The Tsar's Footsoldiers at Work (1909)

Submitted by martin on 4 August, 2020 - 3:52 Author: Leon Trotsky
1905 pogroms

A follow-up article by Trotsky on the pogroms of 1905, further to the 1908 article also entitled The Tsar’s Footsoldiers at Work. Above: a 1905 cartoon denouncing the pogroms.


The Soviet ended the October strike in those terrible dark days when the weeping of battered infants, the frenzied curses of mothers, the death-rattles of old men and the terrible cries of despair echoed to the skies the length and breadth of the country. A hundred of Russia’s cities and towns were transformed into hell on earth. The sun was blotted out by the smoke of conflagrations, flames consumed entire streets – and also homes and people. The old order took revenge for its humiliation.

It recruited its military phalanxes everywhere – from every nook, bolt-hole and slum. Here were to be found the small shopkeeper and the vagabond, the pub-keeper and his loyal customer, the janitor and the spy, the professional thief and the amateur looter, the petty artisan and the brothel door-keeper, the hungry ignorant peasant and yesterday’s villager deafened by the roar of factory machinery. Privileged self-interest and upper-class anarchy took command of bitter poverty, impenetrable ignorance and depraved venality.

The “patriotic” demonstrations at the beginning of Russo-Japanese War had provided thugs with their induction into the skills of mass street protests. The basic accessories had already defined at that time: a portrait of the Emperor, a bottle of vodka, and a tricolour. Since then there has been a colossal development of the planned organisation of social scum: if the mass of the participants in a pogrom – insofar as it possible to talk here of a “mass” – remains more or less a matter of chance, the core is always disciplined and organised in a military fashion. It receives from above its slogan and rallying cry and passes them on below, it decides the time and the extent of the bloodletting. A pogrom can be organised any way you want – declared the official of the Police Department Komissarov - whether you want one of a dozen or one of ten thousand.”*

