Leon Trotsky



The Tsar’s Men at Work

* * *

The Soviet brought the strike to an end during those terrible black days when the cries of slaughtered infants, the frenzied curses of mothers, the dying gasps of old people, and savage howls of despair rose to the heavens from every corner of the country. A hundred of Russia’s towns and townlets were transformed into hells. A veil of smoke was drawn across the sun. Fires devoured entire streets with their houses and inhabitants. This was the old order’s revenge for its humiliation.

It recruited its fighting battalions everywhere, from every alley, every slum. Here was the petty shopkeeper and the beggar, the publican and his perennial clients, the janitor and the police spy, the professional thief and the amateur housebreaker, the small artisan and the brothel doorkeeper, the hungry, dumb muzhik and yesterday's villager deafened by the roar of the machine. Embittered poverty, hopeless ignorance, and debauched corruption placed themselves under the orders of privileged self-interest and ruling-class anarchy.

These people had acquired their first experience of mass street actions during the so-called “patriotic” demonstrations at the beginning of the Russo-Japanese war. It was then that their basic props came to be known: the Tsar’s portrait, a bottle of vodka, a tricolor flag. Since that time, the planned organization of society’s rejects had been developed on a colossal scale. Whereas the mass of the pogromists (if “mass” is the right word) remained more or less haphazard, the nucleus was always disciplined and organized in para-military style, receiving its slogans and its watchwords from above and deciding the time and scope of every murderous operation. Komissarov, an official of the police department, said: “It is possible to arrange any kind of pogrom, involving 10 people if you like, or 10,000 if you like.” [1]

Everyone knows about a coming pogrom in advance. Pogrom proclamations are distributed, bloodthirsty articles come out in the official Provincial Gazettes, sometimes a special newspaper begins to appear. The town governor of Odessa issues a provocational proclamation in his own name. When the ground has been prepared, a visiting company of “specialists” appears. They spread sinister rumors among the ignorant masses: the Jews are planning an attack on the Russians, some socialists have defiled a holy icon, some students have torn up the Tsar’s portrait. Where there is no university, the rumor is made to fit the liberal rural council or even the high school. The wildest news travels along the telegraph wires, sometimes bearing an official stamp. Meanwhile the preparatory technical work is accomplished: lists are drawn up of people, houses are singled out for special attention, a general strategic plan is drawn up, on an appointed date the hungry mob is called from the suburbs. On that date a special service is held in the cathedral. The bishop makes a solemn oration.

A patriotic procession starts out, with the clergy in the front, with a portrait of the Tsar taken from police headquarters, with many national flags. A military band plays without cease. At the sides and at the rear of the procession march the police. The governor salutes, the police chief publicly embraces the leading members of the Black Hundreds. Churches along the way of the procession ring their bells. “Hats off!” Visiting “instructors” and local policemen in civilian clothes, though frequently still wearing their uniform trousers which they have not had time to change, are scattered among the crowd. They keep a watchful eye on the proceedings, excite the crowd and urge it on, giving the impression that everything is allowed, and all the time looking for a pretext for open action. To start with a few windows are smashed, a few passers-by beaten up; the wreckers enter every tavern on their way and drink, drink, drink. The band never stops playing God Save the Tsar, that hymn of the pogroms.

If no pretext is at hand they create one: someone climbs into an attic and fires on the crowd, usually with blank cartridges. Patrols armed with police revolvers make sure that the anger of the crowd is not paralyzed by fear. They respond to the provocateur’s shot with a volley at the windows of previously selected apartments. A few shops are raided and stolen cloth and silk is spread on the ground at the feet of the patriotic procession. If any resistance is offered, regular troops come to the rescue. With two or three volleys they shoot down the resisters or render them powerless by not allowing them within range. Protected in the front and rear by army patrols, with a cossack detachment for reconnaissance, with policemen and professional provocateurs as leaders, with mercenaries filling the secondary roles, with volunteers out for easy profit, the gang rushes through the town, drunk on vodka and the smell of blood. [2] The doss-house tramp is king. A trembling slave an hour ago, hounded by police and starvation, he now feels himself an unlimited despot. Everything is allowed to him, he is capable of anything, he is the master of property and honor, of life and death. If he wants to, he can throw an old woman out of a third-floor window together with a grand piano, he can smash a chair against a baby’s head, rape a little girl while the entire crowd looks on, hammer a nail into a living human body ... He exterminates whole families, he pours petrol over a house, transforms it into a mass of flames, and if anyone attempts to escape, he finishes him off with a cudgel. A savage horde comes tearing into an Armenian almshouse, knifing old people, sick people, women, children ... There exist no tortures, figments of a feverish brain maddened by alcohol and fury, at which he need ever stop. He is capable of anything, he dares everything. God save the Tsar!

