Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday marked the violent suppression of a demonstration of unarmed workers in St. Petersburg, precipitating revolutionary unrest throughout Russia that forced Czar Nicholas II to grant limited constitutional reforms.

Summary of Event

The popular demonstration of Sunday, January 22, 1905 (January 9 by the Julian calendar used at the time in Russia), which ended in its bloody suppression, was a reaction not only against the deplorable conditions prevailing in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century but also against the government’s studied inability and reluctance to do anything about them. Foremost among those who opposed change and whose conservative policies created widespread discontent were Czar Nicholas II and a number of his close advisers, including Sergey Yulyevich Witte, the minister of finance. Nicholas II was determined to preserve his autocratic power against demands for representative government. Witte had implemented a program of rapid industrial growth, which he believed was imperative if Russia was to remain a great power. After the severe depression of 1900-1902, the opposition of these leaders to badly needed political and social reform encouraged acts of desperation. Bloody Sunday
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[kw]Bloody Sunday (Jan. 22, 1905)
[kw]Sunday, Bloody (Jan. 22, 1905)
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[g]Russia;Jan. 22, 1905: Bloody Sunday[01240]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 22, 1905: Bloody Sunday[01240]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 22, 1905: Bloody Sunday[01240]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Jan. 22, 1905: Bloody Sunday[01240]
Gapon, George
Nicholas II
[p]Nicholas II[Nicholas 02];Bloody Sunday
Witte, Sergey Yulyevich
Zubatov, Sergei Vasilyevich

Between 1900 and 1905, unemployment increased in large centers of industry such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, and workers went on strike over low wages and long hours. Peasant unrest also increased dramatically during these years. Burdened by high taxes and a rapidly growing population, the peasants saw the seizure of the estates of the landed nobility as the answer to their problems. This growing discontent received encouragement from illegal political parties that were seeking radical political and social change. The underground Union of Liberation Union of Liberation (Russia) organized demonstrations in the fall of 1904 to protest government incompetence in waging the Russo-Japanese War Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)[Russojapanese War] and to demand constitutional reforms and representative government. The Socialist Revolutionary Party Socialist Revolutionary Party (Russia) supported the peasants’ desire for land; it was also responsible for the assassination of numerous government officials. A Marxist party, the Social Democrats, Social Democratic Party (Russia) hoped to transform the strike movement into a revolutionary upheaval that would overthrow the autocracy and capitalism.

Drawing created in 1905 depicts the clash between protesters and czarist troops on Bloody Sunday.

(Library of Congress)

Sergei Vasilyevich Zubatov, a former revolutionary who had become head of Moscow’s security police, believed that the workers were more interested in tangible improvements in their living and working conditions than in Marxist ideology or a political reform program. They would, he argued, support the czar rather than the Social Democrats if the government would support their economic demands against their employers. To further this goal, Zubatov founded the Council of Workers of Mechanical Factories of the City of Moscow Council of Workers of Mechanical Factories of the City of Moscow in 1901. Similar “police unions” were set up in other industrial cities, including Odessa and St. Petersburg. Witte, however, opposed government support for striking workers as harmful to his vision of rapid industrial growth, and this “police socialism” collapsed. It soon reappeared in St. Petersburg, however, under the leadership of a Russian Orthodox priest, Father George Gapon.

Father Gapon’s organization, the Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers of the City of St. Petersburg, Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers of the City of St. Petersburg also received government recognition as being nonpolitical in nature, which it was at first, but by 1904, when its membership had grown to eight thousand, many workers inclined to the more militant, revolutionary tactics of the Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries. Many laborers became more and more disgusted with their working conditions. The dismissal of workers in January, 1905, by a large factory in the capital led to a strike that became general within a few days.

