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Marx and Engels
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     Radicals in and out of Russia
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     Revolution of 1905
     Soviets of 1905

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Radicals in and out of Russia: 1835-1902

The careers of Russian revolutionaries, under close observation by the tsar's secret police, follow a predictable pattern. In early life there are spells of enforced exile in central Asia or Siberia. Later, prudence suggests the need for voluntary exile abroad. In some foreign land, more liberal in its laws, the influential rebel writes inflammatory material to be smuggled back into Russia.

An early example is Alexander Herzen. Arrested soon after leaving Moscow university, he is exiled in 1835 to the Urals.


From 1847 Herzen lives abroad, in Paris until the collapse of the second French republic in 1852, then in London and from 1868 in Geneva. For eight years, from 1857, he writes and prints a newspaper (Kolokol, The Bell) which is widely but secretly read in radical circles in Russia.

Geneva is also the base for a group of Russian exiles who in 1883 establish Liberation of Labour, a movement with principles more specifically Marxist than Herzen's. Their aim is to educate Russian revolutionaries in the principles of Marxism. In 1895 they are visited in Geneva by a young enthusiast, Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov - known to history as Lenin.


Lenin has a family link with revolution. Eight years earlier his brother Alexander, while still a student, was involved in a Narodnaya Volya plot to assassinate Alexander III and was executed. Now Lenin, more practical a politician than his brother, returns from Geneva to become one of the founders in St Petersburg of the Union for the Struggle of the Liberation of the Working Class.

He is soon arrested, imprisoned for a little more than a year, and then exiled to Siberia from 1897 to 1900. Trotsky, Lenin's junior by nine years, is also separately in exile in Siberia from 1898 to 1900.


Both Lenin and Trotsky are absent, therefore, when radical groups from several cities gather in Minsk in 1898 to form the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party. This is later seen as the founding event of the Russian Communist party, but it has little immediate effect. All its leading members are soon tracked down by the police and arrested.

In July 1900 Lenin leaves Russia with the intention of publishing a newspaper abroad for circulation in Russian cities. Under the title Iskra (The Spark), it becomes the organ through which Lenin makes himself the centre of an influential party. Trotsky joins him on the staff of Iskra in 1902.


Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: 1903

In 1903 the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party assembles at a congress in Brussels, and then moves under police pressure to London. Lenin and Trotsky are both present. It is evident that their journalism has borne fruit - nearly all the delegates declare themselves in agreement with the policies of Iskra.

Nevertheless one significant split emerges, on the issue of membership of the party. Lenin and the majority want it limited to activists. A minority, which at this stage includes Trotsky, would prefer to involve a broader range of supporters. The issue, with its implications of purity versus compromise, grows subsequently into a significant split.


The two groups within the party derive their names from this London disagreement. Those who agree with Lenin and the majority become known as the Bolsheviks (from bolshoi, meaning 'large'); the minority are correspondingly the Mensheviks (menshe, smaller).

By 1917 the disagreement between the two factions reaches the level of armed warfare, but even as early as 1905 they are so estranged that they hold their congress in separate places - the Bolsheviks in London and the Mensheviks in Geneva. In that year revolution suddenly erupts in Russia, but not as a result of Bolshevik or Menshevik prompting. It is more a spontaneous series of events, aggravated by Russia's disastrous showing in her far-eastern war against Japan.


The revolution of 1905

The political situation steadily deteriorates in Russia during 1905. The year has begun with one of the most shattering days in Russian history, the day known ever afterwards simply as Bloody Sunday.

A priest, Father Gapon, has been organizing a great demonstration for Sunday, January 9 (NS/New Style Jan. 22), in St Petersburg. The intention is to converge on the Winter Palace to present a petition to the tsar (who in fact is away for the weekend in his country retreat of Tsarskoe Selo), begging him to redress the sufferings of his people. The tone of the petition is Desperate but respectful, assuming - as most in the crowd no doubt still believe - that the tsar is a benevolent ruler let down by his brutal minions.


The occasion has an essentially religious flavour. The demonstrators gather in churches round the city, soon after dawn, to pray for a peaceful day. Then about 150,000 set off in columns, many bearing icons, to converge on the palace. But the prayers for peace are unlikely to be answered. Father Gapon has been ordered, two days previously, to call off the demonstration. 120,000 troops have been moved into the city overnight.

During Sunday morning the troops disperse many of the individual columns of marchers, with violence and many casualties. Even so, a crowd of some 60,000 manages to assemble on the open space in front of the Winter Palace.


The demonstration ends in blood and chaos when troops open fire to disperse this crowd. The number of deaths is probably about 200, with another 800 wounded. The event is sufficiently shocking to become seared in the Russian consciousness, transforming for many a sense of patient suffering into one of burning anger. But it also sets off a wave of rebellion throughout the Russian empire.

In the following weeks hundreds of thousands of workers go on strike. Peasants riot and burn their lords' manors (troops are used to put down peasant uprisings nearly 3000 times during 1905). Nationalist minorities join in the unrest. Russian troops kill seventy demonstrators in Latvia, and ninety-three in the streets of Warsaw.


Discontent spreads to the troops themselves (aggravated by the shaming news of Mukden and Tsushima in the war against Japan). In the early summer there are several minor mutinies, followed in June by the most damaging incident of the year since Bloody Sunday. It happens in the Black Sea.

On June 14 (NS/New Style June 27) the crew of the battleship Potemkin complain to the captain about maggots in their meat. His response is to have their spokesman, Vakulenchuk, shot on deck. The crew riot, murder seven officers, raise the red flag and sail the ship overnight to Odessa where the workers have been on strike for two weeks. They place Vakulenchuk's body with a guard of honour at the foot of the marble steps leading from the harbour up into the city.


On the next day thousands gather to place wreaths at this impromptu shrine. Troops, ordered to clear the crowd, fire indiscriminately from the steps into the packed space below. The scale of the disaster dwarfs even Bloody Sunday. The deaths number about 2000, the wounded 3000.

The situation by now looks so promising that the revolutionary exiles begin to slip back into Russia in disguise. Trotsky is the first. Pretending to be a patient in an eye hospital, he writes a stream of revolutionary tracts from his bed. But by October he is taking an active part in the first of Russia's soviets.


The soviets of 1905

The word soviet is Russian for 'council'. Its significance in 20th-century Russian history begins in October 1905 in St Petersburg, where striking metalworkers organize a Soviet of Workers' Deputies. It is an executive committee consisting of fifty elected members, including a quota of seven each for the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

This spontaneous action by the workers is closer to the Menshevik philosophy (the Bolsheviks being suspicious of anything not organized by themselves), and Trotsky is involved from the start as a Menshevik member. When the first chairman of the soviet is arrested in November, Trotsky is elected in his place.


The Petersburg Soviet takes over many of the functions of government on behalf of the workers. It organizes the strikes, controls a workers' militia, oversees the distribution of food, and disseminates information and policy through its own newspaper, Izvestiya, in which the editorials are mainly by Trotsky.

The pioneering example of St Petersburg inspires the establishment of soviets in some fifty other Russian cities during the autumn of 1905. By the end of the year, when the tsarist government has re-established control, the soviets are suppressed and their leaders arrested. But they have provided a vivid model which proves easy to revive in 1917.


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