A peaceful march for human rights

The petition made specific demands: open discussions between the workers and the government, an eight-hour working day, a minimum wage of one ruble a day, more hygienic factories, an income tax, an amnesty for political prisoners, universal suffrage, education and medical care, and separation of church and state, and a constituent assembly.

I read these demands and had to shake my head a few times. The demands, with a few contemporary modifications, were/are timeless and universal, aren’t they?

This petition, though, never reached the man to whom it was supposed to be presented: Tsar Nicholas II. Here is what happened:

On January 22 [1905], “Bloody Sunday,” Father George Gapon, an Orthodox priest and former prison chaplain, led the march of about 120,000 people through the streets of St. Petersburg. He had written out [the above quoted] petition which was a model of its kind, forceful and intelligent…

It was a bitterly cold day, the roads covered with ice and snow, the wind coming in chilling gusts. The petitioners carried crosses, icons, and religious banners, and there were also banners painted with portraits of the Tsar. The sang the deep-throated hymn “God Save the Tsar,” and they marched peacefully with linked arms in good order. There were no speeches, no harangues. Father Gapon, who had some connections with the police as a result of his work in the prisons, had arranged that the police would  do nothing to disturb the progress of the processions, but here and there soldiers backed by Cossacks blocked off streets and bridges, thus forcing the marchers to make a detour. By 2 P.M. most of the marchers had reached the square. They hoped to see the Tsar standing at one of the windows of the Winter Palace, but the Tsar had left some days before…In his place was the Tsar’s crusty fifty-seven-year-old uncle, the Grand Duke Vladimir. Seeing the crowds and determined to “teach them a lesson,” he issued to the long line of soldiers drawn up in front of the Winter Palace the order to open fire. With this order he sealed the fate of the Romanov dynasty.

The Grand Duke Vladimir had not panicked: he knew exactly what he was doing. He ordered the soldiers to fire into the crowd, not over their heads. To the end of his days — he died four years later — he felt he had done the right thing at the right time, and showed not the slightest sign of penitence.

As the first volley was fired, there came from the crowd a low humming sound, and this was followed by sharp screams and cries that grew louder when the second volley was fired. After that came panic, as everyone attempted to escape from the square, flinging themselves from right to left, and some turned back fleetingly to look at the windows of the Winter Palace, hoping against hope that at the last minute the Tsar would appear, to call off the soldiers and receive the petition, as thought the shooting had been a mistake, as though the nightmare would clear away. The banners and icons fell on the snow; pools of bright red blood appeared; soon there were only the soldiers, the dead, and the desperately wounded on the square.

From The Life And Death of Trotsky [1977], by Robert Payne


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