Leon Trotsky



The Last Days of the Soviet

* * *

To abandon the public arena after Khrustalev’s arrest was something the Soviet could not do: a freely elected parliament of the working class, it owed its strength precisely to the public character of its activities. To dissolve its organization would have meant deliberately giving an opening to the enemy. Only one solution remained: to continue along the same path as before, heading towards a conflict. At a meeting of the Executive Committee on November 26 the representative of the socialist-revolutionary party (Chernov “himself”) proposed issuing a declaration to the effect that the Soviet would reply by a terrorist coup to every repressive measure of the government. We came out against this proposal. During the brief period that remained before the opening of military operations, the Soviet had to establish the closest possible liaison with other towns, with the peasants’ union, the railwaymen’s union, the Postal and Telegraph Union and the army (two delegates had been sent off for this purpose in the middle of November, one to the Volga and the other to the south); terrorist attacks on individual ministers would certainly have absorbed the Executive Committee’s entire energy and attention.

Instead, we proposed that the following resolution be submitted to the next meeting of the Soviet: “On November 26 the Tsarist government arrested the chairman of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, Comrade Khrustalev-Nosar. The Soviet is electing a temporary presidium and is continuing to prepare for armed insurrection.” Three persons were selected as candidates for the presidium: Yanovsky, the rapporteur of the Executive Committee (that was the name under which the author of this book was active in the Soviet), the treasurer Vvedensky (Sverchkov) and Zlydnev, a worker deputy from the Obukhov plant.

The general meeting of the Soviet took place on the next day, openly as always, with 302 deputies present. The atmosphere was highly charged; many members of the Soviet wanted an immediate and direct response to the Ministry’s guerrilla raid. But after a short debate the meeting unanimously adopted the Executive Committee’s resolution and, by a secret ballot, elected the proposed candidates to the presidium.

The chairman of the Main Committee of the peasants’ union, who was present at the meeting, spoke about the decision taken at the union’s November congress not to supply recruits to the government, not to pay taxes, and to withdraw deposits from state banks and savings banks. As the Executive Committee had already on November 23 adopted a resolution inviting workers, “in view of the government’s imminent bankruptcy,” to accept payment of wages only in gold and to withdraw their deposits from savings banks, a decision was taken to amalgamate these financial boycott measures and to announce them in a manifesto addressed to the people in the name of the Soviet, the peasants union and the socialist parties.

Would it be possible to hold further general meetings of the proletarian parliament? There could be no certainty about this. The meeting decided that, in the event of it being impossible to convene the Soviet, its functions should be transferred to the Executive Committee with an enlarged membership. It was on the basis of this decision, that, after the Soviet’s arrest on December 3, its powers passed into the hands of the second Soviet’s Executive Committee.

The meeting then received warm greetings on behalf of the politically conscious soldiers of the Finland battalions and also from the Polish Socialist party and the All-Russian Peasants’ Union. The delegate from the revolutionary peasantry promised fraternal support at the decisive hour. To the indescribable enthusiasm of deputies and guests and to the sound of thunderous applause, the representative of the peasants’ union and the chairman of the Soviet shook hands. The meeting dispersed late at night. The last to leave were the members of the police duty patrol who, as always, had been guarding the entrance to the meeting on the city governor’s orders. It is an interesting sidelight on the situation that on the same night a minor police official, acting under the instructions of the same city governor, stopped a lawful and peaceful meeting of bourgeois voters headed by Milyukov.

Most Petersburg plants associated themselves with the Soviet’s resolution, which also found a sympathetic echo in resolutions adopted by the Moscow and Samara Soviets, the railwaymen’s and postal and telegraph unions, and a number of local organizations. Even the Central Bureau of the “Union of Unions” endorsed the Soviet’s decision and published an appeal “to the country’s vital elements” to prepare themselves actively for an imminent political strike and for “the last armed clash with the enemies of popular freedom.”

