Sunday, 27 March 2011

Revolution of 1905: 1) The First Bloody Sunday

FATHER GEORGY GAPON suggested petition to the Czar.

On Sunday 9th January 1905, columns of working men and women with their children set off to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to present a petition to His Imperial Majesty Czar Nicholas II asking for better conditions and political reforms. Like the weavers who had assembled for their rights in St Peters Fields, Manchester, almost a century before, they came as if they were going on a holiday procession, whole families wearing their cleanest clothes.

They started the morning kneeling in prayer, amid lightly drifting snow. Forming up to march in orderly manner, they carried holy icons, national flags, and portraits of the Czar and Czarina, and sang not revolutionary songs but .favourite hymns. They were led by a priest, Father George Gapon, whom they trusted would receive a hearing from those in power.

A year before, Gapon, a former prison chaplain, had persuaded Interior Minister Plehve to let him to set up something which Moscow secret police chief Zubatov had introduced: a legal organisation
where workers could meet socially, organise mutual funds, even seek improvements in conditions, while remaining loyal to the Czar and safe from revolutionary influences. This Assembly of St. Petersburg Factory Workers excluded anyone who wasn't Russian and Christian. Numerous police agents ensured its assembly halls excluded troublemaking Jews, students and 'politics'. But, like the Zubatov unions before them, they could not exclude class struggle.

At the end of 1904, workers at St Petersburg's Putilov ironworks approached the management to negotiate over conditions and pay. On 2nd January, believing their representatives were being victimised, and finding that the bosses would not listen, the Putilov's entire 13,000 workforce swept out of the works, past the police who were trying to restrain them. With Gapon's help, workers drew up a list of demands, including an eight-hour day, increased minimum pay, better sanitary facilities and free medical aid. They wanted a recognised bargaining committee and no arbitrary dismissals. Groups of Putilov workers toured nearby shipyards and factories, persuading other workers to join them. By the end of the week, almost all St. Petersburg's manufacturing, from steel and textiles, furniture and chocolates, had stopped.

Father Gapon proposed that they should assemble at their halls and march to the Winter Palace with a petition. They would ask the Czar to grant popular representation, release of political and religious prisoners, freedom to form unions and co-operatives, state education at primary level, and
separation of church from state. They also called for an end to the unpopular war with Japan which had dragged Russia to ruin. 'Thy name will be engraved in our hearts and in those of posterity forever,' promised the petition, signed by 'George Gapon, priest,. Ivan Vasimov, worker', and thousands who could barely write their names. Otherwise, 'we will die here in this square.... Let our lives be a sacrifice
for suffering Russia.' This was to be the only wish the Czar would grant that day.

The authorities didn't rely on priests or prayers. As the working people marched peacefully, thousands of police and troops from elite guard regiments were in position and reinforcements arriving. Near the Narva Arch, the workers were ordered to halt; but they carried on, perhaps believing that their moral will would prevail. A cavalry squadron galloped in to disperse them but they regrouped. Riflemen fired eight volleys into the crowd before they fled, Father Gapon with them, leaving a dozen dead and more wounded. Across the capital, columns from the Vyborg and St Petersburg quarters converging on the Troitsky Bridge, had the same reception. Shocked and terrified, people ran for their lives, leaving comrades bleeding in the snow.

As people struggled home, some workers went to Palace Square where they were joined by students, supporters, and people who came to see what was happening. Troops were ordered to clear the area. People jeered that they should be fighting the Japanese or called on them to come over to the people. The Preobrazhensky Guards opened fire on the crowd and kept firing until everyone had either fallen or fled. People tried to help their wounded friends escape. The officers took their men to St Petersburg's main street, the Nevsky Prospect, concentrating their fire at the crossroads where the crowds were thickest. On Vasilevsky Island that afternoon some students threw up makeshift barricades and fought running battles with police. By evening, order was restored. The imperial capital was quiet except for the weeping of those who had lost dear ones. Officials estimated 96 dead and more than 330 wounded, one tenth of whom died later from their wounds. 'There is no God, and no Czar!' cried Father Gapon. A week of illusion was over. A century of wars and revolutions had begun.

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