29) January 9, 1905

Sire! We workers, our children and wives, the helpless old people who are our parents, we have come to you, Sire, to seek justice and protection. We are in great poverty, we are oppressed and weighed down with labors beyond our strength; we are insulted, we are not recognized as human beings, we are treated like slaves who must bear their lot in silence. And we have suffered it, but we are being driven ever deeper into beggary, lawlessness, and ignorance. Despotism and arbitrary rule are strangling us, and we are suffocating. Sire, our strength is at an end! The limit of our patience has been reached: the terrible moment has come for us when it is better to die than to continue suffering intolerable torment.

With these words, the working class of Russia made its first decisive entrance upon the stage of history, appealing to the clemency of the tsar, the “Little Father,” with a petition in its hands and a priest at its head. Eleven months later, the same working class rose against the autocracy, arms in hand, under the leadership of a Marxist party. In the intervening months, the first Russian Revolution unfolded on an epic scale, involving every layer of the proletariat and all other oppressed layers of society, passing through every imaginable phase of struggle and utilizing every conceivable fighting method, from economic strikes and petitions to the authorities through the political general strike and mass demonstrations, to an armed insurrection. The 1905 Revolution already revealed, albeit in an embryonic fashion, all the basic processes which were to be repeated on a higher scale 12 years later. It was a dress rehearsal, without which the final victory of the proletariat in October 1917 would have been impossible. In the course of 1905, all ideas, programs, parties, and leaders were put to the test. The experience of the first revolution was decisive for the future evolution of all the tendencies in Russian Social Democracy.

Yet the truth is that the beginning of the revolution found the Party in a lamentable state. On the eve of 1905 the Party was seriously weakened by splits and arrests. The internal faction fight had paralyzed its activities for many months. The activists inside Russia were confused and disoriented. Having lost control of the Party center abroad, the Bolsheviks were deprived of an organ, until the first issue of Vperyod came out in December 1904. An acute shortage of funds meant that even Vperyod led a precarious existence. The Mensheviks had more resources, but were thinner on the ground in the interior, with the exception of certain areas such as the South and the Caucasus, but there, too, they were in a relatively weak position. Given the nature of underground work, it is very difficult to estimate the exact strength of the Bolsheviks at this time. The St. Petersburg Party organization did not formally split until December 1904, when the Mensheviks broke away. Up to that time, Lenin’s supporters had been in the ascendant. But the internal struggle had had a damaging effect on the Party’s work, turning it inwards. This is reflected in the number of Bolshevik leaflets issued in Petersburg in 1904: only 11 for the whole year, as against 55 in 1903 and 117 in 1905.194

In general, the Bolshevik organization in Russia in the second half of 1904 was in a poor condition. Many of the full timers, as we have seen, did not really understand the split and were badly shaken by the defection of the conciliationist Central Committee. Despite encouragement and insistence from Lenin, they tended to lag behind the Mensheviks, who were now on the offensive, sending large numbers of agents and money into Russia. In St. Petersburg, they soon gained the upper hand over the Bolshevik-dominated committee. The mistakes and general inertia of the committee caused increasing discontent among the St. Petersburg workers, who were gradually turning to the Mensheviks. The Narva committee passed a resolution expressing its “disinclination to continue working under the leadership of the St. Petersburg committee.” The Vasiliev Ostrov committee passed a vote of “complete lack of confidence” in the Bolshevik-led committee. The Narva, Neva, Vasiliev Ostrov, and “Petersburg Side” sections, representing the bulk of the workers, broke away and declared for the Mensheviks. By December, they had set up a separate committee. Two rival committees continued to exist in St. Petersburg right up to the Stockholm Congress of 1906.

