“In a country ruled by an autocracy, with a completely enslaved press, in a period of desperate political reaction in which even the tiniest outgrowth of political discontent and protest is persecuted, the theory of revolutionary Marxism suddenly forced its way into the censored literature before the government realized what had happened and the unwieldy army of censors and gendarmes discovered the new enemy and flung itself upon him. ” – Lenin (“What is to be done: Criticism in Russia”) c.1901
20th century Russia and protest go together like bread and butter, or vodka and angry Siberian bears, depending on which side of the peasantry you viewed it from. The earliest uprisings, and most notable for the eventual 1917 revolution, took place in 1905. As unrest and peasant disparity increased throughout the end of the 19th century into the early 20th, the people began to react accordingly with protests and strikes that took various forms.
In 1905, the Russian state was dealing with a broad range of problems that led to civil unrest and peasant disobedience. They included overall problems in agriculture production and development, problems with internal national perception (especially following failures such as the Crimean War), problems with labor, and problems with the disproportionate levels of education throughout the population. Although the serfs had already become “emancipated”, Russia lacked the internal governance ability to maintain good order and fair practice of trade for produce and overall population well being. The vast majority of the population was comprised of small scale farmers on a communal system of shared land and labor. This proved to be ineffective as the farmers could not create enough produce to sell in order to break even, or even feed themselves, let alone ever become wealthy and prosper. This provides obvious reasons for protests and in 1902 they went to the streets in mass, angry that their farm systems were failing, and that there was no work to be had elsewhere. Strikes, looting, and pillaging took place in the provinces of Kharkov and Poltava, to name a few.
Another area of interest that sparked unrest was in deciding national prominence by birthright, or through citizenry conversion and immigration. Russia was a large territory that encompassed a lot of ethnic and religious minorities. Polish people, and Jews, began to exemplify this problem in the early 20th century when they found contention with the state and greater population during assimilation. The emancipation of the serfs left a more or less “free” populace, however, codes of civil rights and liberties had not been established for those who would fall out of the realm of being ethnically and traditionally Russian. The lack of a homogeneous population who fully understood their path as a nation led to a subtle forms of unrest that played into the overall greater problem faced by twentieth century Russia.
Labor was a major issue in pre-1917 revolution Russia. Wage workers were expected to work regularly up to eleven and a half hours a day, if not more. Penalties were harsh state wide for things like tardiness, or failure to produce at an effective level, and unions or workers organizations were barred from existence. Wages paid out were the lowest in all of Europe at the time, and factory workers could, like their agrarian cousins, barely make a living.
All of the workers within a factory were at the will of the assembly and could be fired as a whole without notice if there were any infractions. The lack of jobs and abundance of willingness of people to work led to deplorable working conditions. One such strike in 1904 led to the firing of the entire Putilov factory giant, (Freeze, 251.)
“Bloody Sunday”, as it is so appropriately named, took place in 1905 when one such protest and worker strike occurred on January 22nd in St. Petersburg Russia. A peaceful city wide protest and general worker strike was shattered by gunfire from state military forces, and the consequences would largely bring upon the 1917 revolution and subsequent downfall of the Tsar. This is the culminating strike of many smaller ones that dotted the country side. The people had in a sense “woken up” to the failure of their own state to provide the freedom to seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.