Leon Trotsky




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On December 4 the Moscow Soviet endorsed the “financial manifesto”; on December 6, directly influenced by major disturbances in the Moscow garrison, the Soviet, which by this time represented 100,000 workers, decided, together with the revolutionary parties, to proclaim a political general strike in Moscow on the next day, December 7, and to do its best to transform the strike into armed insurrection. A conference of deputies from twenty-nine railways, which was meeting in Moscow on December 5 and 6, decided to join the Soviet in carrying out this plan. The postal and telegraph congress adopted a similar decision.

The strike in Petersburg started on the eighth, reached its climax the following day and began to collapse after the twelfth. It was far less unanimous than the November strike, and involved not more than two-thirds of the workers. This indecision can be explained by the fact that the Petersburg workers realized very clearly that this time it was not a matter of a strike demonstration but of a life-or-death struggle. January 9 had left an indelible mark on the consciousness of the masses. Faced with a garrison of monstrous size with guards regiments as its backbone, the Petersburg workers could not themselves take the initiative of a revolutionary rising; their mission, as the October strike had shown, was to deliver the final blow to absolutism once it was already weakened by insurrection in the rest of the country. Major victory in the provinces was the essential psychological precondition for decisive action in Petersburg. But no victory came, and indecision was followed by retreat.

Besides the passivity of Petersburg, the fact that the Nikolayevskaya Railway (Petersburg-Moscow) continued to run had a fatal effect on the further progress of events. The general mood of wait-and-see prevailing in the capital influenced the Petersburg committee of the railwaymen’s union. The government, its attention centered wholly on the Nikolayevskaya line, took advantage of the delay and sent troops to occupy the line. Some of the workshops struck, but the railway telegraph was operated by the authorities and the line itself by a railway battalion. Attempts to stop the traffic were made repeatedly but without success. On December 16 workers from Tver destroyed part of the track to prevent the transfer of troops from Petersburg to Moscow, but it was too late. Trains had already transported the Semyonovsky guards regiment to Moscow. Generally speaking, however, the railway strike began very unitedly. Most lines had struck by the tenth, and the rest joined them during the following days.

In opening the strike, the conference of the railwaymen’s union declared: “We undertake to bring back the troops from Manchuria much sooner than the government would have done ... We shall adopt every measure to convey grain supplies to the starving peasants and provisions to our comrades on the railway lines.” This is not the first time that we encounter a phenomenon whose meaning should be pondered by those anarchists who are still capable of thought: in paralyzing state power, a general strike imposes extremely important state functions on its own organization. And it must be admitted that, on the whole, the railwaymen’s union functioned very well indeed. Trains carrying reserve supplies, revolutionary armed detachments, and members of revolutionary organizations traveled with remarkable regularity and speed despite the proximity of government troops in many places. Many stations were run by elected commandants. Red flags were raised over railway buildings. The first city to strike was Moscow (on the seventh). On the next day it was joined by Petersburg, Minsk, and Taganrog, on the tenth by Tiflis, on the eleventh, Vilna, on the twelfth, Kharkov, Kiev, and Nizhny Novgorod, on the thirteenth, Odessa and Riga, on the fourteenth, Lodz, and on the fifteenth, Warsaw, to mention only the largest centers. In all, the strike was joined by thirty-three towns as against thirty-nine in October.

Moscow stood at the center of the December movement.

From the first days of December some of the regiments of the Moscow garrison were in a state of revolutionary upsurge. Despite all the efforts made by the social-democrats to prevent isolated flare-ups, the ferment kept breaking through into the open. Among the workers, voices were raised demanding immediate support for the soldiers; it would be wrong, they argued, to let the favorable moment slip by. The soldiers guarding the factories came wholly under the influence of the workers; many of them said: “As soon as you rise, we’ll rise too; we’ll open up the arsenal for you.” It was not uncommon for soldiers and officers to speak at meetings. On December 4 a Soviet of Soldiers’ Deputies was formed within the army, and soldiers’ representatives joined the workers’ Soviet. Vague but persistent rumors of the army joining the workers came from other towns. Such was the atmosphere in which the Moscow strike began.

