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Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: 1903

In 1903 the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party assembles at a congress in Brussels, and then moves under police pressure to London. Lenin and Trotsky are both present. It is evident that their journalism has borne fruit - nearly all the delegates declare themselves in agreement with the policies of Iskra.

Nevertheless one significant split emerges, on the issue of membership of the party. Lenin and the majority want it limited to activists. A minority, which at this stage includes Trotsky, would prefer to involve a broader range of supporters. The issue, with its implications of purity versus compromise, grows subsequently into a significant split.

The two groups within the party derive their names from this London disagreement. Those who agree with Lenin and the majority become known as the Bolsheviks (from bolshoi, meaning 'large'); the minority are correspondingly the Mensheviks (menshe, smaller).

By 1917 the disagreement between the two factions reaches the level of armed warfare, but even as early as 1905 they are so estranged that they hold their congress in separate places - the Bolsheviks in London and the Mensheviks in Geneva. In that year revolution suddenly erupts in Russia, but not as a result of Bolshevik or Menshevik prompting. It is more a spontaneous series of events, aggravated by Russia's disastrous showing in her far-eastern war against Japan.

New rivalries in Asia: 1891-1904

During the 1890s it becomes evident that a struggle is developing in northeast Asia between two powers, both in expansionist mood and both eager to profit from the continuing weakness of China. One of the contenders is a vast but incompetent European empire, Russia. The other is an emerging and already fighting-fit Asian empire, Japan.

Russia has won Vladivostok from China some decades previously, in 1858, but it is in the 1890s that Russian interest in the far east grows most visibly. In 1891 the heir to the throne, the future Nicholas II, is sent on a high-profile tour of the region.

In the same year work begins on a vast Russian engineering project to open up the far east. At Chelyabinsk in the Urals, and at Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, construction gangs lay the first sleepers of what will eventually be completed, in 1905, as the trans-Siberian railway.

During these years Japan's expansionist tendencies become mainly evident in relation to Korea, its nearest neighbour and a rich source of iron and coal. Korea is also of great interest to Russia. But it is, by long tradition, a 'tributary kingdom' of China.

Japanese interference in the affairs of Korea causes successive crises, but these are resolved by diplomatic means until 1894 - when an uprising provides an excuse for both Chinese and Japanese armies to enter the kingdom, to assist the Korean ruler in putting it down.

The result is warfare between China and Japan, and an overwhelming victory for Japan. When peace is agreed, in the 1895 treaty of Shimonoseki, China accepts punitive terms - a huge indemnity, and the ceding to Japan of Taiwan and the strategically important Liaotung peninsula to the west of Korea. But Japanese control of this peninsula is more than tsar Nicholas II, with his own ambitions in the region, is willing to accept.

Russia persuades France and Germany to join diplomatic forces in the so-called Triple Intervention, which insists upon Japan returning the Liaotung peninsula to China. China, in recompense, is to pay an even larger indemnity to Japan - for which Russia provides the necessary loan.

Nicholas II builds on this success by concluding, in 1896, a treaty with China. In return for guaranteeing the integrity of Chinese territory, he is granted the right to build, and to defend with Russian troops, an important section of the trans-Siberian railway through Manchuria.

Any Japanese doubts as to Russian intentions are dispelled in 1898, when Nicholas II seizes Lü-shun (or Port Arthur), the strategically important harbour at the southern tip of the Liaotung peninsula - the very area which Russia has, three years previously, denied to Japan.

Meanwhile Japan and Russia have also been at loggerheads in Korea. In 1895 Japanese assassins kill the queen consort of the Korean king, who takes refuge for a year in the Russian legation in Seoul. When the king recovers his authority, he understandably is inclined to favour Russia rather than Japan. A direct clash between the two powers seems increasingly predictable. But it is not the Japanese custom to give warning.

Russo-Japanese war: 1904-1905

In a foretaste of Pearl Harbor nearly forty years later, a Japanese fleet launches a devastating surprise attack on Port Arthur in February 1904. Many Russian warships are destroyed. The rest are blockaded in the harbour.

In March a Japanese army lands in Korea, near Seoul, to be followed by three others elsewhere in the region before the end of June. These forces meet the Russians in a series of engagements which are either indecisive or are clear victories for the Japanese. The climax is the three-week battle for Mukden (now Shenyang) in February to March 1905, in which 270,000 Japanese prevail over 330,000 Russians.

