The Bolsheviks in the tsarist Duma

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   The Bolsheviks in the tsarist Duma

The Strike Movement in the Summer of 1914

Chapter XVIII
The Strike Movement in the Summer of 1914

Strike at the Izhorsky Works – Strikes in the Provinces – Struggle of the Baku Workers – Nicholas II sends a “Peacemaker” – St. Petersburg Workers Hit Back – A Visit to Maklakov, Minister for the Interior

The State Duma rose for the summer recess in June 1914, after the budget had been successfully piloted through all its stages. The session, which was the last before the war, closed during a period of a rising tide of the working-class movement throughout the country.

After the formidable demonstrations on May 1, arrangements were made for a protest strike in connection with the sentences passed on the Obukhov workers. When the first trial took place in November 1913, strikes had broken out in St. Petersburg, and now when the case was again taken in May 1914, the court condemned the Obukhov workers to two months’ imprisonment for taking part in strikes. Over 100,000 workers responded to the call for a protest strike, which aroused as much enthusiasm as the May Day movement.

The next political strike of the St. Petersburg workers was caused by the trial of the defending counsel in the Beilis [1] case at Kiev, and the death sentence passed on a worker charged with the murder of the shop manager of the pipe-works. This strike, which occurred early in June, embraced 30,000 workers.

At the same time, stubborn economic struggles were being waged continually at one or another of the many St. Petersburg factories or works. One of the most prolonged of these strikes took place at the Izhorsky Works, which were controlled by the Navy Department. The movement started in the electric power station where the workers presented several economic demands; when a number of these workers were dismissed, the strike spread to the other shops, where the workers demanded a rise in wages, the eight-hour day, etc. The strike was under the leadership of our St. Petersburg Committee and, at the request of the strikers, I went to Kolpino to meet a gathering of delegates. The meeting took place at night in the cemetery and it was decided to hold firm as long as possible.

The strike caused considerable anxiety at the Naval Department. A detachment of cossacks was sent to Kolpino and quartered in barracks next to the works so as to be in readiness “to maintain order.”

The next day I again went to the works and found the workers highly incensed and indignant over the calling out of the cossacks. At the meeting which followed tempers ran high and the determination to win the fight despite dismissals and other possible forms of repression was strengthened. Party organisations assisted in the preparation and distribution of leaflets enumerating the economic demands and also calling for the dismissal of the chief manager. The management of the works attempted to prevent the distribution of leaflets and sent round officials who tore the leaflets out of the workers’ hands. Naturally this only made the workers more hostile.

The Izhorsky strike lasted three weeks and ended when the management promised to raise the rates of pay and to grant several other concessions. I have dwelt on this strike in order to illustrate the normal course of an economic strike during this period of revolutionary enthusiasm. The close contact between the workers and the Bolshevik Party organisations and the action of the workers under Bolshevik leadership on the one hand, and the calling out of armed forces for the suppression of the strikers on the other, are typical of the circumstances in which the workers’ economic struggles were being conducted at that time.

This development of the struggle was not confined to St. Petersburg. The example set by the St. Petersburg proletariat served as a spur to the labour movement throughout the country. Strikes, both economic and political, spread from one city to another. The workers in provincial towns acted in an organised way unseen before and their persistence in the struggle revealed a high degree of class-consciousness. Consequently the strikes, although nearly always connected with definite economic demands, contained elements related to the political struggle.

A prolonged dispute arose during May in the textile industry in the Moscow district. The movement originated in the Kostroma Gubernia and quickly spread to the neighbouring Gubernias of Moscow and Vladimir, involving nearly 100,000 workers. This was an extraordinarily large number for textile workers, who worked in small mills far removed from each other. The chief demand was for higher rates of pay, but amongst other things the strikers demanded the organisation of libraries where they could read Pravda, Prosvyeshchenye, Voprosy Strakhovania (Insurance Questions) and other newspapers and magazines.

The Bolshevik fraction led the strike and supported the textile workers by all the means at their disposal. Shagov, who was elected from the Kostroma Gubernia, toured the district as soon as the Duma session closed, calling on the workers to continue the struggle and opposing all talk of surrender to the employers. Shagov’s journey was made in conditions that were now customary for workers’ deputies. Everywhere he went he was accompanied by police spies, who forced their way into houses which he visited and arrested workers with whom he spoke.

The strike lasted into the summer, and thanks to the sound organisation and stubbornness of the workers, forced the employers to make a number of concessions including higher wages. The workers had chosen the right moment for the struggle as the employers were accumulating stocks for the forthcoming fair at Nizhni-Novgorod.

At the same time that the textile strike was being waged in the Moscow district, events were taking place in the far south, in Baku, which were of great importance for the entire working-class movement. The Baku strike, which was distinguished by its long duration and by the exceptional means adopted by the capitalists and the tsarist government to suppress it, gave rise to the historic action of the St. Petersburg workers on the eve of the war.

The strike at the Baku oilfields did not occur spontaneously; it was the result of careful preparation for several months. Workers’ committees composed of delegates from the workers of all the big firms drew up beforehand, in consultation with Party organisations, the details of wage demands and other questions connected with the workers’ conditions.

