The 1905 Revolution, the promise of a State Duma and the relaxation of censorship all encouraged the formation of political parties. By the end of 1905, Russia boasted several new parties seeking political or constitutional reform. Two of these newly formed parties, the Constitutional Democrats or Kadets and the Octobrists, would play important roles in shaping post-tsarist Russia.
These new freedoms unleashed a tsunami of political propaganda, publications and documents, as well as the organisation of political meetings. Groups once compelled to meet illegally could now gather openly, formalise their association, draft party manifestos and produce propaganda for public consumption.
Not all of these fledgeling Russian political parties were Marxist or socialist. Some wanted Russia to become a liberal democracy that was underpinned by a constitution. They wanted government by a constituent assembly and protections for individual rights and freedoms.
Others were more conservative. They wanted tsarism to adapt and modernise – but to continue nonetheless. They believed the tsar’s promises in the October Manifesto went far enough.
Some Russian thinkers wanted political reform along liberal-democratic rather than socialist lines. The largest and most successful of these liberal parties were the Constitutional Democrats (also abbreviated to “Kadets”).
Like many other Russian parties, the Kadets were officially formed during the ferment of 1905, though their origins ran much deeper. Their members and supporters were mostly progressives from the middle and upper classes. They included liberal-minded nobles, landlords, academics, business owners and white-collar professionals like doctors, lawyers and shopkeepers.
The founder, figurehead and leader of the Kadets was Pavel Milyukov, an academic and historian who had been active in Russian reformist groups since the 1870s. Many Kadet members and candidates also had experience working in or with the zemstva, the local councils that operated in the last decades of tsarism.
A constitutionalist party
Most Kadets favoured the development of a British-style political system, with the tsar as head of state but his political authority constrained by a constitution and an elected constituent assembly.
The Kadets also pushed for the introduction of Western-style civil rights and liberties: equality before the law, universal suffrage for men and women, an end to hereditary noble titles, free and universal state education, official recognition of trade unions and legislation protecting the right to strike. They also objected to state censorship of the press.
Their liberal policies made the Kadets popular in the cities and larger towns. In elections for the first Duma in March-April 1906, they recorded 37 per cent of the urban vote and ended up with about one-third of the seats.
A historian’s view:
“The core of the Kadets’ message [in the election of 1905] was that they deserved the people’s support because they alone defended the true interests of the country. Their appeals contained alluring promises and dire predictions about the country’s fate, should the conservatives win. ‘The future of Russia depends on the result of these elections. If they produce a constitutional and democratic majority, Russia will enter the path of peaceful cultural, political and social life. If they produce a majority that is not for decisive reform, then civil war, shooting and blood will inundate Russia, will grow and spread, producing anarchy in the economic life of the country.'”
Abraham Ascher, historian
Another significant party that emerged in 1905 were the Octobrists. Like the Kadets, they were a properly constituted political party represented in the Duma.
More liberal than hardline tsarists but more conservative than the Kadets, the Octobrists took their name from the October Manifesto, a document they enthusiastically endorsed as the solution to Russia’s problems.
The Octobrists favoured a limited constitutional monarchy, with the tsar retaining authority over the appointment of ministers and the passing of legislation. They accepted the need for reform but believed it should be decided and managed by the tsarist government.
Economically, the Octobrists supported private farming, the policies of chief minister Pyotr Stolypin and the maintenance of the Russian Empire.
After Stolypin rigged voting laws in 1907, the Octobrists became the largest faction in the Third Duma (1907-1912). Like the Kadets, the Octobrists supported Russia’s war effort during World War I, a policy that cost them some support.
Several Octobrists occupied some key government positions during the war and the Dual Power of 1917. The most notable Octobrist politician was Mikhail Rodzianko, who served as chairman of the Duma and was instrumental in convincing Nicholas II to abdicate in March 1917.
A historian’s view:
“The Octobrists had never failed to illuminate the darker side of the government’s activity. But they had never allowed criticism to degenerate into making a political career out of oppositional attitudes… Another line which divided the Octobrists from the opposition parties was the national question: the Octobrists believed that in the Russian Empire, the interests of the Russian nationality should have pride of place, as the natural unifiers of the state, though not at the expense of enslaving other nationalities.”
Geoffrey A. Hosking
1. Several Russian political parties emerged during and after 1905, inspired by the revolutionary events of that year and the tsar’s relaxation of political censorship.
2. Not all these parties wanted the overthrow of tsarism. Some hoped that tsarism would adapt or to see the tsar’s powers constrained by a constitution and elected legislature.
3. Officially formed in 1905, the Constitutional Democrats, or Kadets for short, were led by Pavel Milyukov and supported mostly by Russia’s professional and middle-classes.
4. The Kadets were liberal-democrats who favoured the adoption of a British or American system with a constitution and guarantees for individual and civil rights.
5. The Octobrists were a party of moderates and conservatives. They were loyal to tsarism but supportive of the changes outlined in the October Manifesto, from which they took their name.