The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks emerged in the early 20th century – but they were not Russia’s first revolutionary groups. Russian revolutionary traditions can be traced back to the early part of the 19th century.
One of modern Russia’s first significant revolutionary events was the Decembrist revolt of 1825. Though this attempted revolution failed, it had some impact on tsarist government and policy in the years that followed.
This uprising was conducted by a clique of military officers 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 new tsar, demanding the coronation of his more liberal brother, Constantine.
The Decemberists gathered in St Petersburg with a force of 3,000 men and called on the city’s garrison to join them. Their plea was ignored, giving the new tsar 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 – but many of its participants were liberal reformists.
Mid-19th century revolutionary movements
Nicholas I continued to suppress revolutionary movements during his reign. Revolutionary sentiment was forced underground, published or discussed by secretive groups. One of these was the Petrashevsky Circle, headed by famous novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. This group was arrested and famously sentenced to a mock execution in December 1849.
The reign of Tsar Alexander II brought about liberal reforms in the 1860s, including the emancipation of Russia’s serfs, the formation of elected zemstvos and a relaxation of restrictions on universities and schools. Instead of satisfying demands for change, however, these liberal reforms actually increased them.
Educational 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 systems and liberal ideas and theories. The spirit of questioning that emerged in Russian universities gave rise to several student-based movements in the 1870s.
Several of these reformist groups focused on Russia’s peasants, highlighting their miserable conditions. Two large populist groups, Khozhdeniye v narod (‘Call to the People’) and Zemlya i Volya (‘Land and Liberty’), both viewed Russia’s large peasant population as the most logical source of revolutionary energy.
These groups backed up their theories with activism. They set up ‘permanent’ revolutionary settlements in rural and regional areas, producing propaganda, convening meetings and discussion groups. Their volunteers worked to rouse peasant communes into action against the tsarist government and its bureaucracy.
Other groups were more socially active. Their volunteers travelled to remote areas to educate Russia’s peasants, in the hope of inciting class consciousness and opposition to tsarism. This effort was generally unsuccessful because 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’). This group would change the course of Russian history.
A true revolutionary party, Narodnaya Volya was smaller, more organised and capably led. It had a mainstream faction that was public, vocal and politically active – and a smaller, more radical section that plotted attacks on 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 travelled by carriage in St Petersburg. Alexander’s legs were almost entirely blown away; his shattered body was carried by sledge 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 was Narodnaya Volya’s most significant victory – but it did more harm than good. Most Russians were appalled at the murder of Alexander, who for all his faults was respected for his attempts at reform.
Alexander’s eldest son and successor, Alexander III, pledged to reverse his father’s liberal reforms, blaming them for spawning anarchists and revolutionists. Members of the Narodnaya Volya were rounded up and executed.
From the assassination of Alexander II came two decades of counter-reform, secret police activity and suppression of dissident political groups in Russia.
1. Several revolutionary groups and movements were active in 19th century Russia, beginning with the Decembrists, who attempted a failed uprising in 1825.
2. During the repressive reign of Nicholas I, a good deal of revolutionary activity was confined to secretive study groups like the Petrashevsky Circle.
3. The reforms of Alexander II during the 1860s should have satisfied revolutionary groups but instead, they became even more radical.
4. Populist groups like the Khozhdeniye v narod and Zemlya i Volya focused on the peasants, hoping to educate and inspire them to revolution.
5. The rise of a new group called the Narodnaya Volya or ‘People’s Will’ resulted in the century’s most significant act of revolution: the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.