At the beginning of the 20th century the Russian industrial employee worked on average an 11 hour day (10 hours on Saturday). Conditions in the factories were extremely harsh and little concern was shown for the workers' health and safety. Attempts by workers to form trade unions were resisted by the factory owners and in 1903, a priest, Father Georgi Gapon, formed the Assembly of Russian Workers. Within a year it had over 9,000 members.
1904 was a particularly bad year for Russian workers. Prices of essential goods rose so quickly that real wages declined by 20 per cent. When four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works, Gapon called for industrial action. Over the next few days over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went out on strike.
In an attempt to settle the dispute, Georgi Gapon decided to make a personal appeal to Nicholas II. He drew up a petition outlining the workers' sufferings and demands. This included calling for a reduction in the working day to eight hours, an increase in wages, an improvement in working conditions and an end to the Russo-Japanese War.
When the procession of workers reached the Winter Palace in St Petersburg it was attacked by the police and the Cossacks. Over 100 workers were killed and some 300 wounded. The incident, known as Bloody Sunday, started a series of events that became known as the 1905 Revolution. Strikes took place all over the country and the universities closed down when the whole student body complained about the lack of civil liberties by staging a walkout. Lawyers, doctor, engineers, and other middle-class workers established the Union of Unions and demanded a constituent assembly.
In June, 1905, sailors on the Potemkin battleship, protested against the serving of rotten meat. The captain ordered that the ringleaders to be shot. The firing-squad refused to carry out the order and joined with the rest of the crew in throwing the officers overboard. The Potemkin Mutiny spread to other units in the army and navy. Now industrial workers all over Russia went on strike and in October, 1905, the action of railwaymen paralyzed the whole Russian railway network.
Sergi Witte, the new Chief Minister, advised Nicholas II to make concessions. He eventually agreed and published the October Manifesto. This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally he announced that no law would become operative without the approval of a new organization called the Duma.
Leon Trotsky now decided to return to Russia and joined the St. Petersburg Soviet and was eventually elected chairman. He wrote a regular column for the Menshevik newspaper, Nachalo (The Beginning) and wrote editorials for Izvestia (The News), the official Soviet organ. "I wrote articles as well as numerous appeals, manifestos and resolutions. The fifty-two days of the existence of the first Soviet were filled to the brim with work... How we managed to live in this whirlpool is still not clear, even to me... We not only whirled in the vortex, but we helped to create it. Everything was done in a hurry, but, after all, not so badly, and some things were even done very well." Over the next few weeks over 50 of these soviets were formed all over Russia.
Dmitrii Sverchkov wrote: "The intellectual leader of the Soviet was Leon Trotsky. The president of the Soviet, Nosar-Khrustalyov, was really a screen, for he was never able to solve a single question of principle himself. A man with an exaggerated vanity which was almost an illness with him, he came to hate Trotsky because of the very necessity of referring to him for advice and direction." Anatoli Lunacharsky agreed: "Trotsky's popularity among the St. Petersburg proletariat was very great by the time of his arrest, and this was increased still further by his strikingly effective and heroic behaviour at the trial. I must say that Trotsky, of all the Social Democratic leaders of 1905-06, undoubtedly showed himself, in spite of his youth, the best prepared; and he was the least stamped by the narrow emigre outlook which handicapped even Lenin. He realized better than the others what a state struggle is. He came out of the revolution, too, with the greatest gains in popularity; neither Lenin nor Martov gained much. Plekhanov lost a great deal because of the semi-liberal tendencies which he revealed. But from then on Trotsky was in the front rank."
On 2nd December 1905, Trotsky published its "financial manifesto, which proclaimed that the financial bankruptcy of Tsarism was inevitable, and issued a categorical warning that the debts incurred by the Romanovs would not be recognized by the victorious nation". The manifesto pointed out: "The autocracy never enjoyed the confidence of the people and was never granted any authority by the people. We have therefore decided not to allow the repayment of such loans as have been made by the Tsarist government when openly engaged in a war with the entire people."
With the failings of the Duma, the Soviets were seen as the legitimate workers' government. Trotsky and the Soviets challenged the power of Tsar Nicholas II and attempted to enforce promises made in the October Manifesto such as the freedom of the press, assembly and association. On 3rd December, 1905, the St. Petersburg Soviet was crushed and Trotsky was arrested and imprisoned.
The first meeting of the Duma took place in May 1906. Several changes in the composition of the Duma had been changed since the publication of the October Manifesto. Tsar Nicholas II had also created a State Council, an upper chamber, of which he would nominate half its members. He also retained for himself the right to declare war, to control the Orthodox Church and to dissolve the Duma. The Tsar also had the power to appoint and dismiss ministers. At their first meeting, members of the Duma put forward a series of demands including the release of political prisoners, trade union rights and land reform. Nicholas II rejected all these proposals and dissolved the Duma.
In April, 1906, Nicholas II forced Sergi Witte to resign and replaced him with the more conservative Peter Stolypin. Stolypin attempt to provide a balance between the introduction of much needed land reforms and the suppression of the radicals. The next Duma convened in February, 1907. This time it lasted three months before the Tsar closed it down.