IN APRIL 1914, after six years of wandering around the workshops and factories of France, Germany and England, I safely crossed the frontier carrying the passport of a French citizen, Jacob Noé, and reached Petersburg, my native city, now red and already a seething cauldron of revolutionary energy. It had just seen a political strike on the anniversary of the Lena shootings and was preparing to celebrate May Day.
I went round the working-class districts, the plants and factories, the same old walls and hooters which involuntarily aroused memories of the heroic period of the Petersburg proletariat’s struggle between 1900 and 1907. I was drawn towards my native bench, and wanted to submerge myself in those toothed, cranked, noisy surroundings, so I decided to turn down an honourable and distinguished post as a party official “at the centre” and go to a plant.
I sought out the premises of the Petersburg Metalworkers’ Union on the Petersburg bank. There I got to know the union’s secretary and several members of the staff and presented my Paris Mechanics’ Union card, asking for assistance in my search for work. I received some general information about opportunities for turners, and a few contacts. I deliberately avoided visiting the editors of our newspapers in person. My unusual illegal status – being a foreigner in my own country – required extra caution. My desire to live and work for a while in the very thick of the Petersburg proletariat barred me from visiting points watched especially by the Okhrana.
The need to find work as quickly as possible prompted me to make a personal trip around the workshops and plants. The engineers and foremen greeted me as a “foreigner” quite courteously, but the “alien” origin of my passport obliged me to break my native tongue and often, for the sake of appearance, to resort to the aid of a Russian-French dictionary which I always carried with me. Some knowledge of German allowed me to find work on the Vyborg bank in the first engineering shop at the New Lessner Works. The foreman, a Baltic German, quickly put me on shift work at a lathe.
The workers received me with undisguised curiosity but with good will. The only thing was that my relief proved to be a drinker and often slept on his shift, so I had to work the two. My workmates were a Finnish turner and a Russian milling-machine operator, a good workman and something of a womanizer. I stuck out the first days cautiously to wait and see. I could not keep up empty conversation, and when I had had enough of small talk I got out of it by my incomprehension of the language. But I would willingly answer any serious questions and a “club” of visitors, the most conscious workers in the shop, soon formed around my bench. Comrades were quick to give me a run-down on local life and party work. I was becoming a reference-book on the position of workers in other countries, and on the theory and practice of socialism and syndicalism. Some came to me inquiring whether I knew Lenin, Martov or other exiles who were well known at that time. Ticklish questions about my acquaintance with Lenin and others had to be evaded with general replies like “How could I help knowing them?” and so on. The Petersburgers were highly interested in the lives of their own people and I wanted to tell them, but this was risky.
The spring and summer of 1914 was the high point of our party’s struggle against liquidationism. The polemics between Pravda and Luch had developed such acrimony that workers at the grass roots from both warring factions began to talk of the need for some control over their papers. A gathering of serious-minded workers from Ericsson and Lessner factories was held in the allotment nearest the works, where we started a discussion not about the tone but about the essence of the differences, and the “Pravda-ites” did not have much difficulty in demonstrating to the “Menshevik” workers the whole hypocrisy of the “Luch-ites”, the liquidators of the party’s revolutionary traditions, who had clad themselves in the shining armour of the “unity of the workers’ party”.
May Day was approaching. As opposed to West European workers, who would agitate for staying away from work that day and participating in open rallies organized by the party, the Petersburgers agitated for workers to assemble in the factories at the normal time, and then to walk out of them demonstratively in an organized fashion. On May Day morning the New Lessner proletarians came to work at the usual time but instead of starting work gathered in the yard amid the stacks of iron and steel. Everyone was waiting for something. One speaker got up and, his face hidden under his cap, made an excited speech on the significance of the day for the proletariat of all the world. I too wanted to get up and speak, to share my mood and feelings, but common sense stopped such an act. After the speech we went out on to the embankment in a crowd of several hundred, hoisted a red banner and moved towards neighbouring factories to the tune of the Marseillaise. We ran into a mounted police patrol, and a skirmish and chase started. In the face of some well-aimed stones, the police, the defenders of “throne and fatherland”, disappeared in search of reinforcements. The streets of this working-class district were unusually crowded; people, predominantly workers, walked along with set expressions and on their guard, ready to deal the enemy a blow or two or to make a getaway if those superb Cossack forces galloped in.
The following day all the talk in the workshops was about the May Day demonstrations. Everybody shared impressions and exchanged reports from other districts, plants and factories. As in 1912 and 1913 the young industrial district of Vyborg, where a considerable portion of Petersburg’s precision engineering and heavy war industry was located, marched at the head of the movement. In the pre-war years, a significant upturn in industry was taking place; the plants were inundated with orders, the need for manpower was great and employers in the Vyborg district were attracting skilled workers with high wage-rates. This led to a concentration of the most advanced elements in these plants. The better working conditions and militant mood of the workers had given the district a revolutionary reputation, and the Vyborgers were proud of it. Enormous changes had taken place in the attitude of the workers as compared with the time that I was last working illegally, in 1907, at the “1886” power station. The absence of the timidity and submissiveness which even then was very strong in the plants of Petersburg, hit you in the eye. You sensed that the workers had matured considerably as individuals. However, the absence of trade-union organization was apparent. The internal, unwritten but effective regulations on the shop floor were extremely varied and differed not only from one factory to the next but were not even uniform among shops in the same works. The employers cunningly divided workers according to earnings. Workers in the same shop and in the same trade, turning for example, would earn anything from two to six rubles a day on tools and jobs of almost equal complexity and precision. Moreover, a curious phenomenon could be observed, though one that in wartime would become quite natural, whereby the roughest jobs that did not require a high degree of skill, such as work on shells, paid the highest.
The workshops, even the rebuilt ones, were notable for the lack of auxiliary gear – cranes, trolleys, hoists and so on – vital for servicing the smallest requirements of a workshop. The lifting of loads, setting crude jobs on the tools and lifting manoeuvres during positioning and assembling were performed manually by labourers nearly everywhere. Establishments run in this way required a great number of labourers, and all the Petersburg plants were overflowing with them. An uneducated worker from the countryside was paid extremely little. The pay of labourers in Petersburg workshops ranged from ten to thirteen kopeks an hour. The low cost of manpower was reflected in the level of technical installations. Employers were not interested in equipping the plants with auxiliary gear, as “forced” labour came cheaper. As compared with those in the west, the productivity of the shops was very low, and although individual workers might sometimes be even more skilled than their foreign counterparts the general technical and organizational primitiveness suppressed their personal talents. There were few mechanical aids, and management had no concern for the application of modern working methods.
Inside the plants a system of fines nourished. You were fined automatically for lateness, absenteeism and so on. Insults, harassment, docking of pay and petty pressures like opening your locker only when the whistle had gone and not before, as workers liked to, would now and again spill over, and a storm of indignation would break out. The direct lackey of capital, the foreman or engineer, would be wheeled out in a barrow. There was little experience of persistent day-to-day struggle, as the trade unions were too weak; they lived under the threat of being closed down, and could not nurture or discipline a trade-union type of struggle among the mass of workers. My New Lessner workmates exhibited great interest in the life of fellow metalworkers in other countries. Carried away with my tales I would often forget my “alien” origin and embellish my speech with Vladimir argot. My workmates were surprised at my ability to learn the language so quickly, and I had to explain this by saying I had practised talking Russian in Paris. They believed me.
I got into the swing of the job quickly, which pleased my relief no end. He now came into the shop only to sleep. I would be satisfied if he worked half his shift. But I found it extremely arduous doing the work of two, for as we worked on one pay-book the pay was shared equally. The more conscious workers quickly noticed this malicious exploitation of the “foreigner”, and asked the manager that he sack the relief. I was left by myself on the lathe on one shift. Work became easier.