The loss of a number of key areas of St. Petersburg was a body blow to Lenin. It deprived the Bolsheviks of key points of influence and allowed the Mensheviks to get a head start in the stormy events of the following months. To make matters worse, it was clear that the losses were mainly the result of the deficiencies of the local Bolshevik leadership, the quality of which was shown by the stream of complaining letters sent to Lenin. He must have torn his hair out when he read the tearful reports of his principal agent in St. Petersburg, Rosalia Zemlyachka:

“No end of Mensheviks have flocked into Russia,” she wrote. “The Central Committee has managed to turn many people against us. There are not enough forces to carry on the fight and consolidate positions. Demands for people are coming in from all over. It is imperative to make a tour of the committees immediately. There is no one who can go. I am neglecting the Bureau and am absorbed in local work. Things couldn’t be worse. We need people. Everybody is asking. There is no one to work with . . .”

And the catalogue of complaints continues:

We are running the risk of losing one city after another for the lack of people. Every day, I get heaps of letters from various places, imploring [us] to send people. Just now I got a confused letter from Yekaterinoslav. They write that unless we send people and money at once, we shall lose Yekaterinoslav. But there are no people: one after another are retiring and no new ones arrive. Meanwhile the Mensheviks have consolidated their positions everywhere. They would be easy as can be to drive out if only we had people. The Bureau is a fiction since we’re all busy with local affairs.

And these lines were written on January 7, 1905, two days before Bloody Sunday. The constant complaints about a “lack of people” showed up the ingrained lack of confidence of the committeemen and women in the workers. Instead of bringing new blood onto the committees, co-opting the best elements of the workers and the youth, they sought easy solutions, demanding more full-timers from abroad. In every line of these letters, one sees a complete inability to relate the work of the leading circle with the living forces of the working class movement. Commenting on the situation, Litvinov wrote to Lenin:

The truble is that she [Zemlyachka] does not in the least realize in what a critical and sorry state we are. The periphery, if not everywhere against us, is hardly anywhere for us. The bulk of the party workers still think that we are a bunch of disorganizers without any kind of backing, that since the reconciliation [of the Central Committee and the Mensheviks] the attitude of the committee has changed, that all our efforts are but the death throes of the Bolsheviks. No conferences (least of all secret ones), no agitation will change this widespread view. I repeat, our situation is utterly shaky and precarious. We can get out of it only by 1) immediately calling a congress (not later than February) and 2) immediately starting a paper. Without the speediest fulfillment of these two conditions, we are going to certain ruin, and with giant steps, too . . . Petersburg we shall probably have to lose. Swarms of Mensheviks have arrived there . . . We ought to mobilize our forces for Petersburg, but who do we get there?

The Bolsheviks were in a mess, but in fact the position of the Mensheviks was not much better. Neither of the two factions had the support of the workers.

“The Social Democratic organization in St. Petersburg prior to January 1905, by almost any criteria, was weak,” writes Solomon Schwarz.

In December 1903, the joint Social Democratic organization had about 18 circles in the factories, and membership of circles was from seven to ten, which would give a total worker membership of not more than 180. If the students and intelligentsia had about the same, as seems likely, total membership would have been 360. During the winter of 1904 the Committee’s membership and activities declined, and the links with abroad were weak or non-existent . . . The same correspondent says that the Mensheviks too were losing support: in one region where they had 15 to 20 circles, by December 1904 they had only four or five.

In his memoirs, the leading Menshevik P.A. Garvi describes the position in Kiev on the eve of 1905: “A strange dearth of people in the organization. A remoteness from the working masses and their daily interests. A meager organizational life in comparison with the recent past—that is what struck me in Kiev, suggesting melancholy comparisons with the past, with the ebullient life of the Odessa organization of the 1901 and 1902 period. There was the Kiev committee; there were sector committees; in the sections there were propagandists conducting propaganda circles, usually leaflets were distributed through the circles, that was about all.