However, the sympathy which the liberal and radical bourgeoisie had towards the proletariat in October was by now cooling off. The situation became more and more acute, and liberalism, frustrated by its own inaction, was becoming increasingly surly towards the Soviet. The man in the street, knowing little of politics, had a semi-benevolent, semi-subservient attitude toward the Soviet. If he feared that a railway strike might break out while he was on a journey, he would call at the Soviet’s office for information. He came there, too, in the hope of dispatching his telegrams during the postal and telegraph strike; and if the telegram was considered sufficiently important, it was duly dispatched. (For example, the widow of Senator B., after many fruitless visits to various ministries, finally appealed to the Soviet to enable her to send a telegram on an important family matter.) The Soviet’s written orders exempted townspeople from having to observe the law; for example, an engraver’s workshop, on receiving written “permission” from the Soviet, agreed to make a seal for the illegal Postal and Telegraph Union. The Northern Bank credited the Soviet for an out-of-date check. The print shop of the naval ministry asked the Soviet for instructions as to whether or not it should go on strike.

All kinds of people and organizations appealed to the Soviet in moments of danger, seeking help against individuals, officials, and the government itself. When martial law was proclaimed in Lifland province, the Latvian section of the population of Petersburg appealed to the Soviet to “make a stand” against this latest instance of arbitrary Tsarist rule. On November 30 the stretcher-bearers’ union appealed to the Soviet on behalf of its members whom by false promises the Red Cross had enticed to join the Russo-Japanese war and had then sent home unrewarded; the Soviet’s arrest put an end to its lively correspondence on this subject with the Central Directorate of the Red Cross.

The Soviet’s premises were always crowded with petitioners and plaintiffs of all kinds—mostly workers, domestic servants, shop assistants, peasants, soldiers, and sailors. Some had an absolutely phantasmagorical idea of the Soviet’s power and its methods. There was one blind veteran of the Russo-Turkish war, covered with crosses and decorations, who complained of dire poverty and begged the Soviet to “put a bit of pressure on Number One” (that is, the Tsar). Applications and petitions arrived from remote parts of the country. After the November strike the inhabitants of one district of a Polish province sent a telegram of thanks to the Soviet. An old cossack from Poltava province complained of unjust treatment by the Princes Repnin who had exploited him as a clerk for twenty-eight years and then dismissed him without cause; the old man was asking the Soviet to negotiate with the Princes on his behalf. The envelope containing this curious petition was addressed simply to The Workers’ Government, Petersburg, yet it was promptly delivered by the revolutionary postal service.

A special deputy from a team of navies in Minsk province came to the Soviet; a landlord wanted to pay his debt of 3,000 roubles to the team in some kind of shares. “What should we do?” the deputy asked, “we’d like to take the shares, yet we’re afraid: we’ve heard a rumor that your government wants us workers to accept payment in gold or silver only ...” The case was investigated and it was found that the landowner’s shares were almost valueless.

News of the Soviet began reaching the countryside only towards the end of its activity, and requests from peasants became more and more frequent. Peasants from Chernigov province wanted to be put in touch with the local socialist organization, peasants from Mogilev province sent messengers with “verdicts” from several villages who undertook to act together with the town workers and the Soviet.

A tremendous field of action was opening up before the Soviet. Everywhere a vast expanse of new political ground was waiting for the deep plowshare of revolution. But time was short. The reaction was feverishly forging its weapons, and the blow was expected from hour to hour. Amid the mass of day to-day business the Executive Committee hurried to put the Soviet’s resolution of November 27 into action. It issued a proclamation addressed to the troops (see The November Strike) and, at a joint meeting with representatives of the revolutionary parties, approved the text of a “financial” manifesto submitted by Parvus. On December 2 the Manifesto was published in eight Petersburg newspapers, four socialist ones and four liberal ones. Here is the text of this historic document:


The government is on the brink of bankruptcy. It has reduced the country to ruins and scattered it with corpses. The peasants, worn out by suffering and hunger, are incapable of paying taxes. The government gave credits to the landowners out of the people’s money. Now it is at a loss as to what to do with the landowners’ mortgaged estates. Factories and plants are at a standstill. There is unemployment and a general stagnation of trade. The government has used the capital obtained by foreign loans to build railways, warships, and fortresses and to store up arms. Foreign sources have now been exhausted, and state orders have also come to an end. The merchant, the supplier, the contractor, the factory owner, accustomed to enriching themselves at the treasury’s expense, find themselves without new profits and are closing down their offices and plants. One bankruptcy follows another. Banks are failing. All trade exchanges have been reduced to the barest minimum. The government’s struggle against revolution is causing daily unrest. No one is any longer sure what the morrow will bring.

