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Why did the Revolution fail to topple the Tsar in 1905, but succeed in 1917?

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The Russian Revolution had a decisive impact on the history of the twentieth century. Its implications and influences went on to effect a huge area and last decades. True to the large impact that it had, it was a large event. It spanned years and included many various groups and individuals. When studying the Russian Revolution it is important to note that it came during a time of change in Russia. Over the forty years preceding 1905, and thirty years following 1917, the Russian Empire underwent huge transformations. This meant that though many events can be seen as part of the Revolution, much of them happened against different backdrops within the country.

Nicholas II did not abdicate and was not dethroned in 1905. However the Revolution of February 1917 did remove him from his position. When asking why Nicholas II survived 1905 there are many factors to be examined. It is notable that at both times many conditions were extremely similar. Levels of dissatisfaction, large strikes and the country being geared towards a war time economy are all examples. But it is important to see the perhaps less noticeable factors and also the small differences which gave the two events such contrasting outcomes.

The Autocracy, after suffering a humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japenese War, could have been dealt an even harsher blow if the peace terms it was faced with had been more severe than they transpired to be. However, the negotiations, presided over by the American president, Theodore Roosevelt in New Hampshire, were quite lenient on Russia. This allowed Nicholas to save face, pride and also security in his position. #

In 1905, despite the atrocious conditions that workers in the agricultural and industrial sectors were suffering, there does seem to have been support, or general good-will towards the Tsar. It is often suggested that the people did not blame him, but those around him for the state of the country. Father Gapon, later one of the Revolution’s most vigorous supporters wrote a letter to be delivered to the Tsar which contained the lines “Do not believe the ministers. They are cheating thee in reguard to the real state of affairs. The people believe in thee.”# The people no doubt realised, after being fired upon at the Winter Palace, that their faith in the Tsar was ill founded.

The same conditions did not exist in 1917. The people were under no illusion as to how the Tsar felt about them. During the Febuaury Revolution, strikers carried placards with slogans such as “Down with the autocracy” written on them. With no support from the masses Nicholas II had lost a key ally in his battle to remain in power.#

Both the revolutions of 1905 and Febuary 1917 are often said to have been leaderless. It is true that in 1905 there were few, if any individuals willing to assume control of the masses and wrestle power from the autocracy. Many of the revolutionary leaders such as Plekhanov and Lenin were involved with infighting after the split of the Social Democrat party or did not take steps to co-ordinate the prospective rebels sufficiently, perhaps most true in Trotsky’s case.#

February 1917 can be seen as leaderless in a different way however. This time the main revolutionary leaders were mostly in exile. But now the rank and file members of their groups, by this time accustomed to absent leaders, were much more capable. Though few emerged as individual heroic leaders, they were able to direct their groups, and through these the masses, towards clearer goals. Added to this the temporary unifaction of the important revolutionary groups (Socialist Revolutionaries, Menshiviks and Bolsheviks) in 1917, compared to 1905 and a driving force for revolution can be seen.#

The actions and attitude of the Tsar, whether forced or voluntary, also played their part in the two contrasting outcomes. In 1905 Nicholas’ perception of his support from the masses, though always flawed, was better than his view in 1917. In January of 1905, when the Revolution came to a critical stage, he bowed to pressure and promised change. The October Manifesto was issued. This proved enough to satisfy many, especially the middle class who withdrew their support from the general strike leading to its collapse. The apparent release of some of his total power may have proved to be his saving grace, as surely the peole would not have rested had there been no change whatsoever.

Nicholas’ attitude in 1917 was very different. Perhaps wary of completely losing the power which he still clung to, he refused to bow to any pressure this time. Also in February 1917 he was not in Petrograd but at the front, hundreds of miles south. Two quotes sum up his bewildering lack of concern at this time best. When authorities in Petrograd contacted Nicholas for help and guidance he replied by telegram “I order that the disorders in the capital be stopped tomorrow. That is all.” And when Rodziako, President of the Duma, telegraphed him suggesting a compromise would have to be reached, Nicholas simply commented that he had received “some more rubbish from Rodzianko”.# There would be no compromise from Nicholas, and thus no compromise from the people.

