Russia and the USSR 1905-1941

Bloody Sunday

Causes and course of the Bloody Sunday massacre in St Petersburg

On the 22nd January 1905, the Bloody Sunday massacre took place in the Russian capital Saint Petersburg. Soldiers of the Imperial Guard fired on protesters led by the Orthodox Priest Father Georgy Gapon as they marched towards the Winter Palace where they planned to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II.

By 1905 there was growing discontent amongst the urban working class. Father Gapon had established the “Assembly of the Russian Factory and Mill Workers of the City of St. Petersburg” to promote workers’ rights in 1903, but after four Assembly members from the Putilov ironworks were sacked from their jobs in December 1904, workers across the city went on strike. Capitalising on the situation Father Gapon drafted a petition to the Tsar calling for improved working conditions and various other reforms that received 150,000 signatures.

On the morning of the 22nd January workers marched with the petition to the Winter Palace, alongside religious icons and pictures of the Tsar. Gapon had already notified the authorities of the petition and the march, and in response approximately 10,000 troops from the Imperial Guard were placed around the palace. However, why they began firing on the peaceful march is unclear. Even the number killed or injured is uncertain with estimates ranging from the government’s official figure of 96 dead to revolutionary claims of more than 4,000.

The Tsar was not in the palace at the time, and did not give an order for the troops to fire, but was widely blamed for the massacre. In response strikes and protests spread around the country, and eventually developed into the 1905 Revolution.

Attack on Port Arthur

What triggered the Russo-Japanese War? Overview of the attack on Port Arthur.

On the 8th February 1904, the Russian-controlled Port Arthur was attack by Japanese torpedos.

Port Arthur was a fortified naval base in the south of Manchuria that had been leased to Russia since 1898. After crushing the Boxer Rebellion as part of an eight-nation coalition, Russia infuriated Japan, which claimed parts of Manchuria within its own sphere of influence, by refusing to remove its troops. Japan was willing to recognise Russian dominance in Manchuria in return for access to Korea, but an agreement could not be reached and Japan broke off diplomatic relations on 6 February 1904.

Three hours before the Russian government received the declaration of war on 8 February, the Japanese Imperial Navy conducted a pre-emptive strike. Japanese Admiral Tōgō sent ten destroyers to Port Arthur where their torpedoes damaged two of the Russian fleet’s most powerful battleships as well as a cruiser. Although none of the ships were sunk due to the effectiveness of torpedo nets in the port, the Russian fleet was seriously weakened as the ships that had been hit were put out of action. The attack was halted at around 2am the following morning after the Russians turned on their searchlights and began to return fire.

At around 8am Admiral Tōgō sent a reconnaissance mission through the morning mist to inspect Port Arthur. With his observers reporting that the Russian fleet had been crippled by the previous night’s attack, the Japanese fleet were ordered to launch an attack on the port. In reality the reconnaissance was wrong and the Russians were prepared for battle. The Battle of Port Arthur resulted in ships on both sides suffering damage before the Japanese fleet retreated.

Mutiny on the battleship Potemkin

Russian mutiny on the battleship Potemkin

The crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin mutinied on the 27th June 1905, an uprising that was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film.

Potemkin entered service in early 1905 after her gun turrets were fitted, and therefore did not take part in the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Instead, by the end of June she was off the coast of Ukraine completing maneuvers. It was here that rotten meat allegedly containing maggots was brought on board to feed the crew. Dissatisfied with the ship’s doctor’s opinion that it was fit for human consumption, the crew complained to the captain.

The ship’s second in command, Commander Giliarovsky, confronted the sailor’s delegation and killed spokesman Grigory Vakulenchuk. This triggered the mutiny, in which seven of the ship’s eighteen officers including Giliarovsky and the Captain were killed. The crew chose quartermaster Afanasi Matushenko to take control.

Having hoisted the red flag, the Potemkin set sail for Odessa where a general strike was underway. Here they brought the body of the revolutionary spokesman Vakulenchuk ashore and laid it on the Odessa Steps, where it acted as a focal point for locals to show their support for the sailors. However, by the evening the authorities received orders from the Tsar to take firm action. Estimates say that up to 2,000 civilians were killed.

The Potemkin left Odessa the next day and sailed for Constanța in Romania. The ship was surrendered to the Romanian authorities in return for the sailors receiving safe passage. Potemkin was handed back to the Russian navy, and was renamed Panteleimon.

First Russian Duma

The origins of the First Russian Empire’s State Duma

The Russian Empire’s State Duma met for the first time at the Taurida Palace in St. Petersburg on 27th April 1906.

The Duma was to form the lower house of a new legislative assembly. It was proposed by Sergei Witte, the Chairman of the Russian Council of Ministers, in response to the wave of violence that culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Tsar Nicholas II formally declared the creation of the Duma when he issued the October Manifesto later that year.

Elections for the Duma took place in March 1906 and permitted men over the age of 25 to vote. Having been boycotted by a number of parties on the left, the election resulted in a centre-left parliament of which the moderate Constitutional Democrats held the most seats.

