The Road to Red October: Chapter 1. When women set Russia ablaze




In February 1917 (old-style calendar) women workers from the proletarian Vyborg district of Petrograd marched out of their factories demanding “Bread!” Five days later the workers and soldiers had led an insurrection which forced the Tsar to abdicate. The Petrograd women workers’ celebration of International Women’s Day had unleashed the February Revolution.


International Women’s Day was first adopted as a holiday for proletarian women by the leaders of the Second International’s Socialist Women’s Movement. Clara Zetkin proposed to the International Women’s meeting in 1910 that a day be declared for proletarian women, similar to the May Day workers’ holiday. The date eventually agreed was 8 March (new-style calendar) – commemorating a day on which thousands of women workers in New York had demonstrated against appalling conditions women workers endured in the needle industry.


The holiday was taken up in Russia from 1913 onwards. Because of the old calendar in pre-revolutionary Russia the equivalent date was 23 February. In 1913 planned demonstrations were cracked down on by the police and only leaflets and papers were issued in the end. The Bolsheviks, under the instigation of Konkordiya Samoilova and Inessa Annand, produced several articles in their paper Pravda in the weeks before 23 February culminating in a special issue to celebrate the day itself. The articles outlined the reality of life for working women in Russia and argued the need for them to be organised alongside men in fighting organisations of the class.


The response from working women to these Pravda articles was so overwhelming that there was not enough room in the paper for all the letters received. This prompted Samoilova to urge the exiled Lenin and Krupskaya to produce a special paper directed at working class women. Inessa Annand, who herself had been arrested and had fled to exile, was instrumental in persuading them to agree to this idea. Krupskaya raised it on the exiled Bolshevik Central Committee which agreed to the production of Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) with the launch to be around International Women’s Day 1914.


These developments within the Bolshevik Party occurred in response to a renewed wave of militant class struggle in Russia between 1912 and 1914. Women workers were an increasingly important force in the Russian working class. After the 1905 Revolution the employers deliberately recruited women in preference to men in many industries. As the bosses’ own factory inspectorate noted in 1907:


“The reasons for this [recruitment of women] are as before: their greater industry, attentiveness and abstinence (they do not drink or smoke), their compliance and greater reasonableness m respect of pay.”


By 1914 women made up 25.7% of the industrial workforce in Russia and were becoming increasingly militant, making all political groups take notice of them. The bourgeois feminists, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks all made special efforts to organise working women in this period.


Foundations for the future


Despite all but one woman on the editorial board in Russia being arrested, Rabotnitsa was produced for 23 February. It quickly sold out as did the other five issues which were distributed. It was widely read in the factories and groups of women organised around it, many joining the party as a result. The outbreak of war in August halted the production of Rabotnitsa but the foundations laid then made future work by the Bolsheviks among women workers much easier to establish. The mobilisation of soldiers and production for the war effort led to enormous deprivation in the cities and villages of Russia.


As early as April 1915 there were riots by women demanding bread, and these continued sporadically right through to 1917. The specific role of women workers in the February revolution occurred because of the very acute way the war had affected them. Between 1914 and 1917 the number of women employed in the factories increased still further because of the conscription of men to the front line. In the country as a whole the percentage of women increased from 26.6% to 43.2%. These women workers were, on the whole, new to the cities and the working class. In Petrograd itself the number of women working in factories doubled, rising by 68,000 during the war to 129,800.


There were thousands of women workers concentrated in large factories-up to 10,000 women in one plant – with less than three years experience by 1917. Often their husbands, sons and brothers had been conscripted for the war. Minimal food rations were available only by queuing for up to four hours a day – sometimes even then the food ran out. Women earned about half the wages of men. They were concentrated in the textile and chemical industries, where hours were long and conditions poor. In addition they often suffered physical and sexual harassment from the bosses and their lackey foremen.


The intensity of the oppression of these women led to explosive rebellions. In general the strikes involving predominantly women workers had economic aims, whereas by late 1916 more of the strikes in the male dominated engineering and metalworking industries were for political ends. This reflected the longer tradition of organisation of the male workers, some with Bolshevik and Menshevik organisers long established within their ranks.


Women’s Day celebrations


By February 1917 the class struggle was intensifying. But although there were many strikes in Petrograd during January and February, none of them sparked the whole city in the way the women were to do. In preparation for the Women’s Day celebrations Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and the Mezhraiontsy group (an inter-district group of socialists committed to neither the Bolsheviks nor the Mensheviks) planned propaganda and educational meetings for the day.


