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.
The present movement for freedom is not of new birth. Its roots are imbedded in centuries of Russian history. 'Freedom' must become the slogan of the government. No other possibility for the salvation of the state exists. The march of historical progress cannot be halted. The idea of civil liberty will triumph if not through reform then by the path of revolution.
The government must be ready to proceed along constitutional lines. The government must sincerely and openly strive for the well-being of the state and not endeavour to protect this or that type of government. There is no alternative. The government must either place itself at the head of the movement which has gripped the country or it must relinquish it to the elementary forces to tear it to pieces.
In 1906 strikes broke out almost everywhere; there were several attempts on the lives of members of the Imperial family and of high government officials. The Tsar was forced to compromise and give the country a constitutional government by establishing the Duma. The Tsarina violently opposed this; she did not realize the seriousness of the situation, and would not admit that there was no other solution.
The Duma opened on April 27th, 1906. This was a moment of great anxiety for all, as everyone knew the Duma was a two-edged sword which could prove either helpful or disastrous to Russia, according to the course of events.
If all members of the Duma had been loyal Russians actuated only by patriotic motives, the Assembly might have done great service to the Government; but certain questionable and destructive elements - among which were many Jews - made it a hotbed of revolutionary ideas.
Stolypin began to look for an excuse to dissolve the Duma and the Bolsheviks furnished him with one. Lenin insisted that the deputies use their parliamentary immunity to agitate for an armed uprising.
Years later it was discovered that these secret Bolshevik cells were infested with agents of the secret police. By keeping a sharp eye on the Social Democratic deputies, these stool pigeons were able to frame the deputies on the charges of inciting rebellion, thus giving Stolypin his excuse.
The situation is growing worse. Measures should be taken immediately as tomorrow will be too late. The last hour has struck, when the fate of the country and dynasty is being decided.
The government is powerless to stop the disorders. The troops of the garrison cannot be relied upon. The reserve battalions of the Guard regiments are in the grips of rebellion, their officers are being killed. Having joined the mobs and the revolt of the people, they are marching on the offices of the Ministry of the Interior and the Imperial Duma.
Your Majesty, do not delay. Should the agitation reach the Army, Germany will triumph and the destruction of Russian along with the dynasty is inevitable.
In the early days the Soviet set for itself the task of spreading and consolidating the revolutionary gains and fighting military and ideological attacks from the Right. The Soviet was not a conventional parliamentary body. It functioned from day to day, without set rules. Its membership soon reached 2,000; by the middle of March it had 3,000 delegates.
It was to the Soviet that Rodzianko appealed for permission to secure a train to see the Tsar; it was the Soviet that stopped the general strike, reopened the factories and restored streetcar traffic.
At the Duma the situation was still chaotic. No one knew what would happen next. Kerensky and Chkheidze, accompanied by several other Socialist deputies, took a bold chance. They appeared on the streets and made a direct appeal to the soldiers to join the rebellion. The soldiers responded.
With their mandate from the Petrograd Soviet, Kerensky and Chkheidze now persuaded the majority of the Duma to elect a Provisional Committee to take over the reins of government. Both became members of this committee.
The walls of the city were plastered with the first issue of Izvestia, calling on the people to complete the overthrow of the Tsarist regime and pave the way for a democratic government.
"The fight must go on to the end. The old powers must be completely overthrown to make way for popular government. All together, with our forces united we shall battle to wipe out completely the old government and call a Constituent Assembly", the proclamation read.
The Tsar's Council of Ministers now offered to disband and to instruct Prince George Lvov or Rodzianko to form a new cabinet. Frantically Grand Duke Mikhail telephoned Chief of Staff General Alexeyev, asking him to make an eleventh-hour appeal to the Emperor to grant a responsible Ministry. The Tsar replied that he was grateful for his brother's advice but would do nothing of the kind. He did not know that the Duma conservatives were already swept into the background by the revolutionary masses of workers and soldiers.