The Bolsheviks in the tsarist Duma

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   The Bolsheviks in the tsarist Duma

Poisoning of Working Women


Chapter XV
Poisoning of Working Women

The Growth of the Strike Movement – Strike on the Occasion of the Interpellation on the Lena Events – Poisoning of Women at the Provodnik Factory and at the Treugolnik – Interpellation Concerning the Treugolnik – The “Explanations” of the Government – Answer to the Government’s Explanations – Protest Strike of 120,000 – The Lock-out – Demonstration at the Funeral – Purishkevich appeals for Executions

In March 1914, a number of events took place in St. Petersburg which called forth a remarkably strong outburst of the workers’ movement. A number of political strikes broke out in St. Petersburg early in that month. The workers protested by one-day strikes against the persecution of the workers’ press, the systematic rejection of our fraction’s interpellations by the Duma, the persecution and suppression of trade unions and educational associations, etc. The movement spread all over the city and many works were involved. The workers also protested against a secret conference arranged by Rodzyanko, the Duma president, for the purpose of increasing armaments. Representatives from all the Duma fractions except the Trudoviks and Social-Democrats were invited, and when we denounced this fresh expenditure of the people’s money on armaments we were supported by a strike of 30,000 workers.

Throughout March the movement continued to grow and it received a fresh impetus on the anniversary of the shooting of the Lena workers. The government had not answered our previous interpellation calling for an investigation, although it was passed by the Duma. In view of the impending anniversary, we decided to introduce a new interpellation calling upon the government to expedite its reply.

All Party organisations were preparing for the anniversary’ demonstration and conducting propaganda at all factories and works. A proclamation was issued by the St. Petersburg Committee calling upon the workers to demonstrate in the streets in support of the interpellation, and workers from a number of factories decided to proceed in a body to the State Duma.

The demonstration was fixed for March 13, and the strike began in the Vyborg district. At the Novy Aivaz works the night shift left off at 3 a.m. and in the morning they were joined by the other workers. The strike quickly spread through the city and over 60,000 men participated in the movement, 40,000 of whom were metal-workers. Resolutions of protest were carried at the factories and Party members from amongst the workers spoke reminding the workers of the Lena shootings and explaining the general tasks of the revolutionary struggle.

The workers came out of the factories and works singing revolutionary songs and unfurling their red flags. The Lessner workers advanced towards the Duma from the Vyborg direction but were held up by a police patrol on the Liteiny Bridge. Another crowd managed to cross the Neva on the ice and, carrying a red flag, proceeded towards the Duma buildings along the Voskresensky quay. There the demonstrators were attacked by mounted police who started to use their whips; the crowd replied with stones and one of the police was wounded. Encounters with the police also occurred in other parts of the city and demonstrations took place in the centre, along the Nevsky Prospect,

The strike was continued the next day, when several more factories joined in. More demonstrations took place involving over 65,000 workers.

This movement was immediately followed by another strike wave caused by the poisoning of working women in rubber factories. The new strike wave was considerably stronger than the previous one, both as to the number of strikers and the extent of the street actions.

Information as to the poisoning of women workers was first received by our fraction from the workers of the Provodnik goloshes factory, the biggest in Riga. The workers there were being systematically poisoned by the fumes given off by a low quality polish used for finishing off the goloshes. Some women were only slightly affected and recovered after a fainting fit and short illness, but there were some fatal cases. Working up to thirteen hours a day, for a beggarly maximum of seventy-five kopeks, undermined the workers’ constitutions with the result that they were unable to withstand the poisonous fumes.

The women workers applied several times to the manager and to the factory inspector for improved working conditions and in particular requested that the use of the dangerous polish be discontinued. The reply of the authorities was that anyone who suffered from weak nerves could leave. Finally, after another outbreak, the workers at the Provodnik asked the fraction to help in forcing the administration to move in this matter.

We sent Malinovskv to Riga to investigate and, on the basis of the information which he collected, an interpellation to the Minister for Trade and Industry was drafted and introduced into the Duma. It began as follows:

Physical degeneration and frequent deaths of the workers are a common result of the capitalist exploitation of the proletariat. The political disfranchisement of the Russian workers and their weakness in the face of combinations of powerful capitalists who control all politicians in office, renders the condition of the working class worse than that of serfs. An example of these conditions was provided by the incidents at the Lena Goldfields, where workers were fed on horseflesh, evicted, turned out into the taiga and finally shot. And now a special investigation conducted at Riga by Malinovsky, a member of our fraction, has revealed a similar case of capitalist ruthlessness and similar passivity on the part of the authorities. The biggest industrial undertaking in Riga, the Provodnik rubber factory, which employs some 13,000 workers – mainly women – was the scene of this new tragedy ...

We insisted that the interpellation was urgent, but before it could be placed on the Duma agenda, similar events had happened in St. Petersburg itself.

