Russia was in political crisis on the eve of the First World War, with political parties in a state of organizational and ideological stagnation. This can be explained by the fact that Russian political parties did not represent particular social classes, but were essentially intelligentsia strongholds. The rightists and nationalists were deprived of government support and descended into internal squabbling. “The Union of 17 October,” known as the Octobrists and founded in 1906 as the main moderate liberal party, could not come to an agreement with the authorities and practically ceased activity after the death of Prime Minister Petr Arkad’evich Stolypin (1861-1911). The Progressives, a small liberal group of Moscow bourgeoisie formed in 1912, could not even organize themselves into a political party. The Constitutional-Democratic Party, also known as the Cadets or “The People’s Freedom Party,” consisted primarily of the radical-liberal intelligentsia and was formed in 1905. Its membership had dwindled to 730 by the beginning of the war.[1] The police nipped the activities of the socialists (Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries – the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs) and Trudoviki) in the bud, while the social democrats (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), like the radical rightists (Black Hundreds), diminished on account of internal divisions. The rightists’ and liberals’ activities were limited to parliamentary struggle.

All national Russian parties were represented in one of the two houses of parliament – the State Duma or the State Council. But under the election legislation of 3 June 1907, the Duma was comprised mainly of large- and medium-scale landowners and the bourgeoisie, which strengthened the moderate liberals’ and centrists’ influence. The second house, the State Council, was made up half of civil servants chosen by the monarch and half of elected members of the upper classes. The two houses legislated together with the emperor, who selected the members of government.

The “Holy Alliance” The Zemgor

With the beginning of the war, nationalists and moderate liberals experienced a “patriotic fervor.” In France, such a mood, along with the government’s unconditional support for war, became known as the “Holy Alliance” (l’Union Sacrée), and this idea was also actively exploited in Russia. The Octobrists hoped to re-establish contact with the government, whereas the Progressives counted on war orders. Only the main Cadet newspaper, Rech, opposed supporting Serbia and the “patriotic hysteria,” and as a result was closed down by the authorities. Despite reopening a few days later, Rech trod very carefully up until May 1915.

At the “historic session” of the State Duma on 8 August 1914, only the rightists and the moderates supported the authorities without reservation. Representatives of the Trudoviki and the Social-Democrats, Aleksandr Fedorovich Kerenskii (1881-1970) and Valentin Ivanovich Khaustov (1884-?), supported defense from external aggression, but condemned the “fratricidal slaughter of nations.” The Cadets’ leader, Pavel Nikolaevich Miliukov (1859-1943), observed that Russia would be more prepared for political reforms after the war.[2] A member of the Cadets’ Central Committee, Aleksandr Mikhailovich Koliubakin (1868-1915), pointed out that at the Duma session “there was unity of the country against a common enemy, but not unity of the Duma and the government.”[3] After the session the Duma did not resume its activities until January 1915.

Many deputies set off for the front after the war began, and some, such as Octobrist Aleksandr Ivanovich Zvegintsev (1869-1915) and Cadet Koliubakin, died in battle. The All-Russian Union of Zemstvos (Vserrossiiskii Zemskii Soiuz [VZS]) and the All-Russian Union of Cities (Vserossiiskii Soiuz Gorodov [VSG]) were founded to help at the front. The leader of the liberal wing of government, the Minister of Agriculture Aleksandr Vasil’evich Krivoshein (1857-1921), saw these organizations as a means for cooperating with the moderate opposition. The unions had no legislative basis and were badly organized, but received large credits from the treasury free of any conditions. Well-known social activist Prince Georgii Evgen’evich L’vov (1861-1925) headed the VZS and the mayor of Moscow, Cadet Mikhail Vasil’evich Chelnokov (1863-1936), was elected as head of the VSG. In July 1915, the Head Committee of the VZS and VSG (Zemgor) was created. VZS member Prince Evgenii Nikolaevich Trubetskoi (1863-1920) described the mood in the public organizations in a personal letter:

Everyone believes in victory and no-one believes in the government: yet nonetheless all settling of accounts with them is unconditionally set aside…. There is a time for everything. When the army returns from the trenches then we’ll deal with our Germans at home (that is, within the government).[4]

