The St. Petersburg proletariat entered the new year, 1913, in the stormy atmosphere which was the aftermath of the recent strikes and demonstrations in connection with the first interpellations of the Social-Democratic fraction in the Duma. The workers at Maxwell’s factories had just returned to work after fighting the lock-out for over a fortnight, with the assistance of the whole of the St. Petersburg workers.
The first political strike of the new year – on January 9 – was supported in St. Petersburg with exceptional enthusiasm. About eighty thousand workers downed tools on the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” On the previous day the whole of the police force had been mobilised in anticipation of demonstrations and many arrests made in working-class districts. Strong detachments of both mounted and foot police guarded all bridges and avenues leading to the centre of the city, and police reserves were concealed in courtyards behind closed gates. Groups of workers appearing in the Nevsky Prospect were forced back into side streets by the police.
At all the St. Petersburg factories, from the biggest to the smallest, the workers, immediately after arriving in the morning, left work and poured into the streets singing revolutionary songs. In the Vyborg, Neva and some other districts, red flags, edged with black mourning, were carried through the streets.
From the morning onwards, long processions of workers wended their way towards the Preobrazhensky Cemetery to the graves of the victims of January 9. Throughout the day, a strong police detachment stationed at the cemetery was driving the workers away.
At numerous factory meetings held on the same day, collections were taken for a fund to build a memorial to the 9th January victims and to assist workers prosecuted by the police. At some works it was decided to subscribe one day’s wages and all the money collected was sent to our Duma fraction. Numerous resolutions, reflecting the political demands of the working class for civil rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of the press, etc., were passed at the meetings and sent in to the fraction. Recommendations were carried concerning the unity of the movement. Other resolutions protested against the so-called “52 points,” i.e. the list of 52 localities where political exiles were prohibited from residing, the appointment of representatives to the insurance commissions by the authorities instead of their election by the workers, the persecution of trade unions, etc.
The imposing strike and demonstration on January 9 showed that the struggle of the working class was again in the ascendant. Revolutionary sentiments increased from month ta month amongst the St. Petersburg workers, and such was the case too all over Russia.
Such were the conditions under which the Fourth State Duma resumed its work on January 21. The deputies – landowners and officials – were in no hurry to begin their legislative work, only a small proportion of the members having turned up at the first sitting. The session commenced drowsily and the first business was the long-drawn-out question of the confirmation of the elections. Things became lively only when our fraction introduced new interpellations concerning the explosion at the Okhta powder works, the torturing of political prisoners, and the lock-out in the textile industry.
The explosion at Okhta, where explosives were manufactured for the War Office, took place at the end of December. It occurred in the afternoon and by the evening rumours were spreading throughout the city as to the large number of victims.
Five men perished under the wreckage, among which their bodies were later discovered, totally disfigured. The charred body of one worker was only identified by a rag of material from his suit. Over fifty were seriously wounded, the majority being women, because in the pipe workshop where the explosion took place mainly women were employed.
The explosion caused a mad panic at the works and it was only by chance that more victims were not involved. No medical help was at hand and the doctor who arrived an hour later was unable to do anything.
The next morning I went to the works to ascertain directly the extent and causes of the explosion. The official in charge refused to give me a pass to the scene of the explosion. I went to the chief of the works, General Somov, who also declined, stating that only the Artillery Board could issue passes. It was obvious that the management was afraid to admit deputies to the works and wanted to prevent unwelcome disclosures.
According to General Somov’s explanation, the explosion was due to a mere accident. “Such accidents do happen, and may always happen, and I, for one,” he said, “never enter the works without making the sign of the cross.” Apparently this was the only measure of precaution that the management took to avert accidents in a highly dangerous industry.
I failed to reach the scene of the actual disaster, but the little I saw while at the works revealed its enormous extent.
I had conversations with many of the workers. They were still suffering from nervous shock and panic, and seemed to be expecting another explosion any minute. Before leaving home in the morning, some workers had put on clean underwear, being firmly convinced that they were going to face death. I was asked to insist on obtaining a detailed investigation of the causes of the explosion, to demand from the War Office an improvement in the working conditions and safety measures and to organise help for the victims and their relatives.
