersburg led by the Orthodox Christian priest Father Gapon. Less than a week earlier, on 3rd January, a strike wave had started in St. Petersburg. The march aimed to deliver a petition to the Tsar, residing in the Winter Palace, with a list of grievances in a peaceful manner. This form of protest was largely due to a naive view that the Tsar was not himself responsible for the situation, but instead had been misguided by lower officials and aristocrats (this view had been common in protests throughout Early Modern Europe, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace in Tudor England). For many on the march the belief that presenting the Tsar with the petition would make him take charge of the situation and fix the wrongs against the workers was a genuine one.

Text of the petition:

Father Gapon

Father Gapon

“Oh Sire, we working men and inhabitants of St. Petersburg, our wives, our children and our parents, helpless and aged women and men, have come to You our ruler, in search of justice and protection. We are beggars, we are oppressed and overburdened with work, we are insulted, we are not looked on as human beings but as slaves. The moment has come for us when death would be better than the prolongation of our intolerable sufferings.

We are seeking here our last salvation. Do not refuse to help Your people. Destroy the wall between Yourself and Your people.”

The demands of the march included many working class grievances such as the length of the working day, with the march demanded this be limited to eight hours, the introduction of a minimum wage and better conditions in factories to prevent ‘risk of death from wind, rain and snow’.

The March to the Winter Palace, Bloody Sunday 1905

The March to the Winter Palace, Bloody Sunday 1905

The march had developed out of legal organisations – trade unions that were not independent and were monitored closely by the police, and thus were largely ineffective – that Father Gapon had been organising since 1903. Worried by the developments of events and the potential size and militancy of the 9th December march, Father Gapon was ordered to cancel it on Friday 7th January. Gapon ignored this order, himself believing the Tsar as the ‘little Father of the people’ would prevent the march being attacked by the police, unbeknownst to him that the Tsar had arranged to be away from St. Petersburg on the day of the march.

On Sunday the march, of around 150,000 people, proceeded towards the Winter Palace, but as it approached it was charged by the cavalry and then shot upon by the infantry. Bloody Sunday is an appropriate name, given that this firing on a peaceful demonstration led to over 200 deaths and 800 injuries, among them many children who were taken along with their families in a naive belief that the Tsar would prevent the march from being attacked.

The reaction throughout the country to the shootings on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators was strong and swift. A strike wave formed, with workers bypassing the ineffective trade unions controlled by the police to set up their own action councils called Soviets. The strike wave spread into the army and navy, leading to mutinies including that immortalised in the 1925 Sergei Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin. These were joined by uprisings in the countryside, leading to at time the impression that the entire country was against the government and thus the Tsar might be forced to abdicate.

The Events of Up to the Autumn of 1905

 The Strike Wave and Soviets

St Petersburg Soviet of 1905

St Petersburg Soviet of 1905, Leon Trotsky is on the middle row, fourth from the left

The immediate effect of the Bloody Sunday massacre was a nation wide strike wave, involving perhaps half a million workers by the end of January 1905. Later, in September 1905 a strike of printers in Moscow led to another strike wave becoming what was in effect a general strike by mid October. The most effective part of this strike was the involvement of railway workers, who were vital to the economy and troop movements.

In order to co-ordinate the strikers workers in St. Petersburg elected a council of delegates from their strikes, known as a Soviet. The Soviet had 50 members, with each of the three main socialist groups (Socialist Revolutionaries, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) having seven of the delegates. The  body quickly became more than just a place to co-ordinate resistance to Tsarism as it adopted functions of municipal government (distribution of food, law and order, etc) and saw similar bodies spread to other cities and provide a body which had the potential to take over the running of the country if the Tsar was to fall. It was in the Soviet of St. Petersburg that Leon Trotsky first becomes well known as its chairman.

Peasant Unrest

1905 saw 3000 uprisings, often burning the houses and land of the wealthy and seizing their land. This was accompanied with the foundation of peasant co-operatives and agricultural trade unions, advancing to the stage that some villages declared their own governments.


Many sections of the armed forces saw mutinies, the most famous being the Battleship Potemkin based off Odessa in the Black Sea. This occurred after a meal of rotten meat was served, and developed as the firing squad ordered by the captain to shoot the leaders of the strike against the bad food refused to carry out their orders. Troops returning from the Far-East also mutinied.

Nationalist Rebellion

Huge demonstrations gripped Latvia, Finland and Poland, and in Georgia and government controlled by the Mensheviks had effective control.

Liberal Banquets

One of the only forms of legal public gathering that of the banquet, and this was the form used by liberals to voice their malcontent. These were used to call for a national zemstvo, a call which would be expanded by November 1905 to a call for a Constituent Assembly elected by universal suffrage, to decide the future of Russia. The demand got nowhere as Tsar Nicholas refused to make concessions, telling the Minister of Interior, Prince Mirsky that “I will never agree to the representative form of government, because I consider it harmful to the people whom God has entrusted to me’.

