Snow had fallen in the night and St Petersburg awoke to an eerie silence on that Sunday morning, 9 January 1905. Soon after dawn the workers and their families congregated in churches to pray for a peaceful end to the day. Later, 150,000 of them would march in columns from various quarters of the city and converge in front of the Winter Palace, where their leader, a priest called Father Gapon, was to present a Humble and Loyal Address to the Tsar begging him to improve the conditions of the workers. Singing hymns and carrying icons and crosses, they formed something more like a religious procession than a workers' demonstration. Bystanders took off their hats and crossed themselves as they passed. And yet there was no doubt that the marchers' lives were in danger. During the night 12,000 troops had been posted in the city to prevent them from reaching the palace. Many of the marchers had been up all night preparing themselves for death. One of them, Ivan Vasilev, left a note for his wife as he left her asleep with his young son in the small hours of the morning:
If I fail to return and am killed, Niusha, do not cry. You'll get along somehow to begin with, and then you'll find work at a factory. Bring up Vaniura and tell him I died a martyr for the people's freedom and happiness. I shall have died, if such be the case, for our own happiness as well. . .
Your loving father and husband, Vania P.S. Niusha, if I die, you'll know of it from one of my comrades; otherwise, I'll write to you or come to see you. I kiss you, farewell. Regards to father, our brothers and all our relations. Farewell, your Vania27
He never returned.
It was ironic but somehow fitting that the 1905 Revolution should have been started by an organization dreamed up by the tsarist regime itself. No one believed more than Father Gapon in the bond between Tsar and people. As a student at the St Petersburg Theological Academy he had made a name for himself as a preacher in the workers' districts of the city. He told the urban poor who flocked to his church that the Tsar, their paternal guardian, had a holy obligation to care for them, his most humble subjects. Gapon's popularity attracted the attention of S.V Zubatov, Chief of the Moscow Okhrana, who since 1900 had been organizing his own police-sponsored trade unions with the blessing of the Grand Duke Sergei, Governor-General of Moscow. Zubatov began his remarkable career as a schoolboy terrorist in the Populist underground, but soon became disillusioned with the revolutionary movement and turned police informer. The rest of his life he devoted to the Okhrana and its campaign against the revolutionaries.
Zubatov acknowledged that the workers had real and legitimate grievances, and that these could make them into a revolutionary threat. If they were left to the mercy of their factory employers, the workers were almost bound to come under the influence of the socialists. But if, as he advocated, the government set up its own workers' organizations, the initiative would lie with the Tsar's loyal servants. Zubatov's unions aimed to satisfy the workers' demands for education, mutual aid and organization, whilst serving as a channel for monarchist propaganda. To his masters at court, they offered the prospect of a popular autocracy, where the Tsar could appear as the workers' paternal guardian, protecting them from the greed of their bosses and the 'alien contamination of the revolutionaries. It was the old imperial strategy of divide and rule: the workers would be used to weaken the main threats to the autocracy — the industrial bourgeoisie and the socialist intelligentsia.
By 1903, when Gapon began to organize his own workers' clubs and tea-rooms under the patronage of the police, Zubatov's star was already falling. In the previous year he had organized a march of 50,000 workers to commemorate the Emancipation of the serfs. Although the march was peaceful and utterly loyalist in its intentions, grave concerns were expressed about its unprecedented size and about Zubatov's ability to contain it and indeed his movement in general. Such doubts were confirmed in July 1903, when one of Zubatov's unions became involved in a general strike in Odessa. Zubatov was dismissed and his experiment abruptly terminated. But his supporters now joined Gapon's organization, which sought to establish similar unions under the patronage of the Church. Once again the movement was radicalized from below, as growing numbers of workers joined it to campaign for their own reform agenda. It had begun as a cultural mission for tea-drinking for 'respectable' workers. There were evenings of dancing, concerts and lectures on various forms of self-help. Meetings began with the Lord's Prayer and ended with the national anthem. But the movement was soon transformed into an independent labour union, the Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers, which, despite its loyal surface, demanded radical reforms, including the establishment of a government responsible to the people, a progressive income tax, trade union rights, and an eight-hour day.28
The reform programme would have required the complete restructuring of the state, yet said nothing about how this was to be achieved. Gapon himself was completely ignorant of political theory: he could not even pronounce the word 'constitutionalism'. He saw himself as a man of destiny sent by God for the deliverance of the workers. Driven by vanity and restless ambition, he never stopped to think that he might be raising their expectations too high. He told his followers in simple terms, with arguments drawn from the Bible, that the Tsar was obliged before God to satisfy their demands if 'the people' went directly to him. He consciously drew on the myth of the benevolent Tsar — 'The Tsar wants justice but the boyars resist' — that had fuelled and legitimized so many protest movements in Russian history. On 3—8 January 1905, when 120,000 workers went on strike in St Petersburg and began to speak about going to the Tsar in order to 'seek truth and justice', Gapon took up their cause. Encouraged by the Liberation Movement, he drew up a list of demands to be presented to the Tsar in a mass demonstration scheduled for the following Sunday. Supplicating and sentimental, the petition moved to tears whole crowds of workers. It began:
We, the workers and inhabitants of St Petersburg, of various estates, our wives, our children, and our aged, helpless parents, come to THEE, O SIRE to seek justice and protection. We are impoverished; we are oppressed, overburdened with excessive toil, contemptuously treated . . . We are suffocating in despotism and lawlessness. O SIRE we have no strength left, and our endurance is at an end. We have reached that frightful moment when death is better than the prolongation of our unbearable sufferings . . .29
On 7 January the government ordered Gapon to call off the march and posted notices in the city centre warning of 'resolute measures' against any gatherings on the streets. Aware of the imminent tragedy, Gorky led a delegation of intellectuals to the offices of Witte and Mirsky in a vain effort to get them to negotiate with the demonstrators. But the government, which continued to entertain the illusion that it could control Gapon, was confident that force would not be required. Nicholas thought so little of the danger that he even left the capital for his palace at Tsarskoe Selo and another quiet weekend of country walks and games of dominoes. But by then the workers were far too determined to be put off by simple prohibitions. At a series of mass rallies Gapon worked them up into a hysterical religious fervour, using all the oratorical tricks of the fundamentalist preacher:
Gapon: Do the police and soldiers dare stop us from passing, comrades?
