The State Duma finally opened on 27 April 1906. It was a hot and sunny day, one of many in an exceptional Russian spring, and it was with some discomfort that Vladimir Obolensky, the elected deputy for the district of Yalta, squeezed himself into his old tail-coat and set off by carriage for the Winter Palace, where the new parliamentarians were to be received in the Coronation Hall. The Tsar and the Duma deputies regarded each other with the utmost suspicion, both being reluctant to share its power with the other. So the whole occasion was marked by a hostile posturing from each side, as if all the pomp and ceremony, the bowing and genuflections, were really delicate manoeuvres in a beautifully camouflaged battle.
Nicholas had already scored the first victory in having the deputies come to him, not he to the Duma, for the opening ceremony. Indeed it was not until February 1916, in the midst of a grave political crisis, that the Tsar finally-deigned to make an appearance in the Tauride Palace, the seat of the Duma. And as if to underline this royal supremacy, the Coronation Hall of the Winter Palace was sumptuously furnished to greet the parliamentary deputies. The throne was draped in ermine with the crown, the sceptre, the seal and the orb placed at its feet on four little camp-stools. The miraculous icon of Christ was placed, like a holy protector, before it, and solemnly guarded by a retinue of high priests. The deep basses of the choir, dressed in cassocks of crimson and gold, sang verse after verse of 'God Save the Tsar', as if on purpose to keep the congregation standing, until, at the height of the fanfare's crescendo, the royal procession arrived.
On one side of the hall stood the great and the good of autocratic Russia: state councillors, senators, ministers, admirals, generals and members of the court, all of them turned out in their brilliant dress uniforms dripping with medals and golden braid. Facing them were the parliamentary leaders of the new democratic Russia, a motley collection of peasants in cotton shirts and tunics, professional men in lounge suits, monks and priests in black, Ukrainians, Poles, Tatars and others in colourful national costumes, and a small number of nobles in evening dress. 'The two hostile sides stood confronting each other', recalled Obolensky. 'The old and grey court dignitaries, keepers of etiquette and tradition, looked across in a haughty manner, though not without fear and confusion, at the "people off the street", whom the revolution had swept into the palace, and quietly whispered to one another. The other side looked across at them with no less disdain or contempt.' One of the socialist deputies, a tall man in a worker's blouse, scrutinized the throne and the courtiers around it with obvious disgust. As the Tsar and his entourage entered the hall, he lurched forward and stared at them with an anguished expression of hatred. For a moment it was feared that he might throw a bomb.
The court side of the hall resounded with orchestrated cheers as the Tsar approached the throne. But the Duma deputies remained completely silent. 'It was', Obolensky recalled, 'a natural expression of our feelings towards the monarch, who in the twelve years of his reign had managed to destroy all the prestige enjoyed by his predecessors.' The feeling was mutual: not once did the Tsar glance towards the Duma side of the hall. Sitting on his throne he delivered a short and perfunctory speech in which he promised to uphold the principles of autocracy 'with unwavering firmness' and, in a tone of obvious insincerity, greeted the Duma deputies as 'the best people' of his Empire. With that, he got up to leave. The parliamentary era had begun. As the royal procession filed out of the hall, tears could be seen on the face of the Tsar's mother, the Dowager Empress. It had been a 'terrible ceremony', she later confided to the Minister of Finance. For several days she had been unable to calm herself from the shock of seeing so many commoners inside the palace. 'They looked at us as upon their enemies and I could not stop myself from looking at certain faces, so much did they seem to reflect a strange hatred for us all.'1
This ceremonial confrontation was only a foretaste of the war to come. The whole period of Russian political history between the two revolutions of 1905 and February 1917 could be characterized as a battle between the royalist and parliamentary forces. To begin with, when the country was still emerging from the revolutionary crisis, the court was forced to concede ground to the Duma. But as the memory of 1905 passed, it tried to roll back its powers and restore the old autocracy.
