“Not Woman, But Avenger Now”*: International Working Women’s Day and the start of the Russian Revolution, 100 years on

The women of Petrograd took to the streets on March 8, 1917 (February 23, Old Style), International Working Women’s Day, demanding bread and an end to the war; within a week, the Tsar had abdicated, ending 300 years of Romanov rule and many centuries more of Russian autocracy, and women had won the right to vote. It was the beginning of a long, bitter struggle, whose optimistic beginning was so at variance with its bloody conclusions. But it is worth remembering that the fight for peace, land, and bread – those fundamental human needs which would come to be a successful (if co-opted) slogan for the Bolsheviks – began with the women of the Russian capital translating their outrage into action.

Like women in the Britain and the US, World War I opened up a vast array of opportunities for Russian women to enter further into the world of work, including fields traditionally dominated by men. By 1917, women in Russia accounted for more than 47% of the labour force. The struggle, of course, was that now working women were fulfilling three full-time roles: as working women, covering for the missing male workers, and still carrying the full burden of domestic duties such as minding the children, keeping the house, balancing the books, and finding food. It was an impossible task, one repeated in industrial and agricultural centres alike. And as the tide turned at the front, while Russia’s casualties mounted and victories grew rare, as prices rose and goods became scarce, the mood of the Russian people, and particularly the women, began to turn sour, and, in the words of historians Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, “pushed the women to dissolve the already tenuous division between ‘economic’ and ‘political’ demands” (146). Women had been striking throughout 1916, protesting their working conditions, their pay, and their treatment by management. Thus, the events of March 8, 1917 did not spring from a void; it was the finale of one movement and the opening act of another.

The underground radical movement in Russia, manifested in myriad left-wing illegal political parties, had, thus far, largely failed to tap into the rich vein of feminine dissatisfaction. The Bolsheviks and the Inter-District Committee had gone furthest in this direction, with some women actively campaigning among working women, raising political consciousness and attempting to organize them along political lines. The war had been a turning point in the party’s efforts to recruit women, and it had been the women in the party who had recognized the opportunity it presented.

“This circle, which had been carrying out agitational work in factories [in the Vyborg district] where large numbers of women were employed, grasped that the depth of feeling would allow them to make the connection between the women’s traditional concern of the food supply and the destructive effects of the war… […] [A] brief appeal was issued, which stated simply that the women were no longer prepared to suffer in silence, but that their pent-up anger at war profiteering had become increasingly political as they realized that the small shopkeepers had not caused the war, and indeed that many of them were suffering too because of the collapse of the transport and distribution systems. Hence, the female Bolsheviks pointed to big business and the government that together they portrayed as a gang of robber and murderers.” (Midwives, 148)

Yet despite being the party of ardent feminists Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand, the Bolsheviks still failed to see the women’s concerns as valid. As Hillyar and McDermid point out:

“the issues which appealed to women workers, and around which revolutionaries agitated, were rarely acknowledged by them as political. Instead, they were seen as fundamentally material concerns, which could only draw women to the class struggle temporarily. To recruit the minority of politically conscious women workers to revolutionary organisations, their awareness had to be raised from such ‘bread and butter’ concerns to the higher plane of politics” (Revolutionary Women, 149-150).

Working women, as gentle but emotional and ill-educated creatures, weren’t considered worth the trouble of recruiting at this stage. Working women were about to prove their mettle in no uncertain terms.

In fact, several women, such as Bolshevik Maria Vydrina, were eager to make a display on Women’s Day. The party insisted that the workers weren’t intellectually prepared for any immediate action, and planned a demonstration for May Day; the women could wait until then. Vydrina, who had been a Bolshevik for five years, since the age of seventeen, disagreed, and helped organize the march in the city for International Working Women’s Day. And she was not alone. Anastasia Deviatkina had been a Bolshevik for 13 years, and she also stepped up to lead a demonstration that day.

Revolution was in the air.

