Alan Moorehead, The Russian Revolution, 1958.


The Rising of 1905

Traditionally revolutions followed wars in Russia. The liberation of the serfs had been made inevitable by the Crimean War in the middle of the nineteenth century; the assassination of Alexander II was the sequel to the war against Turkey in 1877; and now the Japanese war had precipitated the most serious revolution the country had ever experienced. By the beginning of 1905 Nicholas was in much more danger from his own people than from the foreign enemy in the east. Eleven months of unsuccessful campaigning had broken the morale of the Russian army, and in the cities civilians were sick of working at pressure and in miserable conditions for a war they did not support or understand.

Both the police and the more solid section of the bourgeois community saw the trouble coming, and each in its own way tried to head it off. Through the closing months of 1904 many of the leading businessmen in Moscow joined forces with the liberal politicians -- the intellectuals in the universities, the zemstvo officials, and the professional classes -- and they held meeting after meeting to urge reforms on the government, only to be met with a blank uncompromising no. The zemstvos, the Czar repeated, must mind their own business; autocracy was to remain inviolate. He indicated, however, that he himself had plans for certain new political laws which he would introduce in his own good time. It was a promise of a sort but something more than promises was needed.

The Ministry of the Interior, on its side, was trying to meet the emergency by other methods. As far back as 1901, S. V. Zubatov, a chief of the Moscow Okhrana, the secret police, had hit on the idea of the principle of the safety valve as a means of preventing unrest. He formed a government-sponsored union, the Society for Mutual Aid for Working Men in the Mechanical Industries. It encouraged the workers to air their grievances, to set forth their demands for higher pay and a shorter working day, but at the same time the police took good care to ensure that the meetings were conducted in an atmosphere of reverence and loyalty toward the Czar. There was also a religious side to the proceedings. The psychology behind the scheme was very well expressed by General D. F. Trepov, chief of the Moscow police: "In order to disarm the agitators," he wrote, "it is necessary to open and point out to the worker a legal solution of his difficulty, for we must bear in mind the agitator will be followed by the youngest and boldest of the crowd, while the average worker will prefer the less spectacular and quiet legal way. Thus split up, the crowd will lose its power."

And it had almost worked. Police socialism was tried in a number of different areas, and soon there were official unions in all the main industries. But now at the end of 1904, under the pressure of war, the system was rapidly breaking down. With every week that went by it was becoming apparent to the workers that they were simply wasting their breath in concocting pious petitions that never received an answer from the authorities: they needed direct action and a leader. And they found both in an Orthodox priest named Father Georgi Gapon.

Gapon is an odd figure in the Russian revolution. He was one of those dedicated minor characters with a zeal for remaking the world who would have done very well had he been allowed to continue in a small way. It was his fate, however, to be catapulted into the center of national affairs which were quite beyond his range; he flew too high, and because his motives were so good his subsequent disillusionment was devastating. He is a little like Icarus and he is heroically absurd. Gapon came from a peasant family in the Ukraine, and as a young man he had been much moved by Tolstoy's conception of nonviolence and of a mild and loving anarchy as the solution for the problems of the world. He had entered the Orthodox Church, but he was really more of a social reformer than a priest. He abhorred drinking and gambling, and lectured the workers strongly about vice -- he was an effective orator -- and while he agitated for better conditions in the factories he also reminded his followers of their religion and their duty to the Czar. If Father Gapon had had a political slogan it might have been "God Save the Czar and the Eight-Hour Day." In 1905 he was a striking-looking man of thirty-two, with a pointed black beard and a thin and holy face, and he had become a popular idol. His Union of Russian Factory Workers was a national movement.

The police were not at all opposed to Father Gapon: with his piety and his nonviolent notions for reform he was just the man they wanted. They supported him; they regarded him as one of their agents and they do not seem to have been disturbed by the fact that he was also in touch with Maxim Gorky and other leaders with revolutionary ideas. This was the man who set the 1905 revolution alight.

