From Socialist Worker, No.1972, 15 October 2005.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The revolt in Russia 100 years ago shows how fast people’s ideas can change
What is it about a government that provokes a conservatively minded people to wholesale revolt?
Some 100 years ago, this question was settled for Lukeriya Bogdanova, a textile worker in the then Russian capital St Petersburg, by two events.
The first was a massacre. On Bloody Sunday, 9 January 1905, troops at several points in the city fired repeatedly into processions of workers hoping to present a reform petition to the Russian ruler Tsar Nicholas II at the Winter Palace.
Lukeriya had helped persuade the marchers to bring their children with them. She hid under a bridge with some other women workers until 3 a.m. Then she hurried home to reassure her family. She later recalled, “I was very agitated when I got back, but was off to work before seven.”
The second event was the cover-up. When she arrived at the mill, the workers, already “in a very stormy mood”, were asking for time off to look for their relatives.
“When some of them found the bodies of their relatives, they were told to come for them next day,” she relates. “But next day the dead weren’t there any more.” Because of this historians are uncertain about the final toll of victims. Perhaps the best estimate is 1,216 dead and over 5,000 wounded.
“After Bloody Sunday,” Lukeriya says pithily, “I stopped believing in god and the tsar.” She got involved in the socialist underground, producing leaflets and intervening in strikes. Her husband was what she called “very strict” and often beat her for this. “But,” she said, “of course, I didn’t take any notice of him, and I continued with the work”.
This could have been bravado after the fact. Except that Lukeriya, like most Russian women, had endured an extremely hard life.
In her factory, foremen habitually threw spanners at the women, gave them a maximum of 15 minutes to breast-feed in a dirty corridor, and insulted them when they went into labour.
Not everyone moved as far or as fast as Lukeriya Bogdanova. But the majority of workers surged in the same direction in wave after wave of mass strikes and risings throughout the year. With them came many peasants, at that time the majority of the population, and soldiers and sailors.
There was a characteristic pattern. The government would take a tough stand and then make a token concession.
After the first wave of unrest, it announced a toothless parliament in which towns and cities were hardly represented. After the second wave, it announced a revised version in which the vote of a landowner equalled the votes of 15 peasants and 45 workers.
This was what riled people enough to fight for real – if often temporary – concessions. They felt they were objects of contempt for an elite which was out of touch with them and had no real intention of changing.
Does that sound familiar? There are a lot of obvious differences between the political elite of imperial Russia and the political class in Britain today. But it’s interesting to note that the popular perception of them has something in common.
Oh, by the way, as shown in last week’s column, there was an unpopular war going on then too ...
Pete Glatter is the editor of the current special issue of the journal Revolutionary History on the 1905 revolution, which is based on Russian accounts never before translated into English. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £12.95. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com.
Go to the Revolutionary History website www.revolutionary-history.co.uk.
Last updated: 29.3.2008