A Hidden Story of the 1905 Russian Revolution: The Unemployed Soviet

Against the Current, No. 118, September/October 2005

Nikolai Preobrazhenksii

[The following is an abridged and partially edited version of a text by Nikolai Preobrazhenksii, a socialist activist and historian living in St. Petersburg.  It has been translated and edited by David Mandel.](1)

THE MOVEMENT OF the unemployed in St. Petersburg is a little-known episode of the First Russian Revolution of 1905-7.  The movement came as a complete surprise to everyone at the time, since it is did not fit any pre-conceived schema (although, strictly speaking, it had a precedent in the February Revolution of 1848 in France, when the revolutionary government established the “Ateliers nationaux” public-works program).

In this—and much else during this first Russian revolution—the young Russian labor movement had already outstripped “advanced” Europe.  It is also worth noting that the St. Petersburg Soviet of the Unemployed arose purely as a result of initiative “from below,” as the left parties regarded it as a utopian enterprise and kept their distance from it. It was a manifestation of the amazing creativity and capacity for self-organization of the working class.

Soviet of the Unemployed

At the end of 1905, the workers’ movement in the capital was hit by two coordinated, lockouts in response to mass strikes—first in November and then again in December.  Most of industry started up again only in February 1906.  These lockouts came after the capital’s workers had been on strike for a good part of the year, and so the workers’ need was great.  “It was an ocean of need and despair, whose waves beat against the doors of the Soviet, which had neither the force nor the material means to deal with this new task.”(2)

The executive committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies [the Soviet itself had been arrested en masse on December 3, 2005 and thereafter effectively ceased to exist—DM] set up a Commission for the Unemployed with offices in each district.  The workers in the plants elected officers to collect money and distribute it to the unemployed.  In parallel fashion, the (liberal) Kadet Party and the City Duma (municipal assembly) also created support organs.

The police wanted to liquidate all this and ship the unemployed out of town.  But Prime Minister Witte had a better grasp of the situation and ordered the police to hold off and not to close the free soup-kitchens (many of which the police had already shut down) without very good cause.  In March 1906, the government even allocated 30,000 rubles for the free meals.

All this was intended to provide short-term support.  But by the Spring of 1906, it became clear that the problem was chronic and massive.  Management, together with the police and Black Hundreds,(3) were compiling blacklists of “unreliable” elements, and activists were not being rehired.  New hires were forced to sign commitments unswervingly to respect internal regulations and to refrain from striking.

The economic recession favored the owners.  The thousands of unemployed were hungry, and a large part of them were the most conscious elements of the working class, heroes of the previous year’s struggles.  With their family members, they numbered in the tens of thousands.  And there seemed no perspective.  Even the continued existence of the free soup-kitchens was in doubt.  The left parties had nothing to propose.

The shift came in mid March: unemployed workers gathered in the still operating 24 soup-kitchens and, bypassing all the workers’ organizations, decided to petition the City Duma.  Looking for an educated person who could compose the text, they purely by chance came upon a 20-year old Bolshevik student, V.S. Voitinskii.(4)

He quickly studied the situation, visited the kitchens, questioned people.  A meeting of representatives of the twenty-four kitchens adopted the text and decided to organize elections.  “Thus, in the course of preparing the petition, a new city-wide workers’ organization began to take shape.”(5)

The Party Opposes, Lenin Supports

Both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks opposed these initiatives.  The RSDWP’s (Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party)(6) Petersburg Committee angrily called in the newly elected Soviet of Unemployed and demanded that it not hurry with the petition.  But the nut proved too hard to crack.

Voitinksii in the Soviet of the Unemployed was surrounded by workers older than he in years and, as a rule, with richer party experience.  There were Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and S.R.s (Socialist Revolutionaries).  Many had been authoritative leaders in their plants who had lost work […] The movement of the unemployed united ‘conscious workers,’ who put forth their own leaders from their ranks.  These played a key role in the leadership of the organization.(8)

The Soviet of the Unemployed ignored the Petersburg Committee and already on March 28, five days after its formation, sent a delegation to the City Duma (whose session was postponed for lack of a quorum.)

