At the turn of the twentieth century, Russia was a curious society, still stratified into nobility and peasantry. The Russian people seemed to be as immovable as the dark ground which they farmed, welded to the ground by centuries of struggle. While the Europeans fought political battles, the Russians wrestled against the cold and starvation.
Four decades earlier, Czar Alexander II signed the “Emancipation Manifesto” which freed the serfs from ownership by the nobles.1 He had hoped to finally bring Russia out of the dark ages. His bureaucracy continued to elevate the peasants by making all classes of society equal under the law and increasing the availability of education. Nevertheless, the Dark People of Russia remained in their darkness, understanding little besides their own existence in the context of their communes. The commune oriented nature of the Russian peasants made Russia a prime target for Marxist revolutionaries.
The uniquely backward culture of Russia spawned a singularly Russian form of Marxism, Narodnichestvo. Russian intellectuals of the 19th century felt that the socialist revolution must come from the uprising of the rural peasant masses, rather than through the proletariat of the cities. The peasants were remarkably unreceptive to revolutionary agitators. They were blind to events outside of their own commune. More often than not, the agitators were run out of town by suspicious peasants. By 1900, the remnants of the Narodonik philosophy had melted into the Social Republican party.
The “Emancipation Manifesto” had marked the beginning of the end for the nobility. Deprived of their serfs and unable to gain any power in the government, the Nobles were forced to sell off their land, little by little, to support their lifestyle. For a government supported by nothing more than the momentum of history and tradition, the decline of the nobility foreshadowed the destruction of the autocracy. At the turn of the century, the Czar had very little support outside his own bureaucracy. Young Nicholas II, heir to the throne in the late 1800’s, inspired hope in those rallying for governmental reform.
Zemstvos and volosts, local governments elected by nobles and peasants, hoped that Nicholas would at least allow these legislatures to have an advisory function for the Czar. 5 They were sadly disappointed once Nicholas II ascended the throne. Upon the death of Alexander III, the zemstvo of Tver petitioned Nicholas II to allow local representative bodies “to express their opinion on questions of concern to them, in order that. . . the Russian people might reach the height of the throne. . .”. Nicholas replied, “I am extremely astonished and displeased with this inappropriate ’emarcheellipses”
To add injury to insult, more than 2000 people were trampled to death early one morning in a massive gathering of over 700,000 people for the coronation festivities. Nicholas II did not let this tragedy interrupt his celebration, against the bitter opposition of other members of the royal family. Despite the disappointment of the intellectuals and the bloody coronation, Nicholas II remained popular with the general population. Tight control of printed material and a diligent campaign to send revolutionaries into Siberian exile led most Socialist groups into decline.
The Social Republicans, with a faith in the popular will of the people, we’re able to inspire nothing beyond the assassination of minor officials. This terrorism worked against their political goals, by giving the government reason to increase its crack down on the organization (it also inspired a once-popular phrase among Russian chess-players for poor chess moves, “polythene khuze gubernatorskoe”, which is literally, “that position is worse than that of a governor). What was to become the most successful Socialist party, the Social Democrats, arose out of an underground organization set up to distribute the Marxist newspaper, Iskra (“The Spark”).
Among its chief editors were Lenin and Plekhanov. The Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party officially began with a congress held in Brussels, in 1903. Dramatic differences of opinion as to how the party should operate soon arose, and a second congress was convened in London. Out of this, the party essentially split into Mensheviks (the minority) and Bolsheviks (“Majority Men”). While the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks struggled to unite the Social Democrats, Nicholas II was busy insulting Japan, hoping to start a war. Nicholas allowed the advice of his more competent advisors to be drowned out by the flattery of his incompetent uncle, the Viceroy of the Far East and by vain imperial ambitions.
The cautious and competent Minister of the Interior, Witte was replaced by the more agreeable Pleve, an experienced policeman. Nicholas allowed tension to develop until Japan had no other choice than to go to war. Pleve felt that a “small victorious war” would arouse patriotism and help relieve domestic pressures. Unfortunately, Russia’s single-track, Trans-Siberian railroad could not provide sufficient supplies across 5,500 miles. Furthermore, it was still over a year from completion.