One evening in June party comrades in the Vyborg district sent a courier to the “Frenchman” to ask him to take part in a ceremonial banquet given by the Duma faction of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in honour of Vandervelde, who had come to Russia. The banquet was organized semi-legally at the Palkin restaurant. There were quite a few guests in the small room. There were few Bolsheviks, but among them were comrades Petrovsky and Badayev. The Mensheviks were represented by Dan, Chkheidze, Potresov and other stars of Luch. After the appetizers, the speeches of welcome began. Petrovsky spoke for our faction, Chkheidze and Dan for the Mensheviks. The liquidators’ speeches exuded diplomatic grief over the split in the ranks of the working class. I interpreted for Petrovsky and then, on our deputies’ instructions, took the floor in reply. With the facts at my fingertips, I demonstrated that in its struggle the Petersburg proletariat was one. “In day-to-day struggle,” I said, “the working class marches under the banner of our party’s Petersburg Committee, in spite of the scheming by the minority, which can only form majorities at banquets. The workers’ struggle here in Petersburg itself demonstrates, even though only a superficial study is available to you, comrade Vandervelde, for you cannot go out to our factories and see our strikes and mass meetings, that we have the majority behind us; and you, as an advocate of the unity of workers’ organizations, should propose to the minority, the intelligentsia sitting here, that they submit to the majority. Take what aspect of the workers’ movement you like: the trade unions are with us and the insurance organization is ours. Unity can easily be achieved, for we need only bind the minority to the wishes of the majority. If you would declare exactly that on behalf of the International Socialist Bureau whose president you are, we shall not push any of them out of the organization, and we shall not have a split.”
My speech in French agitated the Mensheviks. Despite the presence of the eminent foreigner, they interrupted me and I only managed to finish thanks to the intervention of the guest himself, Vandervelde, who was listening and watching the gathering very attentively. After my speech he felt it necessary to reply to questions so bluntly put, and in his speech about unity, patience and other related matters, he did declare that the minority should submit to the majority.
We broke up as a milky morning was relieving the white northern night. In the morning I was at my bench again, but I did not speak about my night-time trip to the banquet in honour of Vandervelde to any of the proletarians. It remained known to only a limited circle of organized comrades and party workers.
Political activity in the workshops was carried out by workers belonging to the three Russian parties: Bolshevik social democrats, Menshevik social democrats and Socialist-Revolutionaries.  Most active of all were the Bolsheviks. Bolshevik workers would get up at workshop meetings, and a little military strategy was practised: workers capable of speaking on political subjects were spread around the district, so that the same worker did not always get up in any one factory, preserving the vital secret of the agitator’s name from the Okhrana. A typical feature of the pre-war period of party work was its lack of intellectuals. The exodus of intellectuals that had begun in 1906 and 1907 meant that party workers, full-time staff and so on were workers. There was so little of the intelligentsia left that it barely sufficed to meet the needs of the Duma faction and the daily paper. The place of the petty-bourgeois intellectuals and student youth was taken by the intellectual proletarian with his caloused hands and highly developed head who had not lost contact with the masses. A very favourable impression was made by our insurance organizers G.I. Osipov, G.M. Shkapin, N.I. Ilyin, Dmitriev and others, and also the trade-union activists such as the metalworkers Kiselev, Murkin, Schmidt and others.
Working in the shops and being often at comrades’ houses I met quite a few outstanding workers who were more highly developed than many famous European workers I had known well abroad. Bitter struggle, exile and prison crippled thousands, but they reared individuals incomparably better than the “peaceful” struggle in the west. In the workshops there were often collections for solidarity causes; for people in prison, exiles and convict labourers and their families, for example.
Propaganda was done in the plants and shops on an individual basis. There were also discussion circles, but they were joined only by the most conscious workers. Legal meetings took place on matters concerning the insurance funds, but this activity was skilfully integrated into the general struggle for the liberation of the working class. Illegal meetings were arranged fairly often in the plants during the summer of my stay in Petersburg. This was usually done on the spur of the moment but in an organized way, during the lunch or evening break in front of the exit, in the yard or, in establishments with several floors, on the stairs. The most alert workers would form a “plug” in the doorway, and the whole mass piled up in the exit. An agitator would get up right there on the spot. Management would contact the police on the telephone, but the speeches would have already been made and the necessary decision taken by the time they arrived. Frequently clashes with the police would ensue, in which the latter would put its “herrings” into action and the workers nuts and cobblestones. Mass rallies took place all round Petersburg. The Vyborg district gathered mainly at Ozerki, Shuvalov and Grazhdanka. Holidays brought crowds of visitors to these villages on the outskirts. This made it easier for workers to get to the mass meetings.
In the spring of 1914 the atmosphere in the factory districts was tense in the extreme. Every conflict, small or large, irrespective of its origin, provoked a protest strike or walk-out. Political meetings and skirmishes with the police were everyday occurrences. The workers began to make contacts among the soldiers at the nearby barracks. Revolutionary propaganda was also carried out in the army camps. An extremely active part in propaganda work was taken by women workers, the weavers and mill-girls: some of the soldiers were from the same villages as the women workers, but for the most part the young people came together on the basis of “interests of the heart”, and thus kinship relations were established between barracks and factory. It was totally impossible to turn such troops against the workers.
Lessners ceased to satisfy me, and I started to think about changing to some other plant. This was very easily done. For my very first days there I had incited workers to fight against the management’s dictatorial fixing of earnings. Right from the start I had begun to set a personal example in fighting for higher wage rates. I was deeply indignant at the unequal earnings for workers on identical jobs. Thus, when working with my drunken relief, I would clear some four rubles a day, while the turner working next to me, a Finn, would earn only two rubles fifty kopeks at the most, and with greater exertion. And this was not a unique example. For all the revolutionary fighting spirit of the Petersburg metalworkers, their trade-union solidarity and understanding were both poorly developed. This derived in part from the fact that our metalworkers had grown used to collective struggle “in a bunch”, whereas the defence of a standard rate for workers in the same trade, like so much else in factory life, demanded a certain personal grit, stubbornness and ability to defend oneself as an individual, sometimes without general support.
I presented a personal demand to the manager for five rubles for a ten-hour day, even when the piecework given me could not yield such earnings either because of its quality (you’d get stuck with a bad casting) or its small quantity. The manager, with the equivocation customary in this type of person, half agreed, but when the pay-out came my wages had been adjusted to forty-eight kopeks an hour, i.e. twenty kopeks a day less. On seeing this I immediately resigned, and on 17 June left the shop. My workmates at Lessner and especially in the first engineering shop, were very sorry to see me go. But they realized that as a “foreigner” I was curious to move around and work a bit in as many shops as possible, to get to know Petersburg proletarians as widely as possible.
After the job at Lessner the search for another post was considerably easier. I no longer carried the dictionary around but went to see comrades who could introduce me to the foreman. Within a few days I had two offers: at the Parviainen Shell Works, and at Ericssons. I chose the latter, where I started on 26 June. My start was preceded by a trip to the doctor. The doctor at the local hospital fund permitted only absolutely fit men to work there. Workers worn out by prolonged unemployment or intense physical exploitation in their previous job were ruthlessly sifted out. The doctor was an old cynic who recommended such comrades to a high-calorie diet, a long rest period and other such delights, though it sounded more like a gibe at their hunger. The actual process of “certification” took place in an extremely slipshod fashion: hands were not washed after examination by the doctor or his assistant, instruments were taken straight from one body to the next, and so on.
But my health was found to be good and I was taken on in the Turning Shop no. 1, known inside the works as the “Third Floor”, where I was set a highly exacting test. After completing it, I was offered a “shop rate” of twenty-three kopeks an hour. But I had already stated to both the foreman and those near him when I started that I would not work for less than five rubles a day, no matter what “shop rate” I was offered. Within the shop, however, the management permitted an output bonus system for piecework at double the “shop rate”. I finished the first piece for four rubles sixty kopeks, and I demanded that the foreman raise the rate so that my pay would be equivalent to five rubles a day, otherwise I would not agree to stay on. The foreman gave way, and this became a precedent for me.
