Antti Rautiainen (anttirautiainen) wrote,
Antti Rautiainen

In Centenary of the Sveaborg uprising 30th of July – 2nd of August 1906 - lessons for anarchists

Turn of the century was time of extraordinary rapid changes in the Finnish society. Feudalism in its full form, serfdom, was never implemented in Finland, but still the social tensions were rapidly increasing. World trade volumes rapidly increasing due to imperialism demanded huge amounts of timber for building ships, which provided an influx of capital to agrarian Finnish economy, which before had been hardly more advanced than empire in general. This growth in material well-being together with end of a 300 year period of a colder climate which caused a series of famines (last one in 1869) and other developments in agriculture and trade resulted a rapid growth of the rural population, which quickly aggravated land problem and created urban proletariat (although Finland remained an agrarian country until 1950’s-1960’s).


Parallel to class conflict, political conflict on status of the autonomy was escalating. Ever since Russian takeover in 1809, Tsars were beloved in Finland and as a rule they considered Finland more loyal than any other part of the empire. This was due to wide autonomy originally granted by Alexander I and widened by Alexander II to include features such as independent military force and own currency. Nothing like this existed under previous Swedish rule, continuation of which would have meant a total assimilation of Finnish in a few hundred years if not decades. General loyalty of the Finnish stands as a stark contrast to rebellious Poles, and is nowadays seldom remembered, because today the whole construction of the Finnish nationhood is founded on anti-Russian sentiments. But until beginning of the 20th century, any efforts of Russian revolutionaries to gain allies among Finnish nationalists such as Bakunin’s “letter to Finnish patriots” in 1861 were all in vain.


However, Nicholas II began to consider autonomy as a hindrance, since it offered bad example to other parts of his empire, which was quickly approaching a boiling state. In February of 1899 he issued a manifesto, where fist steps to curtain autonomy were introduced – Tsar took himself powers to directly influence legislative process, first goal of the reforms was to integrate Finnish army to armed forces of the empire. Wide protests followed. A petition of more than half million names in a sparsely inhabited country of 3 millions was gathered in 10 days, but Tsar refused audience for the delegation. New law on army was opposed with widespread draft objection, in Helsinki situation escalated to first riot ever in April of 1902, eventually governor general of Finland N.I. Bobrikov was granted special powers which made him dictator of Finland. 16th of June 1904 Eugen Schauman shot Bobrikov and himself, an assassination which was not to be the last one.


Peak of the resistance was general strike of October-November 1905, one of the first ones in the world history, which was a grand political debut of the proletariat in general and Finnish Social-Democratic Party in particular. Worker’s Party had been founded 1899, but it had adopted socialist program and Social-Democrat label only two years before the general strike. During few previous decades, political debate had mostly centered to conflict between Swedish- and Finnish speaking bourgeoisie (gentry mainly siding with the first and clergy with the second), and if not rising danger from side of the workers, it is possible that conflict would have turned violent. During general strike united national guard was formed, but it quickly splinted to fractions of workers and bourgeois students – former became “Red Guards” of the workers, and latter (white) “Protection Guard” – their relation was troublesome already during the general strike, and in less than a year they were to violently clash in Helsinki.


This coincided with revolutionary upheaval with all around the empire, which forced Tsar to drastic reforms. He backed up in Finland as well, revoking the special laws and decrees. Finland was also granted one-chamber parliamentary system with a general right to vote (women included), to replace ancient assembly of four estates – thus Finland switched directly from most ancient to most modern system of elections in Europe.


Activist movement in Finland


“Active Resistance Party of Finland” was founded 17th of November 1904, to unite tendencies supporting armed resistance that had first appeared in 1903. It mainly consisted of upper middle class and upper class, some members of wider “activist” movement were later to become leading industrialists. There was no split according to language line, but in general Swedish bourgeoisie was more supportive of armed resistance than the Finnish one (although for sure in both groups radicals were a small minority).


Word “activist “ become to mean those supporting armed resistance, whereas “passivist” meant those standing for legal measures, more often called “suomettarelaiset” according to their daily “Uusi Suometar” (New maiden of Finland). There was a general consensus on unacceptability of Tsar’s special decrees. Regaining lost extent of autonomy was the general aim, independence was considered as a very distant goal by almost everybody. Social democrat party was spreading like a wildfire and in first general elections of 1907 it was to gain 37% of the votes, making it most influential in the world. Many demands of the social democrats were common with those of the activists, but party refrained from armed struggle and did not organized underground cells. Thus those among the working class willing to raise arms were at first part of the bourgeois activist movement, and bourgeois activists only gradually realized workers as an enemy not less dangerous than the Tsar.


