In 1905 Nicholas II faced a series of domestic problems that became known as the 1905 Revolution. This included Bloody Sunday, the Potemkin Mutiny and a series of strikes that led to the establishment of the St. Petersburg Soviet. Over the next few weeks over 50 of these soviets were formed all over Russia.
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. Paul Miliukov now returned to Russia and established the Constitutional Democratic Party (Cadets) and represented it in the State Duma. He also drafted the Vyborg Manifesto that called for more political freedom.
As this was only a consultative body, many Russians felt that this reform did not go far enough. Leon Trotsky and other revolutionaries denounced the plan. In December, 1905, Trotsky and the rest of the executive committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet were arrested.
The First Duma was elected on the basis of indirect universal male suffrage. The peasants, the townsmen and the gentry all elected their own representatives. Delegates from all the provinces met in the provincial town and chose the members of the Duma.
The first meeting of the Duma took place in May 1906. Several changes in the composition of the Duma had been altered 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.
The First Duma had a left majority consisting of Socialist-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Octobrists and Constitutional Democrat Party. 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 July, 1906.
Elections for the Second Duma took place in 1907. The Tsar's chief minister, Peter Stolypin, used his powers to exclude large numbers from voting. This reduced the influence of the left but when the Second Duma convened in February, 1907, it still included a large number of reformers. After three months of heated debate, Nicholas II closed down the Duma on the 16th June, 1907. As a result Pavel Milyukov drafted the Vyborg Manifesto. In the manifesto, Milyukov called for passive resistance, non-payment of taxes and draft avoidance.
The Tsar's chief minister, Peter Stolypin, now made changes to the electoral law. This excluded national minorities and dramatically reduced the number of people who could vote in Poland, Siberia, the Caucasus and in Central Asia. The new electoral law also gave better representation to the nobility and gave greater power to the large landowners to the detriment of the peasants. Changes were also made to the voting in towns and now those owning their own homes elected over half the urban deputies.
The Third Duma met on 14th November 1907. The former coalition of Socialist-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Octobrists and Constitutional Democrat Party, were now outnumbered by the reactionaries and the nationalists. Unlike the previous Dumas, this one ran its full-term of five years.
The Fourth Duma was elected under the same terms as the Third Duma. The reactionaries and the nationalists were still in the majority but there had been an increase in the number of radicals (Socialist-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks) elected.
The Fourth Duma continued the policy of the Third Duma. Soon after the outbreak of the First World War the Duma voted to support Nicholas II and his government. When the Bolshevik deputies voted against the government on this issue, they were arrested, had their property confiscated and sent to Siberia.
Members of the Duma, including its leader, Michael Rodzianko, became increasingly critical of the way Nicholas II was managing the war. In 1916 Rodzianko tried to persuade the government to introduce reforms and to appoint a Duma government. In February, 1917, he sent a series of telegrams explaining the dangers of revolution.