Some 100,000 men stopped work on the first day. Two engine-drivers who tried to drive trains out of one of the stations were killed. Minor clashes took place in several parts of the town. A workers’ detachment raided and emptied a gun shop. From that day on, ordinary policemen on the beat vanished from the Moscow streets; the police now appeared only in groups. On the second day the number of strikers increased to 150,000; the strike in Moscow became general and spread to factories in the countryside around Moscow. Huge meetings were held everywhere. At the railway terminal where trains from the Far East arrived, the crowd disarmed officers returning from Manchuria. Workers took several dozen pouds of cartridges from a railway wagon; later, others seized another wagon-load of arms.

On December 8, the second day of the strike, the Executive Committee decided: “Wherever troops appear, try to enter into conversation with the soldiers and to influence them with comradely words ... For the time being, avoid open clashes; offer armed resistance only if the troops behave in an exceptionally challenging manner.” Everyone understood that the decisive word would be spoken by the army. The smallest encouraging rumor about the mood of the garrison was passed from mouth to mouth. All the time the revolutionary crowd was fighting an incessant battle with the Moscow authorities over the army.

For example: having heard that infantrymen were marching down the street to the strains of the Marseillaise, some print workers sent a deputation to meet them. But it was too late. The military authorities had the excited soldiers surrounded by cossacks and dragoons, marched them back to their barracks, then accepted their demands. On the same day 500 cossacks under the command of a police officer received orders to fire on demonstrators. The cossacks refused to obey, entered into conversations with the crowd, and then, at a command issued by one of their non-commissioned officers, turned their horses around and slowly rode away, accompanied by friendly cries from the crowd.

The druzhinniki, that is to say, the militarily organized armed detachments from the revolutionary organizations, became more active. They systematically disarmed every policeman they came across. It was then that the order “Hands up!”, the purpose of which was to ensure the safety of the attackers, first began to be issued. Whoever disobeyed the order was killed. Soldiers were not touched for fear of alienating them. One meeting went so far as to decide that anyone who opened fire without orders from the commander of the detachment should be executed. Workers at factory gates carried on agitational work among the soldiers.

But by the third day of the strike bloody clashes with the army began to occur. For example: a squadron of dragoons disperses an evening meeting in a city square plunged into darkness by the strike. “Brothers, don’t touch us, we’re with you!” The soldiers ride off. But a quarter of an hour later they return in larger numbers and attack the crowd. Darkness, panic, shouts, curses; part of the crowd seek safety in a railway pavilion. The dragoons call for surrender. The crowd refuses. Several salvos are fired; a schoolboy is killed, a number of people wounded. Driven by conscience or by fear of revenge, the dragoons gallop off. “Murderers!” The crowd stands around the bodies of the first victims, fists furiously clenched. “Murderers!” Another moment, and the blood-spattered pavilion is in flames. “Murderers!” The crowd seeks an outlet for its emotions. In the darkness, surrounded by danger, it moves forward, runs into obstacles, presses on. More shots are fired. “Murderers!” The crowd builds barricades. Because it is inexperienced, it works clumsily, without any system. Right there, in the darkness, a group of thirty or forty sing the revolutionary funeral song: You have fallen victim ... More salvos, more wounded and killed. The adjoining courtyards are transformed into first-aid posts, people living in nearby houses act as stretcher-bearers and guard the gates.

On another occasion, a ten-thousand-strong workers’ demonstration came face to face with a detachment of cossacks. Two working women carrying red flags step out of the crowd and hurl themselves at the cossacks. “Go ahead, fire at us,” they shout, “we shan’t surrender the flags alive.” The cossacks are surprised and embarrassed. The moment is decisive. The crowd, sensing their hesitation, immediately challenges the cossacks:

“Our hands are empty, are you really going to fire at us?” “Don’t you fire at us, then we shan’t either,” the cossacks reply. Their officer, frightened and angry, bursts into a flood of invective. But too late. His voice is drowned in indignant cries from the crowd. Somebody makes a short speech; the crowd cheers. Another minute, and the cossacks turn their horses around and gallop away, their rifles slung across their shoulders.

