Chernobyl and the Meltdown of the USSR


This picture shows Ukrainian “liquidators” who worked to build a cement “sarcophagus” around the remains of nuclear reactor 4. Their banner reads “We will fulfill the government’s order!” (at least, according to the source of the photo it does, I myself have, shall we say, “limited” Russian..). Thousands of liquidators like these either died from or suffer from radiation related diseases. Chernobyl is an incredibly fascinating topic, but I will try to stick to some kind of organized, succinct structure.

Here’s the meltdown:

At around 1:30 a.m.on the night of April 26, 1986 (approximately a year after Gorbachev came to power and began implementing the revolutionary reforms of perestroika and glasnost) a combination of human and design error exploded in nuclear fashion in northern Ukraine. An experiment to test how long the turbines would continue powering the main circulating pumps after a loss of electrical power was designated to take place this night, however, a fatal design flaw made the reactors highly unstable at low power and the workers at Chernobyl were mainly unskilled men with little comprehension as to the possible problems that could occur. By the time an operator realized the danger in reactor number 4, it was too late, and his attempt to halt the experiment by shutting down the reactor accidentally resulted in a power surge 100 times greater than the structure could handle. Reactor number 4 blew its top off, releasing a plume of radiation into the atmosphere, and starting several strong graphite fires (these fires were actually the cause of most of the release of radiation rather than the initial explosion; the fires inside reactor 4 burned for several days without containment). This is a 6 minute excerpt from a film made by Vladimir Shevchenko of Chernobyl a few days after the explosion. He died several weeks after filming from radiation poisoning, along with his cameramen. There used to be a better version of this clip with English subtitles here instead of having to listen to thickly accented English spoken over Russian and music, but unless my computer deceives me its gone now unfortunately. Also! This is a short video of an enormous radioactive mass found in the basement of Chernobyl nicknamed the “Elephant’s Foot” about 7 months after the accident.

Sources: Mostly from The World Nuclear Association’s page at, but the part about the graphite fires is from Yuri Shcherbak’s article “Ten Years of the Chornobyl Era” in Scientific American. I found it on the university library website so unfortunately posting a link to it takes you to nowhere.

Here’s the tricky part:

Soviet response to this disaster was mixed. Firefighters responded quickly to the explosion and attempted to put out the fires throughout the nuclear plant. Later-released Politburo documents confirm that Gorbachev was aware of the disaster, the release of radiation, and the still-burning fires, within 8 hours of its occurrence (DANILOFF). The next day the town of Pripyat (a town composed mainly of Chernobyl plant workers and their families) was evacuated; supposedly only for 3 days although to this day the town is still considered too dangerous for resettlement. This is a video of Pripyat the day it was evacuated (isn’t it amazing that there is footage of this?! You can actually see radiation in the footage towards the end, manifested as little sparks). Despite knowledge of the accident, the Soviet government made no mention of it either to its people or to surrounding countries until two full days later, when international pressure following the discovery by Swedish officials of extremely high levels of radiation wafting over the Soviet border into Sweden. This is the full statement (DANILOFF) released by the Soviet government to appease international demands: “An accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station; one of the four atomic reactors has been damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Victims are being helped. A government commission has been created.” How very glastnost-y of the government; those 42 words perfectly describe the situation and the action being taken to control the damage- as a citizen, either Soviet or simply a neighbor, I would feel greatly comforted and reassured by that statement, and not at all concerned about my family’s health. In the spirit of Gorbachev’s darling glasnost, the Soviet government soon released a similarly long-winded and informative statement, promptly jammed foreign broadcasts, prohibited foreign press from entering any town near Chernobyl (TAUBMAN)(“I am so sorry,” they are told, “all of the hotel rooms in the city are simply booked full!”), and Gorbachev himself waited an appropriate 18 days before addressing the troubled Soviet population with a reassuring 25 minute pep talk denouncing Western anti-Soviet propaganda, defending Soviet responses, and acknowledging 9 deaths (DANILOFF). Despite Soviet measurements of extremely dangerous radiation levels up to 100 km surrounding the plant, in order to avoid panic rather than evacuating these towns they were merely told not to eat any of their crops, livestock, or any products of their livestock (SALISBURY)/(GLOBER) (not as though sufficient replacement food arrived, in effect making the warning udderly useless; apologies for the lame radioactive cow pun). More information slowly leaked out over the course of the next few years, although Politburo records containing vital information concerning the government’s conscious cover-up weren’t released until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Sources: unfortunately I can’t post links to these either since they either came off the university library site or from proquest and those links take you nowhere, but, information marked DANILOFF came from Nicholas Daniloff’s article “Chernobyl and It’s Political Fallout: A Reassessment” in the journal Democratizatsiya, retrieved from the VT library site. The sentence marked TAUBMAN came from Philip Taubman’s 1989 article “Soviet Keeps Lid on News Coverage: Information So Far Is Limited to 2 Terse Statements- Press Trips Are Curbed” in the New York Times, retrieved from ProQuest. The information marked SALISBURY came from Harrison Salisbury’s 1986 article “Gorbachev’s Dilemma” in the New York Times retrieved from ProQuest. Finally, the information marked GLOBER came from Katya Glober’s article “Chernobyl Cover-up” in The Toronto Star, retrieved from the VT library site.

