Leon Trotsky



On the Threshold of Counter-Revolution

* * *

“For a bad government,” writes that shrewd conservative, de Tocqueville, “the most dangerous moment is usually the one when it begins to change.” Events were furnishing more and more decisive proof of this truth to Count Witte each day. The revolution was resolutely and mercilessly against him. The liberal opposition did not dare to support him openly. The court camarilla was against him. The government apparatus was crumbling in his hands. And, finally, he was his own enemy – understanding nothing of the events, lacking any plan, relying upon intrigue instead of on a program for action. And while he fussed and fidgeted, revolution and reaction were moving inexorably against each other.

We read in a secret memorandum against “Trepov’s men” written in November 1905 on Count Witte’s instructions:

Facts, including some taken from the files of the Police Department, clearly demonstrate that a significant part of the serious charges leveled at the government by the public and the people during the days directly following the manifesto were well-founded. Parties were created by some of the highest government officials to offer “organized resistance to extreme elements”; patriotic manifestations were organized by the government, while other demonstrations were dispersed; peaceful demonstrators were fired upon, people were beaten up and the offices of a provincial rural council were set on fire in full view of the police and troops; pogromists were left untouched while salvos were fired at people who ventured to defend themselves against them; the crowd was egged on to violence, consciously or unconsciously (?), by means of official announcements signed by the highest representative of the state power in a large town, and when, following this, disorders occurred, no measures were taken to suppress them. All these facts took place within three or four days in widely separated parts of Russia and provoked a storm of indignation among the population which completely canceled out the initial enthusiastic welcome accorded to the manifesto of October 17.

The population became firmly convinced that all these pogroms which so unexpectedly and yet simultaneously swept Russia had been provoked and direrted by the same hand, which, moreover, was a very powerful hand indeed. Unfortunately the population had very serious grounds for believing this.

When the governor-general of Kurlandia sent a telegram supporting the demand by a meeting of twenty thousand persons that martial law be lifted and expressing the view that “martial law is incompatible with the new circumstances,” Trepov confidently wired back the following text: “Re your telegram of October 20. Disagree your conclusion martial law incompatible new situation.” Witte silently accepted his subordinate’s barefaced statement that martial law in no way ran contrary to the manifesto of October 17 and even tried to convince a workers’ deputation that “Trepov isn’t at all the monster he’s said to be.” True, Trepov was obliged to resign from his post under the pressure of universal indignation. But Durnovo, who replaced him as Minister of Home Affairs, was no better. Besides, Trepov himself, being appointed palace commandant, retained all his influence on the running of affairs. The behavior of the provincial bureaucracy depended far more on him than on Witte.

“The extreme parties,” the same November memorandum states, “have gained strength because, in sharply criticizing all the government’s actions, they all too often proved to be right. These parties would have lost much of their prestige if the masses had seen, immediately after the publication of the manifesto, that the government had really decided to follow the new path outlined in the manifesto, and that it was in fact following that path. Unfortunately the exact opposite happened, and the extreme parties had yet another occasion – the importance of which can hardly be appreciated – of priding themselves on the fact that they, and they alone, had correctly estimated the value of the government’s promises.” In November, as the memorandum shows, Witte began to understand this. But he was deprived of the possibility of applying his understanding in practice. The memorandum to the Tsar, written on his instructions, remained a dead letter. [1]

Floundering helplessly, Witte was henceforth merely towed along by the counter-revolution.

A congress of zemtsy met in Moscow on November 6 to determine the liberal opposition’s attitude towards the government. Its mood was one of vacillation, but with an undoubted bias to the right. True, some radical voices were heard. It was said that “the bureaucracy is incapable of creative action but only of destruction”; that any creative force must be sought “in the mighty workers’ movement which produced the manifesto of October 17”; that “we do not want a constitution granted as a favor, and will accept it only from the hands of the Russian people.” Rodichev, who had an irresistible fondness for the pseudo-classical style, exclaimed: “Either there will be universal direct franchise, or there will be no Duma!” But at the same congress it was also stated: “Agrarian disturbances and strikes all create fear; capital has taken fright, and so have men of property who are taking their money out of the banks and going abroad.” Cautious landowners asked: “The institution of satrapies as a means of fighting agrarian disorders is sneered at, but who can suggest a more constitutional means of fighting them?” “It is better to accept no matter what compromise than to make the struggle more acute.” “The time has come to call a halt,” cried Guchkov, here appearing on the political arena for the first time, “we are only adding fuel to a fire that will consume us all.”

Early news of the rising of the Sevastopol fleet put the oppositional courage of the zemtsy to an impossible test. “What we have here,” said Petrunkevich, that Nestor of zemstvo liberalism, “is not revolution but anarchy.” Under the direct iinpact of the Sevastopol events the argument for immediate agreement with Witte’s ministry prevailed. Milyukov made an attempt to restrain the congress from taking any obviously compromising steps. He reassured the zemtsy by saying that “the insurrection in Sevastopol is ending, the chief mutineers have been arrested, and any fears would seem to be premature.” In vain! The congress decided to send a deputation to Witte with a resolution of conditional confidence couched in oppositional-democratic phrases.

