01 January 2020
Nawrocki / Classic Stock / Getty Images
Nawrocki / Classic Stock / Getty Images

ON 22 JANUARY 1905, tsarist forces violently disrupt a peaceful protest march in St Petersburg, Russia. The protestors were members of the St Petersburg Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers, founded, in 1903, by the Orthodox priest Georgy Apollonovich Gapon.

The Assembly was the latest in a series of “police unions,” labour organisations started by tsarist authorities as counterweights to the unionisation efforts of growing revolutionary parties. These organisations, controlled by police agents, sought to meet some of the economic and cultural needs of the workers while encouraging their inherent social conservatism. Gapon sought to avoid embroiling his Assembly in industrial disputes, instead organising dances, concerts and lectures, and using his status as a priest to lobby the state. In 1904, the interior ministry officially recognised the Assembly. Although both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks boycotted the Assembly, it drew a large membership.

After four Assembly members were arbitrarily fired from the Putilov Ironworks, in December 1904, the factory’s workforce went on strike. By 20 January 1905, two-thirds of St Petersburg’s industrial workers had joined sympathy strikes. Gapon decided to petition the tsar, Nicholas II. Drafted in obsequious tones, the petition asked for better working conditions, but also for a constituent assembly elected by universal suffrage and an end to the Russo–Japanese War.

Gapon notified the authorities about the petition and a planned march to the Winter Palace. The palace refused his request for an audience with the tsar. On 22 January, over fifty thousand protestors marched, carrying portraits of the tsar and religious icons, and singing hymns. They initially faced no resistance, but as they reached the Narva Gate, soldiers suddenly opened fire, killing over a hundred protestors and injuring several hundred. “There is no god any longer!” an enraged Gapon exclaimed. “There is no tsar!” The massacre sparked a strike wave throughout Russia, culminating in the Revolution of 1905.

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