Why am I making you read/watch all this stuff (I promise this is the end)

The main point I am trying to make is that despite Gorbachev’s call for glasnost, when it came down to it, he heeded the advice of his Politburo companions and sought the safety of censorship. Ironically, Chernobyl is the turning point for glasnost that Gorbachev had aimed for, albeit not at all in the manner he’d hoped. The Chernobyl disaster opened the floodgates for the media, both foreign and domestic. More and more information came out that implicitly proved that the government had continued to censor information from its citizens at the needless expense of many Soviet lives, which led to many people questioning other reformation policies like perestroika (despite its intentions, perestroika was kind of a complete economic and social failure; not radical enough for liberals, too radical for conservatives). As the Soviet people and press began using newly won freedoms to express their disenchantment with Soviet leadership, the breakup of the Union became more and more accepted and imminent. Chernobyl served as a major catalyst to bring about true glasnost and as a side-effect became a catalyst that expedited the fall of the Soviet Union.


** I have learned something else interesting! Not only have people returned to illegally live in the contaminated areas surrounding Chernobyl which scientists agree will not be safe for human habitation for upwards of 600 years, but due to the shortage of energy in the Ukraine people still actually work in the Chernobyl plant (it no longer produces plutonium). They work two weeks on and two weeks off to avoid radiation, a very logical system since they probably also live there, and are paid three times the normal wage for their labor. Wow.

Sources For More Pictures/Videos If You’re Interested

I provided the link to the picture in my post below it, and that site definitely has many interesting captioned pictures of Chernobyl and Pripyat that I didn’t see anywhere else (but I’d suggest control+f “chernobyl” since there are many pictures and the ones about Chernobyl don’t start ’til about halfway down the page)

Also, all the videos I used and more videos have been collected on a site called They’re all interesting, but the one called “Ghost Town” was particularly interesting because it showed more footage of Pripyat during the evacuations including the people being piled onto buses, and the accompanying song about Chernobyl is worth turning on your volume for the video.





Allow me the pleasure of introducing you to Andrei Voznesenskii. Just look at this badass:


Voznesenskii was an internationally renowned young Soviet poet. Here is his poem Anti-Worlds published in 1962:

The clerk Bukashkin is our neighbor.
His face is gray as blotting paper.

But like balloons of blue or red,
Bright Antiworlds
float over his head!
On them reposes, prestidigitous,
Ruling the cosmos, demon-magician,
Anti-Bukashkin the Academician,
Lapped in the arms of Lollobrigidas.

But Anti-Bukashkin’s dreams are the color
Of blotting paper, and couldn’t be duller.

Long live Antiworlds ! They rebut
With dreams the rat race and the rut.
For some to be clever, some must be boring.
No deserts? No oases, then.

There are no women-
just anti-men.
In the forests, anti-machines are roaring.
There’s the dirt of the earth, as well as the salt.
If the earth broke down, the sun would halt.

