The year 1917 is etched into the minds of most of us as the date of the Russian Revolution. But a dozen years before, a first revolution had been brutally crushed by the Tsar’s soldiers and police.
Like so much of the revolutionary politics of a hundred years ago, there were countless East End connections to the uprising. This year marks the centenary of the most famous event of the 1905 Revolution, the mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin … whose leader then sought sanctuary in Stepney Green.
Georgi Gapon and the Assembly
of Russian workers
At the turn of the 20th century, the lot of workers the world over was hard, dangerous and badly rewarded. In Russia, factory hands typically worked an 11-hour day, with 10 hours on a Saturday. Modern concepts of health and safety were a distant dream and the nascent trades unions were savagely crushed by factory owners, the army and the police. Somehow though, a priest named Father Georgi Gapon had managed to recruit more than 9000 members to his Assembly of Russian Workers.
1904 was to prove the tipping point. Russia was not only despotically but incompetently run. Food and essential goods were often in short supply and that year saw roaring inflation, with shop prices rising and real wages dropping by some 20 per cent. So when four members of Gapon’s union were sacked at the Putilov Iron Works, the workers were easy to rouse. Over the following days more than 110,000 St Petersburg workers came out on strike.
Cossack massacre at the Winter Palace
Gapon went to Tsar Nicholas II with a plan for peace, but the Tsar ignored the demands for shorter hours and an end to the costly Russo-Japanese War, and instead ordered out the guns. When a procession of workers reached the Winter Palace they were fired on by Cossacks and Police. 100 died and 300 were injured.
Bloody Sunday was the catalyst for the 1905 Revolution.
All over Russia, people came out in a strike that knew no class boundaries. While the railwaymen paralysed the country, lawyers, doctors and engineers were organizing to demand a representative assembly, a democratic parliament.
Battleship Potemkin mutiny, June 1905
Any despotic government needs the armed forces to keep the people in line, but things were about to get a lot worse for the Tsar. In June 1905, the crew of the Battleship Potemkin, patrolling the Black Sea, protested against their ration of rotting meat. Their captain peremptorily ordered that they should be shot. At this point occurred one of the turning points in modern Russian history.
As the firing squad appeared, Torpedo Quartermaster Afanasy Matushenko, a political activist and member of the Social Democrats, shouted: ‘Don’t shoot your own comrades — you can’t kill your own shipmates.’ There were shouts to ‘seize the ship’, and some of the men stormed the armoury. Within half an hour, seven officers had been killed and thrown overboard, and Matushenko ordered the ship to Odessa, with a People’s Committee established to run the ship.
Massacre on the Odessa Steps and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin
Meanwhile a rising in Odessa itself went unnoticed by the Potemkin crew amidst the noise of refueling the ship. That night, Odessa was a city in riot, with 6,000 people killed by soldiers and looters. This was the bloody day immortalized in Eisenstein’s 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin. A political polemic, commissioned by the (by now) ruling Communists as a 20th anniversary reminder of the Tsar’s brutality, it was nonetheless a ground-breaking piece of cinema. The famed scene showing the massacre on the Odessa Steps was to change the way directors framed scenes and used the movie camera.
Lying off Odessa, the Potemkin saw off a flotilla of Russian warships before the mutiny eventually ran out of steam. The crew dispersed, many were arrested, and ringleader Matushenko went on the run. He sought shelter in Romania, France and Switzerland before fetching up in Europe’s safest haven … London.
Matsushekno at Dunstan House, Stepney
Stepping ashore in Wapping, Matushenko made for 33 Dunstan House in Stepney Green. This meeting point for anarchists and revolutionaries was the home of both Kropotkin and Rudolf Rocker, both of whom had fled persecution on the Continent.
Rocker was a popular leader and speaker in the East End, setting up a social club in Jubilee Street, Mile End, with a library and reading room. In 1912 Rocker too was to lead a mutiny … the garment and dock strikes of that year. Rocker also bitterly argued against both sides in the First World War. His punishment was to be imprisonment and then being deported to Holland.
Harsh though Rocker’s persecution was, Britain appeared a paragon of liberal thinking compared to Mother Russia. Matsushenko was determined to return to Russia and the revolution that he was sure would come. In 1906 he was back in southern Russia helping organize anarchist activity. Caught by the Tsarist authorities, he was hanged with other anarchists in 1907.