Mark Twain once said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
In early 20-th century history once again went on a familiar path – path of revolution with all its mayhem, chaos, betrayal, and bloodshed.
Some of the most interesting characters were preparing to play their role in the fall of the Russian Empire.
One of them is notorious double agent whose real life is more interesting than fictional adventurers of James Bond.
One of the contemporaries wrote about meeting this man.
„And old friend of mine, a most honored leader of the Social Revolutionary party, came one day to my house with two Russians and introduced them to me. Ivan Nikolaevitch; Pavel Ivanovich. We shook hands, and I regarded my new acquaintances. Pavel Ivanovitch provoked little curiosity in me. He was an ordinary type of the Russian intellectual, with the face bearing the traces of deep thought and many privations.
The other was of an entirely different type and during our conversation I observed his face intently. Why do you look at me like that?, he asked after a time, laughingly, with no sign of discomposure.
I am thinking, I answered, also smiling, what luck it is for a conspirator to have a face like yours. I should never take you for a revolutionist. You are a typical stock broker or bookmaker. I had been warned by my friend that both of these gentlemen were terrorist of the deepest dye. But, while Pavel Ivanovitch in every movement betrayed the conspirator, I could not find in Nickolaevitch not the slightest suggestion of a man who stakes his life for his ideals“.
Ivan Nickolaevitch was the assumed name of this man, known only to a few picked and trusted people. He was Yevno Aseff (Yevno Fishelevich).
He was the leader of a terrorist wing of Social Revolutionary party and his role was to organize attacks on government officials in Tsarist Russia. But, very few people knew that this terrorist leader was in cahoots with the Tsarist secret police.
One day a man with a plan came to Aseff.
„Professor Aleinikoff one day come to me to engage the support of my party in the execution of a plot for which they did not possess sufficient resources. His plan was to blow up the Surrete (St. Petersburg police building) together with the whole of the secret police. The chief of the secret nearly fell round my neck when I told him of my plan to run the gang. At a memorable meeting, composed of the members of both parties, and which professor presided, I disclosed my plot. A dozen man and women had to be dressed as living bombs. Beneath their clothes, they had to carry high explosives, and subsequent to entering the Surrete, apparently on business, they had, at a prearranged signal, ignite their infernal machines. A cheers of applause greeted this proposal, and immediately twenty volunteers offered themselves for the task“, wrote Aseff in his confessions before his death.
„There being more candidates than the number required, the meeting soon resembled the Babel, as nobody was willing to withdraw the candidature in favor of another comrade“, reported Aseff and described how they had to organize a lottery of some-kind.
Aseff described this volunteers as “martyr maniacs” and thanks to him they stayed alive – he had them arrested before they were able to kill themselves.
He watched these young people arguing who will go on a mission during a weird suicide lottery.
„The drawing of a blank resulted in disappointment verging sometimes on despair, while a winning lot caused the highest enthusiasm. One young girl- a student of about 18, was bitterly disappointed and imploring us to allow her a share in the exploit, in spite of the blank she had drawn. She then threatened to commit suicide if nobody resigned in her favor. At last she prevailed over her lover to allow her to go instead and she at once looked happy ad radiant as a bride going on a honeymoon trip.“
„When, a few days later, they presented themselves at the Surrete, they were arrested before they could do any mischief or even to take their lives. I had kept the Minister of Justice with regard to all particulars in the plot. Shortly afterwards, the same official, through my instrumentality, was able to arrest the professor“, explained Aseff.
Aseff’s path to the top of the Combat wing of Social Revolutionary party was not a smooth one, but he was able to win the trust of the revolutionaries.
He was born as a son of a poverty-stricken Jewish tailor, Fischel Aseff. As a boy he tasted the grinding poverty. At great sacrifice his family managed to send him through high school, but lack of funds prevented him from going further. He first launched on his own as a journalist, and later he became a small scale trader, and a broker. Some who knew him were unimpressed by his appearance; He was never good-looking as a young man, and he grew increasingly unattractive as he got older. People he met often found him repulsive, as one report say.