Ah, my critics; how I love them.
Upon the neck of the keenest of them,
Fragrant and bald as fresh-baked bread,
There shines a perfect anti-head…

…I sleep with windows open wide;
Somewhere a falling star invites,
And skyscrapers
like stalactites
Hang from the planet’s underside.

There, upside down,
below me far,
Stuck like a fork into the earth,
Or perching like a carefree moth,
My little Antiworld,
there you are!

In the middle of the night, why is it
That Antiworlds are moved to visit?

Why do they sit together, gawking
At the television, and never talking?

Between them, not one word has passed.
Their first strange meeting is their last.

Neither can manage the least bon ton.
Oh, how they’ll blush for it, later on !

Their ears are burning like a pair
Of crimson butterflies, hovering there…

A distinguished lecturer lately told me,
‘Antiworlds are a total loss.’

Still, my apartment-cell won’t hold me.
I thrash in my sleep, I turn and toss.

And, radio-like, my cat lies curled
With his green eye tuned in to the world.

FAIR WARNING: I read a lot of things before writing this, so my thoughts may be a little jumbled, but even if you just skim this you should absolutely 100% definitely click on the hyperlink relating to Khrushchev’s speech in the second paragraph).

I thought this was an awesome poem, it resounded with me immediately, in part because of the imagery, the snarky comment about his “critics” aka Khrushchev, and because of the mysterious and fantastic hopefulness of anti-worlds. I had to look up who the Bukashkin and Lollobrigida that Voznesenskii referenced in order to understand better the tone of the poem, so for your convenience: Bukashkin was known simply to Soviet citizens as “Old Man Bukashkin” and was a scrappy looking Soviet poet-artist who lived a bohemian lifestyle, self-titled himself the “Peoples’ Street Sweeper of Russia” in mocking of the State’s “Peoples’ Artist” title, and he just sort of meandered around Russia leaving his verses and art on random city fences and garages. Gina Lollobrigida was a very famous and sexy Italian actress, and although I couldn’t really figure out the significance of her presence in this poem, there is a popular photo of her shaking hands with Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, a Soviet.

After reading this poem I began researching information about Voznesenskii, and found that a ton of extremely interesting information about his life during the period of the late 50’s through the 60’s. He was influenced greatly by Boris Pasternak (Dr. Zhivago), and he was not only a darling in Western media for his unique prose and political criticisms, but he was also extremely popular among the Soviet youth. In 1962 he would perform recitations of his poetry for an hour or two from memory in soccer stadiums to accommodate the 14,000 Soviets that would crowd together, straining to hear, and following along in the copy of his book they purchased and brought along. However, popularity of this magnitude, coupled with the liberal themes of his poetry inevitably met with resistance from the State Party and elder generation. In 1963, Khrushchev effectively ended the decade- long cultural thaw with a violent speech during the “Meeting of Writers and Artists with Government and Party Leaders”  (March 7, 1963) aimed at reining in modern, liberal artists and writers, and focused vehemently on young Voznesenskii himself. This blog post will be unbearably long if I go into the details of the speech, but let me just say that Khrushchev refused to allow Voznesenskii to defend his work or make his speech, effectively exiled Voznesenkii, perhaps unknowingly quoted Hitler in chastising Voznesenskii, and finished off the tirade by dismissing Vozneseskii from the audience. Sounds exciting, no? I would definitely recommend coming here and reading an excerpt of the meeting that encompasses Khrushchev’s tirade against Voznesenskii along with insightful and humorously dry commentary from Mikhail Romm, a Russian film director and screen writer who attended this fateful meeting; Khrushchev truly comes off as startlingly immature and out-of-control, the transcript is downright hilarious.

