|Russia 1905: Dress Rehearsal for Revolution
ViewTrack.By Alan Wood | Published in History Today Volume: 31 Issue: 8 1981
Alan Wood argues that the real significance of 1905 lies not so much in what was achieved as in the portents provided for the achievements of the future.
'The Revolution Is Dead! Long Live the Revolution!' Such was Leon Trotsky's defiantly prophetic comment on the suppression of the industrial, agrarian and military upheavals which racked the Russian Empire three-quarters of a century ago. The heroic but bloody events of 1905, however, despite their traditional designation as 'the first Russian revolution' and despite the lame constitutional reforms wrung from a reluctant and craven autocracy, cannot be described as a full-fledged revolution in the proper meaning of the term. True, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to agree to the inauguration of Russia's first quasi-parliamentary institution – the State Duma; true also that political parties were for the first time allowed a legal existence and near total freedom of the press and other civil liberties were now formally guaranteed. For the next decade, educated society at any rate was able to enjoy the benefits of what has been described as 'the most remarkable period of political and intellectual freedom in Russia's history'. But this did not add up to revolution. The whirlwind of strikes, demonstrations, riots and mutinies which had swept across Russia in 1905 left most of her social, political and economic institutions intact. The activities of Duma politicians notwithstanding, there was no real devolution of political power, which still rested in the hands of an irresolute Emperor and his appointed ministers; there was no realignment of the rigidly hierarchical class structure of Russian society and no radical redistribution of wealth or property; not one of the non-Russian peoples of the Empire gained its independence from Russia, and the combined forces of the bureaucracy, the military and the police re-established 'public order' over an exhausted population, ably supported by the pogroms and the militant thuggery of the Black Hundreds.
The real historical significance of 1905, then, lies not so much in what it achieved, as in the portents it provided for the achievements of the future. It was the spontaneous prelude to the revolutionary consummation of 1917, or, to borrow Leon Trotsky's theatrical image, 'a dress rehearsal for revolution'. The image, of course, is not exact, in so far as in 1917 history was to rewrite the ending, and the victors of 1905 became the vanquished. However, at both performances, as it were, the same dramatis personae played out their tragic roles, using the same props against a similar backdrop of defeat in international war, and supported by a cast of millions.
The stage for the drama of 1905 was well prepared. After the industrial boom of the 1890s came the slump. Russia's economy flagged and the ever-mounting wave of strikes in the early years of the century began to take on a more obvious political tinge. At the organisational level, however, delegates to the second congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party, held in London in 1903, failed to forge a united party of the proletariat, and instead created the fissure in its ranks and its ideology that was to widen into the fateful and unbridgeable breach between Menshevism and Bolshevism.
In the Russian countryside after decades of relative calm, peasant violence flared once more as the rural population sought to wrest for itself the 'land and liberty' which had been denied by the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, and for which the narodnik revolutionaries had nobly but wrong-headedly fought in the 1870s. Their ideological heirs, the Socialist Revolutionaries, formed themselves into a political party in 1900, and while continuing to agitate for the socialisation of Russian agriculture, carried out through its Fighting Detachments a series of spectacular political assassinations, starting with that of the Minister of Education, Bogolepov, in 1901. In the following year, Sipyagin, Minister of the Interior, who was responsible for the law and order of the whole Empire, was shot to death by a twenty-year-old student. His successor, the notoriously ruthless and reactionary von Plehve, was blown to pieces by a bomb in July, 1904, much to the satisfaction of even those sections of Russian society which deplored such methods.
While these and many other individual acts of terror proved politically futile, they were nevertheless symptomatic of the mounting tensions within Russian society and the people's growing frustration with government policies. The outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in January, 1904, with its attendant manifestations of primitive patriotism, did nothing to deflect popular attention from domestic grievances, and now, not only the revolutionaries, but also zemstva politicians and members of the professional middle classes began to stir, and flex the flabby muscles of Russian liberalism.
The appointment of the gentlemanly Svyatopolk-Mirsky as the new Minister of the Interior in August, 1904, inaugurated a brief flirtation between government and people, during which various professional associations took the opportunity of holding a series of commemorative banquets at which after-dinner speeches turned into defiant statements of political opposition. This may have been a rather self-indulgent form of political agitation, but it provided, in the absence of any other public forum, a platform from which the democratic aspirations of the liberal intelligentsia could be voiced among the disharmonious chorus of discontent echoing throughout the Empire.
