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The "Bloody Sunday" Massacre

The Revolutionary Masses

The spark which ignited the revolutionary conflagration was provided by a terrible tragedy in St Petersburg, when on a Sunday day of 9 January 1905 a peaceful march of more than a hundred thousand workers and members of their families to the Winter Palace was ruthlessly gunned down by the government troops. The workers wanted to present their grievances to the Tsar and ask for his protection against the arbitrariness of factory owners and corrupt officials.

"Bloody Sunday". By I. Vladimirov

The unheard-of brutality of the police action to disperse the protesters which caused thousands of casualties, including women and children, the cynicism of the authorities, who tried to portray the shooting as a legitimate response to an anti-government rising of a disorderly rabble, were too much even for a country accustomed to despotism. The ‘Bloody Sunday’ provoked a tidal wave of indignation in society that swept away any remaining respect for the authorities. Along with its numerous human victims, it killed Russia’s age-old popular trust in the Tsar as the people’s protector.

The irony was that a detonator of popular revulsion against the regime had been provided by an organization which had been set up under the patronage of the police and the church. The ill-fated workers’ march had been the initiative of an ‘Assembly of Russian Factory Workers of St Petersburg’ led by a priest, Father Grigori Gapon. The ‘Assembly’ was a strictly legal organization of patriotic and educational orientation for workers and stood outside political parties. Despite the fact that only about 3 per cent of St Petersburg workers had joined it by the start of 1905, the organization's standing with the proletariat in the capital was high and it was more influential by far than any of the revolutionary parties at that time.

Writing a petition to the tsar was the idea of the members of the ‘Assembly’. The text of the petition was composed by Father Gapon himself who was aided in this by intellectuals from the liberal-democratic camp. (Social-Democrats and Socialist-Revolutionaries from the revolutionary camp tried to dissuade the workers from taking part in the protest march to the Winter Palace, arguing that the idea of presenting the petition was both useless and dangerous). Couched in emotional religious language, the petition contained practically all general democratic demands of the day. It reflected the workers’ feeling of deep despair at the tyranny of employers and the arbitrariness of bureaucracy: 


Sovereign, there are thousands of us here; outwardly we resemble human beings, but in reality neither we nor the Russian people as a whole enjoy any human right, have any right to speak, to think, to assemble, to discuss our needs, or to take measures to improve our conditions... All the workers and the peasants are at the mercy of bureaucratic administrators consisting of embezzlers of public funds and thieves who not only disregard the interests of the people but also scorn these interests. The bureaucratic administration has brought the country to complete ruin, has brought upon it a disgraceful war, and continues to lead it further and further into destruction...

Sovereign, these are the problems that we face and these are the reasons that we have gathered before the walls of your palace. Here we seek our last salvation. Do not refuse to come to the aid of your people; lead them out of the grave of disfranchisement, poverty, and ignorance; grant them an opportunity to determine their own destiny, and remove from them the unbearable yoke of bureaucrats. Tear down the wall that separates you from your people and let them rule the country with you.


The biblical idiom of the petition made its message clearer to the workers, many of whom came from the countryside and were proletarians in the first generation. Some had never been involved in any political activity before. They believed in the Tsar and hoped he would intervene to protect them. They saw the petition as a last chance to settle peacefully intractable social conflicts. Thus, the movement led by Father Gapon reflected some of  the elemental hopes and longings of the Russian people.

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The Revolution of 1905-7


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
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Alexander I
Nicholas I
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The Revolution of 1905-7
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