Hundreds of voices in unison: They do not dare.
Gapon: Comrades, it is better for us to die for our demands than live as
we have lived until now. Voices: We will die. Gapon: Do you swear to die? Voices: We swear! Gapon: Let the ones who swear raise their hands ...
And hundreds of people raised their hands and with their fingers made the sign of the cross.
Despite their private fears, the workers put their faith in the Tsar receiving them: they saw him as a man of God, and knew their cause was just. The soldiers would surely not fire on a peaceful demonstration. To boost the marchers' spirits it was even said that refreshments had been prepared for them inside the Winter Palace and that a parade would be held to celebrate the great occasion.30
Church bells rang and their golden domes sparkled in the sun on that Sunday morning as the long columns marched across the ice towards the centre of the city. In the front ranks were the women and children, dressed in their Sunday best, who had been placed there to deter the soldiers from shooting. At the head of the largest column was the bearded figure of Father Gapon in a long white cassock carrying a crucifix. Behind him was a portrait of the Tsar and a large white banner with the words: 'Soldiers do not shoot at the people!' Red flags had been banned.
As the column approached the Narva Gates it was suddenly charged by a squadron of cavalry. Some of the marchers scattered but others continued to advance towards the lines of infantry, whose rifles were pointing directly at them. Two warning salvoes were fired into the air, and then at close range a third volley was aimed at the unarmed crowd. People screamed and fell to the ground but the soldiers, now panicking themselves, continued to fire steadily into the mass of people. Forty people were killed and hundreds wounded as they tried to flee. Gapon was knocked down in the rush. But he got up and, staring in disbelief at the carnage around him, was heard to say over and over again: 'There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar.'31
There were similar massacres in other parts of the city. At the Troitsky Bridge, near the Peter and Paul Fortress, the marchers were mown down by gunfire and sabred by the Cossack cavalry. Gorky, who was in the crowd, recalls the death of one worker:
The dragoon circled round him and, shrieking like a woman, waved his sabre in the air . . . Swooping down from his dancing horse ... he slashed him across the face, cutting him open from the eyes to the chin. I remember the strangely enlarged eyes of the worker and . . . the murderer's face, blushed from the cold and excitement, his teeth clenched in a grin and the hairs of his moustache standing up on his elevated lip. Brandishing his tarnished shaft of steel he let out another shriek and, with a wheeze, spat at the dead man through his teeth.32
Stunned and confused, the survivors made their way to Nevsky Prospekt in a last desperate bid to reach the Palace Square. The sunshine had brought out more than the usual number of Sunday afternoon promenaders, and many of them were to witness the shocking events that followed. A huge body of cavalry and several cannons had been posted in front of the palace to prevent the marchers from moving on to the square. But the crowd, some 60,000 of them, continued to build up, swollen by students and onlookers. As news of the massacres reached them, they began to push forward, jeering at the soldiers. Some of the Guards of the Preobrazhensky Regiment were ordered to clear the crowds around the Alexandrovsky Gardens, using whips and the flats of their sabres. But when this proved unsuccessful they took up firing positions. Seeing the rifles pointed at them, the demonstrators fell to their knees, took off their caps and crossed themselves in supplication. Suddenly, a bugle sounded and the soldiers fired into the crowd. A young girl, who had climbed up on to an iron fence to get a better view, was crucified to it by the hail of bullets. A small boy, who had mounted the equestrian statue of Prince Przewalski, was hurled into the air by a volley of artillery. Other children were hit and fell from the trees where they had been perching.
When the firing finally stopped and the survivors looked around at the dead and wounded bodies on the ground there was one vital moment, the turning-point of the whole revolution, when their mood suddenly changed from disbelief to anger. 'I observed the faces around me', recalled a Bolshevik in the crowd, 'and I detected neither fear nor panic. No, the reverend and almost prayerful expressions were replaced by hostility and even hatred. I saw these looks of hatred and vengeance on literally every face — old and young, men and women.
The revolution had been truly born, and it had been born in the very core, in the very bowels of the people.' In that one vital moment the popular myth of a Good Tsar which had sustained the regime through the centuries was suddenly destroyed. Only moments after the shooting had ceased an old man turned to a boy of fourteen and said to him, with his voice full of anger: 'Remember, son, remember and swear to repay the Tsar. You saw how much blood he spilled, did you see? Then swear, son, swear!'33
Later, as the Sunday promenaders hurried home in a state of shock, the workers went on a rampage through the fashionable streets around the Winter Palace. They smashed windows, beat up policemen, threw rocks at the soldiers, and broke into the houses of the well-to-do. As darkness fell, the crowds began to build barricades in front of the Kazan Cathedral using benches, telegraph poles and furniture taken from buildings. More barricades were built in the workers' districts. Gangs went round looting liquor and gun shops. The streets were momentarily in the hands of the mob and the first red flags appeared. But these revolutionaries had no leaders and by midnight most of them had gone home.