In the early days of 1905, therefore, the highly charged political atmosphere of Russia needed only a tiny spark to set off a chain reaction of explosions which would shake the Tsarist régime to its foundations. That spark was provided, significantly, by the industrial workers of St. Petersburg, though initially from an unexpected source.
At the turn of the century an experiment in so-called 'police trade-unionism', inspired by the Chief of the Moscow Security Department, S. Zubatov, had attempted to direct the restless factory workers' legitimate economic grievances into peaceful, patriotic channels by setting up officially sponsored workers' benevolent and educational associations, at first with full government approval. The whole operation, not surprisingly, back-fired, and Zubatov was dismissed in 1903. In the winter of the same year Father George Gapon, a young priest from a working-class district of St. Petersburg, sought, and obtained, police permission to set up a similar organisation called the Assembly of Russian Factory Workers. The Assembly's membership grew rapidly, and when in December four of its number were sacked from the huge Putilov factory, sympathetic strikes demanding their reinstatement soon spread from plant to plant. As thousands more workers downed tools throughout the capital in response to the management's intransigence, more complicated issues, some of them narrowly parochial, others overtly and provocatively political, began to enter the list of the striker's demands. In an attempt to defuse the situation, Gapon hit on the idea of marching in peaceful procession upon the Winter Palace, and there presenting a humble petition from His Majesty's aggrieved though loyal subjects to the 'little father Tsar'.
The demonstration was arranged for Sunday, January 9th, 1905. Knowing that some kind of confrontation was likely, but believing that the authorities would stop short of bloodshed, thousands of unarmed workers, accompanied by wives and children, many carrying sacred icons, patriotic slogans and portraits of the Tsar, began to converge from different parts of the city on Palace Square in front of the royal residence. (Nicholas, already assured by his police and military authorities that there would be no trouble, was not at home, but safely ensconced in the imperial country estate at Tsarskoe Selo.) Overnight, police and troops had sealed the bridges and thrown up barricades. Reinforcements had been drafted in from provincial garrisons. Still trusting naively in the compassion of the Tsar, the marchers demanded that the military cordon be lifted and the way made clear for their mission. Then pandemonium broke out. Shots were fired; cossacks slashed their sabres and their whips; mounted uhlans charged the crowds; the barricades were overrun and sympathetic onlookers joined the throng now rushing, lemming-like, to its fate in Palace Square. The regiments of the Tsar were at the ready. Throughout the afternoon and until dusk guards and cossacks swept through the streets, squares and public gardens, firing indiscriminately into the now angry and embittered mob. Official statistics, eyewitness accounts and the calculations of later historians have never established the precise number of casualties. Estimates vary from the absurdly low initial government figure of seventy-six dead and two hundred and thirty-three wounded to the British Daily Mail’s report of thirty thousand casualties. Other foreign press reports, notably the French, were even more exaggerated, but whatever the actual numbers, the effects at home and abroad were the same. The butchery of Bloody Sunday shocked the world.
In Russia itself the great sense of horror and revulsion following the carnage soon engulfed the entire nation and impelled it to widespread manifestations of popular grief and indignation against the guilty Tsar. Disaffection was no longer the preserve of striking workers or radical intellectuals. The whole of Russian society was roused, and anti-government feelings ran high, even among hitherto loyal sections of the community. In the words of Boris Pasternak,
The joints Of oaths Were torn Apart,
Oaths to the dynasty
During the first weeks after Bloody Sunday more than half-a-million workers were on strike in industrial centres throughout the country – more than the total number of strikers over the previous decade. From Warsaw, Kharkov, Kiev, Minsk, Tiflis, Saratov and Kazan came news of stoppages, demonstrations and calls for the overthrow of autocracy. Although the movement of protest was at first confined to the towns, it involved not only the factory proletariat, but also managers, merchants and manufacturers along with thousands of the most articulate members of Russian society, academics, doctors, lawyers, students, local politicians from the zemstva and the municipalities – all of them joining in the nationwide clamour for atonement and reform. In the non-Russian areas of the Empire, political tension was exacerbated by strong nationalist emotions, provoking violent clashes with authority, and in Georgia, Poland and the Baltic provinces local versions of Bloody Sunday were grimly re-enacted.
