October, November, and December 1905 was the period of revolutionary culmination. It began with a modest strike of Moscow’s typesetters and ended with government troops crushing the ancient capital of the Russian Tsars. But with the exception of the final moment – the Moscow rising – Moscow did not occupy first place in the events of that period.
The role of Petersburg in the Russian revolution cannot be compared in any way with that of Paris in the French Revolution. The economically primitive nature of France (and, in particular, of the means of communication) on the one hand, and administrative centralization on the other, allowed the French Revolution to be localized – to all intents and purposes – within the walls of Paris. The situation in Russia was entirely different. Capitalist development in Russia had created as many independent centers of revolution as there were centers of major industry – independent, that is, but also intimately linked with one an other. The railways and the telegraph decentralized the revolution despite the centralized character of the state; but, at the same time, they brought unity to all its scattered manifestations. If, as the result of all this, we recognize that Petersburg had the leading voice in the revolution, it does not mean that the revolution was concentrated in Nevsky Prospect or outside the Winter Palace, but only that the slogans and fighting methods of Petersburg found a mighty revolutionary echo in the country as a whole. The type of organization adopted in Petersburg, the tone of the Petersburg press, immediately became models for the provinces. Local provincial events, with the exception of the risings in the navy and the fortresses, had no autonomous significance.
If, then, we are to recognize the capital on the Neva as the center of the events of the final months of 1905, in Petersburg itself we must recognize the Council (Soviet) of Workers’ Deputies as the cornerstone of all these events. Not only because this was the greatest workers’ organization to be seen in Russia up until that time. Not only because the Petersburg Soviet served as a model for Moscow, Odessa, and a number of other cities. But, above all, because this purely class-founded, proletarian organization was the organization of the revolution as such. The Soviet was the axis of all events, every thread ran towards it, every call to action emanated from it.
What was the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies?
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 twenty-four hours. The social-democratic organization, which welded together a few hundred Petersburg workers, and to which several thousand more were ideologically attached, was able to speak for the masses by illuminating their immediate experience with the lightning of political thought; but it was not able to create a living organizational link with these masses, if only because it had always done the principal part of its work in clandestinity, concealed from the eyes of the masses. The organization of the socialist revolutionaries suffered from the same occupational disease of clandestinity, further aggravated by instability and impotence. Internal friction between two equally powerful factions of the social democrats on the one hand, and the struggle of both factions with the socialist revolutionaries on the other, rendered the creation of a non-party organization absolutely essential. In order to have authority in the eyes of the masses on the very day it came into being, such an organization had to be based on the broadest representation. How was this to be achieved? The answer came of its own accord. Since the production process was the sole link between the proletarian masses who, in the organizational sense, were still quite inexperienced, representation had to be adapted to the factories and plants. Senator Shidlovsky’s commission served as the organizational precedent. 
On October 10, at the moment when the largest of the strikes was imminent, one of the two social-democratic organizations in Petersburg took upon itself the task of creating a revolutionary workers’ council of self-management. The first meeting of what was to become the Soviet was held on the evening of the thirteenth, in the Technological Institute. Not more than thirty to forty delegates attended. It was decided immediately to call upon the proletariat of the capital to proclaim a political general strike and to elect delegates. The proclamation drafted at the first meeting states: “The working class has resorted to the final, powerful weapon of the world workers’ movement – the general strike.
“... Decisive events are going to occur in Russia within the next few days. They will determine the destiny of the working class for many years ahead; we must meet these events in full readiness, united by our common Soviet ...”
This immensely important decision was adopted unanimously – and, what is more, without any discussion of principle concerning the general strike and its methods, aims, and possibilities, although precisely these questions shortly thereafter provoked a passionate ideological struggle in the ranks of our party in Germany. There is no need to explain this fact by differences of national psychology; on the contrary, we Russians are almost pathologically prone to tactical sophistries and the most detailed anticipation of events. The reason lay in the revolutionary nature of the moment. From the hour it came into being until the hour it perished, the Soviet stood under the mighty, elemental pressure of the revolution, which most unceremoniously forestalled the work of political consciousness.
Every step of the workers’ representation was determined in advance. Its “tactics” were obvious. The methods of struggle did not have to be discussed; there was hardly time to formulate them.
* * *
The October strike was confidently nearing its climax. At its head marched the metal workers and the print-workers. They had been the first to enter the fight, and on October 3 they clearly and unequivocally formulated their political slogans.
