During the years immediately preceding the war there were several instances when the St. Petersburg workers gave evidence of close solidarity and organised power. But in this period of intense and heroic struggle the strike at Lessner’s factory, which lasted throughout the summer of 1913, was of special importance. Its cause, its duration and the vast sympathy it evoked among the masses make this strike one of the outstanding episodes of the labour movement of the pre-war years.
The strike at Lessner’s cannot be classed either as purely political or as purely economic. It was one of those strikes which occur during a period of revolutionary upsurge. The only demand made by the workers – the removal of a foreman who had caused the death of one of their comrades – seemed at first sight comparatively insignificant, yet it was the cause of a long and stubborn fight such as could only arise under conditions when the working class faced the class of the capitalists in a general and open battle.
The strike at the “New Lessner” works arose in the following way. The foreman of one of the machine shops gave several hundred screw nuts to a worker, Strongin, to cut threads on them. In the course of the work several nuts were lost; they were either accidentally thrown into the rubbish heap or taken by mistake to another shop. Strongin informed the foreman, who, after shouting vile abuse at him, demanded the return of the nuts within two days “or else I shall sack you and mark your book ‘for theft.’” Strongin was unable to find the nuts or to prove that he had not stolen them. The foreman’s threat to sack him branded as a thief loomed before him as a disgrace that he could not endure. Strongin obtained permission to work late and during the night he went to an unfrequented part of the works and hanged himself on a staircase.
On the morning of April 23 the body was found by the watchman and, as the news spread through the works, all the workers left their benches and gathered round the dead body. The workers demanded that the management should at once investigate the matter. Instead of this, the management sent for the police, in whose presence Strongin’s clothes were searched. In one of his pockets a letter was found which, after reading it, the manager tried to conceal. The workers protested and insisted that the letter should be read immediately. It was addressed to his mates at the works and read as follows:
Comrades: I am not sure whether I should write to you. But I shall write ... The foreman accuses me of theft. Before I finish with life, I want to tell you this, comrades, I am innocent. This is vouched for by my conscience, my heart, my worker’s honesty, but I cannot prove it. I cannot leave the works, branded as a thief by the foreman, so I have decided to end it all ... Good-bye, dear comrades and remember – I am innocent. Yakov Strongin.
The crowd, deeply shocked by the dying declaration of a comrade hounded to death by the management, stood spellbound for several minutes. Then voices were heard: “Hats off, comrades,” and the revolutionary funeral march was sung in chorus. When the foreman, the murderer of Strongin, appeared, he was met with cries of “Judas,” “Betrayer,” “Hangman,” “follow the coffin and never show yourself again at the works.” All the workers accompanied the body to the mortuary.
Next morning on arriving at work they saw there the man who was responsible for Strongin’s death. When the manager declared that the board of directors refused to dismiss the foreman, the workers at once decided to strike until the murderer was removed from the works. The factory closed and all the workers employed at the “New Lessner” went home determined not to return until their demand had been granted.
A huge demonstration took place at Strongin’s funeral. The police and the employers, as is customary in such cases, did all they could to prevent a large attendance. The day and hour of the funeral were kept secret as long as possible; but on the day before the editors of Pravda managed to obtain this information. An announcement was published in the stop press column, but, as the paper did not reach the workers before they started work, only individual workers learned that the funeral was to take place at 9 a.m. Yet at that hour more than 1,000 men had gathered at the mortuary. Workers from the New Lessner were there in full force, as well as representatives from other factories. Wreaths were hurriedly obtained and, as there was no time to have them printed, inscriptions were written with chalk on black ribbons and with coal on white. Some of these ribbons were cut off by the police because of the revolutionary nature of the inscriptions. Thousands of people accompanied Strongin’s body to the entrance of the churchyard. There the procession was stopped by the mounted police, who only allowed the coffin and a few near relatives of the deceased to enter.
Malinovsky and I had arranged to attend the funeral as representatives of the Duma fraction, but the police in conjunction with the works management tricked us out of being present. At the factory office we were told that Strongin was to be buried at the Mitrofanyevskoye cemetery. When we found that this was incorrect, we rang up the factory and were again misdirected. After wandering for several hours on the wrong track, we finally reached the Preobrazhenskoye cemetery to find that the crowd had been dispersed by the police and the coffin had already been lowered into the ground. Many workers who had also been deceived in this way wrote to Pravda expressing their sympathy with the Lessner workers.
In reply to the strike, the management announced that all old workers were dismissed. At the same time, the bourgeois press published advertisements inviting applications for work at the factory. The strikers, however, stood firm and these strike-breaking announcements met with no response. The workers were exceptionally well organised. Realising that they could not hold out for long without assistance, they at once issued an appeal to all workers in St. Petersburg to help them in the struggle.
