In this first of two extracts of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917, Judy Cox describes how the unnamed, uncredited women of Russia were at the forefront of the February Revolution in 1917


Judy Cox, The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Counterfire 2017)

Nicolai Sukharnov, a prominent socialist, was in Petrograd in February 1917. He overheard two female typists talking about the anger of the women queuing for bread in the snow. They concluded that a revolution was beginning. Sukharnov dismissed them as ‘philistine girls’. ‘Revolution – highly improbable! Revolution – everyone knew this was only a dream!’ Yet the ‘girls’ were right and the experienced revolutionary was wrong. On International Women’s Day, the anger of the women queuing for food coalesced with the grievances of women in the factories and exploded onto the streets of St Petersburg. The women ignited the February Revolution and unleashed a huge social movement. Within a few weeks, the Tsar had been forced to abdicate in favour of the Provisional Government, which was to rule until elections could be organised. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of workers and soldiers created a movement capable of running society for themselves through their own democratic councils, or soviets.

The February Revolution is often portrayed as a spontaneous, leaderless revolution; a revolution started accidently by women who only cared about providing for their families. These women were just too emotional and ill-disciplined to listen to the seasoned socialists who advised patience and caution: their very courage is cited as evidence of their lack of political understanding. As Trotsky described it, those who opposed the revolution were keen to prove that it was merely, ‘a petticoat rebellion, backed up afterwards by a soldiers’ mutiny’ masquerading as a revolution. Historian after historian proclaimed that the masses moved by themselves, that there were no leaders, only threatening elements. The secret police noted that the February Revolution was not directed by leaders from above, but they also noted the ‘generally propagandised condition of the proletariat’.

That propaganda did not appear from thin air; it was written, published and distributed. Trotsky described how unnamed, unacknowledged leaders among the working classes nourished themselves on fragments of revolutionary propaganda and dissected the liberal press: ‘In every factory, in each guild, in each company, in each tavern, in the military hospital, at the transfer stations, even in the depopulated villages, the molecular work of revolutionary thought was in progress’. Politicised workers led the February Revolution and women were in the forefront both in the workplaces and in the Bolshevik Party. Focusing on the role of female Bolsheviks reveals how revolutionaries did help both to ignite the February Revolution and to sustain that revolution through to its victory in October. Women were part of the revolutionary process from the beginning and did not retreat into the background after the overthrow of the Tsar.

In February 1917, the working women of the militant Vyborg District of Petrograd were planning to mark International Women’s Day with street protests and strikes. The Bolshevik Party, whose leadership was still largely in exile, advised caution. The party wanted the women to wait and to ‘stir the masses to boiling point’ for a general strike on May Day. International Women’s Day had only been celebrated for two years and had always been a relatively small event in Russia. The Vyborg District of St Petersburg was home to many engineering plants and textile factories, and to a strong revolutionary tradition. The night before International Women’s Day, a skilled metal worker and experienced Bolshevik, Kayurov, was sent to talk to the women. ‘I endeavoured first and foremost to urge the women to refrain from any abortive deeds and to act only upon the instructions given by the party Committee’, Kayurov recalled. The women told him they had run out of patience: their husbands were dying at the front and their children were hungry. The next day he learnt with ‘astonishment’ and ‘indignation’ that the women had ignored his advice and had gone out on strike. They downed tools and faced down the men who told them that protest was ‘not the business of Babas.’ Some 900,000 workers joined them on strike on the first day.

This is the conventional view of the February Revolution: militant but unpolitical women stirred things up and forced a reluctant Bolshevik Party to back their strikes. The argument between Kayurov and the women is taken as proof that the women acted instinctively and without political strategy. ‘If future historians look for the groups that began the Russian Revolution, let him not create any involved theory. The Russian Revolution was begun by hungry women and children demanding ‘bread and herrings’,diarist Pitirim Sorokin wrote.

In fact, food was itself a deeply political issue. The Bolsheviks had long campaigned to channel anger over food shortages and high prices in a socialist direction. In 1915 the Bolsheviks published a pamphlet, The War and the High Cost of Living, which linked hunger, war and Tsarism. ‘They drove our sons, brothers and husbands away to war, and deprived us of bread’, the pamphlet proclaimed. An official of the Petrograd District Court testified that the workers on the streets on 23 February were organised around slogans from the Bolsheviks’ pamphlet. The pamphlet ended with a call for workers to take to the streets with the red banners of insurrection – exactly what they did in February 1917. The Bolshevik organisation in Russia was not a homogenous, centralised party. Some leaders inside Russia argued for caution, while party activists were fermenting revolt. The women had listened to the Bolsheviks’ arguments and were prepared to act on them, even though party leaders thought the right moment had not yet come.

Judy Cox

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.