‘May Day Festivals in Tsarist Russia’ from International Press Correspondence. Vol. 7 No. 25. April 20, 1927.

“The Obukhov defense”
‘May Day Festivals in Tsarist Russia’ from International Press Correspondence. Vol. 7 No. 25. April 20, 1927.

In Tsarist Russia the workers had to pay with blood and their freedom for participating in May Day celebrations. But the revolution cannot be crushed by bullets and back-jacks. Hard labor and executions are powerless and they could not destroy the revolutionary Party of the proletariat; on the contrary, they only hardened the fighters of the workers’ Party. The May Day celebrations were converted into a school for the proletarian struggle against the armed forces of the tsarist government. The First of May was celebrated in tsarist Russia in one form or another for 27 years. The history of the May Day is bound up with the history of development of the revolutionary struggle of the Russian workers and with the history of their revolutionary Party. The May Day banners of the Russian workers spoke not only of the general tasks in the struggle, but also of the slogans dealing with the burning questions of the day. These slogans and the general character of the festivals changed accordingly as the nature of the workers’ organizations and the slogans of the proletarian parties developed.

When in 1889 the First Congress of the Second International decided to celebrate the First of May, it seemed that under the conditions of tsarist Russia it would be impossible to bring that decision into effect. Plekhanov joined the Polish delegation on behalf of the Russian delegates in declaring that in view of the exceptional conditions in tsarist Russia, they “cannot concentrate all their forces exclusively on this agitation and that they cannot sacrifice the life of their organizations in order to organize successful May Day demonstrations.” That it was impossible to celebrate May Day under Russian conditions considered also by other delegates. The general reply to this declaration was “naturally.” But already the next year, 1890, May Day demonstrations were organized in Russia.

In the nineties of the 19th century, the May Day celebrations assumed a mass character only in the most industrial districts of the Russia of that time—Poland. The workers of Western Russia who entered on the path of a mass revolutionary movement before the workers of Central Russia, started also the celebrations of May Day earlier than they did.

In 1890, May. Day was celebrated in Warsaw, where two proclamations were issued beforehand and on May First, from eight to ten thousand workers were out on strike. In connection with this celebration, the government perpetrated mass arrests not only among workers, but also amongst the intellectuals.

The May Day celebrations of that period in Central Russia were of a different nature. Here, during the first years when the Revolutionary labor organizations existed in the form of small circles, studying the fundamental problems of the theory of the labor movement, the May Day celebrations were limited merely to secret meetings which were of a propagandist nature at which small groups of organized underground workers’ circles participated.

In 1892, apart from the St. Petersburg and Polish workers, the First of May was celebrated in Vilna by the Jewish workers, who organized an underground meeting. The speeches delivered at that meeting were later published in pamphlet form.

“The Obukhov defense”

In 1893 the First of May was celebrated for the first time in Kazan. A May Day gathering was organized. They secured boats and numerous young people and workers left early in the morning for some island under the slogans: “an eight hour working day,” “freedom of speech, strikes and assembly.”

In 1895 Moscow, for the first time, joined in the May Day festivals. About 250 people gathered, representing 30 factories and works. Speeches were held dealing with the necessity of organizing the working class, the struggle for political freedom, the eight-hour working day, and the workers’ successes in Moscow.

In 1896 May Day proclamations were circulated for the first time in Nizhni-Novgorod and a May Day gathering was held in Saratov. The celebration of May Day was becoming more general yearly.

In 1897, the Jewish and Polish workers distributed May Day proclamations very extensively. Numerous May Day gatherings were held. An attempt was made to organize a demonstration in Vilna, but it failed as the town was occupied by armed forces.

Shortly before the First of May of 1898, the foundation was laid of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party at the First Congress in Minsk. The second period of May Day celebrations in Russia begins with the foundation of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and ends with the first Russian Revolution and is characterized by the rapid development of May Day celebrations throughout the country, which replaced the hazy slogan of political freedom by more definite ones. One of the clear political demands was the slogan “Down with autocracy.” This, accompanied with the transformation of the May Day celebrations into open political demonstrations, often ended in skirmishes with the police and the military forces.

The tsarist government also intensified its aggressive attitude to the May Day celebrations. In addition to the arrests, searches, and beatings, the government was now organizing pogroms and letting loose the black hundreds on the heads of the demonstrators. In 1898, a national May Day Manifesto was issued for the first time on behalf of the R.S.D.L.P. In it we find for the first time definite demands for an eight-hour working day, the freedom of strikes, speech, press, assembly, and organization, the freedom of conscience and faith, equality of nationalities, the convocation of a parliament representing the people elected by means of a general secret and direct equal vote for all.