Like most intelligent young Russians, Aseff early came into contact with the revolutionary movement. His name first pop up in the records of the tzarist secret police in 1892 as a member of what the security officials termed a Jewish revolutionary study group. It recorded that Aseff was engaged in propaganda activities among workers, and traveling as a broker was in position to keep in touch with his accomplices from other towns. When he learned that he is being under investigation, he stole money from his employer, forged documents and fled to Germany. In Germany he started to cooperate with the secret police.
His money soon gave out, so Aseff began to write letters to the Okhrana, offering to sell out the Russian revolutionaries who lived in Germany.
At first he attempted to hide his identity, but the Okhrana agents soon discovered who was writing to them and made Aseff a full-fledged agent. For fifty rubles a month and a bonus on Easter and Christmas, he furnished information that led to many arrests. Police documents say that he needed money, and they described him as a person who will do anything for money.
Although he was a traitor, his comrades didn’t suspect a thing. In Germany he won their trust so when he moved to Moscow with good references from his comrades, he joined the social revolutionists. He was already in close touch with Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky, the omnipotent Chief of the Foreign office of the Russian Political police. From 1901 till the very end of 1908 Aseff took an active, often a leading part in every scheme of the party.
During this time he often traveled abroad. In Paris and Italy where he passed a great part of his time with his wife and children, he lived simply and modestly, and was known as an exemplary husband and father. Aseff who brought death upon so many youths and young girls, was himself a great lover of children. His methods of work were ingenious.
Once he organized methods of smuggling literature to the country, by placing it in cleverly constructed double bottomed barrels. Everything went smoothly until Aseff denounced the scheme to police. Police were careful not to give away their spy.
In the case of oil barrels, the manager of the trading company was suddenly arrested upon an entirely different charge having nothing to do with the smuggling of literature. The cargo of oil barrels, therefore, for many months remained unclaimed, and only when the term for claiming them had passed, were they sold by public auction, the police still feigning ignorance of their contents. A disguised agent of the Secret police bought the cargo, and some time later, as if by accident, found the literature hidden in them, and informed the police. Then an inquiry was instituted, and various persons in Russia connected to the case were arrested. By such methods Aseff continued to escape suspicion.
In the beginning of 1904 a circle of revolutionists led by a young girl, Sophie Kilchoglu, elaborated a plan for the destruction of Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav von Plehve. The group worked independently of the Fighting organization of SRP which Aseff was the head. Aseff gave away the organizers of the attempt, and they were all arrested and perished.
A few months later, Aseff himself elaboreted a plan for the blowing up Plehve with bombs. Why he did that it is unknown. Perhaps he hated Plehve as Plehve secretly organized Jewish Pogroms in Russia and Aseff was a Jew.
After all Vyacheslav Plehve in his speech to a Jewish delegation in Odessa in 1903 threatened to exile all the Jews from Russia.
„In Western Russia some 90 per cent of the revolutionaries are Jews, and in Russia generally – some 40 per cent. I shall not conceal from you that the revolutionary movement in Russia worries us but you should know that if you do not deter your youth from the revolutionary movement, we shall make your position untenable to such an extent that you will have to leave Russia, to the very last man!“, said Plehve.
With Grigory Andreyevich Gershuni, Russian Jewish terrorist, who was at a time leader of the party Terrorist brigade Aseff planned the assassination of Minister of the Interior Plehve, but at the same time he hid the plot from his police chiefs, giving them unimportant information and hiding the planned killing.
He arranged fabrication of the bombs, and personally directed the group of revolutionists appointing the bomb throwers. While the four revolutionists were later on the spot and Plehve was killed, Aseff awaited news in Warsaw.
Soon after, Gershuni was captured and sent to Siberia and Aseff became undisputed chief of the terrorist section of the Socialist Revolutionary Party.
As organizer of the Plehve assassination, his prestige in the party was enormous.
He controlled the funds of the battle organization and his police pay was no longer essential to him.
A few months later, Tzar ‘s favorite Uncle, Grand Duke Sergius was killed by a bomb in broad daylight.
In this event, also Aseff as a head of the fighting organization, played a leading part. He appointed bomb throwers, and he even provided them with the dynamite.
After the assassination, Aseff denounced to the police some of the revolutionists with whom he was upon the most intimate terms.