The Soviet distributed leaflets, organized elections—both among the unemployed (one delegate for 150) and the employed (one for 500)—created district soviets, conducted propaganda activities through the left and liberal press.  This gave the unemployed some perspective and a field of action.  Their mood shifted.  The elation in some ways was reminiscent of the mood in St. Petersburg at the beginning of the revolution in January 1905.

The first meeting of the Soviet of the Unemployed took place on April 4, 1906.  Its leaders considered it a matter of fundamental importance to promote close contact between both parts of the working class, the employed and the unemployed, and to avoid isolation of the latter.

The Petersburg Committee of the RSDWP, fearing, among other things, the recreation “through the back door” of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, termed the election of delegates from the employed premature.(9) In response, Voitinksii and Malyshev(10) declared that they would not submit to the Petersburg Committee.  Voitinksii immediately went to see Lenin, who fully supported him and sent the party instructions to publish 10,000 leaflets for the Soviet of the Unemployed.

Lenin showed a great interest in the movement and saw in it the potential embryo and initiator of worker demonstrations.(11) But Lenin’s supportive attitude was exceptional among the leaders of both fractions of social democracy.  Neither showed interest or did anything to help.  The Soviet had to act on its own.

The Struggle for Public Works

The Soviet had to create the necessary atmosphere in the city to force the Duma to accede to its demands.  Its activists launched a full-scale campaign to collect signatures.  It gained such momentum that the City Duma quickly decided to look into the already-forgotten issue of support for the unemployed.  In the critical moment, the clearly red Soviet, the Kadets and organizations of the intelligentsia (such as the Union of Engineers and Technicians, the League of Unions) acted together.  But the workers were the striking forces, with the intelligentsia acting as cheerleaders.

Excerpts from letters to the press:

The unemployed are organized by districts, in groups of hundreds and sometimes even tens.  The large factories have adhered to the demands of the unemployed, and even the Black-Hundred elements are wavering.

The city resembles a volcano […] There can be an explosion at any moment […] There are troops everywhere in the worker districts […] Everything was agitated and seething.  The unemployed are at the forefront and are strongly lifting the spirit of the rest […], so that it would almost take only a call ‘to arms’ for it to start […] The Duma is to give its answer today to the workers petition to organize public works […].”(12)

By the time the Soviet’s delegation reached the Duma, it had all already been decided.  The government’s position was complicated by the fact that in two weeks the First State Duma was to open.(13) Any “excesses” or open expressions of discord were undesirable.  The intermediary strata of the capital were pinning high hopes on the State Duma and their readiness to act was on the rise.  On April 12, 1906:

the City Duma granted concessions.  It created a Preparatory Commission for Public Works, with equal participation of the unemployed, and allotted half a million rubles to organize the works.  […] The Soviet got the City Duma to call for registration of the unemployed and to mandate the Soviet itself to do it, thus making it something of a semi-official organ of the city administration and more or less protecting it from police persecution.”(14)

Already in the winter of 1905-6, the workers themselves had organized collections for their fired comrades and their families.  “During the lockouts at the end of 1905, it was the most active workers who had suffered […], the leaders, the deputies.  The workers considered it their sacred duty […] to help them.”  This received a new impulse in the beginning of the spring of 1906: “The workers of a whole series of enterprises had already decided to make regular contributions from their wages,” and this continued.(15)

The City Duma’s commission sent out a large number of requests to management to permit elections in the plants.  But management refused.  On the other hand, these requests, of which the workers gained knowledge, moved the latter to organize unsanctioned electoral meetings.  This proved impossible in the giant plants, whose delegates to the Soviet were accordingly “not elected.”

By the end of May, delegates had been elected from 100,000 employed and unemployed workers—and from 150,000 by the end of June.

The organization of the Petersburg Soviet of the Unemployed was not the result of a worked-out [party] policy.  […] On the contrary, it arose from below, from the depths of the workers and unemployed, who independently, without any advice, reproduced an organization of the soviet type.  […] It was the collectives of the plants who turned out to be the strongest links in the chain […] making [the Soviet of the Unemployed] the successor and continuator of the Soviet of 1905.”(16)

The organizational structure in the center and the districts gradually took on the basic traits of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies of 1905.  The pivotal points were the district bureaus: here leaflets were distributed, party agitators worked, information was given out, workers’ libraries set up, lectures presented.

