Leon Trotsky



The Trial of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies

The era of counter-revolutionary conspiracy opened on December 3, 1905, with the arrest of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The December strike in Petersburg and the December risings in various parts of the country were a heroic effort on the part of the revolution to maintain the position it had won in October. During that time the leadership of the working masses of Petersburg passed to the second Soviet, formed from the remnants of the first together with some newly elected deputies. Approximately three hundred members of the first Soviet were confined in three Petersburg prisons. Their future fate was for a long time a mystery, not only to themselves, but also to the ruling bureaucracy. The well-informed press declared that the Minister of Justice absolutely rejected the possibility of the workers’ deputies being tried by a court of law. If their perfectly open activities were criminal, then the role of the higher administration, which not only connived with the Soviet but also entered into direct relations with it, was also, in the Minister’s opinion, a crime. The ministers argued among themselves, the gendarmes carried on Interrogations, the deputies sat in their solitary cells. At the time of thc punitive expeditions of December and January there every reason to think that the Soviet would end up in the noose of a court-martial. At the end of April, in the early days of the first Duma, the workers’ deputies, like the country at large, expected an amnesty. Thus their prospects swung between the death penalty and going scot-free.

At last the movement of the pendulum met with a counter-force. The government of Goremykin’s Duma (or rather anti-Duma) passed the Soviet’s case for examination to the Chamber of Justice assisted by representatives of the estates. [1]

The indictment, a pathetic concoction cooked up between gendarmes and prosecutors, is of interest as a document of that wonderful era. It reflects the revolution in the same way as a dirty puddle in a police station yard reflects the sun. The members of the Soviet were accused of preparing armed insurrection under two articles, one of which carried a maximum of eight years and the other of twelve years with forced labor. The author of these lines has analyzed the legal basis for that accusation, or rather, the absolute nonexistence of such a basis, in a small essay [2] which he sent from the House of Preliminary Confinement to the social-democratic faction within the first Duma with a view to a parliamentary question being asked on the subject of the Soviet’s trial. The question was never asked because the first Duma was dissolved and the social-democratic faction found itself under trial.

The date fixed for the trial, which was to be held in public, was June 20. A wave of protest meetings swept all Petersburg factories and plants. If the prosecution pretended that the Soviet’s Executive Committee was a group of conspirators who had sought to impose its own decisions on the masses; if the liberal press after the December events repeated day after day that the Soviet’s “naive revolutionary methods” had long lost their appeal for the masses, who wanted only to lead a quiet life under the new “constitutional” law – then what a splendid refutation of these police slanders and liberal ineptitudes were the June meetings and resolutions of the workers of Petersburg, who, in their factories, declared their solidarity with their imprisoned representatives, who demanded to be put under trial as active participators in the revolutionary events, who insisted that the Soviet had merely executed their collective will, who swore to carry the Soviet’s work to its conclusion!

The courtyard of the law courts and the adjoining streets were turned into a military encampment. All Petersburg’s police forces were mobilized. Despite these colossal preparations, the trial failed to take place. The president of the Chamber of Justice, against the wishes of 1)0th the prosecution and the defense and even, as became known later, of the ministry, postponed the hearing for three months, until September 9, on a formal pretext. This was a subtle political move. At the end of June the situation was full of “unlimited possibilities": a Kadet ministry seemed as likely as the restoration of absolutism. Yet the Soviet’s trial demanded a fully confident policy on the part of the president of the court. Therefore the gentleman in question chose to grant history a further three months for reflection. Alas, this diplomatic cunctator was obliged to leave his post only a few days later. The line to be taken was fully defined at Peterhof. The Tsar and his henchmen insisted on utter ruthlessness.

The trial opened tinder a new president on September 19 and lasted for a month during the most critical phase of the first inter-Duma period, the honeymoon of the era of courts-martial. Yet, nevertheless, the court examination of many, if not of all the questions involved was conducted with a freedom that would have been completely incomprehensible if, behind it, one could not glimpse the workings of bureaucratic chicanery: this was, apparently, the way in which Stolypin’s ministry had chosen to parry Count Witte’s attacks. Stolypin’s calculation was faultlessly correct: the more true facts the trial revealed, the more graphically it reproduced the picture of the government’s humiliation at the end of 1905. Witte’s connivance, his two-faced intrigues, his false assurances to Peterhof, his crude attempts to ingratiate himself with the revolution #8211; this was the evidence that the higher bureaucratic interests extracted from the Soviet’s trial. All that the defendants could do was to exploit the favorable situation for political ends and to broaden the framework of the trial to the maximum possible extent.

