The first signs of widespread political dissent in Russia surfaced nearly a century before the Russian Revolution, following the death of Tsar Alexander I in December 1825. Ever since the War of 1812, many Russians, especially military personnel who had served abroad, were inspired by growing democratic movements in Europe. Some even began to call for a formal Russian constitution with guarantees of basic rights. Alexander actually considered the idea of a constitution, and indeed granted one to Poland, but never made up his mind about creating one for Russia.
The tsar’s death in 1825 created a fleeting appearance of weakness in the Russian leadership. Alexander had no legitimate children, and there was confusion over which of his two brothers would succeed him. The eldest brother, Constantine, was technically next in line but had earlier given up his right to be tsar when he married a woman outside of his class. Therefore, the crown passed to the youngest brother, Nicholas I, resulting in a small public scandal. Seeing opportunity in the momentary chaos, 3,000 Russian soldiers marched into the center of St. Petersburg, demanding that Constantine take the throne and also calling for a constitution. The uprising was quickly suppressed, and the surviving demonstrators, who called themselves Decembrists, were arrested and exiled to Siberia. In the coming years, they came to be seen as heroes among Russian revolutionaries.
In 1861, Tsar Alexander II, Nicholas I’s eldest son and successor, formally abolished serfdom, freeing Russia’s serfs from indenture to landowners. Though a positive development in some ways, it also created a number of new problems, including a severe economic crisis and significant resentment from landowners. The event also inspired more open discussion of other political reforms, once more raising public awareness of the fact that Russia lacked a constitution.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, a host of organizations formed to promote the introduction of a constitution, a parliamentary government, and socialistic values to Russia. Although most of these groups were peaceful, some began to toy with the use of violence in order to force change. A series of assassination attempts on Alexander II ensued, and in 1881, one of these attacks succeeded. Members of a group called The People’s Will killed Alexander II by throwing a bomb underneath his carriage as it rode through the streets of St. Petersburg. As a result, the new tsar, Alexander’s son Alexander III, cracked down severely on all forms of public resistance. Although the assassination failed to trigger a revolution as the plotters had hoped, the incident did serve as a source of inspiration to underground revolutionaries throughout the country, who increasingly saw the autocracy as vulnerable.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Russian society had never been more divided, nor had a Russian tsar ever been so far estranged from his people. Tsar Nicholas II, who had come to power in 1894, had never shown leadership skills or a particular desire to rule, but with the death of his father, Alexander III, the Russian crown was thrust upon him. In person, Nicholas II was mild-mannered, even meek; lacking the personality of a leader, his rule was clumsy, and he appeared weak before the people. When it came to public opposition or resistance, he avoided direct involvement and simply ordered his security forces to get rid of any problem as they saw fit. This tactic inevitably resulted in heavy-handed measures by the police, which in turn caused greater resentment among the public.
The year 1905 brought the most extreme examples of Nicholas II’s perceived indifference, brutality, and weakness. On Sunday, January 9, a crowd of over 100,000 marched peacefully through the center of St. Petersburg. Eventually they assembled in Palace Square in front of the tsar’s Winter Palace and, unaware that the tsar was not in town that day, called for the tsar to appear so that they could present him with a petition.