On Sunday, 22 January 1905, (9 January Old Style) the workers of St Petersburg organised a peaceful demonstration to demand political and constitutional reform. 150,000 demonstrators, including whole families, led by an Orthodox priest, Father Georgi Gapon, marched through the city streets armed with a petition to be presented to the tsar, Nicholas II.
Although trade unions were banned, Father Gapon had been allowed to set up a workers’ assembly in 1904 under the supervision of the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, with whom he had ties. In early January 1905, after four assembly members were sacked from their jobs at the huge Putilov Plant in St Petersburg, Gapon called his workers out on strike. The strike spread and culminated with the march on the Winter Palace and the delivery of the petition.
God Save the Tsar
Penned by Father Gapon, the petition, signed by a staggering 135,000 people, called for a reduction in the working day from 11 to eight hours; the right to strike; the introduction of universal suffrage; and an end to Russia’s on-going and disastrous war with Japan.
Gapon and his legion of demonstrators were not anti-tsar – indeed, dressed in their Sunday best, they bore banners and portraits of the tsar, carried icons, and sung hymns and songs proclaiming their support for him, whom they affectionately called their ‘little father’. They believed that essentially, Nicholas II (cousin to Britain’s George V) was a good man who had their best interests at heart and that once he knew the extent of the workers’ discontent, he would put in place the means to address their grievances. The march was good-natured, with women and children leading the way. But, unbeknownst to the marchers, Nicholas II, forewarned of the demonstration, was not at the palace, but at his summer residence in the outskirts of the city.
‘Pools of blood on the white snow’
Near the Winter Palace the marchers found their way barred by thousands of armed troops (many had been drafted in especially from surrounding areas to bolster the city garrison). The troops fired a few warning shots, then fired directly into the dense crowd. Panic ensued; many were killed or wounded. Cossacks on horseback charged, galloping through the crowds, slashing at people with their sabres. Elsewhere canon was used against the helpless hordes. One eyewitness described the ‘pools of blood on the white snow, the whips, the whooping of the gendarmes, the dead, the injured, the children shot’.
Estimates vary, but nearly 200 people were killed, including children, and many more wounded.
‘God, how painful and sad’
Bloody Sunday, as the tragedy became to be known, was the moment the tsar lost the faith of the Russian people. Up to then, there had been economic hardship and discontent, the tsar ruled by autocracy and he had made use of the Okhrana. But, on the whole, he had the support of the masses. That Sunday, he may not have issued the fatal order to fire but the people held him responsible – and they felt betrayed.
In his diary that evening, the tsar wrote of the ‘serious disorders in St Petersburg’ concluding with the words, ‘God, how painful and sad’.
The massacre sparked the 1905 Russian Revolution. Workers and peasants no longer felt constrained by the law, and protest marches and strikes erupted throughout the empire. Soldiers returning from the war against Japan rebelled and in June, in the Black Sea port of Odessa, the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied. In cities and towns, workers formed councils or ‘soviets’. In October 1905, a general strike took place and finally, under pressure, the tsar was forced into offering a concession – the ‘October Manifesto’ in which he authorised the establishment of a parliament, the Duma.
It was just about enough to stem the tide of revolution; the government managed to maintain its authority and the tsar his autocratic power. But the Russian people did not forget nor forgive – Nicholas II had become a reviled figure, and distrusted for being too much under the influence of his German wife, the Empress Alexandra, and her soothsayer adviser, the mystic Grigory Rasputin.
In the course of a morning, the morning of Bloody Sunday, Nicholas II had lost the trust of his people and sown the seeds of his own downfall 12 years later.
Father Gapon (pictured) survived the massacre and on the night of Bloody Sunday, found refuge in the home of the writer, Maxim Gorky, where he wailed, ‘There is no God anymore; there is no tsar’.
Gapon escaped abroad, spending time with Russian émigrés in Geneva and London, and joining the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party. He returned to St Petersburg at the end of the year and resumed communication with the Okhrana. Once the Socialist Revolutionary Party discovered Gapon’s duplicity, they lured him to a house outside the city and there hanged him.