Anyway, this meeting spelled the end of the period of State-sanctioned cultural thaw and liberalization, and forced Voznesenskii into hiding throughout various parts of Russia for a year until the scandal (following this meeting and for a long time after Voznesensky had difficulty getting his work published because of the very vocal disapproval of the State) died down (during which time he wrote

“Beware, my darling. Hush. Not a sound,

While I charge noisily

From place to place around Russia,

As a bird diverts the hunters from its nest”

an excerpt from  My Achilles Heart, as well as the poem Someone is Beating a Woman about his time in exile). Fortunately for the arts and for Andrei, the Party’s attempt to humiliate, disgrace, and therefore crush, the rising tide of liberal expression proved unsuccessful though certainly wounding to thaw-poets and to the Soviet public.

So far as my sources go, you mostly got hyperlinks this time because I figured out how to use them, woo! But I did snag some ideas to jump off of from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Also the picture at the top came from here . This site has a lot of cool photos of Andrei (including a great one on the second page of Khrushchev screaming at a scared and uncomfortable looking Voznesenskii, where you also get to see Khrushchev’s “fragrant and bald as fresh baked bread anti-head”). I would have loved to use these but when you click on them there’s a bothersome watermark.

Stilyaga: Hipsters of DeStalinization


The stilyaga are an interesting phenomenon in Soviet History. Although the stilyaga culture had been developing quietly for some time, after Stalin’s death the social and economic “thaw” allowed the public debut of the youth movement. The stilyaga were a group of youths, usually the children of party elites, who revolted against Soviet uniformity and morality through an obsession with Western culture. They dressed loudly in bright colors, fashionably thin-cut trousers, and checked socks, and abhorred industrial work. If they held a job at all, it was generally in the arts. They listened to jazzy music heavy with trumpet and drums, chewed American gum, and in general bothered the hardworking communist populace with their outlandish vagabond tastes. According to Seventeen Moments in Soviet History public reaction to the dissident generation was mixed, varying from disdain to amusement.

It is interesting to me that the formation of a stilyaga movement was even permitted to form, much less become widespread in a time where despite some loosening of artistic and cultural restraints the regime still maintained highly anti-Western views and strict control over the media, arts, and literature. Politically speaking the stilyaga were harmless and harbored little aspirations for organized change; they really seemed to be more of just carefree, lazy, spirited youths who concerned themselves with fashion, partying, and “free thinking”. The irony of the stilyaga is that they were both what Stalin feared would happen after WWII and a demonstration that Stalin had nothing to fear. Stalin had cracked down socially after WWII fearing that Western exposure would “corrupt” the minds and values of the people, and turn them against Communism. Indeed, the stilyaga generation was influenced by Western exposure as a result of WWII, and they did turn against Communist values, but their movement was one of glorified idleness that posed no actual threat to the Communist Party. They are reminiscent of the 1920’s American materialist movement exemplified in The Great Gatsby, or even the hippie generation- a bunch of youngsters “fighting the system” with loud physically dissident habits and little political aspirations.



First Picture:

Information regarding Stalin’s fears of Western exposure to Soviet citizens: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia a History.

Information regarding stilyagi behavior, habits, and public reception of the stilyagi:

Second Picture:

Soviet Mobilization (For those who can afFORD it)


The vehicular situation in post- WWII USSR is an ironically accurate representation of the way Soviet society functioned under Stalinism. Before the war, cars were visible in some cities but were not common in Soviet society. After the war, Stalin made some concessions, and allowed two new models of cars to be manufactured. “Oh joy!” thought Soviet citizens, “we’ve done our time in the war effort, we’ve passed the inspections of the Great Purges, we’ve put up with occupation, exploitation, and famine, and now look! Our hard work has brought us new cars!” Unfortunately, as per usual with Stalin, this was not the case.

The new cars went for between 9,000 and 16,000 rubles each; an exorbitant price for the average worker for whom the regime theoretically should have served. The average worker at this time made only 600 rubles per month, and this knocked the possibility of owning a car straight out of the ballpark for the majority of comrades. And if the price of the car didn’t crush every last hope the average worker had of owning his own car, then the supply of cars certainly finished off that foolish optimism- only 6,000 were produced in 1946 and only a few thousand more in 1947, so through a trade union the waiting list to get one of these cars was approximately 6 years. This system of car manufacturing and distribution provides a pretty accurate example of what life under Stalin was like for the average “comrade”. Communism in theory ought to have sought to improve the life of these “average workers”. However, under Stalin, the peasants and average workers expended all the effort and the elites in Moscow reaped all the rewards. As it was with collective grain agriculture, so it was with car factories.