Foreign capital is going back home. “Purely Russian” capital is also seeping away into foreign banks. The rich are selling their property and going abroad in search of safety. The birds of prey are fleeing the country and taking the people’s property with them.

For many years the government has spent all its state revenue on the army and navy. There is a shortage of schools. Roads have been neglected. In spite of this, there is not enough money even to keep the troops supplied with food. The war was lost partly because military supplies were inadequate. Mutinies of the poverty-stricken, hungry troops are flaring up all over the country.

The railways are economically sick through the government’s fault. Many millions of roubles are needed to restore the railway economy.

The government has pilfered the savings banks, and handed out deposits to support private banks and industrial enterprises, often entirely fictitious ones. It is using the small saver’s capital to play the stock exchange, where that capital is exposed to risk daily.

The gold reserves of the state bank are negligible compared with the existing claims of government loans and the demands of trade turnover. It will be reduced to nothing if gold coin is demanded for every transaction.

Taking advantage of the absence of any control of the state finances, the government has long been issuing loans which far exceed the country’s means of payment. With these new loans it is covering the interest on old ones.

Year after year the government issues false accounts of expenditure and revenue, showing both to be less than they are in reality and robbing indiscriminately to show a surplus instead of an annual deficit. Officials are free to rob the treasury which in any case is already exhausted.

Only the Constituent Assembly, after the overthrow of the autocracy, can halt this financial ruin. It will carry out a close investigation of the state finances and will draw up a detailed, clear, accurate, and certified balance sheet of state revenue and expenditure (budget).

Fear of popular control which would reveal to all the world the government’s financial insolvency is forcing it to keep putting off the convening of the people’s representative assembly.

In order to safeguard its rapacious activities the government forces the people to fight unto death. Hundreds of thousands of citizens perish and are ruined in this fight, and industry, trade, and means of communication are destroyed at their very foundations.

There is only one way out: to overthrow the government, to deprive it of its last strength. It is necessary to cut the government off from the last source of its existence: financial revenue. This is necessary not only for the country’s political and economic liberation, but also, more particularly, in order to restore the financial equilibrium of the state.

We have therefore decided:

To refuse to make land redemption payments and all other payments to the treasury. In all transactions and in the payment of wages and salaries, to demand gold, and in the case of sums of less than five roubles, full-weight hard cash (coinage).

To withdraw deposits from savings banks and from the state bank, demanding payment of the entire sum in gold.

The autocracy has never enjoyed the people’s confidence and has never received any authority from the people.

At the present time the government is behaving within the frontiers of its own country as though it were ruling conquered territory.

We have therefore decided not to allow the repayment of loans which the government contracted while it was clearly and openly waging war against the entire people.


The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies

The Main Committee of the All-Russian Peasants’ Union

The Central Committee and the Organization Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party

The Central Committee of the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries

The Central Committee of the Polish Socialist Party

It goes without saying that this manifesto could not, in itself, overthrow Tsarism and its finances. It was the first State Duma that, six months later, expected such a miracle to be wrought by its Vyborg declaration, which called on the population “peacefully, on the English model,” to refuse to pay taxes. The Soviet’s financial manifesto was nothing other than an overture to the December rising. Reinforced by a strike and by fighting on the barricades, it produced a powerful echo throughout the country. Whereas during the month of December in the previous three years deposits in savings banks had exceeded payments by 4 million roubles, in December 1905 the excess of payments over deposits equaled 90 million: during a single month the manifesto extracted 94 million roubles from government reserves! When the insurrection had been crushed by the Tsarist hordes, equilibrium in the savings banks was once more restored.

* * *

In the last ten days of November martial law was proclaimed in Kiev and its administrative district and in Lifland, Chernigov, Saratoy, Penza, and Simbirsk provinces, the chief centers of rural disturbances.

On November 24, on the day of the introduction of the “temporary” press regulations, the rights of provincial governors and town governors were widely extended.

On the twenty-eighth the post of “temporary” governor-general of the Baltic Lands was created. On the twenty-ninth the local satraps were empowered, in the event of railway or postal and telegraph strikes, to introduce emergency rule in their provinces without reference to the central authorities.

