Kropotkin: The 1905 Revolution in Russia, Parts Three & Four

Peter Kropotkin

Here are the third and fourth installments of Kropotkin‘s essay on the 1905 Russian Revolution. In Part Three, Kropotkin discusses how the 1905 Russian Revolution spread throughout the Russian empire among all the oppressed groups and classes, only to be met by severe state repression. Part Four, perhaps the most interesting part of the essay, shows how the tide again began to turn in favour of the rebels when workers renewed their involvement in the revolutionary movement in October 1905, leading to a country-wide general strike.

For Kropotkin and other anarchists, the October General Strike showed that the general strike advocated by anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists, but dismissed by Marxists as “general nonsense,” really was an effective “new weapon” in the revolutionary arsenal, “more terrible than street warfare,” which had now “been tested and proved to work admirably.” Also important for Kropotkin was how the general strike spread across the country largely spontaneously, being “entirely a workingmen’s affair,” rather than the work of organized revolutionary parties. For anarchists, the 1905 Russian Revolution was a vivid illustration of the kind of far-reaching social revolution, from the bottom up, that they had been advocating since the inception of revolutionary anarchist movements in the late 1860s.

Odessa Protest Against the Tsar October 1905

The 1905 Russian Revolution, Part Three

The peasants uprising alone, spreading over wide territories, rolling like waves which flood today one part of the country and tomorrow another, would have been sufficient to entirely upset the usual course of affairs in Russia. But when the peasant insurrection is combined with a general awakening of the workingmen in towns, who refuse to remain in the old servile conditions; when all the educated classes enter into an open revolt against the old system; and when important portions of the empire, such as Finland, Poland, and the Caucasus, strive for complete home rule, while other portions, such as Siberia, the Baltic provinces, and Little Russia, and in fact every province, claim autonomy and want to be freed from the St. Petersburg bureaucrats—then it becomes evident that the time has come for a deep, complete revision of all the institutions. Every reasoning observer, everyone who has learned something in his life about the psychology of nations, would conclude that if any concessions are to be made to the new spirit of the time, they must be made with an open mind, in a straightforward way, with a deep sense of responsibility for what is done—not as a concession enforced by the conditions of a given moment, but as a quite conscious reasoned move, dictated by a comprehension of the historical phase which the country is going through.

Repression in Russia 1905

Unfortunately, nothing of that consciousness and sense of responsibility is seen among those who have been the rulers of Russia during the last twelve months. I have told in my memoirs how certain moderate concessions, if they had been granted towards the end of the reign of Alexander II or at the advent of his son, would have been hailed with enthusiasm and would have paved the way for the gradual and slow passage from absolutism to representative government. Even in 1895, when Nicholas II had become emperor, it was not too late for such concessions. But it was also evident to everyone who was not blinded by that artificial atmosphere of bureaucracy created in all capitals, that ten years later—that is, in November last [1904]—such half-hearted concessions as a “Consultative Assembly” were already out of the question. The events of the last ten years, with which the readers of this review are familiar—the students’ affair of 1901, the rule of Plehve, and so on, to say nothing of the abominable blunders of the [Russo-Japanese] war—had already created too deep a chasm between Russia and Nicholas II. The January massacres widened that chasm still more. Therefore only an open recognition of the right of the nation to frame its own constitution, and a complete honest amnesty, granted as a pledge of good faith, could have spared Russia all the bloodshed of the last ten months. Every intelligent statesman would have understood it. But the cynical courtier, Bulygin, whom Nicholas II and his mother considered a statesman, and to whom they had pinned their faith, was not the man to do so. His only policy was to win time, in the hope that something might turn the scales in favour of his masters.

