January 22nd, 1905.
This is the day the Russian Empire fell.
Oh, the corpse shambled on for another twelve years, but it’s soul was dead, gunned down by soldiers outside the Narva Gate and on the Nevsky Prospect.
Let’s start at the beginning.
1904 had not been a good year for Russia, for reasons that were not new. The rapid pace of industrialization had created a peasant proletariat in the cities, beaten down by the managers and owners and seething with resentment. The bourgeois middle class that should have supported the state against the poor resented the Imperial Government’s autocratic grip on power. Strikes and labor stoppages became more and more common in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as did support for socialists, anarchists, and other subversive groups. Meanwhile, the children of the privileged increasingly turned to revolutionary terrorism, and the number of nobles and generals shot down or blown up increased exponentially. Finally, the spark: war with Japan had begun in the Far East and it was not going well. The Russo-Japanese War was supposed to be, in the words of Interior Minister Plehve “a short, victorious war” that would restore the people’s confidence in the Tsar and his government. Instead, Japan had delivered a series of humiliating defeats to the Russian armies and was even now driving deep into Manchuria. Casualties were reported to have been in the hundreds of thousands. Plehve did not appreciate the depth of his failure, as a Jewish terrorist had thrown a bomb into his carriage last July.
Faced with mounting discontent within the St. Petersburg proletariat, the authorities decided to try a novel solution: police unionism. To lure the workers away from radicalism, state-sponsored unions were created to provide services to the workers in a government-sanctioned and monitored way. The Assembly of the Russian Factory and Mill Workers of the City of St. Petersburg (The Assembly) provided recreation, insurance, and a forum for advocating for better pay and conditions in a socially-acceptable manner. Led by the charismatic young priest Father Georgy Gapon, the Assembly grew quite popular. It seemed that at last a solution had been found to the social problems of urban Russia. But the Russian police had made one major miscalculation. They saw Father Gapon’s role as appeasing the workers so as to prevent open revolution. Father Gapon, on the other hand, saw himself as an advocate for the working men and women of Russia. And if it came down to it, he was willing to stand up to the government on their behalf.
In December of 1904, a group of workers were fired by the Putilov Ironworks. The reason is murky; the managers claimed they were drunkards and perpetually late, others claimed it was in retaliation for their union membership. Whatever the initial justification, rage over the incident spread quickly. The rest of the Putilov workforce declared a strike in protest, and other factories followed suit. By late January, over 150,000 workers were on strike, the city was virtually paralyzed, and poor Father Gapon was trapped in the middle desperately trying to find a solution that could satisfy both his bosses and the workers that depended on him. At last, on the evening of January 19th, Gapon hit upon a plan that must have seemed quite reasonable to him. The striking worker’s problems was with the brutal policemen and greedy overseers, no? Would not the Tsar, the kind and benevolent ruler of his people be outraged to hear of this? The best thing to do would be to bring news of the outrages to the Little Father directly.
“The king has been misled by evil counselors!” Such went the perennial cry of the Russian peasant. The Russian people may have hated the boyars and nobles, the soldiers and police, the factory managers and overseers, but they had never lost their faith in the Tsar. In Russian political tradition, the Tsar was the special conduit between God and his People, guiding them and protecting them from evil. The oppression of the poor could only be because of his wicked advisors who had misled him as to the true situation. With the exception of a relatively small number of true revolutionaries, most of the striking workers in St. Petersburg were not truly radical. They retained their Orthodox faith and their deep devotion to the monarchy, and if their material conditions improved they would be more than happy to retain the political status quo. Father Gapon, for all his worldly success, was in that regard as naive as any Siberian peasant. Early in the morning of January 22nd, Gapon and 50,000 workers and their families began to make their way down the snow-covered streets of St. Petersburg to the Winter Palace. They held religious icons and portraits of the Tsar, and sung hymnals and patriotic anthems. In his hands Gapon held a petition he hoped to present to the Emperor and Autocrat of All Russia, most humbly requesting that His Majesty intervene to help the workers gain better wages, shorter hours, and safer conditions. The day before, the priest had sent a copy of his petition to the Interior Ministry along with proper notification of his intentions. In response, the Tsar left the city for his country palace and ordered infantry reinforcements brought into the city.
The only thing that can be said in defense of the government’s response is that it was totally incoherent. No senior minister seems to have given the order to open fire. Some officers seem to have been under the impression that small delegations of protesters would be allowed to approach. But starting at around 10:00 AM, as the various groups arrived at the palace entries, volleys of rifle fire began to ring out without warning. Cossack squadrons then charged, striking out with their sabers indiscriminately. Singing turned to screaming, and religious icons were trampled into the snow as men, women, and children fought to escape the massacre. In the front ranks, Father Gapon was heard shouting “There is no Tsar! There is no God!” By days end, over a thousand had been killed or wounded.
Tsar Nicholas II was not among them. He lived until 1918. But the Little Father was dead.
The immediate reaction to Bloody Sunday was swift and furious. Waves of strikes erupted across Northeast Russia, followed by open insurrection in the countryside. Telegraph and railways lines were cut, officials and nobles were murdered, manor houses burned. For a shining moment it looked like the whole rotten edifice of the Russian State was about to collapse. It did not. With one hand the Tsar promised illusionary liberal reforms that never quite materialized, with the other he unleashed the full might of his military against his people. Thousands died, tens of thousands were injured or exiled. By year’s end the Tsar’s government was firmly back in power. But something fundamental had changed. With one supreme act of callousness, the myth of the evil counselors had died forever.
In truth, Nicholas II had little to do with the events of January 22nd, for good or ill. In diary that night he wrote “A terrible day. Troops had to fire in many places of the city, there were many killed and wounded. God, how painful and awful.” There is no sense in those words that the writer was the Supreme Autocrat of his nation, that those were his troops, enacting his policies. But it didn’t matter. The People had gone to the Little Father to beg redress of grievances, the soldiers of the Little Father had gunned them down like dogs. That same night, a disheveled Father Gapon told an enraged crowd that “Peaceful means have failed. Now we must go over to other means!” He would flee Russia that day, and go to Switzerland, where he would meet Vladimir Lenin. It was a changing of the guard. The age of the humble priest was over, the age of the revolutionary had begun. The Russian Empire lasted twelve years after Bloody Sunday. But no one had any illusions now. Never again would the Russian people assume that the Tsar was on their side. Never again would they petition him peacefully. In the popular imagination, Nicholas became not a semi-divine figure standing above the ministers and bureaucrats that tormented the people but merely their chief. Even among the Russian rural peasantry, one of the world’s most conservative institutions, a great bitterness took root. It would take another decade for that root to blossom. But on January 22nd, it’s flowering became inevitable.
“There is no Tsar! There is no God!” There was only the Revolution now.