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1905—a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the Russian Revolution

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Issue 2539
Soldiers open fire on marchers in St Petersburg on Russias Bloody Sunday
Soldiers open fire on marchers in St Petersburg on Russia’s Bloody Sunday

The stage for the 1917 revolution was set by what Lenin called its “dress rehearsal” twelve years earlier.

In 1905 the Tsar’s regime was losing a war with Japan—and the humiliation made it more vulnerable to opposition at home.

This was expected to come from disgruntled liberal sections of the elite, enriched by modern mills and factories more than old landed estates.

Compared to elected governments in the West, they saw Russia’s despotism as a relic holding back its development.

This elite was revealed as cowardly and timid. Students were left to bravely fight, and lose, alone.

But the growth of Russian capitalism also produced a new working class concentrated into factories and increasingly willing to strike.

Some workers echoed the liberals’ demand for a democratic constitution. But for them, democracy was a way to push back against the same capitalist exploitation the liberals’ wealth and influence was founded on.

Four workers were sacked at the Putilov ironworks in the capital, St Petersburg, in December 1904 for joining a semi-official “union”.

It was run by the curious figure of Georgy Gapon—a priest, agitator and police informer.

Strikes engulfed the city, drawing in 150,000 workers in 382 factories, shutting off electricity and newspapers.

Around 130,000 workers signed Gapon’s petition demanding better pay and trade union rights as well as political reform.

On Sunday 22 January he led a peaceful march of workers, holding religious icons and singing “God save the Tsar”. Their petition appealed to the Tsar for “justice and protection”.

His regime replied with bullets, killing up to 4,000 and revealing the Tsar to be workers’ oppressor-in-chief.

Strikes spread throughout Russia over the next three months. The mass execution, jailing and exile of workers and peasants failed to restore order.

Summer saw mutinies shake the navy. Oppressed nationalities grew restive. Far-right groups led murderous pogroms against Jews with the authorities’ connivance.

Workers launched an even mightier strike wave in October, a political general strike demanding reform.

To enforce, spread and coordinate action, workers in St Petersburg set up a council, or “Soviet” with delegates elected from workplaces.

As the strike movement paralysed the country it became the real power in many cities.

The Soviet’s “flying print shop” ran rings round the regime’s censorship.

Volunteers would invade a print works, “arrest” management, and occupy. Striking power plant workers would turn electricity back on to print the Soviet’s newspaper.

Soon it was counter-revolutionaries who couldn’t find printers for their rags.

The Tsar eventually issued the “October Manifesto” for limited constitutional reform, showing workers what they were capable of.

Yet his proposals were a sham of democratic rights, and didn’t address problems at work. Going back under the bosses’ yoke after tasting power filled workers with fresh anger.

Strikes took off again, demanding an eight hour working day and raising the question of who ran Russia—the state or the Soviet.

It took fierce street battles to answer it. Troops invaded the cities. Workers built barricades and fought back.

They were outgunned, outnumbered and struggled to win soldiers to their side. But in Moscow it took the regime two weeks to overcome resistance.

Repression and terror crushed this first Russian Revolution. But it revealed truths that couldn’t be erased to a working class that was still rapidly growing.

The 1905 revolution showed the liberals were more scared of the workers than they were of the Tsar. Workers would have to lead the battle for democracy and social change themselves.

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