Unlike Nicholas, those who took part in the 1905 Revolution learned from their experiences. Had they given up too easily? Not moved quick enough, or failed to prepare properly? In 1917 these mistakes would not be made again. The people had experience of strikes, attacks from police and other government armed forces. This would prove invaluable and cannot be dismissed as a key reason for the successful removal of Nicholas II in 1917.

All the issues that this essay has discussed so far were key to Nicholas remaining in power after 1905 until 1917. But perhaps the most important of all these reasons comes when the Armed forces of Russia are discussed. In 1905 the Army and the Cossacks in Petrograd supported Nicholas. In 1917 they did not. The desire to achieve a goal is often cited as the most important factor in any successful endeavour. But without the practical and physical forces required, these hopes and desires can often fail to be realised.

In 1905 there had been a small number of mutinies but the Tsar still controlled the majority of the Army and Navy. Though the masses of protestors had seemed overwhelming, the combination of concessions and brutal use of armed forces, especially the Cossacks quickly subdued those on the streets. Similarly in Moscow, artillery was effectively used to quell the rebellion of the Lenin led Soviet.

But Nicholas was not to receive the same support in 1917. In February, when it became clear the strikes were turning to revolution, the military governor of Petrograd, Khabalov had decided on his plan of action against the protestors. First police, or Pharaohs as they were known would be used, then Cossacks and then finally the Army . After savage street fighting with the police, on the second day, the Cossacks were sent out, but they did not interfere. It seemed they supported the people and before long actually aided the protestors.

On the morning of the 10th soldiers replaced the police. However, it is key to note these were not the professional soldiers which had previously occupied the cities. The professional soldiers, away at the front, had been replaced by conscripts many from the locality, and often men who had been dissatisfied peasants and workers. Though they did not at first support the people, they did not attempt to subdue them. This was a turning point for the Russian people and also for Nicholas. Before long virtually all regiments and garrisons had joined the people in revolution. Some regiments, loyal to the Tsar, attempted to enter the city and quell the rebellion, but turned back when the extent of the rising was realised. Thus Nicholas had lost control of his capital. His attempts to return were prevented by workers and railway-men loyal to the Revolution, underlining the extent of the opposition towards him. Executive Committees and Soviets quickly emerged to act as a temporary government. And on the night of March 15th Nicholas II finally signed the abdication so desired by the Russian people.

There are, of course, other issues to be considered in this argument. It is often said that Bolshevik influence had become much stronger than it had been twelve years earlier. And the war, in which Russia was embroiled in 1917, is often identified as a factor in the Revolution, and thus the Tsar’s downfall. These are valid points and must also be taken into account.

There are numerous reasons behind all major events in history, and Nicholas’ removal in 1917, and not 1905, is no different. When examining the two situations it is important to note the similarities and differences in the backrounds of the two. Peace, war, hunger and widespread dissatisfaction all played their parts in determining how events would unfold. The Revolution of 1905, as a relatively spontaneous event, may have had too many obstacles to overcome with such little preparation or experience. In contrast to this the years and months preceding the 1917 February Revolution were rife with strikes and social unrest. Perhaps this made revolution, when it came, more likely to succeed. #

When revolution did come it came swiftly and successfully. For the first time since Ivan the Terrible was crowned in 1547, Russia was without a Tsar. The factors that existed in 1917 but not 1905 prompted Nicholas to comment “There is no justice among men”. But the generations of untold millions of suffering serfs, peasants, workers and soldiers would not have agreed with him. #


Dukes, Paul, October and the World. London 1979

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, The Russian Revolution. New York 1994.

Goldston, Robert, The Russian Revolution. London 1967

Hosking, Geoffery, A History of the Soviet Union. London 1985.

Mackenzie, David, A History of Russia, the Soviet Union and Beyond. California 1987.

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