Gapon, meanwhile, had taken refuge in Gorky's apartment. His beard was cut off, his hair cropped short and his face made up by one of Gorky's theatrical friends, who, according to the writer, 'did not quite understand the tragedy of the moment and made him look like a hairdresser or a salesman in a fashionable shop'. That evening Gorky took the revolutionary priest to a meeting at the Free Economic Society in order to dispel the growing rumours of his death. Practically the whole of the St Petersburg intelligentsia was crammed into the small building on Zabalkansky Avenue. They were outraged by the news that 'thousands' of people had been slaughtered (the true figures were probably in the region of 200 killed and 800 wounded). 'Peaceful means have failed,' the disguised figure shouted. 'Now we must go over to other means.' He appealed for money to help the 'workers' party' in its 'struggle for freedom'. Suddenly, chaos broke out in the hall as people recognized Gapon. But the priest managed to escape through a back door and returned to Gorky's apartment. There he wrote an address to his 'Comrade Workers' in which he urged them to 'tear up all portraits of the blood-sucking Tsar and say to him: Be Thou damned with all Thine August Reptilian Progeny!' Hours later, in a new disguise, Gapon fled to Finland and then abroad.34*
* At the end of January Gapon turned up in Geneva, where he fell in with the revolutionaries in exile. Their theoretical disputes were above him and, seduced by international fame, he soon left for London to write his autobiography. Having made himself a celebrity, Gapon had no more use for the revolutionary movement. In December he returned to Russia, where he supported the Witte government and even co-operated with the secret police against the socialists. In March 1906, for reasons that are unclear, he was brutally murdered by agents of the secret police, including his closest associate, who on 9 January had rescued him from the massacre at the Narva Gates.
That night Gorky wrote to his separated wife, Ekaterina, in Nizhnyi Novgorod: And so, my friend, the Russian Revolution has begun: I send you my sincere congratulations. People have died — but don't let that trouble you — only blood can change the colour of history.'35
Two days later he was arrested, along with the other members of the deputation to Witte and Mirsky on 8 January (they had foolishly left their visiting cards). All of them were charged (quite ridiculously, though it showed the extent of the regime's fears) with belonging to a 'revolutionary convention' which had planned to seize power and establish a 'provisional government'. They were imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress.36
* * * The events of 'Bloody Sunday', as 9 January became known, brought Gorky closer to the Bolsheviks. Gorky had first met Lenin in 1902 and had quickly fallen into a love-hate relationship with him. He had since been active in attracting funds for the Social Democrats from rich industrialists, such as Savva Morozov, who clearly saw the writing on the wall ('These days it is necessary to be friends with one's enemies,' Morozov had once said to the Bolshevik Krasin). Gorky's relationship with the Bolsheviks was never easy or straightforward. As with many intellectuals, his commitment to the revolution was romantic and idealist. He saw it as a vast struggle of the human spirit for freedom, brotherhood and spiritual improvement. His was essentially a humanist view, one which placed the individual at its heart, and he could never quite bring himself to accept the iron discipline or the narrow dogmatism of the Bolsheviks. 'I belong to none of our parties', he once wrote to the painter Repin, 'and I am glad of it. For this is freedom, and man is greatly in need of that.' The gipsies, gamblers, beggars and swindlers who filled the pages of his stories were all struggling in their own small way for individual freedom and dignity: they were not the representatives of an organized 'proletariat'. People struggled, classes did not struggle, that was Gorky's view. Gorky, in his own words, 'could admire but not like' wooden dogmatists like Lenin who tried to compress life's diversity into their abstract theory. Being fully human meant, in his view, loving passionately and painfully the living, sinning, and — forgive me — pitiful Russian'.37 It was almost a Christian view of human redemption through revolution (and Gorky flirted with Christianity). Such ideas were common among the radical intelligentsia. Witness the writings of Merezhkovsky (on 'Christianity without Christ'), Solovyov (on 'Godmanhood') and Bogdanov (on 'God-Building'), with whom Gorky was closely linked. During and after 1917 this contradiction between the party and the human goals of the revolution would bring Gorky into conflict with the Bolsheviks. But for the moment, in 1905, they were brought together by their common view that the workers' movement had to be radicalized. This was why Gorky, in his letter to Ekaterina, had seen some good in Bloody Sunday; the effect of the massacre would be to radicalize the mood on the streets. The workers needed something like this to shake them out of their naive belief in the existence of a benevolent Tsar. Only blood could change the colour of history. Now it was time to organize the workers and to move them away from their attachment to the liberals towards socialist goals.
There was a huge wave of strikes during the weeks after Bloody Sunday. In January alone, more than 400,000 workers downed tools across the country. It was the largest ever labour protest in Russian history. But the strikes were not really organized; they were more like a spontaneous outburst of anger; and the workers' demands were often not even formulated until after the strike had begun. The socialist parties were still much too weak to play a leading role. Their main leaders — Lenin, Martov, Trotsky, Plekhanov and Chernov — were all in exile, and although they were undoubtedly excited by what they agreed was the long-awaited start of the revolution, very few of them were in a hurry to leave the comfortable environment of their coffee houses in Geneva or Paris for the dangerous and harsh existence awaiting them back in Russia. It was only later during 1905 that they began to return and the workers rallied to the left-wing parties as they became more politicized.*
In the meantime the running continued to be made by the liberal and democratic opposition. Educated society was outraged by the massacre of Bloody Sunday. The student Kerensky, who had witnessed the shooting on Nevsky Prospekt, went home that evening and wrote a furious protest letter to his schoolfriends in the Guards. Two weeks later he wrote to his parents in Tashkent:
I am sorry not to have written to you earlier, but we have been living here in such a state of shock that it was impossible to write. Oh, 'these awful days' in Peter will remain for ever in the memory of everybody who lived through them. Now there is silence, but it is the silence before the storm. Both sides are preparing and reviewing their own forces. Only one side can prevail. Either the demands of society will be satisfied (i.e. a freely elected legislature of people's representatives) or there will be a bloody and terrible conflict, no doubt ending in the victory of the reaction.