In the turning shop, as throughout the works, there were many politically highly conscious workers. All the Menshevik workers were concentrated on our floor. Their attitude towards management was impeccable, they were all in excellent standing and had the highest shop-rates, which gave them the opportunity to earn nearly twice as much as many others. Yet this workshop, for all its consciousness, was the same as the rest when it came to trade-union solidarity. The same incredible discrepancies existed in wage levels which were fixed arbitrarily by the section foreman and varied from sixteen kopeks an hour for the “novices” to thirty-five kopeks an hour for the “veterans” who had become well established and had the chance to double their earnings on piecework. I made a personal campaign for “levelling” earnings for the same trade and job. All those who had low wages were on my side, while those who had attained a privileged position were naturally against. Disputes arising from minor trade-union matters moved on to a political level. The Mensheviks, who had the upper hand in the workshop, decided to “give battle” to the French Bolshevik. The arguments and abuse brought a crowd together around my bench. It was only events of a greater significance outside our factory which rallied us all and for a while diverted us from our internal struggles.
On 4 July the story spread round the city’s workers that a brutal police assault had been made upon the Putilov workers, resulting in the death of several. The workers’ indignation was great, and it was clear that the inflamed atmosphere would lead to bloodshed. In a number of places work was halted earlier than normal in protest.
On the morning of the 5th people came to work at the normal times, but after only half an hour reports began to come in of stoppages at first one and then another factory. People were not starting work. The New Lessner factory was out, the neighbouring textile mill on the Nevka embankment was out and demanded that we stop work too. A meeting was organized in the factory yard, the police broke in, a skirmish took place and the workers smashed through the police cordon across the gateway and came out on to the street, Workers converged from all sides on the Bolshoi Sampsonievsky Prospekt, forming a crowd of demonstrators over ten thousand strong. Revolutionary songs began, red banners and kerchiefs were waved. The police locked themselves up in their station. Speakers got up appealing for armed struggle and the overthrow of tsarism. Trams in the Vyborg district were halted and for over an hour workers moved through the streets to the sound of revolutionary songs. Cossacks were despatched to the aid of the police and, whooping and holding their rifles at the ready, they burst among the crowds, lashing out with their whips and firing at the open windows of workers’ flats. The workers dispersed throughout the district, through back gardens and orchards, showering the police and cossacks with stones. Though a foreigner, I escaped the cossacks’ whips just the same as the Russians, and hid. Once reinforced by the cossacks, the police summoned up the courage to go hunting round the shops and back yards and even broke into flats. Several hours of cavalry charges were required to “impose order”, but calm could not be re-established just like that. With the onset of dusk the police and cossacks decided not to probe any deeper into the working-class quarters, where until deep into the night the strains of revolutionary songs could be heard.
The action was led by groups from our party. The events were taking place just as the president of the French bourgeoisie, Poincaré, was arriving and the authorities were preoccupied with organizing his welcome. The police had mobilized the flat caretakers to act as a backdrop representing the “Russian people” on the day of Poincaré’s arrival in Petersburg. Police and cossacks were tied down there, and on the bridges linking the outer areas with the city centre patrols were posted to prevent the demonstrating workers getting through.
The protest strike against the violence and arrests switched from the Narva and Vyborg districts to Vasiliev Island, the Kolomna district and beyond the Neva Gate, and flooded throughout the city. The newspapers spread the news across Russia, and a response to this powerful movement could be expected from the provinces. From 6 July till 12 July the strike was almost general, and the number of strikers reached 300,000. Meetings and demonstrations took place everywhere, and in some places barricades were erected. Workers sought arms everywhere, and bought up stocks of revolvers and knives to arm themselves somehow against the police and cossacks. Mounted forces moved through the city and the outskirts. Mass arrests started in homes and on the streets. Newspapers were closed down and their staffs arrested. The more advanced workers usually gathered at our Pravda office, bringing in reports, and members of the Petersburg Committee would also go there. In an unexpected raid the police arrested a large number of party workers and activists. These arrests decimated the leading ranks of the Petersburg proletariat, but did not stop the movement that had begun. Every day workers arrived at the plants and factories at the normal time, held meetings and demonstrated through the streets. This movement was especially militant in the Vyborg district. On the morning of the French visitors’ arrival in Petersburg, nearly all the working-class districts had gathered in the Bolshoi Sampsonievsky Prospekt, filling the whole width of the street from the New Lessner Works to the police station. The sun smiled happily upon the twenty-thousand-strong crowd, among whom there were working women, wives, children and so on. Police and cossacks were absent. Here and there speakers came forward from the crowd calling for a demonstrative welcome for the visitors. “Let’s tell them,” said one worker, “that we’ve got trouble at home and can’t receive visitors.” The strains of the Varshavyanka began to sound, and the workers moved towards the city. But then a cry from behind: “Cossacks!” We turned and saw a cossack detachment galloping away from the Landrin factory. The working men and women took to their heels as best they could. Drunken cossacks rode into the side-streets and courtyards and beat up the demonstrators there. The police came running out of their ambush too. The roadway and pavements bore traces of blood many hours later. All this was in the Vyborg district, but the same thing also happened in the Kolomna district, where dockers and workers from the Franco-Russian factory were beaten up. The clashes in the Vyborg district continued all day and shifted from land to water. Young workers clambered on to barges lying on the Nevka and started singing. The police tried to subdue them, but to the locals’ great delight they failed to board the barges, as the workers had hauled up the gangplanks and were using the poles to keep the police at bay. Nor could the latter operate too safely on water, for this was really a job for the river police.
I took advantage of my “foreign” status to tour the city, especially the working-class districts. There was unusual excitement everywhere, and you could sense the depth of what had been experienced: it recalled the red years of 1905–7.
Workers in the Vyborg district decided to organize the defence of their quarter from cossack raids. Spades, saws, hammers and axes appeared, and they started knocking down telegraph poles and setting up barricades and wire entanglements. All along from the Wylie clinic to the Eiwas Works, poles were sawn up and the wires removed. All this was done on the instructions of some Moscow metalworkers who had been participants in the December armed rising in Moscow in 1905.
Towards evening the workers headed towards the wire entanglements in groups of several hundred. Near the Landrin factory workers Stopped the draymen, unharnessed the horses and returned them to their drivers and then overturned the carts across the streets, making barricades of them and entwining them with wire. Only the odd worker had a revolver, and most were armed only with enthusiasm.
In the evening demonstrators gathered around the Wylie clinic, where two huge poles formed the base of a barricade while wire entanglements in the side-streets and in front paralysed the movement of mounted cossack and police forces. Shops, bars and restaurants were closed. In the gateways to tenements the caretakers were out on duty, with orders not to let in outsiders and to keep a watch on residents. The clash outside the Wylie clinic was almost an organized engagement; the defenders were virtually without arms and used the barricades and wire entanglements as cover from behind which they pelted the cossacks and police with stones. Collecting stones and pulling them up from the roadway was the children’s job, and they carried them to the workers in the folds of their tunics. The police and cossacks succeeded in taking the barricade and clearing the square with revolver and rifle fire.
Returning late at night from my usual walk round the districts of the city, I ended up in Wylie Square several hours after the battle. There was an ominous silence in the streets. Neither residents, passers-by nor police could be seen. The square was strewn with stones, smashed lamp-posts and loose bits of wire, and across the road lay two telegraph poles Still entangled in wire. There were bullet-marks on the walls of buildings. My steps echoed with a hollow sound on the flagstones. Suddenly there was a distant shout: “Stop, don’t move!” I stopped and waited. Two white shadows strode towards me from the opposite side and pointed revolvers at me. “Est-ce que je ne puis passer par id?” (“Can’t I get through this way?”) I asked. Hearing a foreign language, the policemen lowered their revolvers. I asked them in French once again, “What danger is there?” and so on. The policemen in the end said that they did not understand. Then I, in slightly broken Russian, explained that I was a Frenchman going home. “A Frenchman!” the policemen joyfully exclaimed. “Have you just arrived?” A couple of heavy arms descended upon my shoulders. I said that I had arrived some time ago and that now I was going home to my flat.
