Zionist Socialist revolutionaries with pistols, Daugavpils (now in Latvia), 1905. The Yiddish and Russian banners displayed include: (right) “Down with the Monarchist Constitution! Long Live the Democratic Republic!” and (bottom) “Workers, All Peoples, Unite!” (YIVO)

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Russian Revolution of 1905

During the Revolution of 1905, or, more accurately, 1904–1907, sizable sectors of the Jewish community in the Russian Empire entered the arena of national politics. The upheaval began in the fall of 1904, when public opinion turned sharply against the government in reaction to the ruinous defeats the country suffered in its ill-considered war against Japan.

A Bundist demonstration in 1905, a year of anti-tsarist revolutionary activity throughout the Russian Empire, Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Lat.). (YIVO)

In an unprecedented display of opposition to the government, liberals launched a “banquet campaign” in 26 cities to replace the autocratic regime with a constitutional order. After Bloody Sunday (9 January 1905), the peaceful campaign for reform by relatively small groups was transformed into a national offensive, supported by vast numbers. On that fateful day in Saint Petersburg, a procession of unarmed workers led by Father Georgii Apollonovich Gapon had been fired upon by soldiers, who killed at least 130 marchers and wounded close to 300. The response to the massacre was swift and massive. Workers in many regions went out on strike; students at universities and high schools refused to attend classes; disorders erupted in the borderlands where minority populations resented the heavy hand of their Russian masters; peasants staged attacks on landlords’ estates; middle-class people ignored the government’s regulations on public meetings and censorship of the press; and, most ominously, by mid-1905 there were signs of unrest in the military services.

Utterly confused, the government failed to pursue a consistent policy in its efforts to stem the unrest. It alternated between strident assertions of autocratic principles and halfhearted reforms, an approach that only exposed the weakness of the authorities. In the fall of 1905 a general strike paralyzed the country, forcing the government to issue the October Manifesto, which promised civil liberties and the establishment of a duma (elected legislature) with substantial powers. Most significantly, Tsar Nicholas committed himself not to enact any law without the approval of the legislature, which amounted to an abandonment of the principle of autocracy, even though he refused to acknowledge that this was the case.

Over the next 18 months, the revolution was played out largely in the political sphere. Two dumas were elected on the basis of a fairly liberal suffrage; in both, the opposition to the autocracy enjoyed a large majority that pressed for the establishment of a constitutional order as well as for the compulsory alienation of privately owned land and its distribution to land-hungry peasants. Unwilling to accede to these demands, the government dissolved both dumas and on 3 June 1907 radically changed electoral procedures by limiting suffrage to social groups favorably disposed to the authorities. Nevertheless, some political changes that had been introduced during the revolution remained. A duma continued to function and at times put a brake on governmental arbitrariness, trade unions and various associations remained active, and censorship of the press was much less rigorous than it had been before the revolution.

“Di blutige teg” (Bloody Days). Special issue of the Yiddish journal Dos leben (Life), dedicated to victims of the 1905 pogroms (St. Petersburg). (Left) “Di matseve” (The Tombstone), a poem by Shimen Frug. (YIVO)

These events unfolded against a background of extensive violence: the government used brutal methods to repress its opposition (in particular at the time of the armed uprising in Moscow in December 1905), left-wing terrorists assassinated a large number of officials, wounding or killing close to 4,500 in the three years from 1905 through 1907; right-wing extremists murdered liberals; and mobs of marauders staged pogroms against people suspected of fomenting revolution, a form of violence directed with special ferocity at Jews. During the last four months of 1904, there were 33 anti-Jewish riots, many of them staged by soldiers in response to charges in antisemitic newspapers that Jews were helping the enemies of the nation. From February through mid-October 1905, some 57 pogroms broke out in the empire, initiated in many instances by Black Hundreds (right-wing extremists) who blamed Jews for the growing opposition to the old order. Then on 18 October, one day after the issuance of the October Manifesto, the most sustained wave of pogroms swept over the country, leading some observers to conclude that the empire had descended into complete anarchy.