Early in January the Petrograd metal workers came out on a four-day strike, and when this had no effect Gapon decided to adopt more forceful tactics:

On January 21 he wrote to the Czar:


Do not believe the Ministers. They are cheating Thee in regard to the real state of affairs. The people believe in Thee. They have made up their minds to gather at the Winter Palace tomorrow at 2 p.m. to lay their needs before Thee. . . . Do not fear anything. Stand tomorrow before the people and accept our humblest petition. I, the representative of the workingmen, and my comrades, guarantee the inviolability of Thy person,


This was not just another simple petition from the moujiks. Gapon had a tremendous following in the huge Putilov workshops in Petrograd, and he really did have the power to lead a mass demonstration into the streets. Whether or not he could control it was another matter, and the Ministry of the Interior was in a difficult position. The man they had promoted had got altogether too big for them, too far to the left, and on the night of January 21 it began to look as though there might be serious rioting in the city. Already two days previously a sinister incident had occurred during the Epiphany ceremony; the customary salute of guns had been fired from the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul but at least one of the shells was live and it had landed near the Winter Palace. This may have been simple negligence on the part of the gunners, but no one could be quite sure; and now it was decided to head off the demonstration by putting Gapon under arrest. Gapon, however, could not be found, and nothing then remained to be done but to bring as many police and soldiers as possible into the city, and to wait and see what the next day would bring forth.

Meanwhile Nicholas had left Petrograd. If he got Gapon's letter he did not answer it, and in any case he never had the slightest intention of receiving a mob of demonstrators at the palace. He packed up his family and moved to Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles outside the city. He never again returned to live in Petrograd.

At the appointed time on January 22, some 200,000 men, women and children gathered on the snowbound streets, carrying ikons and pictures of the Czar, and with Father Gapon at their head converged on the Winter Palace. They sang "God Save the Czar" as they moved along. Gapon carried in his hand their petition for an eight-hour day, a minimum wage of one ruble a day (about fifty cents), no overtime and a constituent assembly; and this he hoped to hand personally to the Czar while the crowd waited in the snow outside the palace.

When Peter the Great built Petrograd he paid careful attention to the question of its defense. Broad boulevards like the spokes of a wheel reach in to the Admiralty Building and the Winter Palace on the banks of the Neva, and consequently both these strongholds have a clear line of fire along the main arteries of the city. Such a street plan also made it possible for parades and political demonstrations to be seen to their best advantage, and this vast crowd of hymn-singing, ikon-bearing workers must have looked very impressive as it debouched in five separate columns onto the great square before the Winter Palace. It might also have looked rather threatening.

At all events, something like panic seems to have seized on the military officers who had been left by the Czar to deal with the situation, and they called on the marchers to stop and disperse. But you could not break up a crowd of this size very easily; the workers were in an exalted state of mind and they were convinced that they had only to reach the Czar for their case to be understood. When they came on again the soldiers of the palace guard opened fire. They fired from a distance of only ten or twenty yards straight into the screaming, struggling mass of people, and there was horrible carnage; more than five hundred were killed and several thousand wounded. Afterward the thing that the survivors remembered so well was the red blood on the snow, and from now on it was rubbish for Nicholas to indulge himself in the sentimental idea that he was really loved by his simplest and humblest subjects; they remembered this Bloody Sunday and the bodies lying in the streets of Petrograd.

Nicholas no doubt was appalled at what had happened, and there was an attempt to make amends; he contributed to the fund raised for the families of the dead and wounded men, and later on he did receive a hand-picked deputation of workers -- but none of this made much impression. After Bloody Sunday there was a steadily rising crescendo of strikes, demonstrations, disorders and open terrorism. On February 17 the Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, the Governor of Moscow, was assassinated outside the Kremlin; and by the end of the year more than fifteen hundred government officials had been killed.

Father Gapon escaped arrest after Bloody Sunday by fleeing across the border to Finland, whence he addressed a bitter letter to Nicholas:

"The innocent blood of workers, their wives and children, lies forever between thee, oh soul destroyer, and the Russian people. Moral connection between thee and them may never more be. . . . Let all the blood that has to be shed, hangman, fall upon thee and thy kindred!"