Getting ahead of myself I will say that during all of 1905 in Kiev, in Rostov and in Moscow daily we came up against one and the same phenomenon: in the party organizations were gathered mostly callow youths, hotheaded and resolute but weakly linked to the working masses and uninfluential in the factories. The old social democrats among the workers—the real vanguard of the advanced workers formed in the period of propaganda and of the so-called Economism—these old workers, for the most part, stood aside. In Kiev, Rostov, and Moscow and right up to the October strike I—and not only I—had to resort to more or less artificial methods to draw the “oldsters” into active party work. We arranged special meetings and evening parties with them, we reasoned with them, but they went into party work reluctantly and looked upon our organization and our working methods with mistrust.195


194 See David Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism, 71.

195 Quoted in Schwarz, Revolution of 1905, 54, 54–55, 55, 72, and 57.

30) ‘Zubatovism’

The weakness of the Party coincided with a new upswing in the workers’ movement, which was therefore obliged to express itself through other channels. In 1900–2, the head of the Moscow Okhrana (secret police), S.V. Zubatov, hit on the idea of setting up legal unions, under the control of the police, which were allowed to function, and even elect committees, subject to police vetting, and carry out activities, provided they were of a strictly economic, non-political character. Zubatov not only established legal trade unions, under the control of the police (a tactic ironically christened “police socialism” by the revolutionaries), but also went to great lengths to recruit revolutionaries as agents. He would visit them in prison, showing a fatherly interest in their welfare, brought them tea and biscuits and even Marxist literature to read. Interrogations were organized, not in prison but in the study of his home, where he tried to persuade them that the best way to defend the workers’ interest was to participate in his “movement.” By combining harshness with such methods, some of the weaker or more naïve elements were eventually ensnared and became informants upon their release. Once entangled, it became virtually impossible to escape. Known provocateurs were not treated very gently by the revolutionaries.

Zubatov was far more intelligent than the average tsarist police chief and his methods were quite successful for a time—too successful, in fact! In a climate of general labor unrest and in the absence of genuine mass legal organizations the workers entered the police unions in large numbers. In order to keep in the workers’ good books, over-zealous police officers even organized strikes. These unions contained thousands of workers—far more than the relatively small numbers active in the Social Democratic committees. With their customary resourcefulness, the workers turned the table on the police, and used the opportunity to press home their demands and organize legally in the workplaces. Zubatov’s unions gave the workers a chance to organize and express their grievances. The question arose of what attitude the Social Democrats should take towards these reactionary police unions. Many years later, when the Russian workers had already taken power, Lenin gave the answer in his masterpiece on revolutionary strategy and tactics, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder:

Under tsarism we had no “legal opportunities” whatsoever until 1905. However, when Zubatov, agent of the secret police, organized Black Hundred [the Black Hundreds were a reactionary, anti-Semitic organization used by tsarism as an auxiliary arm against the revolutionary movement] workers’ assemblies and working men’s societies for the purpose of trapping revolutionaries and combating them, we sent members of our party to these assemblies and into these societies . . . They established contacts with the masses, were able to carry on their agitation, and succeeded in wresting workers from the influence of Zubatov’s agents.

Lenin did not confine his remarks to the particular conditions of tsarist Russia, but laid down a general rule which governs the approach of Marxists to the mass organizations of the proletariat. In order to build a real revolutionary party, it is not sufficient to proclaim it from the street corner. It is necessary to find a road to the masses, regardless of all obstacles. It is necessary to go to the masses wherever they are:

To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie, the labor aristocrats, or “workers who have become completely bourgeois” . . .

This ridiculous “theory” that Communists should not work in reactionary trade unions reveals with the utmost clarity the frivolous attitude of the “Left” Communists toward the question of influencing the “masses” and their misuse of clamor about the “masses.” If you want to help the “masses” and win the sympathy and support of the “masses,” you should not fear the difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults, and persecution from the “leaders” (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently, and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semiproletarian masses are to be found.196

This was always the hallmark of Lenin’s method: absolute implacability on questions of theory and principle combined with extreme flexibility on tactical and organizational issues. The authorities attempted to construct a wall between the Marxists and the masses. The Social Democratic workers, by patient and careful work and flexible tactics, succeeded in breaking down the barriers, penetrating the unions, and fertilizing them with the ideas of Marxism. Under the irresistible pressure of the shop floor, the Zubatov unions became partially transformed into organs of struggle. After the strike wave of 1903, the unfortunate Zubatov was unceremoniously sacked. Even then this movement continued to play a role. Typical of these Zubatov unions was the St. Petersburg “Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop Workers,” set up by Father Grigory Gapon with police permission.