The constitutional reforms of 1905—6 were ambiguous enough to give both sides grounds for hope. Nicholas had never accepted the October Manifesto as a necessary limitation upon his own autocratic prerogatives. He had reluctantly granted the Manifesto under pressure from Witte in order to save his throne. But at no time had he sworn to act upon it as a 'constitution' (the crucial word had nowhere been mentioned) and therefore, at least in his own mind, his coronation oath to uphold the principles of autocracy remained in force. The Tsar's sovereignty was in his view still handed to him directly from God. The mystical basis of the Tsar's power — which put it beyond any challenge — remained intact. There was nothing in the new Fundamental Laws (passed in April 1906) to suggest that from now on the Tsar's authority should be deemed to derive from the people, as in Western constitutional theories.
In this sense, Miliukov was correct to insist (against the advice of most of his Kadet colleagues) that Russia would not have a real constitution until the Tsar had specifically acknowledged one in the form of a new oath of allegiance. For until then Nicholas was bound to feel no real obligation to uphold the constitutional principles of his own Manifesto, and there was nothing the Duma could do to prevent him from returning to the old autocratic ways once the revolutionary crisis had passed. Indeed the Fundamental Laws were deliberately framed to fulfil the promises of the October Manifesto whilst preserving the Tsar's prerogatives. They forced the new constitutional liberties into the old legal framework of the autocracy. The Tsar even explicitly retained the title of 'Autocrat', albeit only with the prefix 'Supreme' in place of the former 'Unlimited'. Nicholas took this to mean business as usual. As he saw it, the limitations imposed by the Fundamental Laws applied only to the tsarist administration, not to his own rights of unfettered rule. Indeed, in so far as the bureaucracy was viewed as a 'wall' between himself and the people, he could even comfort himself with the thought that the reforms would strengthen his personal powers.
And the Tsar held most of the trump cards in the post-1905 system. He was the supreme commander of the armed services and retained the exclusive right to declare war and to make peace. He could dissolve the Duma, and did so twice when its conduct failed to please him. According to Article 87 of the Fundamental Laws he could also legislate by emergency decree when the Duma was not in session, and his government used this loophole to bypass parliamentary opposition. The Duma Electoral Law established an indirect system of voting by estates heavily weighted in favour of the crown's traditional allies, the nobility and the peasants (still quite mistakenly assumed to be monarchists at heart). The government (the Council of Ministers) was appointed exclusively by the Tsar, while the Duma had a veto over its bills. But there was no effective parliamentary sanction against the abuses of the executive, which remained subordinate to the crown (as in the German system) rather than to parliament (as in the English). There was nothing the Duma could do, for example, to prevent the government from subsidizing Rightist newspapers and organizations, which were known to incite pogroms and which even tried to assassinate prominent liberal Duma leaders. The Ministry of the Interior and the police, both of which retained close ties with the court, were quite beyond the Duma's control. Thanks to their sweeping and arbitrary powers, the civil rights and freedoms contained in the October Manifesto remained little more than empty promises. Indeed there is no more accurate reflection of the Duma's true position than the fact that whenever it met in the Tauride Palace a group of plain-clothes policemen could be seen on the pavement outside waiting for those deputies to emerge whom they had been assigned to follow and keep under surveillance.2
The Duma was a legislative parliament. Yet it could not enact its own laws. Its legislative proposals could not become effective until they received the endorsement of both the Tsar and the State Council, an old consultative assembly of mostly reactionary nobles, half of them elected by the zemstvos, half of them appointed by the Tsar, which was transformed into the upper house, with equal legislative powers to the Duma itself, by a statute of February 1906. The State Council met in the splendid hall of the Marinsky Palace. Its elderly members, most of them retired bureaucrats and generals, sat (or dozed) in its comfortable velvet armchairs whilst stately footmen in white livery moved silently about serving tea and coffee. The State Council was more like an English gentleman's club than a parliamentary chamber (since it emulated the House of Lords this was perhaps a mark of its success). Its debates were not exactly heated since most of the councillors shared the same royalist attitudes, while some of the octogenarians — of which there were more than a few — had clearly lost most of their critical faculties. At the end of one debate, for example, a General Stiirler announced that he intended to vote with the majority. When it was explained to him that no majority had yet been formed since the voting had only just begun, he replied with irritation: 'I still insist that I am with the majority!' Nevertheless, it would be mistaken to present the State Council as either ridiculous or benign. The domination of the United Nobility — to which one-third of the councillors belonged — ensured that it would act as a force of reaction, and it voted down all the liberal Duma bills. It was not for nothing that the State Council became known as the 'graveyard of Duma hopes'.3
And yet on that first day, when the Duma deputies took their seats in the Tauride Palace, there was nothing but hope in their hearts. Seated on the Kadet benches, Obolensky found himself next to Prince Lvov, who was 'full of optimism' about the new parliamentary era. 'Don't believe the rumours that the government will close us down,' Lvov told him with confidence. 'You'll see everything will be all right. I know from the best sources that the government is ready to make concessions.'4 Most of the Duma members shared his naive faith that Russia had at last won its 'House of Commons' and would now move towards joining the club of Western liberal parliamentary states. The time for tyrants was passing. Tomorrow belonged to the people. This was the 'Duma of National Hopes'.