The Czar’s ministers eventually convinced Nicholas that war with Japan would be a disaster, but it was too late to stop. News of Japan’s attack on the Russian fleet reversed whatever momentum the revolutionaries had been building. Rumors began circulating that the Japanese fleet had been sunk. A large group of students from St. Petersburg University marched to the Winter Palace, serenading the Czar with hymns of “God Save the Czar” and “Holy Russia”, interspersed with cheers, “Hail to the Russian Army”, “Long Live Russia” and “Hail to the Czar”. From there, the procession marched through St. Petersburg, gathering support from all classes of society and walks of life. These patriotic demonstrations spread through other cities, uniting the country in a common emotion. The Czar was not aware of his unanimous support. He was caught up in the midst of the dire predictions of his advisors, warning him that this war may cost him his throne.
Where Nicholas II was unaware of the national sentiment, the leaders of the Social Democrats were doubly so. Lenin became the leader of the Bolsheviks, hoping to unite the party in a military power structure, comprised by only completely devoted revolutionaries. Trotsky leads the Mensheviks, promoting a more open party, permissive of discussion and debate within itself. The debate between Lenin and Trotsky employed all of their energies. Mention of the Russo-Japanese War is all but absent from Lenin’s writings. The battle between the two factions became so severe that Lenin had a nervous breakdown. Lenin spent the critical months of the war hiking on deserted trails in Switzerland. 16 To state it kindly, the war did not go well for the Czar. The Baltic fleet was sent to reinforce the Pacific fleet. They were delayed by the long trip around Africa. War with Britain was narrowly avoided after the fleet accidently sunk a group of British fishing boats in the North Sea, mistaking them for Japanese torpedo boats.
When the fleet finally arrived in the Pacific, there was nowhere to refuel or to clean the hulls. 17 One after another, Russian ships were sunk or critically damaged by Japanese torpedoes. 18 Russian strategy was foiled by the early death of a series of admirals. The patriotic mood of the Russian people did not last long when the truth of the war became clear. Witte, the ex-Minister of the Interior, was called upon to negotiate a settlement with the Japanese. He managed to end Russia’s humiliation quickly, with only a minor loss of territory to the Japanese. Rural peasants remained indifferent to national affairs. They could not be made to hate anything that they could not see. Revolutionaries were forced to recognize that revolution from below, from the unanimous uprising of the dark masses, would be impossible. Lenin realized that the workers in the cities were his only hope.
He toiled to accomplish the revolution by any means possible, even if it meant sacrificing ideals in the short term. Discontent with the Czar’s leadership increased greatly in the cities, during the Russo-Japanese war. The largely defunct Bolshevik organization in St. Petersburg blossomed with new members. Most dramatic, however, was the incredible development of the movement lead by a monk, known as Father Gapon. Beginning in 1902, the police had been trying to promote the organization of unions. Trepov, the police chief, theorized that by focusing the attention of the workers against capatilists and bourgeoisie, the anti-government sentiment would be quelled. Father Gapon began his career as a pawn of the police. After the war, his movement gathered enough strength to exist without police support. When four members of Gapon’s union were fired and the company refused to negotiate, a massive strike snowballed through St. Petersburg. Gapon instantly became the movement’s charismatic and independent leader.
Between January 3rd and 7th, 1905, St. Petersburg was paralyzed by Gapon’s strike, involving between 140,000 and 150,000 people. Socialist parties were still met with skepticism by the workers, however, Gapon allowed them to espouse their ideas in his meetings. The demands of the strikers grew to include political goals, in addition to the standard union demands. Father Gapon decided that the most effective means of delivering their petition to the Czar was by assembling in mass, in front of the Winter Palace. Gapon drew up the worker’s petition with a moving description of the suffering of the workers. It stated that their main goal was to obtain public representation in the government. The petition also asked for freedom of the press, the establishment of a public education system, improved working conditions, the legalization of labor unions, and a minimum wage.
