In 1902 Georgi Gapon became a priest in St. Petersburg where he showed considerable concern for the welfare of the poor. He soon developed a large following, "a handsome, bearded man, with a rich baritone voice, had oratorical gifts to a spell-binding degree". The workers in St Petersburg had plenty to complain about. It was a time of great suffering for those on low incomes. About 40 per cent of houses had no running water or sewage. The Russian industrial employee worked on average an 11 hour day (10 hours on Saturday). Conditions in the factories were extremely harsh and little concern was shown for the workers' health and safety. Attempts by workers to form trade unions were resisted by the factory owners. In 1902 the army was called out 365 times to deal with unrest among workers.
On 11th April 1904, Father Gapon formed the Assembly of Russian Workers of St Petersburg. Its aims were to affirm "national consciousness" amongst the workers, develop "sensible views" regarding their rights and foster amongst the members of the union "activity facilitating the legal improvements of the workers' conditions of work and living". By the end of the year the Assembly had cells in most of the larger factories, including a particularly strong contingent at the Putilov works. The overall membership has been variously estimated between 2,000 and 8,000. Whatever the true figure, the strength of the Assembly and of its sympathizers exceeded by far that of the political parties. For example, in St Petersburg at this time, the local Menshevik and Bolshevik groups could muster no more than 300 members each.
1904 was a bad year for Russian workers. Prices of essential goods rose so quickly that real wages declined by 20 per cent. When four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works in December, Gapon tried to intercede for the men who lost their jobs. This included talks with the factory owners and the governor-general of St Petersburg. When this failed, Gapon called for his members in the Putilov Iron Works to come out on strike.
The strike spread to other factories. By the 8th January over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg were on strike. Gapon drew up a petition that he intended to present a message to Nicholas II. Over 150,000 people signed the document and on 22nd January, 1905, Father Georgi Gapon led a large procession of workers to the Winter Palace in order to present the petition. The loyal character of the demonstration was stressed by the many church icons and portraits of the Tsar carried by the demonstrators.
The people believe in thee. They have made up their minds to gather at the Winter Palace tomorrow at 2 p.m. to lay their needs before thee. Do not fear anything. Stand tomorrow before the party and accept our humblest petition. I, the representative of the workingmen, and my comrades, guarantee the inviolability of thy person.
We workers, our children, our wives and our old, helpless parents have come, Lord, to seek truth and protection from you. We are impoverished and oppressed, unbearable work is imposed on us, we are despised and not recognized as human beings. We are treated as slaves, who must bear their fate and be silent. We have suffered terrible things, but we are pressed ever deeper into the abyss of poverty, ignorance and lack of rights.
(1) An 8-hour day and freedom to organize trade unions.
(2) Improved working conditions, free medical aid, higher wages for women workers.
(3) Elections to be held for a constituent assembly by universal, equal and secret suffrage.
(4) Freedom of speech, press, association and religion.
(5) An end to the war with Japan.
There was much activity and many reports. Fredericks came to lunch. Went for a long walk. Since yesterday all the factories and workshops in St. Petersburg have been on strike. Troops have been brought in from the surroundings to strengthen the garrison. The workers have conducted themselves calmly hitherto. Their number is estimated at 120,000. At the head of the workers' union some priest - socialist Gapon. Mirsky came in the evening with a report of the measures taken.
The procession moved in a compact mass. In front of me were my two bodyguards and a yellow fellow with dark eyes from whose face his hard labouring life had not wiped away the light of youthful gaiety. On the flanks of the crowd ran the children. Some of the women insisted on walking in the first rows, in order, as they said, to protect me with their bodies, and force had to be used to remove them.
Suddenly the company of Cossacks galloped rapidly towards us with drawn swords. So, then, it was to be a massacre after all! There was no time for consideration, for making plans, or giving orders. A cry of alarm arose as the Cossacks came down upon us. Our front ranks broke before them, opening to right and left, and down the lane the soldiers drove their horses, striking on both sides. I saw the swords lifted and falling, the men, women and children dropping to the earth like logs of wood, while moans, curses and shouts filled the air.
Again we started forward, with solemn resolution and rising rage in our hearts. The Cossacks turned their horses and began to cut their way through the crowd from the rear. They passed through the whole column and galloped back towards the Narva Gate, where - the infantry having opened their ranks and let them through - they again formed lines.
We were not more than thirty yards from the soldiers, being separated from them only by the bridge over the Tarakanovskii Canal, which here masks the border of the city, when suddenly, without any warning and without a moment's delay, was heard the dry crack of many rifle-shots. Vasiliev, with whom I was walking hand in hand, suddenly left hold of my arm and sank upon the snow. One of the workmen who carried the banners fell also. Immediately one of the two police officers shouted out "What are you doing? How dare you fire upon the portrait of the Tsar?"
An old man named Lavrentiev, who was carrying the Tsar's portrait, had been one of the first victims. Another old man caught the portrait as it fell from his hands and carried it till he too was killed by the next volley. With his last gasp the old man said "I may die, but I will see the Tsar".
Both the blacksmiths who had guarded me were killed, as well as all these who were carrying the ikons and banners; and all these emblems now lay scattered on the snow. The soldiers were actually shooting into the courtyards at the adjoining houses, where the crowd tried to find refuge and, as I learned afterwards, bullets even struck persons inside, through the windows.
At last the firing ceased. I stood up with a few others who remained uninjured and looked down at the bodies that lay prostrate around me. Horror crept into my heart. The thought flashed through my mind, And this is the work of our Little Father, the Tsar". Perhaps the anger saved me, for now I knew in very truth that a new chapter was opened in the book of history of our people.
Bloody Sunday, 1905, found me in the street. I was going with the demonstrators to the Winter Palace, and the picture of the massacre of unarmed, working folk is for ever imprinted on my memory. The unusual bright January sunshine, trusting, expectant faces, the fateful signal from the troops drawn up round the palace, pools of blood on the white snow, the whips, the whooping of the gendarmes, the dead, the injured, children shot.
A painful day. There have been serious disorders in St. Petersburg because workmen wanted to come up to the Winter Palace. Troops had to open fire in several places in the city; there were many killed and wounded. God, how painful and sad.
Gapon's organization was based on a representation of one person for every thousand workers. He planned a peaceful demonstration in the form of a march to the Winter Palace, carrying church banners and singing religious and national songs. Owing to the idiocy of the military authorities, the crowd was met with rifle fire both at the outskirts of the city and the palace square. The actual victims, as certified by a public commission of lawyers of the Opposition, was approximately 150 killed and 200 wounded; and as all who had taken a leading part in the procession were then expelled from the capital, the news was circulated all over the Empire.
On Sunday, January 22nd 1905 and orderly crowd of workers and their families marched through the streets of St. Petersburg carrying religious banners and pictures of the Tsar and the Tsarina. Their purpose was to present a petition to Nicholas asking for improvements in their working conditions. The Tsar had already left the Winter Palace in the city centre for one of his country residences. When troops and police tried to halt the march, disorder broke out and the troops opened fire. Many people were killed and injured, though the leader of the demonstration, an Orthodox priest named Father Gapon escaped.
Questions for Students
Question 1: What do sources 2 and 3 tell us about the Russian people's attitude towards the Tsar?
Question 2: Study source 5. Select those demands that were (a) economic and (b) political.
Question 3: What kind of questions would the historian need to ask of source 4.
Question 4: Select passages from sources 7 and 8 to support the views expressed in sources 10 and 11.
A commentary on these questions can be found here.