1905 Russian Revolution (Classroom Activity)

The killing of the demonstrators became known as Bloody Sunday and it has been argued that this event signalled the start of the 1905 Revolution. The massacre of an unarmed crowd undermined the standing of the autocracy in Russia. The day after the massacre all the workers at the capital's electricity stations came out on strike. This was followed by general strikes taking place in Moscow, Vilno, Kovno, Riga, Revel and Kiev. Other strikes broke out all over the country.

The Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) decided to assassinate the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. the General-Governor of Moscow and uncle of Tsar Nicholas II in revenge for Bloody Sunday. The assassination was planned for 15th February, 1905, when he planned to visit the Bolshoi Theatre. Ivan Kalyayev was supposed to attack the carriage as it approached the theater. Kalyayev was about to throw his bomb at the carriage of the Grand Duke, but he noticed that his wife and two young children were in the carriage and he aborted the assassination.

Ivan Kalyayev carried out the assassination two days later. He was captured, tried and sentenced to death. "I am pleased with your sentence," he told the judges. "I hope that you will carry it out just as openly and publicly as I carried out the sentence of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Learn to look the advancing revolution right in the face." He was hanged on 23rd May, 1905.

In June, 1905, Tsar Nicholas II, appointed Sergei Witte to help solve the industrial unrest that had followed Bloody Sunday. Later that month, sailors on the Potemkin battleship, protested against the serving of rotten meat infested with maggots. The captain ordered that the ringleaders to be shot. The firing-squad refused to carry out the order and joined with the rest of the crew in throwing the officers overboard. The mutineers killed seven of the Potemkin's eighteen officers, including Captain Evgeny Golikov. They organized a ship's committee of 25 sailors, led by Afanasi Matushenko, to run the battleship.

The Potemkin Mutiny spread to other units in the army and navy. Industrial workers all over Russia withdrew their labour and in October, 1905, the railwaymen went on strike which paralyzed the whole Russian railway network. This developed into a general strike.

Sergei Witte, his Chief Minister, saw only two options open to the Tsar Nicholas II; "either he must put himself at the head of the popular movement for freedom by making concessions to it, or he must institute a military dictatorship and suppress by naked force for the whole of the opposition". However, he pointed out that any policy of repression would result in "mass bloodshed". His advice was that the Tsar should offer a programme of political reform.

Later that month, Trotsky and other Mensheviks established the St. Petersburg Soviet. Over the next few weeks over 50 of these soviets were formed all over Russia and these events became known as the 1905 Revolution. Witte continued to advise the Tsar to make concessions. The Grand Duke Nikolai Romanov agreed and urged the Tsar to bring in reforms. The Tsar refused and instead ordered him to assume the role of a military dictator. The Grand Duke drew his pistol and threatened to shoot himself on the spot if the Tsar did not endorse Witte's plan.

On 30th October, the Tsar reluctantly agreed to publish details of the proposed reforms that became known as the October Manifesto. This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally it announced that no law would become operative without the approval of the State Duma.

Primary Sources

Sergei Witte
Sergei Witte

(Source 2) Nicholas II, diary entry (22nd January, 1905)

A painful day. There have been serious disorders in St. Petersburg because workmen wanted to come up to the Winter Palace. Troops had to open fire in several places in the city; there were many killed and wounded. God, how painful and sad.

(Source 3) W. C. Askew, United States consul in Odessa (January, 1905)

All classes condemn the authorities and more particularly the Tsar. The present ruler has lost absolutely the affection of the Russian people, and whatever the future may have in store for the dynasty, the present tsar will never again be safe in the midst of his people.

(Source 4) Lenin, comment on Bloody Sunday (January, 1905)

The revolutionary education of the proletariat made more progress in one day than it could have made in months and years of drab, humdrum, wretched existence.

Ivan Kalyayev
Ivan Kalyayev

(Source 5) Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1970)

Now no one can deny that the general strike is the most important means of fighting. The twenty-second of January was the first political strike, even if he was disguised under a priest's cloak. One need only add that revolution in Russia may place a democratic workers' government in power.

(Source 6) Sergei Witte, comment made to Roman Rosen (June, 1905)

With many nationalities, many languages and a nation largely illiterate, the marvel is that the country can be held together even by autocracy. Remember one thing: if the tsar's government falls, you will see absolute chaos in Russia, and it will be many a long year before you see another government able to control the mixture that makes up the Russian nation.

(Source 7) Emile J. Dillon, The Eclipse of Russia (1918)

Witte... convinced me that any democratic revolution, however peacefully effected, would throw open the gates wide to the forces of anarchism and break up the empire. And a glance at the mere mechanical juxtaposition - it could not be called union - of elements so conflicting among themselves as were the ethnic, social and religious sections and divisions of the tsar's subjects would have brought home this obvious truth to the mind of any unbiased and observant student of politics.

(Source 8) The caption of the poster reads "Glory to the People's Heroes of the Potemkin!"
(Source 8) The caption of the poster reads "Glory to the People's Heroes of the Potemkin!"