J. Butler Wright, an American diplomat, noted the shifts taking place. “The Cossacks are again patrolling the city on account of threatened strikes – for the women are beginning to rebel at standing in bread lines from 5.00 A.M for shops that open at 10:00 A.M., and that in weather twenty-five degrees below zero.” One tsarist official informed his superiors at the end of January that it was women, “mothers of families, who are exhausted by the endless standing in line at the stores [are] a store of combustible material. One spark will be enough for a conflagration to blaze up.” Another American, photographer Donald Thompson, saw “dozens of machine-guns” had appeared on the roofs of Petrograd buildings during the night of February 22nd.

Nevertheless, the women persisted.

Two things happened simultaneously: in one part of town, as observed by Thompson and his colleague Florence Harper, a large crowd gathered at the Field of Mars, the drill ground and site of military memorials; in the Vyborg district, women textile workers downed tools and left their factories, taking to the streets.

The gathering crowd at Field of Mars, which governor of Petrograd A.P. Balk described as “ladies from society, lots more peasant women, student girls and, compared with the earlier demonstrations, not many workers”, was a planned demonstration for International Working Women’s Day. Historian Helen Rappaport described the scene: “Although some carried banners with traditional suffrage slogans, such as ‘Hail, women fighters for freedom’ and ‘A place for women in the Constituent Assembly’, others bore improvised placards referring to the food crisis ‘Increase rations for soldiers’ families’, or even more openly revolutionary calls for an end to the war – and the monarchy” (49). The striking women of the factories were calling for similar demands across the river: “Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!”

Field of Mars: Thompson and Harper watch as several men and women are hoisted onto the shoulders of their comrades, shouting, ‘Let’s stop talking and act.’ Some of the women began signing the Marseillaise, that song of the French Revolution which had embedded itself in the heart of socialists the world over. “It was a queer Russian version that one couldn’t quite recognize at first,” said Florence Harper. “I have heard the ‘Marseillaise’ sung many times, but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be. [T]he people there were the same classes and were singing it for the same reason as the French who first sang it over a hundred years ago.”

Vyborg district: women in the streets call for reinforcements, and refuse to be ignored. They called upon other women, and men, to join them. They threw snowballs, sticks, and stones at windows, calling for solidarity and action. I.M. Gordienko, a worker at the Nobel factory and a Bolshevik, recalled: “Masses of militant women workers flooded the narrow street. Those who noticed us began to wave their hands and shouted, ‘Come on out! Down your tools!’ Snowballs were thrown through windows. We decided to join the demonstration. […] The women workers greeted the Nobel’s workers with shouts of ‘Hooray!’” And the men did join them, from factories across Petrograd, everyone fed up with the war and the tsar, calling for an end to both. One woman was arrested after shouting at police: “You don’t have long to enjoy yourselves – you’ll soon be hanging by your necks!”

No mere bread riot, this.

tdih-march08-HD

Women of the February Revolution, carrying banners: “For a Raise in the Allotment of Soldiers, Defenders of Freedom and the People’s Peace” and “Feed the Children of the Defenders of the Motherland”

The women in the Vyborg district were ready to head into the city, but they faced opposition, first from their male comrades who said “it is not the business of babas [women]”, and then from police who closed the bridges in an effort to keep them from crossing. But it was still winter in Petrograd, and so they crossed the frozen Neva on foot. “In skirmishes with police and troops, some were killed, buried in common graves, their names unrecorded” (Midwives, 125). The women needed more bodies in their ranks, and more power on their side. So they turned their attention to the tram systems, and to the soldiers.

The war had depleted the stock of able-bodied men, and so women had largely taken over the running of the Petrograd tram system. And these women, as overworked, underpaid, and underfed as their counterparts in the textile factories, had had enough and were ready to take a stand. One, “who admitted that she feared the outcome of the demonstration…recalled that she shouted along with the rest ‘Down with the tsar!’” She did not know what would replace the tsar, but she knew the time had come. Another tram conductor, Alexandra Rodionova, recalled her excitement: “I yelled ‘Down with the tsar!’ and it seemed to me that I had lost touch with solid ground and flew in giddy uncertainty. Yes, I had participated in many strikes and demonstrations. But this had happened secretly; I had never taken a clear political position. And suddenly, all at once, the unknown future became real.” When the conductors had joined the crowd, the women took to destroying the trams to be used as barricades against the police, forcing them to stop, evacuating passengers, throwing control handles into the snow and tipping the cars ‘until the blocked cars extended all the way along the Sadovaya to the Nevsky Prospekt’, barricading themselves against the police and troops which would be sent to disperse them. And the passengers, including one of wounded soldiers and nurses, joined in, singing the Marseillaise along with the crowd.