On March 12 I was called away from a meeting of the interpellation commission in the Duma to answer the telephone. There one of the workers who assisted our fraction told me hurriedly that the workers of the Treugolnik factory were asking for a deputy to call on them, numerous cases of poisoning having occurred and the workers being in a state of panic.

I at once went along to the factory and was met at the gates by a crowd of excited workers. They began firing questions at me, but as I knew nothing I tried to get them to tell me what had taken place. It was difficult, as each woman worker explained the poisoning in her own way, some even calling it a plague, and meanwhile patient after patient was being carried to the first-aid room.

After hearing several accounts I was able to gather what had taken place at the factory. That morning a new polish had been issued for goloshes, the main constituent of which was a poor substitute for benzine, which emitted poisonous gases. Shortly afterwards scores of women workers began to faint. Terrible scenes followed; in some cases the poisoning was so strong that the victims became insane, while in others blood ran from the nose and mouth. The small, badly equipped first-aid room was packed with bodies and fresh cases were taken into the dining-room, while all who were able to move were sent out of the factory. “If they drop down there, the police will pick them up” – so ran the cynical excuse of the management.

About 200 cases of poisoning (only twenty were men) occurred in a department employing about 1,000. Most of the 13,000 workers employed at the factory were women and they were exploited most callously. The earnings of a goloshes worker were from forty to ninety kopeks for a ten-hour day; there was no dinner interval and overtime was common, while the owners of the Treugolnik factory obtained a profit of ten million rubles a year.

Towards the end of the day some thousands of workers assembled in the courtyard of the factory and demanded that the management issue a statement as to the number of victims, their names and the causes of the disaster. Among the crowd were many relatives of the workers affected and all were in a state of great excitement. The management refused to give any information to the workers, but sent for the police. Whilst one of the workers was making a speech from the factory wall, the police arrived and drove the crowd out of the gates. The workers went home, anxious about the fate of relatives and indignant at the bosses who were poisoning people for the sake of making bigger profits.

On the following day fresh cases of poisoning occurred in another department of the factory and the first-aid room was again full of suffering women. The women workers protested that it was impossible to continue working in the poisonous atmosphere, but the manager callously replied: “This is nonsense, you must get used to such an atmosphere. We cannot discard that polish because of a few accidents, we must fulfil our contracts. You will get used to it.”

After work a meeting attended by several thousand workers was held near the factory gates. Various suggestions were made, but before any decision could be taken, a strong police detachment arrived and began to disperse the crowd. Stones and pieces of concrete were thrown at the police and two were injured.

When further workers were taken ill on the next day, the patience of the workers reached its breaking point. They left work in all departments and streamed into the yard; without previous arrangements a strike was declared. About ten thousand strikers gathered around the factory gates and approving shouts interrupted the vehement speeches which were delivered. Whilst they were discussing the demands that should be presented to the management, the mounted police appeared and rode into the crowd flourishing their whips. The workers resisted and stones and bricks were thrown. Police reinforcements soon arrived and charged the crowd with drawn sabres, driving them in all directions and forcing some into the Obvodny Canal. There were casualties on both sides and many workers were arrested.

To avoid fresh disturbances, the management announced that the factory would be closed for several days and warned the workers that if further demonstrations occurred, the closing would be indefinite.

On my return from the factory I reported to a special meeting of the fraction, which decided to introduce another urgent interpellation combining this matter with the events at Riga which had previously been raised. However, on March 15, a message informed us of yet another case of poisoning, this time at the Bogdanov tobacco factory.

In Cabinet Street, where the factory is situated, I was met by about two thousand workers who had left their work in panic. I entered the factory gates and learned from the workers that the events there were very similar to those which had taken place at the Treugolnik. I went to the director of the factory to learn his explanation of the poisonings, but his reply was sheer mockery: “There is nothing to cause poisoning at this factory. The women are poisoned because they have been fasting and eating rotten fish. That accounts for the fainting fits.” This made it evident that the management had already decided to shift the blame on to the workers themselves.

The next day I wrote a detailed account of my visit to the factory for Pravda and appealed to the workers: “In order to prevent these occurrences, the workers must be better organised and must set up their own trade union of tobacco workers.” Many articles appeared in Pravda dealing with these poisonings, pointing out that this was only one of the results of the exploitation of the workers and drawing the necessary political conclusions.

Cases of poisoning continued to occur at other tobacco factories, printing offices, etc. Disease was rampant throughout St. Petersburg and the outbreak revealed the almost complete absence of medical aid at most St. Petersburg factories. No doctors or nurses were available, medicines were deficient and there was no room for the casualties.