Some 400 witnesses were called, of whom more than 200 appeared and testified before the court. [3] Workers, factory owners, gendarmes, engineers, domestic servants, ordinary citizens, journalists, post office officials, schoolboys, members of the duma, janitors, senators, hooligans, deputies, professors, and soldiers passed in review before the court throughout the month and under the cross fire of questions from the court, the prosecution, the defense and the defendants – especially the defendants – they reconstituted line by line, brushstroke by brushstroke the picture of the period of activities, so rich in events, of the workers’ Soviet.

Before the court’s eyes passed the all-Russian October strike which had put Bulygin’s Duma to rest; the November strike manifestation in Petersburg, that noble and majestic protest by the proletariat against the court-martialing of the Kronstadt sailors and the rape of Poland; the Petersburg workers’ heroic struggle for the eight-hour day; finally, the rising, led by the Soviet, of the long-suffering slaves of the postal and telegraph administration. The minutes of meetings of the Soviet and its Executive Committee, made public for the first time before the court, revealed to the country the colossal day-to-day work accomplished by the representative body of the proletariat in organizing aid for the unemployed, settling disputes between workers and employers and supervising economic strike action.

The shorthand record of the trial, which is to fill several large volumes, has not been published to date. Only a change in political conditions in Russia can release this invaluable historical document. A German judge and a German-democrat would have been equally astounded if they could have been present in the courtroom during the trial. Exaggerated severity and unbounded license combined here into a bizarre whole, both illuminating, from different aspects, the extraordinary confusion which still reigned in governmental spheres as a legacy of the October strike.

The court building was placed under martial law and virtually transformed into a military encampment. In the courtyard, at the gates, in the adjoining streets were several companies of soldiers and cossacks. Along the entire length of the underground corridor connecting the prison with the law courts, in every room of the law courts building, at the backs of the defendants at every corner, probably even inside the chimney stack, were gendarmes with drawn sabers: they were meant to form a living wall between the defendants and the outside world, including the public admitted to the court (about 100-120 persons). But thirty or forty lawyers’ frock-coats were constantly piercing the wall of blue uniforms. Newspapers, letters, sweets and flowers – infinite quantities of flowers! – appeared in the dock. There were flowers in buttonholes, flowers held in hands and on laps, finally flowers simply lying on the benches. The president of the court did not dare to remove these fragrant intruders. In the end, even gendarmerie officers and officers of the court, totally “demoralized” by the prevailing atmosphere, were handing flowers to the defendants.

And then the workers were called as witnesses! They gathered in dozens in the witness room, and when the court officer opened the door to the courtroom, a wave of revolutionary song would reach the president’s chair. These worker witnesses made an astonishing impression. They brought with them the revolutionary atmosphere of the factory suburbs, and such was the divine contempt with which they ignored the mystic solemnity of court ritual that the president, yellow as parchment, could only spread his hands helplessly, while witnesses drawn from “respectable” society and liberal journalists stared at them with envy and respect, as the weak always stare at the strong.

The very first day of the trial was marked by an extraordinary demonstration. Of the fifty-two defendants, the president of the court called only fifty-one. He left out the name of Ter-Mkrchtiants.

“Where is the defendent Ter-Mkrchtiants?” asked Sokolov, one of the defense lawyers.

“His name has been expurged from the list of defendants.”

“He ... er ... he has been executed.”

Yes, in the interval between June 20 and September 19, Ter-Mkrchtiants, released on bail, had been executed on the ramparts of the fortress of Kronstadt for being a participant in the military rising.

The defendants, the witnesses, the defending counsel, members of the public – all rose in silence to honor the memory of the fallen victim. Police and gendarmerie officers, in utter confusion, rose to their feet with the rest.

Wirnesses were brought in to take the oath in groups of twenty or thirty. Many came in working clothes, their hands still dirty from their work, carrying their caps in their hands. They would give a brief glance at the judges, then find the defendants with their eyes, boxy [?] energetically in the two directions where our benches were placed and say loudly, “Good-day, Comrades!” It was as though they had come for information to a meeting of the Executive Committee. The president hastily took the roll call and invited the witnesses to take the oath. An aged priest placed himself at a portable altar and spread out the instruments of his trade. But the witnesses did not budge. The president repeated his invitation.

“No, we’re not going to take any oath,” a few voices would reply together, “We don’t believe in all that.”

“But aren’t you members of the orthodox faith?”

“That’s what it says in the police books, but we don’t hold with that kind of thing.”

“In that case, Father, you may go, your services will not be wanted today.”

Apart from policemen, the only people who took the oath read by the orthodox priest were Lutheran and Catholic workers. The “orthodox” ones all refused to take the oath and merely undertook to tell the truth.