Many Social Democrats failed to grasp the necessity of participating in Gapon’s organization in order to reach the masses. They were repelled by its reactionary features. Not for the first or last time, revolutionaries failed to understand the way in which the real movement of the working class unfolds. Setting out from an abstractly correct idea (“The workers need a revolutionary party”) they failed to take into account the real organization of the workers that had evolved out of concrete circumstances and which bore no resemblance to their preconceived ideas of what a workers’ organization ought to look like. Was this union not organized by the police in order to control the working class? How could Marxists participate in such an abomination? Yet the attempts of the tiny Social Democratic circles to win the masses directly by means of propaganda and agitation alone proved futile. The organized workers were mainly skilled and experienced proletarians, mostly members of Gapon’s union, who looked askance at the beardless youngsters who were trying to teach them lessons. Their propaganda seemed to rebound like water off a duck’s back. The Menshevik S. Somov (I.A. Pushkin) described the situation in their St. Petersburg organization at the start of the year:

A very sad picture emerged. Well-functioning organizations were to be found only in the Narva sector, with its 30,000 workers for example, the whole social democratic organization consisted of six or seven circles of workers of the Putilov and the Railway Car Construction plants (five to six workers in each circle) and the work was conducted according to old-fashioned methods, with long courses in political economy and primitive culture. True, there was also a sector organization of representatives of the circles, but what it did is hard to determine. Factory life found no echo at all in the circles. The diffuse unrest . . .
that was finding an expression in the powerfully developing Gapon movement in which the yearning of the working masses for broad organization and class unity was so clearly displayed was ignored as Zubatovism. Moreover, most of the workers belonging to our circle were very young men, just out of apprenticeship and with no influence whatsoever in their factory milieu.197

Those active in the circles were generally the more skilled and literate among the workers, good at their work and with a strong sense of pride in it, not just in politics but in the workplace as well. It was a hard milieu to penetrate.

“In those days,” wrote the Putilov worker A.M. Buiko, “it was felt that if a worker did not master his trade, did not become a good craftsman, then he was not a proper fellow. This point of view had its roots in the days of kustashchina, the propaganda circles, when old craftsmen regarded unskilled workers as a casual element in their midst . . . if a young man began a conversation with an older skilled fitter or turner he would be told: ‘Learn first how to hold a hammer and use chisel and a knife, and then you can begin to argue like a man who has something to teach others.’”198


196 LCW, vol. 31, 55 and 53 (emphasis in original).

197 Quoted in Schwarz, Revolution of 1905, 56.

198 Quoted in Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg, 73.

31) Father Gapon

Gapon’s “union,” set up in April 1904, was in reality a friendly society which organized insurance schemes, libraries and social activities, such as musical evenings which the workers attended with their families. It was intended as a safety valve where workers, to some extent, could give voice to their grievances, but where all mention of politics was rigorously prohibited. Its declared aims, among other things, were to affirm “national consciousness” among the workers, encourage “sensible views” about their rights, and foster “activity facilitating the legal improvements of the workers conditions of work and living.” Since the Assembly’s leaders did everything in their power to exclude revolutionaries, it is not surprising that the revolutionary workers and intellectuals looked upon the new organization with extreme suspicion and hostility.

However, the efforts of the police and their union stooges to clamp the workers’ movement into a straitjacket of legal constraints was doomed to failure. The rising tide of discontent which affected all layers of society in the course of the Russo-Japanese War began to affect even the most backward strata of the working class. Up to this moment, the opposition to tsarism had mainly come from the liberal intelligentsia and the students. The big battalions of the working class seemed to have stood aside from the struggle. But, despite the appearance of calm, the factories and workers’ districts were seething with discontent. All that was required was some focal point which would enable this subterranean process to find a voice and a conscious, organized expression. After the assassination of Plehve, the hated interior minister, in July 1904, the regime, hopelessly compromised by military defeats and feeling the ground tremble beneath its feet, tried to forestall revolution from below by making concessions from the top. The relative softening of the regime in the autumn 1904 gave the workers more room to breathe. From September 1904 a series of mass meetings were held in the Petersburg factories, under the auspices of Gapon’s Assembly, which became increasingly popular with the workers. Fresh layers of workers, with no experience of struggle, were becoming organized. Gapon’s organization now had up to 8,000 members and branches in at least 11 districts of the city. This was a far larger number of workers than had ever participated in the Social Democratic organizations, which numbered at most 500 or 600 members.