The impending pogrom is common knowledge in advance: pogromist appeals are distributed, bloodthirsty articles are published in the official “Provincial Gazette”, and sometimes a special newspaper begins to be published. In his own name the city governor of Odessa issues a provocative proclamation. When the ground has been prepared, the lead performers emerge, specialists in their field. They are the medium through which sinister rumours pervade the ignorant masses: the Jews are assembling in order to attack Russian Orthodox believers, the socialists have desecrated a holy icon, students have torn up a portrait of the Tsar. Where there is no university, the rumours are adapted to target the liberal rural council, or even the grammar school. Along the telegraph wires wild news races from one place to another, sometimes with the stamp of officialdom. And at this time the prepatory technical work is completed: lists of proscribed individuals and tenements – the prime targets – are compiled, a general strategic plan is worked out, and on a set date the hungry mob is summoned from the suburbs. On the appointed day rogations are chanted in the cathedral. The bishop delivers a solemn oration. A patriotic demonstration takes place, headed by the clergy, with a portrait of the Tsar taken from the police headquarters, and awash with national flags. The band plays martial music incessantly. Along the sides and at the rear are the police. The governors salute the demonstration, the police chiefs publicly exchange kisses with prominent members of the Black Hundreds. The bells are rung in churches along the route. “Hats off!” Scattered in the crowd are visiting instructors and local policemen in civilian clothes, although, not infrequently, they are still wearing their uniform trousers, which they have not had a chance to change out of. They look around intently, they stir up the crowd’s passions, they incite it, they instil into it an awareness that they can do whatever they want, and they look for a reason to justify overt activities. As a start, they smash windows, beat up individual passers-by, and swarm into pubs and drink incessantly. The military band continuously plays “God Save the Tsar”, the pogroms’ battle song. If no reason is to be found for a pogrom, then one is created: firing into the crowd from an attic, more often than not using blank ammunition. Squads armed with police revolvers ensure that the fury of the crowd is not paralysed by fear. They respond to the provocative shots by firing a volley at tenements which had previously been selected. They lay waste to shops and display stolen cloths and silks in front of the patriotic procession. Regular troops come to help in the event of resistance from self-defence detachments. With two or three volleys they shoot down the self-defence combatants or render them ineffective, preventing them from getting close enough to open fire …. Protected at the front and rear by soldiers, with a detachment of Cossacks for reconnaissance, with police and provocateurs as leaders, with hirelings carrying out the secondary roles, and with volunteers sniffing out the pickings, the gang runs about the town in a frenzy of blood and drunkenness.** The down-and-out has become the ruler. The trembling slave who was hounded by the police and hunger only an hour previously now feels like an untrammelled despot. He is allowed to do everything, he can do whatever he wants, he is the master of property and honour, of life and death. He acts on his desires – and throws an old woman and her piano out of a third-floor window, he smashes a chair over the head of a babe, he rapes a girl in front of the crowd, he hammers a nail into a living human body …. He wipes out entire families without exception, he douses a house with paraffin, transforming it into a fiery inferno, and uses a club to beat to death anyone who jumps out of a window onto the pavement. The mob bursts into an Armenian poorhouse, it slaughters old men, the ill, women, children …. There are no tortures dreamt up by a fevered brain, insane from wine and wrath, at which he needs to stop. He can do whatever he wants, he dares to do whatever he wants. “God Save the Tsar!” Here is a youth who looked death in the face – and whose hair turned grey in a minute. Here is a ten-year-old boy, bowed over the mutilated corpses of his parents, who has gone insane. Here is an army doctor who has been through all the horrors of the siege of Port Arthur but who has collapsed into the eternal night of insanity, unable to endure just a few hours of an Odessa pogrom. “God Save the Tsar! …” Gripped by a macabre panic, the bloody, burnt and delirious victims run hither and thither in search of safety. Some take the bloodstained clothes from the murdered, dress themselves in them, and lie down in the pile of corpses – for a day, or two, or three …. Others fall on their knees in front of the officers, the thugs and the police, hold out their hands, grovel in the dust, kiss the soldiers’ boots, and beg for mercy. They are answered by a burst of drunken laughter. “You wanted freedom – reap its fruits.” These words contain the entire hellish morality of the politics of pogroms. Choking in blood, the down-and-out rushes forwards. He can do whatever he wants, he dares to do whatever he wants – he rules. The “White Tsar” has allowed him to do everything – long live the White Tsar!*** And he is not mistaken. None other than the autocratic ruler of all Russia is the supreme patron of that semi-governmental pogromist-predatory camorra which is intertwined with the official bureaucracy and, on the ground, brings together more than a hundred powerful administrators, with the court camarilla acting as its general staff. Dimwitted and frightened, worthless and all-powerful, utterly in the grip of prejudices worthy of an Eskimo, his blood poisoned by all the vices of successive generations of royalty, Nicolai Romanov combines within himself – like many of his profession – a dirty salaciousness with an apathetic cruelty. The revolution which began on 9th January tore away all his sacred covers and thereby thoroughly corrupted him. The time has passed when he himself could remain in the shadows and rely on Trepov’s network of agents in pogromist affairs.**** Now he flaunts his links to the unleashed mob of drunkards and convicts. Trampling underfoot the asinine fiction of “the monarch above parties”, he exchanges friendly telegrams with notorious thugs, gives audiences to “patriots” covered in the spittle of universal contempt, and at the demand of the Union of the Russian People grants without exception a pardon to all the murderers and looters found guilty by his own courts. It is difficult to imagine a more brazen mockery of the solemn mystique of the monarchy than the behaviour of this actual monarch, who would be condemned by any court in any country to lifelong hard labour provided that he was found to be sane!

In that grim October Bacchanalia, compared with which the horrors of St. Bartholomew’s Night appear to be an innocent coup de theatre, a hundred towns suffered three and a half or four thousand deaths, and up to ten thousand maimed. Material losses, which amounted to tens if not hundreds of roubles, exceeded several times over the losses suffered by landowners during the agrarian unrest …. Thus did the old order take revenge for its humiliation!

What was the role of the workers in these appalling events?

At the end of October the President of the Federation of North American Trade Unions sent a telegram addressed to Count Witte in which he energetically called on Russian workers to take a stand against the pogroms which threatened the recently won liberties. “In the name of not just three million organised workers – concluded the telegram – but also all workers of the United States, I ask you, Count, to pass this telegram on to your fellow citizens – our brother-workers.” But Count Witte, who had only recently masqueraded in America as a true democrat, proclaiming that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, now found sufficient shamelessness within himself to quietly hide the workers’ letter in a secret drawer in his writing desk. Only in November did the Soviet get wind of the letter. But Russian workers, to their honour, did not need to wait for an exhortation or admonition from their friends across the ocean before actively intervening in the bloody events. In a large number of towns they organised armed self-defence and actively – in some places: heroically – opposed the thugs, and where soldiers were to any degree neutral, then the workers’ militia crushed the hooligan rampage without difficulty.

“Alongside of this nightmare – wrote at that time Nemirovich-Danchenko, an old writer, infinitely removed from socialism and the proletariat – alongside of this Walpurgis Night of a moribund behemoth, see with what marvellous tenacity, order and discipline the magnificent workers’ movement developed. They did not dishonour themselves with killings or looting – on the contrary, they came to the assistance of the public everywhere, and, of course, they protected it from the destructive blood-frenzied delirium of the Cains a lot better than did the police, the Cossacks and the gendarmes. Workers’ combat detachments rushed to wherever the hooligans began to rampage. This new force which has emerged on the historical scene showed itself to be composed in the consciousness of its rights, tempered in the triumph of its ideals of freedom and goodness, and organised and obedient, like a real army, knowing that its victory was a victory for everything for which humanity lives, thinks, rejoices, struggles and suffers.