The immediate cause of the strike was an outbreak of plague in the district adjoining the oilfields. The menace of this terrible disease at once brought to the front the question of the disgusting housing conditions of the Baku workers. Prominent scientists who investigated conditions at Baku testified that they had never seen such conditions, not even in India – the permanent home of plague.

The question of housing had repeatedly been raised before and, remembering previous strikes, the oil magnates had often promised to commence the building of properly fitted houses. But when the workers’ movement flagged they at once forgot their promises.

Immediately after the outbreak of plague in May 1914, the oilworkers’ trade union raised the housing question with the owners’ association. The association declined to move in the matter and at the same time many of the workers were arrested. Strikes at once started in several districts and soon became general. About 50,000 workers were involved, fighting under a strike committee closely connected with the Party, which issued manifestos, organised the collection of a strike fund and took other necessary steps. The workers presented a long list of demands containing more than sixty points of which the following were the most important: higher rates of pay, better housing and food, the abolition of premiums, compulsory primary education, the organisation of medical aid, etc. On some jobs the workers demanded the eight-hour day and the official recognition of May 1 as a workers’ holiday.

The fact that the demands included several which were of a political nature was the result of the considerable influence exercised by our Party organisations. The demand for the abolition of premiums deserves special attention. The very fact that the workers protested against this system of degrading sops, by means of which the employers kept in hand the working masses, testified to a high degree of class-consciousness in the Baku workers. In spite of the racial differences among the workers – there were Russians, Armenians, Persians and Tartars – there was almost 100 per cent, solidarity in this fight with the capitalists.

The oil magnates flatly rejected all the demands and decided to resort to extreme measures to break the strike. When the strikers did not return within the time limit fixed by the employers, they were all discharged; their passports were handed over to the police and they were ordered to leave the miserable rooms which they occupied. The courts hastened to the assistance of the employers and issued eviction orders against the workers who lived in the oilfields. The authorities stuck at nothing; beds were carried out of the workers’ barracks, stoves were broken, the electric light and water supply cut off.

The police were as active as the owners. Baku was transformed into a military camp and the usual garrison was replaced by six squadrons of cossacks, prepared to fight the “internal enemy.” The trade union was smashed, all active members arrested and all workers’ meetings forbidden. Martial law was proclaimed and no one was allowed to appear in the streets after 8 p.m.

At the end of June the Baku workers organised a demonstration in which over 20,000 people participated. Carrying posters stating the workers’ demands, the demonstrators marched towards the headquarters of the oilowners’ association. As the police were unable to cope with the crowd, they called out the cossacks who surrounded and dispersed the workers. About a hundred workers were driven into a courtyard and arrested. There were already several hundred prisoners in the central prison; the cells were full and the prison yard was packed with workers. It is significant that the city governor warned the owners that they had no right to discuss, much less grant, such non-economic demands as the establishment of factory committees, the May 1 holiday, universal education, etc. But this warning was quite unnecessary; the owners had no intention of making the least concession.

As the strike developed it aroused the interest of the whole country. The employers and the tsarist government on the one. hand, and the working class on the other, eagerly watched the progress of the struggle. The shortage of oil, the production of which had almost entirely ceased, began to alarm a number of industrial organisations, particularly the shipowners, who were confronted with the necessity of laying up ships.

The tsarist government decided that the measures taken by the local authorities were too mild and the Assistant Minister for the Interior, General Junkovsky, was sent to Baku by special order of the tsar. He was given full powers and was accompanied by the head of the police department.

On his arrival, the repressive measures increased. He forbade the newspapers to refer to the strike, enforced the censorship of all telegrams referring to the strike, inquired into the destination of all money sent to Baku and confiscated all sums destined for the strikers. In short, Junkovsky, a worthy head of the tsarist police, “pacified” to the utmost extent of his power. The tsarist government was definitely allied with the oil magnates in the attempt to break down the stubborn resistance of the Baku workers.

These measures did not fail to excite the indignation of all the Russian workers and above all of the St. Petersburg proletariat. The Baku workers appealed to the Duma fraction for assistance and we organised a demonstration in St. Petersburg to help the strikers.

In a report to the director of the police department, the secret police described fairly correctly the work of our Party in organising the sympathetic action of the St. Petersburg workers:

The outbreak of the strike in the Baku oilfields quite accidentally (?) coincided with an intensification of the activity of revolutionary underground circles which were then attempting to rouse the interest of the workers in the forthcoming International Socialist Congress to be held the following autumn. Seeing in the strike a pretext for carrying on agitation and inciting the workers to disturbances, the representatives of the socialist parties hastened to seize the opportunity to develop their organisations in preparation for the election of delegates to the congress.

Later the report refers to the agitation conducted at this time:

In addition to regular bulletins of a frankly seditious character published in the legal Social-Democratic press, the leaders of the underground organisations issued instructions that the nature and significance of the Baku strike should be discussed at all workers’ meetings. It was hoped, by describing the conditions of the workers under the present regime, to rouse revolutionary feeling in working-class circles and to interest the workers in the ideal of world socialism.

