The First Duma met for the first time on May 10th, 1906 in the Tauris Palace. The First Duma was dominated by the Kadets who wanted Russia to have a parliament based very much on the British model with legislative powers. Those who held the reins of power wanted it to be no more than a discussion chamber – one in which the government could easily identify its critics as speeches in the Duma were made in public.
The First Duma was meant to have been a consultative body. Many interpreted the October Manifesto as being conciliatory and as if to emphasise the conciliatory nature of the government an amnesty was granted to all political figures except to those who had taken part in revolutionary activities.
The Duma put forward to Nicholas II a programme of reform that they believed would benefit all of Russia. No one knew if Nicholas would even receive the programme. In the event, the Duma was told that most of its programme of reform was inadmissible to the government. This immediately provoked a response from the Duma and the consultative/discussion body suddenly turned on the government and verbally attacked every conceivable government abuse they could identify. Most government ministers reacted to this attack in a negative and uncompromising manner – all except Stloypin. He looked on the attack favourably as it clearly identified to him who were the main opponents to the government. He also identified those who criticised the government but in a far more mellow manner – people, he believed, he could work with at the expense of those who he felt were a danger to the government, and to his mind, Russia.
The Duma’s vote of censure was passed but it had no impact on the government. The Duma tried to rally public support by calling for reforms (and symbolically passing them in the Duma), which they knew the government would reject. However, they were playing a dangerous game as the government could not allow the Duma to stir up public anger and on July 21st, after just 42 days in office, the Duma was dissolved.
Equally as important, peasants were declared the legal owners of their plots of land within the framework of their commune. Redemption payments were effectively got rid of.
What was intended as a gesture was to have deep social and political implications over the nest few years in Russia. As part of the reforms brought in by Witte, peasants were allowed to leave their village and, if they remained in their village, they were permitted to share their land. However, by allowing peasants to leave their village, Witte was effectively exporting discontent around Russia. Those peasants who went to the cities for work, simply imported into that city their tales of woe and furthered any discontent against the regime.
The First Duma witnessed a split in the Liberals. The Octobrists were a group that wanted to accept the October Manifesto and saw it as a way forward. The Kadets wanted a parliament based on the British model – a discussion and legislative chamber, something that Nicholas would not accept.
Witte may well have helped Russia out of her difficulties if Nicholas had listened to him. However, Witte had many enemies in court. Some saw him as weak, a man who offered reforms to the enemies of the government. The Minister of the Interior, Durnovo, was appalled by what he saw as Witte’s weakness. Above all else, Alexandra did not agree with what Witte wanted.
The one hold Witte had over Nicholas was his ability to raise capital abroad – especially from France.
The government had to work in an atmosphere of distrust and industrial strife. In November 1905, a general strike was called in St Petersburg. The response was poor and in December, Witte ordered the arrest of the entire St Petersburg’s Soviet – 270 people.
This act of repression provoked an uprising in Moscow, which took the government 10 days to quell. Witte was clearing frightened at the growing unrest in Russia and he took it upon himself to offer what many interpreted as his own October Manifesto. This, to those who read it, appeared to offer universal suffrage to all taxpayers. It also seemed to allow all meetings of political parties. Witte had done this off of his own back – and the royal court was never to forgive him.