Stolypin and the tsarist reaction to 1905

tsarist reaction
Nicholas II opening the State Duma in 1906.

Tsarism was threatened by the 1905 Revolution but Nicholas II remained staunchly committed to the autocracy. As a result, the events of 1905 were followed by a period of tsarist reaction led by chief minister Pyotr Stolypin, where promised reforms were wound back and revolutionary groups were suppressed.

Retreat, not reform

Nicholas’ approval of the October Manifesto was largely a surrender to the advice of Sergei Witte and others, rather than a genuine move towards reform.

Deep in his heart, Nicholas still clung to the outmoded values of autocracy, Orthodoxy and divine right monarchy. The Tsar viewed the October Manifesto and the Duma as a strategic retreat rather than an enduring change.

In the wake of October 1905, Nicholas plotted a counter-attack against the reformism that threatened his autocratic power. Men like Witte were sidelined or kept at arm’s length as Nicholas filled his ministry and inner circle with conservatives and reactionaries.

In late 1906, the tsar appointed a new chief minister, Pyotr Stolypin, who was to oversee this counter-revolution. Within a year, the tsarist reaction had suppressed radical opposition, rigged the Duma and restored its autocratic power. The changes promised in 1905 were not delivered in full – but the Russian Revolution was delayed rather than defeated.


On October 17th 1905, Nicholas promulgated the October Manifesto. This brief statement promised Russians an elected legislature (a State Duma) as well as improved rights and freedoms.

The October Manifesto was greeted favourably by conservatives, liberals and some socialists, who favoured moderate reforms and a political system along Western constitutional lines.

The tsar’s promises failed to ease revolutionary tensions everywhere. Militant socialists, radical workers’ groups and mutinous military units scattered around Russia demanded further reforms and committed to further action against the government.

The Soviet suppressed

With the revolutionaries now divided about their objectives, the tsarist government felt confident enough to move against the more radical elements.

In November, the tsar’s police arrested 260 members of the St Petersburg Soviet, including Leon Trotsky. Union leaders and strike organisers were also targeted. Eight newspapers in the capital were forcibly closed and several writers and publishers were arrested.

In early December, an alliance of Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries launched an ambitious uprising in Moscow, where they stockpiled weapons, blockaded streets, shelled buildings and murdered government officials. The December uprising was brutally crushed by the tsarist military, which bombarded their sections with rifle fire and heavy artillery, killing more than 1,000 people.

The State Duma

The tsar’s next obstacle was the election and convocation of the First State Duma, the elected legislature promised in his October Manifesto.

Elections for the Duma began in March 1906. Voters did not select Duma members directly but voted for electoral colleges (committees that decided on individuals worthy of candidature). All male citizens over the age of 25 were entitled to vote, provided they were not enlisted in the military and did not have a criminal record.

By mid-April, the composition of the 487 Duma seats had been finalised. More than one-third of the Duma (179 seats) was won by the liberal Constitutional Democrats or Kadets. Left-wing groups like the Trudoviks (a labour-based party), the SRs and pro-socialist independents occupied more than 150 seats.

The Fundamental Laws

On the eve of the Duma opening, Nicholas issued the Fundamental Laws. This decree was, for all intents and purposes, Russia’s first written constitution – but it was also the blueprint for a tsarist reaction.

Rather than codifying the promised changes of 1905, the Fundamental Laws reasserted the principles of autocratic tsarism. Nicholas retained full sovereignty by divine right; the notion that any of his power was derived from the people was disregarded.

The Tsar alone possessed constitutional and legislative power. Only the Tsar could alter or modify the constitution. The Tsar also retained the authority to initiate, amend or repeal legislative, with or without the endorsement of the Duma. Government ministers were appointed by the tsar alone; they were not answerable or accountable to the Duma.

Broken promises

This regressive constitution betrayed the promises made the previous year. The October Manifesto had declared an “unshakeable rule that no law can come into force without approval by the State Duma and representatives of the people”.

The Fundamental Laws, however, reneged on this principle, decreeing that all laws were subject to the will and the approval of the tsar.

Privately, Nicholas made no secret of the fact that he thought the October Manifesto was a mistake. It was the product of poor advice from Sergei Witte and others. His own preferred response to 1905 would have been to impose martial law, crush revolutionary elements and wind back rights rather than increase them.

The short-lived First Duma

tsarist reaction
A British cartoon ridiculing the tsar’s attitude to the Duma.

The Duma met for the first time on April 27th 1906. With its seats filled with reformists but its legislative power stripped by the Fundamental Laws, the first Duma soon developed a hostile relationship with the tsar’s government.

Nicholas showed his contempt for the Duma from the outset. Witte’s replacement as chief minister, a lacklustre conservative bureaucrat named Ivan Goremykin, was sent to the chamber to submit the tsar’s first item of business: the construction of a new laundry and greenhouse at a university in Estonia.

The outraged Duma ignored Goremykin’s petty agenda and began debating issues of land reform, military funding and constitutional change. It urged Nicholas to rescind or amend the Fundamental Laws, requests he flatly denied.

In July 1906, the Tsar dissolved the Duma and replaced Goremykin with Stolypin, a provincial governor who enjoyed a reputation for effectively quashing political radicalism.

The defiance did not end there, however. As they prepared to depart St Petersburg, 197 Duma deputies signed a petition urging others to defy the tsar and continue meeting in Vyborg, Finland. Many of the signatories to this petition were later persecuted, imprisoned or exiled.

