We celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th but are we aware that on that day in 1917, women started the Russian revolution?
There were many causes of discontent with the ruling regime in Russia in 1917: it was monarchic, autocratic, repressive, incompetent. It had put the country into a war with Germany and Austria, which was in its third year. People were very hungry with food shortages for a number of reasons including the trains being used to transport war materials and soldiers rather than to bring food into the city. Nationalities within Russia and Greater Russia were denied self-determination. Peasants were serfs to the aristocracy, who could beat, imprison and even hang them. Officers, always from the aristocracy or — to a lesser degree — from the professional classes regularly struck ordinary soldiers or had them whipped. The officers were also for the most part grossly incompetent. The Christian Church (Russian Orthodox) was allied to the regime and corrupt. Free speech was suppressed and the secret police could be anywhere; the regular police were brutal and could not be challenged by ordinary people. Wages were often barely enough to live on.
Petrograd was the Imperial capital city of Russia (the name had been changed in 1914 from St. Petersburg, which sounded too German) and in February and March 1917 a number of factories there were on strike for better wages. In particular, on March 7th (February 22 according to the calendar in use in Russia then), workers in the large Putilov works went on strike. The factory owners sacked the workers but not had not yet replaced them; there were some clashes with police.
The following day, March 8th (by our calendar), International Women’s Day, women in Petrograd organised a number of meetings and rallies. Led by no political party but in an atmosphere of deep discontent throughout the city, the women’s activities became increasingly energetic and militant. Demonstrations began to march, demanding bread and the women went to factories not yet on strike, calling on the workers to down tools and join the demonstrations. As as many as 50,000 did. Two days later, a general strike had siezed Petrograd’s manufacturing industries, much of the city’s services and even some commercial business, bringing clerks, teachers and students to swell the numbers in protests. Everywhere there were street meetings, marches; red flags and banners began to appear among the crowds. Slogans hardly considered before were shouted and became current, including calling for the monarch, the Tsar, to abdicate or to be deposed.
The Petrograd police were powerless to control the demonstrators who would have turned on them had they intervened. On the 11th, three days after the women’s mobilisation, the Tsar called on the Russian Army to intervene and to shoot demonstrators.
Russia had the largest single army in the world and despite the war, thousands were still in Petrograd. They had been used in the past against the workers and in 1905 had massacred people on a demonstration to petition the Tsar. But now, after three years of war and shortages, they were not keen to do so and particularly reluctant to open fire on women. Soldiers began to mutiny and, when threatened by officers, often shot them instead.
On that day, the Chairman of the Duma, the parliament which the Tsar Nicholas had kept powerless, sent an emergency telegram to the Tsar, who was at the Headquarters of the Russian Army, asking him for urgent action. The Tsar’s reply was dismissive – his wife, the Empress Consort Alexandra, had written to him that the problems in Petrograd were being exaggerated.
But the garrison of Petrograd, including elite units, had mutinied by the 12th, four days after the women’s marches and demonstrations. In addition the Cossack troops, usually reliable in shooting and sabring demonstrators and rioters, were disobeying the orders of their officers to attack the people (although they had not joined the mutiny). Officers began to go into hiding as more of them were being shot by soldiers from their own units. Symbols of Tsarist rule were being torn down in public places.
Two days later, on the 14th, the socialist parties and organisations established the Petrograd Soviet, last seen there twelve years previously, in 1905, before it was crushed by the Russian army. The Petrograd bourgeoisie were frightened but were unused to ruling except as permitted to by the Tsar, who himself now seemed unable to control events. Their powerless Duma (parliament), although ordered closed down by the Tsar that morning, set up a temporary committee to restore law and order and later, their Military Commission as part of the Provisional Government they created. Thus began a period of dual authority in the city – the revolutionary workers, soldiers (and later, sailors) through the Soviet on the one hand and the bourgeoisie through their Military Committee on the other.
The Petrograd Soviet set the tone for what was to come by approving a number of points in Order No.1, effectively the first law drawn up by the Soviet, point 4 of which stated:
“The orders of the Military Commission of the State Duma shall be executed only in such cases as do not conflict with the orders and resolution of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”
The Soviet was making sure it could not be overruled by the new unelected body which the bourgeoisie had set up, the Provisional Government, or by its Military Commission.
Senior Army and political appointees advised the Tsar to do what just over a week previously would have been unthinkable – to abdicate. On the 15th, the Tsar abdicated on his own behalf and of his son, nominating instead his brother, the Grand Duke Alexandrovich, to be Tsar. But he in turn knew he had no support as things stood and refused the “crown”.
The Russian monarchy of centuries had been overthrown — only seven days after the women’s mobilisation in Petrograd. Manoeuvers by the different sides continued during May and June, including an attempted military coup by senior officers commanding army units away from Petrograd. The fortunes of the revolution swayed back and forth across the country until demonstrations in July supported by the Anarchists and the Bolsheviks were suppressed by army units loyal to the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries political parties in power.
Workers were being disarmed, soldiers re-submitted to the old discipline and revolutionary leaders were being hunted; the War was also ongoing. In October, the Bolsheviks seized power, ended Russia’s involvement in the War and began to construct a socialist state. Two years later the people had to fight to defend it against a right-wing military uprising supported by eight states, including the Allies but were successful in the end.
But it was the women who had started the ball rolling seven months earlier on March 8th, with their rallies and demonstrations and calling the workers out from the factories. Henceforth too, they played their part in government, in building the country and in the armed forces, particularly during the war against fascism and in defence of the USSR from June 1941 to the fall of Berlin and Nazi Germany in 1945. Nearly 200,000 were decorated and 89 eventually received the Soviet Union’s highest award, the Hero of the Soviet Union. Some served as pilots, snipers (some of the ace snipers at Stalingrad were women), machine gunners, tank crew members and partisans, as well as in auxiliary roles.