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5. Russia Confronts the 20th Century

Nicholas II became czar under inauspicious circumstances. He inherited the throne in 1894 after his father’s unexpected death at the age of 48 from a kidney infection and was not prepared to rule. As the new 26- year-old czar himself put it, “I know absolutely nothing about matters of state.” This did not bode well for a country only two years removed from the terrible famine of 1891–92 and the epidemic of cholera that followed it. Nicholas then made a bad situation worse. In reaction to increasing talk about possible political reforms to make Russia a constitutional monarchy, in early 1895 he publicly dismissed such ideas as “senseless dreams,” a statement that discredited him in the eyes of many moderates and liberals whose support he would some day need.

The czar’s foolish statement was followed by bad luck. Nicholas’s coronation in 1896 was transformed into a tragedy when a huge Moscow crowd celebrating the grand event stampeded after hearing rumors that the free beer and mugs they had been promised were running out. More than a thousand people died, mainly from trampling or because they suffocated when they fell and were smothered by those who fell on top of them. Meanwhile, the underground revolutionary movement, quiescent for most of the previous decade, was beginning to revive.

The reign of Nicholas II was distinguished by three things. First, compared to previous reigns, major events were driven less by what the czar and his advisers did and more by what the regime’s various opponents did, and indeed by what the country’s masses did. Second, over time the czar and his officials increasingly found themselves overmatched by the problems they faced. Finally, Russia suffered disastrous defeats in two wars: the Russo-Japanese war, which shook but did not topple the regime, and World War I, which overwhelmed the czar, the monarchy, and Russia itself and ultimately led to not one but two revolutions in a single year.

6. War and Revolution, 1904–1906

The first five years of Nicholas II’s reign went well enough, if the measure is avoiding a major crisis. Russia enjoyed dramatic industrial growth under Witte’s management, and there was no serious challenge to the new czar’s generally reactionary but, by Russian standards, rather routine political policies.

Economic development accelerated the growth of a middle class of businesspeople and professionals that had been developing since midcentury.

Its members, educated and informed about life in Europe, generally supported moderate political reform in the direction of a constitutional monarchy, an idea that also found support among a small group of progressive-minded landlords. The growth of the middle class provided a social base for liberal political ideas as an alternative to the reactionary thinking of the supporters of autocracy and the revolutionary thinking of the Marxists, SRs, and other socialists. However, this was still a small social base, and liberals and moderates had little impact on Russian political life during the 1890s.

Trouble started at the end of the decade. Strikes by factory workers laboring under atrocious conditions began to mount in an environment of another famine and a general economic slowdown. The new century brought more unrest in the form of large peasant disturbances in the Ukraine in 1902 and a huge wave of industrial strikes across southern Russia in 1903. These difficulties helped to undermine Witte, whose policies had always been resented by reactionary nobles and bureaucrats who happened to be close to the czar. In August 1903 Nicholas II dismissed his only genuinely competent minister.

One of Witte’s major concerns had been to keep Russia out of war, which he feared would disrupt economic development and expose the country’s fragile social structure to the strain of modern war against its technologically more advanced rivals. With Witte’s cautionary voice gone, the czar’s policies in the Far East became increasingly assertive, especially with regard to extending Russian influence into Manchuria and Korea. In both places Russia faced the rising power of the Japanese Empire, whose economic and military strength was widely underestimated.

Despite the looming threat of war Nicholas chose to listen to the likes of his interior minister, V. K. von Plehve. A narrow-minded bigot, in 1903 Plehve had instigated pogroms against Jews to distract ordinary Russians from their grievances against the government and thus serve as a “anti-revolutionary counteraction.” In 1904, as tension with Japan mounted, von Plehve opined that a “small victorious war” with Japan was just what Russia needed to quiet popular discontent and to unite the country. One problem with this analysis is that Russia was not prepared for war, while Japan was. In February 1904, without a formal declaration of war, Japanese warships attacked the Russian naval base in the Manchurian city of Port Arthur.