Meanwhile the Council of Ministers, with the participation of several “public figures” from the liberal right wing, was discussing the system of elections to the State Duma. These so-called “public figures” defended universal franchise as a regrettable necessity. Witte tried to prove the advantages of gradually perfecting Bulygin’s brilliant system. No results were reached, and from November 21 the Council of Ministers proceeded without the assistance of the “public figures.” On November 22 the zemtsy deputation, composed of Messrs. Petrunkevich, Muromtsev, and Kokoshkin, handed the zemstvo resolution to Count Witte and, having received no answer at the end of seven days, returned in shame to Moscow.

The Count’s reply, couched in a tone of high-ranking bureaucratic arrogance, followed on their heels. The Council of Ministers’ task, the reply stated, consisted first and foremost in executing His Imperial Majesty’s will; anything that went beyond the limits of the manifesto of October 17 must be swept aside; the prevailing unrest made it impossible to abandon the manifesto’s restrictive clauses; as for those social groups which were unwilling to support the government, the government’s only concern was that such groups should realize the consequences of their conduct.

As a counterweight to the zemstvo congress, which, for all its flaccid pusillanimity, still undoubtedly stood far to the left of the zemstvos’ and provincial dumas’ real mood, a deputation from the Tula provincial zemstvo was taken to Tsarskoye Selo on November 24. The head of the deputation, Count Bobrinsky, in a speech of unparalleled Byzantine servility, said inter alia:

“We do not ask for many rights, because our own good demands that the Tsar’s power be great and effective ... Sire, it is not from single voices raised in clamor that you will learn the truth about the people’s needs, but only from the State Duma, lawfully convened by you. We beseech you not to tarry in convening it. The nation has already taken to its bosom the decree for the holding of elections on August 6 ...”

Events seemed to conspire to force the property-owning classes into the camp of order. A postal and telegraph strike flared up spontaneously and unexpectedly in the middle of November. It was the response of the awakening helots of the postal administration to a circular issued by Durnovo forbidding officials to form unions. The postal and telegraph union addressed an ultimatum to Count Witte asking for the withdrawal of Durnovo’s circular and the reinstatement of officials dismissed for belonging to the union. On November 15 a congress of 73 delegates of the union meeting in Moscow unanimously decided that the following telegram be dispatched on all lines: “No reply received from Witte. Strike.” Tension was so great that in Siberia the strike began before the time limit indicated in the ultimatum had expired. By the next day the strike, applauded by wide circles of progressive officials, had spread to the whole of Russia. Witte sagely explained to various deputations that the government “had not expected” such a turn of events. The liberals, worried by the harm to “culture” caused by the interruption in postal communications, began with furrowed brows to study “the limits of the freedom of professional associations in Germany and France.”

The Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies did not hesitate for a single moment. And, although the postal and telegraph strike had certainly not broken out at the Soviet’s initiative, it continued in Petersburg with its active support. A sum of 2,000 roubles was issued to the strikers from the Soviet’s treasury. The Executive Committee sent speakers to their meetings, printed their proclamations, and organized pickets. It is hard to assess the effect of these tactics on “culture”; but there can be no doubt that it made the postal officials sympathetic towards the proletariat. At the very beginning of the strike the postal and telegraph congress sent five delegates to the Soviet.

The interruption of postal communications certainly caused great harm to trade, if not to culture. The merchants and stock brokers ran backwards and forwards from the strike committee to the ministry, now imploring the postal officials to end the strike, now demanding repressive measures against the strikers. As a result of ever new threats to their pockets, the capitalist classes became more reactionary day by day. The reactionary insolence of the conspirators of Tsarskoye Selo also increased continually. If anything still restrained the onslaught of reaction, it was only fear of the revolution’s inevitable response. This is graphically demonstrated by an incident which occurred in connection with a verdict passed on some railway officials by a court-martial at the Central Asian fortress of Kushka. The incident is so striking that we must report it here, however briefly.

On November 23, at the height of the postal and telegraph strike, the committee of the Petersburg railway center received a telegraphic message from Kushka saying that an Engineer Sokolov and several other officials had been court-martialed on a charge of revolutionary agitation and had been condemned to death, the sentence to be carried out at midnight on the twenty third. Despite the strike, all railway centers were put in telegraphic contact with one another within a few hours. The railway army wanted an urgent ultimatum to be issued to the government. And an ultimatum was issued. Acting in agreement with the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Deputies, the railwaymen’s union told the ministry that unless the death sentence were rescinded by 8:00 p.m. all traffic on the railways would be brought to a halt.

The author has a vivid recollection of the memorable meeting of the Executive Committee at which a plan of action was drawn up while waiting for the government’s reply. Everyone’s eyes were on the clock. Representatives of different railway lines came one after the other to report that more and more lines had sent messages by telegraph associating themselves with the ultimatum. It was clear that unless the government gave in, a desperate struggle would begin. What happened? At five minutes past eightR the Tsarist government had lingered for only three hundred seconds to save face – the Minister of Communications informed the railwaymen’s committee by urgent telegram that execution of the sentence would be halted.