Soon afterwards, the workers at the other Lessner factory, “Old Lessner,” came out in support of their comrades on strike. Now both the Lessner factories stood idle. The management was no longer able to recruit workers for the “New Lessner” under the pretence of accepting them for the “Old.” Nor could it any longer even partially cope with its outstanding orders. Since the non-fulfilment of contracts usually entailed penalties, this threatened the owners with considerable loss.
Then the management attempted to get its orders completed at other factories, sending patterns, unfinished articles, and drawings. In spite of the measures adopted to conceal this manœuvre, the strikers soon learned of it. They appealed to all St. Petersburg metal-workers to boycott all such work. The other workers responded unanimously and none of Lessner’s work was executed at the other factories.
Every refusal to perform such blackleg work, every greeting received from other factories, encouraged the strikers and strengthened their hope of victory. Workers’ contributions to the strike fund had never been so plentiful and regular. At many places collections were made not merely on one occasion, but workers gave regularly a certain percentage of their wages. At one factory overtime was allowed to be worked on condition that half a day’s wage was given to the Lessner Fund. Married workers at this factory also offered to feed temporarily at their homes the children of Lessner workers who were in special need.
During the struggle about 18,000 rubles were collected – the largest sum ever collected during a strike. All money was first sent to the Duma fraction, which then arranged for its distribution according to the strikers’ needs. The strike became famous all over Russia and contributions reached us from some of the remotest towns, even from the outlying regions of Eastern Siberia. I was in charge of the fund and regularly acknowledged the receipt of all donations in Pravda, stating in detail the amount collected and the source.
The struggle at Lessner’s factories was the most striking event in the working-class movement of 1913. The Party was intimately concerned in it, supporting the strikers in every way and spreading information about the strike among as many workers as possible. Pravda published daily reports on the course of the struggle and printed the strikers’ appeals to other workers as well as their notes and letters.
All through the summer the strike went on. Early in June the police began to arrest the leaders, hoping in this way to break down the workers’ resistance. A number of those arrested were sent out of St. Petersburg and prohibited from residing in fifty-two specified localities. Simultaneously the management of the works sent personal letters to the workers at their homes inviting them to resume work on “the old terms.” But still the workers held out.
At last, after sixty-eight days, the workers at the “Old Lessner” returned. At the “New Lessner” the strike continued for another two weeks until August 1; altogether the workers had been out for the unparalleled period of 102 days. In spite of the fact that it ended in defeat, the strike was of enormous importance in the history of the labour movement. It drew in and stimulated new sections of the working class and gave a practical demonstration of the power of the organised solidarity of the proletariat.
While the Lessner workers were out, other strikes were proceeding and were being supported by the workers. The strike movement normally increased during the summer months. In the summer it was more convenient to call short meetings at the works, it was easier to arrange illegal meetings (usually held in the suburban woods) and to bear the privations entailed, than it was during the winter.
With the growth of the movement, the connections of our fraction with the masses became closer. During the Duma summer recess, as during the other intervals, the deputies returned to work in the regions from which they had been elected and I alone remained in St. Petersburg. At this time I had to perform the work which was usually divided among our six deputies.
Workers would call on me to ask all sorts of questions, especially on pay-days when money in aid of strikers was brought. Each worker who came with a contribution asked many questions. I had to arrange to supply passports and secret hiding-places, for those who became “illegal,” help to find work for those victimised during strikes, petition ministers on behalf of those arrested, organise aid for exiles, etc. Where there were signs that a strike was flagging, it was necessary to take steps to instil vigour into the strikers, to lend the aid required and to print and send leaflets. Moreover, I was constantly consulted on personal matters.
There was not a single factory or workshop, down to the smallest, with which I was not connected in some way or other. Often my callers were so numerous that my apartment was not large enough for them, and they had to wait in a queue on the staircase. Every successive stage in the struggle, every new strike, increased these queues which symbolised the growing unity between the workers and the fraction and at the same time furthered the organisation of the masses.
In the spring of 1913, a dispute at the locomotive repair works, where I was employed before I became a deputy, revealed the sound organisation and unity of the masses. As far back as during the election of the delegates remarkable unanimity was displayed, and the vigour and self-reliance of the workers were increased. And after one of them, a worker previously nominated, was elected deputy for St. Petersburg, the revolutionary sentiments grew still further.
The secret police were paying a great deal of attention to the activity at the works and were determined to seize the first favourable opportunity to damp down the workers’ enthusiasm. The moment selected for action was the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty in February 1913. For some time previously the police had been zealously purging all factories, striving to “eliminate” all active workers so as to prevent any revolutionary demonstrations at this festival. Arrests and expulsions were carried out in batches; all suspects were removed.