Alexander Bulygin

Consequently, vague promises were made in December 1904, and next in March 1905, but in the meantime the most reckless repression was resorted to—not very openly, I must say, but under cover, according to the methods of Plehve’s policy. Death sentences were distributed by the dozen during the last summer. The worst forms of police autocracy, which characterized the rule of Plehve, were revived in a form even more exasperating than before, because governors-general assumed now the rights which formerly were vested in the minister of the interior. Thus, to give one instance, the governor-general of Odessa exiled men by the dozen by his own will, including the old ex-dean of the Odessa University, Professor Yaroshenko, whom he ordered (on July 26) to be transported to Vologda! And this went on at a time when all Russia began to take fire, and lived through such a series of events as the uprising of the Musulmans, and the massacres at Baku and Nakhichevan; the uprising at Odessa, during which all the buildings in the port were burned;

The Potemkin Mutiny

the mutiny on the ironclad Kniaz Potemkin; the second series of strikes in Poland, again followed by massacres at Lodz, Warsaw, and all other chief industrial centers; a series of uprisings at Riga, culminating in the great street battles of July 28—to say nothing of a regular, uninterrupted succession of minor agrarian revolts. All Russia had thus to be set into open revolt, blood had to run freely in the streets of all the large cities, simply because the tsar did not want to pronounce the word which would put an end to his sham autocracy and to the autocracy of his camarilla. Only towards the end of the summer could he be induced to make some concessions which at last took the shape of a convocation of a state’s Duma, announced in the manifesto of August 19 [1905].

Part Four

Nicholas II

General stupefaction and disdain are the only words to express the impression produced by this manifesto. To begin with, it was evident to anyone who knew something of human psychology that no assembly elected to represent the people could be maintained as a merely consultative body, with no legislative powers. To impose such a limitation was to create the very conditions for producing the bitterest conflicts between the crown and the nation. To imagine that the Duma, if it ever could come into existence in the form under which it was conceived by the advisers of Nicholas II, would limit itself to the functions of a mere consulting board, that it would express its wishes in the form of mere advices, but not in the form of laws, and that it would not defend these laws as such, was absurd on the very face of it. Therefore the concession was considered as a mere desire to bluff, to win time. It was received as a new proof of the insincerity of Nicholas II.

But in proportion as the real sense of the Bulygin “Constitution” was discovered, it became more and more evident that such a Duma would never come together; never would the Russians be induced to perform the farce of the Duma elections under the Bulygin system. It appeared that under this system the city of St. Petersburg, with its population of nearly 1,500,000 and its immense wealth, would have only about 7,000 electors, and that large cities having from 200,000 to 700,000 inhabitants would have an electoral body composed of but a couple of thousand, or even a few hundred electors; while the 90,000,000 peasants would be boiled down, after several successive elections, to a few thousand men electing a few deputies. As to the nearly 4,ooo,ooo Russian workingmen, they were totally excluded from any participation in the political life of the country. It was evident that only fanatics of electioneering could be induced to find interest in so senseless a waste of time as an electoral campaign under such conditions. Moreover, as the press continued to be gagged, the state of siege was maintained, and the governors of the different provinces continued to rule as absolute satraps, exiling whom they disliked, public opinion in Russia gradually came to the idea that, whatever some moderate zemstvoists might say in favour of a compromise, the Duma would never come together.

Then it was that the workingmen again threw the weight of their will into the contest and gave quite a new turn to the movement. A strike of bakers broke out at Moscow in October last, and they were joined in their strike by the printers. This was not the work of any revolutionary organization. It was entirely a workingmen’s affair, but suddenly what was meant to be a simple demonstration of economic discontent grew up, invaded all trades, spread to St. Petersburg, then all over Russia, and took the character of such an imposing revolutionary demonstration that the autocracy had to capitulate before it.

Kharkiv strike meeting

When the strike of the bakers began, troops were, as a matter of course, called out to suppress it. But this time the Moscow workingmen had had enough of massacres. They offered an armed resistance to the Cossacks. Some three hundred men barricaded themselves in a garret, and a regular fight between the besieged workingmen and the besieging Cossacks followed. The latter took, of course, the upper hand, and butchered the besieged, but then all the Moscow workingmen joined hands with the strikers. A general strike was declared. “Nonsense! A general strike is impossible!” the fools said, even then. But the workingmen set earnestly to stop all work in the great city, and fully succeeded. In a few days the strike became general. What the workingmen must have suffered during these two or three weeks, when all work was suspended and provisions became extremely scarce, one can easily imagine; but they held out.