During mere 4 first years of “repression era” since 1899, Finland developed from most loyal corner of the Empire to one of its most troubled regions in terms of the underground resistance. This because besides governor general and very few other officials, almost all administrative apparatus considered of locals, who were cooperating a little with Okhrana what came to persecution of Russian revolutionaries. And total autonomy of Finnish police force would have been a hindrance even if and when it was more cooperative. Thus Finland quickly become base of all major Russian revolutionary parties, where secret meetings were organized, press printed, connections to abroad maintained, dynamite, guns and money expropriated. Significant part of this activity was covered with partially sympathetic Finnish officials, who were even among ranks of the police and prison guards.


Important meetings of Russian revolutionaries in Finland this era include first general meeting of Party of Social Revolutionaries (PSR, they were called “Esers” from letters ”S” and “R”) in Imatra from 29th of December 1905 to 4th of January 1906, founding conference of the Union of Social-Revolutionaries – Maximalists (SSRM, “Maximalists”, considered by some as the closest analogy of present-day anarchist and anti-party communism in pre-revolutionary Russia) in Turku in October 1906 and first general conference of soldier organisation of Bolsheviks, “Soldier and Fighting Groups of Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party” in turn of December 1906 in Tampere.


Whereas Bolsheviks worked closely together with Finnish Social Democrats (although in reality latter had more in common with more moderate Mensheviks), Esers had a somewhat peculiar alliance with the Finnish activist movement. Esers were offspring of the Narodniks of the 19th century, and by far the biggest tendency of the workers movement until 1918, when Bolsheviks moved to crush first the right, then the left wing of the Esers. Land question was the most central in program of Esers, thus it was essentially movement for the peasants and landless although most of the armed wing came from other classes.


Although land question was also central in Finland, there was nothing similar to Esers in Finland. This may be partly because situation in countryside was so vastly different - unlike Finland, in Russia feudalism was still pretty much the reality even after abolition of serfdom 1861. Also, in Finland there was not anything much like ancient Russian village self-governance “obstchina” which 19th century theorists like Herzen considered as foundations of the coming up “agrarian socialism” in Russia. Perhaps the main difference was the moderate political culture, which was established during calm years of autonomy – peasants and industrial workers were attracted to idea of one common mass party, which had also much better opportunities to work openly in Finland than in despotic Russia. Thus eventually peasants became main constituent of the Social Democratic Party of Finland. This did not caused any friction among ranks of the industrial workers, since most of them were recent immigrants from the countryside as well, and took just as often jobs as farm hands or lumberjacks as in factories. Perhaps Russian revolutionary movement was more fractured because it was forced to work in more repressive conditions.


Buildup of the Sveaborg uprising


Sea castle of Sveaborg was renamed “Suomenlinna” during nationalist fervor of the first years of the independence gained in 1917 – from “Castle of Sweden” to “Castle of Finland”, but in this article we call it “Sveaborg” as in 1906. It was built in front of Helsinki during 18th of century, to be the strongest fortress in whole Baltic Sea, as an effort of decaying Swedish empire to stop Russian ambitions to gain a wider security zone around city of St. Petersburg. But its military history is that of a continuous failure – in Finnish war of 1808-1809 it surrendered to Russian siege relatively quickly, which resulted leadership to face court martial in Stockholm. During Crimean war its cannons had too short range to response to heavy bombing by British and French navies in 1855. Thus 60 hours of revolution in 1906 were to become heaviest fighting ever in history of the fortress.


All Russian major Russian revolutionary organizations had operations in Finland, and one of the main directions of the work was agitation among Russian soldiers. In spring of 1906, both Esers and Bolsheviks took conscious aim to stage a simultaneous military revolt in main bases of whole Baltic navy, Kronstadt and Sveaborg. Other bases and Sevastopol were also supposed to join the uprising.