Eventually, after troops had broken up a popular meeting and beaten up the unarmed crowd, the mood in the city became more tense. The crowds in the streets swelled, rumors of all kinds sprang up and died again every hour. Every face bore the imprint of happy excitement mixed with fear. Gorky, who was in Moscow at the time, wrote:

Many believe that it was the revolutionaries who began building the barricades; this, of course, is very flattering, but it is not quite correct. It was the man in the street, the non-party man, who began building the barricades, and therein lies the special nature of the event. The first barricades on the Tverskaya were built gaily, with jokes and laughter, and the widest possible variety of people took part in this cheerful labor, from the respectable gentleman wearing an expensive overcoat to the cook-general and the janitor who until recently had been a traditional prop of “stable authority.” The dragoons fired a salvo at the barricade, several people were wounded, two or three killed – there was a howl of indignation, a unanimous cry for revenge, and everything changed at once. After that salvo the man-in-the-street started building barricades not in play but in earnest, meaning to defend his life against Mr. Dubasov and his dragoons.

As military operations began, the Social-Democratic Fighting Organization posted a proclamation on the walls of Moscow in which it gave the following technical instructions to insurgents:

1. The first rule: do not act as a crowd. Act in small groups of three or four, not more. But let the number of such groups be as large as possible and let each one of them learn to attack quickly and to disappear as quickly. The police are trying to use units of a hundred cossacks to fire on crowds of several thousands. What you must do is to put one or two marksmen against a hundred cossacks. It is easier to hit a hundred men than a single man, especially if this single man fires without warning and disappears, no one knows where.

2. Also, comrades, do not occupy fortified buildings. The troops will always recapture them or simply destroy them by artillery fire. Let our fortresses be courtyards with entrances front and back, and all places from which it is easy to fire and easy to withdraw. Even if they capture such a place, they will find no one in it, yet it will cost them dear.

The revolutionaries’ tactics were promptly determined by the situation itself. In contrast to this, the government troops showed themselves totally unable, for a whole five days, to adapt themselves to the opponents’ tactics, combining bloodthirsty barbarity with bewilderment and confusion.

Here is a typical example of a battle. Twenty-four men who make up one of the most recklessly courageous Georgian druzhina, are marching along quite openly, in twos. The crowd warns them that sixteen dragoons with their officer are riding towards them. The druzhina stops, forms ranks, pulls out its Mausers, and prepares to fire. As soon as the mounted unit appears, the druzhina fires. The officer is wounded, the horses in the front rank, wounded, rear up, the dragoons are taken unawares and cannot fire back. This enables the druzhina to fire up to 100 rounds and the dragoons flee in disorder leaving behind several killed and wounded. “Now see that you get away,” the crowd urges, “the artillery are coming.” They are right; the artillery promptly appears on the scene, causing several dozen killed and wounded among the unarmed crowd which never expected to be fired on. Meanwhile the Georgians have started another shooting match with the troops in another place. The druzhina is almost invulnerable because it is clad in the armor of popular sympathy.

Here is another example, one of many. A group of thirteen druzhinniki occupying a building withstood, for four hours, the fire of 500 or 600 soldiers with 3 guns and 2 machine guns at their disposal. When they had used up all their ammunition and inflicted great losses on the troops, the druzhinniki withdrew without a single wound; whereas the soldiers destroyed several city blocks with artillery fire, set a number of wooden houses on fire and killed more than a few terrified citizens, all in order to put a dozen revolutionaries to flight.

The barricades were not defended. They served only as obstacles to the movement of troops, especially dragoons. Houses in the barricaded areas were outside the reach of artillery fire. After a heavy barrage, the troops would “take” the barricades to make sure there was no one behind them; but as soon as the troops had gone the barricades were rebuilt. On December 10, Dubasov’s artillery began its work in earnest. Guns and machine guns fired without cease, clearing one street after another. The victims were no longer counted in single numbers but in dozens. The crowds, angry and distraught, rushed from place to place, unable to believe that what was happening before their eyes was real. The soldiers were firing, not at single revolutionaries, but at that vague enemy whose name was Moscow: Moscow’s houses with their children and old men, Moscow’s unarmed street crowds. “Murderers! Cowards! Is that how you hope to restore your Manchurian glory?”