Patriotic Alarm

In November 1914, the police arrested five Bolshevik Duma deputies who were then convicted for anti-war propaganda. This did not provoke an open response from the opposition. The Duma session in January 1915 proceeded calmly, but in March the Progressives, unhappy with the government’s policy of placing military orders abroad and legislation on progressive taxation, became politically active, calling for an extended session. The onset of the German attack at the front and a shortage of ammunition stirred up the long-festering opposition mood. Political struggle was revived under the slogan “Patriotic Alarm,” with the main demand being the opposition’s access to power in order to conduct the war more efficiently. From 8 to 10 June 1915, the ninth All-Russian Congress of Trade and Industry took place; participants demanded the immediate convening of the Duma. On the initiative of the Progressives the Congress decided to create regional and central Military-Industrial Committees (Voenno-Promyshlennye Komitety [VPK]), made up of bureaucrats and members of the business elite. By February 1917 there were 244 VPKs in existence. The Octobrist leader Aleksandr Ivanovich Guchkov (1862-1936), who had wide-ranging connections in the public, industrial and military spheres, was chairman of the Central VPK (TsVPK). The VPKs’ task, in addition to attracting material benefits (1 percent commission for serving as intermediary), was the “organization of society” under the auspices of the Moscow entrepreneurship. Their efforts to help at the front, the official reason for their creation, turned out to be ineffective – they only fulfilled 6 to 7 percent of orders received by 1917.[5]

The Cadets unexpectedly acted in contradiction to their own party slogan, “responsible ministry” (government responsible to parliament), fearing a strengthening of the Octobrists, the centrists in the Duma. At a party conference on 19 to 21 June 1915, the Cadets proposed the slogan “ministry of confidence.” In Soviet historiography, this step was associated with the Cadets’ shift to the right. However, this demand was not more moderate, but merely less clearly defined, and would allow the party to maneuver successfully later.

In June and July 1915, four unpopular conservative ministers resigned. The Duma was convened on 1 August 1915, the anniversary of the war’s outbreak. The Cadets’ apparent move to the right allowed them to patch up their relations with the Duma’s majority, but much more important was legislation on Special Councils, which included representatives of the state apparatus, the bourgeoisie and the parliament, and which were to supervise the organization of defense and supplies. Legislation on wartime censorship was also approved. Government bills on the liquidation of German land-ownership, which the Progressives and the Cadets considered no less important, caused disagreement. The Cadets warned that the authorities wanted to “hide behind a shield of Germanophobia.”[6]

The Progressive Bloc

With the fall of Warsaw in August 1915, the political crisis deepened. The Council of Ministers, headed by its informal leader, Krivoshein, attempted to reach agreement with parliament. Most of the Duma’s factions (excluding the rightists and socialists) and three groups in the State Council were interested in the creation of an inter-chamber alliance.[7] The Progressive Bloc’s program included demands for political and religious amnesty, the abolition of restrictions on nationalities and faiths (Poles, Jews, etc.), and the freedom of trade unions. Constitutional reforms (legislation on army supplies, providing for refugees and the wounded, equal rights of peasants, reform of local government, the law on cooperatives, etc.) were wide-ranging, but even the Cadets had not prepared all the necessary draft legislation. The Bloc’s main demand was the formation of a “ministry of confidence.”

The moderates regarded the program as a basis for behind-the-scenes bargaining with the government, but the Cadets managed to publish it on 7 September 1915 as a declaration of the Bloc. The leader of the nationalist-progressives, Vasilii Vital’evich Shul’gin (1878-1976), recalled: “The Cadets … dragged us into a struggle for power ….”[8]

General opinion holds that the Bloc represented the peak of the Cadets’ influence. A meeting took place on 9 September 1915 between the Bloc’s representatives and ministers, where the deputies not only demanded the fulfillment of the Bloc’s program, but also the resignation of the ministers themselves. The negotiations resulted in the government advocating for the Duma’s suspension, which took place on 16 September 1915.

The liberals’ efforts to achieve a compromise with the authorities were later considered to be genuine. In emigrant and Western historiography, the Progressive Bloc has been seen as the “last chance” to save the monarchy, whereas Soviet historians were inclined to regard their attempt as being too weak. However, the Bloc’s actions in August 1915 and later do not support the view that the liberals had genuinely tried to achieve a political compromise with the government.

