The workers’ deputies found that interpellations addressed to the government from the Duma rostrum were a most useful means of agitation. By asking various questions we succeeded in concentrating the attention of the masses on definite crimes committed by the tsarist government. These interpellations, based on current events, enabled us to use the rostrum in a Bolshevik manner, i.e. to carry on an agitation, over the heads of the Black Hundred majority, among the working class for solidarity and determination in the revolutionary onslaught on the existing regime. On these occasions the Bolsheviks trenchantly and straightforwardly exposed the Sores and rottenness of tsarism and the bourgeoisie. In connection with every event which served as the occasion for an interpellation, we showed the worker that there was no reason for him to expect any improvement in his conditions and that the only path for the proletariat was the path of revolution.
”Is the minister aware of this and what steps does he propose to take?” – this concluding sentence of every interpellation had no importance for the workers’ deputies. We were perfectly aware that every instance of oppression and police outrage was well known to the tsarist ministers with whose blessing and by whose orders it occurred, and we knew in advance that the ministers would do nothing to prevent such infractions of the law. Neither did we attach any importance to the replies given by the ministers who, in the most flagrant cases, tried to hide the facts behind a hedge of formalities. For us, the significance and purpose of each interpellation was that we proclaimed to the entire working class the truth about the nature of the autocratic regime and enabled the masses to draw the necessary conclusions.
Since the interpellation became a powerful weapon in the hands of the Social-Democratic fraction, it was only natural that the government, assisted by its faithful Black Hundred Duma, should take all possible measures to blunt it. The procedure by which interpellations in the Duma were made was exceedingly complicated and enabled the majority consisting of landlords and nobles to delay or shelve any interpellation which it deemed undesirable or dangerous.
The chief difficulty of our fraction was that an interpellation could only be introduced if it was signed by at least thirty-three Duma members. The signatures of our fourteen members, together with those of the ten Trudoviks, the party nearest to us in the Duma, did not give us the required number. We had to “borrow” signatures from the Cadets or the Progressives. The conditions under which the various parliamentary parties associated were such that individual members of the Cadets and Progressives sometimes added their signatures to our interpellations. But this only occurred rarely and very often they flatly refused to help us.
Even when the signatures had been secured, the matter was by no means settled. It was necessary to insist that the question be brought up for discussion, and this was not in the interests of the Duma chairman, Rodzyanko, gentleman-inwaiting to his imperial majesty. One method of delaying an interpellation was to deny its urgency. Before deciding whether or not the question itself should be allowed, the Duma first discussed whether it should be treated as urgent. The Duma majority decided against nearly all the questions of the Social-Democratic fraction and turned them over to the “interpellation commission” where they remained for several months.
This was a regular method of shelving a question. It was reckoned that if it remained long enough in the commission the point in question would lose its actuality and therefore would not create the effect in the country which it had been calculated to produce.
However, we were able, during the debate on urgency, to achieve the purpose for which the question had been framed. Speeches made in this debate actually dealt with the substance of the question. Under the guise of advocating the urgency of the question, the Social-Democratic deputies exposed and denounced the existing regime. In this connection a constant struggle proceeded with the Duma chairman, who had received special instructions from the government to hinder in every possible way the speeches made by the Lefts. The chairman carefully followed our speeches, trying to anticipate and prevent all digressions from the formal topic of urgency; while we, ignoring his calls to order, went ahead and said what we regarded as necessary. Most of these encounters ended in Rodzyanko or his vice-chairman losing patience and stopping the workers’ deputies in the middle of their speeches.
Unceremonious attempts to deprive the Social-Democrats of the right to make interpellations had also been frequently made by the Black Hundreds in the Third Duma. We had to expect a similar procedure in the Fourth Duma, but this was yet another reason why we should fight harder and more persistently to ensure that the voices of the workers’ deputies should be heard as far as possible all over the country. Pravda wrote:
We can predict with absolute certainty that, in the Fourth Duma, the Purishkeviches and the Khvostovs will try to prevent the interpellations of the workers’ deputies. These gentry would like to gag all the real representatives of the people. We can foretell, however, with equal certainty, that now that the working class is awake and democracy is closing its ranks, the reactionary gentlemen will be less successful than ever in their efforts.
