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in one of the defining moments of the
Russian Empire, 300,000 workers marched in St. Petersburg to deliver a
petition requesting rights from the Tsar.
Such a request had been made a decade before when Nicholas II had taken
the throne, but the young Tsar refused to give up the ideals of benevolent
autocracy, declaring he believed in them "as firmly and as strongly as did
my late lamented father". Alexander III was known for his repressive and
reactionary stance against movements by the people, and Nicholas seemed
hell-bent on following in his footsteps. While the leadership refused
reform, change was flowing through the suffering masses.
A new story by Jeff ProvineMarxists traded literature and met in rallies,
Leo Tolstoy spread his ideals of Christian anarchy, and a Russian Orthodox
priest named Georgy Gapon sought to bring the people together in
reconciliation with their iron-handed leaders. Newly graduated from
seminary, Gapon came to teach at an orphanage and work firsthand with
impoverished workers. He began to organize, creating the police-approved
"Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers of St. Petersburg" and even
cooperating with radicals to maintain peace during progress. On January 8,
1905, a general strike protesting conditions and the Russo-Japanese War
brought St. Petersburg to a standstill. Seizing the opportunity, Gapon
gathered his followers and further volunteers totaling more than 300,000
for a delivery of petition for rights. Members calling for violence were
not permitted to join, and every one was checked for weapons. They began a
march to the Winter Palace where the Tsar was staying, singing
patriotically on the way.
Nicholas had planned to leave St. Petersburg the day before as the strike
seemed to become dangerous, but a fierce headache forced him to stay in
bed. The next morning, he awoke to see the people gathering, and he
watched as the hundreds of thousands approached. The Imperial Guard posted
shot into the air to encourage the people to disperse and then prepared to
fire into the crowd to force them away. Nicholas, seeing a new light as so
many implored him to give them rights, conceded. He called the guards to
stand down and made an impromptu speech from his balcony assuring his
people that he would read their petition. Father Gapon was summoned, and
Nicholas spent the evening questioning the priest and his ideals. Gapon
convinced him to follow more in the footsteps of his grandfather, the
conciliatory Alexander II.
The people returned to their homes and, that following Monday, to work.
Nicholas began reform slowly, resisting political change, but allowing
Gapon great power in organizing aid via the church and gifting him with
substantial donations. As the war in the East continued poorly for Russia,
Nicholas used propaganda based on the good deeds to keep the people in a
tolerant mood. That August, he sent a delegation of Roman Rosen,
Ambassador to Japan, and Sergei Witte, at one time Nicholas' most valued
adviser and who had resigned because of the Russian efforts toward the
East, to America to work a treaty with the Japanese. News of the end of
the war brought great joy to Russia, especially with the generous terms
the Russians were able to gain. Witte returned to Nicholas' government and
guided the Tsar in formulating the October Constitution, creating a
universally elected Duma less than two months later. While Marxists cried
that the Constitution had not gone far enough, they were in the small
minority as most held faith in their Tsar.
Over the next decade, Russia would see numerous reforms and public works
projects, ending the depression that swept over the empire. The military
was modernized, opening many new factories and well as academies where
soldiers were trained in tactics rather than rushed through boot camps.
Public schools opened in 1912, funded by taxation but built and initially
operated by donation from Nicholas. Services became a large source of
reform, managing food banks and coal repositories for long Russian
winters, and pogroms were ended against the Jews while granting new rights
to minorities. Gapon increased in influence with the Tsar, even eclipsing
the Tsarina's favorite Rasputin.
During the World War, the Russian army was outmatched by the pressing
forces of the Germans, but tactics enabled the soldiers to duplicate the
defensive trench warfare strategy seen on the Western Front. While the war
became essentially a draw, the Russians were able to secure good terms
during the Treaty of Versailles in 1917. New stability followed Russia
through the next ten years with booming trade in Russia's rich resources
as Europe struggled to rebuild itself. During the Long Depression of the
1930s, Tsar Nicholas II would be admired for his government's organization
in relief and building programs. His funeral in 1941 would be attended by
nearly a million Russians while the nation mourned for a week over the
lost Nicholas the Great.