Kropotkin: The 1905 Revolution in Russia (Conclusion)

Peter Kropotkin

In Parts Five and Six of Kropotkin‘s essay, “The Revolution in Russia,” Kropotkin notes the hollowness of the reforms agreed to by the Russian autocracy in the face of the 1905 Russian Revolution, foreseeing that the “reforms” would ultimately prove unsuccessful in stemming the revolutionary tide, as similar measures had been during the French Revolution. Kropotkin was also quick to recognize the importance of the Workers’ Soviets, or Councils, that arose in St. Petersburg, and which were to play such an important role during the 1917 Russian Revolution. He illustrates the completely reactionary and counter-revolutionary role of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly in inciting massacres and pogroms by the Cossacks and the “black guards,” proto-fascist groups of thugs recruited by the counter-revolutionaries. He denounces the “race hatred” incited by the autocracy to justify pogroms against the Jews, inter-ethnic and religious conflict, and attacks on revolutionaries, an approach later imitated by the Nazis in Germany. Yet despite the counter-revolutionary violence and repression, Kropotkin was right that as a result of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the autocracy already lay “mortally wounded,” with other revolutionary victories to follow.

Russia October 1905

The 1905 Revolution in Russia, Part Five

Count Witte having been invested on October 30 with wide powers as minister-president, and the further march of events undoubtedly depending to a great extent upon the way in which he will use his extensive authority, the question, “What sort of man is Witte?” is now asked on all sides.

The present prime minister of Russia is often described as the Necker of the Russian revolution [a conservative politician during the French Revolution]; and it must be owned that the resemblance between the two statesmen lies not only in the situations which they occupy with regard to their respective monarchies. Like Necker, Witte is a successful financier, and he is also a “mercantilist”: he is an admirer of the great industries, and would like to see Russia a moneymaking country, with its Morgans and Rockefellers making colossal fortunes in Russia itself and in all sorts of Manchurias.

But he has also the limited political intelligence of Necker, and his views are not very different from those which the French minister expressed in his work Pouvoir Exécutif published in 1792. Witte’s ideal is a liberal, half absolute and half constitutional monarchy, of which he, Witte, would be the Bismarck, standing by the side of a weak monarch and sheltered from his whims by a docile middle-class parliament. In that parliament he would even accept a score of labour members—just enough to render inoffensive the most prominent labour agitators and to have the claims of labour expressed in a parliamentary way.

Count Witte

Witte is daring, he is intelligent, and he is possessed of an admirable capacity for work; but he will not be a great statesman because he scoffs at those who believe that in politics, as in everything else, complete honesty is the most successful policy. In the polemics which Herbert Spencer carried on some years ago in favour of “principles” in politics, Witte would have joined, I suppose, his opponents, and I am afraid he secretly worships the “almighty dollar policy” of Cecil Rhodes. In Russia he is thoroughly distrusted. It is very probable that people attribute to him more power over Nicholas II than he has in reality, and do not take sufficiently into account that Witte must continually be afraid of asking too much from his master, from fear that the master will turn his back on him and throw himself at the first opportunity into the hands of his reactionary advisers, whom he certainly understands and likes better than Witte.

But Witte, like his French prototype, has retained immensely the worship of bureaucracy and autocratic power, and distrust of the masses. With all his boldness he has not that boldness of doing things thoroughly, which is gained only by holding to certain fundamental principles. He prefers vague promises to definite acts, and therefore Russian society applies to him the saying: Timeo danaos et dona ferentes [beware of Greeks bearing gifts]. And if the refusal he has met with on behalf of all prominent liberals to collaborate with him has been caused by their complete disapproval of the policy which refuses home rule for Poland, there remains besides the widely spread suspicion that Witte is capable of going too far in the way of compromises with the palace party. At any rate, even the moderate zemstvoists could not agree—we learn now—with his policy of half measures, both as regards the popular representation, and even such a secondary question as the amnesty. He refused to accept universal suffrage and to grant a complete amnesty, upon which the zemstvo delegation was ordered to insist.

That “straightforwardness and sincerity in the confirmation of civil liberty” which—the prime minister wrote—had to be accepted as binding for the guidance of his ministry, surely are not yet seen. The state of siege not only continues to be maintained in many parts of Russia, but it has been spread over Poland; and as to the amnesty, its insincerity is such that it might be envied by Pobedonostsev. An honest amnesty is never couched in many words: it is expressed in four or five lines. But Witte’s amnesty is a long document written with an obvious intention of deceiving the reader as to its real tenor, and therefore it is full of references to numbers of articles of the code, instead of naming things by their proper names. Thousands of contests must arise, Russian lawyers say, out of this muddled document.