Bloody Sunday had turned Gapon into a revolutionary if not an outright terrorist, and his first act on arriving in Switzerland (where he was greeted as a hero) was to call on the embattled political exiles. He urged them to sink their differences and unite in raising an immediate rebellion in Russia; and he might just as well have been baying at the moon. Both Plekhanov and the Mensheviks and Lenin and the Bolsheviks were busy with plans for holding rival party conferences in Europe, and neither was disposed to move. Trotsky, however, saw things differently; he set out at once for Petrograd.

In the annals of the Russian underground 1905 must certainly be judged to be Trotsky's year. He rises above all the others; he assesses what is happening more accurately than they do; he emerges from the party rivalry; he is the intellectual who is also the man of action.

Trotsky was one of the youngest of the exiles (he was twenty-six at this time), but he had suffered and experienced as much as any of them. He was the son of a well-to-do Jewish peasant fanner, and he had grown up on the steppes. He had not reached twenty when he had been arrested in Odessa, and he had spent two and a half years in Russian prisons before being exiled to eastern Siberia. Unlike Lenin, he was an escaper, and the fact that he had married and had two daughters had not deterred him. His wife had rigged up a dummy in his bed, and while she staved off the police for four days, saying he was too ill to be disturbed, he made his way back to Russia with a false passport. He had now abandoned his real name, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, and with his own peculiar brand of irony had adopted the pseudonym Trotsky, which was the name of one of his jailers in Odessa. No one had been more active in the Russian underground. He had organized revolutionary cells, he had written for Iskra, and finally in a peasant cart he had smuggled himself out of Russia into Western Europe.

It had been a tremendous thing for young Trotsky to meet his heroes, Plekhanov, Axelrod and Lenin, to learn from them and take orders from them; but now that they were sunk in their arid intellectual brawl he left them behind in Europe and became the effective leader of the party inside Russia itself.

Trotsky reached Petrograd in the spring of 1905 by way of Kiev to find that the situation had not quite ripened into crisis, and the Czar's police soon hunted him across the border into Finland. (Finland was an invaluable haven for the revolutionaries; although nominally part of the Russian empire the country had its own government, and its rights were not often violated by the Czar. Here safely over the frontier, only twenty miles from Petrograd, the revolutionaries could keep in close touch with the underground inside the city.) Soon Parvus arrived from Germany and joined Trotsky in hiding, and together the two men made their plans while they watched and waited for events to come to a climax.

The crushing Russian naval defeat at Tsushima on May 27 was the first of a chain of explosions; within a month the sailors on the battleship Prince Potemkin had risen in rebellion. For a few days they terrorized the Black Sea, until at length they sailed on to the Rumanian coast and were interned. Almost at once there were nationalistic risings in Poland, the Baltic States and the Caucasus, and everywhere throughout Russia itself there were reports of the looting and burning of farmhouses by the peasants. Jewish pogroms, inspired and perhaps organized by the authorities (the Jews were widely thought to be responsible for the revolutionary disorders), added to the confusion. In September, when the humiliating peace with the Japanese was signed and the disillusioned and semi-mutinous soldiers were drifting back from the east, the unrest spread into the cities. The trouble began in Moscow with a fairly innocuous dispute in the printing trade over whether or not the printers on piecework should be paid for punctuation marks. This "comma strike" brought the workers in other trades out in sympathy, and all at once the railways were engulfed. It was almost as if Russia had been waiting for this signal; all kinds of improbable people now came forward to demonstrate against the government. The corps de ballet in Petrograd went on strike. Employers who had their own reasons for a showdown handed out strike pay to their men. In Petrograd there were no newspapers, no streetcars, no telegraph or postal services, and no bakers willing to bake bread. Overnight revolutionary posters appeared on the streets, and crowds came out to demonstrate with ominous red banners. Lawyers refused to transact business; banks closed down. Almost the entire adult population of the capital stopped work; it was one of the most complete general strikes in history.

The exiles abroad had by now begun to stir themselves at last. Lenin had been studying textbooks on street fighting in the Geneva libraries, and he sent a stream of instructions to his followers in Russia. "I see with real horror," he wrote, "that we have been talking bombs for more than half a year and not one single one has been made"; he went on to give some forceful advice on the use of "rifles, revolvers, bombs, knives, brass knuckles, clubs, rags soaked in oil to start fires with, rope or rope ladders, shovels for building barricades, dynamite cartridges, barbed wire, tacks against cavalry. . . ." Funds could be raised, he suggested, by breaking into the banks, and he gave details of how old men, women and children could play their part in the struggle.

