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Podcast: Russia 1906 (History Corner #2)

Revolution on the streets of Moscow, December 1905.

In this month’s entry to the History Corner, Mathew Nicolson, takes us back to the very first national election held in Russia, in 1906. This is a story of revolution, absolute monarchy, radical socialists and more.

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Hello and welcome to another volume of the Europe Elects History Corner, where every month we delve into an election of times past.  Last month we looked back to the very first election held in a unified Germany in 1871.  This time, we move a few decades further ahead in time to another first: the 1906 Russian parliamentary election, the very first national election held in the Russian Empire.

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115 years ago, in the Spring of 1906, Native American tribal governments in the United States’ Indian territory were terminated in preparation for creating the state of Oklahoma; the London Underground continued to expand to new stations; the San Francisco Earthquake tragically killed over 3,000 people, and, in the east, the people of the Russian Empire had their very first opportunity to vote in a national election. 

Before discussing the election itself, we need to explore the background developments that led up to it.  From its foundation in the 16th century, the Russian state had been ruled as an absolute monarchy by the Tsar – a title which, like the German Kaiser, derived from the title of Caesar in the Roman Empire.  By the turn of the century the Russian Empire had expanded into a sprawling, trans-continental landmass stretching from Poland and Finland in the east, the Caucasus and central Asia in the south and east to the Pacific Ocean, having grown at the rate of one Belgium per year throughout the 18th century.

The absolutist regime of the Tsars faced heightened pressure in the latter half of the 19th century.  After abolishing serfdom – the last European nation to do so – Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by far-left conspirators, and leftist organisations proliferated further in the following decades.  These included the agrarian Narodnik movement and its inspired organisation, the Socialist Revolutionary Party, along with the more explicitly Marxist Social Democratic Labour Party.

Alexander II’s grandson, Nicholas II, came to the throne in 1894 and fiercely resisted any democratic reforms.  However, discontent against the autocratic system continued to manifest as Russian society urbanised and industrialised.  Unrest grew amongst multiple groups: the newly emancipated peasantry which still lacked economic freedoms; a similarly economically-oppressed, rapidly growing industrial working class; a relatively new group of university-educated radicals; and national minorities who lacked basic civic rights within the Empire.  Russia’s Jewish population faced particular persecution, forbidden from settling outside the western regions of the Empire and suffering recurrent, deadly pogroms.

In this context, Russia’s shock defeat against Japan during the Russo-Japanese war was the spark that lit the powder-keg beneath the Tsarist regime in 1905.  Numerous mutinies broke out across the Russian navy, the most famous of which seized the battleship Potemkin, and unrest spread to the capital of Saint Petersburg.  The massacre of hundreds of demonstrators in an event known as Bloody Sunday only further inflamed protests, leading to a general strike across much of the Empire.  

Nicholas II made a number of desperate concessions to quell the protests – most importantly for today’s story, promising to establish a weak national parliament with consultative powers – the State Duma – and then later publishing the October Manifesto, promising to reform Russia into a constitutional monarchy.  This concession had been extracted from an unwilling Nicholas II upon the urging of his chief advisor, Sergei Witte, who had become convinced that only reforms could prevent the regime’s collapse.

This concession appeased many liberal and middle class opponents of the Tsar, although further violence was required to truly put down the revolt, culminating in the shelling of much of Moscow during a failed uprising at the end of the year.  The first Russian Revolution in 1905 had failed to overthrow the Tsar but did force significant concessions, leading to the very first national elections the following year. 

In reality, the State Duma did not meet the expectations aroused by the October Manifesto.  The Fundamental Laws issued in April 1906 provided the Duma with only limited powers to constrain the Tsar.  Although the Duma’s support was necessary to pass legislation, the Tsar could initiate and veto bills, had sole power to appoint the government and continued to control the military and foreign policy.  

All men over the age of 25 were granted the right to vote with the exception of soldiers, officers and certain national minorities.  The electoral system was however not particularly free or fair, with unequal constituency sizes and an electoral college weighted towards landowners and weakening the votes especially of urban workers.  The Duma also had to work with an upper house, the State Council, which was appointed half by the Tsar and half by local representative bodies, which could also veto legislation – giving the Tsar another means to control the new parliament.  The Duma’s representatives were to be elected for five-year terms.

The election was contested by a range of interest groups and parties, most of which had been rapidly formed ahead of the vote.  This included the centre-left Trudoviks, a breakaway from the Socialist Revolutionary Party; the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party, also known as the Kadets; the centre-right Octobrists, and the right-wing Union of Land-Owners.  Of these groups, only the Union of Land-Owners actively opposed some degree of democratisation, although the Octobrists were satisfied with the new status quo. 

The elections were boycotted by most socialist organisations, which viewed the Duma either as a distraction from the ultimate goal of class revolution or a powerless prop for the regime.  The boycott included the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Social Democratic Labour Party, which at this stage had broken apart into the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions, minor groups which would surely never have any influence in Russia.  These factions disagreed on the boycott; the Mensheviks were generally more open to participating in the election, whereas the Bolsheviks rejected the Duma, anticipating a second revolutionary wave the following year.  The election was also contested by a range of groups representing minorities and non-Russian nationalities.