Meanwhile, in August 1905. one of the members of the St. Petersburg committee of the party received an anonymous letter in which a certain Azyeff and a former exile with the initial T. were denounced as betraying the party to the police.
It happened that when the letter arrived, Aseff was in the room together with the doctor to whom the letter was addressed, and his wife.
The doctor opened the letter, and began to read it out loud. He was not aware of the real name of his guest, knowing him only as Ivan Nickolaevitch. When he had finished reading the letter, he remarked: I wonder who this Aseff can be.
“I am Aseff“, declared Ivan Nickolaevitch.
They looked him in astonishment. His face was deathly pale. The doctor and his wife embraced him and with the greatest emotions tried to console him. Dear friend, they said, don’t be upset by these calumnies, they are the work of spies.
But Aseff said firmly: When such a letter comes, however trusted may be the person it accuses, it is the duty of the party to make a thorough inquiry.
An inquiry was accordingly made and a Secret tribunal of the Revolutionary party sat to try the case.
Aseff fournished proofs that T. who appeared to be a socialist named Tatarov, had really upon several occasions, betrayed revolutionists.
And in the end trial was that of Tatarov, and not Aseff.
In vain Tatarov asserted that he was only the subordinate agent, that the real great traitor was Aseff.
The judges could not hear these ridiculous libels. Aseff, the fearless organizer of the murder of Plehve, Aseff “the eagle“ who had slain Grand Duke Sergius, and so many others Russian tyrants.
Tatarov was condemned to death by this tribunal. Aseff arranged his execution.
He sent Pavel Ivanovitch to Warsaw where he stabbed Tatarov to death in his room.
A year later, Aseff in similar manner removed a man of far higher importance. His path crossed with the famous „revolutionary pope“, father Georgy Gapon.
He was the oldest son of a Cossack father and mother who hailed from the local peasantry. When he was born in 1870 none would imagine that this boy would later shake the foundations of one of the largest empires in the world.
As a boy he was often barefooted, guarding sheeps and his flock of geese.
But in primary school he show such progress that the clergy told his parents that he ought to continue his studies to became a priest.
It seems that this young boy did not have much influence on a path that was layed beneath him because he wrote in his memoars that it was decided for him to be sent to the lower Ecclestiacal School in Poltava.
When he arrived to the seminary, he felt isolated.
„In my peasent dress, with my peasent manners, all other kids who were sons of priests and deacons looked down at me as a social inferior, he later recalled.
As he grew, he became a playfull and freespirited boy, and made a circle of friends. They were spending their days at the episcopal garden.
But, soon harsh facts of life will left him dissapointed.
„I had oportunities to see the inner circle of Russian priests, I saw them celebrating the Eucharist in the state of entoxication and many others convinced me that there was much pharisaiam among them. All around me i saw misery, overwork, and sickness“, he recalled his memories from teenage years.
He started to avoid classes, and the seminary issued him a bad grade for behavior thereby effectively barring his path to further university education.
Despite that, he was a likeable guy, persuasive even, he had no phobia of authority figures, he had no problem with talking to elites, so after he pleaded to bishop Ilarion of Poltava, Ilarion stood up for him.
Bishop of Poltava helped him to be allowed to take the entrance examination to the Saint Petersburg Theological Academy despite his lack of the standard Seminary certificate.
As a young student he first encountered revolutionary literature.
„Some clandestine literature had fallen for the first time in my hands. I came to realize that for a long time there had been men and women who had sacrified talents and wealth, comfort, and even life itself in service of the people“, he wrote.
Reading this forbidden literature his head became filled with ideas of equality and justice – it seems that he was an ordinary young man with grand ideas of fixing the world.
According to his memoirs, he was a man of ideals, and felt constant dissapointment looking the unjust life of workers troughout the Empire.
In Petersburg he showed considerable concern for the welfare of the poor, he was helping them as much as he could, it seems that he was going out to talk to workers being merely an agitator, one of many young radicals who came to the conclusion that the existing regime was a horrible deviation from revolutionary ideas.
His efforts were not unnoticed, he soon crossed path with Sergius Vasilivitch Zubatoff, powerfull chief of the political section of the Russian secret police Okhrana.