Alexander Pasternak, a twelve-year-old schoolboy and brother of the poet to be, was so disturbed by the shootings that he declared himself to be a 'wholehearted revolutionary' and marched with his friends through his affluent St Petersburg neighbourhood shouting, 'We are Social Democrats!' Students across the country went on strike and turned their campuses into centres of political agitation. At Moscow University 3,000 students held a rally, at which they burned a portrait of the Tsar and hung red flags on the faculty buildings. By the end of February the government had been forced to close down virtually all the institutions of higher learning until the end of the academic year. Even the theological academies were affected by student disorders.38
* The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks probably had something in the region of 10,000 members each by the end of 1905, although at this early stage party membership was not clearly defined. There are no reliable figures for SR party membership in 1905. But in November 1906 there were 50,000 members, compared with a total of 40,000 members for the two Marxist factions.
Meanwhile, the zemstvo constitutionalists revived their campaign and at their Second National Congress in April called for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly. Professional unions organized themselves at a national level into a Union of Unions to rally their members behind the liberal cause. The Unions of Writers, Lawyers, Professors and Engineers were the first such unions to be formed. They were later joined (despite the opposition of some reluctant males in the leadership of the Union of Unions) by a Women's Union for Equality which campaigned for voting rights. Semi-professional groups, such as the Pharmaceutical Assistants, the Clerks and Book-keepers, and the Railway Workers and Employees, also established affiliated unions. Their participation in the Union of Unions gave the intelligentsia a direct link with the masses.* Hundreds of zemstvos, city councils and voluntary bodies sent petitions to the government demanding political reforms. The press publicized them and highlighted other grievances in a way that gave the public anger a single national voice. 'We can no longer live like this,' declared the headline of a leading liberal newspaper on 21 May, and soon everyone was repeating the phrase.39
The literary intelligentsia also sought to play a leading role. 'We have to serve the people,' Gorky admonished a fellow writer who had turned his back on politics. 'The blood of the people is being spilt, the blood of the workers, everywhere the regime is cynically killing the best people — the young Rus' — and you write only about yourself Like most of Russia's intellectuals, Gorky threw himself into politics and journalism. He had been released from the Peter and Paul Fortress after a European-wide campaign, joined by (among others) Auguste Rodin, Anatole France and Marie Curie, which lent the weight of Western opinion to the democratic cause against autocracy. Shortly after his release, on 5 March, he wrote to Tolstoy criticizing him for not involving himself more in politics:
In these grim times when blood is flowing on the soil of your country, and when hundreds and thousands of decent, honest people are dying for the right to live like human beings, instead of cattle, you whose word is heeded by the whole world, you find it possible merely to repeat once again the fundamental idea behind your philosophy: 'Moral perfection of individuals — this is the meaning and aim of life for all people'. But just think, Lev Nikolaevich, is it possible for a man to occupy himself with morally perfecting his character at a time when men and women are being shot down in the streets?40
* Since the professions had taken the lead in forming these unions, other blue-collar unions, even in Communist Russia, continued to be called 'professional unions' (profsoiuzy) rather than trade or industrial unions.
The social engagement of the writer, in which Gorky passionately believed, and which at the time of the famine crisis had made Tolstoy the country's moral conscience, was now becoming rather harder for some, like Tolstoy, to maintain. For it now obliged them to support a revolution that might itself spill the people's blood. Gorky would later come to share these doubts; but for now they were suppressed in the urgency of the revolutionary moment.
The mood of rebellion soon spread to the countryside. Seeing the government's weakness, the peasants took their chance and organized rent strikes to force the landowners to increase their wages as labourers. They trespassed on the gentry's land, felled their trees and cut their hay. By the early summer, when it became clear that the harvest had failed once again, they began to launch full-scale attacks on their estates, seizing property and setting fire to the manors, forcing the landowners to flee. Witnesses spoke of the night sky lit up by the blaze of burning manors and of lines of horse-drawn carts moving along the roads, loaded with plundered property. There was a good deal of vandalism — 'culture smashing' — as the peasants set out to destroy anything that smacked of superfluous wealth. They burned libraries, destroyed antiques and left shit on the Oriental carpets. Some villagers even took the paintings and statues, the Bohemian crystal and the English porcelain, the satin dresses and powdered wigs, which they then divided among themselves, along with the livestock, the grain and the tools. In one village the peasants broke up a grand piano, which they had hauled away from the manor, and shared out the ivory keys. Nearly 3,000 manors were destroyed (15 per cent of the total) during the Jacquerie of 1905—6. Most of the violence was concentrated in the central agricultural zone, where peasant poverty was most acute and the largest estates were located. Once the local squires had been 'smoked out', the peasants retreated into their own communal world. Local officials were replaced by the peasants, conservative priests driven out, and government laws and tax demands ignored.41
The struggle for the land was not the only form of peasant revolution in 1905—6, although because of the gentry's fears it was the main concern of official records (and has thus since dominated the historiography). Alongside the violence on the land there grew up a whole range of peasant unions, agricultural societies and co-operatives. They were generally more moderate and sophisticated in their aims and methods than the majority of traditional village communes, and they tended to attract the sort of young and 'conscious' peasants who had emerged with the spread of rural schools. Many of the peasant unions, in particular, had close connections with the local teachers and the rural intelligentsia. For these reasons, they tended to develop in the largest villages, where there were more cultural institutions, such as schools and reading-rooms, and where the peasantry was most exposed to the influence of the outside world (e.g. in the form of markets and railways, state officials and police). Some of these organizations became famous throughout Russia for establishing what were in effect independent peasant republics (for example, the Sumy Republic in Kharkov province). They espoused the ideals of political reform, of a constitution and a parliament, and of better education for the peasants, in addition to land reform. Their aim was to end the 'dark' and 'backward' ways of the villages, to bring them the benefits of the modern world, and to end their isolation by integrating them into national politics.42