The City Duma allocated huge sums for food and housing support.  But it was slow in beginning the public works.  Its commission was unable to take practical decisions.  The unemployed thought this was a conscious policy.  But Voitinskii, who had close personal contact with the commission, soon realized that its members, liberals, were talkers lacking any practical inclination or technical skills.  The unemployed felt duped and were beginning to seethe.

As long as they hoped that the promised public works were about to start, they saw the negotiations with the City Duma and the allocations for free meals and housing support as an advance, which they intended to pay back to the city from their wages.  But as the start of the works was delayed and their situation became increasingly hopeless, they began to realize that they were in no condition to refuse the city’s help, which was thus transformed from an advance on wages into unconcealed charity.  Later, as the noose of hunger pulled tighter, the sense of insult from the city’s handout was replaced with a different feeling, a combination of irritation and hatred from those in command of the city’s finances.”(17)

The Soviet did all it could to prevent a hunger revolt.

Despite the unclear situation, the Soviet adopted a firm, uncompromising position on the organization of public works.  At the city-wide meeting of May 7, 1906, it categorically rejected the City Duma’s idea of farming out the work to subcontractors and insisted that the Duma itself directly and immediately organize the works, under the following conditions: eight-hour day; no overtime or night work; hiring through the district soviets of the unemployed; elected worker representatives to monitor(18) the internal regulations in the workshops; wages at the usual level for the corresponding occupations.  These demands would largely be realized in practice.

It seemed as if the City Duma had dropped the public works and that the issue was dead.  But that would be to ignore the general context.  The mood in the city was one of open, mass, joyous revolutionary enthusiasm.  Spring was in bloom and the white nights were approaching.  Every day, the city witnessed demonstrations of workers singing the Workers’ Marseillaise and carrying red flags.

Almost every day, and especially on days off, giant gatherings took place in the nearby suburbs, followed by mass promenades.  Troops sent to disperse the crowds often did not even try. Instead, they listened to the speakers.

To confuse the Kadets, the government leaked rumors that they would be brought into the government.  But at the workers’ meetings in May and June 1906, the Mensheviks, who supported the liberals and their position of a “responsible government,” did not win support: the politically unaffiliated workers as a rule voted for Bolsheviks-S.R. resolutions, which were anti-Kadet.(19) It thus seemed that the wind was in the sails of the revolution, and the City Duma had to act with speed.

Worker-Controlled Public Works

No special pressure was even needed—only a couple of visits by delegations of the unemployed in mid-June.  Contrary to the workers’ expectations, the City Duma not only allocated very large sums for the support for the unemployed and for public works, but it allowed the workers’ organization to participate in distributing the funds and in preparing and managing the public works.

This was unprecedented, and the right wing of the Duma, paralyzed with fear, did not even protest.  “The workers’ movement, awakened in April and May by the unemployment, was on the rise and taking on with each day an increasingly organized character.”(20) Symbolically, the public works began in June, the high point of the Russian revolutionary movement in 1906.

The City Duma gave the Soviet exclusive rights over hiring and dismissal.  After several bad experiences, the Soviet decided that all requests from engineers for workers be channelled through its executive committee.  With exact data on the unemployed, it distributed the job openings among the districts.  The Soviet soon became one of the most authoritative worker organizations in the city.

The very scope of the public works also deserves mention.  In 1906-7 alone, 2.5 million rubles were allocated.  By way of comparison, in all of France in 1902 the government spent the equivalent of 625,000 rubles on public workers.21 Apparently, the world had not seen the likes of this since 1848 and would not see it again until the Great Depression).

The eight-hour day in particular aroused the ire of the City Duma’s right wing.  After all, this had been a main demand of the international strike labor movement for half a century, the demand of the November 1905 strike in St. Petersburg.  In February 1907, the city executive concluded that the city’s public works did not correspond to principles “developed by the experience of West-European cities,” in particular their full administration by a workers’ organization.  However, it did nothing to change that.(22)

At the height of the program in October 1906, 3500 workers, about a third of the registered unemployed, were participating in public works and receiving 13,500 free meals daily.  Many of the objects built under the program are still in use today in St. Petersburg.

The Soviet published its own paper.  It also had the idea of organizing a similar movement in the rest of the country.  In May 1906, it printed an appeal in the form of 50,000 posters and sent it to all the towns.  The aim was to report on the experience of the Petersburg Soviet of the Unemployed.  In response, similar soviets arose in Moscow, the Crimea, the Caucasus, Donbass, Baltic and Volga provinces.

