‘Bloody Sunday‘ in 1905 had severely weakened any hope Nicholas II had of calling himself the ‘father of his people’. By the end of the year, St Petersburg had been affected by many strikes and political agitation in the factories was rife. On the first Sunday in March, an estimated 300,000 people had taken to the streets of the capital shouting out a variety of slogans. The most worrying for the authorities must have been “All power to the Soviets” while “God save the tsar and open his eyes to our wants” would have given the glimmer of hope that some of the people still demonstrated loyalty to Nicholas II. Even more worrying for the government was the fact that the demonstrations were spontaneous and not pre-planned and involved a curious mix of political aspirants. They called for a general change in how Russia should be governed but were not specific with details of what they actually wanted.
A year of arbitrary arrests, strikes and political agitation did not bode well for the government.
By the end of 1905, Nicholas could not even depend on the loyalty of his military. In June 1905, the crew of the battleship ‘Potemkin’ mutinied and the disaster that was the Russo-Japanese War compounded all the problems that the military was suffering. There is evidence that men in the army refused to move out to the east to fight the Japanese, fearing that any such move would result in their death. The fact that men in the army had not been paid for three months hardly helped matters.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Nicholas II was adamant that the autocracy would not surrender any of its authority. Therefore, as far as Nicholas was concerned any form of constituent assembly to represent the views of the people was considered to be a non-starter. However, such was the weakness of his position that he, characteristically, caved in. In March 1905, Nicholas promised that he would authorise the convening of a duma. This was exactly what Nicholas had promised would not happen.
The first duma was weighted in favour of the landed class and had no share in legislative administration. But many saw it as an ominous sign that all was not well in the government.
What of the workers of St Petersburg? At the end of 1905, the Union of Unions met. Paul Milykov was its president. In the early months of 1905, the factories of St Petersburg had witnessed a great deal of union activity. Some 46 out of a total of 87 unions in the city had joined the Union of Unions. Most of the people in it could be classed as left-wing liberals. The Union of Unions had two main beliefs. It wanted to use its power to demand reform in the working conditions in the factories and it also wanted to extend its activity beyond St Petersburg and to try and mobilise peasant support in the vast rural areas of Russia. However, the Union of Unions found that they had little support in the countryside. Many of the leaders in the Union of Unions were middle class liberals. They could not begin to empathise with the lives experienced by those in the countryside and by the spring of 1906, the Union of Unions had stopped most activity/agitation in the countryside.
Russia appeared to be polarising. The duma was a major issue of debate. Some saw it as a climb down by Nicholas II; others realised that its powers were remarkably limited. However, what the first duma did was to split those who wanted change. Right wing liberals saw the duma as a major victory while moderate socialists saw it as an intermediary success but one to be built on. They announced that they would boycott the elections for the first duma. Such a split played into the hands of the government. Those who opposed the tsar and failed to unite and organise themselves, played into the hands of the government. United, they would have been an awesome opponent. But while the many strands of opposition remained divided, the tsar remained apparently strong.
However, in October 1905, a strike developed in St Petersburg that was spontaneous. The government in St Petersburg was up against a rival government within the city – a government of the workers. It was during this strike that Leon Trotsky came to the fore. Nicholas was faced with two choices – more repression or some form of constitutional reform. He turned to Count Witte for advice. Witte believed that the military could not be fully trusted and advised Nicholas to go for reform. Witte drew up these reforms and Nicholas signed them on October 17th 1905. They promised the people of Russia:
Freedom of speech
Freedom of assembly
No laws to be introduced without the agreement of the Duma.
However, the October Manifesto did not include any reference to the point that the Duma could not initiate legislation.