Meanwhile the practical business of gun running was taken over by Father Gapon, Litvinov and others who appear to have been supplied with money by the Japanese and wealthy sympathizers in the United States and elsewhere. [There was a good deal of support for the revolution in America. "If such a government cannot be overthrown otherwise than by dynamite," Mark Twain wrote, "then thank God for dynamite."] The incident of the John Grafton is a lurid example of the excitement that was now besetting all their minds. Litvinov managed to buy a considerable quantity of arms in Europe by posing alternatively as a South American officer and as an agent for outlaw bands in Macedonia; according to one account he secured four thousand bayonets, five thousand pistols, ten thousand rifles and over four million rounds of ammunition. The John Grafton, a British boat of seven hundred tons, was chartered to run the consignment into Russia through the Baltic, and in late July she set sail. However, as it so often happened in these affairs, the Czar's agents knew all about her, and she was intercepted by the Russian warship Asia in Finnish waters and forced to run herself aground. The arms were seized, but some devious business with the captain of the Asia followed, and in return for a heavy bribe he was induced to hand his booty back to the revolutionaries. Some of it was used in the Moscow street fighting before the end of the year.

In the midst of all this two events of great importance took place in Russia. In Moscow Paul Milyukov, a distinguished historian, and Dmitri Shipov, the chairman of the city zemstvo, succeeded in rallying the more progressive liberals into a coherent political party which emerged finally with the name of the Constitutional Democratic party -- usually shortened to the Cadets. The Cadets were semirevolutionary and nonsocialist: they wanted a democracy and a parliament along British lines, and as a means of forcing the Czar to grant a constitution they gave their support to the strike. From now onward the Cadets become one of the three main parties dominating the political scene. They stand well to the right of the Marxist Social Democrats (now divided into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), and the Social Revolutionary party, the party of the peasants, but for the moment their main opponent is the Czar.

The other event concerns Trotsky. Directly the strike got under way in October, 1905, he came back secretly to Petrograd and joined in the work of organizing a general strike committee which was to act as a headquarters for the workers. Delegates, each representing five hundred men, were elected in the factories and sent to a central council or Soviet, and this Soviet now controlled the strike in Petrograd. It distributed arms and supplies, took charge of policy, issued its orders in the form of printed bulletins, arranged for guards and demonstrations, and acted, in fact, in much the same way as an army headquarters acts in the field. The idea of a Soviet was not new -- Axelrod and others had canvassed it some time before -- but this was the first actual experiment in giving the workers a central direction in an emergency, and although it only lasted a few weeks it set a pattern which was to be followed in 1917.

A similar body was set up in Moscow, but the Petrograd Soviet was the important one, and it was very largely controlled by the Mensheviks. Its first two presidents, Zubrovsky and Khrustalev-Nosar, followed more or less along the Menshevik line, and Trotsky shared the practical leadership with Parvus. The Bolsheviks in Petrograd tried at first to boycott the Soviet -- Lenin, whether at home or abroad, had no love for any organization which he could not control -- but finally they came in when they saw which way the wind was blowing.

And indeed it was blowing too hard for the Czar. In the summer he had made a few tentative concessions in an effort to ward off the storm; he had given the universities, for example, freedom from state control; but still the opposition mounted, and now all Russia appeared to be united against him. His first instinct had been to call out the military to crush the strike, but at the end of October, with the industrial life of the country virtually at a standstill, events had gone too far for that. He gave way: under Witte's guidance he issued a manifesto which granted to Russia the first "constitution" in its history.