The year 1899 was the first year in which May Day demonstrations were held on a mass scale. The extensive May Day movement of that year brought forth increased repressive measures from the government. Prior to and soon after the First of May, close to 250 people were arrested in St. Petersburg. Numerous searches and arrests were perpetrated in Moscow and other towns. In Kiev, 176 people were arrested and about 500 house searches were made. In Gomel 15 people were arrested, and 3 house searches made. In Odessa, 200 people were detained. In Kiev, 8 people were arrested and a red banner at a meeting discovered was confiscated by the police. The workers were arrested on the eve of May Day in Ufa. Realizing its importance in staving off the labor movement by means of arrests, the government attempted ‘hat year to organize the “Black Hundreds” as a means of struggle against the Revolution. In Nikolaev, a Jewish pogrom was organized on April 19, to prevent May Day celebrations.

 In 1900, demonstrations were held in Kharkov, Warsaw, Dombrovo, Vjlna, Kressiavka, and Minsk. Numerous May Day leaflets were circulated and in many towns meetings were organized, some of which as for instance in Tiflis and Lodz, were attended by great multitudes. The most conspicuous celebration was that of Kharkov. In the morning of May 1 the railroad workers formulated their demands, raised the red banner, and embarked on a procession to meet the demonstration of the machine construction workers.

The police endeavored to stop them, but the demonstration took a different road and on its way it stopped in front of the workers in the Bergenheim factory. The cossacks appeared and about 400 people were arrested. Learning of the experiences of the railroad workers, the entire machine construction factory struck. The railroad workers broke through the lines of the Cossacks and joined the workers of the machine factory and the others. In that demonstration, about 10,000 people participated. The workers marched to the jail and demanded the liberation of their comrades. The next day they refused to go to work, and they forced the governor to satisfy their demands and free the arrested comrades.

Putilov, 1906.

The May Day demonstrations and strikes were still more widespread in 1901. First of all, we should mention the demonstration of 3,000 workers in Tiflis. It ended by a drawn sabres attack on the part of the cossacks. Twenty-four people were wounded and 40 were arrested. In St. Petersburg 15 per cent of the Obukhov factory did not come to Work—about 1,500 people. When the director of the factory wanted to discharge the most undesirable ones for participating in that demonstration, all workers struck and formulated the demand for the eight-hour working day and the reinstatement of the discharged workers. The administration refused to meet the demands and the workers marched out en masse to Shlislberg, where they were met by armed squadrons of gendarmes, two squads of soldiers and a whole regiment of police. The workers barricaded the factory gates and defended themselves with bricks and stones.

“The Obukhov defense” lasted nine hours. The workers’ wives and children participated in it. A few workers were killed, many wounded, and thousands arrested. Brought before the bar, 29 workers were sentenced to hard labor and exile. A great demonstration was also organized in Warsaw, in which about 10,000 to 15,000 workers participated, and in Lodz a meeting of about 30,000 workers was held.

In 1902, May Day celebrations assumed a still wider aspect. The most momentous events took place in Saratov, Sormov, Nizhni-Novgorod and Vilna. The demonstrations in Saratov ended by the beating up of the demonstrators by the Black Hundreds and the police forces dressed in civil attire. Many of the beaten up workers were arrested. Some of the arrested, such as for instance, A. E. Rykov, managed to escape, while the others were exiled. The Nizhni-Novgorod police acted in a similar manner and most brutal of all were the police in Vilna.

In 1903, the police in issuing warnings about the May Day demonstrations, threatened to organize Jewish pogroms. In view of this, the demonstrations were called off in many towns. But the Caucasian Social Democratic Union organized powerful demonstrations in Tiflis, Baku, Batum and Kutais.

In 1904, May Day demonstrations were organized in Warsaw, Riga, Mitava and Gomel. A new phenomenon this year was the fact that the demonstrations in Riga and Mitava had their special fighting detachments of workers armed with bayonets, knives, sticks and stones. Thus, in connection with the celebration of the First of May, the workers, for the first time organized their armed detachments. That year many May Day strikes and meetings were organized.

The third period in the history of May Day celebrations includes the years 1905 to 1917.

The principal task of the revolutionary workers in 1905 was the preparation of an armed rising. That year the May Day celebrations were very moderate, as the Russian proletariat, being tired of the mass strikes which followed the bloodbath of the 9th of January. When, in spite of the most energetic measures taken by the police and the gendarmeries, under the leadership of Governor von-Wal, a demonstration took place in Vilna, some of the most active demonstrators were beaten up and one was killed. In the evening, proclamations were circulated in the town theatre. The next day, von Wal ordered the arrested to be punished by the rod. year, was now only marshalling its forces for a general skirmish which was to follow in the months, October and December of that year. The “Central Committee of Bolsheviki” took that situation into consideration, The proclamation issued by the Bureau jointly with the Editorial Board of the Bolshevik paper, the “Vperyod” (Forward) said:

“Against armed force we can act only if we are armed; we must demonstrate shoulder to shoulder with rifles and bullets and bombs in our hands. But the First of May of course cannot be the day of a general armed rising. … It would be madness to demonstrate on the streets on the First of May; we have been exposed enough to the weapons of the hangmen; but it is untimely yet to come out with arms. But we have a method of celebrating the international holiday of the proletariat, which is a general strike.”