In the Vyborg district on 20 February some workers called for a strike, but all the socialist organisations argued that the class was not ready for a mass strike because of inadequate political preparation or contact with the soldiers. V Kayurav, a local Bolshevik leader, met representatives from women workers on the eve of Women’s Day and urged them to “. . . Act exclusively according to the instruction of the party committee.”


The action was intended to be limited to factory meetings in order to make propaganda. The socialist groups all underestimated the mood of the women workers in the factories. However the lack of control by the political leaders over these women did not mean that the action was totally unprepared as some Bolsheviks seemed to think. One account of the lead up to the strikes records that:


“The largely female staff of the Vasilesky Island trolley park, sensing general unrest a few days before 23 February, sent a woman to the neighbouring encampment of the l50th Infantry Regiment to ask the soldiers whether they would shoot at them or not. The answer was no, and on the 23rd, the trolley-car workers joined the demonstration.”


On the morning of the 23rd several illegal meetings were held in textile factories in the Vyborg district around the theme “War, high prices and the situation of the woman worker!” Anger boiled over at these meetings. One by one they voted to strike, but did not leave their protest at that. Taking to the streets in their thousands, the women marched to nearby factories, shouting for the workers, women and men to join them. The flying picket was dramatically effective. By 10.00am ten factories were shut with 27,000 workers on strike. By noon it was 21 plants with 50,000 strikers! Many accounts report the women entering factories, banging on the gates, throwing snowballs at windows to get workers out. It seems that where factories did not immediately respond to the call to join the action, more direct methods were used. Flying rocks and pieces of iron were persuasively used at some plants. In the Vyborg district there were 59,800 men and women on strike by the end of the day - 61 % of all the factory workers.


Rank and file Bolsheviks played a leading role in pulling plants out alongside the women workers, but many of the leaders were far more reluctant. The Vyborg leader Kayurov wrote later:


“. . . to my surprise and indignation . . . we learned . . . of the strike in some textile factories and of the arrival of a number of delegates from the women workers who announced [that they were going on strike]. Iwas extremely indignant about the behaviour of the strikers, both because they had blatantly ignored the decision of the district committee of the party, and also because they had gone on strike after Ihad appealed to them only the night before to keep cool and disciplined.”


Despite such indignation the Bolsheviks were able to quickly overcome these feelings and seize the opportunity offered to them. Agreeing to build the strike they gave political leadership by raising the slogans “Down with the autocracy! Down with the war! Give us bread!”


In other districts of the city strikes that day were less extensive, but no less militant. Over the whole city between 20 and 30% of the workers struck, with over 80 factories shut. The demonstrators from the Vyborg district were determined to reach the governmental centre of Petrograd, but the police blocked their way at one of the bridges. Eventually the demonstrators began crossing the ice of the frozen River Neva. However the police still managed to contain them, albeit with difficulty. Apolice report of the day explained:


“At 4.40pm crowds of approximately 1,000 people, predominantly women and youths, approached Kazan Bridge on the Nevskii Prospekt from the direction of Mikhailovskaia Street, singing and shouting ‘give us bread!’”


Angerand desperation


The demonstrations were not confined to those who went on strike – women queuing for bread quickly joined in the action. One manager reported coming out from his bakery shop to announce that there was no more bread:


“No sooner had this announcement been made than the crowd smashed the windows, broke into the store and knocked down everything in sight.”


Such acts were widespread, reflecting the anger and desperation, mainly of women and youths. The Bolsheviks argued against “vandalism” and tried to direct the protests by organising meetings and by calling for a three day general strike plus intensified propaganda towards soldiers.


In the following days the number of workers on strike increased steadily. The government sent police and troops in to disperse the demonstrators by any means necessary, but the revolutionary wave was able to meet this challenge by winning Cossacks over and eventually whole regiments joined the insurgents. Workers were arming themselves in their militia, and it was women workers who played a vital role in breaking the troops from the regime. As Trotsky’s account reveals:


“Agreat role is played by women workers in the relation between workers and soldiers. They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command: ‘Put down your bayonets-join us!’ The soldiers are excited, ashamed, exchange anxious glances, waver; someone makes up his mind first, and the bayonets rise guiltily above the shoulders of the advancing crowd. The barrier is opened; a joyous ‘Hurrah!’ shakes the air.