Okhrana had many agents who work alongside revolutionaries, they wanted to know everything and they were paying workers to give them informations about what is happening on the streets and in the factories.
Gapon claimed he meet with Zubatoff several times and that the police chief had persuaded him the join them.
Zubatoff was a puzzling man.
„What is he, is he a detective?“ Gapon said to have asked one of Zubatoff colleagues.
„He can hardly said to be that. He is one of those who sympathize the Revolutionists movement and indeed, he often helps revolutionist themselves with money. You’ll see he is a real statesman, and now he has special plans for bettering the lot of the workers“, Gapon was answered.
Gapon claimed that he soon realized how much is the secret police infiltrated in the labour movement.
Russia was at that time filled with revolutionary ideas, and the police tried to keep the the potential agitators under control.
They had their agents organizing unions, and later they were arresting the workers, it seems that they were able to buy many of the early young radicals. Even Gapon was on their paycheck and he sometimes went to the offices of secret police.
Gapon claims to have been with Zubatoff when telegram was brought about a strike in south Russia and which in the beggining was organized by one of Zubatoffs agents.
Zubatoff angrily shouted:“Shoot them down villains!“
„The serpent showed atlast, I tought“, Gapon remembered later in his memoirs.
As he mingled among the influentilal people of the time, he realized the scoope of the govermental control over the people.
Numerous meeting, exchanging informations between high ranking officials of the police and the clergy.
„The police only captures the bodies of the victims while the priests try to capture their souls. They are the real enemy of the of the toiling and suffering class. In no other civilized country, I suppose would it be possible that heads of police, with the patronage of ministers of the Sovereign, deliberatly organize a labour movement, even going so far as to organize great strikes, solely with the object of dishing the natural leaders of the working class and so keeping the industrial movement under their own control“, he wallowed.
As he described, he soon got the chance to make something good for the people as Zubatoff risky politics had blown in his face.
Zubatoff gave his agents a free hand in certain localities as he alone could not oversee everything in the empire.
His secret agents organized a strike in Minsk, but quickly lost control of it.
Zubatoff got resigned and exiled from St. Petersburg after the debacle.
Uncontroled by Zubatoff, Gapon became more active in the labour movement.
„I had often go to the managers of factories and workshops to ask for some improvements in the condition of labour, to smooth over some undesirable conflicts, to find work for unemployed hands, or to get some unfortunate men reinstated“, he claimed.
Soon his moment of fame will come.
On December 1904, four workers at the Putilov Ironworks in St. Petersburg were fired.
Some say that they were fired because of their membership in the Gapon led union although the plant manager asserted that they were fired for unrelated reasons.
Nonetheless, after that virtually the entire workforce of the Putilov Ironworks went on strike.
Word about that strike got around and soon sympathy strikes in other parts of the city raised the number of strikers up to 150,000 workers in 382 factories.
The city had no electricity and no newspapers whatsoever and all public areas were declared closed.
Tsar Nicholas II became concerned about these events and wrote in his diary:
“Since yesterday all the factories and workshops in St. Petersburg have been on strike. Troops have been brought in from the surroundings to strengthen the garrison. The workers have conducted themselves calmly hitherto. Their number is estimated at 120,000 men. At the head of the workers’ union some priest – socialist Gapon. Mirsky came in the evening with a report of the measures taken.”
Gapon, this unusual priest, who under Zubatoff was just a police informant, now led a huge army of workers that had scared the Tsar.
To settle the dispute, Gapon decided to make a personal appeal to Nicholas II. He drew up a petition outlining the workers’ sufferings and demands.
This included calling for a reduction in the working day to eight hours, an increase in wages and an improvement in working conditions.
Over 150,000 people signed the petition and on 22nd January, 1905, Gapon led a huge workers’ procession to the Winter Palace to deliver a petition to the Tsar.
The troops guarding the Palace were ordered to tell the demonstrators not to pass a certain point, according to prime minister Sergei Witte, and at some point, troops opened fire on the demonstrators, causing between 200 and 1000 deaths.
