The 1905 Revolution had its roots in the Russo-Japanese War, which had begun in February of 1904. Advisers to the Tsar, Nicholas II, had viewed it as an excellent way to improve Russia's position in the Pacific and to encourage patriotic feeling at home. Instead, Russia suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Japanese, a supposedly backward nation, and these setbacks led to unrest at home. On January 22, 1905, a crowd of peaceful demonstrators gathered before the Tsar's Winter Palace in St. Petersburg–but the Tsar was absent, his ministers displayed uncertainty, and soldiers sensing the tension gunned down the marchers. Hundreds died in a massacre that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," and Russia plunged into chaos. A series of strikes swept the country, closing banks, halting trains, and paralyzing industry. Revolutionary leaders returned from exile, and workers' councils, known as "soviets," sprang up in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In rural areas, peasants burned manor houses and attacked landlords, and even political liberals joined the clamor, urging the Tsar to move the country toward representative government.

"The uprising has begun," Lenin wrote in early February. "Rivers of blood are flowing, the civil war for freedom is blazing up." The Third Social Democratic Party Congress was held in April and May, and this time Lenin dominated, stirring an enthusiastic response from the delegates as he leveled attack after attack on the Mensheviks. In December, he returned to Russia for the first time in five years, to take over the leadership of the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg. By this point, however, the uprising's momentum was slowly dying out, as the Tsar had begun to address the people's concerns. Nicholas II, desperate to restore order, had made peace with Japan in September, and then issued the "October Manifesto," promising civil rights and the formation of a legislative assembly, called the Duma.

This concession divided the opposition. The more moderate groups, especially the middle-class liberals, were satisfied with the promised reforms, and their support for revolutionary violence waned. Unrest continued among the peasantry and laboring classes, but the government felt sufficiently secure to arrest the leadership of the St. Petersburg Soviet, on December 16, and a subsequent uprising, in which a number of Bolsheviks took part, was brutally crushed.

Lenin denounced the "October Manifesto" as nothing but empty promises (which, in fact, it may have been), and although orders were out for his arrest, he managed to avoid imprisonment after returning to Russia. In December he went to Finland, which, although officially under the Tsars' control, maintained its autonomy and therefore served as a haven for dissidents. There, he attended a conference of Russian Bolsheviks in the town of Tammerfors, and met for the first time a young Bolshevik named Joseph Stalin, known at the time as "Koba," after a famous Georgian bandit. As unrest diminished in the spring of 1906, the Social Democrats met for their Fourth Congress in Stockholm, where an attempt was made to bridge the gap between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. The divide persisted, despite Lenin's best efforts, but even without the Mensheviks' support Lenin enjoyed high prestige. He returned to St. Petersburg on May 9 and addressed a crowd three thousand strong at the house of a sympathetic noblewoman. On July 8, the Tsar dissolved the first Duma, prompting a new series of uprisings, and again it seemed that revolution might be at hand. The Bolsheviks called for a general strike and a withholding of tax-payments, but the population, weary after the violence of 1905, did not respond, and the Tsar's government struggled on. After dissolving a second Duma in June of the following year, the Tsar finally allowed a Third Duma to hold a number of sessions between 1907 and 1912. During this period, the Tsar's government found a clever, politically shrewd leader in Peter Stolypin, a cagey conservative who mixed tight political control with "reforms" designed to bring the propertied classes into an alliance with the monarchy.

With hopes of immediate revolution receding, Lenin remarked, "this is the beginning of a reaction which is likely to last twenty years, unless there is a war in the meantime. That is why we must needs go abroad and work from there." The Fifth Party Congress, held in London in spring of 1907, saw the Mensheviks gain a stronger position, as a number of Lenin's favorite tactics were condemned, including "expropriation" (a euphemism for grand theft), which had been a source of Bolshevik funds for some time. (Indeed, only a few weeks after expropriation was officially disavowed, the funds from a huge robbery in the city of Tiflis [in Russian Georgia] were delivered directly to Lenin.) After the Congress, Lenin returned to Finland briefly, and from there he sailed for Western Europe in December 1907. He would not return to Russia for ten years.

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