‘Nicholas II’s heir was born, and he was feared he would hand over less power to his son’

Historian Kirill Solovyov about why the Russian Revolution of 1905 took place

‘Nicholas II’s heir was born, and he was feared he would hand over less power to his son’
Photo: Lyubov Kabalinova (yeltsin.ru)

The Russian Revolution of 1905 is celebrating its 115th anniversary these days — its key achievement was that Russia became a constitutional monarchy for the first time. In the Soviet era, it was considered that the revolution began with the execution of the manifestation of workers walking to the Winter Palace on 9 January (22 January, New Style) asking Nicholas II to improve their financial situation and working conditions, they also had political requirements, particularly to call a representative body, civil liberties and universal access to education. However, in historian Kirill Solovyov’s opinion, the revolution in Russia began earlier. The scientist talked about his interpretation of these events and why the procession on 9 January ended with a tragedy in an interview with Realnoe Vremya.

“Nicholas II gave the new minister carte blanche, but, in fact, the emperor was just inclined to agree with everybody he talked with

Mr Solovyov, nowadays we can often hear that revolutions in our country came from the outside, that they were inspired by Russia’s political and economic opponents. Was there such an external influence on the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905?

Firstly, I must note that it is supposed the revolution began in 1905, but it would be more accurate to start considering its events from December 1904 when a government crisis arose, which led to the instantaneous deterioration of almost the whole management system of the Russian Empire. Who was guilty of this? The power, the government, the current regime. And we can’t talk about the interference of external forces: though several scientific works came to light and they prove that the events in Russia during those years were interesting for Japanese intelligence (which is in general clear because it was the time of the Russo-Japanese War). And Japan even supported some revolutionary parties, but the role of this external support was tiny. So the origin of the Russian Revolution of 1905 was local.

Many know about Bloody Sunday on 9 January 1905, but it is unlikely that somebody will remember the government crisis you are talking about. What a crisis was it that grew into a revolution?

The following happened. Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Plehve was killed on 15 July 1904, and Pyotr Svyatopolk-Mirsky was appointed instead in August. It should be noted that at that moment the minister of foreign affairs of Russia was second in command in the country after His Majesty the Emperor — in power, influence on all political processes in the country, while the ministry itself held considerable power in its hands. The new minister immediately announced that his course would be the opposite to the course his predecessor followed to Nicholas II (Editor’s Note: Plehve followed a strict policy on oppositional and revolutionary movements, he approved governors’ ultimate power, some peasant uprisings were suppressed under him). Plehve, by the way, wasn’t loved either at the court or in public circles. This is why a political U-turn was expected from Svyatopolk-Mirsky.

Nicholas II gave the new minister carte blanche to follow the new policy, but, in fact, the emperor was just inclined to agree with everybody he talked with. The same happened here, but Svyatopolk-Mirsky hadn’t talked with the emperor previously and believed the emperor. Some time later the minister talked with representatives of the press and inspired them with hope having said that an era of trust in society was starting in Russia. The press believed that the political course would dramatically change, and Russian newspapers had such headlines soon: “Time for Government Spring!”, though this spring coincided with astronomic autumn. Svyatopolk-Mirsky kept meeting with people, prepared bills and hoped to make serious reforms in the peasant problem, the status of the Senate, Old Believers, but the political issue was key.

Photo: russiainphoto.ru
Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Plehve was killed on 15 July 1904, and Pyotr Svyatopolk-Mirsky was appointed instead in August. It should be noted that at that moment the minister of foreign affairs of Russia was second in command in the country after His Majesty the Emperor — in power, influence on all political processes in the country, while the ministry itself held considerable power in its hands

As it is known, Alexander II was killed in 1881, and a so-called Loris-Melikov's Constitution (Editor’s Note: then-minister of internal affairs) or the State Council’s reform — the consultative body — was considered shortly before his death. It was envisaged to add additional members to its composition — representatives of local governments and cities elected by the public. It was supposed that the tsar was to schedule a meeting of the Council of Ministers on 1 March 1881 at which the project was to be approved, but this didn’t happen, while new Emperor Alexander III wasn’t going to make concessions, and Loris-Melikov’s project was put paid. Svyatopolk-Mirsky decided to reanimate this idea in 1904 — to conserve the State Council as a consultative body, thus completing the cycle of transformations that Alexander II began in the 60s, by creating a prototype of the future parliament. Of course, the new State Council wouldn’t have considerable power because half of its members still would be appointed by the tsar. Nevertheless, it would be a new institution, and public politics would appear in the country.

The further the more: Svyatopolk-Mirsky met with representatives of local governments and cities, the latter asked him for permission to create a zemstvo council in Petersburg, and the minister wasn’t against — though he then had to deny this promise, he couldn’t back out completely, and the Zemstvo Council appeared in November.

Let’s talk about the council later. A lot, in fact, happened in Russia from September to November 1904: society and the authorities had an idea of what could be done in the country and what could not, that’s to say, the limits of the possible in Russia quickly expanded. Famous philosopher Yevgeny Trubetskoy’s article titled The War and the Bureaucracy was printed in October 1904. As we know, it is the time of the Russo-Japanese War, it wasn’t being successful for Russia. And Trubetskoy accused the bureaucracy or, to put it simply, the government, legally, on paper, and censorship permitted the article to be printed. Nothing similar could happen just six months ago — the issue of such an article would mean an end to the censor’s career, while at this moment when the government spring was announced in the country and when many already hoped for an era of trust in society, there was hope that it was real, this era, and was necessary. This is why the article was printed.