The Political Situation in Autumn 1915 – Summer 1916. The Crisis of the Opposition

Serious changes were made in the government in the autumn of 1915. Krivoshein resigned, and Aleksei Nikolaevich Khvostov (1872-1918), one of the leaders of the Duma’s rightists, became Minister of Internal Affairs, the second most senior post in the government. At the end of November 1915, a decision to oppose the Progressive Bloc was reached at meetings of representatives of the rightist parties in Petrograd and Nizhnii Novgorod, though the meetings did not lead to any kind of strengthening of the rightist parties, which were beset by organizational and ideological crisis.

With the dissolution of the Duma, the initiative passed once again to the public organizations. The VPK formed workers’ groups, which were to become legal organizations of defense workers. The initiators of the workers’ groups not only proposed establishing control over the workers’ movement, but also gaining leverage over the authorities and the Petrograd business elites. On 9 October 1915, there was a meeting of the Petrograd electoral college to elect the members of the TsVPK and the Petrograd VPK’s workers’ groups, but it was the Bolsheviks who were successful. The elections were annulled and were carried out again only two months later. As a result, the Menshevik Kuz’ma Antonovich Gvozdev (1882-1956) became the chairman of the TsVPK workers’ group, but at the first TsVPK meeting with the participation of the workers’ representatives, Gvozdev contested the election and raised the issue of convening a workers’ congress. Even the Mensheviks were not prepared to be an obedient tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie. By February 1917, fifty-eight workers’ groups had been formed. By the beginning of 1916, Khvostov came to a compromise with the Progressive Bloc, relying on the moderate nature of his demands. On 2 February 1916, Premier Ivan Logginovich Goremykin (1839-1917), who had opposed the convening of the Duma, was dismissed. The opening of the Duma saw a unique event – a visit from Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia (1868-1918). In response, the Bloc did not give up on its demands, but could not see through its program because of internal divisions. The national question was removed from the agenda. The Bloc’s behavior displeased the delegates at the sixth Cadet Party conference (2 to 5 March 1916) and the leftist wing of the Cadets’ Central Committee. In June 1916, the conflict spilled over into a meeting of the Duma, resulting in the Bloc’s moderate wing proposing the swift curtailment of the session.

The second VPK congress took place from 10 to 13 March 1916, adopting a resolution demanding an amnesty and “responsible ministry.” On 25 March 1916, the same demand was made by a VSG congress, and in reply the government curtailed the state funding of the social organizations.

The Socialists in 1914-1916

The war’s outbreak led to a severe crisis and the paralysis of the Second International. The Mensheviks and the SRs split into a number of tendencies representing different degrees of “defensism” and internationalism. The internationalists tried to organize anti-war propaganda within Russia, but this was hampered by wartime censorship and the arrest of Bolshevik deputies. From 5 to 8 September 1915, the internationalists gathered at a conference in the Swiss village of Zimmerwald. Despite the efforts of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Il’ich Lenin (1870-1924) - to push through the radical idea of “transforming the imperialistic war into a civil war,” a moderate pacifist version of the manifesto was adopted. The radicals formed the "Zimmerwald Left.” At the next conference in the Swiss village of Kienthal from 24 to 30 April 1916, a more radical manifesto that spoke of the necessity of the working class seizing power was adopted. In Russia, socialist-internationalists in the Duma and a number of workers’ groups were carrying out anti-war propaganda.

The Attack on the Government

The aggravation of the domestic crisis, above all, problems with food, in the autumn of 1916 pushed the authorities to reach a new compromise with the opposition. The Deputy Chairman of the Duma and member of the Progressive Bloc, Aleksandr Dmitrievich Protopopov (1866-1918), was made Minister of Internal Affairs on 1 October 1916, but he was an unfortunate choice: his unexpected appointment was seen as a provocation designed to split the Bloc and resulted in “the struggle against the ‘renegade’ Protopopov” becoming one of the Bloc’s main slogans.

