Many people don’t know that the Russian revolution, like the French revolution and so many others, was initially led by women. Demanding bread and herrings, it was working class women who filled the streets of Petrograd early in 1917, looting small shops and wrecking tramcars to protest that they and their children were starving. From such small beginnings grew the greatest revolution in history. Within months, women’s revolutionary spirit had set in motion a chain of events which, by November 1918, had culminated in the end of the slaughter of World War I. International Women’s day 2017 will be the centenary of this women’s initiative.
In Petrograd in 1917, 55 per cent of the labour force consisted of unskilled women working mainly in the textile industries. After 11 or 12 hour shifts, these women would return home to wash, mend, take care of children and try to find food. They would join their mothers, sisters and daughters forced by hunger to queue for hours on end for bread, often mingling there with slightly more prosperous women of the artisan class who would shop in the same markets and queue for the same food. Since so many men had been killed or wounded or were still serving at the front, these women felt particular economic responsibilities for their families and children. The bread queues, along which news spread like wildfire and networks quickly formed, would prove to be incubators of revolution.
The Vyborg District of Petrograd was connected by a bridge across the Neva River to the Winter Palace, the Admiralty, and army headquarters. Their closeness to the centres of power gave the women who lived and worked here a sense that they knew personally about the politics of the Russian state, with news of scandals, corruption, profiteering and artificial shortages quickly spreading and inflaming passions.
On International Women’s Day, February 23, 1917, the militant women of the Vyborg organized a strike in the textile mills. From their workplaces, the strikers marched to the bakery queues. Singing revolutionary songs, they would ransack bakeries and grocery shops, then march off to throw snowballs at factory windows where their male relatives and comrades were still at work, urging them to down tools and join in. Together, huge crowds of men and women marched down the Bolshoi Prospekt, where members of the nobility, merchants and government officials had their homes. Next day, women marched from the suburbs to the Tauride Gardens in front of the Duma, seizing food as they went, looting stores held by known speculators and redistributing their booty on the spot.
It needs to be remembered that from the start, this women’s action had been taken in the teeth of opposition from all the main political parties in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks included. The mostly male-dominated unions and socialist organizations had explicitly opposed the women’s decision to launch their strike on International Women’s Day. One reason was that they were planning to demonstrate in an organized way on International Labour Day, May 1st, and did not want premature actions or distractions.
Fortunately, the majority of working class women did not belong to the unions or feel loyalty to any political group and so went ahead regardless. By the third day of the city wide strikes, the demand for bread was already being eclipsed by outright demands for the overthrow of Tsarism and an end to the war.
On February 25, two days after the outbreak of the women’s strike, the Tsar telegraphed General S. S. Kabalov of the Petrograd Military District, ordering him to shoot in order to end the women’s rebellion. Under the circumstances, Kabalov felt unsure about whether shooting women would work. The next day, the police finally did fire into the crowds, but this only provoked people to start setting fire to police stations. The tide turned when the Cossacks refused to obey an order from the Tsar to cut the women down. By February 27, almost the entire working class had taken to the streets, surrounding lines of soldiers and urging them to hold their fire and join the revolt, now directed not only against food shortages but against the war. Within hours, the troops had mutinied all over Petrograd, prompting the abdication of the Tsar.
We sometimes feel that strikes, marches and protests can’t really change anything. Often, this is true. But on this year’s International Women’s Day, let’s remember the moment when women really did change the world.
Dulwich and West Norwood CLP