Sergei Semenov, peasant, local writer and Tolstoyan from the village of Andreevskoe, was among the founders of the Markovo Republic, one of the most famous and impressive examples of progressive peasant politics during the 1905 Revolution. For the best part of a year, whilst the tsarist state was paralysed, the 'Republic' instituted a sophisticated system of 'peasant rule' in several volosts of the Volokolamsk district. It was formed by a group of activists, teachers and peasants (among them Semenov) from Markovo and other nearby villages, who had been meeting since 1901 in the reading-clubs and tea-rooms of the region to discuss the Moscow newspapers. They organized the Peasant Union, which provided the political structure of the Markovo Republic. In October 1905 a general meeting of the peasants passed a resolution calling for a radical overhaul of the whole political system. Its demands included the convocation of a national parliament, secret and universal adult suffrage, equal civil rights for the peasantry, progressive taxes, land for the landless, free and universal education, freedom of movement and a political amnesty. The peasants declared that they would not obey the existing authorities, nor pay their taxes, nor provide any army recruits, until their demands were satisfied. They elected a 'Republican Government', headed by a 'President' (one of the local commune's elders), and declared their allegiance to the Peasant Union. Local branches of the union were established — Semenov set up one in Andreevskoe — which effectively ran the villages. Rents were controlled. Agronomic measures were introduced. The volost authorities were democratized and the church schools 'nationalized'. The tsarist regime was powerless — there was no land captain and only one police sergeant in the volost — and could only watch with increasing frustration as this 'free territory' of peasant self-rule, under eighty miles from Moscow itself, continued to spread and to grow in fame. A professor from Chicago, who had read about the Republic in the US newspapers, arrived in Markovo to lend it his support. For several months the authorities tried unsuccessfully to defeat the Republic by political means. It dismissed the elected volost elder, one of the Republic's leaders, called Ryzhkov. But the Schweikian peasants counteracted this by refusing to elect a successor, while Ryzhkov declared that to his sorrow he could not relinquish his powers, because there was no one to whom he could hand them. It was only in July 1906, six months after the revolution had been put down in the cities, that this peasant republic was finally destroyed. Ryzhkov was removed by a police trick. All the villages were then raided and their leaders, Semenov among them, rounded up and imprisoned in Moscow. During his eight months as the leader of the Peasant Union in Andreevskoe, Semenov had established a new village school, an agricultural society, two co-operatives, a reading club, and, remarkably, a peasant theatre.43
The local gentry appealed for help against the peasants, and the government sent in the troops. From January to October the army was used no fewer than 2,700 times to put down peasant uprisings, accelerating the breakdown of army discipline which had begun with the despatch of the troops to Manchuria.44 It was the growing threat of a mutinous revolution at home combined with the prospect of defeat abroad — signalled by the navy's humiliation at Tsushima in May 1905 — which forced the Tsar to sue for peace with Japan. It proved impossible — as it would again in 1917 — to conduct a foreign war in the midst of a domestic social revolution. The vast majority of the infantry were peasants, and resented being used to suppress agrarian discontent. Whole units refused to carry out orders and mutinies spread through the ranks; even the Cossack cavalry was affected. And then, on 14 June, the unrest spread to the Black Sea Fleet.
It all began with a piece of maggoty meat, which the ship's doctor on board the battleship Potemkin declared was fit to eat. When the sailors complained to the captain, he had their spokesman, Vakulenchuk, shot. The crew rebelled, murdered seven officers and raised the red flag. A small group of active revolutionaries leading the mutiny hoped it would spread to the rest of the fleet. They sailed overnight to Odessa, where striking workers had been in a virtual state of war with the city government for the past two weeks. There they placed Vakulenchuk's body, surrounded by a guard of honour, at the foot of a set of marble steps (later immortalized by Eisenstein's film) leading from the harbour to the city. During the next day thousands of people gathered on the harbour front, placing wreaths around the bier of the martyred revolutionary and offering food to the sailors. As night approached troops were sent in to quell the crowd. Moving down the steps, they fired indiscriminately into the hemmed-in civilians below. Hundreds of people jumped into the sea. By dawn, when the massacre finally ended, 2,000 people had been killed and 3,000 wounded. The Potemkin set sail from Odessa but, without the support of the rest of the fleet, it was eventually forced to surrender. On 25 June the sailors docked at Constanza in Romania and exchanged the Potemkin for safe refuge.45 In itself, the mutiny had been a minor threat. But it was a major embarrassment to the regime, for it showed the world that the revolution had spread to the heart of its own military machine.
The subject nationalities of the Empire had been equally quick to take advantage of the regime's temporary weakness. The strikes and protests which followed the Bloody Sunday revolt in St Petersburg were especially intense in the non-Russian borderlands — Latvia and Poland in particular — where social and political tensions were reinforced by a widespread hatred of Russian rule. In Riga up to 15,000 workers marched through the city on 13 January in protest against the tsarist regime and the ruthlessness of the Russian Governor-General, A. N. Meller-Zakomelsky. He gave further cruel evidence of this when he ordered his soldiers to fire on the crowd. Seventy were killed and 200 injured. Meller-Zakomelsky was proud of the way his men had handled the situation and wrote to the Tsar suggesting that if more local authorities were willing to act with such decisiveness there would be no further trouble. In the ten Polish provinces there were more strikes in the spring and summer of 1905 than in the rest of the Empire combined. The textile city of Lodz was particularly turbulent: in mid-June, weeks before anything like it happened in Russia, barricades went up, and there were five days of street-fighting between workers and police. Warsaw was even more violent: up to 100,000 workers took part in demonstrations after Bloody Sunday. Russian troops fired at the crowds, killing ninety-three people, and a state of siege was declared. Later in the summer news of Russia's defeat by Japan was met by further demonstrations in the Polish capital with such slogans as 'Down with Tsarism!', Long Live an Independent Socialist Poland!' and Long Live Japan!'46 Nationalists everywhere welcomed Russia's defeat in the belief that it would bring down the Tsar and thus pave the way for their own autonomy. Pilsudski, the leader of the Polish Socialists, had even gone to Japan to discuss Polish action against Russia's war effort.