After decades in which China has been powerless against western armies, these first Asian victories are an exhilarating experience for the Japanese. They are about to be capped by an even more convincing demonstration of Japan's new role as a modern military power.

It is obvious that Russia, with land access to the scene of war, can defeat Japan if control of the waters around Korea is recovered from the Japanese fleet. To this end the government in St Petersburg decides on a long-term strategy. The Baltic fleet, after spending the summer of 1904 in preparation, sets off in October on a journey half way round the world.

There are minor disasters on the way out (such as firing on British trawlers in the English channel under the nervous illusion that they are Japanese torpedo-boats, which creates something of a diplomatic incident), but the impressively large fleet finally reaches the China Sea in May 1905. The Russian warships head for Vladivostok through the Tsushima Strait, where a Japanese contingent of more modern and swifter ships is lying in wait.

In a two-day battle two thirds of the Russian ships are sunk; six are captured, six limp to safety in neutral ports, just four reach Vladivostok. It is a sudden and crushing end to the seven-month journey from home.

Both sides now accept an offer by the American president, Theodore Roosevelt, to mediate a peace treaty. When the diplomats gather in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, it is certain that the terms will be to Russia's disadvantage. Control of Port Arthur and the southern part of the Liaotung peninsula passes to Japan. And Russia recognizes Korea as falling within the Japanese rather than the Russian sphere of influence.

With these terms agreed, Japan's expansionist programme achieves its first international recognition. The policy will soon be pressed further. By contrast Russia's humiliation has adverse effects not only in the east but nearer home, in the turmoil of Russia's first year of revolution.

The revolution of 1905

The political situation steadily deteriorates in Russia during 1905. The year has begun with one of the most shattering days in Russian history, the day known ever afterwards simply as Bloody Sunday.

A priest, Father Gapon, has been organizing a great demonstration for Sunday, January 9 (NS/New Style Jan. 22), in St Petersburg. The intention is to converge on the Winter Palace to present a petition to the tsar (who in fact is away for the weekend in his country retreat of Tsarskoe Selo), begging him to redress the sufferings of his people. The tone of the petition is Desperate but respectful, assuming - as most in the crowd no doubt still believe - that the tsar is a benevolent ruler let down by his brutal minions.

The occasion has an essentially religious flavour. The demonstrators gather in churches round the city, soon after dawn, to pray for a peaceful day. Then about 150,000 set off in columns, many bearing icons, to converge on the palace. But the prayers for peace are unlikely to be answered. Father Gapon has been ordered, two days previously, to call off the demonstration. 120,000 troops have been moved into the city overnight.

During Sunday morning the troops disperse many of the individual columns of marchers, with violence and many casualties. Even so, a crowd of some 60,000 manages to assemble on the open space in front of the Winter Palace.

The demonstration ends in blood and chaos when troops open fire to disperse this crowd. The number of deaths is probably about 200, with another 800 wounded. The event is sufficiently shocking to become seared in the Russian consciousness, transforming for many a sense of patient suffering into one of burning anger. But it also sets off a wave of rebellion throughout the Russian empire.

In the following weeks hundreds of thousands of workers go on strike. Peasants riot and burn their lords' manors (troops are used to put down peasant uprisings nearly 3000 times during 1905). Nationalist minorities join in the unrest. Russian troops kill seventy demonstrators in Latvia, and ninety-three in the streets of Warsaw.

Discontent spreads to the troops themselves (aggravated by the shaming news of Mukden and Tsushima in the war against Japan). In the early summer there are several minor mutinies, followed in June by the most damaging incident of the year since Bloody Sunday. It happens in the Black Sea.

On June 14 (NS/New Style June 27) the crew of the battleship Potemkin complain to the captain about maggots in their meat. His response is to have their spokesman, Vakulenchuk, shot on deck. The crew riot, murder seven officers, raise the red flag and sail the ship overnight to Odessa where the workers have been on strike for two weeks. They place Vakulenchuk's body with a guard of honour at the foot of the marble steps leading from the harbour up into the city.

On the next day thousands gather to place wreaths at this impromptu shrine. Troops, ordered to clear the crowd, fire indiscriminately from the steps into the packed space below. The scale of the disaster dwarfs even Bloody Sunday. The deaths number about 2000, the wounded 3000.

The situation by now looks so promising that the revolutionary exiles begin to slip back into Russia in disguise. Trotsky is the first. Pretending to be a patient in an eye hospital, he writes a stream of revolutionary tracts from his bed. But by October he is taking an active part in the first of Russia's soviets.