A movement of unemployed intelligentsia also arose alongside that of the workers and under the leadership mostly of Bolsheviks.  In Moscow and Petersburg their representatives were part of the citywide soviets.  But nowhere did the movement have the success it enjoyed in St. Petersburg.

The Money Trap

The Soviet’s success in obtaining huge sums from the city, however, dialectically led to a deep internal crisis.  Within the very brief period of only a few days, the Soviet had to put together a huge apparatus to deal with the sums, and very soon the Soviet’s initiators realized that they had made a serious mistake.  Money brought with it abuse

At the beginning, the cashiers and inspectors were elected by what seemed like the most democratic means—elections at general assemblies in the districts.  All the transactions were open.  However, popularity did not guarantee ability or even honesty, and supervision on the part of the deputies proved fictitious.  Nor did the auditing commission, made up of the unemployed, do much good.

The abuses reached such a level that by the end of August the moral authority of the Soviet had been seriously undermined.  “And the leaders of the movement, with pain and horror, realized that their cause threatened to meet an inglorious and disgraceful end.”(23)

At the very critical time of June-August 1906, when the mass of worker activists were thirsting for battle, asking for arms, creating fighting units, and were prepared for self-sacrifice, a part of the working class, and not an insignificant part, that had only just appeared, a stratum of functionaries (so-to- speak “professional unemployed”) was busy privatizing money that had fallen from heaven.

The abuses were a mass phenomenon among this stratum.  It was difficult and very painful to fight against such a party, swept up by greed and shady dealings.  Some were ready for anything to avoid being removed from the feeding trough.  Even for the workers who had created the movement and, so it seemed, were not prone to idealize the “masses,” the scope of the abuses came as a surprise.

In each district, in the executive committee and in the city-wide Soviet, a fierce internal struggle began.  Only the presidium of the citywide Soviet and three district soviets turned out to be beyond suspicion.  When all the accusations were proved, the organization found within itself the force to cut out the rotten and corrupting elements.  New elections were held in all the districts as well as in the central organs.  The people excluded from the Soviet had to resign from all party and occupational organizations, desist from all public activity, and leave Petersburg.(24)

This internal purification was possible thanks to the existence of a numerically sufficient core, a “critical mass,” that had been formed in the moral traditions of the labor movement and in the worker collectives, and thanks to the democratic structure of the organization.

Support for Strikes

The Soviet gave financial and organizational support to strikers.  By June 1906, the Soviet already had ten strikes “on its hands.”(25) There were representatives of the Soviet of the Unemployed on almost all strike committees, and the strikers were registered by the Soviet as unemployed and so got free meals.  The Central Bureau of Trade Unions, led by N. Ryazanov, was very disapproving of the Soviet’s “interference” in strike activity, and the Petersburg Committee of the RSDWP forbade it outright, though this did not stop the Soviet.

The conflict that had the most public resonance was the general strike of 12,000 stevedores.  These were illiterate workers, hired by the day. They themselves sought out the help of the Soviet.  The Vyborg district soviet supplied them with an apartment for meetings, a telephone.  “The stevedores were so surprised that they at once asked the Soviet to assume the leadership of their strike.”(26)

The Soviet, which already had a lot of experience, took a few weeks to prepare the strike, which began on June 20-1, 1906, became general on June 24, and lasted a full month, ending in total victory.  While this strike was going on, the First State Duma was suppressed, the Sveaborg and Kronstadt risings were crushed, the Petersburg political strike burned out. (On July 25, 1906, the executive of the recreated Petersburg Soviet of Workers Deputies reluctantly decided to call it off at once.)

Reaction was triumphant all over Russia.  Yet illiterate, never-before-organized, day workers won an unprecedented victory.

It is worth noting that the most backward elements of the working class, who began to organize themselves only in 1906 (e.g. shop salespeople), acted with great joy and did not give much thought to the defeats that the revolution had already suffered.

The struggle was new to these layers.  “Here there was still no yesterday, and so there were neither graves nor disappointments behind them.”(27) They took it as natural that the Soviet of the Unemployed should help them organize meetings, write and print declarations for the public.  The Soviet also gave the stevedores the unprecedented large sum of 150,000 rubles.  Even more important was the Soviet’s ability to prevent strikebreaking.