The Second Duma

Elections for a second Duma were held in January 1907. These elections produced an assembly that was even more hostile to the tsarist government.

More than 250 of the 518 deputies were either socialist or aligned with socialist groups. Their number included a block of 65 Social Democrats, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, who had boycotted the first election. The liberal Kadets occupied another 98 seats.

The second Duma went beyond calls for change to anti-tsarist speeches and accusations. The Duma’s 18 Bolshevik deputies did little other than deliver tirades against the tsar, his ministers and other conservative elements. Some of these were purposely written by Lenin himself.

The government tolerated this until June 1906 when Stolypin again dissolved the Duma. He later ordered the arrest of its Menshevik and Bolshevik deputies, accusing them of sabotaging the legislature.

The rigged Third Duma

tsarist reaction
A Russian cartoon from 1906, showing tsarist agents silencing debate in the Duma.

It became clear to the Tsar and his ministers that the Duma could not continue in this manner. Stolypin set about developing a new electoral law to keep socialists and radicals out of the chamber. If “sane men” are to prevail in the Duma, he later said, then “we don’t want professors but men with roots in the country, the local gentry and so forth”.

After dissolving the second Duma, Stolypin made radical amendments to the electoral law. Some of his changes harked back the ‘Bulygin project’ of 1905. The number of Duma delegates was trimmed by more than 70 while the franchise (right to vote) was drastically curtailed.

When elections for the third Duma were held in October 1907, only around 3.5 million Russians out of a population of around 130 million were eligible to vote. Of the new deputies in the Third Duma, 44 per cent were nobles and almost 20 per cent were peasants. Socialists, Trudovik and Kadet deputies occupied less than one-fifth of the total seats.

Stolypin’s land reforms

Stolypin’s manipulation of the Duma was not his only idea for consolidating tsarist authority. The chief minister also had a longer-term vision, based on land reforms and a restructured peasant class.

Stolypin hoped to capitalise Russia’s agrarian economy by providing assistance and incentives to hard-working peasants (“wager on the strong” he called this). Encouraging peasants to work for profit rather than landlords or the mir (commune) would revitalise the economy and lead to improvements in farming methods, productivity and output.

The government would assist this process by providing aspiring kulaks with banking facilities, loans and assistance for purchasing machinery or livestock. A “land bank” was established to ensure that land was allocated fairly and efficiently, rather than by communes. Small plots of land would be consolidated and given to successful peasants, rather than to individuals or families barely capable of using them.

These reforms also included measures to open up hitherto undeveloped parts of the empire. Peasants willing to relocate to Siberia, for example, were given government assistance and 40 acres of land.

Pushing through reforms

Stolypin won approvals for these changes by convincing the reluctant tsar that they would bolster his power. Breaking the power of the peasant communes was one objective of the tsarist reaction. A more affluent, independent peasant class would only strengthen loyalty to the throne, Stolypin argued.

Stolypin’s reforms were incentives rather than directives; most were not forced on the population. Nevertheless, they encountered significant resistance in several parts of Russia.

Representatives of the communes naturally objected since the reforms threatened both their control of land and the social order in villages. There was also opposition from the land-owning nobility, whose interests, rentals and profits were threatened by any significant changes to the peasantry.

Outcomes of ‘Stolypinism’

Stolypin’s reforms did have some effect but even after a decade, most aspects of Russia’s agrarian economy and society remained unchanged.

Between 1906 and 1915, when Stolypin’s reforms officially ended, the total land owned by Russian peasants had increased from 4320 million to 4590 million acres, while the tsar’s personal land-holdings remained the same. By 1915, more than half the nation’s peasants remained in communal land-ownership and only about 15 per cent could be realistically classed as kulaks.

Stolypin himself did not see his reforms to fruition. After overseeing the tsarist reaction, he was murdered in 1911, the victim of an assassin’s bullet.

A historian’s view:
“The tsarist authorities could not settle on a clear-cut policy toward the Duma. They allowed the elections to be held, they arranged a solemn ceremony to mark the opening of the legislature that enhanced its aura of legitimacy, and they made other gestures that suggested a willingness to cooperate with the new institution. On the other hand, the authorities had limited the Duma’s prerogatives before it ever met, had appointed a prime minister and other ministers hostile to any form of representative government, and in numerous other ways had indicated a deep distrust of the legislators, who in turn gave little evidence of favouring a conciliatory strategy… The relationship quickly turned acrimonious, condemning the first experiment in popular government to an ignominious failure.”
Abraham Ascher

tsarist reaction

1. Nicholas II’s promised reforms, like those outlined in the October Manifesto in 1905, were followed by a period of tsarist reaction and broken promises.

2. In April 1906, the Tsar issued the Fundamental Laws, in effect a Russian constitution that maintained and reasserted his autocratic power.

3. A State Duma was elected but after the Fundamental Laws had no real power. The Duma’s hostility to the government led to its dissolution in July 1906.

4. In 1907, chief minister Stolypin rigged electoral laws to ensure the third Duma was dominated by conservatives and therefore less hostile.

5. Stolypin also initiated economic and land reforms to facilitate the creation of a kulak class. These affluent peasants would be more productive and become a conservative supporter base for tsarism.

Citation information
Title: “The tsarist reaction to 1905”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: July 26, 2019
Date accessed: January 27, 2023
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.