After the first barrages, the building of barricades became feverish. The rhythm of work became broader, the methods bolder. The crowd overturned a large fruit stand, a newspaper kiosk, tore down shop signs, smashed cast-iron railings, took down overhead tramway wires.

“In defiance of the police order that all gates should be kept bolted,” the reactionary newspapers reported, “many house gates have been taken off their hinges and used in building barricades.” By December 11 all the most important points throughout the city were surrounded by a network of barricades. Whole streets were wrapped in a cobweb of barbed wire.

Dubasov announced that any crowd “of more than three persons” would be fired upon. But the dragoons fired at single individuals as well. They would first search them; failing to find any arms, they would let them go, and then send a bullet after them. They even fired at people reading Dubasoy’s proclamation. It was enough for a single shot to be fired from a window – often clearly by an agent provocateur – for the artillery guns to be immediately turned on the house. Pools of blood and blobs of brain and hair sticking to shop signs revealed where shrapnel had passed through. Many houses had gaping holes in them. Outside a damaged building – hideous publicity of insurrection! – a plate with a lump of human flesh and an inscription: “Give money for the wounded.”

After two or three days the mood of the Moscow garrison became distinctly unfavorable to the insurgents. From the beginning of the disturbances, the military authorities had taken certain measures in the barracks: they had sent away the reserve troops, the volunteers, and those considered unreliable, and had provided better meals for the rest. Only the most dependable units were used at first in suppressing the insurrection. The more doubtful regiments, their most politically conscious elements removed, were confined to barracks and were sent into action only during the second phase. At first these troops acted unwillingly and without confidence. But a random bullet or an officer’s words playing on their weariness or hunger could drive them to terrible excesses of cruelty. Dubasov reinforced all these factors by plentiful issues of free vodka; the dragoons were half-drunk all the time.

However, guerrilla attacks cause not only anger but also fatigue; the general hostility of the population had a demoralizing effect on the soldiers. December 13 and 14 were the days of crisis. The troops, deadly tired, refused to fight an enemy they could not see and whose forces were fantastically exaggerated by rumors. During those days there were several cases of suicide among officers.

Dubasov reported to Petersburg that only 5,000 of the 15,000 men of the Moscow garrison could be put into action, as the others were unreliable, and called for reinforcements. He was told that part of the Petersburg garrison had been sent to the Baltic lands, another part was unreliable, and the rest were needed on the spot. These exchanges became known in the town through documents stolen from army headquarters and acted as a powerful injection of courage and hope. But Dubasov won. He insisted on being put in touch with Tsarskoye Selo by telephone and declared that he could not guarantee that “the autocracy would remain intact.” The order was given at once to dispatch the Semyonovsky guards regiment to Moscow.

On December 15 the situation changed abruptly. Hope of the guardsmen’s arrival quickly restored the spirits of reactionary groups in Moscow. An armed “militia” assembled from the slums by the Union of Russian People appeared in the streets. The government’s active forces were enlarged by troops transferred from nearby towns. The druzbinniki were exhausted. The man-in-the-street had had enough of uncertainty and fear. The morale of the working masses was falling, hopes of victory vanished. The shops, banks, offices and stock exchange re opened. Traffic in the streets became more animated. One of the newspapers came out. Everyone felt that the life of the barricades was over. Firing died down in most parts of the town. On the sixteenth, with the arrival of the troops from Petersburg and Warsaw, Dubasov became complete master of the situation. He passed to the offensive and completely cleared the center of the city of barricades. Recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, the Soviet and the party decided on that day to end the strike on December 19.

Throughout the insurrection the Presnya district, Moscow’s Montmartre, had led a life of its own. On December 10, when gunfire was already heard in the center of the city, Presnya was still calm. Political meetings were held, but they no longer satisfied the masses. The people wanted action and made their will clearly known to the deputies. At last, at 4:00 p.m. the order to build barricades was received from the center. Presnya came to life. Here there was none of the disorganization which reigned in the rest of the town. The workers formed groups of ten, elected team leaders, armed themselves with shovels, picks, and axes, and marched into the streets in orderly formation, like regular road-making gangs. No one was left without a job. The women carried sledges, gates, logs of firewood into the streets. Workmen cut down and sawed up telegraph poles and lamp posts. The whole Presnya rang with the sound of axes: it was like the felling of a forest.

