Revolutionary Situation of the Late 1870's and Early 1880's in Russia

Revolutionary Situation of the Late 1870’s and Early 1880’s in Russia


a revolutionary situation that arose as a result of the social and political contradictions in post-reform times. A distinctive feature was the merging of the peasants’ and workers’ movement with the struggle of the revolutionary Narodnik (Populist) intelligentsia. High redemption payments, land hunger, and the growth of various kinds of obligations impoverished the countryside. The crop failures of 1879 and 1880 caused famine in a number of districts, and the consequences of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 aggravated the hard lot of the peasants. In view of the tense situation in the countryside and the widespread rumors of an impending redistribution of the land, the government feared mass peasant uprisings, and the revolutionary Narodniki impatiently awaited them.

The consequences of the crisis of the mid-1870’s were reflected in Russia’s industrial development. Unemployment rose, and the economic situation of urban workers deteriorated sharply. An important characteristic of the revolutionary situation was the further development of the workers’ movement. In 1878–79 there were 88 strikes and 25 instances of disturbances among workers. The Northern Union of Russian Workers, operating in St. Petersburg, set as its goal the struggle for the political and social emancipation of the toiling people.

Narodnichestvo (Populism) was the dominant force in the social movement of the late 1870’s and early 1880’s. A break with the apolitical attitude that prevailed in the 1870’s became evident among the Narodniki from 1878, under the influence of V. I. Zasulich’s attempt on the life of the governor of St. Petersburg, F. F. Trepov; S. M. Kravchinskii’s assassination of the chief of gendarmes, N. V. Mezentsov; and the increasingly frequent instances of armed resistance during arrests. The conviction that political struggle was necessary spread among the Narodniki. On Apr. 2, 1879, the former teacher A. K. Solov’ev tried to assassinate Alexander II. All these events exerted an enormous revolutionizing influence on society.

After Land and Liberty split into the People’s Will and the Black Partition (Chernyi Peredel), the struggle against the autocracy was headed by the People’s Will, which conducted revolutionary propaganda among workers, students, army officers, and the democratic intelligentsia with the aim of preparing and organizing an armed uprising. But in view of Narodnichestvo’s narrow social base and the intensification of the political struggle, more and more attention was devoted to the preparation of terrorist actions against the tsar.

The rising discontent with governmental policies resulted in an expansion of the liberal movement. Alexander’s appeal to “society” in 1878 for support in the struggle against the revolutionaries elicited zemstvo vows of loyalty. However, certain zemstvos criticized the policies of the government, pointing to the need to grant political liberties and broaden local self-government. In December 1878, a group of Chernigov zemstvo activists conducted negotiations with representatives of the southern revolutionaries concerning the coordination of actions against the autocracy.

The exacerbation of social contradictions, the growth of public discontent, spontaneous outbreaks among the masses, and, in particular, the heroic struggle of the members of the People’s Will sowed confusion in the government. The autocracy was obliged to maneuver. “Thanks to this struggle, and to it alone,” V. I. Lenin wrote, “the situation again changed; the government was once more compelled to make concessions, and the liberals once again revealed their political immaturity, their inability to support the fighters and bring real pressure to bear upon the government” (Poln. sobr. Soch., 5th ed., vol. 5, p. 39).

The crisis in the “upper strata” began to manifest itself in the spring of 1878. The Special Conference to Find Measures to Struggle Against the Revolutionary Movement was formed at the end of March. The ukase On the Temporary Transfer of Cases Concerning State Crimes to the Jurisdiction of the Court-martial was issued on Aug. 9, 1878. Under the ukase, persons guilty of organizing terrorist acts and armed resistance were to be tried by field courts-martial in accordance with the laws of wartime. The practice of appointing temporary governors-general was instituted in April 1879. This measure, however, did not strengthen the autocracy; rather, it caused the decentralization of power. In February 1880, after the explosion in the Winter Palace organized by S. N. Khalturin, the Supreme Administrative Commission, headed by M. T. Loris-Melikov, was created.

Continuing the merciless struggle against the revolutionaries, the authorities modified somewhat the policies with respect to the zemstvos, the press, and the universities. On Aug. 6, 1880, the Supreme Administrative Commission was dissolved, the Third Section was abolished, and the task of “preserving state order” was entrusted to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, headed by Loris-Melikov. While continuing the policy of repression with respect to all progressive elements, Loris-Melikov simultaneously presented a draft “constitution,” which essentially broadened the social base of the regime while preserving the principle of autocracy.

On Mar. 1, 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by members of the People’s Will. The Executive Committee of the People’s Will sent a letter to the new emperor, Alexander III, demanding political reforms. K. Marx and F. Engels praised the document. Nevertheless, lacking support among the people, the People’s Will weakened and proved incapable of active struggle against the autocracy. The organization failed to stimulate a popular revolution.

The absence of a mass movement and the cessation of activity by the members of the People’s Will enabled Alexander Ill’s government to issue a manifesto on Apr. 29, 1881, affirming the immutability of the autocracy. The Statute on Measures for the Protection of State Order and Public Tranquillity was promulgated on Aug. 14, 1881, granting far-reaching powers to local administrative-police bodies. They were empowered to disband assemblies, shut down press organs, and impose administrative exile. In the event of an intensification of the revolutionary movement, the governors-general had the right to declare a state of “increased protection” in the areas entrusted to them, and the Committee of Ministers could institute “emergency protection.” These measures gave full rein to administrative arbitrariness.

“For the second time since the emancipation of the peasants,” wrote Lenin, “the revolutionary tide was swept back, and following it and as a consequence of it, the liberal movement for a second time gave way to reaction” (ibid, p. 45). The outward sign of the government’s emergence from a crisis situation was the replacement of N. P. Ignat’ev by D. A. Tolstoi as minister of internal affairs on May 30, 1882.

The revolutionary situation evoked a strong response abroad. The activity of the People’s Will, the political trials of participants in the Russian revolutionary movement, and the strike struggle of the St. Petersburg proletariat attracted the attention of the foreign press and showed the potential strength of revolutionary Russia, which had entered into a duel with the autocracy.


Lenin, V. I. “Goniteli zemstva i Annibaly liberalizma.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 5.
Got’e, Iu. V. “Bor’ba pravitel’stvennykh gruppirovok i manifest 29 aprelia 1881 g.” Istoricheskie zapiski, 1938, no. 2.
Kheifets, M. I. Vtoraia revoliutsionnaia situatsiia v Rossii (Konets 70-kh-nachalo 80-kh gg. XIX v.). Moscow, 1963.
Zaionchkovskii, P. A. Krizis samoderzhaviia na rubezhe 1870–1880-kh gg. [Moscow] 1964.
Petrov, F. A. “Nelegal’nye obshchezemskie soveshchaniia i s”ezdy kontsa 70-kh-nachala 80-kh godov XIX v.” Voprosy istorii, 1974, no. 9.


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