No one believed that the Tsar would dare to dissolve the Duma and risk a storm of criticism from the liberal public at home and abroad. It was confidently assumed that Russia's dependence on Western finance, renewed in 1906 with the biggest foreign loan in its history, would force him to retain the liberal structure of the state. That Nicholas despised 'public opinion', and had no legal obligation to respect it, was forgotten. So too was the fact that Witte, the architect of the new parliamentary order, had just been replaced by Ivan Goremykin, an old-fashioned reactionary and favourite of the court who regarded the Duma as an unnecessary obstacle to his government. The young parliamentarians innocently believed that, so long as they had 'the people' behind them, they would be able to force the Tsar to concede a fully sovereign parliament. Russia would follow the path of France after 1789, from the Estates-General to the Constituent Assembly.
The Tauride Palace was the birthplace, the citadel and the burial ground of Russian democracy. Until February 1917 it was the seat of the Duma. During the first weeks of the revolution it housed both the Provisional Government (which moved to the Marinsky Palace on 7 March) and the Petrograd Soviet (which moved to the Smolny Institute in July). Then, for a day, 6 January 1918, it played host to the first fully democratic parliament in Russia's history — the Constituent Assembly — until it was closed down by the Bolsheviks. No other building on Russian soil has ever been the scene of such turbulent political drama. How incongruous, then, that the palace should have been so graceful and serene. It was built in 1783 by Catherine the Great for one of her favourites, Grigorii Potemkin, who assumed the title of Prince of Tauride after his conquest of the Crimea. Designed in the style of a pantheon, decorated with Doric pillars and classical statues, it was a peaceful suburban refuge from the noise of the capital and was surrounded by its own private park and lakes. The Catherine Hall, where the deputies assembled, had semi-circular rows of seats and a dais at one end bearing Repin's portrait of Nicholas II. Behind the dais were three large bay windows looking out on to a landscaped vista that could have been painted by Watteau.
