Russia 1917: When the people rose

“If future historians look for the group that began the Russian revolution, let them not create any involved theory. The Russian revolution was begun by hungry women and children demanding bread and herrings. They started by wrecking tram cars and looting a few small shops. Only later did they, together with workmen and politicians, become ambitious to wreck that mighty edifice the Russian autocracy.”
– Pitirium Sorokin, Leaves from a Russian Diary

“By providing, almost by accident, a large-scale instance of unpunished civil disorder, they [the working class women of Petrograd] demonstrated the hopeless inability of the government to preserve law and order at the centre of its power.”
- Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia

Two perspectives, one reality. These are the conditions that Vladimir Lenin, leader of the revolutionary Bolshevik Party, thought were necessary for a revolutionary situation: workers would not go on in the old way and the ruling classes could not continue to rule. As Leon Trotsky, the most important leader alongside Lenin in the October revolution, wrote: “The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”.

Our story begins when women workers of Petrograd took the first steps toward that destiny. It was International Working Women’s Day (IWD), 23 February (8 March). Before the morning was out, tens of thousands of women textile workers were on strike. Joined by housewives, they marched to the metal factories demanding that the (mostly male) workers join them. “We could hear women’s voices in the lane overlooked by the windows … ‘Down with high prices!’, ‘Down with hunger!’, ‘Bread for the workers!’”, recalled a worker in the Nobel engineering plant in the Vyborg district, the centre of working class radicalism and militancy. “The gates of No 1 Bol’shaia Sampsonievskaia mill were flung open. Masses of women workers in a militant frame of mind filled the lane. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting: ‘Come out!’, ‘Stop work!’ Snowballs flew through the windows. We decided to join the demonstration.”

By the end of the day, more than 100,000, a third of Petrograd’s industrial workforce, were on strike. The women had acted against the wishes of the revolutionary Bolsheviks who, conscious that any action could spark an uprising, worried that workers weren’t yet ready. Nevertheless a Bolshevik worker known only as Kayurov, wrote later “once there is a mass strike, one must call everybody into the streets and take the lead”. The Tsarina, wife of Tsar Nicholas II, dismissed their protest as “a hooligan movement”, informing Nicholas that “if the weather was cold they would probably stay at home”. But the next day, meetings, proclamations and marches continued; the numbers on strike swelled to 200,000 angrily demanding bread to feed their starving families. Thanks to police spies, some of the workers’ contributions to these momentous events are preserved in state archives. For example, a worker called Peter Tikhonov addressed a meeting:

“So, comrades … my opinion is this. If we cannot get a loaf of bread for ourselves in a righteous way, then we must … go ahead and solve our problems by force. Only in this way will we be able to get bread for ourselves. Comrades, remember this also. Down with the government! Down with the war!”

All accounts of these days talk of the “newly unfettered public life” and speak of the streets of Petrograd and Moscow as “one vast and ongoing meeting” in this society gagged for decades. Speakers on street corners drew huge crowds. Red flags fluttered everywhere, including over Palaces turned into meeting places for new organisations being created in the revolution. People wore red ribbons and raised red banners, creating a festive atmosphere. Talking, talking and more talking, reading everything people could find: posters plastered around the city, newspapers and leaflets. Everyone was singing, dancing and marching in demonstrations. Acts of spontaneous joy, which amounted to defiance, infuriated the rich and respectable. They complained that servants were unruly, spending their time going out decked in red ribbons, coming home at all hours, going out again and ignoring their employers’ wishes to be waited on hand and foot.

“The revolt sent shock waves through the soldiers, many of whom were conscripted peasants. The veterans were worn out and disillusioned by the appalling conditions, and the slaughter at the front. Women such as Zhenia Egorova, secretary of the Bolsheviks in the Vyborg district, appealed to them to disobey their officers. The officers tried to discipline their men with the age-old tactic of sexist put-downs of the women, calling them old hags. But they were no match for the appeals of the courageous women to war-weary soldiers. Their demand, “Put down your bayonets – join us!”, struck at the soldiers’ hearts. The elite Cossacks wavered; without openly breaking discipline, they failed to force the crowds to disperse. “Standing stock still in perfect discipline, the Cossacks did not hinder the workers from ‘diving’ under their horses”, Trotsky described in his magnificent History of the Russian Revolution. “The revolution does not choose its paths; it made its first steps toward victory under the belly of a Cossack’s horse.”