The workers who joined Gapon’s union were not like the old, conscious Social Democratic workers, but completely raw, politically untutored masses, who brought with them all the prejudices imbibed for a thousand years from a backward peasant milieu. Insofar as injustice existed, the Russian peasant reasoned, this was the fault of the “tsar’s servants,” not the monarch who was the “people’s protector.” It was no accident that the union was headed by a priest. The Marxists had no real influence inside the Assembly, although there was a significant layer of workers who had passed through the Social Democratic organizations in the previous decade, had dropped out, and now resurfaced in this new milieu. It is important to bear this in mind when one reads the usual allegation that the 1905 Revolution was a “spontaneous movement.” Of course, the element of spontaneity was present. But equally, the events leading up to January 9 were, in fact, planned in advance by the leading group of Gapon’s organization, acting under the pressure of the workers, many of whom had been touched by the propaganda of Marxism in the big strikes of the 1890s.

The figure of Gapon himself is shrouded in an enigma. The prevailing opinion in Marxist circles at the time was that he was a simple police agent, who in all probability had deliberately planned the massacre of 9 January 1905 with the authorities. The notorious Stalinist Short Course states baldly that

in 1904, prior to the Putilov strike, the police had used the services of an agent provocateur, a priest by the name of Gapon . . . Gapon undertook to assist the tsarist Okhrana [secret police] by providing a pretext for firing on the workers and drowning the working class movement in blood.199

Gapon was undoubtedly mixed up with the police when the union was set up, and even had contacts with leading members of the government. But his was a very contradictory character. On January 9, when he narrowly escaped death at the hands of the tsarist troops, he marched side by side with the Social Revolutionary Pinchas Rutenberg. Later he was sheltered by Maxim Gorky, held discussions with Lenin in Geneva and came close to the Bolsheviks. Lenin was convinced of his childlike sincerity. But Gapon’s understanding of the revolution remained on a primitive level. Exile destroyed him, as it destroyed many others. He became demoralized, took to gambling and finally returned to Russia where, it seems, he attempted to resume his contacts with the police, writing a letter to the Minister of the Interior Durnovo. Finally, in March 1906, he was assassinated. Ironically, the bullet that killed him was fired by the same SR who had marched at his side on that fateful Sunday in January.

The idea that Gapon consciously led the workers to be slaughtered is clearly false. Gapon’s contradictory character reflected the mentality of the new generation of workers newly arrived from the villages and only half assimilated into the proletariat, bringing with them many prejudices and even reactionary ideas. An able organizer, a fine orator, and a natural leader, he spoke a language which the workers could understand. With its curious mixture of militancy and religion, class struggle and monarchism, it corresponded to the first, confused gropings towards consciousness of millions of the most downtrodden layers of society. The son of a peasant himself, who was touched in his youth by revolutionary ideas, Gapon faithfully expressed the confused strivings of this layer in which the desire to fight for a better life in this world is still entangled with hopes in the afterlife and belief in the Little Father. No one expressed the feelings of the masses better than Gapon. For that reason, the masses worshipped him.