”Is it really dangerous to proceed?” I asked, without making any attempt at “Franco-Russian” fraternization. The policemen’s arms fell from me, and pointing to their revolvers, they said: “Well, we do have these, see?” I decided to go on my way without “these”, and made for the depths of the working-class twilight. I had scarcely gone a couple of hundred yards when I heard another shout: “Stop, stay where you are or we’ll shoot!” And then the sound of several hundred steel horseshoes rang over the roadway, and from behind a home for war invalids a whole squadron of Don cossacks under the command of two officers rode out to block my path. I shouted in French: “Attendez tirer! Je m’approche!” (“Hold your fire, I’m coming.”) The two officers hurried forward to meet me. I asked whether they spoke French: they did not. Again I used broken Russian and said that I was going home but could not make it as I kept running into drunken armed policemen. The officers assured me that the policemen were not drunk but tired, as the official welcome for the visitors and the disturbances had worn them all out. Towards myself they were most considerate, but they searched and questioned all other passers-by.
From the dark depths of the Bolshoi Sampsonievsky Prospekt wafted the sounds of an accordion, revolutionary songs and shots. Over there in the working-class quarters life and a readiness for struggle were seething, and the cossacks could sense it. They warned each other against approaching the walls – the outside walls of a sugar factory – and they were afraid of every rustle from the trees. The officers tried as best they could to dissuade me from going on into that “frightening hellhole” where I could be brought down with a shot. They suggested I stayed with them as they were ready to return to the city, where they promised to give me a room for the night and gladly help me back home in the morning. I thanked them for their kindness but thought it unnecessary to trouble such busy people especially as it was only a couple of streets to my flat in Maly Sampsonievsky Lane. In the end one proposed to the other that the whole squadron escort me to my house. I thanked them profusely but I felt that it might be rather unpleasant to arrive home under cossack guard. However, the other officer did not back the proposal to accompany me into the “hellhole”, and stared diplomatically into the dark, noisy distance, warning the squadron to be at the ready. It was clear they had the wind up, and I was glad I could go home alone. A girl was running past. She was stopped but not searched. They asked her if she knew Maly Sampsonievsky Lane, and if it was far. The answer was yes, and the officer suggested that she accompany me. We set off into the revolutionary dark, and they withdrew from the area.
While the brokers of the imperialist bourgeoisie were drafting their final notes and the Triple Alliance was putting the blame on the Triple Entente, the Petersburg proletariat and the workers of many of Russia’s other industrial centres were wholly engrossed in matters of domestic strife. The July events in Petersburg woke up the drowsing provinces and the strike wave rolled literally “from the cold Finnish crags to fiery Colchis”.
The street rallies by the Petersburg workers finished on 11 or 12 July, but a considerable portion of the 300,000-strong army of strikers did not go back to work. The Association of Factory and Plant Owners decided to punish the “labour troubles” with a lock-out of their own. Many factories and nearly all the privately owned metalworking plants planned the complete dismissal of all their employees. However, the approach of a “critical turn of events”, i.e. the commencement of hostilities, forced the government to introduce some “peace” into the life of the capital, to avoid “upsets”. The announcements posted up about the lock-out were suddenly replaced, the factories were reopened, and instead of threats the workers received polite invitations to resume working at their former posts. Many of them, foreseeing a protracted conflict, had gone out to the country for a while and did not learn of the reopening of the factories until considerably later. Some two days before the mobilization, working life in Petersburg had already returned to its normal pattern.
The mood of workers was very buoyant, in spite of the orgy of repression, the lack of newspapers and the fortnight’s unemployment. Everyone was overjoyed and encouraged by the recent strike, which had united a huge army of labour in one vivid upsurge of anger. This Solidarity could not be smashed either by the police, or by the “glorious” cossackry, or by the threats of starvation from the coalition of factory-owners. The first day back at work was spent exchanging impressions of the recent events. Everyone felt that a decisive and nationwide battle was just around the corner. The bloody operations on the Austro-Serbian frontier were a minor topic, although workers did follow the progress of the negotiations between the powers.
Pan-Slavist circles had, however, already set to work. The gutter and semi-liberal press was paving the way for patriotic demonstrations. These soon took place, springing up “spontaneously” in the central areas of the city and finishing at the Serbian Embassy.
The hard core of these demonstrations were caretakers, office workers, intellectuals, “society” ladies and secondary-school pupils. Flags, placards and portraits of the Tsar, concealed in advance, were “spontaneously” produced and a procession went round the allied embassies under the protection of mounted police. During the early days everyone in the city centre was terrorized by these patriotic hooligans. They took the “freedom” extended to them to its logical conclusion, i.e. to attacking the German Embassy and other private establishments on the advice of Vechernee Vremya (The Evening Times) but they were not deprived of the right to demonstrate.
The Petersburg Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic and Labour Party had previously agitated among workers to turn patriotic demonstrations into revolutionary ones; such attempts had already been made and ended in clashes. The city governor then banned any further demonstrations. Before this ban there was no let-up. The slightest success at the front: a demonstration. The entry of a new country into the war: a demonstration. The philistines, white-collar workers and Petersburg intellectuals had a craven attitude towards hooligan patriotism. Democratically minded circles of Petersburg workers were interested in the events, especially after the German ultimatum to Russia. The special editions of the newspapers were avidly read. Of course, all the papers tried to use this ultimatum to prove the “honour” and “dignity” of Russia as a “great power”. The next day the slogan of both right and left was “We have been invaded”.
The journalists had already been tuned up in a patriotic key, and wrath against “villainous Germany” became the daily diet of Petersburg democrats. Among the jackals of chauvinism there was not a single voice to remind us that it was they themselves who had prepared for this two weeks previously, during Poincaré’s arrival, when reactionary newspapers were already challenging the “Prussian fist” and saying that in two years’ time Russia would be ready to settle accounts with them. For these “services” to the fatherland our honourable journalists got the Order of the French Republic.
Events developed so rapidly that organized workers were caught off guard. Although in principle they were all opponents of the war, the complexity of the situation was beyond the understanding of many, and many “private opinions” were expressed. General mobilization of the Petersburg zone (together with the whole of European Russia) was announced on 19 July, to take effect from six o’clock in the morning. Police stations worked all night distributing call-up papers. In the morning red mobilization posters were displayed throughout the city, along with white bills giving the rates of compensation for requisitioned articles like boots, bedding, etc. Knots of people stood in front of them, discussing the events from every conceivable angle; but an anxious mood united them. Hundreds of workers’ families crowded round the police stations, which had now turned into recruiting offices. The women wept and cursed the war,
In the workshops and factories, mobilization wrought havoc. Up to forty per cent of the workers were taken away from their benches and tools. Feelings of helplessness and despondency were widespread. Factory-owners demanded from the authorities that their skilled workers be returned, otherwise they would not be able to fulfil their military contracts. Their request was granted: a few days later all mobilized metalworkers from factories with military contracts were sent back, but were regarded as “on the books” of the military governor.
When people arrived at work on the morning of mobilization, no one as much as thought about work. They gathered together around the workshops without changing, agreed on what to do, and went out into the streets to the sound of revolutionary songs. In some plants there were general meetings with conscripts, from whom the workers extracted oaths not to forget the workers’ struggle, and to use their arms at the very first opportunity to “liberate the Slavs within Russia itself”. Once again the streets were filled with thousands of people singing revolutionary songs and shouting: “Down with the war!” Often even the tear-stained women standing by the police stations shouted, “Down with the war!” through their tears and encouraged others to do so. The police, who were neither as numerous nor as rough as in the July protests, attempted to break the demonstrations, but on encountering the energetic protests of the reservists, they thought it wiser to disappear.
Around noon the first parties of conscripts, surrounded by a feeble escort of policemen, moved towards the central city assembly points. The crowd quickly attached itself to them and a demonstration was formed with red streamers and placards tied to sticks. During these send-offs there were clashes with the police, but with the reservists’ active support the demonstrators always got the upper hand. Scenes like this occurred in various outlying areas of the city and even, within the city itself, in the Kolomna district. The demonstrations outside the Neva Gate and in the Vyborg district were particularly impressive. In the first case a crowd of several scores of thousands accompanied the reservists singing revolutionary songs and carrying a red banner as tar as Znamensky Square, where they clashed with patriots and were dispersed by police. In various parts of the Vyborg district there were demonstrations nearly all day long.