Witte, the architect of the October Manifesto, was forced to resign on 22 April and the following day the Tsar issued the Russian Constitution of 1906, otherwise known as the Fundamental Laws. Under the terms, the authority of the Duma was severely restricted while the Tsar was given the title ‘supreme autocrat’. He had the power to dismiss the Duma and call elections, while Article 87 permitted him to impose laws as emergency legislation.

Despite possessing such limited powers, the Duma adopted a broadly anti-autocratic agenda and pushed for further reforms after the liberal deputy Professor Sergey Muromtsev was elected as the Duma’s President. Their calls for increased liberties were ignored by the government. The first two bills sent to the Duma for approval were for the construction of a greenhouse a new laundry.

Just 72 days after it convened, the Tsar dissolved the assembly on 21 July. He appointed the more repressive Peter Stolypin to the position of Prime Minister the same day.

Lenin reading Pravda

The origins of Pravda, the official newspaper of Communist Russia

Pravda, the official newspaper of what became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was first published on 5 May 1912.

Prior to the foundation of the CPSU many revolutionary socialists belonged to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. It was the RSDLP that had originally split into Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) factions in 1903.

An early version of Pravda appeared that year, although at the time it was a journal without political affiliation. Its editorial board gradually began to include active members of the RSDLP and, by 1909 when its headquarters moved to Vienna, the board was dominated by Bolsheviks under the editorship of Leon Trotsky.

The Central Committee of the RSDLP had first suggested making Pravda its official mouthpiece in 1910, but it wasn’t until the Mensheviks were expelled from the party in January 1912 that this happened. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin moved the paper to St Petersburg and the first edition was published on 5 May, the anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth.

The first edition of the newspaper consisted of just four pages, and focused on workers’ issues. As its circulation increased to as many as 60,000 copies by July 1914, Pravda was shut down by the tsarist government censors.

Despite this suppression, Pravda continued to be printed under a serious of pseudonyms. The newspaper formally reopened following the February Revolution of 1917 and by 15 March it was being co-edited by Joseph Stalin following his return from exile.

Pravda remained the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party until it was abolished in 1991. The newspaper continues to exist, albeit not as a daily publication.

Causes of the Russian Revolution – The Eastern Front in WW1

the sealed train

Lenin and the ‘sealed train’ that returned him to Russia

Vladimir Lenin arrived in Russia after a decade of self-imposed exile.

Bolshevik Revolution

Brief overview of the Bolshevik Revolution

On the 7th November 1917, Red Guards entered the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in a defining event of the Bolshevik Revolution. Sometimes referred to as the October Revolution, the 7th November is the date from the modern Gregorian calendar that aligns with the 25th October on the old style Julian calendar, from which the revolution got its alternative name.

On the night of the 6th November Leon Trotsky led the Red Guards to take control of key government buildings and communication points such as post offices, bridges and the State Bank. Although the Red Guards were armed, historians generally accept that the takeover was carried out without bloodshed or indeed any shots being fired.

Throughout the 7th November large crowds of troops sympathetic to the Bolsheviks began to surround the Winter Palace. The actual attack on the palace began after a signal shot fired from cruiser ship Aurora. Soviet accounts of the night, portrayed most powerfully in Sergei Eisenstein’s film reenactment, present the takeover of the Winter Palace as a huge battle. However, this popular image is a fabrication. The large number of Red Guards marching towards the palace led to the Cossacks guarding the palace to desert their posts, while the remaining Cadets and volunteers from the Women’s Battalion laid down their weapons and surrendered after the Red Guards found their way inside the palace through an open door.

The remnants of the Provisional Government were discovered in a small dining room and arrested. Meanwhile the wine cellar was looted, leading to what historian Orlando Figes suggested was perhaps, “the biggest hangover in history”.

The Bolshevik Revolution

This excellent documentary presents the events of the 1917 Revolutions, with a particular focus on the actions of the Bolsheviks.

 

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

On the 3rd March 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed between Russia and the Central Powers. The treaty ended Russia’s participation in the First World War and was negotiated by the new Bolshevik government.

By the winter of 1917 the Russian economy was in tatters as a result of the strain of maintaining the war effort. Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in February, but the subsequent Provisional Government was overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution later that year after they continued to fight alongside the Entente Powers.

The Russian Bolsheviks vehemently opposed the war and received some support from Germany in their efforts to seize power. For example they had allowed Vladimir Lenin to return from exile in Switzerland to lead the revolution against the Provisional Government.

After seizing power Lenin appointed Leon Trotsky as Commissar of Foreign Affairs, but peace negotiations with the Central Powers were fraught with difficulties: the situation was so bad that, in mid-February, Trotsky declared ‘neither war nor peace’. He intended Russia to stop fighting, but not sign a peace treaty: this incensed the Germans who responded by restarting their advance into Russia in Operation Faustschlag. Concerned by the speed of the German attack, Lenin threatened to resign if Russia didn’t accept the new peace terms delivered on the 23rd February.

The Treaty was a humiliation for Russia: she lost approximately one million square miles of land including fertile farmland, natural resources and industry, as well as approximately a third of the entire Russian population. The Treaty was cancelled as part of the Armistice with Germany on the 11th November 1918.

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