Some time later the second, fourth, tenth articles with the analogous content were printed and they acquired a more radical tone. Society in the person of journalists, representatives of local governments and public organisations tried what could be done and what not and gradually expanded the limits of the possible.

Photo: wikimedia.org
Famous philosopher Yevgeny Trubetskoy’s article titled The War and the Bureaucracy was printed in October 1904. As we know, it is the time of the Russo-Japanese War, it wasn’t being successful for Russia. And Trubetskoy accused the bureaucracy or, to put it simply, the government, legally, on paper, and censorship permitted the article to be printed

But the emperor probably noticed these unseen processes. If radical articles were printed, it means that Nicholas II was fine with it, as you say he gave carte blanche to Svyatopolk-Mirsky’s reforms. Or should one talk about with caution?

With great caution, I would say. Generally speaking, it is very hard to talk about Nicholas II’s stance in every case. The case is that the emperor was a very closed person. He very rarely discussed what the tsar thought and felt even with his family. And a political talk was held in exceptional cases, and what Nicholas thought about the events in autumn 1904 is a very big question and even a mystery.

As I already said, the emperor almost always agreed with the person he talked with, and even people with completely opposite views were satisfied with the talks with the tsar — a representative of each side was sure that the tsar agreed with him. The tsar’s politeness, delicacy, absence of sharpness towards his interlocutors inspired such confidence. But a question remained at the same time: “What does he really think?”

But let’s see how the tsar saw his system of the country’s management. Nicholas II treated his profession with responsibility, which, as he supposed, was given him by Most High — he dedicated a certain number of hours to it. But he didn’t consider his work as a service: he worked a bit and could be free then doing what he liked, that’s to say, being with his family, hunting, reading. Nicholas II was a unique person, he didn’t consider himself as a politician and wasn’t a politician. And this is why we can assume that in autumn 1904 the tsar didn’t even try to design a strategy, like “I will do it later, after we take some measures”. Some time later, during the First World War, Nicholas II explained his position this way: “I tried not to think about what was happening because if I had done, I would have gone crazy”.

But we will suppose that by autumn 1904 in general Nicholas II approved Svyatopolk-Mirsky’s actions as he approved what Plehve did before Svyatopolk-Mirsky and Minister Sipyagin did before Plehve. Not only Plehve didn’t like Witte much, and Witte didn’t like Plehve, both of them had a different strategy to resolve different issues, but the tsar approved decisions of both of them, as they came across when resolving some issues.

Photo: gazeta.ru
Nicholas II was a unique person, he didn’t consider himself as a politician and wasn’t a politician. And this is why we can assume that in autumn 1904 the tsar didn’t even try to design a strategy, like “I will do it later, after we take some measures”

Why didn’t the tsar decide to make a political reform, create a prototype of a parliament in 1904?

The tsar was ready to do a lot of good things, you know — the same Senate reform, the cancellation of redemption money for peasants soon. But he wasn’t ready for a political reform. Nicholas II had such an inner feeling: “My father handed over power, management of people, which is my family mission, my vocation and duty to the country and God, to me. And it will be strange if I refuse this mission”. Besides, an heir was born to the tsar — Alexey, and he had a feeling that he would hand his son less power than he, Nicholas, had been given by his father. And Nicholas might be asking himself if he had a moral right to this.

Photo: wikimedia.org
Witte was a talented person, but he was a real courtier and, first of all, he cared about what the tsar wanted to hear in this situation. While the tsar wanted to hear that a state reform, in this case, wasn’t acceptable

Of course, we may not guess the tsar’s inner train of thoughts, but we know that Nicholas II’s spouse Alexandra Feodorovna had a similar train of thoughts, which we will consequently see in the correspondence with her husband. She reflected a lot about the tsar’s power and was very concerned and could influence Nicholas. The tsar had uncles too — grand princes: it is different people, but just one of them was called to discuss Svyatopolk-Mirsky’s reforms — Grand Prince Sergey Alexandrovich. Though he perfectly knew the views he stuck to. Also, he called Chairman of the Committee of Ministers Sergey Witte.

Witte was a talented person, but he was a real courtier and, first of all, he cared about what the tsar wanted to hear in this situation. While the tsar wanted to hear that a state reform, in this case, wasn’t acceptable. This is what Sergey Alexandrovich said and Witte confirmed. What is more, Witte offered to cross out this clause on political reform. Nicholas II heard Witte out, and it turned out that Svyatopolk-Mirsky’s key clause would be eliminated from the future order on 12 December 1904, which nullifies reforms. While it was just one modest clause!

The disappointment affected the top, as quite influential people of the country were aware of the reform being discussed — the top bureaucracy, aristocracy, local governments and even members of the emperor’s family. The emperor’s sister Xenia was very disappointed with this order, she was convinced such a reform needed to have been made.

To be continued

By Sergey Kochnev
Analytics