St. Petersburg Revolution – Russia – January 22, 1905

A thousand of the workers were killed and thousands more were injured when the Czar’s soldiers opened fire on the protesters. The Czar of Russia had absolute power at this time and his cruel actions contributed to the bigger revolution that followed twelve years later.

Russia’s emperor in 1905 was Czar Nicholas II. As czar, Nicholas had absolute power. In other words the country’s form of government was an autocratic monarchy. Any protest that the czar disliked was met with force and as the country became industrialized the confrontations between impoverished workers and the state became more and more violent. Many were killed in the course of these protests and the number of strikes increased year by year. On January 22 1905, one hundred thousand workers, led by a priest, marched peacefully to the czar’s Winter Palace in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. They were demanding better working conditions. Instead of a friendly reception the workers met a volley of bullets. A thousand were killed and thousands more wounded. It was a turning point in Russian history.

The peaceful protests of January 22 at the Winter Palace in the nation’s capital of St. Petersburg were intended to resolve growing tensions without confrontation. The opposite was the outcome as extreme violence erupted. In the months that followed, Czar Nicholas II knew that he could no longer stop protests with bullets. That era of Russian dictatorship belonged to the past and he recognized the necessity of making some concessions. The wide publicity that had been given to the march made it different from others. If the czar’s representative had acted differently when the protesters arrived at the Palace, the bloodier events of 1911, the Communist Revolution, might never have taken place. As it happened, they were only delayed for six years.

The amount of concessions that the czar granted in the course of the year that followed were inadequate and they only ensured some delay before the bigger confrontation of 1911 became inevitable. On the Saturday evening prior to the protest, Father George Gapon, who organized the event, sent a letter to the emperor assuring him that everyone would behave peacefully. Gapon was well-known as a follower of Tolstoy’s creed of non-violence so there was every reason to treat his assurances as credible. Gapon knew that the czar had arranged for extensive military protection all around the Winter Palace so in his letter he urged him not to use force against innocent civilians. He said this because he was afraid the czar’s ministers might have given him false information about the protest.

He then made a special personal appeal to the emperor, asking him to receive his address of devotion which he was going to bring along with a statement of the people’s needs. His final words declared that he and all the workers with him would guarantee what he called “The inviolability of your person.” The origin of the march was unrelated to the various political groups that formed in the preceding years. Rather it was a reaction to the way management had victimized a group of workers for participating in a strike. Gapon felt that every worker had the right to strike and so he was convinced that a personal appeal to the czar would support his position.

Gapon was a priest and for a time had been a prison chaplain but his main interest was the ongoing fight for workers’ rights. He knew that the planned protest march to the Winter Palace was illegal. The police knew this as well but they did nothing to warn him. Even when Gapon sent the details of the march to the city authorities ahead of time nothing happened. The czar would not be in the palace on the day of the march so all decisions would be left to the Grand Duke Vladimir, the military commander of St. Petersburg. The marchers set out in five columns all moving toward the great square in front of the Winter Palace. The authorities knew their route because they had been given the details a day before. No one among the thousands felt concerned about the outcome. They felt that their peaceful purpose would be enough to prevent violence. As they marched through the city the police made way for them, holding up traffic where necessary to let them pass. Banners were held aloft, while holy icons and portraits of the czar were also prominent. Onlookers gave them respectful attention as they passed by. It was only as they came near their goal, the great square, that they encountered firm opposition and were told to stop. They continued to move forward but within a few minutes they were physically confronted and pushed back by a cavalry troop.

Clearly the soldiers had been given orders to stop the march. Gapon requested a hearing for the petition they carried but the response by the soldiers remained the same. No one and no petition would be allowed past the entrance to the palace. Meanwhile the crowd of 200,000 waited. Gapon, dressed in his golden vestments and holding aloft a crucifix, requested that the petition be forwarded to the emperor. The officer in charge refused. For a few moments, the mass of marchers stopped, then, after a few moments of discussion among themselves, they decided to oppose the order to stop and moved forward. A volley of shots rang out from the soldiers on guard, fortunately all blanks, but it was followed a moment later with live bullets. Within a minute there was a third volley of live bullets. Men, women, and children fell in heaps and those who could escape scattered in all directions. Father Gapon, who was not hit, stood still, aghast.

A thousand, maybe five thousand as was reported elsewhere, had been killed and thousands more wounded. Reports in U.S. newspapers on the following day contained accounts of the extraordinary strength of the protesters. Even after a violent attack on them by cavalry with horsemen wielding swords, they persisted in moving forward toward the palace, calling for the emperor and shouting abuse at the troops, yet avoiding any appearance of acting violently. Their form of passive resistance made little difference to the soldiers’ actions. Within half an hour of the previous violent assault on helpless citizens a second attack occurred on those who remained. They were told to disperse but before they could get away volleys of shots rang out.

