The Russian Duma: Definition & Meaning

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

The Russian Duma was a representative legislative body in imperial Russia. It was short lived and ineffective, but it was still important in moving Russia towards total transformation. Read this lesson to learn more!

The Russian Duma and Revolution

When people have no voice in their government, revolution is often right around the corner. In the early 1900s, imperial Russia was on that very road to revolution. An autocratic monarch named Czar Nicholas II ruled the Russian empire, and the people had little to no say in the government. Unrest was growing, so as a partial concession to the people, the Czar allowed the creation of a representative legislative body called the Duma, which existed from 1906 to 1917.

Though the Duma was designed to give the people a voice in the government, it largely failed to reach that goal. Nevertheless, it was an important step on the road to political transformation in Russia.

Photo of Russian Duma
Photo of Russian Duma

Creating the Duma

The Russian empire had existed as an autocracy since the 18th century. By the early 1900s, social unrest was sweeping the empire. In 1905, the people staged massive protests against the czar's autocratic policies. On what was later named Bloody Sunday (January 9, 1905), hundreds of protesters were massacred as they tried to march to the Czar's winter palace. This sparked an even bigger outcry and near outright rebellion--called the Russian Revolution of 1905--for the next year across the country.

Photo of barricade during Russian Revolution of 1905
Photo of barricade during Russian Revolution of 1905

In hopes of easing tension, Czar Nicholas II signed the October Manifesto: a promise to the Russian people to create a constitution to protect rights and give the people a voice in government. The Manifesto promised rights like the freedom of speech and the right to assemble. It also promised that the people could vote directly for representatives to a new parliamentary body called the Duma, which is comparable to the U.S. House of Representatives. The October Manifesto won over enough supporters that the Russian Revolution dissipated by early 1906.

Photo of Czar Nicholas II
Photo of Czar Nicholas II

Weakening the Duma

With the promise of representative government within reach, the Czar conveniently undercut the power of the Duma just as it was about to convene. The first election to the Duma was held in 1906. Men 25 or older could vote, though the nobles' votes were given more weight than the peasants' votes. In addition, right when the newly elected Duma was supposed to commence, the Czar reneged on the promises made in the October Manifesto.

As the Duma was about to convene in 1906, the Czar issued the Fundamental Laws that were meant to be the constitution promised by the October Manifesto. Though the Fundamental Laws did technically make Russia a constitutional monarchy, they also undercut the power of the Duma. The Fundamental Laws created a second house within the Duma--one that would be appointed, not elected. Furthermore, the Fundamental Laws limited the civil rights promised in the October Manifesto, and it gave the Duma only limited legislative power. It also gave the Czar exclusive right to overrule anything passed by the Duma.

The Duma Convenes

With its weakened power, the first Duma convened in 1906. Delegates were elected to 5 year terms, but the delegates to the Duma were often divided and inefficient. This Duma only lasted for a few weeks before the Czar got frustrated with the Duma's demands and simply dissolved it.

A second Duma was elected later in 1906, but they were even more radical than the delegates elected to the first Duma. As a result, the delegates were unwilling to compromise with each other and the Czar, so the czar quickly dissolved that Duma as well. The Czar dissolving the Duma is equivalent to the American president dissolving Congress, so, needless to say, this didn't go over well with the Russian people! From the Czar's perspective, though, he thought he had a divine right to rule, and he did not want to transform the political fabric of the country by giving the people more power.

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