This procedure was repeated monotonously for every new group. Only sometimes did the heterogeneous composition of a group of witnesses introduce a new and unexpected element.

“Those taking the oath,” the president addressed a new group of witnesses, “go forward and face the priest. Those not taking the oath, stand back.”

A small, elderly gendarme detached himself from the group and marched smartly towards the portable altar. The workers, exchanging remarks and thumping heavily with their boots, retired by a few steps. Between them and the elderly gendarme remained the witness O., a well-known Petersburg lawyer, householder, liberal and member of the Duma.

“Are you taking the oath, witness O.?” asked the president.

“I ... I ... well, yes

“In that case, kindly step forward and face the priest.”

Hesitantly, his face contorted, the witness advanced towards the portable altar. He glanced back over his shoulder; there was no one behind him. In front of him stood the little old man in a gendarme’s uniform.

“Raise your hand!”

The old gendarme raised three fingers high above his head. O., the lawyer, slightly raised his hand, looked around once again and stopped.

“Witness O.,” the president asked in an irritated voice, “are you taking the oath or are you not?”

“Why yes, yes, of course.”

And the liberal witness, overcoming his scruples, raised his hand almost as high as the gendarme. Together with the gendarme he repeated the childish words of the oath after the priest. If a painter painted such a scene, no one would believe him! The profound social symbolism of this small courtroom event was felt by everyone. The working-class witnesses exchanged ironical glances with the accused, those from “respectable” society lowered their gaze in embarrassment. The jesuitical president was gloating openly. A tense silence fell upon the courtroom.

Another scene: the interrogation of Count Tiesenhausen, a member of the Petersburg duma. He had been present at that meeting of the Duma to which the Soviet’s deputation had submitted a number of demands.

“Mr. Witness,” asked defense counsel, “what was your personal attitude to the demand for the creation of an armed militia?”

“I consider the question irrelevant,” the Count replied.

“Counsel’s question is legitimate within the framework in which I am conducting the trial,” ruled the president.

“In that case I wish to say that at the time I was sympathetic to the idea of an armed militia, but since then I have completely changed my mind.”

Ah, how many of them had changed minds on that issue, and on many others, during the past year! The liberal press, while expressing “complete sympathy” with the accused personally, could not find strong enough words to dismiss their tactics. The radical newspapers, with regretful smiles, spoke of the Soviet’s “illusions.” Only the workers remained loyal without any reservations.

Many industrial plants presented their collective written testimony through individual witnesses called by the court. The accused insisted that such statements should be attached to the court file and read out during the hearings.

One such document, selected at random, states:

We the undersigned, workers at the Obukhov plant, convinced that the government intends the trial of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies to be a travesty of justice, and profoundly shocked by the government’s intention to represent the Soviet as a handful of conspirators pursuing aims alien to the working class, hereby declare that the Soviet is not composed of a handful of conspirators but of the true representatives of the entire Petersburg proletariat. We protest against the government’s unjust treatment of the Soviet and particularly against the charges made against our comrades, who merely fulfilled our demands within the Soviet; and we declare to the government that if our comrade, P.A. Zlydnev, whom we all respect, is guilty, then we are guilty likewise, to which we testify with our signatures.

The resolution was accompanied by several sheets of paper covered with more than 2,000 signatures. The papers were dirty and crumpled; they had been passed from hand to hand in all the workshops of the plant. The Obukhov resolution was by no means the most sharply worded. There were some which the president refused to render publicly because of their “extremely improper” tone in respect to the government and the court.

The signatures attached to these resolutions totaled tens of thousands. The testimony of witnesses, many of whom, on leaving the courtroom, fell directly into the hands of the police, supplied an excellent commentary to these documents. The conspirators whom the prosecutor’s office was so determined to find were completely swallowed up by the heroic and nameless mass. In the end, the prosecutor, who carried out his shameful role while maintaining the standards of outwardly correct behavior, was obliged to admit two facts in his accusatory speech: first, that at a certain level of political development the proletariat tends to “gravitate” towards socialism and, second, that the mood of the working masses during the period of the Soviet’s activities had been revolutionary.

There was another important position which the prosecution was forced to surrender. “Preparing armed insurrection” was, of course, the hub of the entire trial.

“Did the Soviet call for armed insurrection?”

“As a matter of fact, it didn't,” the witnesses replied. “All the Soviet did was to formulate everybody’s conviction that an armed rising was inevitable.”

“The Soviet called for a Constituent Assembly. Who was to establish it?”

“The people itself!”


“By force, of course. You don’t get anywhere by persuasion.”

“So the Soviet did arm the workers for insurrection?”

