War and Conflict

Russian Revolution

What was Bloody Sunday?

The January 22, 1905, event, which is also known as Red Sunday, signaled the beginning of revolutionary activity in Russia that would not end until 1917. On that winter day the young Russian Orthodox priest Georgi Gapon (1870–1906), carrying a cross over his shoulder, led what was intended to be a peaceful workers’ demonstration in front of the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg. But, as the London Times correspondent reported that day, when the crowd was refused entry into the common gathering ground of the Palace Square, “the passions of the mob broke loose like a bursting dam.” Despite Father Gabon’s thinking that they too would join the workers in protest, the Cossack guards and troops, still loyal to the Romanov tsar Nicholas II (1868–1918), shot into the crowd of demonstrators, killing about 150 people—children, women, and young people among them.

Father Gapon, who had intended to deliver to the tsar a petition on behalf of the workers, was injured during the day’s events and later fled in exile. His thinking that the palace guards would come over to the workers’ side was not his only miscalculation: Tsar Nicholas was not even at the palace that Sunday, having left days earlier. But Nicholas’s reign was threatened by his troops’ response to the gathering crowd: So horrific was the bloodshed that the snow-covered streets of St. Petersburg were stained in red, and the correspondent for the French newspaper Le Matin reported that the Cossacks had opened fire “as if they were playing at bloodshed.” The event sent shockwaves through the country, where hostilities had been mounting against Nicholas’s ineffective government. It also stirred up unrest elsewhere, including in Moscow—where, in a related event, the tsar’s uncle, Grand Duke Serge, was killed in early February. The death was a sure sign that popular anger had been focused on the tsar and his family. In the countryside, the peasants rose up against their landlords, seizing land, crops, and livestock.

The events foreshadowed the downfall of tsarist Russia: Though the outbreak in 1905 was unsuccessful in effecting any change and Nicholas remained in power for 12 more years, he was the last tsar to rule Russia.


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