The victims of the explosion were buried on December 20. As early as 9 a.m. thousands of workers began to stream towards the church where the bodies were lying. Many workers, besides those from the Okhta works, followed the coffins. At one of the neighbouring plants work was completely stopped because all the workers had decided to attend the funeral. In all over 10,000 people took part in the funeral procession. Scores of wreaths were carried in front, including one from the Duma Social-Democratic fraction bearing the inscription: “To the victims of capital.” All the Social-Democratic deputies who were present in St. Petersburg attended the funeral.
The St. Petersburg workers turned the funeral into a formidable demonstration against the capitalist regime which was constantly claiming new victims from their ranks. Every class-conscious worker became more determined on the necessity of an incessant, stubborn struggle.
The War Office opened an inquiry into the explosion in order to present a “report to the Emperor.” The results of such an inquiry were known in advance: it would be drawn up by clever officials and would lay the blame entirely upon “divine providence.” The Duma Social-Democratic fraction conducted its own investigation. By questioning the Okhta workers and collecting other material, we were able to bring to light the true causes and the attendant circumstances of the explosion.
The immediate cause was careless handling by one of the workers of a charged fuse-cap. According to the regulations not more than ten fuses were allowed to be kept on the premises, but there were, in fact, several thousands, and it was this which caused such a terrible explosion. This, however, was only the immediate cause; the explosion with its attendant roll of human victims was really due to the terrible conditions of work at the Okhta plant.
The manufacture of explosives, which is excessively dangerous work, requires highly skilled labour with correspondingly high rates of pay. Yet the works management, anxious to obtain cheap labour, engaged mainly unskilled labourers and women who came straight from the villages and were completely ignorant of that sort of work. For a continuous working-day of ten hours, a trifle was paid – 65 to 75 kopeks. The workers were little better than slaves. They were not given wage-books and were subjected to coarse abuse, fines, and arbitrary dismissal.
Every striving towards education was severely suppressed: it was considered better that they should indulge in drink rather than read the papers. Oppressed by fierce exploitation, dulled by long working-hours (the management used to force the workers to do eight or nine hours’ overtime a day), the Okhta workers were naturally unable to display that degree of attention and caution which is required in the production of explosives.
To these circumstances must be added the very backward technical equipment of the works. The workshops were much too small for the work which had to be done, and a number of government commissions had recommended the thorough re-equipment of the plant and even its transfer to other premises. In such conditions explosions were bound to occur frequently. On January 3, 1913, only two weeks later, another explosion took place and more victims were added to the previous total.
Explosions and building disasters were customary phenomena in Russian industrial life. Capitalism, in its ruthless exploitation of the workers, was responsible for thousands of deaths in the various industries. In our Duma interpellation we had to cover the whole field as well as draw public attention to the terrible Okhta catastrophe. We had to describe from the Duma rostrum the conditions under which the Russian proletariat works, to reveal the extent to which it was being exploited and to strengthen its will for the revolutionary struggle.
The extraordinary circumstances of the case, the numerous victims and finally the danger of new explosions forced even the Duma majority to acknowledge the urgency of the interpellation. The motion for urgency was carried by the 134 votes of the Octobrists and the Centre against 127 votes of the Right.
The fate of this interpellation showed, however, that the recognition of the urgency of a question by the Duma majority did not, by any means, ensure its treatment as urgent. The interpellation was decided upon by the Duma on January 25, 1913, but the answer in a written form was not given by the War Minister until the summer, six months later. The Duma members were then away on their summer vacation and another six months passed before the answer of the government could be discussed.
I was put up by the fraction as speaker for this debate. But, as might have been expected, the Duma majority remained true to itself and refrained from any action which might inconvenience the government. The Okhta explosion case was buried in the obscurity of Duma commissions and thus shared the fate of so many other of our fraction’s interpellations.
Last updated on 14.9.2011