One hundred and nine years ago today, January 22, 1905, was the infamous “Bloody Sunday” of Russian history. On that day a large group of disaffected workers, students and clergy tried to storm the Winter Palace, the headquarters of the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. One of the leaders of the march was an Orthodox priest, Father Georgii Gapon, an idealistic 34-year-old clergyman who was morally outraged by the deprivation of the workers of Russia and idealistically dedicated to getting the Tsar’s government to institute reforms. Gapon drafted a petition to give to Nicholas and led a throng of unemployed workers to deliver it. The Tsarist troops fired on the crowd, killing a large number of them. The outrage sparked by this event later led, in October, to the Tsar agreeing to modest reforms, including a Duma, the Russian parliament.
There was, however, one thing about Father Gapon that might strike the modern reader as strange: he was an agent working for the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police. Thus, he led a revolt against the very government in whose employ he was.
Before we declare Bloody Sunday a “false flag”–a favorite trope of modern conspiracy junkies–we must first try to understand the extremely complex nature of the workers’ movement in late Tsarist Russia. Gapon was associated with the Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers of St. Petersburg, which was heavily infiltrated with secret police (Okhrana) agents. Russia in 1905 was rife with revolutionary groups, most of them plotting or at least wishing for the overthrow of the Tsar, and it was all the police could do to keep track of them. Gapon evidently welcomed or tolerated the official infiltration, for what reason is unclear; he may have thought that keeping up contacts with the police might eventually be an entree to real negotiations with the government at some point, which would benefit the workers.
This is not actually a photo of the real “Bloody Sunday” march. In fact it is a recreation of the event done for a 1920s silent movie made by the Soviet regime. Sometimes footage from this film works its way into documentaries as if it was genuine.
There doesn’t seem to be any legitimate question that, his contacts with the police aside, Gapon’s loyalties were firmly with the working class. He had worked with and preached to unemployed workers and orphans in the poor areas of St. Petersburg for three years before Bloody Sunday. The demands his petition made of the Tsar were quite progressive: fair treatment and better working conditions. Furthermore, at no time did Gapon ever advocate the overthrow of the Tsarist regime. In fact he disdained association with more open revolutionaries, such as the Bolsheviks. Gapon seems to have wanted to change the existing system from within, not tear it down and start again. Although arguably naive, Gapon may not have seen an inconsistency between his workers’ advocacy and his role in talking to the Okhrana.
Bloody Sunday was, without a doubt, an utter disaster for the Tsar and his regime. It happened right at the darkest moment of Russia’s war with the Japanese, and the Tsar could ill-afford the political turmoil that he and his advisers feared would sweep them from power. The last thing he wanted to do was grant a Duma and erode his own power, or more accurately, the power he hoped to transfer to his son, the Tsarevich Alexis. Unfortunately Bloody Sunday forced his hand. He had to crack the facade of Russian autocracy, if only to stave off a more serious and potentially revolutionary challenge.
As for Gapon, it turned out he “provocateured” too much. He fled Russia after the massacre, but by 1906 he was back. He tried to enlist some other workers’ movement leaders to talk to the Okhrana, claiming that double loyalty would be good for the workers. (Hm?) On April 10, 1906, he was found hanged in a small cottage outside of St. Petersburg. Did he kill himself, or was it murder? We may never know, but Father Gapon’s role in Russian history was quite suddenly over.