Thursday, November 21, 2013

Russia in Revolt


     'Russia in Revolt: The First Crack in Tsarist Power' by David Floyd. Macdonald Library of the 20th Century, Macdonald and Co., London 1969

     Good old history light ! The Macdonald Library of the 20th Century is a series of brief books about outstanding events, personalities and trends in that century. The series ranges through the alphabet from 'The Anarchists' to 'Woodrow Wilson'. All are heavy on pictures and light on text, each one readable in one day. Despite their brevity they can be very useful introductions.

     This volume examines the events of 1905 and 1906 in Russia, the "rehearsal" for the Revolution of 1917. It begins with a backgrounder on the personality (or lack thereof) of the Tsar, Nicholas II, who came to the throne in 1894. He was supremely arrogant despite lacking anything to be arrogant about. His lack of sense and disconnection from his people was exemplified by his handling of events during his coronation in Moscow in 1896. Close to 2,000 people were trampled in a stampede due to poor crowd control. The coronation went on as if nothing had happened, and it was followed by a gay evening party at the French Embassy.

     Count Sergei Witte, later Minister of Finance and then Prime Minister, remarked acidly on the events of that day and on how Nicholas was the tool of a series of disastrous advisers;

     "His Majesty would not tolerate about his person anyone he considered more intelligent than himself or anyone with opinions different from those of his advisers"

     Witte was called upon to pull Nicholas' chestnuts out of the fire more than once and promptly dismissed when crisis had passed.

     With a coterie of flattering courtiers and his wife Alexandra (herself under the bizarre influence of Grigori Rasputin from 1905 on) as his main "advisers" Nicholas was in charge of a vast and varied country that was undoubtedly the most difficult European state to govern. The system of government rested on the Ministry of the Interior which controlled a network of Governor-Generals, Governors, and a byzantine network of numerous police forces that interfered in much of the daily life in Russia. This system exercised a rigorous censorship, and was the heart of a program of  'Russification' directed at the non-Russians who constituted a majority of the Empire's population.

     Count Witte (Minister of Finance 1892-1903 and Prime minister 1905-1906) wrote about the nobility who surrounded the Tsar;

     "The majority is politically a mass of degnerate humanity, which recognizes nothing but the gratification of its own selfish interests and lusts, and which seeks to obtain all manner of privileges and benefits at the expense of the taxpayers in general which means mainly the peasantry."

     Leave out the last phrase, and this would be a pretty apt description of most politicians.

     Witte felt that Russia's interests would be best served by rapid industrialization. His main opponent in the government was Vyacheslav Pleve who rose through the ranks of the police to become the Minister of the Interior in 1902. An assassin's bullet relieved Witte of this problem in 1904.

     Meanwhile opposition to the autocracy had begun to grow in the zemstvos, local elected municipal councils and also in the dumas in urban areas. Both were elitist groups. Illegal political activity was carried on outside of them by the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), strong amongst the peasantry, and the Marxist Social Democratic Party which recruited mainly amongst intellectuals and workers. Both the countryside and the developing urban areas were rife with discontent.

     The author describes the vast economic changes that Russia was experiencing. The rural areas were chronically economically stagnant which retarded progress. All segments of the Empire's population, from the landlords to the poor peasants, experienced problems. Periodically the government would pay attention and set up investigative commissions. The state, however, refused to admit the need for radical reform. Lacking any incentive or ability to improve their production peasants responded by migration to the cities or to new lands in Siberia. The number of landless peasants increased, and a rural proletariat developed.

     In contrast to the rural areas Russian industry forged ahead. Foreign capital, especially from France and Belgium, flooded in. Technique improved, but living and working conditions were "appalling". Economic crisis also came to Russia in the late 19th century. This was followed by spontaneous strike waves which culminated in a general strike in 1903. Unrest was also spreading to the peasants.

     The cauldron boiled over with defeat in the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905. By the beginning of the 20th century expansion of Russian influence in Europe was unlikely, and the government turned to the Far East. The defeat of China in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese war opened Manchuria to Russian penetration. Russia built the Chinese Eastern Railway across this province. In 1898 the Russians also obtained a 25 year lease on the Liaotung Peninsula and the right to build another railroad from Harbin to Port Arthur on said peninsula.

     Other European powers objected to this expansion, but Russia offered seemingly sincere promises to withdraw in the (indefinite) future. Russia also began to expand its interests in Korea which the Japanese considered an area of their own special interest. The Empire refused to compromise with the Japanese, and in February of 1904 Japan broke off diplomatic relations with Russia. On February 8 they attack the Russian fleet at anchor in Port Arthur with torpedo boats. They returned four days later to finish the job. The Russian fleet was severely damaged and was trapped within the heavily mined port.