Excited workers from the factories affected came to the fraction and requested us to visit their factories, to investigate the causes of the poisonings and to bring solace to the masses. I had to visit a number of works and met everywhere the same picture. The panic caused amongst the workers by the immediate danger of being poisoned was accompanied by a deep feeling of resentment against the bosses. While it was not possible to establish in all cases the real cause of the poisoning, it was evident to all the workers that the chief reason for the accidents was profiteering on the part of the employers, for the sake of which the most ordinary and simple rules of health and labour protection were ignored.

The widespread outbreak of poisoning among the workers had repercussions in all branches of society; bourgeois publicists could not remain silent. It was natural that they should endeavour to explain events in their own way and even seek to make capital out of them. The staunchest defenders of capitalism, such as the yellow Birzhevye Vyedomosty, fully supported the factory owners and declared that the true culprits were the revolutionary parties, which tried to set the workers against their employers and force them to strike. A calumny was circulated to the effect that a “committee of poisoners,” operating under the orders of our Bolshevik fraction, was working to create disturbances among the workers. In a vain attempt to avoid its obvious responsibility for the illness of hundreds of women workers, the united bourgeoisie used all means, including the foulest, and set its machine of lying insinuations into motion.

Not even the tsarist government, however, ventured to endorse the lies of the bourgeois scribblers. The commission set up by the Ministry of Trade and Industry recognised that the “prime cause of illness among workers in the rubber industry is the inhaling of fumes from benzine while at work.” Replying to our interpellation in the Duma, an official of the Ministry of Trade, Litvinov-Falinsky, was forced to admit that the poisonings were caused by benzine of bad quality and that these poisonings differed little from the nicotine poisonings at tobacco factories. With regard to the spread of the epidemic, Litvinov acknowledged that it was due to the stifling atmosphere in the factories, the weakness and exhaustion and strained nerves of the workers. Litvinov, of course, did not forget to refer to mass psychosis and hysteria which, it was alleged, played an important part in the spread of the disease.

This debate took place in a very strained atmosphere. Everyone in the Duma knew that on the previous day mass strikes, in protest against the poisonings, had broken out in St. Petersburg. More than 30,000 workers were out and there had already been a number of demonstrations and encounters with the police. While the discussion was taking place in the Duma, more workers left the factories and joined the strikers. The workers of St. Petersburg were electrified and excited, and their excitement penetrated into the Taurida Palace, making the Duma Black Hundreds nervous. The Black Hundreds rightly interpreted our speeches at that moment as appeals to the workers for further action and they were afraid and wished to gag us.

After Rodzyanko had cut short the speech of the first speaker, Tuliakov, it was my turn to speak, but I was not allowed to remain long on my feet. My speech was continually interrupted by shouts from the benches on the Right and by warnings from the president, Rodzyanko, who at length chose an opportune moment and stopped me in the middle of a sentence. Finally the debate was adjourned to the following sitting.

Among the workers the ferment increased and on the following day nearly 120,000 were involved in the strike movement. Party cells had carried on preliminary agitation at all factories and the police had endeavoured to forestall any action. Mass searches were made in the workers’ districts and scores of workers were arrested. The secret police paid special attention to the leaders of trade unions and insurance societies who, in most cases, were active Party members. Despite this attempt to comb out all leaders, the movement assumed such dimensions that the police were unable to cope with it.

Demonstrations were held all over the city. The workers marched through the streets singing revolutionary songs; the police, both mounted and foot, flocked to the working-class districts and many collisions occurred. That day the secret police reported no less than thirteen big demonstrations in various parts of the city. During one encounter, when the crowd attempted to rescue a worker who had been arrested, the police drew their revolvers and fired on the crowd. A hand to hand fight followed and, despite a stubborn resistance, the police, armed with sabres and whips, finally gained the upper hand over the unarmed workers. Similar skirmishes took place in other districts and the demonstrations were distinguished by the determination and vigour of the workers.

The government and the capitalists sensed the threat behind this movement and at once passed to the counter-attack. On March 20 the Manufacturers’ Association declared a lock-out which directly involved 70,000 workers. All the biggest works were closed and the Assistant Minister for the Navy ordered the Baltic shipyards to stop work. It was announced that the works would remain closed for a week and in the event of further strikes there would be mass dismissals. Police patrols were posted at all works ... The government promptly came to the assistance of the employers in this open war on the workers and suppressed the metal-workers’ union in order to weaken the workers’ resistance. By order of the city governor the activities of the union were suspended “pending a further decision,” which meant until the St. Petersburg proletariat again succeeded in wresting from tsarism the right to restore their union to life. The offensive against the workers proceeded along the whole front.

The lock-out, which threw tens of thousands of workers on to the streets, caused a great deal of commotion among the St. Petersburg proletariat and some alarm in bourgeois circles. This alarm explains the decision of the municipal authorities to allocate 100,000 rubles for the organisation of soup kitchens for those out of work. It is characteristic that this decision was repealed as soon as the labour troubles were somewhat allayed, although there were as many unemployed in St. Petersburg as before.

