Bloody Sunday, 1905

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.)

Bloody Sunday

In 1972, predominantly Catholic Civil Rights Association planned a series of high-profile marches to regain political initiative from those intent on violent. Ironically, a march in Londonberry on January 30 came up against an army barricade. A number of rioters threw stones at the soldiers, and British paratroopers appeared on the scene and pursued the rioters. They opened fire, killing 13 civilians and wounding 12 others, one of whom died later.

In the immediate aftermath, the British embassy in Dublin was burnt down and the Mid Ulster MP Bernadette McAliskey punched the home secretary, Reginald Maudling, accusing him of lying to the Commons over what happened. Bloody Sunday was the boost to IRA recruitment and fuelled violence in subsequent decades. Lord Cheif Justice’s subsequent inquiry, the Widgery Report, which exonerated the soldiers further fuelled the theories that the killings were conceived at the highest levels of military command, civil service and the Cabinet. In fact, it later transpired that the then PM Edward Heath lobbied Lord Widgery, saying in Northern Ireland, Britain was ‘fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war’.

In 1998, Tony Blair appointed Lord Saville to head a second inquiry as part of Northern Ireland peace process. Twelve years and nearly 200 million pounds later, the Saville inquiry returned its full report today — condemning the soldiers unequivocally. In Westminster, Prime Minister David Cameron offered an extraordinary apology. Yet, the report will forever be marred by the refusal of the soldiers involved to give evidence, the refusal of the Army to release thousands of photographs taken by army photographers who were ordered to give ‘maximum coverage’ that day.

The iconic images to come out of Bloody Sunday were the video of Father Edward Daly (later Bishop of Derry) waving a bloodied white handkerchief as he tried to lead the injured to safety and that of Barney McGuigan dead from a bullet wound to the head. The latter photo was taken by Gilles Peress, on his first professional photo assignment for Magnum.