“No, for self-defense.”

The president shrugged his shoulders ironically. But in the end the testimony of witnesses and accused forced the court to accept this “contradiction.” The workers had armed themselves directly for the purpose of self-defense. But their action had, at the same time, been taken for the purpose of insurrection – to the extent that the state power had become the chief instigator of the pogroms. It was to this question that the author devoted his speech before the court. [4]

The trial reached its climax when the defense put before the court the “Lopukhin Letter” which was to become so celebrated.

The accused and their defense counsel said:

Gentlemen of the court! You seem to disbelieve our claim that the organs of state power played a leading role in preparing and organizing pogroms. Perhaps the evidence produced by witnesses in this trial is not sufficient to convince you. Perhaps you have already forgotten the revelations made by Prince Urusov, former Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, in the State Duma. Perhaps you were convinced by General Ivanov of the gendarmerie who told you under oath that the talk of pogroms was a mere pretext for arming the masses. Perhaps you believed the witness Statkovsky, an official of the secret police, who declared under oath that he had not seen a single pogrom proclamation in Petersburg. Then look at this! Here is a certified copy of a letter from Lopukhin, the former director of the police department, to Stolypin, the Minister of Internal Affairs. [5] On the basis of investigations he carried out personally on Count Witte’s special instructions, Mr. Lopukhin states that pogrom proclamations, which Witness Statkovsky alleges never to have seen, were actually printed at the print-works of the secret police, where Statkovsky is employed; that these proclamations were distributed all over Russia by secret police agents and members of the monarchist parties; that close organizational links exist between the department of police and the Black Hundreds gangs; that General Trepov who, at the time of the Soviet, headed this criminal organization and who, in his capacity as palace commandant, possessed enormous power, reported personally to the Tsar on the activities of the police and disposed of immense state funds, outside any ministerial control, for the express purpose of organizing pogroms.

And another fact, gentlemen of the court! Numerous Black Hundreds leaflets – you have them on the preliminary investigation file! – accused the members of the Soviet of appropriating money belonging to the workers. On the strength of the information contained in these leaflets, the gendarmerie general Ivanov conducted a special investigation (which of course yielded no results) at a number of Petersburg factories and plants. We revolutionaries are accustomed to the authorities’ use of such methods. But even we, though far from idealizing the gendarmerie, did not realize how far that service was prepared to go. It now transpires that the proclamations which accused the Soviet of appropriating the workers’ funds were composed and secretly printed by the self-same gendarmerie to which General Ivanov belongs. This fact is likewise attested by Mr. Lopukhin. Gentlemen of the court! Here is a copy of the letter duly signed by its author. We demand that this valuable document be read out in its entirety before the court. We demand, in addition, that Active State Councillor Lopukhin be called as a witness to testify at this trial.

The declaration produced the effect of a thunderbolt. The trial was drawing to a close and the president was beginning to feel that, after a rough crossing, he had almost reached a quiet haven, when suddenly he was hurled back into the raging sea.

Lopukhin’s letter hinted at the nature of the mysterious reports which Trepov had submitted to the Tsar. Who could tell how the former police chief, who had now turned his back on his policeman’s past, would develop these hints under cross-examination by the accused? The court, in holy dread, retreated before the possibility of further revelations. After prolonged debate it refused to take cognizance of the letter or to call Lopukhin as a witness.

The accused then declared that there was nothing further for them to do in the courtroom and categorically insisted on being returned to solitary confinement.

We were removed from the courtroom and our defense counsel withdrew at the same time. In the absence of the accused, the defense and the general public, the prosecutor pronounced his dry and “correct” accusatory speech. In an almost empty courtroom the Chamber pronounced its verdict. The Soviet was found not guilty of supplying arms to the workers for the purpose of insurrection. Fifteen of the accused, including the author of these lines, were nevertheless condemned to loss of all civil rights and lifelong exile to Siberia. Two received short prison sentences. The rest were acquitted.

The trial of the Soviet of Deputies made a tremendous impression upon the country. It can be said with confidence that the social-democratic party owed much of its enormous success in the elections to the second Duma to the agitational effect of this trial of the Petersburg proletariat’s revolutionary parliament.

The trial gave rise to an episode which deserves to be mentioned here.

On November 2, the day on which the verdict was made public in its final form, a letter from Count Witte, who had just returned from abroad, was published in Novoye Vremya. In this letter the Count, defending himself against the attacks of the right-wing bureaucracy, not only declined the honor of being the chief instigator of the Russian revolution – wherein he was not too far wrong – but also absolutely denied having had any personal dealings with the Soviet. He confidently dismissed the evidence of witnesses and defendants in the trial as “invented for purposes of the defense,” evidently not expecting any refutation from behind prison walls. But he was mistaken.

