In this second book extract of The Women's Revolution: Russia 1905-1917, Judy Cox describes the involvement and militancy of women during the October Revolution and the Civil War.
By October 1917, some 30,000 women had joined the Bolsheviks. When the party demanded that all power be transferred to the soviets, these women responded. They helped to make the October Revolution and sustain it through the Civil War. The revolution intensified the Bolshevik Party’s long-standing practice of involving women in all its activities. The underground years had bred egalitarianism. ‘The revolutionary year 1917 was so filled with general ideas of freedom that it quickly became a point of official pride with the Bolsheviks that they had so many women working in their organisation’. Bolsheviks campaigned for women’s rights amongst male workers and fought to have female representatives in workplaces where women were a significant presence. The experienced female revolutionaries were able to interact with newly politicised women.
One example was Anna Litveiko, who began work aged 12 and, despite being young, chased her abusive and violent father out of the family home. She heard a Menshevik speaker at her factory but found him too moderate, noting that Menshevik speakers were all intellectuals while the Bolsheviks were workers. She was elected to her factory committee where she met a Bolshevik, Natasha Bogacheva and in 1917, she joined the Bolshevik Party herself. When a foreman at the factory burnt a woman with an iron rod, the women called a meeting, dumped him in a wheelbarrow and drove him out of the factory. During October, Anna and Natasha were active in the revolution, carrying weapons around the city and carrying the wounded to medical points. Other left groups considered women like Anna to be too young to have serious political convictions. Only the Bolsheviks encouraged them to read and to overcome their fear of public speaking to take part in the soviets.
Beyond the new government, thousands of women threw themselves into supporting the October Revolution. Women were inspired to become revolutionary leaders in the wider movement, among workers and soldiers. One such woman was Rosalya Zemliachka. She came from a radical Jewish family and she was only 15 when she was arrested for the first time. She became a Marxist in 1896 and remained active in the Bolshevik underground until 1917. In February 1917, Zemliachka was the secretary of the Bolsheviks’ Moscow City Committee. This was no desk job. Zemliachka was a staunch supporter of Lenin and a determined political operator. When the Moscow Committee failed to back a seizure of power, Zemliachka and a group of her male comrades broke away and formed their own committee. The two groups came together in October when they defeated the Provisional Government’s troops in two days. After the civil war began, Zemliachka volunteered for service at the front and in August 1918 was sent to Belorussia to deal with troops refusing to fight for the Red Army. She gave a rousing speech and spent two weeks persuading the men to fight. Then they boarded the trains to the front. She later became the chief political officer of the Eighth Army in Ukraine. She was a leader who commanded loyalty and respect, and she proved to be a ruthless opponent of the White Armies.
Radicalisation in the army meant that soldiers could be won to socialism by female agitators. By April 1917, Alexandra Kollontai was one of the most popular and prominent Bolsheviks in Petrograd. She was presented to a meeting of soldiers and asked them to delegate her to represent them at the Petrograd Soviet. It took the soldiers a day to get over their shock at being asked to delegate a female Bolshevik; then they voted for her. Liudmilla Stal spent most of 1917 at the naval base of Kronstadt, winning sailors and sailors’ wives to socialism. The men would immediately be called on to defend their revolution. The revolutionary regime was attacked by White Armies and foreign powers; the ensuing civil war led to the deaths of some ten million Russians.
A significant number of women joined the Red Army. While men were forcibly conscripted for service in the civil war, women were not required to participate. Nevertheless, they did, in large numbers. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 women had joined the Red Army by 1920, making up two percent of the overall armed forces. A few women emerged as military leaders. One was Eugenya Bosh. She joined the Bolsheviks in 1901. In 1906, she packed up her daughters, left a note for her husband and headed for Kiev, where she became secretary of the Russian Social Democratic Group before she was arrested and exiled to Siberia. She escaped abroad, returning to Russia after the February Revolution. In October 1917, Bosh got permission to address a regiment of soldiers stationed in a town in central Ukraine. They were known as ‘The Wild Division’, and when she arrived they were armed and had been drinking heavily. Undaunted, Bosh spoke for two hours as she explained the need to replace the failing Provisional Government with a soviet government. When she eventually left, their band rushed to find their instruments so that they could see her off in style. A month later the Chief of Staff wrote, expressing the antisemitism which was all too common among army officers, that ‘Agitators, such as the Jewess Bosh, have contaminated all the units of the regiment’. Bosh’s ability to convince the soldiers that their future lay with socialism was more powerful than the prejudices many must have held against her. The Chief of Staff recognised how dangerous this was for the old order, which had relied for so long on antisemitism and sexism to keep the working class divided and weak.
Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.