The massacre in early January 1905 did not begin as a riot or revolt, but simply an organized march by poor urban workers desperate to petition the Tsar who they loved for help. The march began a year earlier in 1904 following the breakdown of the Zubatov experiment, which were police-sponsored trade unions, but they failed to pass any meaningful reforms. An Orthodox priest named Georgii Gapon organized thousands of people into a group called the Assembly of Russian Factory Workers. As the group grew, some people who became Gapon’s closest aides were former Marxists themselves and exposed the workers involved to western labour movements and civil rights. Gapon’s group had in its infancy been sponsored by the police to provide a safe outlet for grievances that was not connected to the radicals. The march began when some Assembly member workers at the Putilov factory were let go with no justification and with it being very possible it was an attempt to limit the groups influence. A city-wide strike then occurred throughout St. Petersburg and a decision was made to hold a massive march to petition the Tsar himself.
The petition was crafted by former Marxists, but also had large input from the workers themselves. They wanted many new reforms that we today might think of as just and reasonable. They included civil reforms such as separation of church and state, equality under the law, universal and compulsory education, and government ministers accountable to the people. They also included economic reforms such as eight-hour work days, regulation of overtime work, wage regulation, progressive tax reform and freedom for trade unions. In an interesting point, they also requested the ability of the people to be able to terminate a war. This was likely included because Russia was fighting the Japanese in east Asia and were losing. The war had the effect of keeping many experienced Russian troops in the far east and away from the powder keg of European Russia.
When they began their march to the Winter Palace to address the Tsar himself, Nicholas II decided to not be in the city so they could not put forth their petition to him. The marchers were comprised of the workers, but also their wives, children and the old, many of whom were at the front of the march. They carried Orthodox crosses and icons and sang patriotic songs, which included songs praising the Tsar. When the marchers reached the gates of the Winter Palace, the chief of security police, Grand Duke Vladimir, the Tsar’s uncle, attempted to stop the marchers and then opened fired on the marchers killing at least 100 and injuring many hundreds more in the ensuing chaos.
When word reached the rest of Russia, there was outrage and strikes and militancy sprang up, beginning in the industrial centers and was spread by the vast railroad connections throughout the country. This incident and the resulting Revolution of 1905 would lay the groundwork for the larger and far reaching Revolution that would bring down the Tsar.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.