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In the Russian Revolution of 1905 there was a clear distinction between revolutionary and reformist ideologies. Such ideological divisions were exploited by the Tsarist government and resulted in the pacification of the liberals and the peasants, and the crushing of the proletariat by the loyal armed forces. In marked contrast, the February Revolution of 1917 exhibited a larger, stronger and more united opposition to Tsarism which, combined with the defection of the armed forces, was able to succeed in toppling the Tsar and his autocratic regime. The switching loyalty of the armed forces and the greater unity in February 1917 were consequences of three interrelated factors: the First World War; actions of the Tsar; and grave political discontent.
Whilst the Russo-Japanese War, a precursor to the 1905 Revolution, did not break the faith of the armed forces, the sheer scale and severity of the First World War proved fundamental in altering their allegiances. It is important to recognise that the loyalty of the army to the Tsar in 1905 was crucial in defeating the proletariat revolutionaries – as evidenced by the suppression of the Moscow Uprising. By 1917 the army was so irreparably disillusioned that their loyalty no longer resided with the Tsar. The reasons for such disillusionment lie in the disastrous nature of the Russian war effort. First and foremost, military defeats at the Battle of Tannenberg, and the loss of Russian Poland to the Germans, had devastating effects on soldier morale.
Such morale was also affected by how dangerously under-equipped the army was – there were, for example, a million more men than rifles. The enormous casualties from 1914-17 of almost two million, much greater than those of the Russo-Japanese War, also worked to rapidly diminish support for the Tsar. The defection of the army in February 1917, a culmination of such discontent and disillusionment, meant that the Tsar had no coercive weapon by which to stifle revolution. This consequently worked to make his abdication an inevitability. This is not the sole reason for the success of the February Revolution however. The actions of the Tsar, in relation to the war, also proved significant in alienating those traditionally loyal to him.
In 1905 the Tsar was very much ‘behind the scenes’ – criticism towards him was not as sharply focussed as it was by 1917. In 1915, by appointing himself as Commander in Chief of the military, the Tsar managed to directly implicate himself in all war failures. This inextricable link between the Tsar and the war, strengthened by his incompetence as a military strategist, is a key factor as to why his previously loyal army defected, which, as discussed, led to the success of the February Revolution. The Tsar’s decision to take such a role helped alienate his other support bases as well such as the Liberals in the State Duma and the nobility. With Nicholas II assuming his new role in the military, the Tsarina Alexandra was left in charge of governing day-to-day affairs in Petrograd.
This initially caused social and political unrest as the Tsarina’s German origins made her wildly unpopular and triggered allegations that she was aligned with the enemy. Her relationship with the mystic ‘mad monk’ Rasputin, and the considerable influence he seemed to wield over government affairs, fuelled further disaffection with the royal family and generated allegations that they were simply ‘marionettes’ with Rasputin pulling the strings. Rasputin’s harmful influence on the home front further damaged the Tsar’s reputation. In particular, by appointing Alexander Protopopov as Interior Minister, a request of Rasputin’s, the Tsar managed to exacerbate the economic dislocation caused by the war as Protopopov proved ineffective in managing his responsibility of allocating food supplies.
The fact that Rasputin was ultimately killed by supporters of Tsarism is a testament to his unpopularity and the out-of-sync nature of the Tsar and Tsarina. Whilst not becoming ‘revolutionaries’, both the Liberals and the nobility viewed the Tsar as an obstacle for the survival on monarchic rule. In 1905 the Tsar managed to survive by appealing to the Liberals, thus dividing the opposition. The refusal of the Provisional Government (formed out of the State Duma) to share power with the Tsar, as the Revolution elevated and the army defected, meant that no such strategy could be repeated. Combined with the defection of the army, this doomed the Tsar. It was the Tsar’s actions in relation to the war which contributed to the Provisional Government’s decision.
With the army refusing to crush the workers unlike in 1905, the Tsar’s only chance of survival lay with the Liberals in the State Duma who had formed the Provisional Government. As explored, the Provisional Government refused to cooperate with the Tsar in February 1917. This is partly due to an intensification of contempt felt towards the Tsar as a result of his actions during the war. It is also important to explore the political discontent felt by the Liberals post-1905 as a reason relating to their rejection of the Tsar. The Tsar had placated the Liberals in 1905 through the declaration of the October Manifesto, which promised them the constitutional monarchy they had aspired for. The dumas, whose power was restricted through the Fundamental Laws of 1906 and the strict criteria for the electorate, fell short of Liberal expectations.
The Tsar’s inability to recognise the need for reform of some sort, illustrated by his dissolution of the progressive State Duma, further enhanced Liberal opposition to the Tsar. The Tsar had made it apparent that he was not interested in reform. Especially considering the backhanded nature of the political concessions which helped save him in 1905; by February 1917 any concessions made or offered would have been treated with great scepticism. The Liberals, in a sense, learned a lesson from the superficiality of the October Manifesto. After a plea to share power, the Tsar was refused by Mikhail Rodzianko, head of the Provisional Government, and the Tsar was subsequently advised by army chiefs and remaining ministers to abdicate. Unlike in 1905 where there was ideological disunity, exploited by the Tsar, in February 1917 there was a collective agreement across all groups in Russian society that the Tsar needed to be gone.
To conclude, the Russian Revolution of 1905 failed as a result of the appeasement of the Liberals (and peasants), and the subsequent crushing of the proletariat by the loyal military. The February Revolution of 1917 succeeded on the grounds that, firstly, the army’s loyalties ‘no longer resided with the Tsar’, and secondly, that the Liberals wished not for compromise with the Tsar, but to overthrow him.
The change in attitudes of these two groups, traditionally loyal to the Tsar, can be attributed primarily to the First World War and the Tsar’s actions. If the war wasn’t damaging enough to the Tsar, his decision to take a ‘front seat’ in military affairs further diminished his support from the army. With regards to the Liberals, there were ultimately no political concessions he could make to hold onto power. In the words of historian Edward Action – “by stubbornly refusing to reach any modus vivendi with the Progressive Bloc of the Duma… Nicholas undermined the loyalty of even those closest to the throne [and] opened an unbridgeable breach between himself and public opinion.”