Esers, Bolsheviks and Finnish Red Guard leadership had been drawing plans for uprising during months, although cooperation between first two was not the smoothest. Weeks before uprising Evno Asev and Tsernov, leaders of underground Eser fighting organization had arrived to Helsinki. Most notable Finnish history of the uprising, Erkki Salomaa’s “Viaporin kapina” follows Bolshevik version, according to which Esers leaders were treacherous, leaking plans. This is possible as Asev was indeed an agent of Okhrana, secret service of Tsar, but Salomaa brings no any concrete proof. But from between the lines one may read, that Esers were dominating the preparations and Bolsheviks had to submit to their plans.


21st of July 1906 tsar Nikolai II gave a decree of disbanding first Russian Duma, which had only gathered since 10th of May. 22nd of July, there was a national celebration of Red Guards in Hesperia park of Helsinki, a crowd of 20 000 included 400 Russian soldiers. In middle of the celebration, a telegram came announcing disbanding of Duma – atmosphere became very tense, but eventually there were no rioting. 23rd of July, day after police had occupied Duma building, there were riots in St. Petersburg. 185 members of disbanded Duma crossed border of Grand Duchy of Finland in order to make future plans in Vyborg. They called people to evade taxes as a protest and soldiers to desert their units, but no calls for a general uprising were made. Some deputies of disbanded Duma, such as Mikhailichenko moved from Vyborg to Helsinki, which resulted growing popularity of underground soldier’s committees. In 1906 Bolsheviks were in a minority position inside their party, critical of parliamentarism – thus their historicians also consider that disbanding Duma had no role in inspiring the uprising.


Sveaborg fortress area consisted of many islands, most important of which were Kustaanmiekka, Susisaari, Iso-Mustasaari, Länsi-Mustasaari, Pikku-Mustasaari, Harakka, Lonna, Särkkä, Vallisaari, Kuninkaansaari and Santahamina. Three latter are a closed military area even today. Before rebellion there were some 3500 men in the fortress, of whom 1800 were gunners, 1500 infantry and 250 miners. Including navy and soldiers in greater Helsinki area, Russian forces were altogether up to 7000 men. These were under direct command of Tsar, autonomy had nothing to say about army issues and Sveaborg was not even included in area of Helsinki or any other Finnish municipality.




Fortress area of Sveaborg. City center of Helsinki in upper left corner of the picture.




Main architects of the rebellion in the fortress were captain Sergei Tsion, lieutenant Arkadi Emelyanov and lieutenant Evgeniy Kokhanskiy. Jewish Sergei Tsion had been in Bolshevik party, and treasurer of “Vestnik Kazarmiy”, paper which Bolshevik soldiers’ organization was publishing with help of Finnish social democrats for Russian soldiers in Finland. But he switched to Esers, thus Bolshevik history writing plays down his role and labels him with any negative qualities they may think of. He survived rebellion, and fought in side of Esers after 1917. Bolshevist historicians have given more credit for leading the rebellion to Emelyanov and Kokhanskiy, at least former worked closely with Bolshevik soldiers’ organization but it is unclear if either was a party member. Red flag, which Emelyanov passed to be raised in Kuninkaansaari, had demands of the uprising printed on it – “Land and freedom” and “Constitutional assembly” (a demand more radical than just reassembly of the disbanded Duma). These were main demands of the Eser party, but back then these demands were also included in Bolshevik program – latter only turned against the constitutional assembly after the October revolution. Both Emelyanov and Kokhanskiy were executed in aftermath of the rebellion.






Sergei Tsion

Arkadi Emelyanov



In Finnish side, most important planner of the rebellion was leader of the Red Guard, captain Johan Kock. His promises of support from side of Finnish Red Guard turned out to be way too optimistic – estimations of size of Finnish Red Guard in summer of 1906 vary from 6000 to 25 000, but just a small fraction of it had any arms and although drilling had taken place during previous half a year, it was still not much of an army of any kind. Eventually Red Guard could do little to help the rebellion. No army regiments of Finnish nationality were located to Finland, all of the army in Finland came from other parts of the empire.





Evgeniy Kokhanskiy

Johan Kock




Beginning of the uprising


Simultaneous rebellion in all main military bases was planned to start around 10th of August. But situation in Sveaborg escalated more quickly. Okhrana had passed information about planned rebellion to leadership of the fortress, and commander, general Laiming ordered to mine waters around fortress in order to stop landings expected from rebelling ships. But soon miners understood why mines were put, and 28th of July they refused to continue works. There were also other reasons for mutiny – two weeks in prior spoiled meat was served to miners. 28th of July new commander of the company, captain Ilyin had discontinued an extra cash payment called “vodka dose”. Day before a sailor who had died after being mishandled by the officers had been buried, so tensions were high.