The October Manifesto was a cautious and anemic document. It authorized the setting up of an elected parliament, a Duma, but the Czar was still to be the supreme ruler. When later the terms of the new constitution were announced it was found that Nicholas still retained direct control of the army and navy, of foreign policy and of the Ministry of the Interior. Legislative power was divided between the Duma and an Imperial Council, half of whose members were to be appointed by the Czar. The government could also issue decrees when the Duma was not in session. This obviously was only a step toward democracy, yet even so it was a considerable break with the principle of autocracy, and it went a long way toward satisfying Milyukov and the Cadets. It did even more than that: it broke the strike. Directly the manifesto was published the Cadets withdrew their support of the Soviets, since they were not interested in the wider aims of the revolutionaries, and the government gradually began to get control of the situation again.

There were still some tense moments. No sooner was a mutiny at the Kronstadt naval base suppressed than trouble blew up again in the Black Sea. The hero of this adventure was a Lieutenant Schmidt, and he had a certain dizzy success for a day or two. Schmidt led a mutiny among the sailors in Sevastopol; he seized the cruiser Ochakov, ran up the red flag and signaled to Nicholas: "I assume command of the fleet. Schmidt." It was not altogether absurd; very soon the mutiny spread along the docks, and to eleven other vessels as well, and it was not until the mutineers were defeated in a naval engagement that they gave in. Schmidt was executed. Other revolts among the garrisons in Vladivostok, Kiev, Voronezh and Chita were subdued more easily.

Nicholas now was in a position to move against the Soviet in Petrograd. On December 9 its president, Khrustalev-Nosar, was arrested, and Trotsky took over. He contemplated calling for an armed rising in the city, but in the end settled for a scheme put forward by Parvus: the workers were asked to refuse to pay taxes and to start a run on the banks. They were to withdraw their savings and demand payment in gold. It was an effective stroke; under this pressure the government agreed to some, at least, of the workers' further demands.

Lenin and Krupskaya now belatedly came winging back from abroad, along with Father Gapon and one or two other leaders of the Social Democrats. But already they were too late. Petrograd had grown tired of disturbances, and the Soviet's second call for a general strike on December 16 came to nothing. By now Trotsky was under arrest, and presently Parvus and most of the Soviet deputies followed him into jail.

Moscow struggled on for a little longer. Financed by revolutionary funds and encouraged by Lenin the workers put up a bitter fight in the icy streets at the end of December, but the army turned its artillery onto the strikers and they were driven off their barricades. By the last day of the year the country was subsiding fast into an uneasy and apprehensive peace.

It had been a tumultuous year that had taken everybody by surprise, and it left the revolutionaries rather worse off than they were before. Lenin visited Moscow and hung on for a few months into 1906, but in the end he was forced to leave for Finland and he narrowly escaped arrest. Plekhanov never set out for Russia at all, and Axelrod and Martov turned back when the strike collapsed. Out of the 300 members of the Petrograd Soviet who were arrested, 284 were eventually released. Trotsky and Parvus, however, were detained, and after many months in prison were sent into indefinite exile in the coldest and remotest corner of Siberia. Father Gapon drifted abroad, only to end his days as a police agent and a sort of lobbyist of the revolution. In 1906 he was murdered in Finland.

Practically the only advantage the revolutionary movement could claim from its brief twelve months' career in the light of day was that it had been able to close its ranks in an emergency, and Trotsky was very largely responsible for this. The rank and file had not liked the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, nor the quarrels that divided the Social Democrats from the Social Revolutionaries; they wanted the whole movement to combine, and in this Trotsky had been their leader.

There was another, more subtle effect which also made this 1905 uprising a dress rehearsal for 1917; the Soviet, or at any rate the Menshevik part of it, had had for a few short weeks a potent whiff of power, and they were left with a feeling that they were not yet capable of handling it. It had been too confusing and bewildering. They needed more trained men before they could launch the Dark People into government. The obvious course, the Mensheviks felt, was to move more slowly; to bring in first a liberal bourgeois government of the Cadets before they advanced directly upon Marxist socialism. This was a matter that was going to keep the revolutionaries safely divided for many years to come: the years when they subsided once more into the underground.

As for Nicholas, he appears to have survived the upheavals of 1905 with remarkable aplomb. Nothing that had happened had in any way changed his views or weakened his faith in autocracy. In a crisis he had been forced to make concessions. But now the crisis was passed. He went forward into the new year quite determined to take back, at the earliest suitable opportunity, as much as he could of the power that he had been so roughly obliged to give away.