The Constitutional Democratic Party in particular used the election to campaign for further democratic reforms as one of the most cohesive and best-organised factions to contest the election.  They called for the government to be responsible to the Duma and for the introduction of equal suffrage and a secret ballot, taking inspiration from the British House of Commons.

Due to the somewhat amorphous nature of these organisations and the lack of official records on group compositions, historians have had to estimate the exact numbers of elected members belonging to each faction.  Nevertheless, it is clear that the election produced an overwhelming majority in favour of reform, with right-wing representatives and the Union of Land-Owners reduced to a small minority in the Duma.  Most estimates agree that the Constitutional Democratic Party surpassed expectations to emerge as the largest single grouping, although short of an overall majority, followed by the Trudoviks and then, as a much smaller group, the Union of October 17.  

Despite the formal boycott, several candidates belonging to the Social Democratic Labour Party and the Socialist Revolutionary Party were also elected, including 17 Mensheviks nominated by local committees which rejected the national party’s boycott, who collaborated with the Constitutional Democratic Party.

The socialist parties’ boycott had some impact in urban centres, especially St Petersburg and Warsaw, but failed to sway peasant voters in rural parts of the Empire, who hoped that the Duma might lead to an improvement in their material situation and reform to land ownership patterns, even if it would never be a revolutionary body.

Furthermore, the Empire’s minorities were well-represented; Polish representatives comprised over 50 of the Duma’s 497 members, mostly represented by the nationalist Polish National Democratic Party. They were joined by 12 Jewish representatives, supported by the League of Attainment of Full Rights for the Jewish People of Russia, which had helped to mobilise the Jewish vote against calls by other Jewish organisations to boycott the election.

The constitutional system insulated the Russian government from any change at the ballot box so there was no formal governing coalition formed within the Duma, but in effect a loose, pro-reform coalition was forged by the Constitutional Democratic Party, Trudoviks, independent peasant representatives and some minority representatives, comprising a supermajority in the Duma.  These factions used the Duma as a platform for advocating further democratic reforms. 

Within a week of its first sitting, the Duma called for the release of political prisoners and for greater political freedoms.  When the government refused to meet these demands, the Duma passed nearly unanimously a vote of no-confidence in the new Prime Minister Ivan Goremykin, who was less reform-minded than even Witte had been.  With relations between the government and Duma embittered from the start, the Duma went on to file 391 complaints against the government’s actions over the following two months and held several debates on the contentious issue of land reform, demanding the redistribution of land from the nobility to the peasantry.  The majority parties also sought the abolition of the undemocratic State Council.  Only two laws were passed in this period – one abolishing capital punishment and another, sponsored by the government, providing famine relief.   

This conflict between Duma and government became untenable and, in July, just two months into its five-year term, the Duma was dissolved by Nicholas II, who accused it of unlawfully infringing upon his authority.  This only sparked a further escalation that saw the 200 members of the Duma relocate to Vyborg in Finland, where they produced the Vyborg Manifesto calling for the non-payment of taxes and a boycott of military service in protest at the Duma’s dismissal.  The government then arrested the Manifesto’s signatories and barred them from standing again for election.  

Yet, this act did not provoke a return to the uprisings of the previous year.  The government deployed a garrison to Saint Petersburg but it was not required; apart from a brief mutiny and strike in Helsinki and an even briefer strike in Saint Petersburg, which were easily put down by the government, there was no significant unrest in the Empire.

Within a matter of months, Russia’s constitutional experiment had clearly failed to resolve the deep-seated tensions within Russian society that had become so evident during the previous year’s uprisings.  It would be fair to suggest that the constitutional process had simply helped buy the government time to reassert its grip on power.  The 1906 election then cannot be said to have, in itself, a significant impact on Russia’s governance.  It did not – and indeed, constitutionally could not – bring about any change in the Russian government; neither did it lead to any meaningful check on the government’s powers.  Nor did it mark even the beginning of a move to constitutional democracy in Russia, as the Tsar would continue to limit and weaken the Duma’s powers in the coming year. 

Nevertheless, the 1906 election can still be seen as one of many turning points in Russia during this period.  For the very first time, Russian citizens had been given a voice within the institutions of state – and they overwhelmingly used this voice to demand further reforms.  And while Nicholas II continued to reassert control over the country, he would never again enjoy complete absolute rule.  Yet, in the long run, it can be argued that his response to the election and the pro-reform majority it returned fatally undermined the long-term survival of the Tsarist regime.  The Duma represented an opportunity for Russia’s deep social divisions to be addressed, or at least ameliorated, by democratic and constitutional means.  By shutting down the democratic expression of the Russian people, Nicholas II destroyed any hope of a sustainable, long-term political settlement, leading the way to his overthrow in a second revolution just 11 years later.

Thank you for listening – I hope you enjoyed this episode of the History Corner.