Cut off from the city by troops, solidly traversed by a network of barricades, Presnya became a proletarian encampment. Druzhinniki were on duty everywhere; at night armed sentries paced between the barricades and demanded the password from passers-by. Girl workers showed the greatest enthusiasm. They went out on reconnaissance, started conversations with policemen and in that way obtained useful information.

How many active druzhinniki were there in Presnya? About 200, not more. They had some eighty Mauser revolvers and rifles at their disposal. Despite these small numbers, clashes with the troops occurred incessantly. Soldiers were disarmed, those offering resistance were killed. Workers restored the destroyed barricades. The druzhinniki strictly observed guerrilla tactics: they formed groups of two or three, fired at the cossacks and artillerymen from houses, timber depots, empty railway wagons, moved quickly from place to place and again showered bullets on the enemy. On December 12 the druzhinniki captured a gun. For a quarter of an hour they milled around not knowing what to do with it. The dilemma was solved by the arrival of a large detachment of dragoons and cossacks, who recaptured the gun.

On the evening of December 13 the Presnya druzhinniki captured six artillerymen and brought them to a factory. They were given a meal at the communal table. During the meal speeches of a political nature were made. The soldiers listened attentively and with sympathy. After supper they were allowed to go back without being searched or disarmed; the workers were anxious to stay friends.

On the night of December 15 in the street, the druzhinniki arrested Voyloshnikov, the chief of the secret police, searched his apartment and confiscated photographs of persons under police surveillance and 600 roubles of public money. Voyloshnikov was immediately condemned to death and was shot in the courtyard of the Prokhorov factory. He heard the verdict calmly and met his death with courage, dying more nobly than he had lived.

Trial shelling of Presnya began on the sixteenth. The druzhinniki responded with energetic fire and forced the artillery to retreat. But on the same day it became known that Dubasov had received large reinforcements from Petersburg and Warsaw, and spirits began to fall. The exodus of weavers to the countryside began. The roads were filled with refugees on foot, carrying white shoulder bags.

On the night of the sixteenth Presnya was encircled in an iron ring of government troops. Soon after 6:00 a.m. on the seventeenth these troops opened a remorseless cannonade. Guns were fired as much as seven times a minute. This continued, with an hour’s respite, until 4:00 p.m. Many factories and houses were destroyed and set on fire. The barrage was conducted from two sides. Houses and barricades were in flames, women and children darted about the streets in clouds of black smoke, the air was filled with the roar and clatter of firing. The glow was such that miles away it was possible to read in the streets late at night, as though it were day. Until noon the druzhiny conducted successful operations against the troops, but continuous enemy fire forced them to stop. Only a small group of druzhinniki remained under arms on their own initiative and at their own risk.

By the morning of the eighteenth Presnya had been cleared of barricades. The “peaceful” population were allowed to leave Presnya; the troops were careless enough to allow people to leave without searching them. The druzbinniki were the first to leave, some of them still with arms. Later, there were shootings and other violence by the soldiers, but by then not a single druzhinnik remained in the area.

The “pacification troops” of the Semyonovsky regiment, who were sent to “pacify” the railway, were ordered not to make arrests and to proceed with out mercy. They met with no resistance anywhere. Not a single shot was fired against them, yet they killed approximately 150 persons on the railway line. The shootings were carried out without investigation or trial. Wounded men were taken from ambulance wagons and finished off. Corpses lay around without anyone daring to carry them away. One of those shot by the Petersburg guards was the engine-driver Ukhtomsky, who saved the lives of a group of druzhinniki by driving them away on his engine at colossal speed under machine-gun fire. Before they shot him, he told his executioners what he had done: “All are safe,” he concluded with calm pride, “you’ll never get them now.”