Although Jews were the main focus of the violence, marauders also attacked the intelligentsia and students who were suspected of having supported the movement against the old order. By the time this fighting ended late in November, 876 people had been killed, between 7,000 and 8,000 had been injured, and property losses amounted to about 62 million rubles. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the government in Saint Petersburg had not instigated the violence; it was not in its interest to promote unrest that might have led to attacks on authorities and against landlords. On the other hand, the tsar was known to be deeply hostile to Jews, and local officials failed to take adequate measures to prevent pogroms or to stop them after they had begun. Very often, police and soldiers looked the other way for several days, and occasionally they joined the marauders.

The charge that Jews were the driving force of the revolution was without foundation, but it is true that as soon as the upheaval began Jews became active in national politics to an unprecedented degree and invariably aligned themselves with one or another group that was hostile to the old order. In that sense, the revolution marked a turning point in the history of the Russian Jewish community. Late in 1904, some 6,000 activists issued a Declaration of Jewish Citizens calling for civil equality for Jews. In February 1905, religious communities in 32 cities sent a petition with a similar demand to the government in Saint Petersburg. Then, toward the end of March, 67 activists representing all shades of opinion except that of the Bundists attended an illegal meeting in Vilna, where they established the Union for the Attainment of Full Rights for the Jewish People of Russia, a remarkably effective organization that promoted Jewish interests. It established branches in 14 provinces, mainly in the Pale of Settlement, and fought not only for equal rights for Jews but also for cultural autonomy—the right of Jews to maintain their own schools and their own language. The organization gained added stature in May 1905 by joining the Union of Unions, a large association of professionals committed to overturning the autocratic system of rule.

During the electoral campaign for the First Duma, the Jewish union was highly successful in mobilizing support, and its efforts were critical for bringing about the election of 12 Jews to the first legislature (nine of whom belonged to the Kadet Party and three to the Trudovik Party). Although no legislation to abolish legal restrictions on the Jews was considered in the First or Second Duma (mainly because the deputies wished to keep to a minimum the legislative proposals that the government would consider provocative), Jewish representatives did speak out against official misconduct toward their coreligionists. In particular, they drew attention to the Białystok massacre of early June 1906, the last major pogrom of the revolution. For three days, no policeman or soldier had tried to stop the carnage, but since members of Jewish defense units fought back against the marauders, the city became a battlefield. All told, 82 Jews and six gentiles were killed and about 700 people were wounded. Outraged duma deputies devoted several sessions to scathing attacks on the government for failing to stop the bloodshed immediately. Petr Arkad’evich Stolypin, the prime minister, felt called upon to defend his administration. He conceded that officials had made mistakes and assured the deputies that he was determined to root out lawlessness. His remarks were greeted derisively with shouts of “Enough.”

“Members of the Bund’s self-defense organization killed 23–26 April 1905, in Troyanov [now in Ukraine].” Russian–Polish postcard with portraits of (left to right) P. Gorvits, Y. Brodski, and A. Fleysher.  (YIVO)

The Bund, the strongest social democratic organization in the empire, initially shunned electoral politics but nevertheless played an important role in the revolution. Electrified by the events of Bloody Sunday and convinced that Russia was on the verge of an armed people’s uprising, leaders of the movement urged workers to go on strike, to obtain weapons, and to learn how to erect barricades. In some 60 cities, workers heeded the call to strike, and it has been estimated that the Bund had as many as 1,100 trained men under arms, organized into boevye otriady (fighting units). These corps, comprised solely of Jews, were capable of protecting party meetings against disruptions by policemen and soldiers; it was also their duty to defend the Jewish community against attacks by mobs. Thus in Zhitomir, late in April 1905, Jewish resistance to a pogrom quickly turned into a battle in which more Christians than Jews lost their lives. In Łódź in June 1905, after soldiers fired on a peaceful demonstration, the fighting units performed with a tenacity that aroused the admiration of non-Jews. About 560 people (among them 341 Jews) lost their lives during pitched battles on the streets of Łódź, leading one correspondent to note that “legends . . . describe the Jewish workers as some kind of Samsons.”