Simultaneously with the mobilization, Petersburg was declared to be on a war footing. The railways, bridges, warehouses and other such establishments were guarded by military patrols. Post, telegraphs and transport served only the needs of the war. In the early days Petersburg was entirely cut off from the world and, oddly enough, more so from the provinces than from “abroad”.
The city was full of alarming rumours. Sensational tales were passed from mouth to mouth that such-and-such a princess had been locked up in a fortress for treachery; talk had it that the ex-city governor of Petersburg, Drachevsky, had already been convicted and hanged for selling “important documents” kept in the Kronstadt fortress. People coming from Kronstadt maintained that three hundred mines stuffed with sand had been found among those ready for laying. Rumours of this kind greatly undermined confidence in the authorities and their ability to “organize defence”. Patriotically-minded petty bourgeois, shopkeepers, white-collar workers and peasants who accepted the inevitability of the war considered that any shortcomings were to be blamed on the Germans, who had already taken power in the country: Rennenkampf and other such “true Russians” lost at one stroke even their colleagues of yesterday.
From the moment of Germany’s declaration of war on Russia until Britain’s entry against Germany, the mood of the Petersburg bourgeois society was sombre. It was considered that, had Britain adopted a neutral position, the fate of Petersburg would have been sealed. People began to move out their valuables, and several museums started to pack up their treasures. It is not hard to imagine the joy with which the news of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany was greeted. There was applause in restaurants and theatres, toasts were drunk, and in the evening a patriotic demonstration marched to the British Embassy.
In the first days of the war thinking workers were convinced that West European democracy, headed by the organized proletariat, would not allow the mutual destruction of workers and peasants. It was clear from the international situation that the German government had been the initiator and the first to pull the trigger. From this we drew the conclusion that the task of leading the way to a decisive struggle against the imperialists’ bloodthirsty designs fell to the German proletariat. But when we learned what was happening, it struck us by its absurdity. Newspaper articles spoke about the leaders of German social democracy justifying the war and voting for war credits. Our first thought was that the government wire-services were false and that they wanted to whip us Russian social democrats into line. But opportunities to verify them soon came: hundreds of refugees from Germany, and people returning from other countries confirmed what had appeared to be a libel.
However monstrous this new turn, we had to reckon with it as a reality. Workers showered us with questions as to the meaning of the behaviour of the German socialists, whom we had always presented as models for ourselves. Where was all that world solidarity? It was particularly painful to hear that the German army, with so many organized workers in its ranks, was laying waste to Belgium, and that Belgian soldiers were defending their country to the sound of the Internationale. Answers had to be given to all these questions, and it was essential to point out that the leaders of German social democracy had betrayed the workers’ cause and betrayed international socialism. We pointed out that in recent years the German workers’ movement had been led by reformists, or “liquidators”.
“Burying the German leaders” did not come easily to us, as in the broad circles of workers supporting social democracy the idea emerged of “if the Germans have done it, we might as well too”. It took a lot of effort to explain to thinking workers that betrayal by some must not lead to universal betrayal, as only the capitalists would stand to gain from that. It was vital to restore international contact between workers over the heads of the leaders.
As the conflict developed, the Russian government itself did much to “clarify” the confused situation. Hardly had mobilization in Petersburg been completed when a campaign was afoot against “the enemy within”. More repression rained down on the working class in the form of arrests, deportations and the closure of those unions, clubs and trade-union journals still remaining. This was how the government had resolved to “unite all classes and nationalities”. The workers who had been mobilized but remained at the plants were subjected to harassment. The employers decided to exploit their status by turning the workers into serfs, a sort of “conscript labour”. At the Lessner works in the very first weeks, deductions from pay and the abuse of overtime working brought protests; there were protests too at Ericssons, the Vulcan works and other engineering establishments. Small-scale employers and contractors made wide use of the state of war to rid themselves of troublesome elements or to avoid paying wages, resorting to the police station for assistance.
The defeat of the Russian army at the Masurian lakes greatly encouraged all those who tended to favour suspending the struggle against the government. The working masses concluded from this defeat that the Russian government was so rotten and incompetent that it deserved simply to be swept away. The critical attitude towards the capabilities of the reactionary government had very much in common with the attitude that manifested itself during the Russo-Japanese campaigns.
From soldiers’ tales of pilfering, bad food and poor organization, an unattractive and hitherto concealed picture of the true condition of our army came into view. These stories circulated even among peasants, and their mistrust of the “leaders of the Russian army” can be judged by their comments that it would be better commanded by Japanese generals, for then the Germans would be smashed.
When the letters by Plekhanov, Burtsev, Kropotkin and others appeared in the press calling for a temporary “truce” and support for the government in its “struggle against German militarism”, Russian revolutionary democrats, including the patriotically minded element, were a little disillusioned, as they had expected that the appeal would be first for the victory of democracy and only then for a struggle against the external enemy. But the notorious “truce” with tsarism only strengthened reaction, while in no way raising the army’s so-called “chances of success” – not to mention the damage that was inflicted on the Russian democratic movement by these proponents of “truce”. Around them danced the chieftains of Black Hundred patriotism.
At the very start of the war persistent rumours began to circulate round the city and in working-class circles of reforms being drafted, an amnesty and a Kadet government. The source of these rumours, or rather “Kadet longings”, some of which found their way into print, was the liberal circles. Having themselves renounced any struggle against the government and having got nothing in return, they grew most indignant and sought to intimate this to the government. But Rech, after paying a fine of five thousand rubles, fell silent and put about rumours that the British government had “advised” the Russian government to relax the regime. But time went on, and the influence of West European democracy was imperceptible, unless you count the acceptance of the Marseillaise as one of the obligatory anthems.
The Petersburg press did much to kindle popular chauvinism. They skilfully blew up “German” atrocities against Russian women and old men remaining in Germany. But even this hostile atmosphere did not drive workers to excesses of nationalism. One rare incident of a demand for the removal of a “German” from his post took place at the Bryansk locomotive works, and concerned an engineer in charge of a workshop. He was so “necessary” to the exploitation of the workers that the management had succeeded in obtaining him a permit to live freely in Russia. But the workers “picked their moment” to rid themselves of an enemy of their own, and demanded his removal. There might have been cases where workers had demanded the removal of Germans as known scabs who had been brought to Russia to replace strikers, but one could not conclude therefore that the Russian workers hated the Germans, as the newspapers claimed. This “literary chauvinism” considerably outweighed the actual mood even of petty-bourgeois circles.
The attitude of Russia’s oppressed nationalities towards the war differed little from any other supporter of the theory of “the defence of national independence”. The Jewish bourgeoisie in Petersburg held “pure Jewish” patriotic demonstrations. Prayers for victory were offered in the synagogues. The liberal newspapers Rech and Den tried to stress this, so that the powers that be could not reproach the Jews for lack of love for the fatherland. And indeed the powers that be, the Markovs and Purishkevichs, were so touched that they had only praise and affection for the Jews. In areas close to the war zones, however, the Jews had a tough time. They lived under the permanent threat of pogrom, as much from the mob as from the military authorities. In wartime conditions it was forbidden to publish anything about this, but the news did find its way indirectly to the press in the form of reports of arrests of thugs with stolen property. A patriotic demonstration in such areas bore the character of a “pogrom warning”. The Moslem Tartar population was also dragged into patriotic outpourings of love for the homeland. There were services in the Petersburg mosque, and deputations were sent “on behalf of Mohammedans”. Czechs, Poles and other Slavs were sometimes, through the police, called upon to form volunteer legions for the sacred liberation struggle.
The Petersburg patriots held a procession to the Winter Palace and fell on their knees cheering at the tsar’s appearance on the balcony. The epidemic spread, threatening to swamp the pores of Russia’s already meagre social life, and only the desire for “reconciliation” could be heard from the democrats. But healthy proletarian instinct saved the working-class element in the capital from this intoxication.
The administrative and police repression that rained on the Petersburg proletariat in July had not smashed the illegal cells of the Social-democratic party, but the mass arrests and searches did greatly weaken the quality of the party organizations. The Petersburg Committee was deprived of its best workers but still maintained its contacts and worked as normal.
