Russia 1905: Dress Rehearsal for Revolution

Alan Wood argues that the real significance of 1905 lies not so much in what was achieved as in the portents provided for the achievements of the future.

'The Revolution Is Dead! Long Live the Revolution!' Such was Leon Trotsky's defiantly prophetic comment on the suppression of the industrial, agrarian and military upheavals which racked the Russian Empire three-quarters of a century ago. The heroic but bloody events of 1905, however, despite their traditional designation as 'the first Russian revolution' and despite the lame constitutional reforms wrung from a reluctant and craven autocracy, cannot be described as a full-fledged revolution in the proper meaning of the term. True, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to agree to the inauguration of Russia's first quasi-parliamentary institution – the State Duma; true also that political parties were for the first time allowed a legal existence and near total freedom of the press and other civil liberties were now formally guaranteed. For the next decade, educated society at any rate was able to enjoy the benefits of what has been described as 'the most remarkable period of political and intellectual freedom in Russia's history'. But this did not add up to revolution. The whirlwind of strikes, demonstrations, riots and mutinies which had swept across Russia in 1905 left most of her social, political and economic institutions intact. The activities of Duma politicians notwithstanding, there was no real devolution of political power, which still rested in the hands of an irresolute Emperor and his appointed ministers; there was no realignment of the rigidly hierarchical class structure of Russian society and no radical redistribution of wealth or property; not one of the non-Russian peoples of the Empire gained its independence from Russia, and the combined forces of the bureaucracy, the military and the police re-established 'public order' over an exhausted population, ably supported by the pogroms and the militant thuggery of the Black Hundreds.

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