Kirill Solovyov: “There appeared something that had been dreamed of for many years — constitutional monarchy”

To the 115th anniversary of the beginning of the First Russian Revolution: why Nicholas II took drastic measures in governing the country

Kirill Solovyov: “There appeared something that had been dreamed of for many years — constitutional monarchy”
Photo: engraving by an unknown artist (

22 January marked the 115th anniversary of the event that opened the way for the beginning of the First Russian Revolution: on 22 January 1905, the tsar's forces opened fire on the peaceful demonstration of workers in St. Petersburg — the tragedy went down in history as Bloody Sunday. In the second part of the interview dedicated to these fateful days, Doctor of Historical Sciences Kirill Solovyov explains to the readers of Realnoe Vremya why Emperor Nicholas II decided on radical reforms in the country's governance, why the first State Duma did not work as a full-fledged legislative body, and why there were no losers in this revolution.

“They expected something like Storming of the Bastille or Women's March on Versailles”

Doctor Solovyov, why did the authorities, as you say, not immediately realize the revolution until the autumn of 1905? In the country, there were multi-day strikes of workers going, peasants were burning landlords' estates, Potemkin battleship was rebelling?

There is a canon of the revolution that was firmly in the minds of many people in power at the time — this is the Great French Revolution. Therefore, as a gesture of revolution in Russia, they were expecting something like the Storming of the Bastille or Women's March on Versailles, but in Russia, there was nothing like this.

But there were serious things going on here, too.

Certainly. First of all, the country's management system was disintegrating — many representatives of the bureaucracy, interior ministry officials, fellow ministers, senators, and members of the State Council joined anti-government parties in 1905. Was it possible to imagine that officials were even leaders in organizations that required political changes? Of course, officials were not revolutionaries — they asked for the convocation of Zemsky Sobor, spoke about the need for legislative representation, but they openly admitted their dissatisfaction with the existing order.

But there were also more interesting cases, and the most outstanding of them is associated with Kutaisi Governor Vladimir Staroselsky: he quite frankly admitted his sympathies with the Social Democrats and, moreover, his sympathies with the Bolshevik faction, which he patronized in every possible way, which naturally caused irritation in St. Petersburg. In 1905, Staroselsky was dismissed, and he could with good reason and with a light heart join the Bolshevik faction that was dear to him. Thus, we see that in Russia there were not only liberal governors but also Bolshevik governors, which, of course, was impressive.

Besides, in 1905, all educational institutions in Russia — universities, theological academies, seminaries, and many gymnasiums — ceased to function in Russia, and anti-government rallies were held on a regular basis in universities. And if you also look at the periodicals of 1905, especially in the autumn of 1905, you will see that there is no censorship in them — it existed formally, but one could print absolutely anything, and we see that legal newspapers, especially those in the capital, were discussing the prospects to overthrow the system.

Photo: V.F. Zaleski
Besides, in 1905, all educational institutions in Russia — universities, theological academies, seminaries, and many gymnasiums — ceased to function in Russia, and antigovernment rallies were held on a regular basis in universities

The year 1905 was the peak of terrorist activity in Russia. Already in 1906-1907, it declined, but at the same time, in 1905-1907, more than 10,000 people died from terrorist attacks in Russia! And if we take together the injured in terrorist attacks, we are talking about 18,000 people, and this is a very significant figure. At the same time, every fourth governor in the country for 1905-1906 suffered from the terror of the revolutionaries! Similar statistics are also true for the policeman.

As you can see, the political system disintegrated very quickly in 1905. Why quickly? There was also a factor of public sentiments, discontent, and the fact that many tried to take advantage of the situation of uncertainty. But the main and fundamental reason that the system began to disintegrate is that there was no unified government in the country in 1905, and there was no vector of development of the country, that is, the idea of what the government needed or, rather, what the government's program for the future was.

And there is a second, even more important circumstance — the bureaucracy in Russia was quite qualified, but the bureaucracy was incorporated into the system not on the principle of loyalty to the authorities but on the principle of professionalism, that is, on the ability to perform certain functions. But being the representative of the society, the bureaucracy also thought like society — read the same books, went to the same meetings. And, by and large, we can't name a single representative of the opposition public who was not among the officials and vice versa. All this meant that the bureaucracy did not sympathize with the existing political regime and hoped that it would be transformed. And it is no coincidence that officials had such a painful reaction to the failure of the Svyatopolk-Mirsky reform, and it is no coincidence that they would join the work on the project Bulygin's Duma (according to the project of Minister of Internal Affairs Bulygin, the State Duma was established, but initially as an advisory body, without the right to discuss the country's budget and its basic laws — editor's note), and it is no coincidence that they would be happy that the Manifesto was prepared on October 17.