Schlusselburg Fortress

At any rate, one thing is evident. Those who were confined at Schlusselburg since 1881-1886—immured in secrecy would be the proper term—and whose barbarous treatment is known to the readers of this review, will not be liberated, according to the terms of the amnesty. They will have to be exiled as posselentsy (“criminal exiles”) for another four years to Siberia, probably to its most unhealthy parts, before they are allowed to enter Russia! This, after a twenty-four years’ cellular confinement, in absolute secrecy, without any communication whatever with the outer world! As to those who were driven to desperate action by the police rule of Plehve, they all must remain for ten to twelve years more in the Russian bastille of Schlusselburg; the amnesty does not apply to them. And as regards the exiles abroad, they are offered the right to obtain certificates of admission to Russia from the Russian state police!

All over the world, each time that a new departure has been made in general policy, an honest general amnesty was granted as a guarantee of good faith. Even that pledge was refused to Russia. And so it is all around. All that has hitherto been done are words, words, and words. And every one of these words can be crossed with a stroke of the pen, just as the promises of a constitution given by the Austrian emperor after the Vienna revolution of March 13, 1848 were cancelled a few months later, and the population of the capital was massacred as soon as its revolutionary spirit cooled down. Is it not the same policy that is coveted at Tsarskoe Selo? Unfortunately, the first step in the way of reaction has already been made by proclaiming the state of siege in Poland.

Part Six

Revolutionary Russia

The first victory of the Russian nation over autocracy was met with the wildest enthusiasm and jubilation. Crowds, composed of hundreds of thousands of men and women of all classes, all mixed together, and carrying countless red flags, moved about in the streets of the capitals, and the same enthusiasm rapidly spread to the provinces, down to the smallest towns. True that it was not jubilation only; the crowd also expressed three definite demands. For three days after the publication of the manifesto in which autocracy had abdicated its powers, no amnesty manifesto had yet appeared, and on November 3, in St. Petersburg, a crowd a hundred thousand men strong was going to storm the House of Detention, when, at ten in the evening, one of the Workmen’s Council of Delegates [Soviet] addressed them, declaring that Witte had just given his word of honour that a general amnesty would be granted that same night. The delegate therefore said: “Spare your blood for graver occasions. At eleven we shall have Witte’s reply, and if it is not satisfactory, then tomorrow at six you will all be informed as to how and where to meet in the streets for further action.” And the immense crowd—I hold these details from an eyewitness—slowly broke up and dispersed in silence, thus recognizing the new power—the labour delegates—which was born during the strike.

Two other important points, beside amnesty, had also to be cleared up. During the last few months the Cossacks had proved to be the most abominable instrument of reaction, always ready to whip, shoot, or bayonet unarmed crowds, for the mere fun of the sport and with a view to subsequent pillage. Besides, there was no guarantee whatever that at any moment the demonstrators would not be attacked and slaughtered by the troops. The people in the streets demanded therefore the withdrawal of the troops, and especially of the Cossacks, the abolition of the state of siege, and the creation of popular militias which would be placed under the management of the municipalities.

It is known how, first at Odessa and then all over Russia the jubilant crowds began to be attacked by bands, composed chiefly of butcher assistants, and partly of the poorest slum dwellers, sometimes armed, and very often under the leadership of policemen and police officials in plain clothes; how every attempt on behalf of the radical demonstrators to resist such attacks by means of revolver shots immediately provoked volleys of rifle fire from the Cossacks; how peaceful demonstrators were slaughtered by the soldiers after some isolated pistol shot—maybe a police signal—was fired from the crowd; and how finally at Odessa an organized pillage and the slaughter of men, women, and children in some of the poorest Jewish suburbs took place, while the troops fired at the improvised militia of students who tried to prevent the massacres or to put an end to them.

Cossack Troops

In Moscow, the editor of the Moscow Gazette, Gringmut, and part of the clergy, stimulated by a pastoral letter of Bishop Nikon, openly preached “to put down the intellectuals by force,” and improvised orators spoke from the platform in front of the Iberia Virgin, preaching the killing of the students. The result was that the university was besieged by crowds of the “defenders of order,” the students were fired at by the Cossacks, and for several nights in succession isolated students were assailed in the dark by the Moscow Gazette men, so that in one night twenty-one were killed or mortally wounded.

