The 1905 revolution came close to toppling Tsar Nicholas II and his autocratic regime; widespread strikes and uprisings catalysed by the events of Bloody Sunday, caused chaos. However, by 1914 autocracy was still ruling and appeared popular, given the extensive support the Tsar had for going to war in 1914. Whilst it is true that Nicholas did manage to restore his authority through economic, political and social improvements during this period, it was only partial and the underlying causes of the 1905 revolution had not been resolved. Opposition groups such as the Social Democrats and the Mensheviks had been driven underground, but remained. Russia was still severely undeveloped in comparison to western European countries and living conditions across Russia were poor, with widespread discontent amongst the working class and peasantry consequently remaining.
During 1905-1914 Tsar Nicholas was able to restore political authority and stability, through a mixture of timely concessions and repression. In 1905, Nicholas reluctantly signed the October Manifesto, which promised, among other things to guarantee civil freedoms and to create a national assembly that would have the power to pass or reject laws, the Duma. Importantly, the manifesto split Liberal opposition to the regime enabling Nicholas to consolidate his power. The Kadets were appeased by the idea of having freedom of speech and a truly representative government whereas the Marxists maintained that Nicholas had only made small concessions, arguing that the Duma was only a shell of democracy. The idea of a constitutional monarchy provided by the Duma could arguably have worked and saved Russia from a revolution in 1917, however the Tsar’s unwillingness to accept any form of democracy prevented this. By dividing the opposition, the threat to the regime was weakened, enabling the Tsar to gradually reassert authority. This is evident in 1906, when the Tsar produces the Fundamental Laws; limiting the powers of the Duma (Article 87) and forcing a complete return to autocracy.
The loyalty of the army was crucial in allowing Nicholas to regain authority himself, having returned from the Russo-Japanese War, Nicholas temporarily established a military dictatorship and brutally put down strikes as well as crushing the St Petersburg Soviet. However, opposition groups still remained and throughout the period before 1914 continued to undermine the Tsars authority, shown in the assassinations of government ministers, such as Stolypin in 1911. Similarly, the Tsar remained politically incompetent and unfit to govern Russia effectively, show in his inability to deal with the Duma. Many saw that Nicholas had betrayed the people with the introduction of the Fundamental Laws and gradual monopolisation of the Dumas, culminating in the 1907 coup d’état, whereby the Duma was completely dissolved. In the short term the Tsar effectively restored his authority, however in the long term his actions provoked increasing opposition and distrust for the regime. Although the Tsar was able to restore some aspects of political authority via repression, it can be argued that Nicholas did not tackle the underlying problems and so only prevented an inevitable political crisis.
Economically Russia continued to boom throughout the years leading up to the First World War. Coal production increased from 8million tonnes in 1890 to 90million tonnes in 1913. Coal along with other industries such as iron and agriculture grew rapidly. It can be argued that the modernisation of Russia and the rapid expansion of cities and urban areas, acted as a catalyst for the growth of opposition and revolutionary ideals due the increased density in population and poor working and conditions in cities, hostility to the Tsar grew. However, despite this growth, Russia was unable to go through substantial economic change; growth was from a low base and industrialisation was difficult due to the economy being largely state owned. This is partially Nicholas’ fault due to his inability to politically modernise Russia, in such a way demonstrated by western European countries. Witte, an advisor to the Tsar, in part helped drive the economic boom; by securing investments with France, Russia was given the capital it required for a state-led industrialisation. Despite what appeared to be economic stability, when war broke out the economy collapsed; this led to famine, discontent and a growth opposition. The war proved that the Russian economy was still weak and years of growth had simply masked the underlying backwardness of Russia.
Social reforms were introduced, aimed at improving living and working conditions in major towns and cities. Tsar Nicholas was aware of the increased agitation in urban areas, and so sort to appease the workers by introducing social reforms, in the hope of gaining the support of the workers. The reforms did show some signs of effectiveness and literacy rates and conditions did improve however, these reforms only ‘scratched the rhino’s back’ and consequently opposition continued to grow, culminating in the 1917 revolution. In 1912, over 2,500 miners went on strike at the Lena Goldfields; Russian troops opened fire and killed 150 men. Similarly to Bloody Sunday, the massacre acted as a catalyst, sparking strikes across the country. The people saw this as a lack of sympathy from the Tsar. The number of strikes in Russia had sharply declined from 14,000 in 1905 to just 222 in 1910. This shows that the Tsar did regain authority to an extent in the working class. However, this was largely due to the repressive force used by Nicholas and in 1911 strikes increased to 466 and 1,918 in 1912. Tsar Nicholas, inability to provide drastic improvements in working conditions meant that again, he failed to solve the underlying problems, and as a result never truly regained complete authority. Lenin argued that the massacre had ‘inflamed the masses with a revolutionary fire’.
Although social conditions in across Russia showed some signs of improvement, the reforms only scratched the rhino’s back; there was still widespread discontent and strikes. This attitude is shown in the Lena Goldfields Massacre 1912, where over 2,500 miners went on strike due to low wages and poor working conditions, troops opened fire killing over 150 miners. News of the massacre provoked nationwide strikes and protest meetings totalling more than 300,000 participants, with 700 political strikes during the month of April, and 1,000 strikes on 1 May in the St. Petersburg area alone.
Stolypin sought to create a strong conservative peasantry who would support the current regime, therefore returning authority to the Tsar. This was called Stolypin’s ‘wager on the strong’. He made it possible for ex-serfs to buy themselves out of the peasant commune and for small strips to be consolidated into capitalist farms, aided by loans from the Peasant Land Bank. About two million households (about one-eighth of the total) took advantage of these arrangements before 1916, many moving into the less populated Siberia and Central Asia. In the towns and cities, government reforms were improving working conditions and education, however they were only scratching the surface of the problems facing the working class.