1905 promised to be a grim and portentous year in the history of the Russian Empire. Russia was entering the second year of its disastrous war with Japan, with the garrison at Port Arthur surrendering after a five month siege, the Russian Pacific Fleet having been destroyed and various relief armies having been stymied in Manchuria. Tsar Nicholas II, contemptuous of the “yellow monkeys” of Japan, had no solution other than equip new armies and send his ramshackle Baltic Fleet on a hopeless round-the-world voyage which, several months later, culminated in the disaster at Tsushima. The Empire throbbed with discontent which it hadn’t known for generations; the cries for change grew loud and hard to ignore, with predictable opposition from socialists and anarchists joined with an increasing groundswell of liberal reformers and peasants, workers and middle class Russians.
It served as an ironic counterpoint, then, that the first blow of that year’s revolution was struck (unwittingly) by a Tsarist agent. Father Georgi Gapon, a charismatic priest from St. Petersburg, was an agent of the Okhrana who viewed Gapon’s advocacy as an opportunity for creating controlled opposition. Gapon’s “Assembly of the Russian Factory and Mill Workers of the City of St. Petersburg” was indeed supported by money from Russia’s Secret Police, causing radicals to disown it. Gapon possessed a naive belief, shared by many liberal Russians, that while the autocracy of the Romanovs was repressive and unfair, the Tsar still acted as the protector of the working classes: “The Tsar wants justice but the boyars resist,” he told his followers. Nonetheless, Gapon’s speeches and activism began to sound suspiciously seditious to his handlers; “he saw himself as a man of destiny sent by God for the deliverance of workers,” Orlando Figes comments.
On January 16th (January 3rd old style calendar), a massive strike broke out in St. Petersburg, attracting 120,000 followers. Though the protests were peaceful, they terrified the Imperial authorities who mobilized soldiers to break up the strikes. Gapon took the opportunity to side with the strikers, denouncing again the “boyars” who were supposedly leading Nicholas II astray and issuing a call for “truth and justice.” Gapon began organizing a march to visit the Winter Palace, the Tsar’s official residence, despite official notice that the Tsar and his family had decamped to their estate at Tsarskoye Selo. After failed attempts to dissuade the marchers, Nicholas’s ministers deployed 10,000 soldiers to assemble at the Winter Palace in anticipation of danger.
On January 22nd (9th old style), Gapon led a crowd estimated at 30,000 men, women and children on a march across Petersburg to the Winter Palace. Gapon’s petition, which he hoped to present to Nicholas II personally, was a characteristic mixture of supplication (“We come to thee, O Sire to seek justice and protection”) and radical imprecations (“We have no strength left, and our endurance is at an end”). The demands for better working conditions and increased personal freedom echoed those of the strikers, amplified with Gapon’s typical fervor. He encouraged his followers with the bold exhortation that “it is better for us to die for our demands than to live as we have now.”
Gapon further took actions to defuse a violent response. He placed women and children at the head of the march (something which his less naïve followers discouraged, and indeed many young men would displace them as they arrived at the Palace); men carried icons of the Tsar to stress their loyalty to the sovereign, allowing with a banner reading “soldiers do not shoot at the people.” Gapon further banned the carrying of Red flags, and weapons were strictly forbidden; he even met with the Tsar’s Minister Sergei Witte in a failed effort to gain permission for the march. Nonetheless, as the sun rose and church bells pealed across St. Petersburg, the sight of a massive crowd descending on the Tsar’s personal residence undoubtedly struck authorities as an unnerving presence.
Military officers on the ground responded variously to the immediate situation. Soldiers from the Petersburg garrison made efforts to diffuse violence, offering to allow Gapon to send a small detachment to the Winter Palace in lieu of a massive crowd. Others, including commanders of the Cossack and Imperial Guard units more recently deployed to the city, bluntly ordered the marchers to disperse on pain of arrest or death. The confused messaging prevented Father Gapon from developing a cohesive response; his crowd began to fragment into small groups, planning to enter the main city through different entry points and converge on the Winter Palace.
