The US ambassador’s report on Bloody Sunday (1905)

On January 31st 1905, the American ambassador Robert Sanderson McCormick wrote to Secretary of State John Hay, briefing him on the violence in St Petersburg on Bloody Sunday:


The changes which have come over the internal situation in Russia since my departure early in October mark distinctly the beginning of the end of the old regime and the dawn of a new era…

It is now clear to every impartial observer that the [trust]… of the working men had been worked upon by a group of socialists with Father Gapon, now raised by this press to the position of a demi-god — a sort of Second Savior — at its head, although he has to his record the violation of a young girl of 12 years of age. My authority for this, and he told me that he spoke with knowledge, is the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador Baron d’Aehrenthal.

The correspondent of the ‘Standard’, who had an interview with this renegade priest, has told me that he was a thorough-paced revolutionist, and that he had utterly deceived the working men into the belief that his sole purpose was to aid them to better their condition, and secure from their employers concessions on the lines indicated in the appeal to the Emperor, which was drawn up by him. That his own purpose went beyond the mere presentation of this appeal now seems clear, and… there seems little doubt that his real intention was to get possession of the person of the Emperor and hold him as a hostage.

Unfortunately, the police authorities exhibited criminal weakness in dealing with this man, the Chief of Police going so far as to accompany him to the Ministry of the Interior and to Mr Witte’s residence, at least to seek their cooperation in securing an audience for Gapon. Had they put him under arrest Russia might have been spared the horrible events which have aroused the anger of the outside world and thousands within the Empire, with possibilities which one shudders to contemplate.

I was in the street and inspected the crowd in the Admiralty Prospect as it worked its way towards the Place du Palais. They had not the look of revolutionists, and although there were doubtless some of the scum of the capital sprinkled in the crowd, it was my opinion that, guarded as every approach was to the Place, the Emperor might have appeared and received a committee of workmen made up of men bearing a good character with their employers, and agreed… to do what his latest proclamation promises, namely to investigate their grievances.

Having failed to do this, and the Chief of Police, as well as the Minister of the Interior, having proven himself unequal to the situation, and what threatened to be a dangerous crisis under the cunning leadership of Father Gapon having been allowed to develop, nothing was left but to call out the troops. Whether the situation around the Place du Palais could have been kept in hand without firing on the crowd is a matter on which opinions differ, even on the part of eyewitnesses, but I have heard the assembled crowd accused of nothing worse than jeering at the troops, hustling the officers and using language to them that will not bear repetition – although they came, it is said, armed with knives, pieces of piping, sticks, and some even with revolvers.

I do know that the commanding officer of the infantry on the Place fronting the Admiralty Prospect asked… the crowd to disperse and twice warned them to disperse, adding that if they did not, he would be compelled to fire on them. This I have been told by a personal friend of the officer, to whom he deplored the tragedy in which he was compelled to play a part. Moreover, my private secretary stood for some time on the Place behind the troops and saw the officers moving along the front of the crowd and begging the people to disperse.

The same thing, he says, took place at all the approaches to the Place du Palais, the officers, on foot, would go right in among the people and try to reason with them, seeming to do everything in their power to persuade the people to disperse peaceably. The troopers, too, guarding the streets leading towards the Place, were invariably polite in their [warnings]… to the crowd to move on and in refusing them passage through the streets. But they used judgement in this, sending back the rough-looking workmen and sneering, overbearing students while permitting those to pass who would go to them frankly and state their business and destination.

As long as it was possible, the troops kept the crowd moving and dispersed them by simply riding up against them and asking them to disperse. As the crowd grew larger and bolder, this became useless, and the troops resorted to charges withdrawn [swords].. striking the crowds with the flat of their swords, and then, later, cutting down a few of them at each charge, the crowd always returning instantly, larger and more furious than before. My secretary adds that the mob in the centre of the Admiralty Prospect, just previous to the firing, was frantic in its demonstrations…

The events of Sunday January 22nd weakened, if it did not shatter, that unswerving loyalty and deep-seated reverence which has characterised the subjects of The Czar of All the Russias. I have had evidence of this from the highest to the lowest classes and it finds expression in a letter received this morning from Mr Heenan, our Consul at Odessa, who writes:

‘Had I answered your enquiries about the situation here before the affair of Sunday last in your city had taken place, the views expressed would have been quite other than those I shall send you in a few days. In all the years (eighteen) I have spent in Russia, I never knew the Russian public to be so united as in their views in connection with the action of the authorities in ordering the soldiers to shoot the workmen, their wives, children and harmless spectators last Sunday in St Petersburg. All classes condemn the authorities and more particularly the Emperor. The present ruler has lost absolutely the affection of the Russian people, and whatever the future may have in store for the dynasty, the present Czar will never again be safe in the midst of his people.’…

I have the honour to be, Sir
Your obedient Servant
Robert S. McCormick”