An account of the afternoon of 25 February records that a young woman stepped out from the crowd confronted by Cossacks and walked slowly toward the troops. As she approached them, she took from under her cloak a bunch of red roses and offered it to the officer. His unexpected acceptance was an electric signal of both peace and revolution. Mikhail Slonimisky, a famous Russian writer, was a soldier and wrote about the experience:

“‘We’re going forward into the unknown!’ … [The young soldier next to me] uttered these words enthusiastically with pathos and with great hope … We indeed were marching forward into the unknown … A gendarme … fired a shot, but the rifle was instantly torn from his hands and he, pale and encircled by angry soldiers, begged, ‘Don’t kill me! I didn’t know you were having a revolution’.”

The soldiers, many with red ribbons tied to their bayonets, insurgents now and risking everything, would in the next days shoot some of their officers and the hated police who attacked workers’ demonstrations. But they refused to murder the workers. When exiled Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai arrived, she was welcomed at the border by a soldier with a bright red ribbon fluttering on his chest. Officers who tried to force them to remove the red ribbons were arrested and detained, some even shot. These ribbons signified the hope for a new society and represented a profound alteration of class power. News of the rebellion sparked strikes in Moscow on 27 February. Within 48 hours, police stations had been wrecked by crowds of workers and students. Political prisoners were freed and a workers’ council created. In response, the government declared that the rioting by rabble must be put down. But a soldier, Shishilin, recalled, “By this time, the soldiers understood the word rabble in the opposite sense”. Many were now going to the city Duma building (a Tsarist parliament with limited franchise) to find out how to join the revolution.

Five days after IWD, the Romanov autocracy of more than 300 years had been trampled under the feet of these “hooligans” backed by virtually the entire workforce of Petrograd followed by Moscow. The rebellion spread like wildfire to other urban centres, across the fertile plains, the frozen tundra and the mountainous Caucasus of the Russian empire. Nicholas was forced by his own generals to abdicate. This complete humiliation took place in a stranded railway car in Pskov, 300km south of Petrograd, because workers refused to move his train.

Women in the revolution

Most accounts of this episode, known as the “February revolution", rightly emphasise the role of women workers. In most histories they are largely absent for the rest of the year, except for one striking example: the reactionary women’s armed battalion which tried to defend the Winter Palace in October. Yet more women stormed the palace, and some tens of thousands fought in the civil war to defend the soviet government. Contrary to this usual historical account, once women shook their chains of oppression, they took their part as fighters for liberation. Their involvement consistently grew, bringing with it a commensurate radicalisation among at least some layers. A strike by Petrograd laundresses in May involved 5,500 in 200 laundries, organised by their union set up during the February uprising.

Several Bolshevik laundresses played a critical role organising the different laundries. Their demands were those the revolution had raised, from the eight hour day to decent wages and conditions and respectful treatment. Petrograd’s militant workers mobilised to support them as they battled scabs and repressive bosses. By the end of May they had won a significant victory. In July, many women leapt ahead politically. The Bolsheviks were accused of being German provocateurs, their leaders were being jailed, and their presses shut down by the Provisional Government, But in some textile districts, there was a considerable influx of women workers into the Bolsheviks while they were losing hundreds of male members. Thousands of women flocked to meetings and lectures by Bolshevik orators, often spilling out of huge halls into the streets. Women who had just learnt to read and write contributed articles to the Bolsheviks’ paper for women, Rabotnitsa.

These women are just some of those who were Bolsheviks before, or joined during, 1917.

Votes in factory committees reflected the shift to the left. At the Treugol’nik Rubber Factory (two-thirds female) prior to July, the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) often had the upper hand at general assemblies. But the more radical Bolsheviks won support. The Kersten Knitwear Mill (87 percent female, largely semi-literate recent arrivals from villages) was represented exclusively by the SRs in the Soviet (workers’ council) until mid-September, when new elections gave the Bolsheviks 965 votes and the SRs 1,340. The more conservative Mensheviks didn’t even run a list. In October, some working women trained with Red Guards – workers’ armed militias – and participated in the fighting. Others created Red Cross divisions, organised lectures on the care of the wounded and in the factories were organised as bands of nurses. One young woman Bolshevik, Rodionovo, was given charge of the tramways system to ensure materials and people got to where they were needed.

The seeds of revolt

In January, a police report noted that Russia’s working class was “on the edge of despair … the slightest explosion, however trivial its pretext, will lead to uncontrollable riots … The inability to buy goods, the frustrations of queuing, the rising death rate owing to poor living conditions, and the cold and damp produced by lack of coal … have all created a situation where most of the workers are ready to embark on the savage excesses of a food riot.”