The rising in Moscow lasted for nine days, from December ninth to the seventeenth. How large, in reality, were the fighting forces of the insurrection? They were negligible. The party druzhinniki comprised between 700 and 800 men – 500 social-democrats and 250 to 300 socialist revolutionaries. Approximately 500 railwaymen equipped with firearms operated at the stations and along the lines. Approximately 400 armed men from among the print-shop operatives and shop assistants made up the auxiliary units. There were also some groups of unattached sharpshooters. Speaking of these, mention must be made of four volunteers from Montenegro. Splendid marksmen, fearless and tireless, they worked as a group, killing only policemen and officers. Two of them were killed, a third wounded, the Winchester rifle of the fourth was destroyed. He was given a new rifle and pursued his terrible sport alone. Every morning he was issued with 50 cartridges, but he complained that it was too little. He seemed in a daze, weeping for his lost comrades and seeking a dreadful vengeance for their loss.

How, then, could so small a number of druzhinniki offer battle for a week and a half to a garrison consisting of several thousand men? The answer to this riddle of the revolution lies in the mood of the popular masses. The whole city with its streets, houses, walls, and gates entered into a conspiracy against the government troops. The million-strong population formed a living wall between the guerrillas and the government troops. There were only a few hundred druzhinniki. But the barricades were built and rebuilt by the masses. The people surrounded the armed revolutionaries with an atmosphere of active sympathy, foiling the government’s plans wherever they could. Who were they, these sympathetic hundreds of thousands? The intelligentsia, the petty bourgeoisie and, above all, the workers. Apart from the mercenary mob, only the uppermost capitalist stratum was on the government’s side. The Moscow city duma, which only two months before the rising had proudly exhibited its radicalism, now hastily placed itself behind Dubasov. Not only the Octobrist Guchkov but also Golovin, the future Kadet chairman of the second Duma, joined the governor-general’s council.

What was the number of victims of the Moscow insurrection? The exact figure is unknown and will never be ascertained. Data supplied by 47 hospitals and clinics indicate 885 wounded, 174 mortally wounded or killed. But those killed were only rarely taken to the hospital; in most cases they lay at the police stations and were then taken secretly to the cemetery. During those days, 454 persons killed or mortally wounded were buried at the cemetery. Yet many bodies were taken outside the city in railway wagons. It would not be far wrong to suppose that the toll of the Moscow rising was about 1,000 dead and about the same number wounded. These figures included 86 children, of whom some were infants in arms. The significance of these figures becomes vividly clear if we remember that as a result of the March 1848 rising in Berlin, which dealt an irreparable blow to Prussian absolutism, the number killed was only 183. The government never announced the exact number of losses on either side; an official report speaks only of “several tens” of soldiers killed and wounded. In reality there were several hundred. The price was not too high, for what was at stake was Moscow, “the heart of Russia.”

Leaving aside the border regions (the Caucasus and the Baltic lands), the December insurrectionary wave reached its maximum height in Moscow. Nevertheless there were barricades and exchanges of fire with the troops in several other towns, such as Kharkov, Alexandrovsk, Nizhny Noygorod, Rostov and Tver.

Once the insurrection was broken everywhere, the era of punitive expeditions began. As their official designation shows, their purpose was not to combat an enemy but to wreak vengeance on the defeated. In the Baltic lands, where the insurrection flared up a fortnight earlier than in Moscow, the punitive expeditions were divided up into small detachments which carried out the bloodthirsty instructions of the Baltic barons, that dirty caste from which the Russian bureaucracy drew its most brutish representatives. Latvian workers and peasants were shot, hanged, flogged to death with rods and stocks, made to run the gauntlet, executed to the strains of the Tsarist anthem. According to highly incomplete information, 749 persons were executed, more than 100 farms were burned down, and many people were flogged to death in the Baltic lands within the space of two months.

Thus it was that absolutism by the grace of God struggled for its existence. Between January 9 and the convening of the first State Duma on April 27, 1906, according to approximate but certainly not exaggerated figures, the Tsarist government killed more than 14,000 persons, executed more than 1,000, wounded more than 20,000 (many of these died of their wounds), and arrested, exiled, and imprisoned 70,000 persons. The price was not excessive, for what was at stake was the very existence of Tsarism.

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Last updated on: 23.11.2006