Peter Petroff, Justice March 1910

Russian Revolution and Counter-Revolution - IV

Source: Justice, 26 March 1910, pp.7-8;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I said in my last article that the printing press was the nerve-system of the organisation; and as the organism grows its nerve-system grows with it. Our printing had to be carried on a larger scale, and we had to change our premises. One of our staff rented a flat, to which he removed our eccentric furniture and added to it (also of innocent appearance, but of a serious character) certain other pieces. He put a notice in the window, “This room to be let furnished.” Several people applied, but the terms proved an insurmountable obstacle! Last came another member of the staff, and applied to the watchman, who, as is usual, had a hand in these transactions. After all the applicant’s inquiries had been satisfied, he was accepted as the tenant! Some difficulty was presented over introducing the other necessary two members. As I was known to the householders as a friend of the tenant, there was no suspicion aroused by my daily presence. The fourth had to run the gauntlet and take his chance of being seen. This office was typical of a large number distributed through the country. About 20 illegal papers were printed in this manner. Especially good was the printing organisation of two important illegal papers, the “South Russian Worker” and the central organ of the Bund, the “Voice of the Worker.” The latter was bigger than “Justice” and had a better circulation than any of the English Socialist papers today. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were sowing the seed of political and Socialist ideas, and tens of thousands of men and women got their political education at illegal meetings and demonstrations. But all our activity was practically powerless when compared with the agitation carried on by the Government. The Government, in fact, with its policy, was the best agitator. Convinced that its very existence depended upon its absolutism, it dreaded the slightest effort at combination by the working-class. It interfered to prevent the formation even of such innocent institutions as benefit societies. And thus it drove into the revolutionary struggle even the most backward of the workers. The knout of the Cossack was the favourite method of statesmanship. They applied it to the workers, to the peasants, to the students, and even to the nobility who were in opposition. It managed, during a century of struggle, against the students and their various societies, by turning the universities into barracks with police and spies, by keeping out the most capable professors, to make antagonists of the students, and drive them into the arms of the revolutionaries. The student movement, which aimed at freedom and autonomy for the universities, had to recognise that freedom for the universities and free science was impossible in a country where tyranny everywhere prevailed. There could be no lectures free from the censor when the scissors of the censorship were kept busy all over the country. There could be no election of professors suitable for their posts when nearly all public business was under the control of bureaucrats. This the students in the mass began to understand, and fought against the Government by strikes and demonstrations in the universities. But how feeble were these young, inexperienced students against an absolute system, the strongest of its kind in the world. Of course, the Government repressions of the students aroused hostility among all classes. The spectacle of the Cossacks leading groups of students through the streets from university to prison brought curses from every feeling heart against the régime. But what was the use of feelings when there was need for deeds? And so the students were compelled to join the revolutionary struggle of the working class, and at every street demonstration of the workers the blue caps of the students were to be seen. The working class movement reinforced them, and brought them to a decisive struggle with the ruling powers. And in its turn the student movement helped the Socialist movement; they became the sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the Government. Each succeeding act of repression increased the resentment of the revolutionary army and made them more determined.

The deportation of students to the army meant the distribution of revolutionary ideas among the soldiers.

The withdrawal of the authority of the Zemstvos (County Councils) to help the peasants in time of famine brought the latter to a state of desperation.

The year 1901 saw the beginning of systematic conflicts between the peasants and the landlords and officials.

The deportations of inflammable material, in the shape of the unemployed of the towns, to the villages led to the spread of revolutionary ideas among the peasants.

The workers from the towns brought with them to the peasants literature and the Social-Democratic ideas gained in the towns, and combined town with country.

In the Caucasus and the Baltic provinces the Social-Democratic organisations were carrying on systematic work among the peasants. In Little Russia the spread of literature and their influence rapidly increased. The Agrarian League of the Social Revolutionaries, formed in 1902, working abroad, edited many popular pamphlets, which were distributed among the peasants, chiefly in the district of the Volga.

The lack of land, the failure of the small holder to make a living, a bad harvest, with its accompaniments, hunger, scurvy and other evils, irresistibly drove them to find a way out. In such a soil revolutionary literature found all the conditions for flourishing.