There was no pogrom in Petersburg. But there were unconcealed preparations everywhere. The Jewish population of the capital was in a state of constant trepidation. As of the 18th, students, worker-agitators and Jews were beaten up in different districts of the city. Assaults took place not just on the outskirts but also on the Nevsky Prospect. Equipped with hoots and whistles, different gangs carried out the attacks, using flails, Finnish knives and whips. There were several assassination attempts on members of the Soviet, who made haste to equip themselves with revolvers. Police agents incited traders and shop assistants to attack the funeral procession due to take place on 23rd October …. If, nonetheless, the Black Hundred had to make do with guerrilla actions, then this was certainly not its own fault.

The workers energetically made preparations to defend the city. Some factories committed themselves to sending their entire workforces onto the streets as soon as a telephone call summoned them to wherever danger threatened. Gun shops did a frantic trade in Brownings, ignoring all police restrictions. But revolvers are expensive and scarcely accessible to the broad masses – the revolutionary parties and the Soviet could hardly manage to arm their combat detachments. Meanwhile, rumours of a pogrom became more and more menacing. On 29th October a powerful impulse took hold of the proletarian masses of Petersburg: they armed themselves with whatever they could. At their own initiative, all factories and workshops which used iron or steel began to manufacture bladed weapons. Daggers, pikes, wire whips and knuckledusters were forged by several thousand hammers. At a meeting of the Soviet that evening one deputy after another took to the rostrum, displaying their weapons, holding them high above their heads, and passing on the solemn promises of their electorates to crush the pogrom at its first sign of life. This demonstration alone must have paralysed all initiative on the part of the average pogromist. But the workers did not make do with that. In the factory districts on the other side of the Nevsky Gate they organised a real militia with proper night watches. In addition, they organised a special defence of the premises of the revolutionary press. But this was necessary at that tense moment in time when a journalist wrote and a compositor typeset with a revolver in their pockets ….

In arming itself for the purpose of self-defence against the Black Hundreds, the proletariat thereby armed itself against the power of Tsarism. The government could not fail to understand this, and it sounded the alarm. On 8th November the “Government Gazette” made public what was already known to one and all: the very fact that “workers have recently begun to arm themselves with revolvers, hunting rifles, daggers, knives and pikes. From among the workers who have armed themselves in this manner – the government announcement continued – the number of which, according to the information available, amounts to six thousand, there has been created a so-called self-defence or militia, numbering about 300, which, on the pretext of defence, patrols the streets at night in groups of ten; its real aim is to defend revolutionaries from arrest by the police or soldiers.”

In Petersburg a full-scale assault on the militia took place. Detachments were dispersed and their weapons confiscated. But by this time the danger of a pogrom had already passed, making way for another and incomparably greater danger. The government sent its irregular troops on temporary leave – it brought into the affair its regular Bashi-bazouks, its Cossack and Guards regiments, it was preparing for a war on an extended front.


* A fact announced in the First Duma by the former Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Prince Urusov.

** “In many cases the police themselves directed the crowds of hooligans to destroy and plunder Jewish houses, tenements and shops, they supplied the hooligans with clubs made from chopped-down trees, they took part themselves, alongside the pogromists, in these acts of destruction, robbery and murder, and they led the activities of the crowd.” (Most Humble Report of Senator Kuzminsky About the Odessa Pogrom.) Mayor Neydgardt also acknowledges that “crowds of hooligans engaged in acts of destruction and looting” enthusiastically met him with cries of “hurrah”. Baron Kaulbars, who commanded the troops, addressed a speech to the police, beginning with the words “Let us call things by their names. It must be recognised that at heart all of us sympathise with this pogrom.”

*** “In one such procession the tricolour was carried at the front, then a portrait of the Tsar, and immediately behind the portrait – a silver dish and a sack containing stolen items.” (Report of Senator Turau.)

**** “According to a widespread belief, Trepov reports to HRH the Sovereign Emperor about the state of affairs … and exercises an influence on the political direction taken. … Given his position as Court Commandant, General Trepov has insisted that special sums of money for expenditure on undercover activities be placed at his disposal ….” (Letter of Senator Lopuchin.)


Translated by Stan Crooke from: “L. Trotsky: Collected Works”, volume four, part two, Moscow-Leningrad, 1926.

First published in: “Russland in der Revolution”, Dresden, 1909.

Footnotes in the original.

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