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John Newsinger


Close up on revolution

(May 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa
Robert Weinberg
Indiana University Press £25.00

In 1905 Odessa was Russia’s largest port and fourth largest city –a commercial, trading and manufacturing centre with a population of some 500,000 people. Over a quarter of the city’s inhabitants were Jews, the great majority of them working class, many casual labourers living in great poverty. About half of the city’s dockers were Jews.

Socialist activity had begun in Odessa in the mid-1880s but the various socialist organisations – Bolshevik, Menshevik and the Jewish Bund – all had difficulty rooting themselves in the working class. The labour movement in the city was dominated by the 25,000 engineering workers. Unrest and discontent were widespread but none of the socialist organisations was strong enough to give a decisive lead.

The Bloody Sunday massacre in St Petersburg on 9 January 1905 precipitated strikes and street clashes throughout much of Russia but not in Odessa. Here there was no spontaneous eruption, but instead a gradual build up of anger and militancy.

Growing numbers of workers became involved in strikes on economic issues, but it was to be the authorities’ refusal to allow a general assembly of the city’s workers, what would in effect have been a soviet, that became the issue around which the working class united.

By May, the city was in the grip of a strike wave that saw many workers walking out without even making any demands. The authorities at last resorted to repression. On 8 June worker representatives were invited to discuss the situation with the authorities and were promptly imprisoned. The next few days saw more arrests. Then on 13 June troops opened fire on a mass picket outside the Henn engineering factory, one of the best organised and most militant in the city. Dozens of workers were killed or wounded.

This shooting provoked an explosion of anger. Thousands of workers took to the streets and large crowds, sometimes 2,000 strong, fought with the police and occupied the municipal gas and electricity stations. By the next day barricades had been erected throughout working class districts and the police had been driven off the streets. This outbreak took the socialists, including the Bolsheviks, by surprise.

On 15 June the battleship Potemkin arrived in the port. Mutineers had taken over the vessel. Huge crowds of workers assembled on the docks to welcome them. The scene was set for a successful revolutionary attempt. The sailors could have provided armed backing for a workers’ takeover of the city. But it was not to be. There was no political leadership to bring workers and sailors together. Instead it was the army that acted. As evening approached, troops cordoned off the docks and then opened fire on the crowds. Much of the dock area was set on fire and in the confusion perhaps as many as 1,000 people were either burned or shot to death. This horrific massacre broke the movement for the time being. The city was occupied by 20,000 troops and the Potemkin sailed for asylum in Romania.

But while the workers’ movement had been defeated, it had not been destroyed. In early October Russia was once against gripped by a strike wave that reached Odessa. The city was paralysed by a general strike.

The authorities tried a new tactic. Right wing agitators, many of them policemen, set about stirring up anti-Semitism, exploiting the tensions caused by the competition for work between Russian and Jewish casual labourers.

On 18 October large crowds, often led by police and soldiers, carried out a savage pogrom that was to last for five days.

Even this disaster did not destroy the Odessa workers’ movement. Indeed, the pogrom stirred the socialists to greater efforts so as to prevent its recurrence. At the end of November a soviet was established and an uneasy situation of dual power prevailed in the city. The soviet campaigned against any fresh attempt at unleashing a pogrom.

In early December the Tsarist regime began its final crackdown on the revolutionary movement. On 7 December a general strike was called in Moscow and quickly spread throughout the empire. The Odessa soviet called a general strike, effectively closing the city down. Following the armed suppression of the Moscow workers, on 18 December the Odessa soviet called the strike off. The movement was in retreat. Early in January 1906 the soviet was banned and its leaders were arrested.

Weinberg has provided an outstanding account of events in Odessa, an account that gets right down to street and factory gate level. He has written a tremendous history of class struggle in a multi-ethnic city where the authorities made full use of both force and racism in their attempts to defeat the workers’ movement.

The only weakness is in his discussion of the role of the various socialist parties. He celebrates working class spontaneity but does not recognise the role that socialist politics could have played in avoiding the June defeat and the October pogrom. Nevertheless a superb book.

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