Here is a young man who has seen the face of death: his hair has turned white within an instant. Here is a ten-year-old boy who has gone mad over the mutilated corpses of his parents. Here is an army doctor who went through all the horrors of the siege of Port Arthur, but who, unable to stand a few hours of pogrom in Odessa, has sunk into the eternal night of madness. God save the Tsar! The victims, bloodstained, charred, driven frantic, still search for salvation within the nightmare. Some put on the bloodstained clothes of people already dead, lie down in a pile of corpses and stay there for a whole day, for two or three days ... Others fall on their knees before the officers, the policemen, the raider, they stretch out their arms, crawl in the dust, kiss the soldiers’ boots, beg for mercy. In reply they hear only drunken laughter. “You wanted freedom? Here, look, this is it.”

In these words is contained the whole infernal morality of the pogrom policy. The doss-house tramp, gorged with blood, rushes further. He is capable of everything, he dares everything, he is king. The White Tsar has permitted him everything: long live the White Tsar! [3] And the tramp is not mistaken. None other than the autocrat of all the Russias is the supreme protector of this semi-official gang of pogromists and thieves which weaves in and out of the official bureaucracy, which can call more than a hundred major local administrators its own, and whose headquarters is among the court camarilla. Dull-witted and scared, an all-powerful nonentity, the prey of prejudices worthy of an Eskimo, the royal blood in his veins poisoned by all the vices of many generations, Nicholas Romanov, like many others of his profession, combines filthy sensuality with apathetic cruelty. By tearing every sacred veil from his person on January 9, the revolution finally corrupted him. The times when he was content to remain in the shadows, using Trepov as his secret service agent in pogrom affairs [4], have gone.

Now he flaunts his connections with the savage scum of the taverns and convict labor gangs. Trampling underfoot the foolish fiction of the “monarch who stands above all parties,” he exchanges friendly telegrams with well-known thugs, grants audiences to “patriots” despised by everyone and, at the demand of the Union of the Russian People, pardons without exception all the killers and robbers condemned by his own courts of justice. It is hard to imagine a more bare-faced mockery of the solemn mystique of the monarchy than the behavior of this monarch whom any court in any country would be obliged to condemn to forced labor for life, always provided that it recognized him as being of sound mind.

During this black October bacchanalia, compared with which St. Bartholomew’s night looks like the most innocent piece of theater, 3,500 to 4,000 people were killed and as many as 10,000 maimed in 100 towns. Material losses, amounting to tens if not hundreds of millions of roubles, were several times greater than those suffered by the landowners as a result of agrarian riots. Thus did the old order avenge its humiliation!

What was the workers’ role in these devastating events?

At the end of October the president of the Federation of North American Trade Unions sent a telegram addressed to Count Witte in which he energetically called upon Russian workers to take a stand against the pogroms which represented a threat to their newly-won freedom.

“On behalf not only of the three million organized workers,” the telegram ended, “but also of all the workers of the United States, I beg you, Count, to transmit this dispatch to your fellow citizens, our brother-workers.”

But Count Witte, who had only recently posed as a true democrat in the United States, declaring that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” now found a sufficient reserve of shamelessness within himself to let him put the dispatch quietly away in a secret drawer of his desk. Not until November did the Soviet, by devious ways, hear of its existence. However, it should be said to the honor of the Russian workers that they did not have to wait for the warning from their friends across the ocean to intervene actively in the bloody events. In a number of towns they organized armed detachments which offered active, and in some places heroic, resistance to the thugs; and wherever the troops behaved in a more or less neutral fashion, the workers’ militia found no difficulty in putting an end to the hooligans’ excesses.