On the eve of the new session on 14 November 1916, the Progressives presented the Bloc with an ultimatum to include its demands for “responsible ministry” in the declaration. The moderate wing’s refusal resulted in the Progressives leaving the Bloc. Saving the situation, Miliukov accused the government of treason. Information was coming via European newspapers – rumors of a separate peace often appeared in the press in 1915. The materials collected were alleged to be evidence of Premier Boris Vladimirovich Shtiurmer’s (1848-1917) efforts to conclude a separate peace, although in actual fact nothing of the kind had occurred, but Miliukov decided to go further and directly blamed the highest authorities. On 14 November 1916, Miliukov accused the authorities of preparing for a separate peace from the podium of the Duma, putting the question: “What is this, idiocy or treason?” Addressing the government on the Bloc’s behalf, he declared: “We will fight you … by all legal means until you go.”[9] Miliukov subsequently admitted: “I, it would seem, thought at that moment that since revolution was unavoidable, I had to try to take it into my own hands.”[10]

In November 1916, the Duma became a stronghold of the country’s discontent, aimed at attacking the government. After Shtiurmer’s resignation on 23 November 1916, Minister of Transport Aleksandr Federovich Trepov (1862-1928), who had tried to come to an agreement with the opposition, was named prime minister, offering to satisfy some of the Bloc’s demands. He also introduced the deputies to the convention Russia had signed with the allies in 1915, under which it would receive Constantinople and the Straits upon victory. However, the Duma rejected the government’s proposal. At that point, relations with the authorities were extremely confused, even among the rightists. On 2 December 1916, one of the rightist leaders, Vladimir Mitrofanovich Purishkevich (1870-1920), made a speech accusing the government of “Germanophilism” and stifling “public initiative.”[11]

On 9 December 1916, the State Council demanded the removal from power of “dark forces” and the formation of a government based on the “confidence of the country.” Zemgor congresses in December 1916 were forbidden, but they met all the same. At a VZS congress L’vov announced: “Forget about further attempts to work together with the true authorities! …. There ARE no authorities ….” A VSG congress adopted a resolution calling on the Duma “to do its duty, and not to disperse until its main task – the formation of a responsible government – is achieved.”[12]

On 30 December 1916, the murder of Grigorii Efimovich Rasputin (1872-1916), who was accused of having a dangerous influence on the emperor, was planned with the participation of Purishkevich. At the same time a group comprising Guchkov, the Progressive Aleksandr Ivanovich Konovalov (1875-1949), the Cadet Nikolai Vissarionovich Nekrasov (1879-1940), the Trudovik Kerenskii and the industrialist Mikhail Ivanovich Tereshchenko (1886-1956), was formed to plan a palace coup. “The Five” were in constant contact with socialist groups in Petrograd and attempted to establish contact with the military, but were unsuccessful.[13] L’vov also had a meeting where it was decided to carry out a palace coup in favor of Nikolai Nikolaevich, Grand Duke of Russia (1856-1929) and establish a “responsible government” headed by L’vov. The Grand Duke, however, refused, saying that the army would not support a coup.

On 27 November 1916, a workers’ group decided to organize a demonstration at the State Duma, the leadership believing that “it should be a center for the whole of Russia, whether it is a good representative body or a bad one.” In its call to the workers, the main task was defined as “the decisive removal of the autocratic regime and the complete democratization of the country.”[14] On 9 February 1917, however, the workers’ group was arrested.

The Duma resumed activity on 27 February 1917. Kerenskii called for the “immediate destruction of the medieval regime, whatever it takes.” On 8 March 1917, mass strikes and demonstrations started in Petrograd and led to clashes with the police. On 10 March 1917, Kerenskii demanded the formation of a government “under the control of the people,” the proclamation of freedom of speech, assembly and organization. The Menshevik Nikolai Semenovich Chkheidze (1864-1926) pointed out that “the streets have already made their voice heard … and these streets are to be reckoned with.”[15]

The next day the session was suspended until April. Kerenskii and Chkheidze were connected to small-scale SR, Menshevik and Bolshevik organizations that took an active part in agitation among the workers and soldiers of the Petrograd garrison. Regardless of all the talk, the socialist leaders did not have serious hopes for success. On 12 March 1917, however, the revolution in Petrograd was won.

