The October Manifesto

october manifesto
A St Petersburg bulletin announcing the October Manifesto.

The October Manifesto was a document issued by Tsar Nicholas II at the height of the 1905 Revolution. It promised social and political reforms, particularly the election of a State Duma to participate in government. The manifesto came after ten months of popular unrest, strikes, violence and political debate about the future of Russia.

News of the October Manifesto was met with approval by most, particularly liberals and moderate socialists. With many satisfied that political change was imminent, many of the revolutionary forces of 1905 began to disperse or fade away. This allowed the tsarist regime to survive and gain breathing space to recover.

Growing unrest and violence

The October Manifesto was borne from the unrest of 1905. By the summer, Russia was in crisis and the collapse of the tsarist government a distinct possibility. Nicholas II was still holed up behind palace walls for his own safety, after the assassination of his uncle and brother-in-law, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich.

On February 5th, Nicholas issued a statement that condemned the “ill-intentioned leaders” of the revolution, who wanted to “create a new government for the country, based on values alien to our fatherland”. He also called on Russians to “stand firm around the throne [and] support the autocracy”. But he also decreed one of his ministers (Bulygin) would investigate proposals for an elected legislature, to be made up of the “worthiest people”.

A letter from the tsar to his mother, written later in 1905, explains his conflicted thinking:

“There were only two ways open … To find an energetic soldier and crush the rebellion by sheer force. There would be time to breathe then but, as likely as not, one would have to use force again in a few months; that would mean rivers of blood and in the end, we should be where we had started [and with] no possibility of progress achieved. The other way out would be to give the people their civil rights, freedom of speech and press, also to have all laws confirmed by a State Duma [and] a constitution.”

The floodgates are opened

The tsar’s proclamation opened the floodgates for debate on political reform in Russia. Over the coming months, newly formed and existing political groups met to formulate proposals for change. All of Russia’s major political parties drew up manifestos indicating their position on how the government should be reformed. The tsar’s ministers and departments were inundated with letters and petitions containing ideas for reform.

In June, the tsar met a liberal delegation from the association of zemstvos. Nicholas renewed his commitment to an elected legislature, telling them: “The tsar’s will to call together representatives from the people is unswerving. Attracting them to the work of the state will be done in orderly fashion. I concern myself with this matter every day.”

The sincerity of this statement was cast into doubt two weeks later when Nicholas met with and listened approvingly to conservative delegations, who argued for the retention of the autocracy.

The ‘Bulygin Plan’

The debate over reform continued until August when the tsarist regime issued its own plan, the so-called ‘Bulygin project’. Under this model, the State Duma would be elected by persons of property and leaders of the peasant communes; ordinary Russians would not be directly involved in its election.

The Bulygin system was clearly designed to create a Duma dominated by conservative elements, particularly the nobility. Almost every socialist and liberal political group rejected the Bulygin plan; they viewed it as a continuation of the autocracy, evidence that Nicholas’ commitment to reform was insincere.

Not only did the unrest and violence of 1905 fail to abate, it became even more radical. This culminated in the formation of the St Petersburg Soviet and the organisation of a massive general strike, both in early October.

Witte urges immediate reforms

A Russian cartoon depicting Witte as a magician, able to conjure reform from tsarism.

With Russia now at risk of a full-scale revolution, some of the tsar’s advisors urged him to agree to more meaningful reforms. Leading this call was Sergei Witte, the great economic reformer of the 1890s who by this time was chairman of the tsar’s ministerial council.

Nicholas refused to heed Witte’s advice and make further concessions, however, and this time resolved to quash the rebellion. He ordered General Dmitri Trepov, governor of St Petersburg, to deal with strikers and protestors firmly, “not stopping at the application of force” (Trepov ignored this directive).

The tsar also considered imposing martial law. He attempted to recruit his cousin, Nicholas Nikolaevich, as a military dictator. To Nikolaevich’s credit, he refused, telling the tsar that he would commit suicide rather than accept such a mission.

Nicholas backs down

october manifesto
Ilya Repin’s artistic portrayal of the response to the October Manifesto.

By mid-October, Nicholas had no option but to relent and agree to further political reforms. Under the guidance of Witte, government advisors drafted the Manifesto on the Improvement of State Order; it was endorsed by the tsar and publicly released on October 17th.

The October Manifesto, as it became known, had no constitutional effect and was not legally binding. It was simply a statement of promise or intent, to be followed and replaced by a binding constitution. It contained enough detailed promises, however, to satisfy the demands of most Russians.

The manifesto suggested reforms in three core areas: the civil rights and freedoms of all people; elections for a State Duma with a universal franchise; and the operation of the Duma as the body through which all state laws must pass.

Responses to the Manifesto

The response to the Manifesto was varied. With its seemingly heartfelt preamble, apparent concern for the plight of the Russian people and wide-ranging reforms, Russian liberal groups like the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) welcomed it. So too did Russia’s middle classes, who viewed the promised reforms as a great opportunity. A painting by Ilya Repin, shown here, shows wild celebrations on the day the manifesto was issued.

On the political margins, however, the manifesto was viewed as a concession rather than a serious reform. For Marxists, it marked the gradual transition from feudal tsarism to bourgeois parliamentary democracy.

The newly-formed Soviets condemned the October Manifesto as doing little or nothing for impoverished and exploited factory-workers. It was a document of high talk and abstractions that would do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the proletariat. Some dismissed it as a tsarist ploy, an attempt to stave off the revolutionary forces of 1905 while the autocracy regrouped. As it turned out, the last of these assessments was probably the most accurate.

A historian’s view:
“Whether or not you see the October Manifesto as a genuine policy of conciliation, or an attempt to ‘buy off’ the revolutionary movement, it served to split the opposition. It proved too much for conservatives and too little for the Social Democrats, who continued with their agitation… Liberals were also divided between moderates who professed satisfaction with the concessions and ‘progressives’ (Kadets) who continued to demand further parliamentary reforms.”
David Welch

october manifesto 1905

1. As Russia was gripped by the 1905 Revolution, there were widespread demands for political reform.

2. In February 1905 the tsar agreed to consider proposals for State Duma to participate in government and law-making.

3. The first proposal, a Duma elected on a limited franchise, was widely rejected and stimulated more unrest.

4. In October the tsar agreed to a more expansive set of reforms after his calls for military repression were ignored.

5. The October Manifesto promised the introduction of a State Duma elected by all Russians, along with improvements to individual civil and legal rights.

Citation information
Title: “The October Manifesto”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/october-manifesto/
Date published: May 26, 2016
Date accessed: August 20, 2019
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