“In the tense days of early January 1905,” writes Lionel Kochan, “he had the aura of a leader and a prophet: ‘. . . for each of his words men were willing to give their lives; his priest’s cassock and crucifix were the magnet that drew these hundreds of thousands of tormented people,’ wrote one observer.”200

Whatever Gapon’s motivations, he was stirring up forces neither he nor anyone else could control. While the revolutionaries branded him an agent provocateur, the authorities cursed him as a dangerous agent of the revolution. Irrespective of his subjective intentions, the latter description was far nearer the truth. But Gapon was ill-equipped to deal with the forces he had helped to conjure up. All along he gives the impression of being carried along by events beyond his control or understanding. On the eve of the massacre, this “leader of men” gave voice to his perplexity: “What would come of it? Good heavens, I don’t know. Something big, but what exactly, I can’t say. Who can make head or tail of all this?”201

The accumulated rage and bitterness of the factory workers finally exploded in a strike at the Putilov arms works—a strategic center of the St. Petersburg proletariat—in December. Starting in September 1904, there had been mass workers’ meetings in the factories under the auspices of the union, which gave the workers a chance to express their grievances and begin to acquire an idea of their own strength. The employers became alarmed and decided to crack down. The spark which ignited the powder keg was the dismissal of four activists of Gapon’s union. On December 28, a mass meeting of workers from 11 factories was convened by Gapon’s organization. The increasingly radicalized mood of the workers was slowly pushing even the Gaponite leaders to more militant positions. An indication of the sea change was the fact that representatives of the Social Democrats and Social Revolutionaries were invited to attend. At this meeting it was decided to send a delegation with a petition to the management, the factory inspectors, and the authorities in St. Petersburg, setting forth the workers’ grievances. By January 3, all 13,000 workers were on strike. The only people still inside the plant were two police agents. The strikers demanded an eight-hour day, a ban on overtime working, improved working conditions, free medical aid, higher wages for women workers, permission to organize a representative committee and payment of wages for the period of the strike.


199 Stalin, History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [Bolsheviks], 94.

200 L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 87.

201 Quoted in Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 2, 43.

32) The Putilov Strike

The idea of a petition was probably conceived by Gapon as a way of diverting the movement into safe channels. Possibly Gapon really believed he could act as a mediator between the Little Father and his “children.” But once put forward, in a situation of ferment among the masses, even this apparently innocuous idea had a logic of its own. The idea of an appeal to the tsar and a petition of demands immediately caught the imagination of the masses. Mass meetings were held all over the capital. Gapon dashed from one meeting to another, delivering increasingly radical speeches under the impact of the mood of the masses, who revered him. An eyewitness account gives a vivid impression of the electric atmosphere at these meetings, with their quasi-evangelical character, Gapon calling upon the Almighty to lead the workers in struggle, urging the workers to stand together and, if necessary, die together:

All those present were in a state of rapture—many were weeping, stamping their feet, banging chairs, beating with their fists against the walls and raising their hands on high, they swore to remain firm to the end.

The movement was rapidly turning into a general strike. By January 5, 26,000 workers were out; by January 7, 105,000; and the next day, 111,000. It was also acquiring a political character. A mass meeting on January 5 voted for the immediate convening of a Constituent Assembly, political liberty, an end to the war, and the freeing of political prisoners. In all probability, the initiative for these resolutions came from workers who had been influenced by the Social Democrats. Over a long period of Social Democratic agitation, propaganda, and organization, a considerable number of advanced workers had been in contact, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Social Democratic propaganda circles. A far larger number had been affected by the mass agitation carried out systematically by the Social Democrats for at least ten years prior to January 9. That the basic slogans of the Marxists had left their mark on the consciousness of the working class was demonstrated by the fact that a number of key Social Democratic demands found their way into Gapon’s famous petition—from the eight-hour day to the demand for a Constituent Assembly.

But although Social Democratic slogans were getting an echo, the Party itself was still completely isolated and without influence. Martov, in his history of the Russian Social Democracy, written only a few years later, confirms that

. . . the Social Democracy of both factions could not but notice that the stormy events in Petersburg in January 1905 took place not only outside the immediate leadership of the Social Democracy, but even without a significant participation by it as an organized whole.202

This is confirmed from the Bolshevik side by the minutes of the Third Congress which state that

the January events found the Petersburg committee in an extremely deplorable state. Its links with the working masses had been utterly disorganized by the Mensheviks. Only with great difficulty did they manage to maintain themselves in the city, Vasily Island and the Vyborg district.203