In another sense, these “concessions” Stalin made in allowing the manufacturing of two new car models is equally reminiscent of Stalin’s political strategy- make just enough concessions to appease the people and keep them hopeful that change for their betterment is just around the corner, and then sort of silently withdraw the concessions. During WWII Stalin relaxed his restraint over literary and theatrical productions, and even went so far as to have agents go out to the countryside and spread rumors that as soon as the threat of Nazi Germany was defeated, Stalin planned to decollectivize agriculture. This rallied peasant, worker, and intelligentsia morales around Stalin with the glimmer of hope of liberalization to come. In this same way, Stalin raised hopes about the prospect of a proletariat car, but, unsurprisingly, only the elite were to benefit from the concessions. 

Going even further, the system of car production itself is eerily representative of the Stalinist Soviet Union system of production as a whole. While these two proletariat cars were being painstakingly manufactured and minimally distributed to wealthy workers throughout the country, Moscow’s ironically named “Stalin Factory” was producing a luxury car. This car metaphorically was the Soviet Union. It was composed of parts from all over the nation, just as the Soviet Union was comprised of various different cultures, ethnicities, and nations all held together by the powers that be, in Moscow. Labor to support the continuation of this car came from the average workers and those in labor camps throughout the Union, although they would never see the product of their toils. The luxury car was then distributed among different important cities; Moscow, ever the favorite, kept 38, Kiev received 7, Leningrad 3, and six other cities got 4 each.

One final similarity between Soviet car production and the Stalinist system lies in the production in 1947 of an armored version of the luxury car made in Moscow. It was built like a tank, weighing 7 tons and requiring special wheels to handle its steel-laden weight. The majority of these cars were discreetly sent straight to the Kremlin, and Stalin reportedly had 5 for his own personal use. This is a great example of the paranoia that was so central to Stalin’s regime- he alone required more armored vehicles than the amount of luxury cars given to whole cities! This paranoia that caused Stalin to believe he needed a different armored car for each day of the week was the same paranoia that drove him to purge out his greatest supporters regularly. It is interesting to me that something so mundane as car manufacturing can be used as a lens to view the greater consistencies in the contemporary Stalinist political system.

Picture from:

Information regarding car manufacturing and distribution:

Information regarding concessions Stalin made during WWII: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia a History. Chapter 12 (391-392).

A Bolshevik Census



The above picture states “Beginning of the All-Union Census. Citizen, don’t forget to go through the census. We will conduct a Bolshevik census. It is a citizen’s duty to pass through the census and give correct answers to all questions on the questionnaire.” This actually made me chuckle a little. 

The results of the 1939 Bolshevik census are widely recognized now as having been highly fabricated. In the years leading up to the 1937 census, Stalin spent a good deal of time publicizing the great benefits provided by life under Stalinist collectivization. In December of 1935 Stalin released a speech saying “Everybody says that the material situation of workers has dramatically improved, that life has become better and more fun. It is of course true. But this has led the population to breed much faster than in the old days. The birth rate is higher, the death rate is lower and the pure population growth is far stronger. It is of course good and we welcome it. [Jolly murmurs in the auditorium.] Now every year we have a population growth of three million souls. It means that every year we grow as much as the whole of Finland. [Everybody laughs.]”. Prior to the 1937 census, Stalin told the head of the national census agency, I.A. Kraval, that he expected the census would show that the Soviet population had increased to 170 million citizens. This kind of population growth would have been foolishly optimistic if you were taking in to account the deaths resulting from the Stalin-orchestrated famine and purges in the early 1930’s, however Stalin had silenced those numbers as well.

