Bloody Sunday, 9th January 1905, seemed to have been one of the most crucial mistakes Nicholas II made during his whole reign. In one day, he dealt a devastating blow to Tsarism and the belief that they were chosen by God. The order, to allow peaceful protestors in St.Petersburg, holding images of Nicholas II and religious crosses, to be shot, did a lot to sour the opinion of the masses against him. The peasants largely up until that point were devoutly loyal to Tsarism, since the Romanov’s were supposedly appointed by God.
There had been a build up of revolutionary activity pre-1905. Primarily Marxist and Populist sentiments were increasing as well as just plain dissatisfaction with the Tsarist regime. Enter Father Gapon, the charismatic Orthadox priest. He was greatly influential and organised thousands of workers to join the Assembly of Russian Factory Workers. Civil rights and constitutional order became a bone of contention for the members. These members had been organised in an event a month earlier, the Putilov factory dismissal of four workers. This incident could not be solved by simply rehiring these men. Gapon had a vital role, Freeze suggests that he was a major component in giving the workers unity and direction. The Putilov incident led to a city-wide general strike and a peaceful mass march to Nicholas II at the Winter Palace. The main demands were not surprising: higher wages, shorter hours, a liberal programme with a constitution and free elections. Nicholas II failed to appear at the palace and authorised military units to shoot the petitioners, who included women and children. Public opinion drastically changed as soon as the people heard of those dead.
The article, published in the New York Times in 1909, titled: ‘How Father Gapon was led to his death: Vidid story of the Russian Priest whose fate was mixed with treachery’, discusses the role Gapon had in creating what became known as Bloody Sunday. This piece was written from the perspective of a man named Rutenburg, who, according to this account, was directly involved in saving Father Gapon after the petition took a dark turn at the Winter Palace. It was on January 5th when Gapon delivered his famous speech, inspiring people to take action. He had previously gone to other mediums of authorities but had gotten nowhere so he decided they needed to go directly to the Czar. Father Gapon beforehand had anticipated some form of governmental resistance as he claimed that during their rally, they would be willing to lay down their lives to achieve their aims. It did however seem unlikely that violence of that scale would occur. This is arguably a key reason as to why he managed to have much support for the movement.
Gapon became synonymous with the uprising but according to Rutenberg, the priest did not have a structured plan when it came to the day, at that point it became a real people’s movement, they just needed someone’s idea to rally around. These workers were marching for a cause that everyone believed in, going to the Czar primarily for work and bread. At the point of the march, knowing that the soldiers in support of Nicholas II had been preparing ammunition, Father Gapon still presumed that the people would not be shot. On the day, Gapon became a weak figure, he lost his charisma and leadership skills but the people were determined. The soldiers were brutal in their dealings with the crowd and unleashed volleys of shots until there was no more movement in front of them. The priest’s disillusion with Tsarism and the whole event is highlighted by him being quoted as saying ‘There is no God any longer! There is no Czar any longer!’. A very bold statement for a priest to claim, given his status at this point it is likely that he influenced many people against support of the Romanovs. Having had such a negative response from the Tsar, Father Gapon took it upon himself to flee, this is where Rutenberg became especially helpful to the priest. This even ,in Januay 1905, was the prelude to the 1905 revolution, which coincided with the Russo-Japanese War. It does seem likely that the Russian workers needed a figure like Gapon to lead them, without him and his Assemblym the Putilov affair could well have just been another of many incidents. The pressure of the Russo-Japanese war however no doubt was mounting the pressure on the proletariat to react against the Romanovs.
TRANSLATED BY, H.B., 1909, Nov 07. HOW FATHER GAPON WAS LED TO HIS DEATH. New York Times (1857-1922), 2. ISSN 03624331.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia A History. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009. 199-233. Print.