“We proclaim a political strike,” stated the Obukhov plant, a citadel of the revolution, “and will fight to the last for the summoning of a Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal, equal, direct, and secret suffrage to introduce a democratic re public in Russia.”
The workers of electric power stations advanced the same slogans and declared:
“Together with the social-democrats, we shall fight to the end for our demands, and we proclaim before the entire working class our readiness to fight, weapons in hand, for the people’s complete liberation.”
In sending their deputies to the Soviet, the print-workers formulated the tasks of the moment in even more resolute terms:
“Recognizing the inadequacy of passive struggle and of the mere cessation of work, we resolve: to transform the army of the striking working class into a revolutionary army, that is to say, to organize detachments of armed workers forthwith. Let these detachments take care of arming the rest of the working masses, if necessary by raiding gun shops and confiscating arms from the police and troops wherever possible.”
This resolution was not just empty words. Armed detachments of print-workers were extraordinarily successful in seizing the city’s largest print shops for the printing of Izvestia Sovieta Rabochikh Deputatov (Tidings of the Council of Workers’ Deputies) and performed invaluable services in organizing the postal and telegraph strike.
On October 15 the majority of the textile factories were still at work. The Soviet worked out a complete range of methods, from verbal appeals to forcible coercion, to involve non-strikers in the strike. But it turned out to be unnecessary to resort to extreme methods. Where a printed appeal had no effect, it was enough for a crowd of strikers to appear on the scene – sometimes only a few men – and work was immediately interrupted.
“I was walking past the Pecliet factory,” one of the deputies reported to the Soviet. “I saw it was still working. I rang and asked to be announced as a deputy from the Workers’ Soviet. ’What do you want?’ the manager asks me. ’In the name of the Soviet I call for the immediate closing down of your factory.’ ’Very well, we shall stop work at 3:00 p.m.’“
By October 16, all the textile factories were out. Trade still continued only in the center of the town; in the working-class areas all shops were closed. By spreading the strike, the Soviet expanded and consolidated itself. Every striking factory elected a representative and, having equipped him with the necessary credentials, sent him off to the Soviet. The second meeting was attended by delegates from 40 large plants, 2 factories and 3 trade unions – those of the print-workers, shop assistants and office clerks. At this meeting, which took place in the physics auditorium of the Technological Institute, the author of these lines was present for the first time.
This was on October 14, when the strike on the one hand and the split in the government on the other were inexorably approaching the moment of crisis. That was the day of Trepov’s famous order: “No blank volleys, and spare no bullets.” Yet on the next day, October 15, the same Trepov suddenly recognized that “a need for gatherings has ripened in the people,“ and, while forbidding meetings within the walls of higher educational establishments, promised to set aside three municipal buildings for the purpose of meetings. “What a change in 24 hours!” we wrote in Izvestia. “Yesterday we were ripe only for bullets, today we are ripe enough for popular meetings. The murderous villain is right, in these great days of struggle the people of Russia are maturing by the hour.”
Despite the ban, on the evening of the fourteenth the higher educational establishments were overflowing with people. Meetings were held everywhere. “We, gathered here, declare” – such was our reply to the government – “that the mousetraps which General Trepov has set for us are not large enough to hold us. We declare that we shall continue to meet in the universities, in factories, in the streets and in all other places, wherever we may see fit.” From the assembly hall of the Technological Institute, where the need for demanding that the city duma should arm a workers’ militia was discussed, we moved into the physics auditorium.
Here we first saw the Soviet of Deputies, which had been formed the day before. About a hundred workers’ representatives and members of revolutionary parties were seated on the amphitheater benches. The chairman and secretaries were installed at the demonstration table. The meeting resembled a council of war more than a parliament. There was no trace of magniloquence, that ulcer of representational institutions. The questions under discussion – the spreading of the strike and the demands to be addressed to the duma – were of a purely practical nature and were debated briefly, energetically and in a businesslike manner. One felt that every atom of time was accounted for. The slightest tendency towards rhetoric was firmly checked by the chairman with the stern approval of the entire meeting.
A special deputation was instructed to submit the following demands to the city duma:
1. that measures be taken immediately to regulate the flow of food supplies to the workers;
2. that premises be set aside for meetings;
3. that all food supplies, allocations of premises and funds to the police, the gendarmerie, etc., be discontinued forthwith;
4. that funds be issued for the arming of the Petersburg proletariat in its fight for freedom.
