Monday, 28 March 2011

Revolution of 1905: (3) A new idea from Ivanovo-Voznesensk. And then Odessa - the dream and the nightmare.

What made strikes in Russia into revolution was not just their extent or the adoption of political demands, still less the violence and destruction (at which the forces of order always excelled), but the way workers progressed from immediate economic concerns to lead society, creating organs which took on functions normally reserved for government.

At Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a textile city north-east of Moscow, a government factory inspector advised discontented workers to form an assembly. In May they came out on strike demanding shorter hours, a higher minimum wage, paid maternity leave, factory nurseries, freedom to meet and the right to read newspapers during breaks. On 20th May they voted to set up a workers' militia to keep order and combat hooligans of the monarchist, antisemitic Black Hundreds.

The strike committee found itself called upon to regulate food prices in the shops and to decide if printers could produce official notices requested by the Governor. With Cossack reinforcements, the authorities tried to stop the workers from meeting. But the strike lasted until July, when employers agreed to pay rises, paid maternity leave and other demands. Meanwhile the workers' committee had adopted a new name: soviet, meaning 'council.

In Lodz, after soldiers shot demonstrators, workers led by the Polish Socialists, Social Democrats and the Bund resisted government troops for three days in June 1905. Some 300 people were killed and 1,000 wounded. Trouble spread across Poland and the troops had to be reinforced from 250,000 to 300,000.

Odessa in the south, a boom city in the late 19th century, had been quiet at the start of 1905. Two Bolsheviks who tried to start a strike in the railway workshops after Bloody Sunday were handed over to police. But that spring political unrest and union activity grew among dockers and doctors, sailors and seamstresses.

Many had come to Odessa in prosperous times, among them Jewish workers who found employment in factories and the waterfront. Bundist militants escaping police crackdowns in Vilna came too. Bolsheviks were gaining influence among the railway workers, and there were Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries too. At the urging of the workers, and on the initiative of the Bund, the different factions in Odessa began meeting to discuss a common strategy. Odessa city council, which had tried to send money to Bloody Sunday victims, asked Dr Mikhail Bogomolets to report on workers' conditions and health in the Peresyp district. His detailed report called for new sewers, improvements in factory conditions, enforcement of public health laws, workers' participation in safety measures, trade union rights and democratic local government. Dr Bogomolets, a Bolshevik, did more than recommend reforms. He and his colleagues saw to it that workers from the Peresyp came to the meetings.

Politics breathed fresh life into union activity. On 6th May over 10,000 workers walked out of Peresyp's
engineering plants and shipyards, and strikes spread. Demands included canteen facilities, sickness benefits, free medical care, an end to bosses using offensive language and an end to the war.

On 15th June, after clashes between striking workers and the police and Black Hundreds, which left scores dead and many buildings blazing, the Czar placed Odessa under martial law. Into this port sailed the battleship Potemkin, seized by its crew after a row over maggot-ridden food. They brought ashore the body of a comrade killed by the officers.

Konstantin Feldman, a student, went down to the port.
'Where are you going?'
'To the free revolutionary ship,' I answered.
'And who may you be, a Social Democrat?'
'And what proof do you have to show?'
'Social Democrats don't have passports to show, they let us go to rot in Siberia and prison without them.'
'Well get in with us.

He stepped down into the cutter alongside the young sailor who had challenged him, a craggy-faced Ukrainian whom the men introduced as their commander, 25-year old Matyushenko. Two other agitators arrived on board the Potemkin, one of them a Bundist. The sailors gathered for a mass meeting. Feldman told them about the workers' struggles all over Russia, and said workers were dying with the slogan 'Death or Freedom!' It was taken up in thundering chorus. Then the Bundist spoke of brotherhood and equality, of the solidarity of the proletariat, of the Social Democrats marching at their head. 'And hand in hand with the proletariat of all lands, you sailors, their brothers, give a mighty cheer: Hurrah for socialism! Hurrah for freedom!' A mighty hurrah resounded.

But then the bell rang for dinner. The sailors invited us to join them. We were glad to accept their invitations, for we had eaten nothing all the morning. Surrounded by a dense crowd of sailors,
we went below. We were offered a little glass of vodka, then we were seated on long benches besides the sailors. The faces of all were excited. Our hearts too were throbbing joyfully. Can it be it's not a dream? Can the freedom of Russia be so near?

'I longed to shake hands; I could have hugged them all in a burst of holiday feeling. And at that instant I felt someone squeezing my hand. I turned round. It was the Bundist. He too was feeling as I did. We stood in silence, looking into each others eyes, and one of us murmured, "Can it be...?" That simple phrase said it all.'

Onshore, as Odessa citizens gathered to cheer the Potemkin, the powers that be ordered a massacre, troops shooting people down mercilessly on the steps as depicted in Eisenstein's famous film. Over 1,000 were killed. At the urging of Bolsheviks and Bundists, the Potemkin sailors replied by shelling a theatre where the reactionaries were meeting. But one ship could not take on the whole Russian army and navy, though when the Black Sea fleet steamed up, the Potemkin, signalling to them, 'Join us', was able to sail through.

The reactionaries had not finished. In October, even as the Czar proclaimed limited freedoms and a limited parliament, the Duma, they launched a bloody antisemitic pogrom in Odessa lasting three days, and killing 800 people. Neither old people nor babies were spared. 'The Jews want freedom? We'll show them what freedom is!' said Neidhardt, Odessa's City Governor. Such 'spontaneous' pogroms, better organised and better armed than the revolution, spread across Russia, though not where the socialists were stronger, Moscow or St Petersburg, where a young fellow called Bronstein, better known as Trotsky, was chairing the Soviet.

To change the world you not only had to down tools, but take up arms, to know what you were up against. Russia had given the world a glimpse of things to come: the dream of solidarity on Potemkin and the nightmare of the Odessa steps massacre and pogroms.

(first published in Jewish Socialist no.50, Summer 2005)

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