Increasing challenges to autocratic rule reached a boiling point in 1905. In order to avoid total disaster, Sergei Witte called for a reform of the political system. Witte wrote the famous October Manifesto, which calmed the unrest following the shooting upon civilians in the massacre known as Bloody Sunday.
The Manifesto promised that the Tsar would look into reform which would liberalize the Russian state. It promised three things, the “essential foundations of civil freedom”, the expansion of suffrage for the classes “completely deprived of voting rights”, and an “unbreakable” rule which would require the elected Duma to approve any laws.
These promises, and the ending of the Russo-Japanese War, quieted the unrest by appeasing those who were calling for moderate change. However, within these promises there were some principles that were disturbing to the autocratic nature of government in Russia. The most troubling was the requirement that the Duma have the power to approve laws. Such a power would theoretically limit the power of the Tsar, and such a challenge, if not met by strength, would end the days of the autocracy in Russia forever.
An end to the autocracy and movement towards a constitutional monarchy similar to Great Britain’s was one of the goals that Sergei Witte envisioned when he wrote the October Manifesto. However, in its implementation he had so many disagreements with the Tsar that by the end of April 1906 he was forced to resign from his position as head of the council of ministers.
Due to disagreements between Witte and the Tsar, the Fundamental Laws turned out to fall short of what had been promised the previous October. First of all, they were called Laws, not a full-fledged constitution. Secondly, all of the liberal ideas were severely limited to keep control firmly in the hands of the Tsar, and part of that meant including some harsh language which limited the powers of the Duma so that they could not pursue legislation on their own initiative.
The first twenty-six of one hundred twenty three clauses focus solely on the “Essence of the Supreme Autocratic Power”, part of which limits the promised power over legislation that the Duma was supposed to get through the reforms (namely the power to approve laws) by requiring all laws to be approved by the Tsar before they are legal. In some ways it is similar to the American system of veto except that there is no override to the veto. The Tsar was also given by the Fundamental Laws all of the powers that Americans and all other liberal powers associate with the elected body (which in Russia would be half the Duma). Tsar Nicholas II had the power to levy taxes, to coin money, and control all aspects of the country within the way the law was set up.
The Fundamental Laws also outlined the rights of Russian citizens, giving them more rights than they had had in hundreds of years. But the Laws limited the rights of their citizens by adding after enumerating each right that the right was only to be exercised as the law previously allowed. For example, the Laws grant the freedom of religion, but adds that the “terms of enjoyment of this freedom are determined by law”. In addition, the Fundamental Laws only name the people of Russia as citizens once, and don’t really outline who is a citizen. Instead, all Russians are categorized as “subjects” and are expected to preform certain obligations, such as paying taxes and serving in the military.
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