Causes of the 1905 Revolution

An essay on the factors which led to the Russian Revolution on 22nd January 1905

Bloody Sunday saw the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg marched upon by 200000 Russians, led by Father Gapon, a priest, in an ill-fated attempt to petition Tsar Nicholas II for change. In their petition, they outlined the problems with Russia’s political and economic systems, then requested that the Tsar make some changes which might improve their lives. In theory, things might have gone well from their efforts, but in practice all went horribly wrong: Nicholas, thinking that he was under attack, fled from the Palace and sent troops to control the crowd. Ultimately the petitioners were massacred. This sparked off the 1905 revolution, an 11-month series of strikes, riots and assassinations. Of course, the massacre was only the final straw in the build-up to the revolution, notable in which was Russia’s war with the Japanese.

The location of the Russian Empire mean that it was rarely a pleasant temperature, with the vast majority of the land being largely uninhabitable. In particular, Russia’s eastern parts spent six months of every year completely frozen, making it virtually worthless. Nicholas II therefore decided to capture the slightly warmer Port Arthur. Apart from its strategic usefulness, the capturing of the territory would, it was hoped, distract the Russian populace from the wide array of problems with their society and reactivate a sense of patriotism and Tsarist loyalty. What this shows us is that the Russian people were starting to lose faith in the Tsar, and this was starting to lead to civil unrest. The problem with Nicholas’ idea was, again, that it caused precisely what he wanted to prevent. Having decided on this plan to capture the nation’s heart through a grand victory, he had not realised how hard that victory would be to achieve. As it happened, Russia was defeated with embarrassing ease. This meant that, rather than improving the lives of his subjects, the Tsar had made them worse (by spending much of their pittance on the war), thus plunging Russia into economic problems, and turned his people against him. The reason this event is significant is that it exposed the ineptitude of the Tsarist rulers and caused the people to become aware of his flaws, as well as how they were holding the country back. We still, however, have not reached the long term causes behind the revolution, and they had been building up for a long time.

In an era when the western world was seeing a huge industrial leap forward, and improvements in the quality of proletarian life, Russian society still used a structure not seen since the middle ages. The society used the feudal system, whereby most of the population were peasant farmers who served the Tsar and aristocracy. Russia also still had medieval technology on the farms, and so the yield was always disappointing compared to farms from Western Europe.

The effect of this backwardness was to make Russia a weak nation, and a poor one. The peasants (80% of the population) lived in poverty and, though indoctrinated by the Orthodox church, were developing a dislike of the system and the Tsar. The industrial workers, meanwhile, were also finding that they were being overworked and underpaid, while the middle-class capitalists wanted more power for themselves. The problem was that Nicholas was a firm believer in absolute autocracy and would not hear of autocracy or reform. This was obstructive because while he believed he alone should be allowed to rule, he was terrible at ruling: Being too concerned with the minute details of government to look at the country overall and take a direction for it. As a result, the empire continued to decline, to fall behind Europe and to become dissatisfied with its leaders.

Overall we can see that the reasons for the 1905 revolution have a deep story behind them. The longterm problems with the insufficiency of Russian technology and its antiquated social structure were the foundation for Nicholas’ decision to wage war with Japan, which in turn built up to Bloody Sunday. A common theme in all of this is the Tsar attempting to set his country right… and failing spectacularly. While it shows he occasionally had moments of good intentions and lucidity, ultimately they showed his lack of commanding talent. Another theme was the Tsar’s inability to acknowledge the needs of his subordinates when they tried to communicate them. At a speech in the White House in 1962, John F. Kennedy said

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

and this is precisely what happened in Russia. By violently stamping down on all attempts to negotiate with him, the Tsar made it impossible to peacefully fix the problems of the country. Talking only works so long as people are willing to listen, and Nicholas wasn’t. By the end of Bloody Sunday, it had become clear that no amount of peaceful negotiation would break through Nicholas’ authoritarian, closed-minded ignorance, so the people decided to see if actions would speak louder than words.

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