In a series of meetings held in January, 1905, members of Gapon’s organization agreed that he should lead a march of workers to the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and present Nicholas II with a petition that reaffirmed the loyalty of the petitioners to the czar but called on him to lift from their shoulders the yoke of oppression placed on them by his corrupt officials. The workers and the radical intellectuals who helped to draft the petition demanded an end to the war as well as better treatment from officials and factory owners. The petitioners, moreover, called on the czar to institute sweeping civil and political reforms, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association; a broadened franchise for local elections; equality before the law; and, above all, the creation of a representative assembly. These reform demands, given the nature of the country in which they were made, were truly revolutionary. Although Father Gapon was personally opposed to making political demands at that time, he agreed to include the demands in the petition rather than lose the trust of the workers. Consequently, the bitter cold Sunday morning of January 22, 1905, found him leading his followers to the Winter Palace.

Clad in his priestly robes, Father Gapon personally led one of the several long columns of workers from the outskirts of St. Petersburg toward the center of the city and the Winter Palace. The march was intended as a peaceful demonstration, and some marchers were accompanied by their families; some bore icons and portraits of the czar. Nicholas, however, decided to stay away from the city and left the handling of the crisis to his police and military officials. Having failed in an attempt to arrest Gapon, these officials stationed military forces on the large square in front of the Winter Palace and at key points along the anticipated routes of the march. Despite this show of force, which included some instances of shooting, the military patrols failed to prevent the crowds from pressing on toward Palace Square, and when the workers surged toward the Winter Palace and refused to disperse, the troops fired on them. At least 130 of the demonstrators were killed, and hundreds more were injured.


This episode, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, was a debacle for the czarist regime. Liberal agitation for constitutional reforms, the rising wave of workers’ strikes and peasant uprisings, and public disgust with the lack of success in the war with Japan had already raised tensions in Russia to a high level. News of the massacre in St. Petersburg unleashed the first Russian revolution in the twentieth century and presaged the still more radical revolution that the Bolsheviks would unleash in October, 1917.

Father Gapon managed to escape from the capital and flee into exile, where he issued an open letter to the czar that denounced him for having refused to accept the petition: “Let all blood which has to be shed fall upon thee, hangman, and thy kindred.” In this statement, Gapon expressed the real historical significance of Bloody Sunday, namely, that the Russian people had now completely lost faith in the czar. Indeed, the Bloody Sunday massacre exposed to all Russians the intransigence and incompetence of the Romanov autocracy. The government was able to contain the revolutionary outbreaks only when Nicholas II reluctantly agreed to conclude an unfavorable peace with Japan and to grant constitutional reforms, including the establishment of a representative assembly, the Duma. The czar’s concessions, although made grudgingly, satisfied some of the revolutionary opposition and enabled the government to begin the work of reestablishing order in Russia. However, the czar’s manifest reluctance to relinquish even a portion of his enormous power did not bode well for the success of Russia’s new constitutional government. Bloody Sunday
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Further Reading

  • Ascher, Abraham. The Revolution of 1905. 2 vols. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988-1992. A fine history of the first Russian revolution of the twentieth century.
  • _______. The Revolution of 1905: A Short History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004. A concise history of the Russian Revolution of 1905 by a highly respected scholar.
  • Lincoln, W. Bruce. In War’s Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War. 1984. Reprint. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003. A noted scholar offers a highly readable portrait of Russia during the years 1891 to 1914.
  • Sablinsky, Walter. The Road to Bloody Sunday: Father Gapon and the St. Petersburg Massacre of 1905. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. A detailed history of the workers’ organization founded by Father Gapon and of the tragic demonstration of January 22, 1905.
  • Schneiderman, Jeremiah. Sergei Zubatov and Revolutionary Marxism: The Struggle for the Working Class in Tsarist Russia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976. Traces the rise and fall of the “police union” movement, which served as the inspiration for Father Gapon’s organization in St. Petersburg.
  • Verner, Andrew M. The Crisis of Russian Autocracy: Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. A fine analysis of Nicholas II’s personality as well as his role in Bloody Sunday and its aftermath.
  • Von Laue, Theodore H. Why Lenin? Why Stalin? Why Gorbachev? The Rise and Fall of the Soviet System. 3d ed. New York: Longman, 1997. A classic interpretive essay that situates the events of 1905 in the larger context of modern Russian and Soviet history.

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