The soldiers are surrounded. Everywhere arguments, reproaches, appeals – the revolution makes another forward step.”


The mass strike eventually won to its side the vast numbers of peasants-in-uniform, the soldiers. Exhausted by the deprivation caused by the war, sickened by its carnage, these soldiers were eager for change. The action of the working class ignited their rebellion and made the fall of the autocracy inevitable. Without its military power the mighty Romanov dynasty could not last a minute. The Tsar’s wife expressed the arrogant short-sightedness of the autocracy when she wrote to her husband:


“This is a hooligan movement, young people run and shout that there is no bread, simply to create excitement, along with workers who prevent others from working. If the weather were very cold they would probably stay at home. But all this will pass and become calm, if only the Duma will behave itself.”


The regime falls


These words, expressing hope that events would be settled by the weather and the tame parliamentarians of the Duma (its Bolshevik deputies were in prison or exile), were forced down the throat of the pampered Tsarina by the actions of the masses, by the revolution. Within the borders of the Russian empire modern capitalism coincided with a peasant economy that was staggering in its backwardness, and meant misery for some hundred million peasants and their families.


The combination of a land starved peasantry and a highly concentrated urban working class (some four million strong) obliged the autocracy to maintain a vicious political dictatorship. Only thus could the rule of the landlords and the interests of capital be guaranteed. But the existence of the autocracy merely intensified the contradictions of Russia’s combined and profoundly uneven social development. The war exacerbated those contradictions to the limit. When they exploded, the seemingly all-powerful Tsarist regime fell in only a matter of days. As Trotsky and Lenin both observed, the chain of world capitalism had broken at its weakest link.


The development of the revolution and the abdication of the Tsar opened up a whole new period for the Russian working class. The Provisional Government that emerged from the February Revolution was staffed by bourgeois politicians and in an unstable position, balanced as it was alongside the organs of a different kind of power, the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Within the factories workers were emboldened – the factory committees sprang up, control was demanded over pay and conditions. The workers’ militia conflicted with the weaker civil militias of the government.


Women workers continued to play an important role. They were among the most determined to win an eight hour day. They sought decent wages and supported demands for equal political rights including suffrage. Indeed the first major strike against the Provisional Government was of 3,000 women laundry workers who struck for the eight hour day, living wages and municipalisation of the laundries. The strike, in May 1917, lasted six weeks and Kollontai was sent in by the Bolsheviks to work alongside the women. The Bolsheviks had quickly responded to the militancy of women in 1917 and set up a Women’s Bureau led by Vera Slutskaya. This relaunched Rabotnitsa and built up support in the factories and among soldiers’ wives, and led large demonstrations against the war.


The role of women workers in the Russian Revolution was magnificent, and taught the revolutionary leadership much. But their very spontaneity meant that they were not always in the revolutionary vanguard throughout 1917.”


They struck, demonstrated and rioted because of the intensity of the oppression, but this also reflected their lack of organisation, their newness to political and trade union activities. This is often true of working class women. Their role within the workforce as a “peripheral” element, poorly paid, shifted in and out of work depending on the fortunes and needs of capitalism, leads to them being generally poorly organised in unions and political parties. Even where membership of unions is high, women are rarely active in the leadership because of their oppression, which denies them time, due to domestic commitments, and obstruction by male leaders.


This lack of traditional organisation has contradictory results – on the one hand women can be, as the February Revolution shows, the most militant fighters because they are unfettered by the conservatism which can so often take root inside the union organisations. But on the other hand it makes women easy targets for propaganda which may be anti-working class. In the weeks after the February Revolution thousands of working class women were mobilised by liberal bourgeois feminists to demonstrate for women’s suffrage and continuation of the war! The Bolsheviks were able to establish a mass base among women by mid-1917 which led them once again to demonstrate against the war, but this took special efforts at organisation and propaganda.


The lessons we can learn from the Bolsheviks and working women in this period are rich indeed. The revolution, as Lenin was to point out years later, would never have succeeded without the mobilisation of the women. Revolutionaries must never underestimate the centrality of relating to women workers. Special forms of propaganda and organisation are needed to win them to the side of the revolutionary party, but once won, they will be the most brave and militant fighters for they have so much to gain!