The causes of the 1905 revolution in Russia can be attributed to both long-term issues that had plagued the country, including political discrimination against various ethnic and cultural groups, and a declining economy that was nearing a crisis by 1905; and shot term causes, including the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, which involved a failed Russian attempt to seize a warm water port on its eastern coast, and Bloody Sunday, which initiated the violence when protestors were shot by government forces.
The political instability that was beginning to emerge in Russia was due to conflicts between the aristocratic government and the marginalization of ethnic and cultural minorities, along with growing political trends toward anti-aristocratic and anti-capitalist sentiments that were beginning to take hold in universities throughout Europe (Figes 16). Until this time, the Russian government had been ruled by an aristocratic class that favored white European culture above all other cultures, such as Jewish and Asian cultures. However, Russia was already culturally diverse, and this led to discriminatory policies against native-born Russians who did not adhere to the preferred culture that Russia was trying to establish (Figes 27). These discriminatory policies included imposing restrictions on land ownership, and outright discrimination against workers in some industries. There was little opportunity for economic growth among marginalized groups, which created a longstanding resentment between groups that were being oppressed and the Russian government.
At the same time, anti-aristocratic and anti-capitalist ideologies were coming into popularity, particularly reflected in the works of Karl Marx. This ideology argued against exploitation of the working class, and became popular among university students who would go on to be the most active in the coming revolution. The Russian economy was in decline at this time, and many believed this to be the result of exploitative practices against the common Russian citizen, who did not enjoy privileged status. One such policy can be seen in how land was distributed: although the economic recession impacted nobles, who were able to sell their land, when this land was transferred to ordinary citizens, they were hit with unfair taxes they could not afford (Harcave 32). The government was attempting to appease them through this redistribution model, but was actually creating additional economic burdens. As such, this caused the economic gap to grow wider, and more Russians began to fall into poverty. This ultimately set the conditions that would cause revolution to break out in 1905.
The short term causes of the Russian Revolution of 1905 involve both the Russo-Japanese War, and Bloody Sunday, which can be argued as the actual beginning of the revolution itself. The Russo-Japanese War was a short-lived territorial conflict beginning in 1904 between Russia and the Empire of Japan. The territory in question was a strip of land off the coast of Siberia that both Russia and Japan valued as a shipping port. However, the war was deeply unpopular in Russia, in part because the funds that were being used in support of the war were also taking away from solving economic issues among citizens who failed to see the point of the war. Although the land may have benefitted Russian economic interests in the long run, the war was seen by most as pointless because it involved an area of land that was remote, and an unnecessary drain on the economy during a time of recession (Harcave 65). Additionally, the Russian military suffered a number of embarrassing defeats, which weakened the state’s reputation and convinced many that the Russian aristocratic government was simply incompetent, as Japan was not considered to be a strong threat at this time. Whether this evaluation of the Japanese was fair is debatable, due to the growth in Japanese imperialism during this era, but the perception among many Russians was that Japan should have been easily defeated, and instead it was Russia who faced the most notable defeats.
The event that most directly led to the outbreak of revolution was Bloody Sunday, which occurred on January 22, 1905 (Figes 53). The event involved a peaceful, unarmed demonstration by many citizens, who had created a petition for economic reforms involving the ability of serfs to work toward emancipation. The demonstration was led by a priest, and the demonstrators were marching in St. Petersburg, the capitol, to deliver the petition to Tsar Nicholas II. As the demonstration grew larger, government forces began trying to contain the crowds. Ultimately, although the crowds were peaceful, government soldiers fired shots into the crowd at different areas, with most estimates claiming that upwards of 1000 demonstrators had been killed (Figes 72). The official government numbers were much lower, while anti-government demonstrators claimed the number to be much higher, but it was clear from any perspective that anti-demonstration violence had killed many. This led to significant outrage among the Russian public, and there were numerous strikes and uprisings that ultimately led to a wide scale outbreak of revolution against the Tsarist government.
The causes of the Russian Revolution of 1905 can therefore be attributed to both the long term causes of political and economic instability, along with the short term events including the Russo-Japanese War and Bloody Sunday that gave dissenters the momentum to declare an outright revolution against the government. These causes ultimately converged to cause the perfect storm that created the revolution. Although the revolution of 1905 was ultimately suppressed, largely in part due to the military’s loyalty to the government, the 1905 revolution ultimately laid the groundwork for the overthrow of the aristocratic government in 1917.