Russian revolutionary traditions

The 1800s in Russia was replete with revolutionary groups and reformist movements. The century’s first significant revolutionary event was the Decembrist revolution. In 1825 a clique of military officers lead an uprising against the newly crowned Nicholas I. Dubbed the Decembrists after the month in which they rebelled, the rebel officers refused to swear allegiance to the tsar, instead demanding the coronation of his more liberal brother Constantine. They gathered in St Petersburg with a force of 3,000 men and called on the city’s garrison to join them – however this plea was ignored, providing the new tsar with enough breathing space to crush the potential revolution. Nicholas I ordered in heavy artillery and the revolt was quickly crushed. Several Decembrists leaders were arrested and publicly hung, reasserting the grip of absolute tsarism. The Decembrist uprising was more a dispute between aristocratic factions and interests than a genuine democratic or socialist revolution – however many of its participants were liberal reformists.

The reign of Alexander II brought about liberal reforms in the 1860s, including the emancipation of serfs, the formation of elected zemstvos and a relaxation of the restrictions on universities and schools. But instead of satisfying demands for change, these liberalisations actually increased them. Education reforms opened Russia’s universities both to more students and more radical ideas. Academics and students were granted the freedom to study and teach foreign political, economic and philosophical ideas. The spirit of questioning that emerged in Russian universities gave rise to several student-based political movements in the 1870s. Most of these reformist groups focused on Russia’s peasants, highlighting their miserable conditions and their potential for revolution.

Two large populist groups, Khozhdeniye v narod (‘Call to the People’) and Zemlya i Volya (‘Land and Liberty’), both regarded Russia’s large peasant population as the most logical source of revolutionary energy. They set up ‘permanent’ revolutionary settlements in rural and regional areas, producing propaganda, convening meetings and discussion groups, and attempting to rouse peasant communes into action against the government and its bureaucracy. Other groups were more socially active: their members travelled to remote areas to educate the peasants about their plight, in the hope of inciting class consciousness and opposition to tsarism. This effort was generally unsuccessful: peasant communities were suspicious of strangers, especially those with political agendas.

After a few years these populist groups fizzled away. In the early 1880s they were superseded by a new group called Narodnaya Volya (‘People’s Will’). A true revolutionary party, Narodnaya Volya was smaller, more organised and better led. It had a mainstream faction that was public, vocal and politically active – along with a smaller, more radical section that was chiefly interested in attacking the tsarist regime with terrorism and violence. Narodnaya Volya planned seven separate attempts on the life of Tsar Alexander II. In 1881 three of its agents finally found an opportunity, lobbing a bomb at the tsar as he traveled by carriage in St Petersburg. Alexander’s legs were almost entirely blown away; his shattered body was carried by sled to the Winter Palace where the dying emperor was visited by members of his family – including his 13-year-old grandson, the future Nicholas II.

The killing of the tsar should have been the revolutionary movement’s most significant victory but its effects did more harm than good. Most Russians were appalled at the murder of Alexander, who was respected for his attempts at reform. His son Alexander III pledged to reverse the liberal reforms which had spawned anarchists and revolutionists like the Narodnaya Volya, whose members were rounded up and executed (see picture). From the assassination came two decades of counter-reform, secret police and suppression of dissident political groups in Russia, until the rise of the SDs and SRs in the early 1900s.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Russian revolutionary traditions” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].