Moscow had no bread, no meat coming in, no light in the streets. All traffic on the railways had been stopped, and the mountains of provisions which, in the usual course of life, reach the great city every day, were lying rotting along the railway lines. No newspapers except the proclamation of the strike committees appeared. Thousands upon thousands of passengers who had come to that great railway center which Moscow is could not move any further, and were camping at the railway stations. Tons and tons of letters accumulated at the post offices, and had to be stored in special storehouses. But the strike, far from abating, was spreading all over Russia.

Once the heart of Russia, Moscow, had struck, all the other towns followed. St. Petersburg soon joined the strike, and the workingmen displayed the most admirable organizing capacities. Then, gradually, the enthusiasm and devotion of the poorest class of society won over the other classes. The shop assistants, the clerks, the teachers, the employees at the banks, the actors, the lawyers, the chemists, even the judges gradually joined the strikers. A whole country had struck against its government, all but the troops; but even from the troops separate officers and soldiers came to take part in the strike meetings, and one saw uniforms in the crowds of peaceful demonstrators who managed to display a wonderful skill in avoiding all conflict with the army.

The 1905 Revolution in Russia

In a few days the strike had spread over all the main cities of the empire, including Poland and Finland. Moscow had no water, Warsaw no fuel; provisions ran short everywhere; the cities, great and small, remained plunged in complete darkness. No smoking factories, no railways running, no tramways, no stock exchange, no banking, no theatres, no law courts, no schools. In many places the restaurants, too, were closed, the waiters having left, or else the workers compelled the owners to extinguish all lights after seven o’clock. In Finland even the house servants were not allowed to work before seven in the morning or after seven in the evening. All life in the towns had come to a standstill. And what exasperated the rulers most was that the workers offered no opportunity for shooting at them and re-establishing “order” by massacres. A new weapon, more terrible than street warfare, had thus been tested and proved to work admirably.

The panic in the tsar’s entourage had reached a high pitch. He himself in the meantime, was consulting in turn the conservatives (Ignat’ev, Goremykin, Sturmer, Stishinskii), who advised him to concede nothing, and Witte, who represented the liberal opinion. It is said that if he yielded to the advice of the latter, it was only when he saw that the conservatives refused to risk their reputations, and maybe their lives, in order to save the autocracy. He finally signed on October 30, a manifesto in which he declared that his “inflexible will” was:

(1)To grant the population the immutable foundations of civic liberty based on real inviolability of the person and freedom of conscience, speech, union, and association.

(2) Without deferring the elections to the state Duma already ordered, to call to participation in the Duma, as far as is possible in view of the shortness of the time before the Duma is to assemble, those classes of the population now completely deprived of electoral rights, leaving the ultimate development of the principle of the electoral right in general to the newly established legislative order of things.

(3) To establish it as an immutable rule that no law can come into force without the approval of the state Duma, and that it shall be possible for the elected of the people to exercise a real participation in the supervision of the legality of the acts of the authorities appointed by us.

On the same day Count Witte was nominated the head of a ministry, which he himself had to form, and the tsar approved by his signature a memorandum of the minister-president in which it was said that “straightforwardness and sincerity in the confirmation of civil liberty,” “a tendency towards the abolition of exclusive laws,” and “the avoidance of repressive measures in respect to proceedings which do not openly menace society and the state” must be binding for the guidance of the ministry. The government was also “to abstain from any interference in the elections to the Duma,” and “not resist its decisions as long as they are not inconsistent with the historic greatness of Russia.”

At the same time a general strike had also broken out in Finland. The whole population joined in supporting it with a striking unanimity; and as communication with St. Petersburg was interrupted, the wildest rumours about the revolution in the Russian capital circulated at Helsinki. Pressed by the Finnish population, the governor-general undertook to report to the tsar the absolute necessity for full concessions, and, the tsar agreeing with this demand, a manifesto was immediately issued, by which all repressive measures of the last few years, including the unfortunate manifesto of the year 1899, by which the Finnish Constitution had been violated, were rescinded, the Diet was convoked, and a complete return to the status quo ante Bobrikov was promulgated. What a pity for the future development of Russia that on this very same day an identical measure, establishing and convoking a Polish Diet at Warsaw, was not taken! How much bloodshed would have been saved! And how much safer the further development of Russia would have been, if Poland had then known that she would be able to develop her own life according to her own wishes!

Peter Kropotkin, November 1905

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