The resulting Russo-Japanese war was a disaster for Russia. Japan was fighting in its backyard, while Russian forces in the Far East were at the end of a tenuous supply line thousands of miles long. Still, the Russians at Port Arthur beat back three Japanese assaults and held out for 11 months before finally surrendering in January 1905. Several weeks later Japanese forces in Manchuria defeated the Russians in the largest land battle of the war, a bitter 12-day struggle that cost Russia 60,000 dead and wounded, 8,000 missing, and 21,000 prisoners. The victorious Japanese were also badly bloodied, suffering an estimated 50,000 casualties. Finally, in May 1905 in the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, the technologically advanced Japanese navy destroyed an outclassed Russian fleet, which had sailed from its base in the Baltic Sea to meet its terrible fate in foreign waters half a world away. Virtually the entire fleet was destroyed or captured in one of the worst naval debacles in history.

Defeat at the front combined with hardship at home to bring matters to the boiling point. For moderates and liberals – including many professionals, a large part of the business community, and even members of the nobility – the government’s wartime failures underscored the need for meaningful political change. For them that meant an end to autocratic rule in favor of a constitutional monarchy, to include a national legislative assembly with real powers. About a year before the war began prominent liberals, meeting in the safety of Switzerland, had organized what they called the Union of Liberation to lead the fight for constitutional government. In 1904, as the war dragged on from defeat to defeat, liberals and moderates grew ever more assertive. In defiance of government prohibitions, they organized a series of public meetings to demand change. Organizations of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals added their voices to the chorus, as did a congress of zemstvo representatives in November.

An explosion finally occurred in January 1905, triggered by a rather depressing, tragic, but slightly farcical event that could have happened only in czarist Russia. Beginning in 1901, the Russian secret police had been organizing workers into unions that it secretly controlled, in order to divert them from political activity that might threaten the regime. The project was junked in 1903 after several of these supposedly controlled unions joined in the wave of strikes that swept the southern part of the country. It was revived for another run in St. Petersburg in 1904, however, at the behest of the charismatic but megalomaniacal Orthodox priest, Father Georgy Gapon. On Sunday January 22 Gapon led an enormous crowd of workers and their families on a march to the Winter Palace to present a petition to the czar begging him to enact measures to improve their lives. The throng, numbering about 200,000, was armed with banners, pictures of Nicholas, and religious icons. Gapon himself carried the petition on behalf of his flock that he expected to handdirectly to the czar. But the czar was not in the palace; instead, the crowd was met by armed troops who opened fire, killing hundreds of men, women, and children and turning that date into “Bloody Sunday.”

Bloody Sunday let loose a torrent of strikes, protests, riots, and other forms of defiance and rebellion that are collectively known as the Revolution of 1905. It seemed unstoppable, even after Sergei Witte, urgently brought back into the czar’s service, brilliantly negotiated a treaty in September that extracted Russia from the war with Japan while minimizing its losses. On October 26, on the crest of a series of strikes that had ballooned into a general strike in St. Petersburg, the city’s workers organized what they called the St. Petersburg Soviet (the Russian word for “council”) of Workers’ Deputies. Led mainly by Mensheviks, the Soviet included worker representatives from all over the city; it also provided what in effect was a national stage for members of the radical intelligentsia to make their mark, the most notable being the young Social Democratic firebrand Leon Trotsky.

The storm nearly toppled the monarchy and forced Nicholas II, under persistent urging by Witte, to make what the czar called his “terrible decision” to grant Russia a parliament with genuine powers. The promise was embodied in the October Manifesto, drafted by Witte and issued on October 30, 1905, which also promised the people of the empire basic civil rights.

The October Manifesto helped save the monarchy. The revolutionaries in the Soviet ignored it, but moderate and liberal members of the middle and upper classes were largely appeased. They did not want to see a mass revolution from below that would sweep them away along with the czar. The more liberal among them, now organized into the Constitutional Democratic Party (Cadets), pressed for more concessions, but many nervous moderates, whose numbers included leading industrialists and progressive landlords, accepted the October Manifesto and organized their own “Octobrist” Party to translate their attitude into practical support.

By December, as reliable troops returned home from the Far East, the government was strong enough to arrest the members of the St. Petersburg Soviet and crush a Bolshevik-led uprising in Moscow. Those two successes put out the main flames of the 1905 Revolution.

Smaller fires continued to burn elsewhere in the empire, but they were ruthlessly stamped out at a considerable cost in lives during 1906. In addition to the army and police, the government enlisted the services of reactionary gangs called Black Hundreds. Apart from their attacks and terror tactics against opponents of the regime, the Black Hundreds launched pogroms against Jewish communities in more than 100 cities and towns. The 1905 Revolution was over.

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