Report after report recorded the atmosphere of tension and class conflict:
“[M]others of families, exhausted from the endless queues at the shops, suffering at the sight of their sick and half-famished children, at this moment … constitute a mass of inflammable matter for which only a spark is sufficient to cause it to burst into flames.”

Was it any wonder? While workers and peasants suffered the most terrible privations and hundreds of thousands of men were sacrificed at the front, the rich made no secret of their war profits. During 1916, both female and male workers had been increasingly restive, confronted with rising food prices and shortages, and the repressive Tsarist regime. In December, almost a thousand women had walked off their shift in a munitions store where they worked beside better paid men, demanding a pay rise.

The Moscow textile company of the Riabushinskys returned a net profit of 75 percent; the Tver Company, 111 percent; the copper works of Kolchugin netted more than 12 million roubles on a basic capital of 10 million. Who better than Trotsky to describe the obscenity of war profiteering?

The year began with a mass strike on 9 January, the anniversary of the massacre of Petrograd workers on Bloody Sunday in 1905, by around 140,000 workers from at least 120 factories – 40 percent of the city’s industrial workers. This was followed by regular mass strikes involving many women. On 14 February, another strike of 84,000 closed more than 52 factories in the midst of fears by the middle class that there would be “clashes” at the re-opening of the Duma. Rex Wade, a social historian who has tried to understand the revolution by looking at the actions of the workers, writes that “strikes and demonstrations became daily events, with student demonstrations at Petrograd’s higher educational institutions and strikes in other cities adding to the growing turmoil”. And on 22 February, the day before IWD, 30,000 workers had been locked out by management at the giant Putilov works, Russia’s largest factory. Women from the plant demonstrated at food warehouses. Workers who met with politicians in the Duma warned that this might be the beginning of a big political movement and that “something very serious might happen”.

Red Guards at the Vulcan factory, Petrograd

The next day, a police agent reported, “the idea that an uprising is the only means to escape from the food crisis is becoming more and more popular among the masses”. The socialist organisations didn’t initiate the uprising. Nor was it purely spontaneous. Many of the political arguments, the initiative and foresight came from workers who had experienced the revolution of 1905 and its aftermath. They knew that certain things had to be prepared, such as winning the soldiers over. Textile workers regularly approached the soldiers to persuade them not to attack protests. A few days before IWD, the largely female staff at a trolley-car park sent a woman to the nearby regiment to ask the soldiers if they would fire on them if they came out. The soldiers’ answer was no, ensuring that on IWD the trolley-car workers joined the demonstration. Rex Wade writes:

“Especially important were the factory activists … Drawing on lengthy strike experience they quickly moved to the fore and provided the organisational skills and leadership for the demonstrations of the next few days. They organised the columns of workers as they marched from the factories and exhorted workers to demonstrate rather than simply going home. They gave impassioned speeches articulating worker grievances and demanding the overthrow of the regime. These activists helped organise the strike committees and other revolutionary organisations.”

Bolshevik women, for instance, organised strikes and mass meetings, including of male metal and tram workers, and helped soldiers free political prisoners. Many workers newly involved in radical actions wanted to keep escalating the street protests. Alexander Shlyapnikov, the leading Bolshevik in Petrograd, played a role in convincing them that they should approach the soldiers whose support was critical.

So the February revolution, while not “planned”, was not an inexplicable outburst of rage. It resulted from bitterness fuelled by the effects of the savage war. Many workers had lived through the 1905 revolution or just years of struggle. So the women, as well as male workers, had been preparing for the anticipated uprising, cognisant of the issues they faced.

The impact of the February revolution

The months between February and October reveal in all its complexity how workers, along with others who suffer injustice, can come to understand the true nature of the society that oppresses them and learn how to fight. The overthrow of the hated Tsar filled Petrograd’s workers and soldiers with elation and expectations. In the following months, in the words of Rex Wade, masses of people “burst forth with a dazzling display of self-assertiveness, public meetings and creation of new organisations”. Once they returned to the workplaces, there was an outpouring of hope for a new society, in declarations drawn up by general meetings. William Chamberlin, one of the earliest conservative historians of the revolution, had great insight into the process by which workers became radicalised. His account of the first months of the revolution gives a feel for the level of self-activity:

“What were the outstanding characteristics of the first period of the ‘deepening of the revolution’? Loosening of discipline in the army, increasingly radical demands of the industrial workers, first for higher wages, then for control over production and distribution, arbitrary confiscations of houses in the towns, and, to a greater degree, of land in the country districts, insistence in such non-Russian parts of the country as Finland and Ukrainia on the grant of far reaching autonomy”.

