In this extract from his book A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, Neil Faulkner explains the significance of February 23, 1917 in the overthrow of the tsarist regime
NO-ONE expected it.
Lenin, in exile in Zurich, told a meeting of young socialists a month beforehand that: “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.”
No-one planned it or called for it. “Not one party was prepared for the great overturn,” wrote the Menshevik Sukhanov.
“The Revolution was a great and joyous surprise for us,” reported the Social-Revolutionary Zenzinov.
“Noone thought of such an imminent possibility of revolution,” recalled the Bolshevik Kayurov.
The day — International Women’s Day — was to be marked only by meetings, speeches, and leaflets. Even the Vyborg Committee of the Bolshevik Party in the heart of proletarian Petrograd opposed the call for strikes. The danger of a clash with the police, and a bloody defeat, was too great.
The revolutionaries were behind the curve. They had missed the meaning of January 9 (Julian calendar). On the anniversary of 1905’s Bloody Sunday massacre, 150,000 workers from 100 factories had come onto the streets of the capital. It had turned into a massive protest against war, inflation and low wages.
The Petrograd demonstration was mirrored elsewhere — 30,000 out in Moscow, 14,000 in the Baku oil fields, 10,000 in Kharkov in the Ukraine. The one-day protest had then turned into a strike wave, rolling on for weeks, gaining momentum.
By the end of January, a quarter of a million workers had taken action, the simple demand for bread mixing with political demands for an end to the war, the overthrow of the government, a second revolution.
But strikes sap the fighting power of the workers. The weapon had to be kept sharp. So no strikes had been called when February 23 dawned. The bread lines had already formed, many working women up since three, standing grim-faced in the bitter cold. It could take four hours to secure two rolls. Or it might take four hours to secure nothing as the “No More Bread” sign was posted. Then 12 hours in the mill or the metal-bashing shop.
The working women of Petrograd were doubly oppressed — ground down in the workplace by wretched conditions, long hours, and low pay; ground down at home by the toil and poverty of everyday existence.
Many were on their own, their brothers, husbands, and sons conscripted. Many were grey with hunger and exhaustion. Sometimes they would go two or three days without eating. Sometimes they would cross themselves and weep with joy when they managed to buy bread. When a loaf can induce tears, revolution is close.
It began in these lowest depths of proletarian Russia. Seven thousand low-paid women workers of the Vyborg district’s textile mills came onto the streets demanding “Bread.” They marched to neighbouring factories and called them out.
By 10am, 20,000 were on strike. By noon, 50,000. That afternoon, the numbers swelled further as men from the engineering factories joined them.
Before the day was out, 90,000 were involved and crowds of women and teenagers were smashing open the food shops in two districts of the city.
What did it mean? Noone could be sure. Less than a quarter of the city’s workers had taken part, and the action had been confined to the northern Vyborg and Petrograd Districts. In particular, the male engineering workers at the Putilov factory, 40,000 strong, the largest and most militant workforce in Russia, had not gone onto the streets. There had been no clashes, no casualties.
The authorities were well prepared should matters escalate. Under the overall authority of the Minister of the Interior, Alexander Protopopov, the city was divided into six police districts. Three lines of defence had been set up to deal with unrest: police, Cossacks, and the soldiers of the military garrison. The police were armed paramilitaries, most on foot, some mounted.
The Cossacks — traditional tsarist cavalry recruited from the minor gentry and rich peasants of the southern prairies — were armed with whips, sabres, pistols, and carbines. All told, there were 12,000 police and Cossacks. But if these failed, there were no less than 150,000 soldiers stationed in the city.
Neither the revolutionaries nor the authorities rated the events of February 23 much different from many others over the preceding six weeks.
The former still issued no calls to action. The latter took only limited security measures. Extra flour was sent to some of the large bakeries. Troops were deployed to guard key points across the city. Whips were issued to the Cossacks. That was all.
Most would probably have agreed with Zinaida Gippius, the avante-garde poet and hostess, who considered the day’s events just an “ordinary sort of hunger riot.” No-one had yet grasped the inner meaning of Women’s Day 1917.
A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, published by Pluto Press/ Left Book Club, price £11.50.