History - the 1905 revolution

If Nicholas II had been a more competent ruler, could he prevent the 1905 revolution - or was it the result of events beyond his control?

 

 

In order to answer this question, we shall inquire into the causes of the 1905 revolution, and see if these might have been eliminated by an action taken by the Tsar of Russia between 1894 and 1905, this being the period between the ascension of Nicholas II and the eventual outbreak of the revolution. Had Nicholas II been more competent, his decision in that period might have possibly precluded the revolution, unless its causes were determined by some independent, unalterable circumstances.

To begin with, let us examine the long-term causes of the 1905 revolution. Apparently, the basic one was the bad situation of the lower classes: The peasants were subject to their landlords and the compulsory mir (a village collective) membership. Their civil rights were severely confined, for instance, they had no right to purchase land. Similarly, the industrial workers had little rights - both social or economical and political - and their living conditions were poor. Thus, these social groups, constituting together some 95% of the Russian population, were indeed quite probable to join any revolution against the regime that did not do anything to improve their lot. Major opposition movements concerned with their problems came into existence by the time, the Social Democrats and Social Revolutionaries, aiming at overthrowing the regime with strikes and a proletarian revolution.

Obviously, Nicholas II could not prevent the problems of the lower classes from coming into life, as they have existed already before his ascension, but he could have done a lot to improve the situation - and in fact many expected him to do so by introducing some social reforms. For example, if he had ordered concessions for peasants - similar to those introduced by Stolypin in 1906, but earlier, a revolutionary movement in the countryside would be rather improbable. Similar reforms concerning the situation of industrial workers could surely have been taken and would have a tranquillising effect on their attitudes. To what extend could a reform-minded attitude of the Tsar toward social problems calm the discontent and thus diminish the influence of the radical parties, which in turn would reduce the likelihood of a revolution, is a disputable question. However, having in mind that a set of reforms (although paralleled by repression) introduced after 1905 has effectively stabilised the situation for over 10 years, we may suppose that a similar action taken earlier might have well deferred, if not altogether removed, the probability of a revolution.

Moreover, the Tsar, as an autocrat, had power not only to introduce particular social reforms, but a constitutional reform as well. Had he been modern and enlightened enough, he could transform Russian government from a nearly mediaeval autocracy to any kind of modern constitutional monarchy by a single ukaz. Of course, this would require him to sacrifice some of his powers, but the result would definitely satisfy the demands of the middle class and also possibly reduce the popularity of the radical parties in favour of the more moderate ones, as the many claims of the radicals would be no longer justified when the autocracy would be gone. This would be another step towards stabilisation, and thus against the possibility of a revolution. Again, even a limited constitution in 1906 proved to be a very effective tranquilliser of the social unrest - not to speak of a possible real modernisation of the system.

Therefore, we can see plainly that actually it was only for the incompetence of Nicholas II and not for any independent circumstances that the long-term causes of the 1905 revolution were not dealt with and contained before it was too late, especially as they were explicit as early as in 1890s when the strikes calling for social reforms for the industrial workers were beginning. Unfortunately for Russia, these were not granted in a thorough way and thus the discontent persisted, to find eventually an outlet in revolution. However, the discontent was not focused on the Tsar himself, who remained popular with the people, and thus had a sufficient popular authority to carry out reforms. Thus, however the above causes came into being, he was fully capable of influencing them and it was in his power to control the situation.

Next, let us pass on to the short-term causes of the 1905 revolution. The most patent one is the defeat of Russian forces in the war with Japan. However Japan was the attacker and it was the imperial forces' rather that Tsar's fault that the war was concluded unsuccessfully, it was entirely possible for Tsar to avoid the war by refraining from unnecessarily expansionist and aggressive policy in Korea. This area was not of major importance to Russia, and Japan was perfectly willing for a compromise until Russia's - that is, effectively Tsar's - foolish pride made it impossible. Had Nicholas listened to Witte, who advised a reasonable and peaceful policy, the war would not break out, and the upheaval at home would not have begun.

Further, there were such minor issues that contributed to the outbreak of revolution, as the Bloody Sunday massacre or the mutiny onboard the battleship Potemkin. Obviously, these were not the fault of Tsar, but firstly if he was competent and took more interest in the doings of his subordinates, these events might have been altogether avoided. Secondly, their significance was not such that they would start a revolution on their own, if the long-term causes were removed as shown above.

Therefore, to sum up it may well be said that if Nicholas II was more competent he might have prevented the 1905 revolution. All, or at least most of the aforementioned causes could have been either eliminated or reduced to such an extent that would not create a danger of revolution. Apparently, there is no reason to doubt that a proficient government could have transformed Russia - especially as it was economically growing - into a modern country, possibly a constitutional democracy of the British or German style. (NB. contrary to the Marxist thesis of a historically determined proletarian revolution). This would plainly mean an evolutionary development rather than revolution; however, this did not come into being due to Nicholas II's fatuous approach to politics.

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