In their demands drawn up during the election campaign, the workers had advocated the introduction of a number of interpellations. From the commencement of our Duma work, workers’ resolutions began to stream into our fraction requesting that the government be questioned on various matters. They suggested that interpellations should be framed on the faking of the Duma elections, the persecution of trade unions, the treatment of political prisoners in Kutomarskaya, Algachinskaya and other prisons, the results of the inquiry into the Lena goldfields shootings, the passing of the “insurance law,” the case of the Social-Democratic deputies of the Second Duma, etc.
Immediately after it was formed, the Social-Democratic fraction began to collect material for interpellations, and to prepare for their introduction. In order to introduce an interpellation it was necessary to word it in the correct legal language and make the appropriate references to the various laws and government regulations constituting the official grounds for the interpellation. In this legal side of tiie work we were assisted by N. Krestinsky, N.D. Sokolov, A. Yuriev and other social-democratic lawyers who were living in St. Petersburg.
As soon as the opening formalities had been disposed of, such as the verification of credentials, the elections of the presidium, the government’s declaration of policy and the debate on it, our fraction introduced its first interpellation. This dealt with the persecution of trade unions. The formal ground on which it was based was the refusal to register a trade union in St. Petersburg, but in reality it covered the position of trade unions in general.
The formation and existence of trade unions was regulated by the law, or “provisional rules” as they were called, of March 4, 1906, which dealt with all associations and societies. This law really provided not for the formation of societies, but for their suppression. Trade unions were entirely at the mercy of any official, from the governor of the province or city down to the police inspector. But however much trade union rights were restricted legally, it was not enough for the authorities. The “provisional rules” were not regarded as binding by the police, who violated them most unceremoniously.
Unions were suppressed in rapid succession and on most incredible grounds. Immediately a trade union began to develop its work, it was suppressed. This persecution did not discourage the workers, but, on the contrary, led to an increase in the number of workers joining the unions. When a union was closed down, a new one was organised with the same membership and the same aims, but under another name. There were, however, a multitude of police obstacles to be overcome before a new society could be formed. The registration of unions was in the hands of the so-called “special boards” which rejected applications on the most absurd grounds. A union was never registered the first time it applied; only after a series of refusals, and if the patience and persistency of the founders were superhuman, was the new union finally granted the right to exist, or rather the right to a quick death at the discretion of the police.
According to the official statistics, 497 trade unions were suppressed and 604 were refused registration during the first five years (1906–11) after the law of March 4, 1906, came into force. In April 1908, the Social-Democratic fraction in the Third Duma introduced an interpellation dealing with the persecution of trade unions and quoting 144 cases of illegal suppressions of unions in various parts of Russia. The interpellation, of course, was not considered urgent and was turned over to a commission, from which it emerged a year later accompanied by a meaningless resolution which expressed the pious wish “that the Minister for the Interior should take the necessary steps so that the authorities concerned observe the provisional rules of March 4, 1906.”
After 1911, as the labour movement developed, there was a corresponding growth in trade union activity. The number of unions increased and police persecutions became more violent. During this period, the St. Petersburg union of metal workers, which played an important part in the progress of the labour movement, was subjected to particularly savage persecution. The metal workers’ union was important, not only as an industrial organisation, but«principally as a centre for all the progressive, revolutionary workers and as an organisation around which the Party forces were concentrated. It therefore displayed exceptional vitality and naturally incurred specially virulent attacks from the authorities.
This union was founded illegally during the 1905 revolution, and since 1906, when it was officially registered, it had survived several suppressions and resurrections under new names. Its name, which was at first the “Union of metal workers,” changed successively to “trade union of workers in the metal industry,” “trade union of workers engaged in enterprises of the metallurgical industry,” etc. Each of these unions, although officially a new society, was, in fact, a continuation of the preceding one, from which it took over the union funds and membership. The police were well aware that this changing of names was a farce, but they could not take action against the union on this ground and were forced to wait for an appropriate moment to dissolve the “new” association.