There was acute need for intellectual workers. After the swoop on Pravda there was not a single person on the Petersburg Committee capable of writing a leaflet. I had to spend much of the first day of mobilization with the Vyborg representatives of the Petersburg Committee and in particular with comrade Mokhovaya, who was lamenting the lack of forces and asked me to write a leaflet on the war. I wrote it and sent it into the district committee the same day.
Upon the declaration of war and in the very first week of the mobilization, our workers’ organizations took up a hostile attitude to the war. Even prior to the convening of the State Duma, the Petersburg Committee had issued the leaflet I wrote against the war, in which I warned the proletariat against the lie that the government supposedly had declared the war in the name of the independence of Serbia and the liberation of Galicia. This leaflet, which I managed to find later in Police Department files, was set in an underground print-shop and ran as follows:
Workers of the world, unite!
To all workers, peasants and soldiers!
A bloody spectre hangs over Europe. The capitalists’ greedy competition, the politics of violence and plunder, dynastic calculation and fear for privileges in the face of the rising international workers’ movement, are driving the governments of all countries along the path of militarism, the path of expanding the military machine which crushes the labouring people of all lands and all colours with its expenditure. Over recent years the European “armed peace” has been many times threatened by the danger of passing over into a general war but the sabre-rattling capitalists and landlords have been compelled by the pressure of popular protests in Germany, France, Britain and other countries to regulate their affairs without bloody collisions between peoples. The International Socialist Labour League, standing guard over the interests of all the labouring people of the world, has been at the head of this movement in favour of peace and now calls upon the working class of all countries to protest against the war. “Down with the war!” “War on war!” must roll powerfully across city and hamlet alike across the width of our Russia. Workers must remember that they do not have enemies over the frontier: everywhere the working class is oppressed by the rich and the power of the property-owners. Everywhere it is oppressed by the yoke of exploitation and the chains of poverty.
In the conflict that was coming the tsarist government had declared itself the “protector” and “liberator” of the Slav people but here we see now no protection but only a thirst for the seizure of new possessions. Displaced from the east by Japan, our irresponsible and bloody rulers are attempting, by means of secret diplomatic agreements, to fish in the murky waters of the Near East. The working-class press has been completely strangled and is unable to speak the truth in this “age of blood” and yet bourgeois and police-managed newspapers speak of a community of interests for working people. “Off with the mask!” workers and all labouring people must reply in the face of our bashi-bazouks. The government of oppressors of Russian workers and peasants, the government of landowners cannot be a liberator. Wherever it penetrates, it brings fetters, the lash and lead. Without having time to wash workers’ blood off the streets of Petersburg and only yesterday branding all of working-class Petersburg as well as all the workers of Russia as “enemies within” against whom savage cossacks and mercenary police went into action, they now call for the defence of the fatherland. Soldiers and workers! You are being called on to die for the glory of the cossack lash and for the glory of a fatherland that shoots starving peasants and workers and strangles its best sons in prison. No, we don’t want the war, you must declare. We want the freedom of Russia. That must be your cry. Long live world-wide labour solidarity!! Long live the Constituent Assembly that will give all land to the peasants and working folk the freedom to fight for a better world and socialism where the peoples will live by peaceful labour. Down with the war, down with the tsarist government! Long live the revolution! Amnesty for all martyrs for liberty! Long live the equality of nationalities!
Petersburg Committee of the RSDLP
The convening of the State Duma found the majority of our deputies away in the provinces, where a strike movement was developing. The Duma social-democratic faction had a few meetings before the Duma assembled, where the declaration, now familiar to all, was adopted. Two attitudes to this war were revealed in the drafting process. There were among deputies of the Menshevik right-wing supporters of the defence of “Russian culture”. That is only a point in passing, for officially the SD faction bon gré mal gré marched together on this question. The declaration, bold and brief in form, was “Bolshevik” in content and landed amid the chauvinist yelping like a stone in a stagnant marsh. The right wing greeted it with whistling. But the working class learned of it with great satisfaction.
We were to learn of the attitudes of the other socialist sections of the International towards the war from the bourgeois newspapers. The first report from Paris, seized upon with glee by the whole bourgeois press, announced that “the French socialists and syndicalists have dropped their criticism of the Russian government’s actions”. The war censorship that banned news of pogroms, arrests and searches very graciously let through all the telegrams about the actions of socialists in other countries. We knew about the voting of war credits by the German “orthodoxists” of social democracy. We were well informed on the activity of the new socialist minister Vandervelde. Birzhevka, Vechernee Vremya, Kopeika and others devoted all their articles to this and carried his picture. The reorganization of the French ministry into a “cabinet of national defence” and the admission of socialists into the ministry was hailed by all our press as a stroke of genius. This provided only a superfluous pretext for sighs by the Russian liberals from Rech and other papers about how things were sadly not the same here as elsewhere, so everything would stay the same.
Minister Vandervelde’s telegram to the Russian socialists was received by the deputy, Chkheidze, via the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Workers got to know of it via the bourgeois press and considerably later than its receipt. By then copies that had been handwritten or knocked out on typewriters had appeared.
In contrast to the fact that “European democracy” had given very poor support to the democratic movement in our country, Petersburg workers were very sensitive to the predicament of the Belgian proletariat. However few of those socialists would have excused Vandervelde’s joining the royal bourgeois ministry. We considered that Vandervelde had abandoned his post and in the given situation that far outweighed the advantages of a portfolio in a clerical cabinet.
Nevertheless the war greatly inhibited Petersburg’s “right to mass meetings” in the outlying woods: there were soldiers and spies everywhere. Moreover, many workers had been mobilized and this obliged them to work overtime – many were intimidated. The discussion of Vandervelde’s telegram therefore took place inside the plants. To organized workers it was not so much the reply itself that was important as the related question of the attitude to the war. On the question of a “truce” there was complete unanimity. The social democrats – Bolsheviks, Plekhanovites and liquidators – all stood for the continuation of the struggle against the Russian government. On this question liquidationist workers parted company from their closest counsellors, the officials of the hospital funds and the patriotically minded elements. In the assessment of the war itself there were individual feelings of Francophilia, although on the whole the masses had a negative attitude.
Curious inscriptions appeared in obscure corners of workshops: “Comrades; we won’t be any better off if Russia wins, they’ll squash us even harder.” One could judge by this the anxiety felt by the workers, whom everyone was trying to lull and “unite” with their sworn enemies.
The attitude to the war of the social-democratic intelligentsia was much more “complex” than the workers’ negative attitude. They all started from the fact that they opposed the war on principle. But then came a string of qualifications starting with “but”. The “literacy” which social democrats had usually displayed before the war disappeared as if by magic. The war was not seen in connection with the governments’ previous policies, but as a “fact” with which we had suddenly been confronted. And it was towards this “fact” that the attitude of the intelligentsia was nebulous in the extreme and deflected many workers from positions they had firmly adopted.
The most widespread opinion was that this war would bring about Russia’s emancipation from political and economic oppression by Germany. In the event of victory for the Triple Entente, Russia would gain free access through the Dardanelles and new trading agreements would create the possibility for a rapid development of the country’s productive forces. This “marxist” formulation of the question seduced few workers: their international solidarity could not be blunted by future “blessings” after the “victory”. They would tell the intellectuals at meetings that for Germany the question was also one of “possible further development of the productive forces”: the way out of this knot of capitalist conflicts would be found by workers acting in international solidarity. We spoke out on the need for international relations between workers’ organizations. This was considered to be the factor that could really advance an active struggle by Russian workers against the war. News about the social chauvinists of Germany and their true estimation of the revolutionary movement, the active assistance of revolutionaries in the plans of the German General Staff and the infamous “struggle against tsarism” – the shooting of Russian workers and peasants upheld by the German social democrats – greatly hampered our propaganda. It all seemed to us a monstrous provocation against our movement.