Everything seemed turned on its head. The expectations were not just for political democracy while the social power of the capitalists remained. The workers of the Dinamo works summed up aspirations widely held:

‘The people and the army went onto the streets not to replace one government by another, but to carry out our slogans. These slogans are ‘Freedom’, ‘Equality’, ‘Land and Liberty’ and ‘An End to the Bloody War’. For us, the unpropertied classes, the bloody slaughter [of World War One] is unnecessary.”

They created new ways of making their voices heard at every level of society: factory committees, trade unions and the beginnings of workers’ armed militias to keep order. They immediately set up workers’ councils, or soviets, drawing on the experience of the 1905 revolution. Everyone voted in elections for delegates to the committees regardless of sex, religion or background – except the ruling elite, who didn’t work and didn’t make the revolution. Factory committees dealt with everything from the soap in the washrooms, to fixing light bulbs, organising rosters, outlawing excessive overtime, disciplining unruly workers, controlling drunkenness, presenting cultural events and organising political discussions.

They led the fight for decent wages, equal pay for women, paid holidays, hot water and bath facilities in workplaces, support for the injured, sick and elderly, and maternity leave both before and after birth. When they couldn’t force employers to pay women equally, some of the most militant collected a levy from the best paid for funds to distribute to the lowest paid. They were determined to show that they were fighting for a decent world. John Reed, a US writer in Russia recorded his experiences in his wonderful book Ten Days that Shook the World. He said of the soviets, the centralised workers’ councils: “[N]o political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented”.

Delegates to the factory committees could be recalled by the monthly workplace general assembly, to which they were required to report and in which final authority was vested.

The revolution brought the reality of class rule and the exploitation it rested on out from the recesses of respectable society. Now they had toppled the central tyrant, workers set about overturning the tyranny of the workplace. One of the fist things factory committees did was burn rule books with lists of punitive fines for minor misdemeanours; they destroyed black lists used to victimise militants, often with elaborate ceremonies. Hated managers and foremen were abducted, dumped in wheelbarrows, often with a bag over their heads, and thrown into the street or even rivers. Others were made to stand on tables and agree to change their ways after listening to a litany of their offences. Workers demanded respectful language, and an end to sexual harassment of women by foremen and managers. They were trying to assert their own humanity and dignity in contrast to the oppressive, demeaning conditions they had endured.

Above all, they wanted an eight-hour work day. It was a central demand to enable workers to participate in the social, political and cultural development which they craved and to which they felt entitled. Women played a prominent role in ensuring people didn’t work excessive hours, insisting that others had the right to jobs and that everyone should have time for leisure and to participate in the revolutionary activities. Students were brought in to teach workers to read and write. One young woman taught workers to read by printing Bolshevik slogans on a blackboard each day. John Reed immortalised these strivings for culture, knowledge and control over their lives. He told the world “all Russia was learning to read, and reading”:

“[T]he first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion and the cheap fiction that corrupts – but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol and Gorky.”

He described arriving in Riga “where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up. With their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, ‘Did you bring anything to read?’” Lectures, meetings, debates, in the factories, the barracks, in theatres or any other venue available were hugely popular. “What a marvellous sight to see the Putilov Factory pour out its forty thousand to listen to … anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk!”, Reed observed. Every street corner was a tribune, tram carriages, railway stations, wherever people gathered, could become the scene of impromptu debates.

Loading socialist papers into a train

It was not only workers who were asserting their rights, experimenting with new ways of living and giving their supposed superiors a taste of democracy. The soldiers, through elected committees, learned to stand up to their officers. When the government tried to enforce discipline in the army after February, the Petrograd soviet of workers’ deputies, even though it was dominated by conservative delegates, was forced by the sheer rage of the soldiers to pass what famously became known as “order number one”. It promoted a complete re-structuring of the army and the relationships between soldiers and officers. Disrespectful or demeaning address by the officers was forbidden, the soldiers’ committees recognised and the death penalty abolished.