Here is the text of a collective reply from the defendants, published by us in the newspaper Tovarishch on November 5:

We are too clearly aware of the difference between our political physiognomy and Count Witte’s to explain to the former Prime Minister the motives which oblige us, the representatives of the proletariat, to speak the truth at every stage of our political activity. But we do not think it out of place to refer to the public prosecutor speech. This professional accuser, paid official of a government which is intrinsically hostile to us, admitted that our statements and speeches had given him all the materials he needed for the prosecution – the prosecution, not the defense! – and described our testimony before the court as truthful and sincere.

Truthfulness and sincerity are qualities which not only his political enemies, but even his professional admirers have never ascribed to Count Witte.

The collective answer then produced documentary evidence to show the rashness of Count Witte’s denials [6] and ended with this summing up of the trial:

Whatever the aims and motives of Count Witte’s denial, and however incautious it may seem, its publication has been most timely. It is the final brushstroke to complete the picture of that state power with which the Soviet was confronted. We wish to take the liberty of discussing that picture in a few lines.

Count Witte emphasizes the fact that it was he who placed us in the hands of justice. The date of that historic feat, as we already state above, was December 3, 1905. After that we passed through the hands of the secret police, then of the gendarmerie, and finally we came before the court. Two officials of the secret police department appeared as witnesses in the trial. To the question of whether a pogrom was being prepared in Petersburg in the autumn of last year they replied with a most resolute “No!” adding that they had not seen a single leaflet calling for pogroms. Yet Active State Councillor Lopukhin, former director of the department of police, testifies that pogrom proclamations were printed at that time, precisely, by the secret police administration. So much for the first stage of the “justice” in whose hands Count Witte placed us.

Further, gendarmerie officers who had conducted the investigation into the Soviet’s case also appeared before the court. According to their own testimony, their investigation into the matter of the Soviet’s alleged appropriation of certain moneys was based on anonymous Black Hundreds leaflets, which the public prosecutor described as “lying and slanderous.” What do we find? Active State Councillor Lopukhin affirms that these lying and slanderous leaflets were printed in the self-same gendarmerie department which conducted the investigation into the Soviet’s case. So much for the second stage of justice.

And when, ten months later, we found ourselves facing the court, we were permitted to say all the things which, in broad outline, had been known before the trial began; but as soon as we made an attempt to show and prove that, at the time of the Soviet’s activities, there was no state power properly speaking; that its most active organs had become transformed into counter-revolutionary associations which flouted not only the written laws but all laws of human morality; that government officials holding the most confidential posts formed a centralized organization for all-Russian pogroms; that the Soviet of Deputies was, in substance, carrying out tasks of national defense – when, in order to show and prove these facts, we asked that Lopukhin’s letter, which had been rendered public thanks to our trial, be placed on the court file and, more especially, that Lopukhin himself be cross-examined as a witness, the court, in defiance of the demands of justice, stretched out its powerful hand and closed our lips. Such was the third stage of justice.

And, last of all, when the affair is at an end, when the verdict has been pronounced, Count Witte arrives upon the scene with an attempt to blacken his political adversaries whom, apparently, he regards as finally vanquished. Just as positively as those secret police officials who stated that they never saw a pogrom leaflet, Count Witte asserts that he never had any dealings with the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. Just as positively – and just as truthfully!

We look back calmly upon these four stages of official justice through which we have passed. The representatives of power have deprived us of “all rights” and are sending us into exile. But they cannot deprive us of the right to the confidence of the proletariat and of all our honorable fellow citizens. The last word in our case, as in every other question of our national life, will be spoken by the people. With full confidence we appeal to the people’s conscience.

4 November 1906
House of Preliminary Confinement



1. Seven persons: four crown judges; Count Gudovich, representative of the nobility of Petersburg district; Troynitsky, representative of the Petersburg duma, a former provincial governor sacked from the service for embezzlement, a member of the Black Hundreds; and, lastly, a representative of one of the administrative subdistricts of Petersburg province, if I remember rightly a “progressive.”

2. See chapter entitled The Soviet and the Prosecution, below.

3. Many witnesses at the time of the trial were “of unknown address” or in Siberia.

4. The text of the speech, transcribed from the shorthand record as yet unpublished in Russia, is reproduced below.

5. Stolypin was Minister of Internal Affairs in Goremykin’s cabinet.

6. Witte was obliged to admit that he had had contacts with the Soviet, but he “explained” that he had chosen to see the Soviet’s deputations simply as “workers’ representatives.”

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Last updated on: 27.11.2006