Representatives from the factories and works involved called at our fraction headquarters and requested us to take measures to end the lock-out which doomed thousands of workers to starvation. The organised workers of the Narva district sent in the following resolution:

We regard the lock-out as a provocative challenge from the Manufacturers’ Association. We call on the workers’ deputies of the Social-Democratic Workers’ Fraction to question the Minister of Trade and Industry and demand an answer within three days. We also propose that all employed workers lend monetary assistance to their comrades who are being victimised.

As in previous lock-outs, our fraction organised a collection on behalf of the dismissed workers. At the same time, through the columns of Pravda, we called on the workers of those factories where work had been stopped “for an indefinite period” to sue their employers for a fortnight’s wages in lieu of discharge. Pravda warned the workers to watch carefully that the management did not insert in their pay-books the phrase “I have no further claims,” which if signed inadvertently by the worker would prevent him obtaining justice.

On March 21, protest demonstrations were again held in the Narva district and several arrests were made. At the same time another demonstration in connection with the funeral of two workers, who were killed by an explosion at an electrical station, revealed the revolutionary enthusiasm of the St. Petersburg proletariat. More than 3,000 workers attended the funeral and many wreaths bearing revolutionary inscriptions were laid on the coffins.

Closely watched by the police, the workers walked eighteen kilometres from the Obukhov hospital to the Preobrazhensky cemetery. Detachments of mounted police were posted at the gates of every works on the route to prevent more workers joining the procession; nevertheless the crowd continually increased.

On the previous day, the workers had asked me to attend the funeral. I did so, and as the coffins were being lowered into the grave I began my speech. “New victims have been torn from the vast family of the St. Petersburg workers. What do the stony-hearted capitalists care?”

A police inspector approached me and demanded that I should stop; I ignored him and continued:

“Exhausting toil, noxious gases in the workshop, premature death, and on top of all this, lock-outs – such is the lot of the working class. Lately the victims claimed by capitalism have become more numerous. Explosions, poisonings ...”

Before I could finish the sentence, the mounted police rode into the crowd and the whips began to hiss; the crowd was forced back, and left the cemetery singing the revolutionary funeral march. Several hundred workers returned by rail and, after singing revolutionary songs in the train, they raised me shoulder high at St. Petersburg station and carried me out into the square. Police arrived from all directions and quickly dispersed the crowd.

I hurried from the station to the Duma where I was due to take part in the postponed debate on the poisonings. But here too I was unable to finish my speech. Rodzyanko interrupted it just as the police inspector had done at the cemetery.

The Black Hundred majority had decided that no Social-Democratic deputy should be allowed to speak on that day. When, immediately after me, one of the “seven” protested against the calumny about the poisonings, Rodzyanko stopped him and with the approval of the Duma majority suspended him for two sessions. This created an uproar on the Left and all the members of the two Social-Democratic fractions demanded the right to speak to protest against this action. Rodzyanko, however, refused and, taking advantage of the late hour, closed the sitting.

A similar scene occurred during the next Duma sitting. Zamyslovsky, one of the most rabid of the Black Hundreds and a leader of pogroms, repeated the vile calumny about a “committee of poisoners.”

Shouts of “Liar! agent-provocateur! “ arose from the Left; Rodzyanko was powerless and unable to restore order. We continued to protest while the Rights applauded their leader and shouted threats at us.

Taking advantage of a lull in the riot, Rodzyanko suspended Chkheidze for two sessions and allowed Purishkevich to address the house. Purishkevich continued the provocation:

“The Treugolnik and Provodnik factories have hitherto been regarded, so to speak, as ‘Black Hundred’; it was difficult to persuade the workers there to strike, so the friends of those who sit there” – here Purishkevich waved his hand towards our benches – “resorted to those measures …”

Shouts of “Get out,” “Remove him,” drowned the rest of the sentence. He continued:

“Since this crime is unparalleled and strikes at the very foundation of stable government and social life, these gentry” – pointing to us – “should be tried by court martial and hanged.”

Whilst any of our workers’ deputies would undoubtedly have been suspended for using words much milder than these, Purishkevich was allowed to pour out what abuse he liked. He resumed his seat without the slightest remark from the president but amidst the jeers of the Left.

The whole episode had assumed such importance in St. Petersburg that even the Black Hundred Duma dared not reject our interpellation. But they defeated our proposal for a special parliamentary commission to inquire into the causes of the poisoning by an overwhelming majority, and turned the interpellation itself over to the general commission which had already had so much experience in burying the most urgent of Duma interpellations.

The fact that the Duma did not reject the motion unconditionally did not hamper the government or the employers in their general offensive against the workers. After keeping the workers unemployed for some time, the owners lifted the lock-out, but, when reinstating their employees, carefully sifted out all the “unreliable” and “troublesome” elements.