In March 1912, the police made one of their periodical raids and the union was closed by the “special board” on several grounds, of which the principal were the possession of illegal literature and the organisation of strikes, This time the police had planned to delay the registration of a new society as long as possible, hoping that, in the meantime, the organisation would collapse. But they were wrong in their calculations. To preserve the union, the committee had taken advantage of statutes they had in reserve of a society which they had succeeded in registering in 1908, the registration still possessing legal force. Account books and membership books of this society, which never actually existed, were hastily fabricated and the liquidation meeting of the suppressed union decided to hand over all its property and funds to this society and recommended all its members to join it. In this way the metal workers’ union continued for another five months until, in the autumn of 1912, after further police raids, it was again suppressed. The following three charges were officially made against the union: non-admittance of the police to inspect documents, organisation of strikes and granting of relief to the unemployed. The “special board” asserted that grants could only be made to union members and that only workers actually employed in a particular industry could be members of the union. Thus an unemployed worker ceased to be a member of the society. This ruling was a direct violation of the union statutes, framed in accordance with the law, and it supplied the employers with a very simple method of smashing the trade union organisation whenever they decided to do so. It was enough to declare a lock-out, and then, since there were no members of the union working, the union would have to close down.
The suppression of the society caused great indignation among the St. Petersburg workers, but in no way lessened their enthusiasm for trade union work. The liquidation commission elected at the general meeting continued the work of the old committee and endeavoured to prolong the business of liquidation until a new union had been organised. The police, on the other hand, hampered the work of the commission as much as possible. Contrary to all rules and law, they appeared at the meetings of the commission and finally prohibited it from meeting. The members of the society lodged a protest, but this was filed at the city governor’s office and its consideration indefinitely postponed. The complaint was lodged on November 2; after waiting a month members of the liquidation commission went to the governor’s office to inquire whether they were allowed to meet. The reply was: “this will be communicated to you by the police.” After another two weeks they applied again and received the same reply and so it went on.
At the same time the police did everything they could to prevent the formation of a new society. The statutes of the new society were framed with due observance of all the requirements of the law, but this did not prevent the “special board” from refusing to register them. This decision of the “board,” which was taken on October 6, but not communicated to the organisers until November 28, had no legal justification. It plainly revealed the real motive of the refusal – the fear that the union would again become the centre of the revolutionary struggle of the St. Petersburg metal workers.
The Social-Democratic fraction decided to use all these illegal proceedings, which plainly revealed the general policy of persecution of trade union organisations, as material for a new interpellation of the government. Besides, the interpellation referred to a number of illegal requirements enforced on organisers of new societies: they were prohibited to include amongst the objects of the society any measures calculated to further the intellectual and cultural development of the members; the right of unemployed members of the society to continue in membership was not admitted; instead of monthly, yearly membership dues were to be introduced; the societies were not permitted to expel members “found guilty of dishonourable behaviour by a court of comrades,” they were required to name in the statutes a charitable organisation to which the funds of the society were to be transferred in the event of its suppression, etc. These demands were very prejudicial to the independence of the unions and altogether paralysed their activities. They were enumerated in the interpellation, which continued as follows:
All the above demands were made by the “special board” not only on the metal workers’ union, but on all trade unions which have recently submitted their statutes for registration. It is impossible to regard this action of the “board” as anything but a flagrantly illegal interference with the internal life of trade unions and an open violation of the law of March 4, 1906. On this ground we address the following interpellation to the Ministers of the Interior and Justice:
1. Is the Minister of the Interior aware that the St. Petersburg special city board refuses to register trade unions on grounds not provided in the law of March 4, 1906, and thereby violates this law?
2. Is the Minister of Justice aware that a representative of the public prosecutor, although a witness to repeated violations of the law by the St. Petersburg city special beard, refrains from making any protest against these violations?
3. If the Ministers of the Interior and Justice are aware of these facts, what measures have they taken to enforce the law?
It was arranged that the question should be discussed in the Duma on December 14, on the eve of the adjournment for the Christmas recess. I was charged by the fraction to speak on the interpellation. Under the guise of defending the urgency of the question, I was to deal with the subject-matter of the interpellation itself and, after exposing the illegal character of the persecution of trade unions, show that the masses could only achieve any improvement in their conditions through revolutionary struggle. Such was the usual content and trend of speeches delivered by the workers’ deputies.
This was to be my “maiden” speech in the Duma. To the reactionary majority of the latter our speeches were intolerable. The straightforwardness and bluntness and sharpness of the workers’ deputies made the Black Hundred “diehards “ mad with rage. This was specially apparent when our speeches touched on the conditions of the St. Petersburg workers. The steady growth of the revolutionary movement among the St. Petersburg workers made itself felt even within the Taurida Palace and our appeal to the workers to intensify their attack was another reminder for the faithful defenders of tsarism that, sooner or later, the movement would sweep away that tsarist stronghold and all that it supported.
