Leon Trotsky



The First Days of the “Freedoms”

* * *

The Soviet’s attitude toward the manifesto was expressed very bluntly and precisely on the day of its publication. The representatives of the proletariat demanded amnesty, dismissal of the police at all levels of rank, withdrawal of troops from the city and the creation of a people’s militia. Commenting on this decision in a leading article in Izvestia, we wrote:

“And so we have been given a constitution. We have been given freedom of assembly, but our assemblies are encircled by troops. We have been given freedom of speech, but censorship remains inviolate. We have been given freedom of study, but the universities are occupied by troops. We have been given personal immunity, but the prisons are filled to overflowing with prisoners. We have been given Witte, but we still have Trepov. We have been given a constitution, but the autocracy remains. Everything has been given, and nothing has been given.”

They wanted a period of calm. They would not get it.

“The proletariat knows what it wants and what it does not want. It wants neither the police hooligan Trepov nor the liberal stockbroker Witte, neither the wolf’s jaws nor the fox’s tail. It does not want a whip wrapped in the parchment of a constitution.”

The Soviet resolved: the general strike continues.

The working masses proceeded to carry out this resolution with extraordinary unanimity. Smokeless factory chimneys stood as silent witnesses to the fact that the constitutional illusion had failed to make any headway in the working-class areas. Yet, despite everything, after October 18 the strike lost its directly militant character. It was transformed into a colossal demonstration of non-confidence. But the provinces, which had come out before the capital, now started going back to work. The Moscow strike ended on the nineteenth. The Petersburg Soviet decided to end the strike on October 21 at noon. The last to leave the field, it organized an astonishing demonstration of proletarian discipline by calling hundreds of thousands of workers back to their lathes at the same hour.

Even before the ending of the October strike the Soviet was able to test the tremendous influence it had acquired within a single week. This was when, at the demand of countless masses, it placed itself at their head and marched with them through the streets of Petersburg.

At 4:00 p.m. on the eighteenth, hundreds of thousands of people gathered by the Kazan Cathedral. Their slogan was amnesty. They wanted to march to the prisons. They wanted leaders and started out to where the Soviet was sitting. At 6:00 p.m. the Soviet elected three representatives to lead the demonstration. They appeared at a second floor window wearing white bands around their heads and arms. Below, a human ocean was seething. Red banners waved upon it like sails of the revolution. Tremendous shouts welcomed the chosen three. The whole Soviet walks downstairs and enters the crowd. “Speaker!” Dozens of arms stretch out towards the speaker; an instant later his feet are resting on someone’s shoulders. “Amnesty! To the prisons!” Revolutionary anthems, shouts ... In Kazansky Square and by Alexandrovsky Square, they bare their heads; here the procession is joined by the ghosts of the victims of January 9. The crowd sings Eternal Memory and You Have Fallen Victim. Red banners outside Pobedonostsev’s house. Whistling, curses. Does the old vulture hear them? Let him look out of the window without fear; they will not touch him at this hour. Let him gaze with his old, guilty eyes at the revolutionary masses, masters of the streets of Petersburg. Forward!

Two or three more streets, and the crowd is outside the House of Preliminary Confinement. News is received that a strong army ambush is waiting there. The leaders of the demonstration decide to set out on a reconnaissance. At the same time a deputation – as it turned out later, largely self-appointed – arrives from the Union of Engineers and announces that the amnesty decree has already been signed. All places of imprisonment have been occupied by troops, and the Union has been reliably informed that in the event of the masses approaching the prisons, Trepov has been given a free hand; bloodshed is therefore inevitable. After brief consultation, the leaders disperse the crowd. The demonstrators undertake, should the decree not be published, to meet again at the Soviet’s summons and march on the prisons.

The struggle for amnesty went on everywhere. In Moscow on October 18 a crowd many thousand strong compelled the governor-general to release all political prisoners immediately; a list of their names was handed to a deputation of the strike committee [1] which supervised their release from the prisons. On the same day a crowd in Simferopol smashed the gates of the prison and drove the political prisoners away in carriages. In Odessa and Revel prisoners were released at the insistence of demonstrators. In Baku, an attempt to achieve the release of prisoners led to a clash with the troops which resulted in three dead and eighteen wounded. In Saratov, Vindava, Tashkent, Poltava, Kovno – everywhere large demonstrations marched to the prisons. Amnesty! Not only the paving-stones, the Petersburg city duma itself echoed the cry.

“Well, God be praised! My congratulations, gentlemen!” said Witte as he left the telephone, addressing three workers, representatives of the Soviet. “The Tsar has signed the amnesty.”

“Is the amnesty complete or partial, Count?”

“The amnesty has been granted with all due prudence, but nevertheless it is sufficiently broad.”

On October 22 the government at last published the Tsar’s decree concerning the “relief of the fate of persons who, prior to the issuing of the manifesto, had perpetrated criminal acts against the state” – a pathetic, niggardly, mercenary document with its careful grading of “mercy,” a true product of a power in which Trepov represented state authority and Witte stood for liberalism.

But there was a category of “state criminals” whom this decree did not and could not affect. They were those who had lost their lives by being tortured, by being slashed with sabers, by being strangled, by being pierced with bayonets, by being shot with bullets, all those murdered in the people’s cause. At the same moment during the October demonstration when the revolutionary masses in the blood-stained squares of Petersburg were reverently honoring the memory of those killed on January 9, the steaming cadavers of the first victims of the constitutional era already lay in the police mortuaries. The revolution could not give life back to its new martyrs; it decided to put on mourning and solemnly inter their bodies. The Soviet announces a universal funeral demonstration for October 23.