All this had to do with the higher bureaucracy. And if we talk about its middle and lower levels, the situation there was more radical — for example, in 1906, when the elections to the First State Duma were held, regional officials of the ministry of finance openly campaigned in favour of the cadet party, that is, the main opposition party. It turned out that the bureaucracy — the main tool of government policy — was working against the political regime.

The revolution of 1905-1907 had a very large background, and it could not have but to happen, and the events of the First Russian Revolution had greater roots than the events of the Revolution of 1917

“No one is ready to fight for autocracy besides us”

And finally, in October 1905, Nicholas II issued the Manifesto, which granted civil rights and freedoms to workers, where the Duma gained legislative powers, political amnesty was declared, and there appeared the possibility to create parties and trade unions legally. Why did Nicholas II decide on these changes?

And this is just the rare case when Nicholas II openly expressed what took place in October 1905 and expressed himself in two letters: in a letter to his close friend — General Dmitry Trepov and mother Maria Feodorovna. The tsar writes: “Not many of us, but we fought for the ideals of tsarist autocracy. However, we found ourselves alone — it turned out that there was no one else ready to fight for autocracy besides us.” And Nicholas was right — he saw what people from the inner circle of his father, Alexander III, and people of his entourage before 1905 saw. In other words, there were virtually no supporters of the system that had developed at this point — at any level: neither among conservatives nor, of course, among liberals or socialists. In the diaries of Minister of War Kuropatkin, by the way, there is an interesting recollection about this: in 1905, he was walking in the Winter Palace with Sergei Witte, and Witte told him about the individuals that walked around the palace — it is clear that these were not random figures, but officials, senators, members of the Imperial family, and Witte said: “They are all constitutionalists," that is, they were all for the Constitution.

And in these circumstances, when telegraph and telephone were no longer working, newspapers were no longer published, St. Petersburg was not informed, when representatives of aristocratic families urgently transferred money abroad, Nicholas II had already been put in a hopeless situation and knew perfectly well that he could not sign the Manifesto in the new circumstances. And here I can cite an anecdotal case — how true it is, it is difficult to say, but many people cite it: it was as if Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, the emperor's uncle, had almost put a gun to his head and was ready to shoot himself if the tsar did not sign the Manifesto. This, of course, maybe an anecdote, but it is not an anecdote that even the Imperial family saw no other solution than to make radical concessions to society.

The government was shaken in those days?

Very much shaken. There is an opinion that I agree with: the events of October 1905, and the events of the entire First Russian Revolution, were prepared by the entire previous quarter of centuries. The revolution of 1905-1907 has a very long prehistory, and it could not but to happen. And the events of the First Russian Revolution had greater roots than the events of the Revolution of 1917.

The Manifesto, as I understand it, was the most accurate and correct step in that situation — both for the government and for society?

We can criticise the Russian supreme power of those years as we want — it deserves to talk about its “great” contribution to the crisis of 1905, since this “contribution” is really larger than the contribution of the revolutionary parties and, relatively speaking, Japanese intelligence. But with all this, the government escaped this crisis and came out with relatively small losses. Yes, the political system in the country changed, but in general, it persisted, and much of what had previously been in it remained. Moreover, the system managed to preserve though ritualistic but still the mention of autocracy in the Main laws, and the tsar had hope that it could be possible to win back. The hope of winning back, of course, was futile, but, nevertheless, it remained with him. It was preserved because in 1905 the system managed to change and enter a new quality, and already in 1906 it began a cycle of transformations — transformations so significant that the government could determine the agenda thanks to Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.

It was preserved because in 1905 the system managed to change and enter a new quality, and already in 1906 it began a cycle of transformations — transformations so significant that the government could determine the agenda thanks to Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.

But did the society benefit from the Manifesto?