To confuse and frighten a workers’ deputy, to cut short his speech, such were the tactics of the Duma majority, especially on his first attempt to speak. The majority and the chairman, who carried out their will, strove to make the first speech of a workers’ deputy his last; they tried to make him lose his nerve and so remain voiceless, like so many members of the Duma majority who sat in the Taurida Palace throughout the whole of the Fourth Duma without once opening their mouths. They were so cowed by the Duma atmosphere that force would have been needed to drag them to the rostrum.
The nervousness to which every workers’ deputy was subject when making his first speech in the Duma was unique in his experience. When I mounted the rostrum I felt very keenly the responsibility which rested on a workers’ representative. A speech in the Duma did not resemble in any way those speeches which I had to deliver at various illegal and legal meetings of workers. Here, we, the representatives of the workers, stood face to face with the enemy, the age-long oppressors of the working class. We had to express directly and openly, without subterfuges or parliamentary tricks, all that the masses were thinking, to proclaim their needs and to hurl their accusations at the representatives of the existing regime.
Every word spoken by a workers’ deputy was listened to, not only in the Duma hall, but by the millions of the Russian proletarians, who regarded us as the defenders of their interests. Our speeches and appeals delivered in the Duma echoed the revolutionary sentiments of the workers and strengthened them in their struggle against their enemies. From the floor of the Duma we had to show the straining of the will of the working class, to demonstrate the force which the Russian proletariat had accumulated during long years.
Each of us experienced great difficulty when making his first speech in this home of tsarist autocracy. It was a great strain to talk down the howling of the Black Hundreds, to fight against the continual interruptions of the chairman and, having described the political and economic enslavement of the working class, to challenge its oppressors.
The immunity of deputies and “freedom of speech” in the Duma were only tsarist lies. It was perfectly plain to us that the government was merely waiting for a suitable pretext to deal summarily with the workers’ deputies. The case of the Social-Democratic members of the Second Duma, who were sent to penal settlements in a body, was still fresh in our minds. “Some leave the Duma rostrum to become ministers, others, workers’ deputies, to become convicts.” These words of Lenin described very exactly the possible fate of workers’ deputies. But the greater the menace, the more difficulties we had to overcome, the more vigorous our speeches became. The persecutions suffered by the deputies had a radicalising effect on the workers and stiffened them in the revolutionary struggle.
At first my speech was listened to in rapt attention by the entire house. It was an evening sitting and the great hall of the Taurida Palace was flooded with light. The ministerial box was occupied by members of the government, another box next to the tribune was filled with representatives of the press. The public galleries were crowded. Wives of high officials peered at me through their lorgnettes anxious to see how a locksmith would behave himself and what he would say in the Duma. On the other side, holding their breath and trying to catch every word, a handful of workers, who had managed to obtain tickets, were listening to the speech of their deputy.
The portly figure of Rodzyanko towered on the chairman’s seat. He kept his bell ready and concentrated all his attention on my speech in order not to let slip any opportunity of interrupting me.
I was not allowed to conclude my speech, which was cut down by the chairman as soon as I touched on the general conditions of the working class and the persecutions to which it was subject on the part of the government.
Both sides of the house applauded as I left the rostrum; it was genuine approval of my speech from the Left, whereas the Right and centre were congratulating Rodzyanko on keeping a workers’ deputy in order.
Our interpellation concerning the persecution of trade unions was of course voted down by the Black Hundred majority. The same fate befell the second interpellation of the Social-Democratic fraction. This dealt with the non-authorisation of meetings and the elections of the insurance commissions; it was discussed at the same Duma sitting on December 14. In both cases the Duma rejected the motion for urgency and the interpellations were sent to the interpellation commission, where they were shelved. The working class could expect no other decision from this Duma of landlords and nobles. The aim of our interpellations was to demonstrate and expose the real nature of the existing regime.
This demonstration arranged by the Social-Democratic fraction inside the Black Hundred Duma was supported and strengthened by the action of the St. Petersburg workers, who declared a one-day strike on the same day. While we were speaking from the Duma rostrum about the latest example of tsarist oppression, the workers deserted the factories and works and, at hastily summoned meetings, carried resolutions of protest.