To this elegant palace the peasant Duma deputies brought the political culture of their village barns. 'It was enough to take a look at this motley mob of "deputies" ', remarked one shocked senior official, 'to feel horror at the sight of Russia's first representative body. It was a gathering of savages. It seemed as if the Russian Land had sent to Petersburg everything that was barbarian in it.' Hundreds of peasant petitioners came to the Tauride Palace from every corner of Russia: some to appeal about a decision of their local court; some to complain about their taxes; others simply to check up on the activities of their elected delegates. Sergei Semenov found himself among them. He had been sent by a meeting of the peasants in his volost of Andreevskoe with a mandate on the land reforms which, as he recalled, 'I was supposed to make sure the Duma passed.' The musty smell of the peasants' cheap tobacco and their farmyard clothes filled the long corridors of the palace. The floors were covered with the chewed husks of their sunflower seeds, which they spat out regardless of public notices that most of them could not read. Some peasant deputies got drunk in taverns, became involved in brawls, and when attempts were made to arrest them claimed immunity as Duma members. Two were even found selling 'entrance tickets' to the Tauride Palace. It turned out that they had been convicted for petty thefts and swindles, for which they should have been disqualified from standing for election.5
Partly because of this village element, the Duma proceedings had a decidedly informal air. The English journalist Maurice Baring compared the sessions to 'a meeting of acquaintances in a club or a cafe'.6 A deputy might begin to speak from his seat and continue to address the hall as he strolled up to the tribune. He might break off his speech in mid-sentence to talk to the President or offer a brief explanation of some detail. Sometimes the deputies at the back of the hall would engage in a private debate of their own, and when the President called for order would move out into the corridor. It was as if the politics of the street, or rather of the field, had been brought inside the parliament building. Perhaps the Duma was bound to be disorganized: this, after all, was Russia's first parliamentary experience; and there were many similar conventions — the National Assembly of 1789 or the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848 immediately come to mind — where novice politicians made a hash of things. And yet it seems that the Russians were by nature especially ill-prepared for the disciplines of parliamentary practice. Even today, in the post-Communist Duma, a similar informality is on display, verging on the manners of the beer-house. Russian democracy can be rather like the Russians themselves: chaotic and disorganized.
Most of the peasant deputies, about a hundred in all, sat with the Trudovik group (Labour), a loosely knit agrarian party, whose main plank was the need for a radical solution of the land question through the compulsory expropriation of all the gentry's property. This made it the obvious choice of the peasants once their usual party of choice, the SRs, had decided, along with the SDs, to boycott the Duma elections. The Kadets were the biggest party in the Duma, with 179 deputies (including Obolensky and Lvov) out of a total of 478. This was a gross exaggeration of their true level of support in the country, since the Kadets had won much of the vote that would otherwise have gone to the SRs and SDs. But their electoral success had none the less given them a sense of their own legitimacy as spokesmen for 'the people'. Inspired by this historic role — and a little frightened of it lest they should fail to match the radical expectations of the masses — the Kadets adopted a militant posture of opposition to the government which set the tone for the Duma's short and troubled existence.
From its opening session, the Duma was turned into a revolutionary tribune. It became a rhetorical battering ram against the fortress of autocracy. On that first day the deputies arrived at the Tauride Palace in a militant mood and at once began to condemn the repressive violence of the government (no condemnation was made of the left-wing terror). They had come by steamboat down the Neva from the Winter Palace and as they passed the Kresty jail they saw the prisoners waving to them through the bars of their windows. The deputies waved their hats in reply and the symbolism of that moment — the thought that they were being carried into the new parliamentary era thanks to the sacrifices of these 'politicals' — brought tears to many eyes. As they took up their seats in the Catherine Hall, the Kadet leader Petrunkevich called on the delegates 'to devote our first thought and our first free word to those who have sacrificed their own freedom for the liberation of our dear Russia. The prisons are full but Free Russia demands the liberation of all political prisoners.' His words struck a deep emotional chord among the deputies. Almost to a man they rose to their feet and, turning to the ministers who had come to watch the opening session, cried out, 'Amnesty! Amnesty!'7
According to the Fundamental Laws, the granting of political amnesties remained the exclusive prerogative of the Tsar. But the aim of the deputies was to force the crown to concede its executive powers to the Duma and, since this seemed a suitable place to start, they included it in their list of demands. These they presented as an Address to the Throne, which also included the appointment of a government responsible to the Duma, the abolition of the State Council, radical land reform and universal male suffrage. For two weeks there was silence, as the crown considered how to respond to these ultra vires demands. There were various attempts to neutralize the liberals by co-opting their leaders into the government. But, believing they stood on the brink of a second and decisive revolution, they stood firm. Then on 14 May the government finally passed down its first two bills for the Duma's approval: one for a new laundry, the other for a greenhouse at the University of Dorpat. It was a clear declaration of legislative war. The government was obviously unwilling to co-operate with the Duma. It would not even acknowledge its reform demands.