Gapon described his view of what happened:
„On the flanks of the crowd ran the children. Some of the women insisted on walking in the front rows, in order, as they said, to protect me with their bodies, and force had to be used to remove them. Suddenly the company of Cossacks galloped rapidly towards us with drawn swords. So, then, it was to be a massacre after all! There was no time for consideration, for making plans, or giving orders. A cry of alarm arose as the Cossacks came down upon us!“
Gapon was allegedly saved by Pinchas Rutenberg, who took him away from the gunfire and changed his priestly garments to a common man’s, so he could make a quiet escape.
The masacre became known as Bloody Sunday, and is considered by many as the start of the active phase of the revolution.
That night the Tsar wrote in his diary:
“A painful day. There have been serious disorders in St. Petersburg because workmen wanted to come up to the Winter Palace. Troops had to open fire in several places in the city; there were many killed and wounded. God, how painful and sad.”
Maxim Gorky that day reported:
“Gapon by some miracle remained alive, he is in my house asleep. He now says there is no Tsar anymore, no church, no God. This is a man who has great influence upon the workers of the Putilov works. He has the following of close to 10,000 men who believe in him as a saint. He will lead the workers on the true path.”
Henry Nevinson, of The Daily Chronicle commented that Gapon was “the man who struck the first blow at the heart of tyranny and made the old monster sprawl.”
The events in St. Petersburg provoked public indignation and a series of massive strikes that spread quickly throughout the industrial centers of the Russian Empire.
Over 2 million workers were now on strike.
Following the Revolution of 1905, the Tsar made attempts to save his regime, and offered reforms similar to most rulers when pressured by a revolutionary movement.
The revolutionaries were quelled and satisfied with the reforms, but it was not enough to prevent the 1917 revolution that would later topple the Tsar’s regime.
But Gapon will not be alive the see the fall of the Tsar’s, man whom he despised after the Bloody Sunday.
After the massacre he left Russia with Rutemberg and went to live in Geneva.
He announced that he had abandoned his ideas of liberal reforms and had joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRP).
Rutenberg became Gapon’s friend, which made him a noticeable figure in the Party and he will be the one who will later play a tragic role in the life of Georgy Gapon.
In Europe Gapon had meetings with both prominent Russian emigrants Vladimir Lenin, Peter Kropotkin and French socialist leaders Jean Jaurès and Georges Clemenceau.
After the Tsar’s general political amnesty of October 1905, Gapon returned to Russia.
Gapon at that time returned to Russia. Some revolutionist say that they have distrusted him, and that they soon discovered that he entered into communications with the secret police chief.
He allegedly recieved 30 thousand roubles for the reorganisation of his former workmens union. The stories about Gapon circulated that he was carried away by the pleasures of lay life, and gradually estranged from the revolutionists.
He wrote at that time to one of his friends:
„My heart is breaking at the thought that you may believe the libels that my enemies spread about me. I implore you to believe that, whatever my happen, i care for nothing but the welfare of the people“
One version of the story says that Gapon tried to get Rutenberg, the man who saved his life during the Bloody Sunday, to also cooperate with the police, convincing him that this is the way that they can make the most for their cause, but Rutenberg refused and reported Gapon to the Battle Organization of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party.
Aseff then ordered the death of father Gapon.
Rutenberg lured Gapon to a small cabin on 26th March 1906.
Rutenberg asserted later that Gapon was condemned by comrades’ court and that three party combatants overheard their conversation from the next room. After Gapon had repeated his collaboration proposal with the police, Rutenberg called the comrades into the room and left. When he returned, Gapon was dead. This is his version.
However, the Socialist Revolutionary Party leadership refused to assume the responsibility, announcing that the execution was undertaken by Rutenberg individually and the cause was a personal one and denied ever having sent their comrades to the meeting on March 26.
Rutenberg was then condemned and expelled from the party. What truly happened to the „Revolutionary pope“ father Gapon will remain unclear, perhaps party leaders together with Aseff decided to kill him but didn’t want to take the blame for the death of a man who started it all.
Leon Trotsky, writing his own history of the Russian Revolution in the late 1920s, described the role of Georgi Gapon.
He writes that he was almost biblical figure after the Bloody Sunday.
„And what happened? When the lights burned low, Gapon was seen by every one 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.”, concludes Trotzky who will later share Gapons destiny.