Because of the Soviet’s activity, “unemployment did not paralyze the labor movement but, in fact, intensified the conflicts between workers and the entrepreneurs, which often assumed the form of uncompromising struggles between the collectives and management for the right of worker supervision [‘kontrol’] of hiring and firing, of the establishment and application of internal rules, of wage scales and the distribution of work.(28)

The Petersburg labor scene indeed presented a strange picture.  After the defeat of the labor movement with the mass lockouts of November and December 1905, and in conditions of a deepening economic depression, wages rose in 1906, and strikes ended in victory.  The strike movement declined much more slowly than in the rest of Russia.

The organization of unemployed, the child of the Petersburg labor movement’s strength and authority, having been born, in turn gave new strength to its parent:

The policy of the Soviet in the sphere of economic struggle amounted to unconditional support to workers in the course of their conflicts with the entrepreneurs.  And the more bitter the struggle, the more effort the leaders of that workers’ organization put into it. […] The material support of the Soviet of the Unemployed fully made up for the lack of means of the trade unions and made possible the conduct of drawn-out strikes lasting two and more months, not only in the printing industry, where there was no unemployment, but among the metalworkers, who suffered most from unemployment.  […] The Soviet at the time carried out a significant part of the functions of the still impotent trade unions.(29)

Cover for Party Activity

Most of the workers employed in the public works were party members, mainly Bolsheviks.  The conditions reigning there allowed the socialist parties practically to conduct work in the open.

For example, on Mondays at Galernyi ostrov, fighting-unit circles met; on Tuesdays, the various parties held their meetings; and on Wednesdays, all the parties met together, each one presenting its own speaker.  The Bolsheviks and SR-Maximalists organized militia units in the shops.  Bolshevik party organizations also functioned at the Galernyi port and at the construction site of the Pantemeinov bridge.  The Galernyi port and the whole adjacent district were under the complete control of the unemployed.  Undercover agents did not dare enter it, and it was enough to hide at the port to shake off a tail.  […] The public workshops were secure places during the day for all illegals.  […] Among the workers of Gagarin bur’yan were approximately 20 deputies of the Petersburg Soviet of 1905 hiding under false passports and some ten sailors who had participated in the Sveaborg and Kronstadt uprisings.(30)

Preparation for May Day, 1906 was carried out largely through the Soviet of the Unemployed, with the district bureaus being used for party meetings and agitation.  When the Bolsheviks were having trouble distributing their paper Volna, the unemployed helped out. And significant sums were allotted for conspiratorial party matters.

Following the dissolution of the First State Duma and the stationing of troops in the working-class districts, all the trade unions were shut down at the end of 1906, as the authorities knew that their premises were being used by the RSDWP.  There were also repressive moves against district soviets, soup-kitchens and workshops, including arrests.

But the Soviet still managed to maintain its activity, and the semi-legal party activity shifted to its premises from the unions.(31) The Soviet also allocated significant sums to purchase arms for the party, and bought some itself directly through its treasurer.

It was really a fantastic situation, especially in the latter half of 1906 and after the state coup of June 3, 1907, when repression was on the rise: A large, wealthy, widespread workers’ organization, whose “underwater” side was well-known to the authorities, was left relatively untouched and even flourished.  Why?  They feared a social explosion and felt that it was safer to let the unemployed work and feed themselves.

After all, the unemployed really had nothing to lose.  They had arms hidden away, and fighting units were training on their premises.  It was by no means clear what would happen if the government tried to crush that organization.

The Soviet of the Unemployed in 1906 and 1907 was the only active citywide, non-party workers’ organization.  Some of its leaders wanted to give its work an openly political character, in effect to transform it into the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies that had been crushed at the end of 1905.  They felt this would help to preserve the unity of the employed and unemployed part of the working class.

This was blocked by the decisive resistance of the Petersburg Committee of the RSDWP.  Ironically, the fact that the Soviet thus kept formally within the framework of purely economic struggle saved it from being crushed in the period of summary trials by field court-martials.