In many of these non-Russian lands virtually the whole of the population became involved in the national liberation movement. In Finland, for example, where the imposition of Russian rule had destroyed the autonomy of the Grand Duchy, there was a mass campaign of passive resistance led by the nationalist intelligentsia. Nearly everyone joined it, including the Finnish Swedes, who had enjoyed many privileges under Russia's domination which they were likely to lose under Finnish rule. The Russian Governor-General, an imperialist hardliner by the name of Bobrikov, was assassinated in 1904, and by the following year Finland was engaged in a full-scale war of passive resistance against St Petersburg. In Georgia the Mensheviks led this national revolution. Theirs was the first Marxist national-liberation movement in history to enjoy the support of the peasantry: between 1904 and 1906 it effectively replaced the tsarist state in western Georgia.
* * * With the Russian Empire teetering on the brink of collapse, the tsarist regime responded to the crisis with its usual incompetence and obstinacy. Witte called it a 'mixture of cowardice, blindness and stupidity'. The basic problem was that Nicholas himself remained totally oblivious to the extremity of the situation. While the country sank deeper into chaos he continued to fill his diary with terse and trivial notes on the weather, the company at tea and the number of birds he had shot that day. His advisers convinced him that foreign agents had been responsible for the demonstration on Bloody Sunday and he duly filled the prisons with suitable political suspects. A carefully picked delegation of 'reliable' workers was summoned to Tsarskoe Selo, where they were lined up like children to hear a short address from the Tsar, in which he blamed the workers for allowing themselves to be deceived by 'foreign revolutionaries' but promised to 'forgive them their sins' because he believed in their 'unshakeable devotion' to him. Meanwhile, the liberal Mirsky was replaced as Minister of the Interior by the decent but malleable A. G. Bulygin, who in effect took orders from his own deputy and chief of police, D. F. Trepov, a strict disciplinarian from the Horse Guards whom Nicholas liked for his straightforward, soldierly approach, and whom he had therefore allowed to become a dominant force at court. When Bulygin suggested that political concessions might be needed to calm the country, Nicholas was taken aback and told the Minister: 'One would think you are afraid a revolution will break out.' 'Your Majesty,' came the reply, 'the revolution has already begun.'47
The remark must have been enough to make Nicholas a little uncomfortable, for he soon made promises of political reform. On 18 February he issued an Imperial Manifesto and Decree, which, while condemning the disorders, acknowledged the shortcomings of the bureaucracy and summoned the 'well-meaning people of all estates' to unite behind the throne and send in ideas for 'improvements in the state organization'. Bulygin was instructed to draw up proposals for a national assembly. The Manifesto was a tactical manoeuvre, its sole purpose to buy time; there was no sign that it came from the heart. The educated circles on the whole remained sceptical. 'The main aim of this Manifesto', Kerensky wrote to his parents on 18 February, 'is to calm and silence the revolutionary movement that has just begun so that all the forces of the government can be consolidated for one purpose in the future: to prevent any of its promises from being delivered.' Indeed it was typical of the Tsar's obstinate adherence to the archaic principles of patrimonial autocracy that at such a moment he should have attempted to shift the blame for the crisis on to the bureaucracy while at the same time appealing to the direct bond between himself and his subjects. If the people had grievances, or so his Manifesto had implied, they should bring them directly to him and they would be satisfied.
And indeed in the following weeks tens of thousands of reform petitions were sent in to the Tsar from village assemblies, army regiments, towns and factories. Like the cahiers, the letters of grievance of 1789, they gave expression to the evolving language of political and social democracy. But their demands were far too radical for Nicholas. Most of them called for a national parliament with sovereign rights of legislation. Yet the sort of assembly which the Tsar had in mind — and which Bulygin finally presented for his signature on 6 August — was a purely consultative one elected on a limited franchise to ensure the domination of the nobles. This was to be a king's parliament, like the Zemskii Sobor of the seventeeth century, which was compatible with the preservation of the Tsar's own personal rule. Its main purpose, as Nicholas saw it, would be to inform him of his subjects' needs and thus enable him to rule on their behalf without the mediation of the self-aggrandizing bureaucracy.48
The Bulygin Duma was yet another example of too little too late. Six months earlier it would have been welcomed, and enabled the government to regain the political initiative. But now all but the most moderate reformers found it quite unsatisfactory. The liberal newspapers, having carefully scrutinized the complex provisions of the new electoral law, claimed that less than I per cent of St Petersburg's adult residents would qualify for the vote, while in many provincial cities the proportion would be even tinier. Despite their criticisms, the liberals chose not to boycott the Duma elections. But the Social Democrats and the radicals in the Union of Unions were now more determined than ever to use mass civil disobedience to pressurize the government into making further concessions. The culmination of their efforts was the general strike of September and October, the first general strike in history, which forced the reluctant government to concede real political reforms.