General Laiming ordered all miners to be arrested and disarmed. He tore off insignia of officers with his own hands, and threatened them with shooting. Mutineers were put to a camp in Santahamina Island, and not given any food for one and half days.


Some of the guards from ranks of infantry were supportive of rebels, and passed the word to gunners. Gunners were gathering the next day, when officers figured this out they decided to imprison gunners as well. As information that gunners were to be disarmed in night between 30th and 31st of July, they decided to make the first strike.

In evening of 30th, a rebellion broke out in Santahamina, gunners moved to free miners, but infantry loyal to government managed to keep hold and miners remained imprisoned. Gunners decided to pass narrow channel from Santahamina to Kuninkaansaari. While retreating they took all the boats, plenty of rifles, machine guns and even cannons.


Earlier the day, Tsion had appealed to gunners in Kuninkaansaari not to rebel until more information was received from Kronstadt, but now it was too late to stop the events. 10:30 PM a cannon is shot three times from Kuninkaansaari to invite all other islands to join rebellion, and Vallisaari, Susisaari and Kustaanmiekka are occupied by rebels. Iso-Mustasaari, Pikku-Mustasaari and Santahamina remained in hands of forces loyal to government, Harakka and Länsi-Mustasaari were yet neutral. Seven of ten gunners companies, 1500 from 1800 men joined the uprising, and most important batteries were under their control. Altogether rebels had up to 2000 men, ground forces of general Laiming grew from 1500 to 2800 during the rebellion as rebels failed to control the seaways, but they had much less firepower until arrival of the navy. Fighting between Susisaari and Iso-Mustasaari began early in the morning of 31st, and during next 60 hours the narrow channel between islands was riddled with machinegun fire. Volleys of cannon fire were shot from Kuninkaanmiekka, huge 11-inch guns of Kuninkaansaari were also turned towards Iso-Mustasaari and their first devastating shots landed there 2 PM of July 31st. At this point, Laiming’s position was grim, it was later told that he was panicked enough to hide in a church cellar and to move in Iso-Mustasaari under a cover of a red flag from a place to another.


Katajanokka joins the insurrection


300 strong navy in Katajanokka peninsula in East side of the city center was expected to join the rebellion, but only around 6 AM they figured out that fighting had began. But mine ships Finn, Turkmen and Emir Bookmarks located in harbor of the peninsula did not joined the rebellion – when officers figured out that sailors were having a meeting on the deck, they locked sailors to hold and opened fire to the barracks. Later on they released sailors to do the shooting, but were keeping them on a gunpoint.


Sailors in Katajanokka peninsula had neither cannons nor machine guns, and thus they could do little to answer the fire. They had to leave barracks, and around 2 PM they tried to cross bridge, which separates Katajanokka from city center, but Cossacks and infantry loyal to government stopped them. As breakthrough failed, some of them attempted to rush to city unarmed, rest took boats to escape to islands under rebel control. 110 sailors were arrested by loyal troops, those who managed to make it to the city were taken to worker’ hall in Yrjönkatu where they were given civilian clothes and they joined Red Guard in Vesilinnanmäki hill. Some accounts state that Finnish Red Guards were participating to fighting in Katajanokka, but most likely they just visited there before siege to pick up arms. Around 5 PM Cossacks and Infantry occupied Katajanokka barracks, which they found empty. Now whole city coast was under control of forces loyal to government, there were no supply routes for rebels, nor means for the rebels to contact supportive sections amongst the Russian troops in the city.





Loyal infantry guarding bridge to Katajanokka in side of the city after putting down the rebellion in the peninsula. Behind, the Uspenskiy cathedral, biggest Orthodox church in Finland.




Beginning of the rebellion caught its planners by surprise, many of them were in the city and Tsion attempted to move to islands by night with Filemon Tiderman from Active Resistance Party of Finland and two Esers. But due to bad visibility they ended up to Iso-Mustasaari under government control, they were almost arrested but managed to escape by claiming that they were journalists.



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