As always, the watchword of the movement of the masses is “unity.” They saw the Social Democrats as alien elements coming from without, and not part of their movement. At one mass meeting, Gapon chided a Social Democratic speaker with the words: “Do not introduce discord: let us march towards our sacred goal under a single peaceful banner, common to one and all.” Gapon’s authority appeared to be unassailable. By contrast, the revolutionary Social Democrats were regarded with suspicion by the workers. The report of the St. Petersburg Bolsheviks to the Third Congress in April admits that they had been very slow to intervene in what they saw as a reactionary police union, only beginning to pay it serious attention when the strike was well underway. In some parts of the city, notably the Vyborg district, they got a sympathetic hearing. But elsewhere in the city, they were given a rough ride. Often the chairman would not even allow them to speak.

“Up to the January 9,” the Petersburg delegate reported, “the attitude of the workers towards the [Bolshevik] committee was extremely hostile. Our agitators were beaten up, leaflets were destroyed, and the first 500 rubles sent to the Putilov workers by the students were accepted grudgingly.”204

A Menshevik writer bears this out:

In the Narva district, where the movement had originated, as late as the January 8, the workers enthusiastically welcomed the political content of Gapon’s petition. When a lone Social Democrat attempted to deliver a political speech, a howl went up from the assembled workers: “Down with him!” “Throw him out!”205

The numerical weakness and isolation of the Social Democracy at the beginning of the revolution was revealed in the words of Livshits, giving voice to the frustration of the Party activists in Petersburg at their inability to exercise a decisive influence before January 9:

“We Party workers,” he wrote, “knew very well that the forthcoming peaceful procession would not lead to anything worthwhile and would involve the masses in terrible bloodshed. But where was the force that could have forestalled this terrible misdeed, for which tsarism and clericalism was responsible? Such a force did not exist.”206

Yet in 24 hours the whole situation was transformed.


202 Ibid., vol. 2, 45 in both quotes.

203 Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), 544.

204 Ibid., 158 and 44.

205 Quoted in J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, 157.

206 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, 540.

33) Bloody Sunday

The petition aroused tremendous enthusiasm when it was read out in mass workers’ assemblies where it was everywhere approved with acclamation. With breathtaking naïveté, Gapon wrote to the Minister of the Interior on the eve of Bloody Sunday, requesting legal permission for a peaceful demonstration in front of the Winter Palace: “The tsar has nothing to fear,” he wrote, “I, as the representative of the Assembly of Russian Workers, my colleagues, and the worker comrades—and even the so-called revolutionary groups of different trends—guarantee the inviolability of his person. Let him come forth like a true tsar, with courage in his heart, to meet his People and take unto his hands our petition.” Signed: “The Priest Gapon and Eleven Workers’ Deputies, St. Petersburg, January 8.”207

In an attempt to underline their peaceful intentions, the organizers banned the display of red flags. The Social Democrats, despite their grave misgivings about the demonstration, decided, correctly, to participate alongside the rest of their class. This the organizers agreed to only on condition that they marched at the rear of the demonstration, a measure which, in the event, saved the lives of many of them.

While the leaders of the union were straining every nerve to convince the government of their peaceful intentions, the latter, in a state of near panic, was preparing to teach the masses a bloody lesson. At two o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, January 9, the workers began to assemble before the Winter Palace. The square was soon packed with a huge multitude not only of workers but students, socialist groups, women, children, and old people—in all about 140,000 people.

As agreed, the march to the palace was a peaceful one, without songs, banners or speeches. People wore their Sunday clothes. In some parts of the city they carried icons and church banners. Everywhere the petitioners encountered troops. They begged to be allowed to pass. They wept, they tried to go around the barrier, they tried to break through it. The soldiers fired all day long, the dead were counted in by the hundreds, the wounded in the thousands. An exact count was impossible since the police carted away and secretly buried the bodies of the dead at night.208

At least 4,600 people were killed and wounded that day.

The massacre of January 9 reveals “Nicholas the Bloody,” as he justly became known, not only as a cruel and contemptible man, but also as an exceedingly stupid monarch.