Word spread like wildfire about the momentous events in Petrograd. Even the church was affected. Some of the hierarchy not overwhelmed with horror turned to a version of Christian socialism. One of the more radical clergy, Vvendenskii, was elected to the Petrograd soviet. He argued that “struggle on behalf of the poor is a basic principle of socialism, and it is our own Christian struggle”. The Orthodox Church created a “committee on Bolshevism in the church”. Morgan Philips Price, an English journalist in Russia, wrote of being in Samara, nearly 2,000 kilometres south-east of Petrograd:

“The revolution had penetrated into the sacred precincts of the monastery; the monks had gone on strike and had turned out the abbot, who had gone off whining to the Holy Synod … On enquiry into the ideas entertained by the monks for developing their little revolution, I found that they had already entered into an arrangement with the local peasantry. They were to keep enough land for themselves to work, and the rest was to go into the local commune. Thus a new monastic commune was in process of formation.”

He wrote to his wife on 13 March from Tiflis in the Caucasus:
“Most exciting times. I knew this was coming sooner or later but did not think it would come so quickly. Have been running about the Caucasus for last fortnight attending revolutionary meetings … Whole country is wild with joy.”

A week later, he reported in the Manchester Guardian that news of the dissolution of the Duma
“was the signal for revolt … The railwaymen of Tiflis and the oil workers of Baku prepared for a general strike … intense suppressed excitement all over the Caucasus … preparations were made for a great mass meeting at Tiflis on Sunday, March 18. That morning telegrams had been received ordering the abolition of the secret police, the release of all political prisoners, and the handing over of all civil affairs to the municipalities and rural councils.”

Exhilarating reports like this inspired workers in country after country with the hope that this was the beginning of a new world. The most far-flung, even backward corners of the Tsarist empire were brought to their feet, thrilled by the promise of a new society in which the oppressed would now determine their own future:

“Here had assembled almost every element in the multi-racial population of this part of the Empire. There were wild mountain tribes, Lesgians, Avars, Chechens and Swanetians in their long black cloaks and sheepskin caps. In the recesses of the Caucus range, where their homes lie, the eddies of the waves of revolution had swept. Sunk in patriarchal feudalism until recently, many of them did not know whether they were subjects of the Tsar of Russia or of the Sultan of Turkey. Yet they had come walking across miles of mountain tracks to pay their humble tribute to the great Russian Revolution.”

Georgian peasants, many influenced by modern Western thought, came in their wagons. They were joined by liberal Armenian merchants, Tartar peasants from the East Caucasus with their memories of the Persian revolutionary movement of 1908-09 and industrial workers with their potential social and economic power in the railways and oilfields. Side by side they stood with poets, students, doctors.

“Here in the great concourse of Caucasian peoples were standing side by side the most primitive and the most progressive types of the human race. For years they have been sunk in apathy, fatalism and scepticism and their racial feuds have been purposely fomented by the old government. Now the flood of their combined intellect and energy had burst forth and broken the rotten banks of privilege and oppression … a great concourse of medieval mountaineers and twentieth century proletariat, all inspired by one idea – brotherhood and freedom.”

The holidays institutionalised by the new provisional government were often socialist anniversaries – most notably May Day. The renaming of things began after February. To be associated with the old order was to be disparaged and threatened. One of the capitalist papers lamented: “Bourgeois. It seems that this word, with its abusive meaning, occupies a position between ‘scoundrel’ and ‘swine’, and its wide usage is explained, apparently, by its polemical convenience”. One contemporary summed up the atmosphere as “the fashion for socialism” – “the general aspirations of a huge number of Russians to declare themselves, no matter what, to be socialists, to the amazement of foreigners”. The financial newspapers repainted themselves with the protective colour of “realistic socialism”, while the banks tried to protect themselves by raising the red flag over their buildings.

This isn’t just a fantastic story from the past. The workers, soldiers and peasants provide us with confirmation of all that Marxists argue about how we can win human liberation. In one of their earliest books, Marx and Engels wrote a passage which would become the heart of Marxist philosophy:

“[R]evolution is necessary … not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

Lenin spelled out the transformative role of mass struggle:
“The real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle … Only struggle discloses to [the exploited class] the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.”

The revolution illustrated these points with great drama and beauty. It demonstrated the confidence and initiative the struggle of millions can generate among the oppressed; it confirmed the creativity and organisational genius workers are capable of. The most oppressed were lifted up by the revolution, to make their voices heard, to help forge new attitudes. Workers threw off that muck of ages. As we’ve seen, women could organise and lead men, they took on roles which challenged the sexist stereotypes which in normal times trapped them in a cycle of oppression at work and in the family. And the national minorities, denied the right to independence, even to their own languages, gained the confidence to rise to their feet and demand their freedom.