It is impossible to give an account of the enormous amount of May Day literature that was issued that year by the revolutionary organizations in the center and in the provinces. In connection with the situation in 1906, many strikes and May Day gatherings were organized; only in Warsaw there was a demonstration. In dispersing the demonstration, the Cossacks charged and 30 people were killed and about 100 wounded.

During the year between May 1st 1905 and 1st of May 1906, Russia experienced gigantic revolutionary events. The May Day celebrations in 1906 were a mass character, and exertion of forces during the general strike and the armed rising of that year, made itself felt. On the First of May of 1907, the Government crushed a series of risings in various parts of Russia, but its triumph was not complete.

In 1908 the reaction celebrated its victory over the first revolution. The working class quietened down. It had not recuperated from the blows suffered nor had it gathered its forces for another struggle. The proletarian holiday also quietened down and during the years 1908-1911, there were only small May Day strikes here and there.

But in 1912, the labor movement was again at its height. The years 1912-1914, were years of revolutionary revival in Russia, and they were characterized by an increased strike movement, intensified clandestine Party activity and the appearance of illegal labor papers.  The “Pravda” (Truth) which had only appeared recently could not, due to the censor, develop an extensive First of May campaign, but the illegal party was busily engaged in preparations for the First of May.

The tsarist secret service was also getting ready. Numerous house searches and arrests were made on the night of April 28th. The offices of the “Pravda” and the Menshevik “Zhivoye Dyelo” (The Vital Cause) were smashed. About 100 to 170,000 people participated in the May Day strike of that year throughout Russia. Attempts were also made to organize demonstrations, but they were dispersed by the mounted police.

The police were particularly active before the First of May 1914. Daily reports were coming from various towns about house searches and arrests. But in spite of all the measures taken by the police, 280,000 people participated in the May Day strike in St. Petersburg, 86,000 in Transcaucasia, 44,600 in Riga, 40,250 in Moscow, 16,000 in Reval, 15,000 in Kharkov, 9,200 in Nizhni-Novgorod and Sormovo, etc.—a total of 504,190 people throughout the country according to the reports of “Put Pravdy” (The Way of Truth).

In the summer of 1914, the world war broke out. It resulted in the collapse of the opportunist Second International. The opportunists appealed to the workers by saying that: “In view of the extraordinary conditions to refrain from May Day celebrations.” But the revolutionary Social Democrats, as represented by the Bolsheviks, proved that not all forgot their proletarian solidarity.

During the war, the First of May slogan calling for the overthrow of the autocracy, was merged with the slogans of protest against the imperialist war. The First of May circular issued by the Central Committee in 1915, said that “on May 1st, every proletarian realizes that the proletarian victory can be secured only through a firm international solidarity and adherence to the proletarian slogans.” In Moscow, 100,000 more people participated in the May Day strike than in1914. In Petrograd 35,000 struck and about 300 people were arrested.

In 1916, regardless of the mass arrests, effected by the police, the May Day strike in Moscow affected not only private factories and works out also some of the ammunition factories. The May Day celebrations in Russia were a school in which the revolutionary consciousness and the bellicose habits of the Russian proletariat were formed, which were later splendidly applied in the March and October Revolution of 1917, and later in the construction and defense of the Soviet Union.

International Press Correspondence, widely known as”Inprecor” was published by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) regularly in German and English, occasionally in many other languages, beginning in 1921 and lasting in English until 1938. Inprecor’s role was to supply translated articles to the English-speaking press of the International from the Comintern’s different sections, as well as news and statements from the ECCI. Many ‘Daily Worker’ and ‘Communist’ articles originated in Inprecor, and it also published articles by American comrades for use in other countries. It was published at least weekly, and often thrice weekly. The ECCI also published the magazine ‘Communist International’ edited by Zinoviev and Karl Radek from 1919 until 1926 monthly in German, French, Russian, and English. Unlike, Inprecor, CI contained long-form articles by the leading figures of the International as well as proceedings, statements, and notices of the Comintern. No complete run of Communist International is available in English. Both were largely published outside of Soviet territory, with Communist International printed in London, to facilitate distribution and both were major contributors to the Communist press in the U.S. Communist International and Inprecor are an invaluable English-language source on the history of the Communist International and its sections.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/inprecor/1927/v07n25-apr-20-1927-inprecor-op.pdf

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