So many revolutions...

October 30, 2017
Margarita Nafpaktitis
Cover of Otboi, number 3, 1906.

There is a new exhibit in the South Lobby/East Wing of Green Library, highlighting Stanford Special Collections’ trove of Russian satirical journals from the beginning of the 20th century:  “The Russian Revolution of 1905: Political Change Reflected in Satire & Caricature.”

Russia had a revolution in 1917. In fact, it had two revolutions in 1917 – the first one in February, and then the one in October.  But it also almost had one in 1905.

Vladimir Lenin called the revolution of 1905 the “dress rehearsal,” without which the “victory of the October Revolution in 1917” would have been impossible. The events of 1905-1906 also had a profound effect on Russian culture. As the noted Russian art historian Camilla Gray wrote, “The atmosphere of political turmoil which surrounded the abortive revolution of 1905 was accompanied by a renewed vitality in all the arts.”

Strikes & Demonstrations

It all started with a peaceful demonstration on January 9, 1905, led by an Orthodox priest, Father Gapon, bringing a petition to the Tsar:

Sire! We workers have come to you to seek justice and protection. We are in great poverty, we are oppressed and weighed down with labors beyond our strength. We are insulted, we are not recognized as human beings…

But instead of the Tsar coming out to address the crowd, the police opened fire, killing or wounding thousands of demonstrators.  This event, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, galvanized a huge wave of strikes that swept the country.

Virtually no social group or geographical region remained unaffected by the unrest. The challenge to the established order in Russia came from mass movements representing liberals among the middle class and gentry; industrial workers; peasants; and some of the empire’s national minorities. Serious disturbances broke out in cities, agricultural regions, and outlying territories of the empire, as well as in many cultural institutions and in the army and navy.

The individuals who participated in the mass movements of 1905 did not believe that they were merely preparing the way for the real event at some future date. They were trying to bring about far-reaching changes then and there.

Artists & Writers Engage

During the revolution, especially during the period from November 1905 to April 1906, artists who felt themselves to be outsiders had, through the medium of caricature and cartoon, an opportunity to show their solidarity with a society which itself was in rebellion against the prevailing regime. More than 300 journals from across the political and satirical spectrum began to appear on the streets of Russian cities. Arrows, Sting, Machinegun, Freedom, Stormwood, Hell Post, Octopus, Knout – they were immediately and hugely popular.

In a nation where the majority of the population was illiterate, the journals’ pictorial formats could communicate their messages to many levels of society. The journals also printed an enormous quantity of literature – essays, political tracts, allegorical tales in the form of veiled political fables and fairy tales.  Almost all of the artists and writers used pseudonyms.

When the free press was once again subjected to censorship, the satirical journals that briefly flourished in 1905-1906 were collected and valued for their historic importance as part of a rare period of relative freedom, and a number of them found their way to research libraries at American institutions (including notable collections at Stanford, USC, and UCLA).

Images of the tsar and caricatures of Sergei Witte (Prime Minister during the period of October 1905 to April 1906) and other political figures featured prominently in the journals of the era. Major revolutionary events -- public demonstrations, troops firing on unarmed marchers, naval mutinies -- as well as more generalized depictions of the bloody repressions of the era, were among the most frequent subjects for illustration.

Resistance & Representation

On several occasions the authorities considered daring reforms that might have satisfied enough of the opposition’s demands to have brought the unrest to an end. But the problem was that the government always made its offers of reform too late.

Concessions that would have been welcomed early in the spring of 1905 were rejected in the summer of that year by opposition leaders who were furious at the pettiness, callousness, and obstinacy of the authorities. In October, when the government finally promised to introduce fundamental changes, only a small portion of the opposition was willing to abandon the struggle. The authorities, who were never fully reconciled to the reforms, soon began to renege on their promises.

From January 1906 to June 1907, the conflict between the authorities and the opposition transformed. There were no more eruptions of mass fury that shook the foundations of the empire or that forced the autocracy to make sweeping concessions, though lawlessness and political terror did become more widespread. Because of political concessions made in late 1905, the conflict now played out to a large extent in the political arena. Political parties could organize their followers and could publish newspapers, journals, and pamphlets more or less freely. To a degree unprecedented in Russia, workers and peasants could form various movements to promote their interests. The defenders of the old order also took advantage of the new freedoms and created their own organizations to advance the cause of the autocracy. In a real sense, the Russian people had become politicized, and the newly created representative institution, the Duma, became the vortex of the many political storms in 1906 and 1907.

Those storms subsided and the revolution can be said to have ended on June 3, 1907, when Prime Minister Petr Stolypin dissolved the Duma and changed the electoral law in such a way as to inflict a fatal blow on the opposition, reducing it to virtual impotence.

Nevertheless, the Russian empire’s political system had been changed in significant ways. The tsar and his officials now needed the support of the Duma on many vital questions.  Moreover, from 1907 until 1917, Russia lived under a multiparty system. Although the government continued to repress more left-leaning political parties and impose restrictions on the press, newspapers and journals could deal with sensitive political and social issues much more freely and in ways that were unimaginable before the 1905 revolution. The peasantry found it easier to acquire property rights over the lands they worked, and significant numbers of workers participated in trade unions, clubs, cultural societies, consumer cooperatives, and production cartels, creating associations essentially free from government control.

The provisional government that assumed authority after the tsar’s abdication in February 1917 was created out of the Duma. The provisional government would itself be ousted by the Bolsheviks in October, but even if that second Revolution of 1917 loomed largest in Soviet historical consciousness, the Revolution of 1905 did a great deal to shape it.


Margarita Nafpaktitis

Margarita Nafpaktitis

Curator for Slavic and East European Collections