The Parties after the February Revolution

After the success of the February Revolution in Russia, the parties’ circumstances changed dramatically. Political freedoms were announced. The Revolution led to the resurgence of the left as a whole, from the Cadets to the Bolsheviks. The centrist and rightist parties, on the other hand, practically ceased to exist. The Black Hundreds were outlawed, and the Provisional Government opposed the resumption of the State Duma’s and the State Council’s (the main pillars of the moderates and rightists) activities. The houses were officially dispersed on 19 October 1917 prior to the convening of the Constituent Assembly.

The Zemgor, TsVPK, bourgeoisie and Cadets supported the Provisional Government, with the Cadets forming part of the government and taking part in formulating the government program. At the seventh party conference from 7 to 10 April 1917, it was announced that the Cadets had always upheld not only “liberal, libertarian and democratic” principles, but also stood “on the basis of socialism.” The congress unanimously declared the main task to be the founding of a “democratic parliamentary republic” in Russia and called for the continuation of the war of the “democratic union against the union of monarchist reactionaries till the victorious end and a just and lasting peace.” The Eighth Congress from 22 to 25 May 1917, adopted the principle of sovereignty of regional authorities and access to the land and supported Polish independence.[16] Ideologically the Cadet Party became a right-leaning social-democratic party.

By August 1917, the membership of the Cadet Party exceeded that in 1906 (around 70,000 members), but the Cadets were unable to become the ruling political elite, having failed to create cells within the state apparatus, industry or army, as the socialists had actively been doing. The Cadets supported General Lavr Georgievich Kornilov (1870-1918), and the party was severely damaged after the collapse of his authority. At this time the significance of the socialists increased, with their leaders returning from emigration and exile. In the autumn, the membership of the SRs reached 1,000,000, the Mensheviks, 200,000, and the Bolsheviks 350,000. The SRs’ third convention from 7 to 17 June 1917 supported the coalition Provisional Government. The Mensheviks could not overcome their internal divisions and, despite their representatives’ participation in the Provisional Government, lost political initiative. The Bolsheviks were the only significant force that had not supported the government. In the elections to the Moscow City Duma in July, the SRs received 58 percent of the vote, the Bolsheviks 20 percent and the Cadets almost 17 percent. In the August elections to the Petrograd City Duma the SRs obtained 37 percent of the vote, the Bolsheviks 33 percent, and the Cadets almost 22 percent.

Elections to the Constituent Assembly were universal, equal, direct, and conducted by secret ballot, and were the first attempt to do this on a nationwide basis in world history. The elections were held according to a proportional, multiple-mandate system (lists being compiled separately for each electoral district). In the course of the elections in November 1917, the SRs received 39.5 percent of the vote, the Bolsheviks 22.5 percent, the Cadets 4,5 percent, the Mensheviks 3.2 percent, and others (socialists, national parties, religions etc.) 30.3 percent.[17]

The Bolsheviks’ seizure of power led to a crisis among their opponents in the socialist camp, with the majority of SRs and Mensheviks not recognizing it. However, in November, the Left SR party had already been formed; its members were represented in the coalition Soviet government. The Cadet Party was banned on 11 December 1917, and on 9 January 1918 a “Declaration on the Volunteer Army” (anti-Bolshevik forces), written by Miliukov on behalf of the Don Cossack Command called for armed struggle with the Bolsheviks.


Russian parties, not only the radical ones, were considerably more active under revolutionary conditions than in periods of relative calm. The right-wing parties gradually lost governmental support, and with the increased anti-government mood in the country, the people’s trust. By the beginning of the revolution they had practically gone into opposition, but this did not help them, since they were banned after the events of February 1917. The educated professional classes were considerably stronger in government institutions (parliament) or those receiving state funding (Zemgor and the Military-Industrial Committees), though they were mainly used for political purposes. The liberals played an important role in the preparation and victory of the Revolution in Russia, but the Revolution, having eliminated the old order (including the State Duma), quickly led to a crisis among the moderates forces. The police effectively contained the radical left’s activities during the war period, but they were genuinely resurgent after the Revolution in March 1917. In the end, the victory was won by those who proposed the most decisive methods of fulfilling the population’s demands.

Fedor Aleksandrovich Gaida, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Section Editors: Boris Kolonit͡skiĭ; Nikolaus Katzer

Translator: Trevor Goronwy