The Tsar’s Footsoldiers at Work (1908)

Submitted by martin on 4 August, 2020 - 3:42 Author: Leon Trotsky
Members of the Jewish socialist organisation, the Bund, with comrades killed in 1905

Above: members of the Jewish socialist organisation, the Bund, in Odessa, with comrades killed in 1905. This article by Trotsky dissects official reports giving information about anti-Jewish pogroms carried out by counter-revolutionaries especially in 1905.


(“Materials Concerning the History of the Russian Counter-Revolution”, Volume One, “The Pogroms According to Official Statistics”, Saint Petersburg, 1908)

This voluminous book, consisting of monotonous bureaucratic paperwork, makes a striking impression on the reader. We have in front of us a portrait of Tsarism in the period of the revolution, penned by Tsarism itself – by its Senators, its mayors and governors, its prosecutors and police officers. The portrait is deadly accurate. And even on those occasions when a Senator rewrites events or a mayor defends himself – by consciously and openly distorting facts – they merely add a superfluous brushstroke of shamelessness to the bloodied blotch created in a hellish fit of rage.

A large part of the book is given over to materials concerning the October pogroms of 1905. [1] From the official-falsified senatorial reports, from police reports, and from the testimony of witnesses, how vividly there emerge those terrible days when the frenzied curses of mothers, the weeping of battered infants, the death-rattles of old men and the terrible cries of all-embracing despair were the first greetings of the Russian constitution. A hundred of Russia’s cities and towns were transformed into hell on earth. The old order took revenge for its humiliation.

“The facts, even those to be found in the files of the Police Department – says a memorandum drawn up in November 1905 at the instruction of Count Witte for the purpose of the conflict with the “Trepovtsi” – show with absolute clarity that a significant proportion of the grave accusations made against the government by public opinion and the people as a whole in the days immediately following the manifesto had very solid foundations: there were gangs which had been created by officials at the highest levels of the government for the purpose of “the organised repulse of extreme elements”; patriotic demonstrations were organised by the government while other demonstrations were simultaneously broken up; they shot at peaceful demonstrators and were allowed to beat up people and burn down the provincial rural council under the eyes of the police and soldiers; the pogromists were given a free hand and volleys were fired at those who dared to defend themselves against them; consciously or unconsciously(?) they incited the crowd to violence through official declarations bearing the signature of the highest government representative in a big city; and when disorders then broke out, nothing was done to stop them. All these events occurred in different parts of Russia in the course of three to four days and provoked such a storm of indignation among the population that it completely erased the initial joyous effect of the proclamation of the manifesto on 17th October.” [“Materials”, page LXXXVII] Lopuchin [2], the former head of the Police Department, wrote more forcefully in his letter to Stolypin about “the systematic preparation by the authorities of Jewish and other pogroms.” [“Materials”, page XCIII]

Let us see what picture is revealed by the official-recorded facts.

“The instigators and leaders – writes Senator Turau in his report about the Kiev pogrom – were mostly individuals from one and the same crowd of thugs; what happened was that they incited participation in the pogrom by small shopkeepers – competitors of the Jews – janitors, some landlords, owners of artisanal workshops, and even, as many of the victims confirm, lower-ranking police officers.” [“Materials”, page CCXXXIII].

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

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.

[Note: “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.”]

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 petrol, 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!

[Note: “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.)]

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. Dim-witted 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.

[Note: “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.)]

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.

[Note: “It is difficult to calculate the number of people killed and seriously wounded in the four or five days following the publication of the manifesto – writes the author of the already-quoted memorandum commissioned by Count Witte, included in the Police Department documents – but according to completely reliable sources, it amounts to ten thousand.” (“Materials”, page XXIV.)]

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!

