“Seeing the Stars of Liberty”

July 15, 1905

artist unknown

“Seeing the Stars of Liberty”

Wars, Russian Revolution of 1905;

Nicholas II;


No caption

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Harper's Weekly began running a page of cartoons reprinted from daily newspapers from across the country and called "Events of the Week in Cartoons."  This cartoon from the Philadelphia Inquirer depicts the cause of the Russian Revolution of 1905 as a gigantic hammer of "oppression" that strikes the head of Tsar (here, "Czar") Nicholas II.  The effect, the cartoonist hopefully envisions, is to make Russia's authoritarian ruler see the stars of "liberty," "freedom," "constitution," and "parliament"; that is, to accept a constitutional monarchy.

For decades, Russia had been a smoldering cauldron of discontent, bubbling over occasionally in strikes, riots, and assassinations.  Unrest increased after what many Russians considered a humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.  In January 1905, a series of strikes erupted in the capital of St. Petersburg, and culminated in a peaceful march on Sunday, January 9, to the Winter Palace of the tsar (who was out of town).  Its organizer, Father Gregory Gapon, notified government officials about the mass demonstration, which the chief of security police, Grand Duke Vladimir, tried unsuccessfully to prevent.  Instead, the police followed Vladamir's order to open fire on the protestors, killing over 100 and wounding several hundred more.  The Bloody Sunday massacre provoked another series of strikes and demonstrations, along with military mutinies across the country, collectively known as the Revolution of 1905.

In February 1905, Nicholas announced plans to create an elected assembly with advisory duties, but the protesters held out for an elected representative body.  The revolution spread to the Baltic provinces, Georgia, Finland, Poland, and other non-Russian areas within the tsar's empire.  In some places, a counterrevolutionary and anti-Semitic force known as the Black Hundreds fought against the socialists, liberals, and other rebels to preserve the control of the Russian tsar and the Orthodox Church.  Although the Black Hundreds continued to be active until 1914, they were defeated in the Revolution of 1905 when elements of the armed forces backed the revolt.

On August 6, 1905, the government's announcement of a list of procedures leading to the election of the advisory assembly sparked a new wave of unrest, which intensified throughout the autumn months.  The onset of a general strike in early October resulted in the establishment of several "soviets," or revolutionary governments, in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other cities.  

On October 17, Tsar Nicholas proclaimed the October Manifesto in which he pledged to establish a constitution protecting freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, and other basic civil liberties, and to create an elected representative body (Duma) that would have the authority to approve all legislation.  While most socialists and republicans were not satisfied, enough moderates backed the proposal to bring the Revolution to an end by early 1906.  Many of the revolt's leaders were arrested and jailed.  

On April 23, 1906, the constitution, called the Fundamental Laws, went into effect, but it was less than the tsar had promised.  It established a two-house legislature, but only the lower house was elective.  It also limited the Duma's authority to initiate legislation and approve government appointments and the national budget.  On the other hand, the Fundamental Laws was a modest step toward the rule of law and constitutional government that fostered the development of political parties.  

Still, the tsar and his ministers usually ignored the opinion of the Duma, and Nicholas swiftly dismissed the first two (May10-June 21, 1906; March 5-June 16, 1907).  In 1907, voting rights of the electorate were severely restricted.  The third Duma (November 14, 1907-June 22, 1912) generally rubber-stamped the policies of the tsarist government.  The final Duma (November 28, 1912–March 11, 1917) began in conservative fashion, but became more radical during World War I (1914-1917).  At the beginning of the Revolution of 1917, it set up a provisional government that accepted the abdication of the tsar  The increasingly radicalized and violent Russian Revolution of 1917 ended with the execution of Nicholas II and his family.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Seeing the Stars of Liberty”
May 21, 2024

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