The soviets of 1905

The word soviet is Russian for 'council'. Its significance in 20th-century Russian history begins in October 1905 in St Petersburg, where striking metalworkers organize a Soviet of Workers' Deputies. It is an executive committee consisting of fifty elected members, including a quota of seven each for the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

This spontaneous action by the workers is closer to the Menshevik philosophy (the Bolsheviks being suspicious of anything not organized by themselves), and Trotsky is involved from the start as a Menshevik member. When the first chairman of the soviet is arrested in November, Trotsky is elected in his place.

The Petersburg Soviet takes over many of the functions of government on behalf of the workers. It organizes the strikes, controls a workers' militia, oversees the distribution of food, and disseminates information and policy through its own newspaper, Izvestiya, in which the editorials are mainly by Trotsky.

The pioneering example of St Petersburg inspires the establishment of soviets in some fifty other Russian cities during the autumn of 1905. By the end of the year, when the tsarist government has re-established control, the soviets are suppressed and their leaders arrested. But they have provided a vivid model which proves easy to revive in 1917.

October Manifesto and the Duma: 1905-1907

The turning point in the events of 1905 is the October Manifesto. By this time it is evident to everyone, except apparently tsar Nicholas II himself, that insurrectionary chaos can only get worse unless concessions are made. On October 9 (NS Oct 22) one of the tsar's senior advisers, Sergei Witte, produces a manifesto for a form of constitutional government. With extreme reluctance Nicholas signs it.

The manifesto proposes an elected duma or legislature and promises some basic civil liberties. Government is to be by an executive council, appointed by the tsar and answerable to him, so the measures fall far short of liberal ideals. But they are sufficient to transform the situation.

With moderates giving their support to the new proposals, there is nothing to prevent a reactionary backlash of extreme violence against the radicals held responsible for the disorder of 1905. As ever, the Jews are among the first to suffer. During the two weeks following the publication of the manifesto, there are more than 600 pogroms around the country. In Odessa, scene of the demonstration and massacre in June, as many as 800 Jews are murdered and 5000 injured.

Nicholas II explains to his mother on October 27 that the pogroms are inevitable because 'the impertinence of the socialists and revolutionaries has angered the people ... and nine-tenths of the trouble-makers are Jews'.

The government is in similarly vengeful mood. In the six months after the October Manifesto some 15,000 people are executed for their activities during 1905, and a further 45,000 are exiled.

That interval of six months is precisely the period during which the arrangements for the election and convening of the first Duma are under way. The radical parties boycott the elections. So the assembly which convenes in April 1906 is made up of liberal deputies with a large minority of peasant delegates (about 100 in all). Together they prove an excitable and unruly bunch, with a shared determination to alleviate rural poverty by land reform.

Their behaviour does not prove to the tsar's liking. To the astonishment and outrage of the delegates, he summarily dismisses this first Duma in July when it has been sitting for less than three months. A second Duma is elected in time for the delegates to assemble in March 1907. This time the radical parties have decided to join in, with the result that the largest single bloc consists of socialists of various kinds. This assembly too lasts only a couple of months before being sent home in June.

The tsar is within his rights in dismissing each of these Dumas, for the October Manifesto has made little dent in his autocratic powers. But his next move, ending this limited experiment in democracy, goes against the new legislation.

Stolypin: 1906-1911

Only the Duma itself, according to the terms of the October Manifesto, can change Russia's new electoral rules. But now the tsar and his prime minister Petr Stolypin (appointed in 1906 to take a strong authoritarian line) restrict the franchise to the richer classes. Representation of the non-Russian regions of the empire is also scaled down.

The result, as intended, is a compliant third Duma which assembles in November 1907. Stolypin is free to initiate his own programme of reforms, in the tradition of enlightened despotism. In Russian terms his ideas reflect the vigorous modernizing approach of Peter the Great. They are therefore anathema to the Slavophil tendencies of the imperial court.

Stolypin is ruthless in sending large numbers of radicals to gaol or to their deaths, and in his suppression of left-wing newspapers. But his own political aims - which include land reform to benefit the peasants, the development of a state system of education, and the improvement of civil and military administration - also offend plenty of vested interests in reactionary Russia. In 1911, attending a Kiev theatre with the tsar, Stolypin is shot by a former police agent. It has never been discovered on whose behalf the deed is done.

Imperial Russia, it seems, has learnt little from the events of 1905. World War I and 1917 will bring a more conclusive lesson in revolutionary politics.

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