It ended with a sadly prophetic final paragraph. We have only two roads open to us: one leading to freedom and happiness, the other to the grave. Let our life be a sacrifice for suffering Russia. We do not regret this sacrifice. We offer it willingly. George Gapon, Priest Ivan Vasimov, Worker Perhaps as many as 50,000 people assembled in various parts of St. Petersburg, before sunrise, on the chilly morning of January 22, 1905. Father Gapon’s group, in the lead, bore a large portrait of the Czar and smaller ones of his family, as well as an assortment of religious banners and icons. In large, prominent letters, a banner read, “Do not fire on the people!” They sang, as they walked, “Save us, Oh Lord, Thy People.” Gapon met no resistance until they arrived at the Narva gates to the palace.
Alerted of the rally, officials panicked, fearing a replay of the French Revolution. A bugle sounded. Calvary stormed through the gate, swinging around, dividing the crowd into two halves. Confused, the procession proceeded slowly towards the gates. Without warning, a second bugle sounded, and infantry stationed on an adjacent bridge fired on the crowd. Horrified and unbelieving, a police officer named Zhultrevich shouted, “What are you doing? How can you fire on a holy pilgrimage and portrait of the Czar?” A moment later he too was struck down by a bullet. The elderly workers carrying the portraits fell. Gapon himself fell to the street, struck by the body of one killed beside him.
The crowd dispersed in a confused panic, some standing firm in defiance, while others fled towards the surrounding streets. 20 Other such groups throughout St. Petersburg met similar action, that morning. Everywhere, the words “ready. . . aim. . . fire” were repeated, and unbelieving, horrified crowds broke apart. A slogan from the previous night’s rally must have been echoing in many minds, “If the Czar does not receive us. . . Then we have no Czar!” 21 Between 800 and 1000 people had been killed the morning of January 22nd. 22 The Russians had finally been awakened; the Czar’s historical momentum, his only support, was exhausted. Through the following months, universities closed down.
Many government officials were assassinated, with little popular counter-revolutionary disgust. In Poland, the Russian language was successfully boycotted. In the Caucasus, Christian Armenians and Tartar Moslems joined in civil war against the Russians. 23 Mutinies within the military occurred. Most notably, the crew of the pride of the Black Sea fleet, the Potemkin threw their officers overboard, and attempted to help revolutionaries in St. Petersburg. The Czar remained as isolated in his own world as each peasant commune was to its own. In his diary, Nicholas wrote, “A terrible day.
Troops had to fire in many places of the city, there were many killed and wounded. . .”, unknowing that the people had actually amassed to meet him. Likewise, Lenin remained out of touch with Russia through the summer and into the autumn. In October, the country erupted into a unanimous strike against the Czar. Over the course of a few weeks, everyone from stock brokers to the Mariinsky corps de ballet quit working. The strike radiated out from St. Petersburg, to every large city, crippling the country. The police and military were powerless to operate, because no trains were in operation. By October 17th, Nicholas II’s leadership was frantic.
Suppressing the unanimous revolt of an entire nation was impossible. On October 30th, the Czar signed the October Manifesto, a document drafted by Witte, granting freedom of speech and assembly, and the creation of the State Duma, an elected legislature with veto power over the Czar. 25 The revolution was complete; the autocratic rule by the Romanovs, almost three hundred years long, had come to an end. Through the following years, the Duma became a stage for the legal publication of Marxist ideas.
The population returned to quiescence, but each year brought an increase to the representation of revolutionary parties in the Duma. History shows us that any great event or revolution can not be the result of any single person or happening. The Revolution of 1905 was the result of the sum of Russia’s history. As such, it becomes more than the mere installment of a constitution, (which was never obeyed, anyway) it was the awakening of a people to a world that had passed them by. In the cities, a spark of light was racing through the Dark People. The Revolution of 1905 awoke the sleeping population of Russia.