Reaction of the Tsarist Regime and the Failure of the Revolution

While the regime initially favoured the use of force to put down the events through the Summer of 1905, afterwards the Tsar’s advisors favoured concessions as the loyalty of the army – whom might be needed to fire on those striking – was in question. Count Sergei Witte urged the formation of a democratically elected parliament and the introduction of civil rights. The Tsar finally agreed to Witte’s October Manifesto which includes an elected parliament (the Duma) with approval powers over all legislation, along with the civil rights of freedom of speech, to form organisations such as trade unions and conscience, as well as a relaxation of censorship and limits on powers of arrest.

October Manifesto

The October Manifesto was a tactic by the regime to divide the opposition. The document was so full of loopholes that it was easy for the regime to back away from the substantive concessions in it over time, yet it was strong enough that those involved in the events such as right-wing liberals (whom would become known as the Octobrists) rallied around the Tsar. Others such as the Kadets (who were Constitutional Democrats) didn’t support the manifesto but ended their involvement in the events in order to concentrate their strength on electioneering. For the socialists and working class the Manifesto only showed that they could win demands through their actions and provided encouragement. Leading socialists such as Lenin returned from exile in early November to help lead the movement against the regime.

Destruction of the Soviets

The Soviets called for a general strike in St Petersburg. But their influence was diminished by 3rd December when Witte had their leaders arrested. In reaction the Moscow RSDLP launched an uprising which by the 12th December had gained control of the strategic main railway stations and large sections of the city, but was crushed by Witte sending in troops which by the 23rd December had crushed the uprising resulting in the deaths of over a thousand people.

1906 would see the repression of those involved in the Revolution, but saw a response of an assassination campaign which killed 2000 government officials in 1906 alone. Only the harshest repression was able to stamp out the last of the resistance. Roughly 15,000 had been executed by the Tsarist regime by April 1906 when the first Duma session began. A further 20,000 had been shot or wounded and 45,000 exiled.

For the Socialists the events had proven the liberals to be unreliable allies, whom had stopped their agitation at a crucial time and thus allowed the Tsarist regime victory even if they had not supported the subsequent repression. This was to have a lasting impact on the politics of the socialist movement, and in particular how the Bolsheviks would act in 1917 towards liberal forces.

Why did the regime prevail?

Despite the co-ordination in the cities, the rural and urban disturbances happened in waves not at the same time, allowing the regime the ability to deal with less of a threat simultaneously. The main rural disturbances were in Summer 1905 and 1906, while the workers took action mainly in the Autumn of 1905.

Witte’s negotiated settlement of the Russo-Japanese war in August 1905 with the Treaty of Portsmouth in the USA allowed Russian troops to come home. Despite the mutinies the army stayed mostly loyal and thus was able to be used against the revolution.

Probably the main reason was the damage the October Manifesto caused to the movement by dividing it and thus meaning that the regime could use the army to end the uprising.

Links to Primary Sources

  • Leon Trotsky’s 1905: Trotsky was leader of the St Petersburg Soviet, he wrote this book between 1907-1909. It provides both an detailed description of events and a political analysis of a Russian Marxist on why the Revolution failed, in doing so providing important insights into how Russian Marxists would react to the Revolutions of 1917
  • Maxim Gorky’s novel ‘The Mother’: Written in 1907 about a mother’s struggle against Tsarism in 1905. Adapted into a movie, which you can watch below.

Books about the 1905 Revolution

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Film: Battleship Potemkin, 1925, Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Depicting the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin and the events of 1905 in Odessa.

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Film: Mother, 1926, Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin

Shows the struggle of a mother, Pavel Vlasov, against Tsarism during 1905, based on a novel by Maxim Gorky.

1905 Russian Revolution Timeline

  • February 1904: Start of the Russo-Japanese war
  • 3rd January 1905: Mass strike in St Petersburg
  • 9th January 1905: Bloody Sunday massacre of peaceful protest march in St Petersburg
  • January 1905: Strike wave in response to massacre across Russia
  • June 1905: Mutiny on Battleship Potemkin
  • 5th September 1905: Treaty of Portsmouth ends Russo-Japanese War, allowing troops to return from Far-East
  • September 1905: Strike of Moscow Print Workers
  • October 1905: St Petersburg Soviet formed
  • October 1905: October Manifesto signed by Tsar, promising democratic reforms
  • November 1905: Moscow Soviet formed
  • 12th December 1905: Moscow Uprising captures main railway stations
  • 23rd December 1905: Moscow Uprising defeated
  • April 1906: First Duma session begins


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