There were other manifestations of Jewish politicization during the revolution. For example, three new parties were formed, all of which took part in the opposition movement: The Zionist Socialist Party (February 1905), the Jewish Socialist Labor Party (1906), and the Jewish Social Democratic Party–Po‘ale Tsiyon (1906). All three adopted positions more nationalist and militant on working-class issues than those of the Bund, each emphasizing the need to create additional self-defense units. In May 1905 even the mainstream Zionists, who had shunned domestic politics, issued a public statement supporting fundamental change of the old order. Religious institutions, more specifically yeshivas, also became politicized. Sizable numbers of yeshiva students turned to radicalism, staging demonstrations that were sometimes accompanied by violence to protest the suspected collaboration of yeshiva administrations with the authorities. At the well-known yeshiva in Telz, student unrest was so intense that in 1905 administrators shut down the institution for several weeks, expelled suspected troublemakers, and then enrolled young men who were considered to be politically reliable.

Several government leaders concluded that the only way to stem the radicalization of Jews was to lift at least some of the onerous restriction imposed upon them. In August 1904, even before the revolution had erupted, the reformist minister of internal affairs Piotr Sviatopolk-Mirsky introduced minor changes in the regulations governing the right of “privileged Jews” to live outside the area to which Jews were confined. In the fall of 1905, Ivan Ivanovich Tolstoi, the minister of education, secured the tsar’s permission to admit several dozen additional Jews to the universities in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Sergei Iulevich Witte, who became prime minister in October of that year, actually favored removing the restrictions on Jews, but his government did little more than open up about 100 small towns in southern Russia for the settlement of Jews. As was the case with many senior officials, Witte was loath to take more far-reaching steps to ease the lot of the Jews lest he provoke people into unleashing pogroms.

A ceremony at the Jewish cemetery in honor of an anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Lat.), ca. 1910. The Yiddish and Russian banners honor "fallen comrades" and one Yiddish banner (second from left) reads, in part: "Long live the national and social liberation of all peoples! (YIVO)

The last effort to wean Jews away from radicalism was made by Stolypin late in 1906. Motivated in part by the belief that it was morally indefensible to maintain the status quo, he persuaded the cabinet to support a series of modest, but not insignificant, measures to lighten the burden on Jews. However, he was rebuffed by the tsar, who claimed that “an inner voice” prevented him from granting his approval.

Another notable consequence of the revolution was the acceleration of emigration of large numbers of Jews from the Russian Empire. Most went to the United States, which witnessed an influx of about 100,000 immigrants per year between 1904 and 1907, most from Russia and many steeped in left-wing politics that they fostered in their new homeland. By the same token, the Jewish community in America, vastly enlarged, became more vocal in protesting the treatment of their coreligionists in Eastern Europe and in creating new institutions, such as the American Jewish Committee, to advance Jewish interests.

A small number of Russian Jews—somewhere between 200 and 300—immigrated to Palestine during and shortly after the revolutionary period, but their impact on the history of their new home far outweighed their small number. Highly energetic and deeply committed to Zionism and to socialism, they made important contributions to the future development of the Jewish community in Palestine. David Ben-Gurion, the future prime minister of Israel, and Berl Katsenelson, a leading ideologist of the Mapai Party, were only two of the subsequently prominent people in this group.

Suggested Reading

Abraham Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, 2 vols. (Stanford, Calif., 1988–1992); Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge and New York, 1981); Christoph Gassenschmidt, Jewish Liberal Politics in Tsarist Russia, 1900–14: The Modernization of Russian Jewry (New York, 1995); Anna Geifman, Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894–1917 (Princeton, 1995); Louis Greenberg, The Jews in Russia: The Struggle for Emancipation, 2 vols. (New Haven, 1944–1951); Sidney Harcave, “The Jewish Question in the First Russian Duma,” Jewish Social Studies 6 (1944): 155–176; Sidney Harcave, “The Jews and the First National Election,” The American Slavic and East European Review, 9 (1950): 33–41; Sidney Harcave, First Blood: The Russian Revolution of 1905 (New York, 1964); John L. H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia (Oxford, 1963); Heinz-Dietrich Löwe, Antisemitismus und reaktionäre Utopie: Russischer Konservatismus im Kampf gegen dem Wandel von Staat und Gesellschaft, 1890–1917 (Hamburg, 1978); Henry Jack Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia from Its Origins to 1905 (Stanford, Calif., 1972).