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"The great dress rehearsal"
Russia's 1905 Revolution

January 7, 2005 | Page 8

IN 1905, the Russian working class took center stage with strikes and demonstrations that shook the power of the dictatorial tsar.

Though it did not succeed, the revolution of 1905--what the Russian revolutionary Lenin called the "Great Dress Rehearsal"--produced for the first time in world history the workers' councils, or soviets. These new forms of workers' organization would later be the centerpiece of the successful revolution of 1917.

January 9 marks the 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when troops fired on peaceful protesters at the tsar's Winter Palace, beginning a year of pitched battles between the old order and the new. ELIZABETH SCHULTE describes the events of this important revolutionary year.

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WHAT BECAME a revolutionary year for Russian workers began with a few modest demands.

In response to the firing of four workers at the Putilov works in Petersburg, workers organized a strike in early January. They looked to leadership from the Assembly of Russian Factory Workshop Workers, a police-led union, and one of its leaders, prison chaplain Father Gapon. Mass meetings were organized in support of the fired workers, and a march was planned for January 9, when workers would take their petition to the tsar.

By the time that January 9 arrived, the demands of the marchers--in part because of the arguments made by socialists, known at the time as Social Democrats, within the Assembly--had grown. They included the eight-hour day, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, land for peasants, separation of church and state, an end to the Russo-Japanese war, and a Constituent Assembly.

On Sunday, January 9, some 200,000 workers marched to the tsar's Winter Palace in a peaceful procession, carrying images of the tsar and holy icons. Troops were ordered to fire on the crowd. More than a thousand people were killed and at least 2,000 injured.

On this bloody day, any old ideas that workers may have held about the tsar as the "little father" who looked after them were shattered.

This was the beginning of a year of strikes and street battles in cities and even rural areas--pitting workers, peasants and sections of the armed forces against the tsar's regime. The tsar's forces--including loyalist gangs known as the "Black Hundreds" that organized pogroms against Jews and other minorities--battled on the side of reaction.

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IN AUGUST, the tsar offered workers a concession--the Duma, a body with no power of its own to legislate and a far cry from the Constituent Assembly that workers had demanded. According to the Duma's rules, only 13,000 out of 1.4 million people in the capital of Petersburg would have the right to vote.

This outrage set the stage for the second great wave of strikes in October. What began with Moscow typesetters striking for a shorter workday and a higher piece rate, including pay for punctuation, quickly grew into a national strike wave. As Leon Trotsky put it his firsthand account 1905, "This small event set off nothing more nor less than an all-Russian political strike--the strike that started over punctuation and ended by felling absolutism."

In October, the Petersburg soviet was founded. The soviet, made up of delegates from striking factories workplaces, formed a kind of workers' government.

Trotsky, a leader of the Petersburg soviet in 1905, explained, "The Soviet came into being as a response to an objective need--a need born of the course of events. It was an organization which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organizational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control--and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within 24 hours."

In order to produce the soviet's newspaper, Isvestia, workers would form flying squads to take over the bourgeois newspaper offices in the middle of the night. If they lacked electricity, they would have workers turn it on "at the request of the Soviet of Workers' Deputies."

On October 17, the tsar promised a constitution, but again, it fell abysmally short of workers' demands. In response to the tsar's hollow promise of civil liberties, the Petersburg workers' movement made concrete demands that could translate into the real thing--the dismissal of the head of the police, the removal of troops 20 miles from the city, the formation of a national citizen's militia, and an amnesty for political prisoners.

Trotsky described the reaction on the streets of Petersburg, as workers marched to a meeting to debate the tsar's offer: "The mood was noticeably rising. A boy snatched a tricolor flag with its staff from above a house-gate, ripped off the blue and white strips, and raised the red remainder of the 'national' flag high above the crowd...A few minutes later, a multitude of red flags were waving above the mass of people. White and blue scraps of material lay everywhere, and the crowd trampled them with their feet."

This scene was a million light years away from the January 9 procession of portraits of the tsar.

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THE NEXT great strike wave came in November, with the central demand being the eight-hour day. Petersburg came to a halt.

Unfortunately, the level struggle and organization was not matched in other parts of Russia, and the tsar's forces cracked down on militants in Petersburg, arresting the entire executive committee of Petersburg trade unions, dissolving the National Railroad Union and instituting anti-strike regulations.

In Moscow, workers responded with a wave of strikes, which spread to Petersburg. This was followed by an armed insurrection in Moscow that was crushed by tsarist forces. On December 3, the Petersburg soviet was surrounded by troops.

Trotsky described workers hurriedly destroying their weapons so as not to arm the police: "In the clashing and creaking of twisting metal, one heard the gnashing teeth of a proletariat who for the first time fully realized that a more formidable and more ruthless effort was necessary to overthrow and crush the enemy."

This lesson was not lost on Russian workers, who would take power 12 years later. The differences between the socialist organizations of the day--the revolutionary Bolsheviks and the more moderate, reformist Mensheviks--were clarified with each battle. Both parties believed that because of the backwards nature of Russia, the revolution in Russia would have to stop at a bourgeois revolution, creating a system like in the West, the Mensheviks appealed to the bourgeoisie, while the Bolsheviks looked to workers to lead the struggle.

While the Bolsheviks made mistakes in 1905--such as an initially sectarian attitude toward the soviets--on the point of workers leading the revolution, they would be proven right.

As Lenin put it in a speech in January 1917, "Prior to January 9, 1905, the revolutionary party of Russia consisted of a small handful of people, and the reformists of those days (like the reformists of today) derisively called them a 'sect'...Within a few months, however, the picture completely changed. The hundreds of revolutionary Social Democrats 'suddenly' grew into thousands; the thousands became leaders of between of between two and three millions of proletarians...[I]n this way, slumbering Russia became transformed into a Russia of a revolutionary proletariat and a revolutionary people."

The experience and organization that the Bolsheviks gained during the 1905 revolution would prove invaluable in 1917.

In a speech on 1905 that Lenin gave to a group of young workers in January 1917, he pointed out, "We must not be deceived by the present grave-like stillness in Europe. Europe is pregnant with revolution. The monstrous horrors of the imperialist war, the suffering caused by the high cost of living everywhere engender a revolutionary mood; and the ruling classes, the bourgeoisie, and its servitors, the governments, are more and more moving into a blind alley from which they can never extricate themselves without tremendous upheavals.

"Just as in Russia in 1905, a popular uprising against the tsarist government began under the leadership of the proletariat with the aim of achieving a democratic republic, so, in Europe, the coming years, precisely because of this predatory war, will lead to popular uprisings under the leadership of the proletariat against the power of finance capital, against the big banks, against the capitalists; and these upheavals cannot end otherwise than with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, with the victory of socialism."

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