This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
Thus, despite the appearances of prosperity and peace, Europe still suffered from poverty and mutual hatreds between classes and peoples. Europe was like a heap of dry sticks and refuse, needing only a spark before bursting into flame. The air of Europe was filled with many sparks in the early 20th century—feuds between peoples and races, the rivalry of nations for power and wealth, the struggles between classes, the fights between political parties. Few, if any, could say what spark would finally set Europe ablaze; nor could anyone imagine how destructive the fire so ignited would be.
One spark fell in Russia and ignited a grand conflagration. It was just a small event, an everyday event—the firing of four workers at the Putilov plant, a factory in St. Petersburg that engaged in arms making and shipbuilding. But though small, this event inspired a movement that shook St. Petersburg and threatened to overwhelm the government of Tsar Nikolai II.
At any other time, a firing of workers would have caused little disturbance; but it was December 1904 and, for almost a year, the Russian army had been fighting a losing war with Japan. The Russian people were unhappy with how the war was going, and Russian workers were discontent with their low pay, poor working conditions, and the government’s refusal to let them organize unions. With most of the Russian army thousands of miles away, the moment was right for an uprising. The workers only needed someone to lead them.
They found that someone in a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Georgy Apollonovich Gapon. An unusual priest, Father Gapon loved God but disliked church ritual; he was devoted to the tsar, but he opposed the tsar’s government and bureaucracy. More than anything else, Gapon loved the working poor, the proletariat of Russia’s factories. It was to help them organize and struggle for their rights that in 1903 he had founded a workers association that, by late 1904, had 9 branches and over 6,000 members. Gapon took up the fight for the fired Putilov workers; and when in early January 1905, workers at the Putilov plant went on strike, Gapon publicly supported them. How the priest’s heart rejoiced as workers at one factory after another joined the striking Putilov workers—until about 100,000 workers at 382 factories in St. Petersburg were refusing to work!
As workers from one factory after another abandoned their workstations, Gapon conceived a grand idea. He would organize the workers in a kind of religious procession to present a petition to Tsar Nikolai. Gapon himself composed the petition. In it he asked the tsar to establish an assembly, elected by the people, and to grant civil liberties to the Russian people, recognizing that all are equal before the law. The petition begged Nikolai to grant workers the right to form trade unions and establish an eight-hour workday. When Gapon presented this petition to members of his workers’ association, he told them the tsar, their “father,” was sure to listen to the cries of his children.
And if he did not?
Then, said Gapon, “There is no tsar!”
In the early hours of Sunday, January 9, 1905, a crowd of from 50,000 to 100,000 workers gathered in the streets of St. Petersburg to begin their procession to the tsar’s Winter Palace. All wore their best clothes, as if they were going to church; many carried icons of the Mother of God, Christ, and the saints, while some bore portraits of Nikolai II. Divided into groups, they sang hymns as they processed through the streets, including one sung on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross:
Save thy people, O Lord, and bless thine inheritance,
Grant victory to the orthodox over their enemies
And preserve thy community by thy cross!
A report describing the crowds of workers said they “went like children to weep out their grief on their father’s breast.”
Neither Gapon nor the workers knew it, but their “father,” Tsar Nikolai, would not greet them at the Winter Palace that day. Gapon had informed the Palace about the procession and requested an audience with Nikolai, but the tsar’s ministers had other plans. They had whisked Nikolai out of the city and placed 12,000 armed troops throughout various neighborhoods in St. Petersburg.
Ignorant of the plot against them, the groups of workers continued their procession, to lay their grievances before their father, the tsar. Gapon himself led a large group through the Narva Gate—a triumphal arch commemorating the victory over Napoleon in 1812. So loud was the workers’ singing that they did not hear the bugle notes, signaling the command, “Open fire!” Shots rang out from all sides; about 40 men in Gapon’s group fell. Elsewhere in the city, troops fired on workers, killing several hundred and wounding thousands. The workers’ devotion now turned to hatred and rage. “Murderers!” they shouted at the troops. “You ran from the Japanese but shoot your own people!” In hiding, a despairing Gapon exclaimed, “There is no God any more! There is no tsar!”
If, on this Bloody Sunday (as it came to be called), the government thought its violence had stopped a dangerous insurrection, it was deceived. The government had not stopped an insurrection; it had inspired a revolution. Throughout Russia, zemstvos passed resolutions, calling for more radical measures than Gapon had demanded. Workers carried out strikes in cities throughout the empire—in Moscow, Riga, Warsaw, Vilna, and many other places. There were armed outbreaks in Poland and the Caucasus and mutinies among the tsar’s military in Russia. Led by radical leaders, peasant hordes in the countryside pillaged and burned the mansions of the rich.
Russia was being shaken by a full-scale revolution, and the tsar, with the greater part of his army fighting the Japanese, was powerless to stop it.
“Save, O Lord, Thy People!”
The Russian hymn, Spasi Gospodi, Iyudi Tvoya — “Save, O Lord, Thy People.” Those familiar with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture will recognize the melody.