The 20th Century opened with Russia slowly teetering towards disenchantment and chaos. Emancipation of serfs in 1861 left many landowners at a loss — unable or unwilling to implement better administration and more efficient farming methods, they rapidly ran up crippling debts. Directly or indirectly, this led to series of poor harvests and a widespread famine in 1891, which revealed the inadequacies of the Tsarist government. Demonstrations, strikes and general unrest were slowly gathering momentum as Russia commenced a long anticipated war on Japan in 1905.
The war was initially viewed as an opportunity to improve Russia’s domestic situation, but its navy suffered humiliating defeats in the Far East. The Interior Minister Vyacheslav Plehve, who predicted that the impeding war with Japan will be a ‘victorious little war’ was assassinated. In January 1905, as military disaster unfolded, dissatisfaction erupted into revolution in St Petersburg. The immediate spark was the dubious dismissal of three workers, and the leader of the demonstration was the factory chaplain named Father Georgi Gapon. Gapon was himself no revolutionary, though he was subsequently represented as one. He wrote, “I went to the Tsar in the simple-hearted belief that we would receive pravda …. I went … to purchase with my blood the renewal of Russia and the establishment of pravda.”
At the Winter Palace, the protestors were met not by the Tsar, who was in his retreat outside the city, but by the Preobrashensky Regiment which opened fire on the procession. Above photo of the line of soldiers in their long winter coats taking aiming at a crowd on the other side of a brilliantly white square was thought to have been the only photo taken that fateful day which would go down in history as Bloody Sunday. The protestors had approached the regiment believing that the soldiers would not fire upon people carrying religious icons and images of the Tsar. They did. In the photo, demonstrators scrambled to safety as a sole isolated figure intriguingly was left alone in the no man’s land.
At the end of the Bloody Sunday, Gapon had fled, 130 demonstrators had been killed and 300 wounded according to official estimates. Foreign journalists reported as many as 4600 casualties. Its consequences were even more far reaching: as the news of the massacre spread, strikes broke out all over Russia, demanding shorter hours and higher wages. Aboard the battleship Potemkin, indignant sailors hoisted the red flag because of maggots in their meat. In Volokolamsk, peasants formed their own successionist ‘Markovo Republic’. Elsewhere, peasants looted and burned down their landlords’ residences, or cut down timber from landlords’ forests. For the first time since 1721, a Russian Tsar was forced to create a legislative assembly, the Duma. Although this Duma would prove to be ineffectual and short-lived, the other legacy of the Bloody Sunday was more indelible: before 1905, socialists, anarchists and many members of the bourgeoise had no possibility of breaking the hold of nobility and clergy in Russia. After Janaury 1905, it finally seemed their time had arrived.
(N.B. Even as I wrote this, I was aware of the controversy over the authenticity of the image. Some contend that the all-powerful Soviet TASS news agency took a still from a 1925 film by Vyacheslav Viskovski called Devjatoe Janvarja (The Ninth of January) — which was also known confusingly by another title Krovavoe voskresenje (Bloody Sunday). However, it is unknown whether the scene was created for the film, or the film used an earlier still photograph. Most scholarly books I have encountered view the photo as authentic.)