Nicholas's reaction to the crisis was typically equivocal and ineffectual. Svyatopolk-Mirsky was replaced at the Ministry of the Interior by a safe, conservative bureaucrat named Bulygin who was tainted neither with the bad reputation of von Plehve nor the relative mildness of Mirsky, and could be relied on loyally and resolutely to implement the Emperor's will, whatever that might be. St. Petersburg itself was placed under the military governorship of General Trepov, ex-police chief of Moscow and a man with the reputation of an unflinching disciplinarian. On January 19th, the Tsar agreed to receive a carefully vetted delegation of St. Petersburg workers at Tsarskoe Selo. He chided them for having been led astray by treacherous men, assured them that he had their best interests at heart and finally urged them with God's blessing to return obediently to their honest labours. Needless to say, they were not impressed.
In early February two events moved the Tsar to consider taking action. In the Far East, Russian troops were bogged down in the disastrous battle of Mukden, the prelude to their ultimate defeat. At home, on February 4th the Tsar's uncle, Grand-Duke Sergei, was assassinated by a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, a grim reminder of the royal family's unpopularity. Finally impressed by the urgency of the situation, two weeks later Nicholas issued a rescript to the new Minister of the Interior ordering him to prepare legislation which would lead to the election of some kind of representative, consultative assembly. For the Romanov Tsar of All the Russias to make such a concession to popular participation in the deliberative processes of law-making even two months previously would have been considered quite unthinkable. Hut the whole temper of the country was now changed to such an extent that the announcement met with little response, except to spur liberals and revolutionaries alike to intensify their activities and raise the level of their demands. A consultative assembly was no longer sufficient. Universal suffrage and a constituent assembly with the right to legislate and draft a constitution was now the adopted policy of the liberal Union of Unions, founded in May, and later endorsed by the conference of zemstvo representatives and the newly established Peasants' Union.
The industrial and political unrest was now spreading to the villages and, ominously, to the armed forces. The rural disorders ranged from individual acts of insubordination and refusal to pay taxes, to illicit tree-felling, seizure of livestock and property, and to the wholesale sacking and burning of the landlords' mansions and estates. All over Russia the flames of the 'red cockerel' once more lit the sky. By and large the authorities could rely on the loyalty of its troops to :rush the risings and exact reprisals on the peasant insurgents, but the spirit of mutiny was abroad and soon began to haunt even the barrack rooms and lower decks. In May, after a six-months voyage from the Baltic, the Russian fleet was sent to the bottom of the Tsushima straits and the disastrous war with Japan was at an end. A month later the crew of the celebrated battleship Potemkin rose up against their officers of the Black Sea fleet, and threatened to bombard the city of Odessa which was then in the grip of a general strike and murderous battles in the streets. With one minor exception the rest of the fleet maintained position, the urban resistance ashore was crushed, and Russia's most alarming naval mutiny to date petered out in confusion and lack of nerve. Elsewhere, at Sebastopol, Kronstadt and along the Trans-Siberian railway, other abortive military rebellions were to occur, puncturing the confident assumption that Russia's armed forces would never falter in the defence of Tsarism, and providing menacing, if isolated, portents of their crucial role in 1917.
By now the only civilian support that the government could rely on was provided by the ultra-nationalist gangs of the Black Hundreds and their associated bully-boys who took advantage of the turmoil to indulge in their brutal, patriotic practices of Jew-baiting and beating up students, strike-leaders, and left-wing politicians. (Nicholas himself was later to accept the honorary insignia of their newly founded political organisation, the avowedly anti-Semitic Union of the Russian People.)
Against this background of military humiliation and civil ferment, on August 6th the Emperor promulgated the so-called Bulygin manifesto containing details of the elected assembly first promised in February. However, amid the explosive fireworks of this most traumatic of Russian social upheavals in centuries, Bulygin's document turned out to be a damp squib. Armed with absolutely no legislative powers, elected on a franchise so rigged as to ensure the representation of only the most conservative elements of Russian society, and debarring great geographical areas of the Empire (including the whole of Siberia, except the city of Irkutsk) from the vote, Bulygin's proposed assembly was quite inadequate to meet the political exigencies of the day. In the factories, in the universities and in the liberals' meeting halls the manifesto was rejected as at best an irrelevance, at worst an insult.
Events were reaching fever pitch and once more it was the industrial workers who provided the impetus for some of the most important and decisive episodes in the whole drama of 1905. Towards the end of' September, printers and bakery workers in Moscow refused to print or bake. This renewed wave of industrial action quickly generated sufficient discontent in other sectors of the economy to precipitate a general strike which rapidly paralysed communications, isolated the capital and brought the administration of the entire nation to a complete standstill. A prominent role was played by the railway workers of Moscow, nerve centre of the country's communication network, soon to be followed by the telegraph operators, typographical workers and other vital transmission belts of the nation's economic and political life. Non-industrial institutions, including schools, pharmacies, hospitals and the courts of law, closed down as the seemingly helpless régime floundered in the face of that most formidable weapon in the arsenal of civil confrontation, the political general strike.