The one-day strike on December 14 was well organised and prepared. Examples of the persecution of trade unions, such as the prohibition of meetings called to deal with insurance questions, appeared daily in Pravda; the paper also dealt with the “appointment” of “workers’” representatives to the insurance commissions and with the actual working of the abortive government insurance law. These articles were so worded that, although the censor could not object to them, the advanced workers could read between the lines an appeal to organise demonstrations on the day that our interpellations were discussed in the Duma. Finally on December 13, the Bolsheviks, in a proclamation signed by the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, appealed for strike action to support the Social-Democratic fraction.
On the day that the proclamation was issued, meetings were held at a number of factories and resolutions were passed welcoming the Duma interpellations and promising support for the fraction. For example, the resolution passed at Pahl’s factory stated: “By our strike we are supporting the interpellation of the Social-Democratic fraction in the Fourth State Duma.” All the resolutions contained a determined protest against the persecution of trade unions and against the police control of the insurance commissions. The appeal to strike action mst with an enthusiastic response, the workers of thirteen establishments immediately leaving work, and only insignificant groups, or rather individual workers, mainly women, remained at work.
The strike did not end on December 14. The next morning other factories and works joined in, while those already out did not return. Factory after factory came out and in all the strike movement lasted for over a week. It is difficult to form a reliable estimate of the number of workers who participated, but it was certainly not fewer than 60,000, i.e. the number employed in the largest works in St. Petersburg. In addition, however, a number of small undertakings were involved: printing shops, repair shops, etc. This formidable protest strike of the St. Petersburg proletariat demonstrated the full solidarity of the masses with their deputies.
The strike was accompanied not only by the usual police repression, but also by a counter-offensive of the employers. The 3,000 workers employed at the Petrovskaya and Spasskaya factories, owned by Maxwell, found the following notice posted on the closed gates on December 15, the day after the one-day strike: “In view of the frequent strikes and the warning that has already been given to workers, the management is compelled to pay off all workers. The date when the paying-off will take place will be announced later.” Large patrols of police officers and constables were stationed round the factories. The workers decided not to accept payment of their wages so as to delay the re-opening of the factory, as they knew that there were many orders to be fulfilled and that every idle day caused a great loss to the owners. During the first half of the day only a few foremen strike-breakers appeared to be paid and thereby ensured that they would be reinstated. After dinner the spirit of the workers gave way a little and a queue assembled before the office. The management were assisted throughout by the police, who shepherded the workers into the office. Inside, the manager of the factory himself was in command, with a list in his hand of all “rebellious elements.” As the cashier paid off the workmen – in most cases they only drew fifty kopeks to one ruble, as provisions bought in the factory store were deducted from wages – the manager stamped the paybooks of those who were reinstated. Very many were refused. Trying to hit the “unreliables” as hard as possible, the management discharged whole families, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters.
This sifting of the workers, however, did not help the management much. On the following day, after a few hours’ work, the reinstated workers all came out on strike demanding the re-engagement of the dismissed workers. The police attempt to prevent the workers from leaving the factory failed and the workers dispersed, deriding and threatening the police.
In spite of arrests and a series of repressive measures, such as the eviction of those discharged from the factory-owned apartments, the workers did not give in. The stubborn fight against victimisation of the workers at Maxwell’s factories gained the support of the rest of the St. Petersburg proletariat. At all factories and works collections were taken to relieve the victims of the lock-out and to support the strike.
Our Duma fraction was the centre and organiser of these collections. Daily we received funds collected not only at St. Petersburg factories, but also from the workers of other industrial centres (Moscow, Warsaw, Lodz, Riga, etc.). Pravda published a long list of factories and works at which collections were made. It demonstrated that the working class regarded the fight at Maxwell’s factories not as an isolated phenomenon, but as a phase in the class war with the capitalists.
The members of the Social-Democratic fraction, the workers’ deputies, were in the thick of the fight. We were in constant communication with the strikers, helped to formulate their demands, handed over the funds collected, negotiated with various governmental authorities, etc.
At both factories the strike lasted over a fortnight. In those days it was regarded as a very protracted strike and the workers were only able to hold out because of the moral and material assistance which they received from the whole of the St. Petersburg workers.
Last updated on 14.9.2011