Close watch has revealed that the chief agents of this work are Badayev, member of the Social-Democratic Duma fraction, and various party members who are associated with and guided by him.

The above-mentioned deputy and persons associated with him organise workers’ meetings outside the town under the guise of scientific excursions. At these meetings, the aims and tasks of the forthcoming socialist congress are thoroughly examined, the Baku strike is discussed, and the desirability of establishing solidarity among the different groups of workers is urged, to take the form of both moral and material assistance.

Assistance to the Baku workers was soon forthcoming in the shape of large collections which were forwarded to our fraction. At a number of factories the workers gave a definite percentage of their wages and Pravda printed as a regular feature the list of moneys received and at the same time appealed for increased subscriptions. The authorities as well as the advanced workers realised that the appeal for further help was a form of revolutionary agitation.

As the revolutionary temper among the St. Petersburg workers continued to rise, an attempt was made to prevent the collection of funds for the Baku workers. The city governor of St. Petersburg issued an order prohibiting the collection of funds “for objects contrary to the maintenance of public order and peace, such as the support of strikers, exiles, the payment of fines imposed by the authorities, etc., by any means whatsoever.” At the same time he forbade the publication of advertisements and appeals for such funds in the newspapers and threatened a fine of 500 rubles or imprisonment up to three months for any offence against this order.

Thus the city governors of Baku and St. Petersburg acted in complete accord; the former confiscated all money which arrived for the strikers, while the latter endeavoured to prevent any being sent. Pravda published the city governor’s order prominently on the front page and then immediately beneath it stated in large print my address and the hours when I received visitors, i.e. money for the strikers. The collections did not cease but, on the contrary, increased considerably; the order served as a signal for renewed efforts on behalf of the Baku workers.

Within a couple of days I sent off another fifteen hundred rubles with the following telegram which was published in Pravda.

In the name of the St. Petersburg proletariat, I congratulate the heroic proletariat of Baku on the unanimity and perseverance they are displaying in their struggle. The workers of St. Petersburg are watching your fight with great interest and sympathy.

The telegraphic reply received by the paper from the Baku strike committee conveyed the comradely thanks of the Baku proletariat to the workers of St. Petersburg for their material and moral help.

Every day of the Baku strike witnessed an extension of the campaign in St. Petersburg. News of evictions, deportations and arrests of strikers led the St. Petersburg workers to organise protest strikes during the latter days of June. The movement started slowly at first and only affected a few enterprises, but all our Party organisations threw themselves energetically into the work of extending the movement and preparing for mass action.

But the secret police were also active; numerous arrests were made and a campaign inaugurated against all workers’ societies. They first turned their attention to workers’ educational societies and began by smashing the organisation located in the Sampsonievsky Prospect. About forty people – mainly Party members – were arrested on the premises. The police paid almost daily visits to other societies, searching and sometimes arresting those present.

After these raids, I demanded an interview with Maklakov, the Minister of the Interior. I had already a number of matters which I wanted to discuss with the Minister, such as the arrests, exiles, rough-handling by the police, etc. I was informed that Maklakov was ready to receive me the next morning.

The Minister’s house in Fontanka was closely watched by uniformed and plain-clothes policemen, both inside and outside. I passed through the ranks of the police into the Minister’s room. Maklakov, a relatively young tsarist dignitary, was a nominee of the empress and he tried hard to justify the confidence placed in him. He had already made all preparations for the destruction of working-class organisations and flatly refused to release the persons arrested during the raid on the Sampsonievsky Society, where he alleged an illegal library had been discovered. When I insisted that the reckless activities of the police should be restricted, he answered with generalities.

“We swore allegiance to and are now serving his majesty just as you are keeping the oath which you swore to your Party,” said Maklakov, “ and we are taking all measures necessary to fight the revolutionary movement.”

He then decided to show how well informed he was of everything our organisation was doing. “I am aware that you are conducting underground work, printing and distributing leaflets,” and opening a drawer of his desk, he produced a newly printed manifesto.

The manifesto had been drafted a couple of days before in my apartment and had been printed the previous night. Obviously Maklakov, in preparation for this interview, had ordered the secret police to supply him with some tangible evidence of our illegal activities. He wanted to prove that nothing could escape the vigilant eye of the secret police, and the manifesto was probably obtained from Ignatiev, an agent-provocateur who had helped in the printing of the leaflet.

Without showing in the least that I recognised the leaflet, I decided that no useful purpose would be served by continuing the conversation. On leaving, I said:

“We shall not talk to you in a study, nor from the tribune; the working class will settle the question in the streets in a direct struggle against the present regime.”

In spite of Maklakov’s boasts and the mobilisation of the police, the government was unable to hold back the development of the revolutionary movement, which in the course of a few weeks grew to unparalleled dimensions.

1. Beilis – a Jewish clerk who, on the strength of some faked evidence concocted by the Black Hundreds, was tried on a charge of a ritual murder and acquitted by the jury. – Ed.