     Despite the racist overconfidence of the Russian government Russia was at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the Japanese. The Russian military command was divided. The cautious Kuropatkin advised avoiding pitched battles, but it was not until October 1904 that the Tsar finally agreed to remove the reckless Alexeyev from the theatre of war. Later the Russians were defeated both on land and once more at sea. In the Fall of 1904 the Russian Baltic Fleet departed to the other side of the world. It was destroyed in May of 1905 at the battle of Tsushima. Meanwhile the Japanese had taken Port Arthur. In August 1904 the Russians were defeated at Liaoyang despite outnumbering the Japanese. The Empire's troops retreated to the north where a stalemate of exhaustion and lack of supply for both armies resulted.

     The war ended in August 1905 with the Treaty of Portsmouth. Count Witte negotiated for the Russian government. He returned home to a country in chaos. The 1905 Revolution had begun.

     While the Imperial government was entertaining fantasies of a "little victorious war" (Pleve) the workers were facing rising prices and falling employment. In a typically Russian surrealistic scenario workers in St. Petersburg were initially led by the priest Father Gapon who was actually a police agent. This "police socialism" that was meant to contain proletarian demands got a little out of hand.

     At the close of 1904 the owners of the Putilov Engineering Works in St. Petersburg some of their more radical workers. This brought the entire workforce out on strike. By default Gapon's 'Assembly of the Russian Workingmen' assumed leadership, and on January 22 he led a procession to present a petition to the Tsar at the Winter Palace. Unknown to them the Autocrat of All the Russias had already decamped. Also missing was the infamous Plave who had been assassinated the previous July. The police did nothing to prevent the various workers' contingents from assembling, but they laid a plot to intercept them and suppress them with the army's assistance. Brief orders to halt were followed by gunfire from the troops. Gapon, following the Tsar's example, promptly fled. The crowds, however, reformed and made their way to the Winter Palace. Here as elsewhere in the city they were met by volleys of gunfire.

     In the end an unknown number of people were killed. Official reports said about 130. Journalists produced a list of 4,600 dead and wounded. Illusions about the Tsar were shattered. As Witte, who witnessed some of the events, said;

     "There were hundreds of casualties in killed or wounded, among them many innocent people. Gapon fled and the revolutionaries triumphed: the workmen were completely alienated from the Tsar and his government."

     Despite his nonchalance about the events Nicholas was actually persuaded to "do something" by General Dimitri Trepov, the Governor-General of St. Petersburg. The Minister of the Interior Prince Sviatopolk Mirsky decamped (a common Russian habit) and was replaced by Alexander Bulygin. The Tsar agreed to meet with a delegation of "responsible workingmen". They were read a little sermon and sent to the kitchens for a free meal. Soon after the revolutionaries assassinated the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Presumably he didn't decamp fast enough.

     Unrest spread throughout the towns of Russia.Strikes multiplied. The Putilov works remained on strike, and they were supported by most of the town - even the professional and business classes. Nicholas ignored his advisers when they suggested he call some sort of representative congress. Eventually the Putilov strikers returned to work, but in the countryside strikes continued. They were the most violent in non-Russian areas of the Empire. The most significant struggle was at the textile centre of Ivano-Vosnesenski, "Russia's Manchester", where the workers set up the first Soviet. Peasants had begun to seize estates. Landlords decamped.

     Army discipline began to crumble. Aeries of mutinies occurred, all the way from Warsaw to Vladivostok. The most famous of these was the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in the Black Sea Fleet. A protest at the quality of food served in the seamen's mess escalated when the Admiral in charge ordered 30 of the protesters shot. The firing squad refused the order, and in the end most of the officers were "decamped" overboard. The sailors were at a loss about what to do. They sailed for Odessa where there was a citywide strike in progress. While there the Navy sent the rest of the Black Sea Fleet against them, but when the Potemkin sailed out to give battle the other ships turned tail and "decamped". The Potemkin's supplies were running low, and they set sail once more for Constanta in Romania where they found refuge and internment.

     The political opposition also became more organized. In both the provinces and the Zemstvos the liberals called for a Constituent Assembly. The social democrats wasted most of their time in internal squabbles, but the SRs were quite active, both alongside the liberals and independently of them.

     When Witte returned from the peace treaty negotiations in September the Tsar had no choice but to call on him to hopefully restore order. Despite his efforts the peasant rebellion grew, and the government was helpless. Non-Russian minorities agitated for their independence. Egged on by a painfully slow demobilization more and more army units mutinied.