Most were shot in their backs as they attempted to escape. Bodies were scattered over the sidewalk. A witness to the tragedy identified women, children, as well as men, among the dead. Splashes and streams of blood stained the snow. Only a very few survived because the volleys were fired from twenty feet away. Ambulances had little to do. Policemen found a large number of sleighs to carry off the dead. Cries of anguish and despair were mingled with shouts of “murderers, murderers!” Early in the morning of January 23 it could have been obvious to anyone that the military commander at the palace anticipated a major revolt, despite his recognition of Gapon’s opposition to any form of violence. What the commander was opposed to, obviously, was any form of protest, however harmless.

Every street and every bridge crossing the River Neva had been ringed with triple rows of defenses, as if an invading army was at the city gates. Because different things were happening in different places it was difficult to get an overall picture. Some days later it was discovered that large numbers of protesters in suburban areas had been shot before their procession began to move. On January 24, the military commander declared martial law and went on to station troop detachments at all strategic points around St. Petersburg. The New York Times, because of the time delay, was able to carry the previous day’s news on its January 23 issue. The front page was headlines with phrases like “Day of Terror in Russia,” and “Czar’s subjects arm for revolt.” Bloody Sunday, as the January 22 event was known, led to further unrest as people became radicalized by the treatment they received. In the weeks that followed disturbances broke out throughout the country.

In factory after factory close to half a million workers went on strike. Uprisings also took place in territories that bordered Russia and were part of its empire such as Russian Poland, the Baltic countries, and Finland. Sailors on one battleship mutinied. Maxim Gorky, the Russian novelist, took the side of the strikers. On Monday morning he spoke of the previous day as inaugurating revolution in Russia. He said that the emperor’s prestige had been irrevocably shattered by the behavior of the military units. Gorky was arrested in Riga, Latvia, two days later and held in prison for a month, after which he was released on bail. Gorky pointed out that Father Gapon persuaded the workers to believe that a direct approach to the one he called “Little Father” would be successful.

Now he and all with him have been deceived. Gorky went on to say that peaceful means of change will not work and therefore force must be employed. He insisted in speeches to large crowds that the country now has no emperor because too much blood lies between him and the people. Because of the great respect accorded him, Gorky’s words carried a lot of weight, especially when he urged his listeners to begin the people’s struggle for freedom. Some began an appeal for arms. Others proposed a letter condemning the soldiers at the Winter Palace while commending those in Moscow who had refused to fire on protesters. The czar knew for the first time that he could no longer solve peaceful protests with bullets; he had to make some concessions.

He faced what Vladimir Lenin would later call a revolutionary situation. His style of addressing the situation sounds strange to us but it underlines the reality of the absolute power he held. Even the smallest concession on his part would represent a major change for all of Russia. Eight months after Bloody Sunday he issued a proclamation to the country. In it he describes himself as “We, Nicholas the II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, Czar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland,” which is a strange way for a single individual to talk. He then went on to say how the people’s sorrow was also his and, therefore, that we, using that same word again, must do everything possible to bring an end to unrest. Maybe he was including his wife and children along with himself when he made the plural reference to the czar. There were three parts to the proclamation. First, everyone was assured civic freedom based on the integrity of the individual.

This included freedoms of speech, conscience, assembly, and association. Second, all those who were at that time deprived of their franchise would be given access to the country’s parliament, the Duma, and have an opportunity to vote in it. Third, the Duma would have full power to pass or reject whatever laws were proposed. Implied in these new freedoms was the right of work ers to form trade unions and peasants to create their own individual small farms. Up to that time all lands were held in common with no individual owning land. All of these changes, while modest as we might see them, changed Russia forever. Russia could never go back to being a dictatorship. The people’s revolution had succeeded in getting a constitution that gave them new and permanent rights.

At the same time, power remained in the hands of those who held the large tracts of land because this was still a rural society and whoever had most land got most votes in the Duma. Society became divided in a new way. No longer was it the people against the czar. Now two social classes appeared, the have-nots and the haves. In later years as the communist revolution of 1917 broke out and transformed Russia back into another dictatorship for seventy years, the revolution of 1905 was seen as its dress rehearsal. The many workers’ movements that emerged in the interim twelve years created opportunities for Lenin who was able to unite the most powerful among them. He then used these groups to set up the new communist dictatorship by force.

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