From this point on it could only be a matter of time before the Duma was dissolved. A battle of nerves ensued as the parliamentarians continued to show their defiance in a series of radical speeches from the tribune of the Tauride Palace. The tension was such that many deputies later claimed to have lost weight in these weeks, though the hot June weather probably helped. From the government's point of view, the revolutionary mood in the country was still a threat — the peasant war on the manors had revived in the spring with a ferocity equal to the previous autumn's, while the SR terrorist campaign had still not been quelled — and the Duma's militant stance was bound to encourage it.
The crux of the matter was the Duma's determination to appease the peasants with radical land reform. Both the Kadets and the Trudoviks were loudly advocating the compulsory expropriation of all the gentry's surplus land (the former with compensation and the latter without). There had been a time, during the 'Great Fear' of 1905, when many landowners might have been prepared to accept some form of expropriation in order to save their skins. 'If we do not make some concessions,' one besieged squire had argued before his local council of nobles, 'the revolution will come from below and fires will flare up everywhere from one end of the country to the other.' Even Trepov had once said to Witte: 'I myself am a landowner and I would be glad to relinquish half of my land if I were convinced that under these conditions I could keep the remainder.' But as the revolutionary tide receded, the landowners became less inclined to compromise. The Tsar spoke for them when he said, 'What belongs to the landowner belongs to him.' The provincial zemstvos, once strongholds of the liberal opposition, now became bastions of law and order. The United Nobility, which was formed to defend property rights, had powerful supporters in the court, the State Council and the Civil Service. It led the campaign against the Duma's reform proposals on the grounds that granting additional land to the peasants would not help solve their problems, since these were caused by the inefficiencies of the communal system and not by the shortage of land. The argument was strongly coloured by recent experience: having always viewed the commune as the bulwark of the old rural order, these conservatives had learned in 1905 that it could easily become the organizing mechanism of the peasant revolution. 'In other countries there is much less land per capita than in Russia,' declared Prince A. P. Urusov to a meeting of landowners in May 1906, 'yet there is no talk of land shortage because the concept of property is clear in the minds of the people. But we have the commune — which is to say that the principle of socialism has destroyed this concept. The result is that nowhere else do we see such unceremonious destruction of property as we see in Russia.'8 The abolition of the commune and the creation of a peasant landowning class were now seized upon by the gentry as an alternative to the Duma's radical land reform.
On 8 July the Duma was finally dissolved, seventy-two days after its convocation. New elections were called for a second Duma session the following February. The Premier Goremykin was replaced by Stolypin, a well-known advocate of the commune's abolition and a proven executor of repressive measures to restore order in the countryside. The liberals were outraged by the dissolution. Prince Lvov, who had been so confident that it would not happen, now wrote of his 'anger at this blatant attack on the parliamentary principle', although as a landowner he had opposed the Duma's land reform. The dissolution transformed Lvov from a moderate liberal into a radical. He was among those Kadets who, as a protest against it, fled to the Finnish resort town of Vyborg, where they signed a manifesto calling on 'the people' to rise up against the government by refusing to pay any more taxes or to give any more recruits to the army.* The Vyborg Manifesto was a typical example of the Kadets' militant posturing since the opening of the Duma. As for 'the people', they were clearly not listening to these liberals. For their Manifesto was greeted with universal indifference. And so the government could now take repressive measures with a quiet mind to silence its brave but naive liberal critics. More than 100 leading Kadets were brought to trial and suspended from the Duma for their part in the Vyborg Manifesto. The Kadets who took their places in the second and third Dumas were on the whole much less radical — and less talented — than those who had sat in the first. Living under the shadow of their party's 'Vyborg complex', they pursued a more conservative line, keeping well within the confines of the tsarist laws, in the defence of the Duma.9 Never again would the Kadets place their trust in the support of 'the people'. Nor would they claim to represent them. From this point on, they would consciously become what in fact they had been all along: the natural party of the bourgeoisie. Liberalism and the people went their separate ways.