The 1905 Russian Revolution was sparked off by a peaceful protest held on January 22nd. This protest may well have been the turning point in the relationship the tsar, Nicholas II, enjoyed with his people. Led by a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Gapon, 150,000 people took to the cold and snow covered streets of St Petersburg to protest about their lifestyle. They were not intent on making any form of political protest in the sense of calling for the overthrow of the government or royal family. The petition they carried clearly shows that they wanted Nicholas to help them.
The petition they carried stated:
|“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.”|
None of this could be considered to be a call for a political overhaul, merely a plea for Nicholas to hear their call for help.
As the huge crowd marched through St Petersburg to the Winter Palace, they were confronted by troops who were understandably nervous having to face such a large crowd. The evidence as to why the soldiers fired on the peaceful crowd is patchy – such as who gave the command (if one was ever given) – but after the firing had finished several hundred protestors lay dead. The tragedy was quickly called “Bloody Sunday”. Revolutionary parties inflated the number of deaths to thousands. Rumours were spread that there were so many deaths, that soldiers disposed of the bodies in the night to disguise the real number killed. The government figure was less than 100 deaths.
|“The present ruler has lost absolutely the affection of the Russian people, and whatever the future may have in store for the dynasty, the present tsar will never again be safe in the midst of his people.”The American consul in Odessa|
News of what happened quickly spread throughout Russia. Strikes occurred throughout the country involving about 400,000 people; peasants attacked the homes of their landlords; the Grand Duke Sergei, the tsar’s uncle, was assassinated in February; the transport system all but ground to a halt. Russia seemed to be on the point of imploding. Sailors on the battleship ‘Potemkin’ mutinied in June and to add more woes to the government, it became clear that on top of all of this, Russia had lost the Russo-Japanese War – a war that was meant to have bound the people in patriotic fervour to Nicholas.
In January the demonstrators in St Petersburg had merely wanted the tsar to help improve their living standards. By the summer, the demands had become far more political. Protestors called for freedom of speech to be guaranteed; they demanded an elected parliament (Duma) and they demanded the right to form political parties. The Finns and Poles demanded their right to national independence.
In October 1905, a general strike took place in Moscow and quickly spread to other cities. All manner of people took to the streets demanding change – students, factory workers, revolutionaries, doctors and teachers. On October 26th, the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was formed. This example of working class unity and strength quickly spread to other industrial cities.
Nicholas had two choices. He could use force to put down the rebellions but he had no guarantee that this would be successful as he could not fully trust the military or he could make a conciliatory offer. He did the latter by issuing the October Manifesto on October 30th.
By December, troops had arrived back in European Russian from the Russo-Japanese War. Nicholas used loyal troops to put down the St Petersburg Soviet and to crush those on strike in Moscow. Loyal troops were also sent into the countryside to restore law and order. While the October Manifesto had seemingly brought rewards to the protestors, the tsar’s reaction in December showed where the government really stood.