Harper and Thompson continued watching the crowd, now about 90,000 strong, albeit from a safe distance. “The singing by this time had become a deep roar,” according to Thompson, “terrifying, but at the same time fascinating.”

Winning over the soldiers was the next step, and one which was made surprisingly easy by the groundwork done by revolutionaries, especially women, and by the war itself. Many of the men stationed in the capital had come from the countryside as reserves to bolster the dwindling wartime supply; many of the factory women had also come from the countryside, seeking higher pay or war work. Their shared background worked in the women’s favor, for they were able to convince the men not to shoot at their own folk. The working women showed the soldiers that their struggles were mutual ones. Over the course of the week, allegiances began to shift.

“Zhenia Egorova, secretary for the Bolshevik Party in the Vyborg district, agitated among the soldiers, appealing to them to disobey orders to shoot down the demonstrators. The women tried to separate the men from their officers [who] dismissed the women with the insulting term ‘baba’ (which might be translated as ‘old hag’ in this context), but the women refused to give way, and insisted that the be seen as human beings with legitimate concerns for their brothers, fathers and sons serving at the front. Much to the women’s initial amazement, the Cossacks listened to them and refused to obey orders to fire, lowering their rifles instead and lading their horses away from the crowds.” (Midwives, 153-154)

In Petrograd, Zhenya Egorova (born Ella Lepin) distributed leaflets and organized meetings of soldiers within their barracks. (At age 25, she had been a Bolshevik for six years and had already spent a year in Siberia.) Even in Moscow, as things gained momentum, Maria Kostelovskaya, another Bolshevik, assembled twenty-five soldiers with whom she occupied a printing house. There was no underestimating the strategic power of a sympathetic army. And the women had ensured the support was on their side. “On the eve of International Women’s Day, armed soldiers stood outside the depots; by the end of 23 February, they had joined the workers inside” (Midwives, 152).

Meanwhile, in the enclaves of the revolutionary underground, there was chaos and confusion. Their dismissal of women as agents of political change meant they had neither expected the women to rise up so swiftly, coherently, or successfully. They were now left chasing their tails, trying desperately to figure out how to capitalize on an event they had neither the foresight to prepare for by a demographic they now had to begrudgingly respect.

As night fell the crowds dispersed, driven indoors by the cold, but ready now to prepare for the trials ahead. There were skirmishes along the way; bakeries and grocery stores were broken into and looted in a desperate search for bread, and the police, rapidly losing their authority, clashed with protesters several more times before the night was over. But the people of Petrograd, and soon much of Russia, led by the women, had had their baptism of fire, and were galvanized by it. In the words of McDermid and Hillyar,

“Thus women workers and housewives, who were not considered politically conscious enough to be able to lead or organize themselves without male help and guidance, had brought the city’s factories and essential services to a standstill and sown confusion in the military garrison. Within three days, there was a general strike, the army had mutinied and gone over to the revolution and tsarism had collapsed.” (154)

There is much to be said of the aftermath, of course, and it is nearly impossible to analyze the February Revolution objectively in the twenty-first century. But the February Revolution is an enduring reminder of the power of masses of mobilized women, a lesson which is as prescient today as then, one hundred years on. If there is change we want, on local, national, or global levels, then we must act. And as the women of Petrograd showed, solidarity is key.

Happy International Women’s Day. Let’s get to work.

 

 

*Joseph Verey, “Vera Sassulitch” (1880)

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Author:

Doctoral researcher and writer, currently researching women of the Russian revolutionary movement.

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