Given the fact that the duma was composed of state officials and householders, approaching it with radical demands of this kind was a purely agitational step. It goes without saying that the Soviet entertained no illusions on that score. It neither expected nor obtained any practical results.
On October 16, after a number of adventures, attempted arrests, and so forth – let me remind the reader that all this happened before the publication of the constitutional manifesto – the Soviet’s deputation was received “in private conference” by the Petersburg city duma. Before anything else was done, the deputation, energetically supported by a group of the duma’s own members, demanded that the duma should decide, in the event of the arrest of any workers’ deputies, to send the mayor to the city governor with a declaration stating that the duma would consider such arrest as an insult to itself. Only then did the deputation present its demands.
This is how the deputation’s speaker, Comrade Radin (Knuniants, now deceased), concluded his speech:
The revolution taking place in Russia is a bourgeois revolution; the property-owning classes, too, have an interest in it. It is in your own interest, gentlemen, that it should be completed as soon as possible. If you are capable of any degree of far-sightedness, if you have a broad understanding of what is of advantage to your own class, you must do everything in your power to help the people towards the most rapid victory possible over absolutism. We want neither resolutions of sympathy nor platonic support for our demands. We demand that you show your collaboration by a series of practical actions.
Because of our monstrous electoral system, the property of a city with a population of a million and a half is in the hands of the representatives of a few thousand property-owning persons. The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies demands – and it has a right to demand, not to ask, since it represents several hundred thousand workers, inhabitants of this city, whereas you represent only a handful of electors – the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies demands that the property of the city be placed at the disposal of all the city’s inhabitants for the satisfaction of their needs. And since the most important public task today is the struggle against absolutism, and for that struggle we need places where we can meet, open to us our municipal buildings!
We need funds for continuing the strike: allocate municipal funds for this purpose, not for supporting the police and the gendarmerie!
We need arms to gain our freedom and preserve it. Allocate funds for the organization of a proletarian militia!
The deputation left the meeting under the protection of certain members of the duma. The duma rejected all the principal demands of the Soviet and expressed confidence in the police as the guardian of law and order.
* * *
As the October strike developed, so the Soviet naturally came more and more to the political forefront. Its importance grew literally hour by hour. The industrial proletariat was the first to rally around it. The railwaymen’s union established close relations with it. The Union of Unions, which joined the strike from October 14, was obliged to place itself under the Soviet’s authority almost from the start. Numerous strike committees – those of the engineers, lawyers, government officials – adapted their actions to the Soviet’s decisions. By placing many disconnected organizations under its control, the Soviet united the revolution around itself.
The split in the government ranks was growing at the same time.
Trepov was for stopping at nothing, his finger on the trigger. On October 12 he compelled Nicholas to place him at the head of all the troops of the Petersburg garrison. On the fourteenth he was already issuing the order to “spare no bullets.” He divided the capital into four military areas with a general at the head of each. In his capacity as governor-general he threatened all foodstuff dealers with expulsion from the city within twenty-four hours in the event of closure of their shops. On the sixteenth he closed down all Petersburg’s higher educational establishments and had them occupied by troops. Without any formal proclamation of martial law, he in fact imposed it. Mounted patrols terrorized the streets. Troops were everywhere – inside government establishments, public buildings, in the courtyards of private houses. At a time when even artists of the Imperial Ballet were joining the strike, Trepov persisted in filling the empty theaters with soldiers. He grinned and rubbed his hands in anticipation of a good fight.
But he was mistaken in his calculations. The victory was won by the bureaucratic faction which was opposed to him, and which hoped to make a cunning deal with history. It is for this purpose that Witte was called in.
On October 17 Trepov’s henchmen dispersed the meeting of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. But the Soviet found a way of meeting again, decided to continue the strike with redoubled energy, advised the workers to pay no rent nor to pay for goods received on credit until the resumption of work, and called upon landlords and shopkeepers not to claim rents or cash payments from workers. On that day, October 17, the first issue of Izvestia Sovieta Rabocbikh Deputatov came out.
And on the same day the Tsar signed the constitutional manifesto.
1. One delegate was elected for every 500 workers. Small industrial under takings combined into groups for election purposes. The young trade unions also received representational rights. It must be said, however, that numerical norms were not observed too strictly; in some cases delegates represented only a hundred or two hundred workers, or even fewer.