The hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution isn’t causing a stir yet in the places where history buffs hang out on line. Or at least not that I’ve seen.* It doesn’t have the cachet/glamour/melancholy/nostalgia accorded to the beginning of the First World War or the sinking of the Titanic. Unlike the Battle of Waterloo, there are no plans for large-scale re-enactment. And yet it is worth taking a few moments to consider an event (or more accurately series of events) that profoundly shaped the twentieth century.
The first thing we should remember is that the revolution of 1917 wasn’t the first Russian Revolution.
At the end of 1904, Russia was getting its imperial behind kicked by the Japan in the Russo-Japanese War.** In addition to the sting of national humiliation, the war placed a strain on Russia’s fragile infrastructure. While the government concentrated on the difficult task of supplying its armed forces in Asia, the systems for provisioning Russia’s large cities broke down. The price of essential goods (i.e. bread) rose so quickly that real wages fell by twenty percent.
Worker discontent boiled over in December 1904, when the Putilov Iron Works in St. Petersburg fired four employees who belonged to the Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers, led by Russian Orthodox priest Father Gregory Gapon.*** Encouraged by Father Gapon to take action, the Putilov workers went on strike. They were soon joined by more than 100,000 workers across the city. The Russian government responded by cutting off electricity to the city, shutting down newspapers, and declaring public areas of the city closed. They also brought in additional troops to support existing forces in the city.
On Sunday, January 22,**** more than 150,000 Russian workers, many of them women and children, marched peacefully on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Calling on their “Little Father” for help in difficult times, the marchers tried to present Tsar Nicholas II with a petition demanding political and economic reforms, including outrageous things like improved working conditions, better wages, reduced hours, universal manhood suffrage, and the end of the war with Japan.
The Imperial Guard blocked their way and fired on the crowd to keep them from moving forward. Between bullets and the panicking crowd, more than 100 people were killed or wounded.
News of what was predictably called “Bloody Sunday” set off insurrections at every level of society. Middle-class professional associations and the aristocratically controlled elected councils called zemstovs called for a constitutional assembly. Students walked out of universities to protest the lack of civil liberties. In the villages, the self-governing peasant organizations called mirs organized uprisings against landlords. In the cities, industrial workers went on strike.
In June, after the Japanese destruction of the Russian fleet, the spirit of insurrection infected the military. Sailors on the battleship Potemkin protested against being served rotten meat. (And can you blame them? ) When the captain ordered the ringleaders shot, the firing squad refused to obey his orders and the crew threw their officers overboard. Other units of the army and navy followed the Potemkin’s example.
In October, the railway workers went on strike, paralyzing transportation. At the same time Leon Trotsky and other members of the moderate wing of the Bolshevik party***** set up a worker’s council or Soviet in St. Petersburg to coordinate revolutionary activities. Within a matter of weeks, more than 50 Soviets were formed across Russia.
Faced with general unrest, the tsar’s chief minister recommended that Nicholas create an elected legislative assembly as a way to appease the public. The tsar reluctantly agreed. The October Manifesto established a limited form of constitutional monarchy with a new advisory council, the Duma, which would be chosen by public election and would have the authority to approve or reject all legislation. No one was happy with the plan. The tsar didn’t like it for obvious reasons. (Was an absolute monarch ever happy about being forced into limiting his powers?) Radicals were frustrated by the fact that the Duma was designed as a consulting body, not a true legislature. A conservative backlash in the form of armed bands known as the Black Hundreds organized pogroms, took punitive action against peasants who had participated in the insurrections and attacked students and activities.
It turned out that radical doubts about the proposed Duma were well founded. When the laws that detailed the structure of the new reforms was released in April 1906, it was discovered that popular control of the Duma was less than promised. The right to vote was severally limited. Moreover, the elected Duma was the lower house of a two-house body. Members of the upper house were appointed by the tsar, who retained the right to rule by decree when the Duma wasn’t in session. (You can see where this is going, right?)
Between 1906 and 1917, four separate Dumas were convened. Each Duma remained in session for only a few months before Nicholas shut them down.
Russia was a (second) revolution waiting to happen.
*Though a couple of Big Fat History Books on the subject have arrived in my mailbox. I call to your attention Sean McMeakin’s The Russian Revolution: A New History and Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917–A World On the Edge.
**Here’s the short version: Sometimes described as the first great war of the twentieth century, the Russo-Japanese War began with Japan’s attack on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur in Manchuria on February 9, 1904 and ended with the destruction of the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Straits on May 27, 1905. Officially the war was a conflict over who controlled Manchuria and Korea.Unofficially, it was Japan’s debut as an international power. The west did not pay as much attention to this as they should have.
***Ironically, the union was established by Minister of the Interior and director of the imperial police Vyacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve as a way to ease economic discontent among the workers.
****Or on January 9, if your sources still used the Julian calendar, aka the “old calendar”. Russia didn’t make the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar until 1918. And lest we feel too smug about that: Britain and colonies didn’t begin using the Gregorian calendar until 1752, 170 years after much of Europe changed to the new system. As I’ve said before, calendars are cultural constructs.
*****The ones willing to cooperate with non-socialist liberals to implement reforms until the budding Russian proletariat was fully developed and ready for revolution