It would be wrong however to conclude that there was any concerted leadership or organisational structure to the movement. The revolutionary parties, no less than the government, had been thrown off guard by the speed and scope of events since Bloody Sunday; most of their leaders were in any case exiled or abroad and their parties riven by internal doctrinal rivalries. Among the opposition there was broad agreement on a number of economic and political objectives such as the summoning of a constituent assembly, political amnesty and the introduction of the eight-hour day, but beyond that there existed no co-ordinated plan of action nor jointly articulated programme of reform. The Great October Strike was a powerful expression of the whole people's pent-up anger and frustration at the political inaction of an intellectually and administratively bankrupt régime.
Out of the chaos however there emerged the embryo of a political organism that was destined to play a fateful and decisive role in the history of Russia's ensuing revolutionary development and add a new word to the political vocabulary of the world in the St. Petersburg Soviet. At first consisting of only a handful of elected workers' delegates, in a short while the membership of this self-styled workers' parliament reached over five hundred, and for a few heady weeks directed the activities of the city's proletarian masses in open defiance of the government and the owners of industry. Although the predominant influence in the Soviet was Menshevik, almost all left-wing and liberal groupings recognised its short-lived authority and on the whole supported its programme.
The first edition of its broadsheet, Izvestiya , printed by sympathetic typesetters on the commandeered presses of 'bourgeois' or even pro-government newspapers, appeared on October 17th. On. the same day, after reluctantly abandoning the idea of beating the country into submission by the appointment of a military dictator, Nicholas put his name to an Imperial decree which established civil liberties, greatly widened the franchise for the promised elections to the State Duma, held out the prospect of universal suffrage and laid down the 'inviolable rule' that henceforth no law would be enacted without the consent of the new assembly, The political concessions contained in the document went against the grain of Nicholas's own autocratic philosophy and appeared to represent a triumph for the forces of democratic reform. Far from settling the disturbances, however, the 'October manifesto' marked the beginning of one of the most violent phases of the revolutionary period since Bloody Sunday.
Throughout November a recrudescence of strikes, peasant risings, nationalist agitation and military mutinies convinced the Tsar and his revamped Council of Ministers that conciliation must be tempered by repression. Punitive expeditions were dispatched into the countryside and the rebellious peasants flogged into docility; police and workers clashed in open, armed confrontation; strikes were met with lockouts; vicious pogroms terrorised the Jewish Pale, while troops and gendarmes implemented Trepov's callous command, 'Fire no blanks and spare no bullets'. Finally on December 3rd the headquarters of the St. Petersburg Soviet was surrounded and its leaders placed under arrest, later to be tried and sent into Siberian exile. The so-called 'Days of Freedom' were, it seemed, at an end. The last violent scene however was played out in Moscow, where calls for another general strike and an armed uprising against the government led to days of bitter street warfare. Until the middle of December Moscow was effectively in the throes of a violent civil war. Many hundreds died in the fighting or were summarily shot after street courts martial. Thousands more were arrested, tried and driven into exile. Only after regiments of guards, reinforced by powerful artillery bombardment, had reduced the working-class Presnya district to smouldering ruins was the strike called off, the insurgency crushed and the revolutionary energies of the population curbed.
The Tsarist régime, then, had survived the first dramatic confrontation with its revolutionary people. The dress-rehearsal for revolution was over, and Russia entered into a period of uneasy experimentation with the political absurdity of constitutional autocracy a concept which proved to be a contradiction in terms. But none of the deeper, underlying causes of popular discontent was satisfactorily tackled under the new dispensation. Dumas were dismissed; civil liberties ignored; agrarian reforms were offset by continuing rural unrest which in turn was visited with merciless reprisals. On the other hand, educated and literate society, much of it frightened by the revolutionary excesses of the rabble during 1905, was for a while able to indulge its tastes for civil and intellectual freedom. Russian thought and letters briefly flourished as the intelligentsia enjoyed its last fling before autocracy tottered and collapsed. The grave injustices and contradictions of Russian society, however, could not be conjured away by Duma deputies or intellectual debate. The Russian people were soon to take the matter once more into their own hands. This time, in 1917, the powerful figure of Lenin, merely a spear-carrying extra in the tragedy of 1905, was to grasp the sword and guide the revolution along the uncharted path of Bolshevism.