During 1905 there was a marked increase in the level of organization and militancy of the workers' strikes and protests. This was partly the result of the socialists taking over the labour movement. But it was also — and probably much more so — the result of the workers themselves becoming more class conscious and violent as their conflicts with employers and police became more bitter and intense. Gorky noted the workers' growing aggression after witnessing a clash on Znamenskaya Square in St Petersburg in early September. An officer struck a soldier in the street, and an angry crowd of workers gathered to defend the soldier. They tore the epaulettes from the officer's uniform and, so Gorky thought, would have killed him too had it not been for the timely intervention of the police and Cossacks. 'The crowd conducted itself with remarkable simplicity and openness,' Gorky wrote to Ekaterina, 'they said and chanted everything they wanted right there and then in front of the police and in general displayed a great deal of moral strength and even tact. There is a world of difference between this crowd and the supplicant people of 9 January.'49
Not all the violence in the cities was the result of the growing militancy of the labour movement. There was a marked increase in all forms of violence, from muggings and murders to drunken riots and vandalism, as law and order broke down. Indeed, as the police withdrew from the scene, so the public added to the violence by forming groups of vigilantes and lynching criminals in the streets. Every day the press reported dozens of these cases of 'mob law' (samosud), along with robberies and murders. Mobs of a different kind went round the streets beating up students and well-dressed passers-by. There were pogroms against Jews. In short, the whole country seemed locked into a downward spiral of violence and anarchy. As the US Consul in Batumi reported:
[Russia] is permeated with sedition and reeking with revolution, racial hatred and warfare, murder, incendiarism, brigandage, robbery and crime of every kind ... As far as can be seen we are on the high road to complete anarchy and social chaos . . . One of the worst signs is that the public under this long reign of anarchy and crime is growing callous and the news of the murder of an acquaintance or friend is, by the bulk of the population, received with indifference whilst cases of brigandage are looked upon as being quite in the ordinary course of events.50
Because of the preoccupation of many historians with the organized labour movement — and their seduction by the Soviet myth of the armed workers on the barricades — the role of this everyday criminal violence in the revolutionary crowd has been either ignored or, even more misleadingly, confused with the violence of industrial war. Yet the closer one looks at the crowds on the streets, the harder it becomes to distinguish clearly between organized forms of protest — the marching workers with banners and songs — and criminal acts of looting and violence. The one could easily — and often did — break down into the other. It was not just a question of 'hooligans' or criminals joining in labour protests or taking advantage of the chaos they created to vandalize, assault and loot. Such acts seem to have been an integral element of labour militancy, a means of asserting the power of the plebeian crowd and of despoiling and destroying symbols of wealth and privilege. What the frightened middle classes termed 'hooliganism' — mob attacks on the well-to-do and on figures of authority, looting and vandalism, drunken brawling and rioting — could just as easily be categorized as 'revolutionary acts'. And in part that is what they were: the revolutionary violence of 1905—17 was expressed in just these sorts of act. It was driven by the same feelings of hatred for the rich and all figures of authority, by the same desire of the poor and the powerless to assert themselves and claim the streets as their own. From the perspective of the propertied there was very little to distinguish between the 'rough' and 'rude' behaviour of the 'hooligans' — their cocky way of dressing, their drunkenness and vulgar language, their 'insolence' and licence' — and the behaviour of the revolutionary crowd.51 Even the most organized labour protests could, on the slightest provocation, break down into violence and looting. It was to become a major problem for all the revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks in particular, who tried to use the violence of the crowd for their own political ends. Such violence was a double-edged sword and could lead to anarchy rather than controlled revolutionary force. This was the lesson the Bolsheviks would learn during the July and October Days in 1917 — outbursts of violence which were far removed from the Soviet image of heroic proletarian power.
If, however, there was some genuine inspiration for the Soviet myth of the factory worker, gun in hand, fighting for the revolution on the barricades, then that was the general strike of 1905. For it was the classic example of a spontaneous yet disciplined uprising of the working class. It began on 20 September with a walk-out by the Moscow printers — the most educated group of workers — for better pay and conditions. The strikers made contact with the students and held a mass street demonstration, which was attacked by the police. The workers threw stones at the police, smashed shop windows, overturned benches and knocked down trees to make barricades. By the start of October the printers of St Petersburg and several other cities had come out in solidarity with their comrades: middle-class homes went without their newspapers for several weeks. Then the railway workers came out on strike. The Union of Railway Employees and Workers was affiliated to the Union of Unions, which had been discussing the idea of a general political strike to further its campaign for political reform since the summer. By 10 October virtually the entire railway network had come to a halt. Millions of other workers — factory, shop and transport workers, bank and office employees, hospital staff, students, lecturers, even the actors of the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg — came out in support of what had become in effect a national strike against the autocracy. The cities were brought to a standstill. All transport stopped. The lights went out at night. Telegraphs and telephones ceased to work. Shops were closed and their windows boarded up. Food became scarce. Robberies and looting exploded out of control. The gentry and the bourgeoisie took fright at the breakdown of law and order. When the Moscow water system began to malfunction there was panic; rumours spread that the strikers had deliberately contaminated the water. Workers, students and professionals joined together in demonstrations against the authorities. Many ended in the hasty building of barricades and in violent clashes with the police and Cossacks. The political demands of the demonstrators were remarkably uniform — the convocation of a constituent assembly elected by universal suffrage — which was a sign of the co-ordinating role played by the Union of Unions as well as the increased discipline and organization of the workers themselves.52