During the night of February 13, several railway workers were arrested. They were set free when the occasion for their arrest was over, but were refused re-admittance to the works. The general manager told them: “Send in a petition to me. We will consult the police and find out whether you may be reinstated.”
The shop stewards insisted on the reinstatement of the liberated men. Thereupon the manager tried to scare them: “You are advancing revolutionary demands. Remember that you will be held responsible. Don’t incite the workers.”
Indignant at such an attitude, all the workers gathered in one of the shops and, after discussing the situation, demanded the immediate reinstatement of their comrades. The demand was worded uncompromisingly; failing a satisfactory reply, a strike was to be declared at once.
The works management, playing for time, suggested that it should be allowed to consider the matter. But this was greeted with derision by the assembled workers. “You have had a whole week to consider the documents”; “Reinstate the men at once”; “We shall not disperse until our five comrades have been re-engaged.”
The resolute stand of the workers had its effect. Confronted with such unanimity, the management was constrained to give way. The general manager announced that after dinner the five men would be allowed to return to their jobs. This incident demonstrated the power of solidarity and I considered that it should be made widely known among the masses. Therefore I published in Pravda the following appeal to workers at the railway repair shops:
Dear Comrades: I hasten to congratulate you on your successful united action on March 4, when you boldly prevented your five comrades being deprived of their daily bread and demanded that they be reinstated. Everywhere the workers’ conditions are hard, but nowhere more so than in the repair shops of the Nikolaievskaya railway. Prior to being elected to the Duma, I worked for many years in these shops and know personally the oppressive measures of the management: harsh treatment, discharge without notice or reason, etc. Apparently the new manager is following in the footsteps of the old and is perhaps even more arbitrary. Conditions are worse on the railways than in many private works. One would imagine that in State undertakings, which are less dependent on market fluctuations, working conditions would be considerably better than in privately-owned establishments. They should be models both in regard to technical equipment and the treatment of the workers. Workers in State factories should have a shorter working day, higher wages and the assurance of not being dismissed for no reason whatever.
But what, in fact, do we observe in the State railway shops? Owing to the prevalence of overtime, 12 hours is the normal working-day instead of 9 hours. These long hours are accompanied by low wages barely enough for the most miserable existence.
As the elected representative from these shops, I am particularly pleased at the action which you have taken. With solidarity and determination you have defeated the management and succeeded in defending the livelihood of your comrades. Remember, comrades,, that unity and class-consciousness constitute our force and that only by united, class-conscious action can we improve our conditions.
By order of the city governor, the newspaper was fined 500 rubles for publishing my appeal. Although we knew that it might lead to a fine or even to confiscation and although the financial position of Pravda was far from secure, we had decided to run the risk. This appeal to the workers in the railway repair shops was essentially an announcement to the whole working class and had to be circulated as widely as possible. Printed in Pravda it was much more effective than if it had been issued in the form of a leaflet from the “underground” printing press.
The appeal created the impression which we had anticipated – it reinforced the determination of the workers. For a time the success of the workers and their revolutionary spirit forced the secret police to hold back. Later, however, the police decided to make another raid.
On the morning of the first day after the Easter holidays (in April 1913), strong detachments of police appeared at the works. Several men were stationed in each shop and the workers were not allowed to pass from one shop to another unless it was necessary for work and then only under escort.
After these preparations the four selected victims were informed that they were discharged. Comrade Melnikov, who had just been elected member of the board of the metal-workers’ union, was again included. The discharged workers demanded that they should be told the reason for their dismissal, but the police refused to allow them access to the general manager. Later the management informed the shop stewards that the workers had been discharged at the request of the secret police. The four discharged workers were then arrested, sent out of St. Petersburg and forbidden to reside in the “52 localities,” i.e. in any of the more important cities of Russia.
The same day the workers rushed to me with requests that I should send protests against this action to any authority concerned. It was apparent that no petition or protest would avail. The secret police, smarting under the failure of their former attack on the five workers, were determined this time to inflict heavy punishments on their victims.
I published in Pravda another appeal to the workers to reply to this fresh attack by rallying round the Party and strengthening their organisation. This, of course, could not be stated openly and I worded my appeal so that it could be understood by all class-conscious workers:
The workers request me to draw the attention of the highest authorities to these barbarous methods. Very well, I will go to the Minister. But, comrades, I must say at once that this will be of little use. We must all consider our position, read our workers’ newspaper more regularly and become acquainted with the ways in which other workers are fighting to improve their conditions.
Last updated on 14.9.2011