A proposal is made that the government should be notified in advance, and precedents are quoted: in one case, at the demand of a deputation from the Soviet, Count Witte had arranged the release of two arrested leaders of a street meeting, in another he had ordered the opening of the state-owned Baltivsky plant which had been closed down in reprisal for the October strike. Despite warnings from the official representatives of the Social Democrats, the Soviet decides to inform Count Witte through a special deputation that the Soviet will assume responsibility for order during the demonstration, and demands the withdrawal of the police and troops.

Count Witte is very busy, and has just refused to receive two generals, but he receives the Soviet’s deputation without protest. A procession? He personally has nothing against it: “Such processions are permitted in the West.” But the matter is not within his competence. The Soviet should apply to Mr. Trepov, since the city is under his protection.

“We cannot apply to Trepov, we have not been authorized to do so.”

“A pity. You might have found out for yourselves that he is not at all the monster people say he is.”

“What about the famous order to ‘spare no bullets,’ Count?”

“Oh, that just slipped out in the heat of the moment.”

Witte rings up Trepov, respectfully conveys his wish that “there should be no bloodshed,” and waits for a decision. Trepov arrogantly refers him to the city governor. The Count hastily writes a few words to the latter and hands the letter to the deputation.

“We will take your letter, Count, but we reserve our freedom of action. We are not sure that we shan’t have to make use of it.”

“Of course, of course. I have nothing against that.” [2]

Here is a living example of life in October. Count Witte congratulates the revolutionary workers on the signing of the amnesty. Count Witte wants things to go off without bloodshed, “just like in Europe.” Uncertain whether he will succeed in pushing Trepov off his perch, he attempts, in passing, to reconcile the proletariat with Trepov. The highest representative of power asks a workers’ deputation to act as his intermediary in begging the city governor to take the constitution under his protection! Cowardice, trickery and stupidity were the watchwords of the constitutional cabinet.

Trepov, on the other hand, did not shilly-shally. He announced that “at these troubled times, when one section of the population is prepared to rise up in arms against the actions of another section, no political demonstrations can be allowed in the interests of the demonstrators themselves,” and invited the organizers of the demonstration “to abandon their project ... in view of the possibly extremely grave consequences of the drastic measures to which the police authorities may be compelled to resort.” This was as sharp and clear as a saber stroke or the report of a rifle. Arm the scum of the city in the police stations, let them loose against the demonstrators, create confusion, and then take advantage of the scuffle to order the police and troops to intervene; sweep through the city like a storm, leaving blood, fire, and devastation in your wake. Such was the invariable program of the police scoundrel to whom the crowned imbecile had entrusted his country’s destiny. At that moment, the scales of power began to oscillate: Witte or Trepov? To expand the constitutional experiment, or to drown it in a pogrom? Dozens of cities, in those honeymoon days of the new policy, were to become the arena of blood-curdling events, and the threads of those events were held in Trepov’s hand. But Mendelssohn and Rothschild were for the constitution; the laws of the stock exchange, like those of Moses, forbid the consumption of fresh blood. Therein lay Witte’s strength. Trepov’s official position began to totter; and Petersburg was his last throw of the die.

It was a moment of extreme responsibility and importance. The Soviet of Deputies had no interest in supporting Witte, nor any desire to do so, as it was to show clearly a few days later. But it was still less inclined to support Trepov, and to come out into the streets was to fall in with his plans. The political situation was not, of course, merely a matter of a conflict between the stock exchange and the police bullies. It was possible to rise above the plans of both Witte and Trepov and consciously to invite a clash in order to get rid of them both. That was the general trend of the Soviet’s policy; it went towards the inevitable conflict with its eyes open. But it did not feel itself called upon to accelerate the conflict. The later, the better. To make the decisive struggle coincide with a funeral demonstration at a moment when the titanic tension of the October strike was already beginning to slacken and yield to a temporary psychological reaction of satisfied fatigue would have been to commit a monstrous error.

The author of this book – he considers it necessary to mention this fact, since afterwards he was often severely rebuked on this score – introduced a proposal to cancel the funeral demonstration. At an emergency meeting of the Soviet, past 1:00 a.m. on the morning of October 22, after passionate debate, the resolution we had submitted was adopted by an overwhelming number of votes. Here is its text:

The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies intended to hold a solemn funeral for the victims of the government’s villainies on Sunday, October 23. But the peaceful intention of the workers of Petersburg brought all the murderous representatives of the dying system to their feet. General Trepov, who rose to power on the corpses of January 9 and who has nothing more to lose before the face of the revolution, today threw down the final challenge to the Petersburg proletariat. Trepov insolently implies in his declaration that he means to set gangs of the Black Hundreds, armed by the police, against the peaceful procession, and then, in the guise of pacification, once more to cover the streets of Petersburg in blood. In view of this diabolical plan, the Soviet of Deputies states: The Petersburg proletariat will give final battle to the Tsarist government not on the day of Trepov’s choice, but when the proletariat itself, organized and armed, considers it appropriate. For that reason, the Soviet of Deputies resolves: to replace the mass funeral procession by large and widespread meetings in honor of the victims, remembering that our fallen brothers, by their very death, have imposed on us the solemn duty to increase our efforts tenfold to arm ourselves and to bring the day closer when Trepov, together with the entire police gang, will be dumped on the rubbish heap of the monarchy’s remnants.



1. The committee was soon to develop into the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. (Author)

2. At Count Witte’s, a documentary essay by P.A. Zlydniev, a member of the deputation, in the collective work History of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies of Petersburg, 1906. The Executive Committee, having heard the report of the deputation, decided “to instruct the chairman of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies to return the letter to the chairman of the Council of Ministers.”

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Last updated on: 27.11.2006