An inquest into the origin of these murders is now being made by volunteer lawyers; but this much can already be said. If race hatred has played an important part at Odessa and in other southern towns, no such cause can be alleged at Moscow, Tver (the burning of the house of the zemstvo), Tomsk, Nizhni Novgorod, and a great number of towns having a purely Russian population. And yet outbreaks having the same savage character took place in all these towns and cities at about the same time. An organizing hand is seen in them, and there is no doubt that this is the hand of the Monarchist party. It sent a deputation to Peterhof, headed by Prince Shcherbatov and Count Sheremetev, and after the deputation had been most sympathetically received by Nicholas II, they openly came forward in the Moscow Gazette and in the appeals of the bishops Nikon and Nikandr, calling upon their sympathizers to declare an open war on the radicals.

Of course it would be unwise to imagine that autocracy, and the autocratic habits which made a little tsar of every police official in his own sphere, would die out without showing resistance by all means, including murder. The Russian revolution will certainly have its Feuillants and its Muscadins. And this struggle will necessarily be complicated in Russia by race hatred. It has always been the policy of the Russian tsardom to stir national hatred, setting the Finns and the Karelian peasants against the Swedes in Finland, the Letts against the Germans in the Baltic provinces, the Polish peasants (partly Ukranian) against the Polish landlords, the Orthodox Russians against the Jews, the Musulmans [Muslims] against the Armenians, and so on. Then, for the last twenty years it has been a notable feature of the policy of Ignat’ev, and later on of Plehve, to provoke race wars with a view of checking socialist propaganda. And the police in Russia have always taken advantage of all such outbreaks for pilfering and plundering… Consequently, a few hints from above were enough—and several reactionary papers and two bishops went so far as to openly give such hints—to provoke the terrible massacres at Odessa and the smaller outbreaks elsewhere.

Such conflicts between the representatives of a dark past and the young forces representing the future will certainly continue for some time before the mighty floods raised by the storm of the revolution will subside. The revolution in England lasted from 1639 to 1655, that of France from 1788 till 1794, and both were followed by an unsettled period of some thirty years’ duration. So we cannot expect that the Russian revolution should accomplish its work in a few months only. One extremely important feature has, however, to be noted now. Up to the present moment, “bloodshed has come, not from the revolutionists, but from the defenders of absolutism.” It is estimated that more than twenty-five thousand persons have already been killed in Russia since January last. But all this mass of murders lies on the side of the defenders of autocracy.

The victory over absolutism which compelled it to abdicate was obtained by a strike, unique in the annals of history by its unanimity and the self-abnegation of the workers; but no blood was shed to win this first victory. The same is true of the villages. It may be taken as certain that the landlord ownership of the land has already sustained a blow which renders a return to the status quo ante in land ownership materially impossible. And this other victory—a very great one, in my opinion—is being obtained again without bloodshed on behalf of the revolting peasants. If blood is shed, it is shed by the troops called in for the defence of the monopoly in land—not by those who endeavour to get rid of it. As to the peasants, they have even pronounced themselves against retaliation.

St. Petersburg Soviet

Another prominent feature of the Russian revolution is the ascendency which labour has taken in it. It is not social democrats, or revolutionary socialists, or anarchists, who take the lead in the present revolution. It is labour—the workingmen. Already during the first general strike, the St. Petersburg workingmen had nominated 132 delegates, who constituted a “Council [Soviet] of the Union of Workingmen,” and these delegates had nominated an executive of eight members. Nobody knew their names or their addresses, but their advice was obeyed like orders. In the streets they appeared surrounded by fifty or sixty workingmen, armed, and linked together so as to allow no one to approach a delegate. Now, the workingmen of St. Petersburg have apparently extended their organization, and while their delegates confer with representatives of the revolutionary parties, they nevertheless retain their complete independence. Similar organizations most probably have sprung up at Moscow and elsewhere, and at this moment the workingmen of St. Petersburg are systematically arming themselves in order to resist the absolutist “black gangs.”