     Over and above this the industrial workers did what no other class could do. Encouraged by the partial success of a general strike in Finland they began a general strike in Moscow in October 1905. This spread along the railway lines to St. Petersburg and Kharkov. Soon it had spread throughout the Empire.

     "The strike then quickly became general, spreading throughout the empire, so that by the last days of October the whole railway system, which then amounted to more than 40,000 miles of  railway was at a standstill, and life in most large cities, especially those with an industry of any importance, came to a halt. Even Peterhof, where the Tsar was staying at the time, could be reached only by sea from St. Petersburg, and it was from there that, as usual in time of trouble, Nicholas summoned Witte."

     Would Witte's efforts be enough ? By this time the idea of the Soviets had spread. The first St. Petersburg 'Soviet of Workers' Deputies' met on October 25, 1905. The initial count of deputies rose from 30 or 40 to 562 at the height. The first Izvestia was its bulletin. Other cities followed the example. The Soviet alternative power, especially in St. Petersburg, grew through most of November 1905.

     Witte applied all his skill. He managed to persuade Nicholas, reluctant as he was, that the only sensible course was to make concessions. On October 30, 1905, the 'October Manifesto', drawn up by Witte and his ally Alexei Obolensky, was signed by the Tsar. It promised the beginnings of representative government and civil liberties, but it was (deliberately ?) vague on detail.

     The Manifesto was denounced by the revolutionaries as an exercise in deception, hiding future brutality and repression. Events were to prove them very much correct. In the aftermath of the Manifesto, despite continued existence, the Soviets withered. Further strikes were poorly observed. In the end the Soviets abandoned calling for them.

     Witte saw his opportunity. On December 9 he had Nosar, the President of the Petersburg Soviet, arrested. The Soviet elected a Troika to carry on his work, but didn't act further. Heartened by this Witte, on December 16, had whomever he could locate of the entire membership of the Soviet (about 200) arrested also.

     The Petersburg Soviet expired, but there was one final clash. Those members of the Soviet who had escaped, along with the Social Democrats and the SRs, called for a political general strike. It met with good support especially on the railways. On December 20 a general strike was called in Moscow.

     The Moscow Soviet, still in existence, essentially controlled the city. The loyalty of local military units was doubtful. The government arrested whatever strike leaders they could. Street battles began between strikers and police. The authorities didn't dare to call in the troops.

     Petersburg replied by sending more reliable units to Moscow. The Muscovite workers, especially in the Presnya district, fought valiantly even though outnumbered. The support expected from the rest of the country was feeble. The Soviet decided to end the strike in the waning days of December. The military and police killed hundreds. Thousands were exiled to Siberia, and much of Moscow was reduced to rubble.

     The Revolution was over. The government proceeded to a mopping-up operation in the rest of the Empire. By the end of January 1906 most of the rebellions had been suppressed. The parliamentary aftermath was anticlimactic.

     The new Constitution promised by the October Manifesto was despised by the nobility, police and Church. The leftists were openly skeptical. Only the liberals in the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) Party, under the leadership of Pavel Milyukov, tried to make it work. In the first elections in March there were severe property qualifications for the vote. The Social Democrats and the SRs boycotted the election.

     Meanwhile the government, despite Witte's objections, pushed through a number of measures designed to hamper both the elections and the new Duma. In May Witte resigned after doing the ungrateful Tsar one last service, negotiating a 2 1/2 billion franc loan from France that saved the Russian state from bankruptcy.

     Despite the Tsarist efforts the new Duma was elected with a large peasant bloc that unexpectedly sided with the left against the reactionaries. The Cadets held the largest voting bloc. The right was greatly outnumbered.

     The new Duma convened on May 10 and promptly passed an 'Address to the Throne' that was basically the full program of the Cadets. Nicholas refused this request, and the Duma voted no-confidence in his government. The deadlock lasted 73 days, and on July 21 the government dissolved the Duma. Attempts to hold an 'alternative Duma' in Finland became the occasion for the virtual suppression of the Cadets.

     A new Prime Minister, Peter Stolypin, called new elections, but the second Duma was even more left wing than the first. The Social Democrats and the SRs abandoned their boycott and with the support of another faction, the 'Labour Group', they consituted a large body to the left of the Cadets. Stolypin dissolved the second Duma and tightened the electoral laws even further. It worked. The 3rd and 4th Dumas were solidly conservative and lasted from 1907 to 1917. Autocracy had been preserved.

     The book ends here. It appends a chronology, index and a list of suggested readings. All three are welcome additions. This book is a good brief introduction to the events described and is well worth the read.




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