Around 10am, Gapon’s main body of marchers approached the Narva Gate, built to honor Peter the Great’s victory over Sweden two centuries earlier. Here, Gapon’s followers were confronted with a body of infantry who fired warning shots to disperse the crowd. When they failed to do so, a squadron of cavalry charged the marchers and attempted to disperse them with sabers. This in turn pushed the crowd forward; the infantry panicked and fired a volley directly into the crowd, fired by an unorganized fusillade of fire. Father Gapon, haplessly attempting to salvage the situation, was knocked the ground and forced to watch as hundreds of his followers fell to imperial bullets and sabers, forty of them killed.
The scene was repeated across the city. Other columns of Gapon’s march were attacked with less reticence by Cossacks and cavalry, with socialist Maxim Gorky witnessing a mounted charge against marchers at Troitsky Bridge. Gorky watched as a dragoon cornered one hapless worker, “slashed him across the face, cutting him open from the eyes to the chin.” Others converged on Nevsky Prospect, where they mingled with traditional Sunday marketgoers creating a mixture of protesters, refugees and bystanders largely ignorant of what was happening. Here, nearly 60,000 men, women and children (far more than Gapon’s original column) were confronted by the Preobrazhensky Regiment, an elite Life Guard unit with no tolerance for protesters.
The Life Guards attempted to disperse the crowd with whips, chains and sabers, moving them into the Alexandrovsky Gardens as cavalry ringed them and several cannon were moved into position. The demonstrators and civilians, incredibly still hopeful in the Tsar’s goodwill, made fruitless gestures of supplication: they dropped to their knees, removed their caps and crossed themselves while pleading for them to disperse. Some children climbed trees and statues in the garden, some hoping for a better vantage point, some bold ones heckling the soldiers, some perhaps foreseeing better than their parents what was unfolding.
At that moment, a bugler with the Life Guards blew a signal to fire, and the infantry fired several volleys into the crowd. Kneeling protesters and hapless bystanders alike were cut to pieces, first by the maelstrom of rifle fire, next by artillery which belched cannister into them at near-point blank range. The soldiers made no distinction among age or gender; women fell alongside men, and the children were shot from their perches. One young girl climbed a fence an in effort to escape, but was “crucified” by a barrage of bullets. A boy who had climbed a statue was hit directly by an artillery blast and blown to pieces.
As the firing finally subsided, the survivors reacted no longer with fear but anger. One witness to the Alexandrovsky Gardens shooting recalled that he “detected neither fear nor panic” in the crowd, instead showing “looks of hatred and vengeance on nearly every face – old and young, men and women.” An old man in the crowd, surveying the carnage, turned to a teenaged boy and encouraged him to remember the scene: “Remember to swear and repay the Tsar.” Father Gapon, more bluntly, reacted to the shooting by declaring that “there is no Tsar.”
There might as well have been no Tsar, for how little influence he exercised over events. As reports of the bloodshed on January 22 spread throughout Russia – as many as 200 died, and 800 were wounded – there was an outcry of popular protest. Father Gapon, disowning his erstwhile handlers, took refuge with Maxim Gorky and gave a stirring oration to a group of Social Revolutionaries. He now encouraged his followers to “tear up all portraits of the blood-sucking Tsar” and fled to Finland, then to London, where he became an international celebrity. His notoriety did not prevent Gapon from returning to Russia lately; his rage having dissipated, the Father met with Segei Witte to discuss political reforms, an action which revealed to comrades his double game. In April 1906 he was brutally murdered by fellow Socialist Revolutionaries in his apartment.
Maxim Gorky, though horrified by the violence, celebrated it as an irrevocable turning point. “The Russian Revolution has begun,” he told his wife Ekaterina. “People have died, but don’t let that trouble you – only blood can change the color of history.” Along with further news of defeats from the Far East, the situation flared into a full-blown revolution within a matter of months, wracking Russia from end to end with rebellions, strikes and confrontations with authority. Nicholas II was forced to make political concessions, including creation of an elected Duma, in an effort to head off further trouble. But there was no consistency to his reforms, and they were undercut by the Tsar’s whims and reactionary tendencies. Twelve years after Bloody Sunday, the 300 year reign of the autocrats woudl come to an even bloodier end.