However, despite this difficult situation, our organizations continued to conduct their anti-militarist work. At the beginning of August and in September the Petersburg Committee issued another set of leaflets against the war. News reached us that local organizations – in the Caucasus, Poland and the Lithuanian territory – had also issued leaflets against the war. The publication of the leaflets in Petersburg was accompanied by searches and arrests. Over eighty people were arrested.
In Poland, despite the promise that “there are no longer enslaved peoples”, government policy remained reactionary. In several cities close to the theatre of operations, such as Lodz and Warsaw, the political climate changed according to whether the Germans were approaching or moving away from the locality in question. The German move on Warsaw brought “liberty” back to life – arrests ceased, the city administration fled and the city was left to itself. This brought “public-initiative” into being, in the form of a residents’ committee which raised a militia. It also helped to set up cheap or free canteens for the unemployed, of whom there were a great deal in the district. We received a proclamation from Poland:
Russian Social Democratic Labour Party
Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania
The working class, in its day-to-day struggle against exploitation and oppression, directs the weapon of the workers’ organizations and working-class solidarity against its enemies. Only in the ranks of an organization can each individual worker become a force capable of triumphantly fighting shoulder to shoulder for the rights of the proletariat in one common upsurge; in the ranks of an organization the hearts and minds of workers blaze with the flame of common tasks; under the banner of an organization the consciousness of workers is born and common action forged. The higher the wave of the workers’ movement rises and the more acute the general political situation, the more serious are the tasks that fall to the social-democratic workers’ organizations and the more crucial its own work becomes. We are living at a time when historical events are demanding that workers closely unify their ranks, and when questions are posed to the proletariat which can only be answered by starting out from a working-class policy based upon the class consciousness of the. proletariat and a precise explanation of its revolutionary aspiration to destroy the existing social system. In the chaos of political events and the fire of the social changes caused by the European war, the proletariat must enter the scene as a highly organized detachment and a community mighty with the revolutionary slogans of international solidarity.
Fellow workers, today every thinking worker, every proletarian to whom the workers’ sacred cause is dear, must be in the ranks of a workers’ organization. At a moment of great trials, when it is sought to divert workers from their revolutionary path and bring confusion into workers’ consciousness, the stronger must be the influence of workers’ organizations upon the masses. Let the efforts of workers be united along the path of creating powerful organizations, let the proletarian social-democratic flag be hoisted over the wide proletarian camp and let our revolutionary slogans ring out ever louder in working-class circles. Long live organization! Long live the revolutionary struggle! Long live social democracy!
Regional Board of Polish Social Democracy.
The questions of assistance frequently confronted Petersburg workers too. Employers agitated for the deduction of a fixed percentage for the Red Cross, but that institution enjoyed the confidence neither of workers nor even of “society”. Stoppages from pay on the pattern of the Russo-Japanese War, made without the employees’ authority, caused protests (e.g. at Putilov). Aid did not come for the “red” nor any other cross. Workers pointed out that the state must provide for the wounded and their families in the same way as it did for officers. But workers did find it necessary to aid the victims who populated the Siberian tundra and the jails of Tsar Nicholas, the “liberator” of European democracy. However, such a broad measure of aid could not be given legally, and many people began to think about organizing special factory cells “in aid of war victims”, among whom would be included convicts, the unemployed, and families of workmates at the front. It was decided to contribute such aid through the hospital funds and on a city-wide scale. Collections had already been made at the Semenov works and the Neva shipyards, but with the exception of the Neva district which sent them to the local poor people’s home, the funds were held back until the possibility of creating our own organization had been explored.
Among the “legalists” the idea emerged of using this “benevolence” to legalize party cells, but this idea never went beyond the desires of intellectuals. Members of the intelligentsia such as Finn, Dubois and company conducted patriotic sessions at the Free Economics Society. Our comrades tried to make use of this institution for the benefit of the local social-democratic organization, but the society was by the nature of its activities too far from being socialist.
In the first weeks of the war I had a meeting with our State Duma deputies, comrades Petrovsky and Badayev. This was after their appearance on 26 July in the Duma and their demonstrative exit from the debating chamber. I remember how deeply they had been shocked by the behaviour of the German social democrats. The attitude of the French party saddened them less, as it was from the Germans that all social democrats of that time “learned” how to be socialists. I personally, after my illegal stay and work there in 1912 (as a Frenchman, Gustave Bourne), had substantially amended my “faith” in German social democracy.
The deputies and the few workers who were invited tried to find a key to the Germans’ conduct. Several expressed the sentiment that the deciding factor was probably the threat of tsarism, and it was common knowledge that even Engels had, in his day, wished for a war against tsarist Russia. But whatever the reasons, it all amounted to one thing only: such behaviour was a betrayal of all the precepts of revolutionary socialism. At the crucial moment the German social democrats had felt that they were closer to their own bourgeoisie than to the workers of other countries. Nationalism had proved stronger than socialism.
The action of our deputies in the Duma had been welcomed by workers. But intellectuals reacted differently. Wavering had already begun. In the first weeks of the war a special gathering of marxist intellectuals was held in some club in Baskovaya Street. There were a few lawyers, literary figures and others there such as N.D. Sokolov, N.N. Krestinsky, A. Blum, N.I. Yordansky and others. From the exchange of opinions, characterized by their many shades and hesitations, the future social patriots could already be defined. However, the majority of those present were still ashamed to tie socialism to the chariot of war.
Lenin’s theses on the attitude to the war, later elaborated in Sotsial-Demokrat no. 3, appeared in Petersburg in about August. They were brought, I believe, by the deputy, comrade Samoilov. They responded to the mood of party workers at the time, but the question of “defeatism” did cause perplexity. Comrades did not want to link their tactics to the army’s strategic situation, but at the same time nobody wished Nicholas II the smallest victory, as it was clear that a victory would strengthen the vilest reaction. At the end of August our social-democratic (Bolshevik) organizations began to revive and recover from the blows dealt by the July arrests and the mobilization. The Petersburg Committee was properly reconstituted and work put in hand.
My position as a Frenchman in Petersburg was extremely precarious. All Frenchmen, as from 4 August (new style), had been called up and were preparing to depart for Marseilles via the Black Sea. I went on working at Ericssons, banking on the fact that the French consulate would not have the wit to call up its nationals through the Russian police and that my address was, I supposed, unknown at the embassy or the consulate. However, moving from one firm to another as I had imagined doing was now risky, and I decided to stay until the expiry date of the visa in my passport and the obligatory issue of a fixed residence permit by the city governor’s office, and then leave Russia. That date was in September.
Party work at Ericssons was proceeding well. Arguments and discussion took place every day around my bench on all the problems of labour politics. One would very rarely meet patriotism in workers then, as the wave of social-chauvinism that began in intellectual circles had not yet rolled as far as the working masses. I got to know all the most active workers in the district. Comrades at the Ericsson works who directed the local party work would come to consult with me before conducting any campaign. Workers at Ericssons who did party work and work for the hospital fund included comrades Kayurov, Nazarov, Grigoriev and Sladkov. I quickly acquired the nickname of the “Bolshevik Frenchman”, and with it the deep dislike of the Mensheviks, especially the intellectuals who worked in the hospital fund. After Vandervelde’s famous welcome, several of them who had known me from Paris made some treacherous hints at Ericssons regarding my true homeland. But worker comrades quickly put these customers in their place and stated through their representatives in the hospital fund that if there was any unpleasantness towards the Frenchman then the whisperers would be branded provocateurs.
As the acts of war developed, so the work of the patriots intensified. The chauvinism of the bourgeoisie and its lackeys in the newspapers reached frenzy point, and pogroms occurred. Black Hundred thugs added the “Yid” to the German, and national hatred was systematically fostered. Only the workers’ circles did not succumb to this. I could observe this not only in the Vyborg district but elsewhere.