The End of the Soviet

The acute internal struggle that arose over corruption within the Soviet coincided with the general crisis of the Petersburg labor movement in the fall of 1906.  That had its effect on the City Duma, which on October 23 shut down all the free soup kitchens and soon after decided to cut financial support to the unemployed and reduce public works, which were now farmed out to subcontractors.

In contrast to the spring, there were no workers’ meetings and demonstrations in support of the unemployed, except in the Nevskii district, which was a leading revolutionary center in St. Petersburg in this first revolution.  In the elections to half the seats of the City Duma in November, nearly the whole (liberal) left and the members of the commission on public works were turned out.

The Soviet of the Unemployed at the end of 1906 and first half of 1907 was not only unable any longer to support strikers—something it had done up until then on a large scale—but it could not support even the unemployed.  Once again, the workers of the metalworking factories became the main source of funds.

In some districts where the leadership’s authority had been undermined, the link with the plants was indeed broken.  But where the district soviets had maintained their moral authority, they continued to function successfully for some time, relying on the plants.

But unlike 1905 and early 1906, the new unemployed were not victims of repression.  And with massive layoffs, widespread massive introduction of piece rates, and yet the rise of overtime, differentiation within the working class deepened, undermined solidarity.  The First Russian Revolution, which Lenin later termed a rehearsal for the Revolutions of 1917, had come to an end.

The story of the St. Petersburg Soviet of the Unemployed is, on the one hand, one of amazing self-organization, initiative, solidarity and the formation of alliances where least expected; on the other hand, of the inevitable demoralization of a part of the longterm unemployed, of crises and struggles against internal corruption, of weakening ties with the employed.

In the final analysis, the success of the movement was a manifestation of the heroic nature of the working class in the revolution.  The breakthrough on the “front” of the unemployed was made possible only by the support of the “rear,” the lengthy and stubborn resistance of the St. Petersburg working class, its unprecedented solidarity and discipline in the closing stages of the Revolution of 1905-7.

  1. This article is based largely on factual material presented in the following two sources: Vl. Voitinskii, Peterburgskii sovet bezrabotnikh: 1906-07, N.Y.: Columbia University, 1969; and N. V. Mikhailov, Soviet bezrabotnykh i rabochikch Peterburga v 1906-07 gg., Moscow-St. Petersburg: IRI- RAN, 1998.

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  2. . V.S. Voitinskii, Gody pobed I porazhenii, vol. I, Petrograd-Berlin, Grzehbina, 1923: 266.
  3. A fascist, state-sponsored organization. (D.M)
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  4. Voitinskii was a relative of this article’s author. (D.M.)
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  5. Mikhailov, op. cit., 46.
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  6. The party had two fractions, Menshevik and Bolshevik, but had not yet split. (D.M.)
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  7. A socialist, populist party, whose main base was in the peasantry.
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  8. Mikhailov, 51.
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  9. This fear was in large part that this would facilitate more arrests among the leadership of the labor movement. (D.M.)
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  10. A Bolshevik worker, a leader of the Soviet. (D.M.)
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  11. Mikhailov, 55; Voitinskii, Peterburgskii, 5-6.
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  12. Mikhailov, 55-6.
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  13. A Constitution, which including the State Duma, a parliament with limited powers, was a concession grudgingly granted by the Tsar at the height of the revolution in 1905. (D.M.)
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  14. Voitinskii, Peterburgskii, 7.
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  15. Ibid., 38, 40.
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  16. Mikhailov, 58-9.
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  17. Voitinksii, Peterburgskii, 11.
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  18. The Russian word “kontrol'” is somewhat ambiguous—it usually means monitoring, but can have a more active sense too, though it excludes the managerial function of disciplining. (D.M.)
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  19. V.S. Voitinskii, Gody pobed i porazhenii, vol. 2, Berlin: Grzehbina, 1924, 145.
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  20. Mikhailov, 86-7.
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  21. Ibid., 226, 228.
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  22. Ibid., 215.
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  23. Voitinskii, Peterburgskii, 10.
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  24. Ibid.
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  25. Voitinkskii, Gody pobed, 85.
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  26. Mikhailov, 126.
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  27. Voitinskii, Gody poded, 17.
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  28. Mikhailov, 129.
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  29. Ibid., 129, 165.
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  30. Ibid., 197-8.
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  31. Ibid., 180.
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ATC 118, September-October 2005