Although he may have been able to eradicate reports and accurate tallies of the deaths from starvation, it is estimated that some 7 million Russians may have died during this period (with Ukrainians actually being the hardest hit area, in an attempt to simultaneously kill nationalist stirrings). There were even horrific reports of people not only dropping dead from starvation, but in the countryside of a rising commerce in human meat. People were eating the soles of their shoes, ground bones, rats, mice, clothing, and in some cases, there were even reports of peasants killing and eating their children. Population loss combined with the inhumane conditions of life in the Bolshevik countryside at this time did not present a compelling circumstance for the extreme population growth as Stalin was proclaiming. 



Obviously, the 1937 census reflected this apparent discrepancy between Stalin’s claims and reality.  The census showed only 162 million documented citizens, and also conveyed unfavorable information such as that despite 20 years of official atheism, nearly half the population was religious. Many census surveyors were actually killed by religious peasants who viewed them as a symbol of an evil empire. 

This was not the only reason that being a census-taker at this time was a dangerous occupation. Upon receiving the report of the 1937 census, Stalin furiously buried the document along with those who had been in charge of its creation. The 1937 census was declared invalid and a new census was scheduled for 1939. The conductors of the 1939 census, ever mindful of their predecessors’ fates, used various techniques to ensure that the numbers of the 1939 census read 170.6 million, exactly as Stalin had predicted. Mostly they used a double counting method, whereby when the census taker went to someone’s home and they were absent (perhaps they had gone to the market, or were visiting a friend for dinner) they were counted as though they were there, and then were also counted by the census taker when they were encountered in whatever location they actually were at. On top of that, in order to make up for the very low populations in the areas hit worst by the famine, census forms that were filled out by prisoners in northern Russia were then redistributed to the lower populated areas. The 1939 census was accepted by the regime, and was the only census taken until 1959. 


First Picture:

Second Picture:

Quote from Stalin’s speech:

Information regarding atrocities of the famine:

Information regarding figures and fates of the 1937 and 1939 censuses:

Information regarding double- counting census methods in the 1939 census:


1917- The End of the Romanovs




After three centuries of rule, the Romanov Dynasty finally met its end in revolution in 1917. Since the revolution of 1905, Russian society had been only momentarily appeased with reforms, but with the combination of a regime attempting to rescind the concessions it had given the unhappy populace, poor economic conditions, food shortages, and a drawn out and horrific war, society once again became uncontainable in its demands. 

February of 1917, a crowd of women seized the opportunity of National Women’s Day to protest in the streets of Petrograd against the food shortages and high bread prices. This protest quickly developed into a full blown revolution with crowds that paralysed Petrograd. Police were unable to disperse the protesters, so the Volhynian troop regiment was called upon to take back control of the city. After firing a volley into the crowd killing several dozen protesters, even the troops began taking sides with the crowd, and Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, abdicated the throne.

Nicholas II abdicated the throne in favor of his brother, Michael, due to the illness of his eldest son. However, Michael refused the throne, and so a dual Provisional Government was set in place. The Romanov family was removed from the capital city and sent to stay in a governor’s mansion in Tobolsk, a small Siberian town. In early 1918, the Bolshevik government faced rumors of attempts to free the Romanov family, and the opposition of citizens who still felt that Nicholas II was the legitimate ruler of Russia, especially due to the belief that the tsar was given his power by God. This pressure, under the onslaught of a civil war, led to an order for the execution of the Romanovs. The Romanov family was moved to Ekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. 

From here the history of the Romanovs gets a little blurry. It is clear that on the night of July 17, one day after the order was given in Moscow, the family was massacred in the basement of the house they were staying in. It appears that the family was woken in the night, and advised that there was trouble in Ekaterinburg and the house risked being invaded by oncoming troops, so they would be safer in the basement. When they went in to the basement, either there were a dozen or so Hungarian Red Army soldiers already present, or they were presently surrounded by them. The family was sat down, and the sentence of execution read to them, and then they, along with the four servants who had chosen to accompany them, were shot (Hungarians were used because it was feared that Russian soldiers would directly refuse to shoot the tsar). Some accounts claim Alexandra, Nicholas II’s wife, and the small children were taken to a field outside before they were shot. Some accounts claim the bodies were taken and thrown down a nearby mine shaft, and then grenades were thrown in after them in an attempt to collapse the mine on top of the bodies. It will likely never be known how exactly their deaths came about.