As to the powers of the labour organization, they are best seen from the fact that while the bureaucrat lawyers are still concocting some crooked press law, the workingmen have abolished preventive censorship in St. Petersburg by publishing a short-worded resolution in their clandestine daily, the Isvestia of the Council of Labour Delegates. “We declare,” they said, “that if the editor of any paper continues to send his sheet to the censor before issuing it, the paper will be confiscated by us in the streets, and the printers will be called out from the printing office (they will be supported by the strike committee). If the paper continues nevertheless to appear, the scabs will be boycotted by us, and the presses will be broken.” This is how preliminary censorship has ceased to exist in St. Petersburg. The old laws remain, but de facto the daily press is free.

Many years ago the general strike was advocated by the Latin workingmen as a weapon which would be irresistible in the hands of labour for imposing its will. The Russian revolution has demonstrated that they were right. Moreover, there is not the slightest doubt that if the general strike has been capable of forcing the centuries-old institution of autocracy to capitulate, it will be capable also of imposing the will of the labourers upon capital, and that the workingmen, with the common sense of which they have given such striking proof, will find also the means of solving the labour problem, so as to make industry the means not of personal enrichment but of satisfying the needs of the community.

That the Russian revolution will not limit itself to a mere reform of political institutions, but like the revolution of 1848, will make an attempt, at least, to solve the social problem, has always been my opinion. Half a century of socialist evolution in Europe cannot remain without influence upon the coming events. And the dominant position taken by labour in the present crisis seems to yield support to that foresight. How far the social change will go, and what concrete forms it will take, I would not undertake to predict without being on the spot, in the midst of the workers; but steps in that direction are sure to be made.

To say that Russia has begun her great revolution is no longer a metaphor or a prophecy; it is a fact. And one is amazed to discover how history repeats itself: not in the events, of course, but in the psychology of the opposed forces. The governing class, at any rate, has learned nothing. They remain incapable of understanding the real significance of events which are screened from their eyes by the artificiality of their surroundings. Where a timely yielding, a frank, open-minded recognition of the necessity of new forms of life would have spared the country torrents of blood, they make concessions at the last moment, always in a half-hearted way, and always with the secret intention of soon returning to the old forms. Why have they massacred at least twenty-five thousand men during these ten months, when they had to recognize in October what they refused to recognize last December?

Why do they continue repression and provoke new massacres, when “they will have to recognize in a few months hence universal suffrage as the basis of representative government in Russia, and the legislative autonomy of Poland as the best, the only possible means for keeping the two countries, Russia and Poland, firmly linked together,” just as they were compelled, after having set all the country on fire, to recognize that the honest recognition of Finland’s autonomy was the only means of maintaining her bonds with Russia. But no, they will not recognize what is evident to everyone as soon as he frees himself from the fools’ paradise atmosphere of the St. Petersburg bureaucracy. They will stir up the bitterest civil wars.

Happily enough, there is a more hopeful side to the Russian revolution. The two forces which hitherto have played the leading part in the revolution—namely, the workingmen in the towns, fraternizing with the younger “intellectuals,” and the peasants in the countryside—have displayed such a wonderful unanimity of action, even where it was not concerted beforehand, and such a reluctance for useless bloodshed, that we may be sure of their ultimate victory.

The troops have already been deeply impressed by the unanimity, the self-sacrifice, and the consciousness of their rights displayed by the workmen in their strikes; and now that the St. Petersburg workmen have begun to approach in a spirit of straightforward propaganda those who were enrolled in the “black gangs,” that other support of autocracy will probably soon be dissolved as well. The main danger lies now in that the statesmen, enamoured of “order” and instigated by timorous landlords, might resort to massacres for repressing the peasant rebellions, in which case retaliation would follow to an extent and with consequences which nobody could foretell.

The first year of the Russian revolution has already proved that there is in the Russian people that unity of thought without which no serious change in the political organization of the country would have been possible, and that capacity for united action which is the necessary condition of success. One may already be sure that the present movement will be victorious.

The years of disturbance will pass, and Russia will come out of them a new nation; a nation owning an unfathomed wealth of natural resources and capable of utilizing them; ready to seek the ways for utilizing them in the best interest of all; a nation averse to bloodshed, averse to war, and ready to march towards the higher goals of progress. One of her worst inheritances from a dark past, autocracy, lies already mortally wounded, and will not revive; and other victories will follow.

Peter Kropotkin, November 1905

The 1917 Russian Revolution

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  1. I especially appreciated the author’s remark about history repeating itself not so much in terms of actual events but in the psychology of those living out the responses to the events. Furthermore, I was happy to be reminded of the power of the general strike as a means to avoid the massacre of the already out-gunned.


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