Nemirovich-Danchenko, an old writer very far away from socialism or the proletariat, wrote during those days:

Side by side with this nightmare, this Walpurgis Night of a dying monster, see how majestically, with what astonishing fortitude, order and discipline, the workers’ movement developed. They did not defile themselves with murders or robberies; on the contrary, they came to the aid of the public everywhere, and, needless to say, protected the public far better than the police, the cossacks, or the gendarmes from the destructive delirium of the blood-gorged Cains. The workers’ armed detachments appeared wherever the hooligans began their foul work. This new force, entering the historical arena for the first time, showed itself calm in the consciousness of its right, moderate in the triumph of its ideals of liberty and goodness, organized and obedient like a real army that knows that its victory is the victory of everything for whose sake humanity lives, thinks, and rejoices, fights and suffers.

No pogrom took place in Petersburg. But overt preparations for a pogrom went on at full strength. The Jewish population of the capital was in a state of constant dread. After the eighteenth, students, worker agitators, and Jews were beaten up daily in different parts of the city. Separate gangs, yelling and whistling, attacked not only in the suburbs but in the Nevsky itself, using knuckledusters, jackknives and whips. Several attempts were made on the lives of deputies to the Soviet, who lost no time in equipping themselves with revolvers. Police agents urged shopkeepers and shop assistants to attack the funeral procession planned for October 23. It was not the fault of the Black Hundreds that, nevertheless, they had to content themselves with guerrilla action.

The workers made active preparations to defend their city. In certain cases whole plants undertook to go out into the streets at any threat of danger. The gun shops, ignoring all police restrictions, carried on a feverish trade in Brownings. But revolvers cost a great deal and the broad masses cannot afford them; the revolutionary parties and the Soviet had difficulty in arming their fighting detachments. Meanwhile rumors of a pogrom were growing. All plants and workshops having any access to iron or steel began, on their own initiative, to manufacture side-arms. Several thousand hammers were forging daggers, pikes, wire whips and knuckledusters. In the evening, at a meeting of the Soviet, one deputy after another mounted the rostrum, raising their weapons high above their heads and transmitting their electors’ solemn undertaking to suppress the pogrom as soon as it flared up. That demonstration alone was bound to paralyze all initiative among rank-and-file pogromists. But the workers did not stop there. In the factory areas, beyond the Nevsky Gate, they organized a real militia with regular night watches. In addition to this they ensured special protection of the buildings of the revolutionary press, a necessary step in those anxious days when the journalist wrote and the typesetter worked with a revolver in his pocket.

By arming itself against the Black Hundreds, the proletariat was automatically arming itself against Tsarist power. The government could not fail to understand this, and it raised the alarm. On November 8, the Pravitelstvenny Vestnik (Government Gazette) informed the public of facts which everyone knew anyway: namely, that the workers “have recently begun to arm themselves with revolvers, sporting guns, daggers, knives and pikes. Out of these armed workers,” the government communiqué continued, “whose number, according to available information, reaches 6,000 men, there has been formed a so called self-defense force or militia, numbering approximately 300 men, who walk the streets at night in groups of ten under the pretext of defense; their real aim, however, is to protect revolutionaries against arrest by the police or troops.”

A regular armed campaign against the militiamen opened in Petersburg. The workers’ detachments were dispersed, their arms confiscated. But by that time the danger of a pogrom had already passed, to be replaced by another, far greater danger. The government was giving temporary leave to its irregular troops and putting into action its regulars – the cossack and guards regiments. It was preparing for war on a wide front.



1. This fact was reported in the first Duma by Prince Urusov, former Deputy Minister of Home Affairs. (Author)

2. “In many cases policemen themselves directed the crowd of hooligans in their wrecking and robbing of Jewish houses, apartments and shops, equipped the hooligans with cudgels made from cut-down trees, participated in the destruction of property, robberies and killings, and themselves controlled the actions of the crowd.” (Most Loyal Report by Senator Kuzminsky concerning the Odessa pogrom.) The town governor Neidgart admits that “crowds of hooligans engaged in wrecking and robbing” greeted him enthusiastically, with cries of “hurrah.” Baron Kaulbars, commander of the local troops, addressed the police with a speech beginning with the following words: “Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s admit that all of us, in our heart of hearts, sympathize with this pogrom!”

3. “In one such procession the tricolor flag was carried in front, the Tsar’s portrait immediately behind, and directly behind the portrait a silver dish and a sack containing stolen goods.” (Report by Senator Turau) (Author)

4. “According to widespread opinion, Trepov reports to His Majesty on the state of affairs ... and influences the policy line ... On his appointment to the post of palace commandant, General Trepov demanded and received the allocation of special funds for secret service expenses.” (Letter by Senator Lophukhin.)

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Last updated on: 27.11.2006