Rumors swirled following the massacre that Alexandra and the four princesses had escaped and were in hiding, or that the youngest daughter, Anastasia, had survived. People claimed to see them in small towns, doctors claimed to have treated the daughters. However, in 2007 all eleven Romanov bodies were found and identified by Russian and American scientists using DNA testing. The last two bodies were found a few years after the first nine, but in the end, all Romanov remains were accounted for. 

The end of the Romanovs was the final blow in the bloody fight between the monarchy and the revolutionists, for better or for worse. For me, its a sad end, particularly as the monarchy had been voluntarily abdicated under immense pressure. Nicholas II was always said to be a good man, but not the steadfast ruler the Russian monarchy would have needed to survive. 



Background information on the Revolution taken from: chapters 8 & 9 of Gregory L. Freeze’s “Russia a History”

Information about the events of the deaths of the Romanovs taken from: and

Picture at top of Nicholas II and cronies of regime taken from:

Picture in middle, of Romanov remains taken from:

Picture at bottom of Romanov family in color taken from:

Sunday, Bloody Sunday


Today I am going to talk about the inception of the 1905 revolution in Russia. Political unrest in Russia had been steadily increasing since the counter-reformative years of the 1880’s and 1890’s (following the 1860’s and 1870’s which brought land redistribution, formation of local governments, and other liberal reforms). Since these reforms, a new radical political group called the intelligentsia had come about, and was made up mostly of young educated elite intent on improving the lot of the peasants and workers and using these undervalued groups to bolster their revolution. During the period of counter- reforms liberal political groups were pushed back into almost obsolescence, until the great famine in the 90’s forced the government to re- construct local government councils (zemstvos) with greater power, and increased general dissatisfaction with the status quo government among all Russian people and society.

Bloody Sunday occurred on January 9, 1905. It was the turning point from civil unrest to outright revolution, in my opinion. A Russian priest named Georgii Gapon had spent the past few years organizing an extensive union of workmen, aimed at procuring better working conditions and increased rights for this working class from the stubbornly autocratic government. As unrest increased, Gapon decided that a direct plea to the tsar was the next logical step in the reform process, as it was clear in his eyes that his Ministers had simply failed to convey the extent of the situation on the streets. He sent a note to the tsar (perhaps made possible from his prior government connections, or perhaps simply as the figurehead of such a prominent adversarial group) alerting him as to the date and time of the march he and his followers would peacefully make in order to directly present him with their plea. According to his autobiography, it was understood between Gapon and the Imperial Ministry that their plea would be received by the tsar.

On the day of the march, Gapon’s unarmed procession made its way to the Winter Palace, leading with a picture of tsar Nicholas II himself and singing patriotic songs. The tsar, rather than receiving the petition, ordered the military to shoot to kill towards the advancing petitioners. Even the police showed outrage at the first shots by the military, asking how the soldiers could fire towards a picture of the tsar. Gapon had never believed the military would shoot on the procession, but as the volleys continued, and the men, women, and children present in the procession began to flee, Gapon and a small number of other followers marched on a ways, until they proclaimed that they had no tsar anymore, for no “Little Father” should commit such atrocities against his people. Gapon’s undamaged survival of the event was considered quasi- miraculous at the time by contemporaries in Europe and Russia alike, as hundreds had died and many others were wounded.

This event, now known as Bloody Sunday, created national outrage to a new extent and seems to me to have been the point in which legal labour movements transformed into fully revolutionary movements. This invoked full- on revolution for approximately a year until the government finally conceded enough to split the liberal movement, with the October Manifesto.

Background information on the conditions leading to the 1905 Revolution, and general accounting of Bloody Sunday from Chapter 8 of Gregory Freeze’s “Russia, A History”.

More specific information regarding Gapon’s personal actions and feelings on the event from ProQuest Historical Newspapars: The New York Times; an article titled “Gapon, the Hero of “Bloody Sunday”: Pages from the Autobiography of the Priest Who Led the Russian Workmen to Death in St. Petersburg.” from February, 1906.

Picture from