Trotsky on Georgi Gapon and 1905 (1930)

Leon Trotsky, writing his own history of the Russian Revolution in the late 1920s, described the role of Georgi Gapon:

“The forms taken by the historic events of January 9th could not, of course, have been foreseen by anyone. The priest whom history had so unexpectedly placed for a few days at the head of the working masses imposed the imprint of his personality, his views and his priestly status on the events. The real content of these events was concealed from many eyes by their form. But the inner significance of January 9th goes far beyond the symbolism of the procession to the Winter Palace.

Gapon’s priestly robe was only a prop in that drama; the protagonist was the proletariat. The proletariat began with a strike, united itself, advanced political demands, came out into the streets, drew to itself the enthusiastic sympathy of the entire population, clashed with the troops and set off the Russian revolution. Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St. Petersburg; he merely released it, to his own surprise. The son of a priest, and then a seminarian and student at the Religious Academy, this agitator, so obviously encouraged by the police, suddenly found himself at the head of a crowd of a hundred thousand men and women. The political situation, his priestly robe, the elemental excitement of the masses which, as yet, had little political consciousness, and the fabulously rapid course of events turned Gapon into a “leader.”

The liberals persisted for a long time in the belief that the entire secret of the events of January 9th lay in Gapon’s personality. It contrasted him with the social democrats as though he were a political leader who knew the secret of controlling the masses. In doing so they forgot that January 9th would not have taken place if Gapon had not encountered several thousand politically conscious workers who had been through the school of socialism. These men immediately formed an iron ring around him, a ring from which he could not have broken loose even if he had wanted to.

But he made no attempt to break loose. Hypnotized by his own success, he let himself be carried by the waves. But although on the very next day after Bloody Sunday, we ascribed to Gapon a wholly subordinate political role, we all undoubtedly overestimated his personality. With his halo of holy anger, with a pastor’s curses on his lips, he seemed from afar almost to be a Biblical figure. It seemed as though powerful revolutionary passions had been awakened in the breast of this young priest employed at a Petersburg transit prison.

And what happened? When the lights burned low, Gapon was seen by everyone to be the utter political and moral non-entity he really was. His posturing before socialist Europe, his pathetic revolutionary” writings from abroad, both crude and naive, his return to Russia, his conspiratorial relations with the government, the pieces of silver dealt out by Count Witte, Gapon’s pretentious and absurd interviews with representatives of the conservative press, and finally, the wretched betrayal which caused his end – all these finally destroyed any illusions concerning the Gapon of January 9th.”