The volume of “Materials” which has been published (and already impounded) contains statistics concerning the pogroms in Odessa, Kiev and Rostov, and the fusillade fired at a public meeting in Minsk (October 1905), documents concerning the inquiry into the Gomel pogrom (January 1906), and two documents relating to the Sedlets pogrom (August 1906). What immediately jumps out at the reader in comparing the materials relating to these three successive moments are the increasingly overt activities of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy. In October we still see the masses of thugs – hundreds, perhaps thousands. They are recruited from the slums, they are summoned from the neighbouring villages – in a word: they find them. The role played by the bureaucracy, which is clear to all, mainly boils down to “connivance” with the thugs, while simultaneously protecting them from self-defence detachments. The Gomel pogrom provides an incomparably simplified picture of the relationship. “The disorders of 13th/14th January – reports Savich, a member of the Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs – were not the result of mass hostilities by the Christian population against Jews …, but were an attack on the properties of identified individuals of Jewish origin by a small armed gang of some ten to fifteen people” (“Materials”, page 380), led by a “secret union of patriots” which was headed by the captain of the local gendarmerie. Finally, in Sedlets several months later, “the people” are completely irrelevant to events. The pogrom is planned and carried out by lieutenant colonel Tikhanovsky as a military parade. Dragoons break into tenements, demand money, rape and murder. Then they set fire to houses, using paraffin from street lamps for this purpose. From time to time they turn up at the headquarters, for instructions and for cartridges. “Not many people have been killed,” Tikhanovsky impresses upon them. He thinks it necessary to “raise the spirit of the troops” and therefore rounds up some songsters. “Amidst the crash of gunfire, the bloodshed, the looting and the conflagrations, people could hear singing.”* And then, in order to make clear what was already hideously obvious, General Skalon, the troops’ commander in the Warsaw district, issued a special order thanking Tikhanovsky for his energy and diligence.

* Report of Captain Petukhov. “Materials”, page 407.

“Materials Concerning the History of the Russian Counter-Revolution” once again shows the Russian ruling bureaucracy not as it appears on the podium for viewing parades in the Tauride Palace but as it is in reality: an artificially selected hierarchy of social outcasts, prepared to set in motion all the forces of hell, turn towns into cemeteries, and set alight all four corners of the country, as soon as its greed or autocracy are threatened by a real danger from the people. No, it does not fall to Russian liberalism to bring down this monster!


Translated by Stan Crooke from: “L. Trotsky: Collected Works”, volume 4, Moscow-Leningrad, 1926.

First published in: “Przeglad Socyal-demokratyczny”, June 1908.

Numbered footnotes are taken from the Collected Works.

Footnotes in the original are inserted in the text above, in square brackets.

1) October pogroms of 1905 – On the day after the manifesto of 17th October 1905 a wave of pogroms swept through the whole of Russia. Of the 71 provinces in European Russia, with a population of 112 millions, pogroms took hold of regions in 36 of them, with a population of 70 millions. Purely Jewish pogroms took place in 660 centres of population. There were also pogroms of the intelligentsia (in Tver, Tomsk, Kazan and elsewhere), Armenians (in Baku and Shusha) and workers (in Ivanovo-Voznesensk). During the October pogroms up to three and a half thousand people were killed, and up to 10,000 wounded.

The description of the pogrom was pretty much the same everywhere. After a demonstration by the population to mark the publication of the manifesto of 17th October, a “patriotic” demonstration would make an appearance, with icons and portraits of the Tsar, mostly consisting of déclassé elements and members of Black Hundreds organisations. After a certain time the Black Hundreds demonstrators broke up into groups around the town and began a pogrom, with the supportive participation of police and troops.

The subsequent revelations of Urusov, the former Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, and Lopukhin, the former head of the Police Department, exposed the system whereby these pogroms were organised. Preparations were made not just on the “ideological” level, in the form of word-of-mouth agitation and the distribution of leaflets (which, incidentally, were printed on a secret Police Department press), but also through the organisational rallying of Black Hundreds elements. According to a memorandum of Prince Lvov, there was a special organisation in Petersburg, amounting to a hundred generals and other high-ranking officials, headed by Trepov and General Bogdanovich, tasked with combating the revolution, and one of its methods of doing so was to organise pogroms.

2) Lopukhin – Head of the Police Department. He exposed the provocateur Azef as he feared that the “state crimes” of the latter might have an unfortunate ending not only for many officials but also for the “monarch” himself. Lopukhin gave the materials which incriminated Azef to Burtsev and the SRs. In January 1909 he was arrested and tried by the Tsarist government for “making disclosures to a criminal organisation” about the activities of Azef. The trial caused an uproar and concluded with Lopukhin’s exile to Siberia.

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