(Source 9) P. D. Allan, Russia and Eastern Europe (1983)

The workers' discontent, combined with the anger at the way that the war was being so inefficiently prosecuted against Japan, brought wholesale disorder to Russia in the summer of 1905. This took many different forms. Peasant riots in the countryside led to the destruction of property; strikes by industrial workers and professional people, such as bankers and lawyers, culminated in a general strike; the armed forces could .not be relied upon to restore order; and in the navy there was a mutiny on board Russia's most modern battleship, the 'Potemkin'. The industrial workers in St Petersburg and Moscow, determined to use the occasion to win better conditions and a say in the government, elected councils to organize action against their bosses and the government. These councils became known as Soviets.

(Source 10) Ivan Kalyayev, letter to Boris Savinkov (February, 1905)

I hurled my bomb from a distance of four paces, not more, striking as I dashed forward quite close to my object. I was caught up by the storm of the explosion and saw how the carriage was torn to fragments. When the cloud had lifted I found myself standing before the remains of the back wheels.... Then, about five feet away, near the gate, I saw bits of the Grand Duke's clothing and his nude body.... Blood was streaming from my face, and I realized there would be no escape for me.:.. I was overtaken by the police agents in a sleigh and someone's hands were upon me. "Don't hang on to me. I won't run away. I have done my work" (I realized now that I was deafened). We drove in a cab through the Kremlin, as I shouted: "Down with the accursed Tsar, long live liberty! Down with the accursed Government, long live the Party of Socialist Revolutionists!"

(Source 11) Edvard Radzinsky, The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II (1993)

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna... spent all the days before the burial in ceaseless prayer. On her husband's tombstone she wrote: 'Father, release them, they know not what they do.' She understood the words of the Gospels heart and soul, and on the eve of the funeral she demanded to be taken to the prison where Kalyayev was being held. Brought into his cell, she asked, 'Why did you kill my husband?' 'I killed Sergei Alexandrovich because he was a weapon of tyranny. I was taking revenge for the people.' 'Do not listen to your pride. Repent... and I will beg the Sovereign to give you your life. I will ask him for you. I myself have already forgiven you.' On the eve of revolution, she had already found a way out; forgiveness! Forgive through the impossible pain and blood -- and thereby stop it then, at the beginning, this bloody wheel. By her example, poor Ella appealed to society, calling upon the people to live in Christian faith. 'No!" replied Kalyayev. 'I do not repent. I must die for my deed and I will... My death will be more useful to my cause than Sergei Alexandrovich's death.' Kalyayev was sentenced to death. 'I am pleased with your sentence,' he told the judges. 'I hope that you will carry it out just as openly and publicly as I carried out the sentence of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Learn to look the advancing revolution right in the face.'"

(Source 12) Ivan Kalyayev, speech at his trial (May, 1905)

First of all, permit me to make a correction of fact: I am not a defendant here, I am your prisoner. We are two warring camps. You - the representatives of the Imperial Government, the hired servants of capital and oppression. I - one of the avengers of the people, a socialist and revolutionist. Mountains of corpses divide us, hundreds of thousands of broken human lives and a whole sea of blood and tears covering the country in torrents of horror and resentment. You have declared war on the people. We have accepted your challenge.... You dare not only to try me, but to pass judgement. What gives you the right to do so?.... You are quite ready to admit that there are two standards of morality: one for plain mortals, which says "do not kill," "do not steal," and another for political rulers, to whom everything is permitted. And you are really convinced that you are above the law and that there can be no judgement upon you.

(Source 13) Sergi Witte, letter to Nicholas II (22nd October, 1905)

The present movement for freedom is not of new birth. Its roots are imbedded in centuries of Russian history. Freedom must become the slogan of the government. No other possibility for the salvation of the state exists. The march of historical progress cannot be halted. The idea of civil liberty will triumph if not through reform then by the path of revolution. The government must be ready to proceed along constitutional lines. The government must sincerely and openly strive for the well-being of the state and not endeavour to protect this or that type of government. There is no alternative. The government must either place itself at the head of the movement which has gripped the country or it must relinquish it to the elementary forces to tear it to pieces.

(Source 14) Nicholas II, diary entry (19th October, 1905)

Through all these horrible days, I constantly met Witte. We very often met in the early morning to part only in the evening when night fell. There were only two ways open; to find an energetic soldier and crush the rebellion by sheer force. That would mean rivers of blood, and in the end we would be where had started. The other way out would be to give to the people their civil rights, freedom of speech and press, also to have laws conformed by a State Duma - that of course would be a constitution. Witte defends this very energetically.


Questions for Students

Question 1: According to sources 3 and 4, what were the consequences of the event described in source 2?

Question 2: Describe the different forms of protest adopted by the Russian people in 1905.

Question 3: How does Ivan Kalyayev (sources 11 and 12) justify the actions described in source 10.

Question 4: What advice did Chief Minister Sergei Witte give to Tsar Nicholas II in October 1905.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.