I even had a clash with a Black Hundredite outside the Neva Gate, and the workers’ sympathy was wholly on my side. I was heading for my own people’s place on the Steklyanny and settled down on top of a Neva steam tram. The overcrowding of trams that has since become usual was then already beginning. There were many passengers, mainly workers. The conversation was about the war. One clever gent, who looked like a police clerk, started a speech about arresting Germans and expressed a desire for “Yids” to be arrested too, as in his opinion they were all spies. I could not take any more and asked why exactly he wanted to arrest the Jews, when they were Russian citizens? He swore about the Jews and replied that it was obvious I was a Yid, otherwise I would not start defending them. Seeing that I had before me an inveterate Black Hundredite, I decided to punish him. I brought my passport out and showed it to him and the people nearby. Then I let him have a proletarian box on the ears and sat down. The whole car was on my side. The Black Hundredite leapt at me, but was escorted from the upper deck by the passengers themselves. At that point we were approaching a stop and the anti-semite rushed off to get the help of a policeman, asking about the bye-laws on offences against the person. The policeman kindly requested me to alight, but the working-class passengers would not let me go and explained to the policeman that the complainant ought himself to be sent to the police station. The latter, now reinforced by the policeman, summoned up the courage to start a slanging match with the workers. But the policeman had decided not to go against the passengers and a foreigner; the conductor, hearing the complainant swearing, refused to back him up but gave the bell a tug and the tram moved off. I got off at the next junction; the hooligan was sitting in the corner, pretty quietly now. Two workers got off with me and accompanied me for about two hundred yards and then went back.
But there was no such mood in the city centre. The patriotic hooligans would enjoy immunity and beat up passers-by who did not remove their hats when they met a demonstration singing God save the Tsar. I remember how once, travelling along the Liteiny from the Nevsky Prospekt, we met a mob of caretakers, secondary-school pupils, students, petty bureaucrats and all sorts of riff-raff singing God save the Tsar. As soon as the strains were heard, everyone in the car promptly, and for different motives, removed their headgear. I alone remained in my bowler hat, much to the indignation of the Woman next to me, who struck up a rhythmic chant of “hats off, hats off”. I read my newspaper without paying any attention, but the patriotic lady took her complaint to the passengers: “Gentlemen, he’s not taking his hat off.” Everyone fell silent. The car braked and sliced into a straggling crowd of demonstrators. My neighbour leapt to the doorway and exclaimed, “Shame on you,” in a tone of injured patriotism, evidently inviting the demonstrators to have a go at me. Tearing myself away from my newspaper, I asked her, “Mais pourquoi fa?” The effect was remarkable. The good lady clasped my hand and exclaimed loudly: “So you’re a Frenchman,” and started to chatter away about her French acquaintances. I solemnly responded to her fraternization with the French with, “Fichez-moi la paix,” and made her sit down again. She kept trying to smooth over her tactlessness and excuse herself to the now excited people around her, but could not take it and got off at the very first stop.
The end of September arrived, and with it the end of my rebellious and happy-go-lucky way of life as a foreigner in my own country. Never in my life had I enjoyed so much freedom in my homeland nor even the respect of the caretakers as I did in those six months as a French citizen of Petersburg. But those six months flew past like a sunny May day, leaving happy memories of working-class struggle, solidarity and readiness for sacrifice. I have never wanted to think that it would again be necessary to go wandering “across frontiers”, adjust to new conditions and tear myself away from the day-to-day struggle of the Russian proletariat, but my proletarian friends raised the question of international communication and contacts with our Central Committee abroad. All these tasks could be accomplished best by myself, so comrades proposed that I take the job and not apply for a Russian passport but make use of my privileges as an alien to make a trip abroad.
The Petersburg Committee along with the Duma faction decided to make me their representative abroad. Our organizations had very little money, so I could only be assigned twenty-five rubles. By now I had managed to earn enough for the journey and a month’s living abroad, and also to leave some for my ageing mother. The Duma faction gave me several specific assignments and a reply to Vandervelde’s telegram that was to be printed in no. 33 of Sotsial-Demokrat. This ran as follows:
Now we have become Familiar with your telegram from the Russian papers we consider it necessary for our part to make the following statement:
The great conflict that has brought the chief civilized nations into collision cannot leave Russian social democracy indifferent. This war deeply affects the interests of the world democratic movement, on the one hand, placing the French republic and the British and Belgian democracies under the blows of semi-feudal German militarism and, on the other, leading to the growth of the political influence and retrenchment of the Romanov monarchy.
While fully bearing in mind the anti-democratic nature of Prussian hegemony and Prussian militarism, we Russian social democrats cannot forget also that no less dangerous enemy of the working class and democracy, namely, Russian absolutism.
In the sphere of domestic policy it remains as before the exponent of ruthless oppression and limitless exploitation. And even now when it might have seemed that the war required it to act with greater caution, it remains true to form and continues a policy of suppressing all democracy, all oppressed nationalities and the working class in particular.
At the present time all socialist newspapers have been closed down, workers’ organizations dissolved and arrests and exiles without trial continue. If the war ends with the total victory of the Russian government and the democratic movement does not regain its position, this government will after the war continue its anti-popular policy both at home and abroad where it will become the centre and bulwark of international reaction. The Russian proletariat cannot, therefore, under any conditions, march hand in hand with our government nor conclude any truce with it, however temporary, nor afford it any support. There can be no question here of some loyalty. On the contrary we consider it our most pressing task to wage the most irreconcilable struggle against it, standing firm on our old demands so unanimously advanced and supported by the Russian working class in the revolutionary days of 1905 and again meeting such wide acceptance in the mass political movement of the Russian working class over the past two years. During the war into which millions of peasants and proletarians have been dragged, our immediate task can be nothing but one of resisting the disasters produced by the war by extending and strenuously developing the class organizations of the proletariat and the broad layers of the democratic movement and making use of the war crisis to prepare the people’s awareness, so as to assist the quickest possible realization of the tasks of 1905 by the masses of the people. Thus our most immediate slogan remains the convening of the Constituent Assembly.
And we are doing this precisely in the interests of the democracy whose support you invite from Russian social democracy in your telegram. Russian social democracy forms by no means the least significant detachment in the ranks of the world-wide democratic movement, and by fighting for its interests we are thereby defending the interests of the latter, extending its base and strengthening its forces.
Besides, we do not think that this struggle of ours runs at cross-purposes with the interests of the European democracy so dear to us all. We are convinced on the contrary that it is just the existence of absolutism in Russia that has given the chief support to reactionary militarism in Europe and made Germany the hegemon of Europe and a dangerous enemy of European democracy.
In addition we cannot close our eyes to the future of European socialism and democracy. After the war an era of the further construction of European democracy will inevitably ensue. And then the Russian government emerging from a victorious war with redoubled strength and prestige would form one of the most solid obstacles and threats to this democratic movement.
That is why all-round exploitation of its difficult position by ourselves in the interest of Russian liberty forms our direct duty and will in the final count prove beneficial at the same time to the cause of democracy, which is as dear to us as to all members of the International. The true interests of European and world democracy can be guaranteed not by Russian tsarism but only by the growth and strengthening of the democratic movement in Russia.
Thus, from every point of view, history sets us the task of continued struggle against the regime ruling in Russia and for immediate revolutionary slogans. Only in this way will we render a true service to the Russian working class, world democracy and the International, whose role must, in our deep conviction, inevitably grow in the near future with the balancing of accounts of this terrible war, as this war will without doubt open the eyes of backward layers of labouring masses and force them to seek salvation from the horrors of militarism and capitalism only through the realization of our common socialist ideal.
Central Committee of the RSDLP.
Towards evening on one of the last days of September 1914 I got safely over the Finnish border. I had decided to stop off on the way at Mustamiaki to see comrade Kamenev. A little Finnish coachman whisked me off to the settlement where the comrades lived and waited there to take me back. Comrade Kamenev had already received the theses on the attitude to the war from our party’s Central Committee and expressed a measure of disagreement with them. I met Yordansky there too, who had already turned patriotic, and comrade Steklov, who had been through a lot in Germany yet none the less was in tune with Yordansky, although at times for opposite reasons. In his opinion, by the war France was paying the price for her alliance with Russia. He saw in Germany’s economic might the inevitability of her victory over her opponents. Beyond such propositions he would not go for the time being.
1. The Socialist-Revolutionaries were colloquially referred to as Narodniks. – Ed.
Last updated on 21.7.2011