Every pamphlet referring to land had an enormous effect upon the peasants. It was eagerly read right through the village, until it was in rags. Then it was sent on to the next village, and so on until it had travelled right round the district. The Governors of districts sometimes sent bodies of police, cossacks and gendarmes to confiscate this dangerous pamphlet, but it always succeeded in evading them. Their heroic efforts to conquer the book only made it more effective, “They are afraid of the book because it tells the truth,” was the general comment. In some districts the whole village would go in a body to their landlord demanding corn, and volunteering the information that the Czar would soon give orders for the division of land among the people (peasants). “We have read in the book that the land should belong to the people.”

At the beginning of 1902, the collisions between peasants and landlords and officials became chronic, and it was felt that great events were about to happen. In March these troubles reached their climax and two districts were set ablaze – Poltava and Kharkoff. Over 80 estates were burnt or otherwise destroyed. There were fights in some villages with the military and police in which several peasants were wounded or killed, but it did not prevent other villages from following their example.

The insignificance of their demands was remarkable; it was typified in one village where they asked for 5 poods of corn (about 200lbs.) They held out the alternative that they would destroy the landlord’s property, and they were going to die for their 200 lbs. of bread.

“Land and bread,” that was the formula by which was expressed the tendency of this movement. The insurrection in Poltava and Ktarkoff was quickly repressed, and the Governor heartlessly punished the rebels and sent 1,098 to trial.[1] But the authorities were unable to conquer the spirit of the peasants; again and again they reiterated their demands; after suffering corporal punishment they said, “Still the land is ours.” This movement had great effect in other districts, where a spirit of rebellion was aroused and similar demands made. The whole effect of this peasant insurrection was a symbol of the approaching revolutionary movement of this section of the community. “There are in history certain signs upon which one who is acquainted with the history of mankind, can without possibility of mistake, draw the conclusion of the near approach of a radical change in society; in epochs when the old serfdom, the autocratic régime, is going to meet its doom. Such a sign was the blind revolt of the peasants. When History, through its weakest and most disinherited sons demands the settling of an old debt accumulated through centuries, sealed by blood and tears, from a society split into classes, then you may be sure that the Gordian knot is soon to be cut. The flames from the burning estates of the nobility have always been the forerunners and the followers of a bourgeois revolution, which strikes the decisive blow against serfdom and the autocratic régime. The glowing embers of the peasant revolt had to play for the last time its revolutionary role, before the red flag of proletarian revolution could wave freely.

Very soon after this there appeared again the other forerunners to complete the picture. At the end of May and in June illegal congresses were held of many of the members of the Zemstvos; a political programme of action was adopted for the coming assembling of the Zemstvos, and the committees formed by order of the Czar to discuss ways and means for reviving agriculture. Speeches were delivered in sharp opposition to the Government, and it was decided to declare through the Zemstvos and committees certain reforms which went to the length of formulating a disguised constitution. This was the culmination of a campaign which had been going on in the Zemstvos for several months past. The working-class and peasant movements induced them to think that the time for an open revolt of the people was at hand. They could smell the decomposing corpse of the autocracy, and they began to prepare themselves for the division of political power. Although their opposition powerfully assisted the revolutionary movement, still they came in the role of “birds who have not sown, but share in the harvest.” In their illegal organ “Osvobojdenia,” one prominent member of the Zemstvos wrote: “While, you are misusing the political power of the State, there is a danger of throwing away altogether the principle of the Monarchy; while you misuse private property, there is a danger of throwing away altogether the principle of private property.”

The protests of the Liberals had scarcely died away when in November of the same year there was a tremendous outburst of the workers, which showed how much revolutionary energy there is in the working class and how deeply they had imbibed the ideas of the Social-Democratic propaganda. A strike of 4,000 railway men in Rostoff on the Don grew quickly into tremendous political meetings, and demonstrations. Crowds of 20,000 or 30,000 held meetings in the open air, which surprised everybody by their seriousness and order. Greedily and openly they read the Social-Democratic literature, and listened to the Socialist speakers. The Administration lost its head and was unable to stop the meetings for several days, and, finally, when the military force was used, the crowds offered a vigorous resistance, and when some of them were killed, it was a signal for fresh demonstrations.

What the peasant insurrection was for the coming revolutionary movement for the peasants, the congresses of the Zemstvos for the Liberal movement, the student movement for the Radical, the events in Rostoff were for the revolutionary struggle of the working class.

We shall turn to them again and see how they were proceeding to the decisive struggle of the Revolution.

1. Masloff, “The Agrarian Question,” Vol.II

2. “Iskra,” No. 21