Monday, 28 March 2011

Revolution of 1905:(2) Shaking an Empire

BLOODY SUNDAY. Began with a peaceful petition.

The entire Russian Empire was shaken by Bloody Sunday in St.Petersburg, all the peoples' discontents bursting forth. "Comrades! On the streets of St.Petersburg the first barricades have been built... the great day has come! The revolution has come ... Arm yourselves!', urged Rafael Abramowitz, a leader of the Jewish Workers' Bund, who had left St Petersburg to report to a Central Committee meeting in Dvinsk.

On 10th January the Bund and its allies called a general strike. Workers were already out in St Petersburg and Moscow, and strikes rolled from Warsaw and Vilna (11th January), Riga and Kiev (12th January), Lodz, Minsk and other cities by the 13th, and, by the end of week as far as Batum and Tbilisi in the Caucasus, Samara and Kazan. Altogether, half a million workers went on strike - Russian and Pole, Jew and Lett, Georgian and Finn - and their unrest was shared by students and professionals.

In Riga, the Latvian capital, a meeting of Lettish, Jewish, Russian and Ukrainian Social Democrats resolved to campaign for a constituent assembly and political freedom. Some 15,000 people, some armed with pistols, marched on 13th January. Police and troops opened fire, killing at least 40 people and wounding 200. Crowds fleeing across the frozen River Dvina were drowned as the ice gave way.

In the latter part of the 19th century, capitalism, having spread unevenly around the whole world, entered a new stage. Great powers emerged. Small firms in national markets were overshadowed by giant combinations of industry and capital, commanding governments, their fleets and armies, to carve world markets and materials into empires. Bestriding continents with railways, telegraphs, soldiers and settlers, the United States and Russia reached the Pacific. US power crossed to 'liberate' Spain's Philippines colony, and eye China. Russian interests, keeping forces in Manchuria after the Boxer Rebellion, coveted neighbouring Korea, where they faced a new upstart rival: Japan.

The Russian Empire, though still feared in Europe, was backward. Its autocratic regime and army rested on the backs of poor peasants barely out of serfdom. Its institutions maintained outdated prejudices, notably the segregation and persecution of Russia's Jews. Russia's educated and business classes had little say in politics; its rapidly growing working class had no rights at all. Huge modern factories established by foreign capital stood surrounded by insanitary slums. Only the means of repression - secret police, prison exile, state-sponsored pogroms - foreshadowed later developments. That repression, and the advanced ideas, which spread among intellectuals and working people despite the efforts of police and priests, even secretly penetrating some army units and ships.

The brutal weight of repression was sometimes lightened by inefficiency, confusion and corruption. A police chief in Ekaterinoslav earned praise and promotion by uncovering and closing illicit printing presses each year, until it emerged that he kept setting them up to make his name with raids. Nowadays we'd say he was meeting targets.

The Japanese government sent a note to the Imperial Russian government about timber concessions that a retired officer turned speculator, Bezobrazov, had obtained along Korea's Yalu river, claimed by Japan. Bezobrazov had friends in the Admiralty and court, and the Russian government took no notice of the Japanese, trusting that its forces in Manchuria and warships at Port Arthur would hold them away.
On 26th January 1904, Japanese torpedo boats attacked Russia's fleet at Port Arthur, sinking or crippling most of it before sailing home. 'Asiatic treachery!' screamed the conservative St Petersburg press, vowing that Russia would soon be avenged. A Moscow University professor, Prince Trubetskoi, said Russia was defending Europe against the 'yellow danger, the new hordes of Mongols'. But the Japanese army was German-trained, and its Navy equipped and trained by Britain. Seeing what havoc its new Whitehead torpedoes had wreaked in Port Arthur, The Times said Japan's 'act of daring' would earn 'a place of honour in naval annals'. Who would foresee Pearl Harbour?