On December 1 Nicholas II granted an audience to a hastily made up, motley deputation of frightened landowners, monks, and urban pogromists. This deputation demanded merciless punishment of the revolutionary malefactors and, at the same time, of those persons in high places who abetted the revolution; not satisfied with this hint towards Witte, the deputation added: “by autocratic command, be pleased to recall certain servants of thy monarchic will.” “I receive you in the certainty,” Nicholas replied to this dirty gang of serf-traders and money-loving thugs, “that I see before me true sons of Russia, devoted with all their hearts to myself and the fatherland.” At a signal from Petersburg, the provincial administrations dispatched a large number of messages of gratitude to the Tsar Emperor purporting to come from members of the peasantry and lower middle class. The “Union of the Russian People,” which, as we understand, received its first large subsidy at this time, organized a number of meetings and distributed pogromist-patriotic literature.

On December 2 the eight newspapers which had printed the Soviet’s Financial Manifesto were confiscated and their publication interrupted. On the same day drastic new regulations were issued making it illegal for employees of the railways and the postal, telegraph, and telephone services to strike or form unions under threat of sentences of up to four years’ imprisonment. The revolutionary papers made public the following order by the governor of Voronezh province based on a secret circular by Durnovo: “Top secret. Immediately identify all ringleaders of the antigovernment and agrarian movement and incarcerate them in local prisons pending further action in accordance with the Minister for Home Affairs’ instructions.” The government published its first threatening declaration. The extreme parties, it said, had adopted as their aim the disruption of the country’s economic, social, and political structure; the social-democrats and socialist-revolutionaries were, in essence, anarchists: they declared war on the government, vilified their opponents, prevented society from enjoying the benefits of the new regime: they provoked strikes in order to turn the workers into raw material for revolution. “The shedding of the workers’ blood (by the government!) is incapable of causing them (the revolutionaries!) any pangs of conscience.” If ordinary measures proved of no avail against these phenomena, then “the necessity would undoubtedly arise to adopt measures of an entirely exceptional nature.”

The caste interests of the privileged and the frightened, the vindictive rage of the bureaucrats, the servility of the bought, the dull hatred of the fooled, all these mingled together to form a single repulsive, bloody, dirty block of reaction. Tsarskoye Selo issued supplies of gold, Durnovo’s ministry wove a furtive fabric of conspiracy, the hired assassins whetted their knives.

Meanwhile the revolution grew irresistibly. New forces kept joining its main army, the industrial proletariat. In the towns there were meetings of janitors, doormen, cooks, domestic servants, floor-polishers, waiters, public bath attendants, laundresses. Astonishing characters appeared at public meetings and came to the offices of the revolutionary press: “politically conscious combatant cossacks, railway policemen, ordinary policemen and police officers, even some repentant police detectives. From some mysterious, unknown depths, the social earthquake kept throwing up new strata whose very existence is unsuspected in times of peace. Petty officials, prison warders, army clerks waited in the offices of the revolutionary newspapers for their turn to be heard.

The November strike had a tremendous effect on the army. A wave of army meetings swept the entire country. The barracks were filled with the spirit of mutiny. Here discontent generally arises on the ground of the soldiers’ immediate needs, then develops rapidly and assumes a political orientation. From the last third of November on, military disturbances of extreme gravity occurred in Petersburg (among sailors), Kiev, Yekaterinodar, Yelisavetpol, Proskurovo, Kursk, and Lomzha. In Warsaw, guardsmen demanded the release of their arrested officers. Messages came in from all sides indicating that the entire Manchurian army was aflame with revolution. A meeting held at Irkutsk on November 28 was attended by the entire garrison—some 4,000 men. Under the chairmanship of a non-commissioned officer the meeting decided to endorse the demand for a Constituent Assembly. In many towns soldiers fraternized with workers at meetings. On December 2 and 3 rioting began among troops of the Moscow garrison. There were meetings in which even cossacks took part, street processions were held to the strains of the Marseillaise, officers of certain regiments were forcibly removed from their posts ...