He also will be killed by his yesterday’s comrades.
With the death of Gapon revolution lost one of these naive men. He did not care much for Marxist theory and ideas of his comrades and he claimed that he was a practical man. They accepted his harmless naivety but they found cooperation with him difficult. He even said that he knew nothing about Marxism and socialist principles and was sure that they were all wrong, he just wanted to help working and poor people and to do so he mingled among wolves. His procession to the Winter palace did not aim at the revolution or a constitution but purely and simply at begging from the Tzar protection from the factory workers among whom he had preached against the oppression of the government officials. A simple shepherd leading his flock, that was how he began and his crash came because he found that, if he was to fight on for his beloved factory workers, he must be a inconspicuous wheel in the revolutionary machine. And there his character failed. This was a time for wolves like Aseff.
Times were dynamic. Revolutionary terrorists were bombing the officials. Police raids and arrests were often and the revolutionary politicians and agitators were trying to exploit that feeling that there is something wrong with the society and that all it needs is to be shaken and utopia will come.
However, people will not get that utopia, revolution will bring a totalitarian communist state, but some other men will be on the front lines then.
“The revolution like Saturn devours its own children”. It was a common saying during the French Revolution and as history rhymes the same Russian revolution also ate their children – first Gapon and it was time for Aseff.
After killing Gapon, Aseff will be excluded from the party.
New evidence had come up. And the man who furnished them was Vladimir Burtsev, Social Revolutionary writer. Vladimir Lvovich Burtzev was so called Sherlock Holmes of the Russian revolution.
He, like Gapon, was active in the 1905 uprising but years later, by the younger generation of insurgents he was considered too meek and gentle to mix into current terrorist plotting.
He was never a member of any of the numerous revolutionary committees nor admitted to the inner councils. He was above all not privy to the dead secrecy of assassination conspiracies.
However, he was a genius man.
Working in solace, he pondered the failures of revolutionary conspiracies in the early years, the betrayals of his own and other carefully planned operations, and the treacheries inspired by the police among prisoners and Siberian exiles.
He had learned much of Okhrana practices the hard way, from the numerous interrogations to which he and his comrades were subjected in Russia.
Later, permanently settled in Paris, he was to start keeping notes, organizing in folders information on past and current episodes and maintaining his own dossiers on fellow revolutionaries as well as Okhrana and police officials.
He needed such files in his work as journalist and propaganda writer, but they would also provide a basis for his first intelligence investigations.
Burtzev among others, studied Tatarov case. Aseff’s furious insistence that Tatarov be killed struck him as excessive. He studied the failures of many revolutionaries plots and noted that almost as a rule at assassination attempts, whether successful or not, Aseff was never on the scene.
He was the only person involved in the projects of all teams; yet when arrests sooner or later hit each of them, he always succeeded in evading the police.
One event confirmed his suspicions. One of the Okhrana agents defected and wanted to leak documents to the revolutionaries in Warsaw but was quickly arrested. Only a few of the top revolutionary leaders had been told of defection in place, and of these only Aseff had been in Warsaw at the time.
Then, one day in St. Petersburg, at a time when the police were arresting revolutionaries right and left, Burtsev saw Aseff riding in an open cab.
“How could Aseff, leader of the Combat Unit, ride around the capital in broad daylight?” he wondered. He will soon find evidences against Aseff.
When he finally published his suspicions, he was placed on trial before his party for libeling great Aseff.
However, with the aid of a disgruntled police official who lost his post, he was finally able to convince the Social Revolutionary court and Aseff’s incredible career was over. This police official agreed to tell the truth only if Aseff will not be killed because of his words. So, when the leaders of the party found out that Aseff was indeed a police spy, and that he even gave list of their names to the tzsarist police, he was exiled. Aseff fled to Germany with his mistress and lived the life of a hunted man until 1915 when he was arrested and jailed. He was in prison until 1918. Imprisonment ruined his health and he died that same year, a broken man.
In the meantime, his alleged press statements started to show up.
He reportedly said that he had been obliged to betray some revolutionary plots to the Russian police but the blind confidence of the police enabled him to carry out assassinations, and that he had been sorry for the revolutionary men and women who were hanged because of him.