By Helen Salmon
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The Path to Freedom

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This year marks the centenary of the first Russian Revolution - an event that shaped our understanding of how mass movements can grow.
Issue 292

We print extracts from Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s book 1905 where he describes the events that took place. Below, Helen Salmon sets the scene.

‘Within this vast space every epoch of human culture is to be found: from the primeval barbarism of the northern forests, where people eat raw fish and worship blocks of wood, to the modern social relations of the capitalist city, where socialist workers consciously recognise themselves as participants in world politics… ‘ This was how Leon Trotsky a century ago characterised the combined and uneven development of Russia, a country on the brink of the first of its revolutions that would challenge the whole world.

In the run-up to 1905 the Russian tsars had attempted to import advanced European industry, and therefore military capacity, without any change in Russian social relations. The tsars had autocratic power that proclaimed Tsar Nicholas II as the ‘Little Father’, god’s man in Russia.

Opposition to the autocracy was growing from many angles. Industrialisation and Russia’s ruinous war with Japan in 1904 were financed by foreign loans and squeezing the peasantry dry. The level of poverty in the villages was such that Shingarev, a Liberal deputy in the Duma (the sham parliament set up after the 1905 Revolution), reported that 9.3 percent of peasant households in the province he investigated, Voronezh, were too cold and had too little food for even cockroaches to want to nest there.

Sporadic peasant unrest often took the form of violent attacks on landlords, and demands that the land stolen from them when they were released from serfdom in 1861 be returned. The urban and student-based Narodniks attempted to agitate among the peasantry, and assassinated Nicholas II’s father in 1881. Vladimir Lenin’s brother was among those executed for the assassination.

The nervous and weak Russian intelligentsia was requesting constitutional limits to the tsar’s power. Some in his court advocated such a compromise, seeing in this the salvation of Russian tsardom. The banquets held by the intelligentsia were the toast of the European press, who saw these events and personalities as the subjects of change in autocratic Russia, and praised them for their moderation and reasonableness.

This month sees the centenary of the events that began the 1905 Revolution. On 9 January workers in St Petersburg began a march which aimed to petition the tsar. The petition began:

‘Sire! We workers, our children and wives, the helpless old people who are our parents, we have come to you, sire, to seek justice and protection.’

The petition went on to demand the eight-hour working day, the separation of church from state, a fair wage, land to be redistributed, and the convocation of a constituent assembly. The start of the petition reflected a real belief that the tsar stood above society, stood apart from the owners of the factories, the landlords, the government ministers and the police, who the petitioners saw as their direct oppressors. The march was led by a police spy called Father Gapon, who found himself forced to give voice to the people’s discontent if he was to maintain any position of influence with the workers.

The petition finished: ‘Before us lie only two paths: to freedom and happiness, or to the grave. Sire, point either of those two paths to us and we shall follow, even if it is the path towards death. Let our lives be sacrificed for long suffering Russia. We are not sorry to make this sacrifice; we shall make it willingly.’

This sacrifice was made. When soldiers gunned down this priest-led demonstration of workers, many of whom carried pictures of Nicholas II, outside the Winter Palace, illusions in the ‘Little Father’ as protector of ordinary Russians were smashed. The massacre became know as Bloody Sunday.

‘The soldiers fired all day long. The dead were counted in the hundreds, the wounded in the thousands. An exact count was impossible since the police carted away and secretly buried the bodies of the dead at night.’

Attempts by tsardom to court the reformist intelligentsia were replaced by a military dictatorship. The notion that polite banquets would bring democracy to Russia was gone. A strike wave swept through the Russian Empire. By June barricades had been erected in Poland and the sailors of the battleship Potemkin had mutinied. In September the Moscow typesetters struck. The strike spread to the railways and from there became a general strike. The proletariat had stepped onto the stage of Russian and world history.

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