On the next day the ministry itself made its capitulation public in a government communique saying that it had received a “request” (!) to repeal the sentence, accompanied by an expression of the “intention” (!), failing such a step, to declare a strike. The government was not in receipt of any reports from the local military authorities, which was “probably due to the fact that the state telegraph is on strike.” At all events, “immediately upon receiving these telegraphic messages,” the Minister of War had sent orders “to defer the execution of the sentence, if sentence had been passed, pending elucidation of the facts of the case.” The official communiqué fails to mention that the Minister of War was obliged to send his orders through the railwaymen’s union, since the telegraph, being on strike, was not accessible to government agencies.

This handsome victory was, however, the revolution’s last. After this it suffered only defeats. At first its organizations were under intermittent attack. It became evident that a ruthless assault was being prepared. As early as November 14, the officers of the peasants’ union were arrested in Moscow on the strength of a government decree instituting reinforced security measures. At about the same time the arrest of the chairman of the Petersburg Soviet was decided upon in Tsarskoye Selo. But the administration delayed carrying out this decision. It did not yet feel completely confident; it tested the ground and hesitated.

The Minister of Justice opposed the Tsarskoye Selo plot, arguing that the Soviet could not be considered a secret association because it acted absolutely openly, announced its meetings, printed reports of its proceedings in the newspapers and even entered into contact with persons within the administration. “The fact that neither the government nor the administration,” the well-informed press wrote in summing up the Minister’s viewpoint, “took any measures to stop activities designed to overthrow the existing order; that the administration on a number of occasions, actually sent patrols to the Soviet’s meetings to preserve order; and that the Petersburg city governor himself received Khrustalev, the chairman of the Soviet, knowing who he was and in what capacity he appeared – all this entitles the members of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies to regard their activities as by no means contradictory to the policies being followed in government spheres, and, therefore, as not criminal.”

However, in the end the Minister of Justice found ways of overcoming his legalistic scruples, and on November 26 Khrustalev was arrested at the premises of the Executive Committee.

A word concerning the significance of this arrest. At the second meeting of the Soviet on October 14, the young lawyer Georgiy Nosar, later to acquire great popularity under the name of Khrustalev, was elected chairman at the proposal of the representative of the social-democratic organization. He remained chairman of the Soviet until the day of his arrest on November 26, and all the organizational threads of the Soviet’s practical activities were gathered in his hands. Within a few weeks the cheap radical press on the one hand, and the reactionary police press on the other, had created a historical legend around Khrustalev’s personality. Just as, on an earlier occasion, January 9 had seemed to them the fruit of Georgiy Gapon’s inspired thinking and demagogical genius, so the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies appeared to them as a pawn in the titanic hands of Georgiy Khrustalev-Nosar.

The error in the second case was even more flagrant and absurd than in the first. Although the work done by Khrustalev as chairman was immeasurably richer in content than Gapon’s adventurist activities, the personal influence exerted by the chairman of the Soviet on the course and the end result of events was incomparably smaller than the influence gained by the mutinous priest from the Department of Police. That is not Khrustalev’s fault: it is the revolution’s merit. Between January and October it had put the proletariat through an intensive political school. The notions of “hero” and “crowd” were no longer applicable in the revolutionary practice of the working masses. The leaders’ personality became dissolved in the organization; and, at the same time, the united mass itself became a political entity.

A man of practical ability and resourcefulness, an energetic and skillful chairman although only a mediocre orator, an impulsive character without any political past nor any clearly-defined political face, Khrustalev was made for the role he was to play at the end of 1905. The working masses, although in a revolutionary mood and possessed of a strong class sense, were on the whole without any definite party allegiance. Everything we have said about the Soviet itself can be applied to Khrustalev. All the socialists with a political past were party men, and the candidature of a party man would have introduced friction into the Soviet from the moment it came into existence. Furthermore, Khrustalev’s lack of political allegiance facilitated the Soviet’s relations with the non-proletarian world and especially with the organizations of the intelligentsia, from which it received considerable material assistance. In entrusting the chairmanship to a non-party man, the social-democrats counted on having political control of the Soviet. They were not mistaken. After a mere three or four weeks, the colossal growth of their influence and power could be judged, inter alia, by the fact that Khrustalev publicly announced that he was joining the social-democrats (Mensheviks).

What did the government hope to achieve by arresting Khrustalev? Did it think that by removing the chairman it would destroy the organization? Surely that would have been too stupid, even for a Durnovo. But it is difficult to give a precise answer as to motives, if only because their own motives were probably unclear to the reactionary conspirators who met in Tsarskoye Selo to discuss the destinies of the revolution, and yet who could do no more than resort to a police measure. In any case, the chairman’s arrest under the circumstances in which it was carried out assumed tremendous symptomatic significance for the Soviet. It became crystal clear to anyone who might have doubted it only a day earlier that neither side could retreat, that a decisive clash was inevitable, and that this clash lay, not months or weeks ahead, but days.


1. This interesting memorandum was published in a collection of documents (which, needless to say, was confiscated) entitled Materials for a History of the Russian Counter-Revolution (St. Petersburg: 1908).

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Last updated on: 27.11.2006