Russian officers called the Japanese 'yellow monkeys'. They assumed Russia's huge army and gold reserve would prevail. A brief mood of patriotism swept through the middle class, dreaming of'destiny in the east . But Russia's army was scattered across a huge empire, larger forces holding rebellious Poland and the Baltic areas than could be moved to the Far East. Economically, while British and American finance bankrolled the Japanese, Russia was devastated by the war. Firms profiting from military contracts were outnumbered by those hit by disruption of Asian trade. Workers were laid off, textiles left standing in the Trans-Siberian Railway's sidings as it struggled to convey military supplies.

Though some Russian units fought bravely, they were badly led and poorly equipped, and morale fell. Foreign observers reported that the only time senior commanders led from the front was fleeing ahead of their men after the Battle of Mukden (March 1905).

With one fleet lying at the bottom of the Yellow Sea and other ships bottled up in the Black Sea by Turkish batteries and international treaty, Russia despatched a fleet from the Baltic to the Pacific war zone. Panickv over rumours of saboteurs and Japanese gunboats, the Russians sank a British trawler in the North Sea, engendering war talk and harassment from shadowing Royal Navy ships, before sailing around Africa. With scarcely a port willing to shelter them for coaling, they endured tropical sickness, hardship and mutiny By the time they reached the Pacific, Port Arthur had fallen, on 20th December 1904, two week-before Bloody Sunday.

Heading for Vladivostok, the doomed fleet entered the Tsushima Strait and the jaws of the Japanese navy. It was destroyed on 14th May 1905 and its admiral was captured. Russia secretly accepted the good offices of US President Theodore Roosevelt to sue for peace.

Talk of Japanese agents in Europe was not entirely groundless. Colonel Akashi, former military attache in St Petersburg, had travelled to Sweden to meet Finnish, Polish and Russian revolutionaries. Finnish radical Konni Zilliacus saw the war as an opportunity. He urged a united manifesto to the Czar, propaganda among the troops, and arms for the revolution. He thought Japanese forces could free political prisoners from Siberia. Polish Socialist Party leader Jozef Pilsudski sought support in Japan to raise a Polish Legion.

More advanced than Russia in some respects, its western subject peoples smarted under social and national oppression. Poland's 11.3 million people, less than 8% of the Russian Empire's population, contributed 25% of its industrial output and 150 million roubles a year to the imperial treasury. But Poles were denied even local councils and were excluded from government jobs. The schools were forbidden to teach Catholicism or the Polish language. Some 60% of Polish army recruits could neither read nor write.
Wealthy Polish manufacturers and landlords tempered national resentment with appreciation of Russian order and markets, hoping to share in the spoils of empire. Dmowski's National Democrats (Endeks) opposed Pilsudski's adventurism, focusing their nationalism against Germans, or safer still, Poland's Jews, even though many Jews were serving at the front in Manchuria.

Besides those sent to war, some 100,000 workers in Poland were laid off when Asian markets closed and those still working faced wage cuts.

Following Bloody Sunday, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), the more marxist Social Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania, and the Bund called strikes. School students went on strike, demanding teaching in their own language. During a three-day general strike in Lodz, barricades went up and the Governor was captured until troops rescued him. With their leader's nationalist, military outlook, and hopes on Japan, PPS armed squads ambushed troops and police on Warsaw streets. This led to nervous, trigger-happy soldiers shooting people indiscriminately but did not provide workers with means to take power or defend themselves. Warsaw was placed under siege on 17th January; 64 people were killed and 69 wounded by government troops.

At the Socialist International Congress in Amsterdam in 1904, the veteran Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov embraced Japanese socialist Sen Katayama, to rapturous applause from delegates. If the Czarist government defeated Japan, Plekhanov declared, the losers would be the Russian people and the subject nations. As internationalists the social democrats could neither go along with liberal patriotism nor tie their hopes to Japanese victory. As it turned out, Russia's defeat could be entrusted to the rulers who had taken the country to war in the first place. But if the workers' struggle hastened an end to the war, so much the better. In that sense, socialists were 'defeatists'.

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