And finally, as a revolutionary background to the towns which were seething like cauldrons, came the flames of peasant risings in the countryside. At the end of November and the beginning of December agrarian disorders spread to a large number of rural areas: in the center near Moscow, on the Volga, on the Don, and in the Kingdom of Poland there were incessant peasants’ strikes, wreckings of state-owned liquor shops, arson on country estates, seizures of property and land. The whole of Kovno province was in the grip of the Lithuanian peasants’ rising. Messages of ever-increasing alarm arrived from Lifland. Landowners were fleeing from their estates, provincial administrators were abandoning their posts.

With a clear image of Russia at that time one realizes how inevitable was the December conflict. “The showdown should have been avoided,” say certain men wise in their hindsight (Plekhanov). As though it were a matter of a chess game, not of the elemental movement of millions!

* * *

“The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies,” wrote Novoye Vremya, “is not discouraged. It continues to act energetically and publishes its decisions in a pure, Spartan language, brief, clear and understandable to all. The same cannot by any means be said of Count Witte’s government, which prefers the long-winded and tedious language of a melancholy maiden.” On December 3 Witte’s government in its turn adopted a language that was “brief, clear and understandable to all.” It surrounded the building of the Free Economic Association with troops drawn from every arm of the services, and arrested the Soviet.

The Executive Committee met at 4:00 p.m. The agenda for the meeting had been determined in advance by the confiscation of the eight newspapers, the draconian new rules concerning strikes and Durnovo’s conspiratorial telegramn. The representative of the Central Committee of the social-democratic party (Bolsheviks) submitted his party’s proposal to accept the challenge to establish contact immediately with all revolutionary organizations throughout the country, to appoint a date for the commencement of a political general strike, to mobilize all forces and all reserves and, supported by the agrarian movements and soldiers’ riots, to go forward towards a decisive solution.

The delegate from the railwaymen’s union said that it was certain that the railwaymen’s congress convened for December 6 would decide in favor of a strike.

The representative of the Postal and Telegraph Union spoke in favor of the party’s proposal and expressed the hope that a general strike movement would instill new life into the postal and telegraph strike, which was beginning to peter out. The debate was interrupted by the news that the Soviet was to be arrested that day. Confirmation arrived half an hour later. By that time the large assembly hall on the ground floor had filled with delegates, party representatives, press correspondents, and guests. The Executive Committee, which was meeting upstairs, decided that some of its members should withdraw so as to ensure continuity in case of arrest. But it was already too late. The building was surrounded by soldiers of the Izmailovsky guards regiment, mounted cossacks, policemen, and gendarmes. The whole place was filled with the noise of trampling feet, the ringing of spurs, the clatter of arms. Delegates were heard protesting vociferously downstairs. The chairman opened a first-floor window, leaned out and called: “Comrades, don’t offer resistance! We declare in advance that if any shots are fired, they will have to come from the police or an agent provocateur.” A few minutes later the soldiers climbed the stairs to the first floor and took up a position at the door of the room in which the Executive Committee was meeting.

The chairman (addressing an officer): “I suggest you close the door and do not disturb our business.”

The soldiers remain in the passage but do not close the door.

The chairman: “The meeting continues. Who wants to take the floor?"

The Representative of the Office Workers’ Union: “By today’s act of brute force the government has reinforced the arguments in favor of a general strike. It has determined the strike in advance. The outcome of the proletariat’s new and decisive action depends on the troops. Let them come out in defense of the motherland!” (The officer hastily shuts the door. The speaker raises his voice.) “Even through closed doors the fraternal call of the workers, the voice of their tormented country will reach the soldiers!”

The door opens and a company commander of the gendarmerie, pale as death, creeps in (he was afraid of a bullet), followed by a couple of dozen policemen who place themselves behind the delegates’ chairs.

The chairman: “I declare the meeting of the Executive Committee closed.”

The sound of loud metallic banging came from downstairs. It was as though a dozen blacksmiths were working at their anvils. The delegates were smashing their Brownings so as to prevent them falling into the hands of the police!

A search began. Everyone refused to give their names. Searched, their descriptions noted and a number allocated to each, the members of the Executive Committee were escorted away by the half-drunken guardsmen.

The Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was in the hands of the Tsarskoye Selo conspirators.

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Last updated on: 25.11.2006