“The shots fired on the January 22, 1905,” recalls Eva Broido, “woke echoes all over Russia. Everywhere the masses were stirred out of their complacency: the old belief in the goodness of the ‘little father’ the tsar was dead. Even the most backward workers understood that much.”209

After the massacre, Gapon recoiled in horror, denouncing the tsar and appealing for an armed uprising. At an emotional meeting held on the night of Bloody Sunday, Gapon announced to the assembled workers: “We no longer have a tsar.” Crowds of workers roamed the streets, angry and desperate but without leadership. And suddenly, the same revolutionaries who had been rejected, shouted down and even beaten up became the focal point of intense interest. The Petersburg delegate at the Third Congress related how on the evening of the 9th the Bolshevik agitators took to the streets looking for groups of workers to address, but found that things had already gone beyond that stage. The workers had learned in a matter of hours more than decades of agitation and propaganda could ever teach them.

We were passed by carriages carrying away the dead, behind which ran crowds of people shouting “Down with the tsar!” You only had to throw arms at a crowd like this and they would have gone anywhere you wanted. On Vasily Island a scrap iron shop was broken into and the crowd armed themselves with old swords. This created a pathetic impression. Everywhere you could hear the cry: “Arms! Arms!” By evening the attitude towards the organization underwent a radical transformation. Our agitators were listened to with enthusiasm. The organizers could go wherever they pleased. On each of the successive days the same mood could be observed.210

Marx once wrote that the revolution at times needs the whip of counterrevolution to drive it forward. Despite the hypnotic effect exercised by Gapon on the workers at the time, he was merely an accidental figure thrown up by the movement of the masses, like a fleck of foam on the crest of a mighty wave, which flashes brightly for a moment before vanishing forever. His very success consisted in the fact that he was the personification of the first inchoate, spontaneous, instinctive movement of the working class, the first stirrings of consciousness of the masses. Inevitably, such a movement tends to seek out the line of least resistance, the well-worn paths, familiar sounding phrases, and famous leaders. It took the massacre of Bloody Sunday to knock out of the heads of the masses the century-old illusions in the tsar. In a revolutionary situation, the workers’ consciousness grows by leaps and bounds. Indeed, sudden and sharp shifts in the mood of the masses constitutes the essential element of a revolutionary or prerevolutionary period. By the end of the year, the revolutionary Social Democracy had definitely established itself as the hegemonic force within the working class, striving to place itself at the head of the revolutionary nation.

From exile in Switzerland, Lenin immediately hailed the January events as the beginning of the revolution in Russia:

“The working class,” he wrote, “has received a momentous lesson in civil war: the revolutionary education of the proletariat made more progress in one day than it could have made in months and years of drab, humdrum, wretched existence. The slogan of the heroic St. Petersburg proletariat, ‘Death or Freedom!’ is reverberating throughout Russia.”211

As we have seen, prior to January 9 the workers were not willing to read Social Democratic leaflets, and often tore them up and even beat the leafletters. But now the consciousness of the masses was transformed. One Social Democrat described the situation:

Now tens of thousands of revolutionary pamphlets were swallowed up without remainder; nine-tenths were not only read but read until they fell apart. The newspaper which was recently considered by the broad masses, and particularly by the peasantry, as a landlord’s affair, and when it came accidentally into their hands was used in the best of cases to roll cigarettes in, was now carefully, even lovingly, straightened and smoothed out, given to the literate, and the crowd, holding its breath, listened to “what they are writing about the war” . . . Not only did the soldiers moving along all the lines of the railway network almost fight for a newspaper or other printed sheet thrown from the window of a passing train, but the peasants of the villages near the railways from then on, and also for some years after the war, continued to ask passengers for “a little newspaper.”212


207 Ibid., vol. 2, 45.

208 Trotsky, 1905, 92.

209 E. Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 116.

210 Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), 545.

211 LCW, The Beginning of the Revolution in Russia, vol. 8, 97.

212 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 2, part 1, 36–37.