The whole country in general and almost the entire population won. There is an ugly wording, which I find ugly, that speaks of the defeat of the First Russian Revolution, and it is clear where it comes from — from the writings of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin because it was obvious to him that the revolution was defeated since he personally and the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP were defeated. But the revolution, if it happened, cannot logically fail! A revolt or rebellion can be defeated, but a revolution occurs when it can change something qualitatively in life, and this revolution changed and changed a lot: representative legislative institutions emerged in Russia. Thus, there appeared something that had been dreamed of for many years — constitutional monarchy: yes, it very much limited the powers of the State Duma, but it was a step forward.

Let's go further. Free press emerged in Russia — the press that had not existed before this event and did not exist for a long time after the revolution. And of course, parties officially emerged in Russia: if you have elections, then parties must be established. Moreover, even unregistered organizations of the most direct revolutionary orientation could take part in the elections, and it is no coincidence that the Second Duma would have factions of social revolutionaries, Trudoviks, and popular socialists. Elections, as we know, allowed people to determine both social preferences and party preferences. Besides, for the first time, a Russian person had the opportunity to say who they were by their ethnic identity. In addition, in 1906, in Russia there appeared temporary rules that introduced elements of civil rights and freedoms in Russia, namely, the possibility to meet and organize unions. The rights of old believers were ensured along with the Orthodox's, which means that the legal field expanded significantly. Finally, in 1906, a cycle of agrarian transformations began that affected the absolute majority of the country's population.

Did the attitude towards the tsar change in the country on the part of those masses of the population who were in the most disadvantaged position before 1905? Yes, the peasants were freed from redemption payments, but there was not enough land. Yes, the workers' salaries were raised, but the shootings on January 9 could not be erased, as well as the suppression of the workers' revolt in Moscow.

The attitude to the tsar did not change substantially. Of course, it is difficult to trace it — the same peasant environment of those years, although it was huge, still remains for us terra incognita. The peasants spoke less, wrote less, and if we have any information about their opinion, it is fragmentary. But nevertheless, judging by the peasant representatives in the first two Dumas, it was clear that the political and budgetary issues of the deputies-peasants were interested in the second, third, and fourth place, and they were only interested in the question of land. And here we can conclude that the peasants were more loyal to the existing regime. Here I can give an example: when Nicholas II first came to the Duma in February 1916, the representatives of the left factions wanted to obstruct the emperor, but then the left met strong resistance from the peasants who were part of the Trudoviks — for them, the emperor's obstruction was completely impossible. Or here's another example: the peasants of the Pskov province shared their experience in the first Duma — they didn't like that they were not sitting at a round table, they didn't like that they were sitting back to back, that they during the meeting they were not served tea, and that they couldn't see the emperor during the Duma meeting. It seemed to them that they were to sit at the table with Nicholas II and to think over together with him what to do with the land, but, nevertheless, the peasantry had a very traditional mindset.

I think that an important reversal in the understanding of what the emperor and the imperial family were took place during the First World War, not in 1906.

Workers were a small part of Russian society — they made up 2-3 percent of the country's population. Yes, this is a special category, but again there were black labourers, who in their political activity differed little from the peasantry, and there was a working aristocracy, who was well paid and lived better in terms of living standards than the Zemstvo and gymnasium teachers. But it was this part of the workers who were most active, who very often collaborated with left-wing parties, and among them, there were revolutionary moods. A unique situation, you'll agree — radical sentiments are not always associated with the standard of living! But even among the working-class aristocracy, there was sometimes no unanimity: the cold shops of the Putilov factory were dominated by Social Democrats, while the hot shops were dominated by Black Hundreds, it is completely unclear how to explain. Therefore, to say that the workers are a single social environment that always supports the revolutionaries is a strong exaggeration.

But people saw the changes taking place right before their eyes: with the rapid growth of the economy (according to recent studies, it accounted for more than 9 per cent of the world economy), and especially agriculture, there was an increase in deposits of the population in savings banks, and this could not but indicate anything else as an increase in welfare. Besides, in the Russian village, there is such a phenomenon as an iron roof, fashion magazines and many newspapers emerge in the village. Of course, not everything was great and not everyone lived happily. Moreover, as the economy grows, we also see growing discontent among certain groups that do not live as they would like, but the country was changing quickly before the First World War, and this was the result of the revolution.

Interviewed by Sergey Kochnev