This last had much to do with the Petersburg Soviet. The word 'soviet' means 'council' in Russian and the Petersburg Soviet was really no more than an ad hoc council of workers established to direct the general strike. It owed its origins partly to the Union of Unions, which first came up with the idea, and partly to the Mensheviks, who took the lead in organizing the workers at factory level. On 17 October 562 factory deputies, most of them metalworkers, assembled in the building of the Free Economic Society and elected an executive of fifty members, including seven delegates from each of the three main socialist parties (Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and SRs). From the beginning it assumed the tatus and form — which it would assume again in 1917 — of a workers' government and an alternative source of power to the tsarist authorities. It organized the strikes, published its own newspaper, Izvestiia, which the workers eagerly read, established a militia, saw to the distribution of food supplies, and by its example inspired workers in fifty other cities to set up Soviets of their own. The Mensheviks dominated the Petersburg Soviet. They saw it as the embodiment of their ideology. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, were mistrustful of working-class initiatives and hostile to the idea of the Soviet as an independent workers' council, although this no doubt had something to do with the fact that they themselves had very little influence over it. Not even Lenin, who returned from exile in early November, got to speak in the Soviet, although there is still a desk in the building that housed the workers' council with a plaque on it claiming that he did.53
The nominal chairman of the Soviet Executive was the lawyer (and future Menshevik) G. S. Khrustalev-Nosar. But Leon Trotsky was the real force behind it. He framed its resolutions and wrote the editorials for Izvestiia. After Khrustalev-Nosar's arrest on 26 November, he also became its chairman. Trotsky had been the first of the major socialist leaders to return from exile after Bloody Sunday. He lived under various guises, including that of a patient in an eye hospital, where he had written revolutionary proclamations from his bed as the nurses gave him foot-baths. During the general strike he had emerged in the Soviet under the name of Yanovsky, the village where he was born. His support for a working-class insurrection and his brilliant journalistic attacks on the liberals had certainly brought him closer to the Bolshevik wing of the Social Democrats since the great party schism of 1903. Yet in essence he remained a revolutionary Menshevik and, as George Denike later recalled, it was he more than anyone else who 'stood for Menshevism' at this stage.54
The Tsar's advisers now looked to Count Witte to save the country from disaster. Yet Nicholas himself remained quite impassive. He spent most of his time that autumn hunting. 'The tragic aspect of the situation', remarked a courtier in his diary on I October, 'is that the Tsar is living in an utter fool's paradise, thinking that He is as strong and all-powerful as before.' On 9 October Witte was finally received in the Winter Palace. With brutal frankness he told Nicholas that the country was on the verge of a cataclysmic revolution which would 'sweep away a thousand years of history'. The Tsar had one of two choices: either to appoint a military dictator or introduce major reforms. Witte outlined the needed reforms in a memorandum arguing for a Manifesto, which he had brought with him: the granting of civil liberties; a constitutional order; cabinet government; and a legislative Duma elected on a democratic franchise. It was in effect the political programme of the Liberation Movement. His aim was clearly to isolate the Left by pacifying the liberals. He stressed that repression could only be a temporary solution, and a risky one at that, for the loyalty of the armed services was in doubt and if they were used to put down the general strike they might fall apart altogether. Most of the Tsar's senior military advisers agreed with Witte, as did Trepov, the Governor of St Petersburg, whose influence at court was now paramount. Nicholas remained unconvinced and asked his uncle, the Grand Duke Nikolai, to assume the role of dictator. But the Grand Duke, an excitable and outspoken man, took out a revolver and threatened to shoot himself there and then if the Tsar refused to endorse Witte's memorandum. The Empress would henceforth always blame the Grand Duke for Russia's 'constitution'. His coup de theatre was certainly the decisive factor in her husband's change of mind, for the Grand Duke was the one man capable of playing the role of dictator and it was only when he took the side of reform that it finally dawned on the Tsar that repression was no longer an option and he agreed to sign the Manifesto. 'My dear Mama,' he wrote to the Empress Maria two days later on 19 October, 'you can't imagine what I went through before that moment . . . From all over Russia they cried for it, they begged for it, and around me many — very many — held the same views . . . There was no other way out than to cross oneself and give what everyone was asking for.'55
From the start, then, the Tsar was reluctant in the extreme to play the role of a constitutional monarch. The image of Nicholas as an 'enlightened Tsar' who 'introduced democracy to Russia' could not be further from the truth, although it is one that apologists for the tsarist regime as well as peddlers of nostalgia in post-Soviet Russia would have us accept. For an autocrat like Nicholas, who saw himself as ruling from the throne in the good old Byzantine tradition, there could have been no deeper humiliation than to be forced by a bureaucrat like Witte (who was merely a 'businessman' and, moreover, a former railway clerk') to grant his subjects the rights of citizenship. Not even the eventual act of abdication in 1917 — which he said he had signed so as not to be forced to relinquish his coronation oath to uphold the principles of autocracy — was such a bitter pill to him. Witte later claimed that the court set out to use his Manifesto as a temporary concession and that it had always intended to return to its old autocratic ways once the danger passed.56 He was almost certainly correct. By the spring of 1906 the Tsar was already going back on the promises he made the previous October, claiming that the Manifesto had not in fact placed any limits on his own autocratic prerogatives, only on the bureaucracy.
The Manifesto's proclamation was met with jubilation in the streets. Despite the rainy weather, huge numbers of people converged in front of the Winter Palace with a large red flag bearing the inscription 'Freedom of Assembly'. As they must have been aware, they had at last managed to do what their fellow subjects had failed to do on 9 January. Bloody Sunday had not been in vain, after all. In Moscow 50,000 people gathered in front of the Bolshoi Theatre. Officers and society ladies wore red armbands and sang the Marseillaise in solidarity with the workers and students. The general strike was called off, a partial political amnesty was proclaimed, and there was a euphoric sense that Russia was now entering a new era of Western constitutionalism The whole country, in the words of one liberal, 'buzzed like a huge garden full of bees on a hot summer's day'57 The newspapers were filled with daring editorials and hideous caricatures of the country's rulers, as the old censorship laws ceased to function. There was a sudden boom in pornography, as the limits of the new laws were tested. In Kiev, Warsaw and other capitals of the Empire, a flood of new publications appeared in the language of the local population as Russification policies were suspended. Political meetings were held in the streets, in squares and in parks, in all public places, as people no longer feared arrest. A new and foreign-sounding word was now invented — mitingovanie — to describe the craze for meetings displayed by these newborn citizens. Nevsky Prospekt became a sort of Speakers' Corner, a people's parliament on the street, where orators would stand on barrels, or cling to lamp-posts, and huge crowds would instantly gather to listen to them and grab the leaflets which they handed out. Socialist leaders returned from exile. New political parties were formed. People talked of a new Russia being born. These were the first heady days of freedom.