The Story of the February Revolution

Russian workers went on strike on International Women’s Day 1917. They ended up toppling tsarism.

by Kevin Murphy

That the most important strike in world history started with women textile workers in Petrograd on International Women’s Day 1917 (February 23 in the old Julian calendar) was no coincidence. Working up to thirteen hours a day while their husbands and sons were at the front, these women were saddled with a life of singlehandedly supporting their families and waiting in line for hours in the subzero cold in hopes of getting bread. As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa states in his definitive study of the February Revolution, “No propaganda was necessary to incite these women to action.”


Russia’s deep social crisis stemmed from the tsarist regime’s failure to enact any meaningful reforms and the economic chasm between the wealthy and the rest of Russian society. Russia was ruled by an autocrat, Tsar Nicholas II, who repeatedly dismissed the Duma, a powerless electoral body that by law was dominated by men of property.


On the eve of the war, strike activity rivaled that of the 1905 Revolution and workers erected barricades on the streets of the capital. The war gave tsarism a temporary reprieve, but mounting military defeats and some seven million casualties brought unprecedented accusations of regime corruption from virtually every section of society. So deep was the rot that the future prime minister, Prince Lvov, led a conspiracy — though without taking action — to deport the tsar and incarcerate the tsarina in a monastery. Rasputin, a charlatan monk who had gained enormous influence in the tsar’s court, was murdered not by anarchists but by monarchists in December 1916.

On the Left, the Bolsheviks were the dominant force in a wider milieu of revolutionaries leading the largest strike wave in world history (the pro-war segments of moderate socialists often refrained from strike action).


For years they’d battled tsarism. Thirty political strikes had been launched in the half-decade since the 1912 Lena Goldfield massacre of 270 workers, and they’d braved round after round of tsarist secret police (Okhrana) arrests. The breakdown of arrested revolutionaries in 1915 and 1916 registers the relative strength of the Left in Petrograd: Bolsheviks 743, non-party 553, Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) 98, Mensheviks, 79, Mezhraionsty 51, anarchists 39. With some six hundred Bolshevik members in metal, engineering, and textile factories in Vyborg, the district was by far the most militant throughout the war.


On January 9, 1917, the twelfth anniversary of the bloody Sunday massacre that sparked the 1905 Revolution, 142,000 workers struck. When the Duma opened on February 14, another 84,000 workers walked out, an action led by pro-war Mensheviks.


Mounting food shortages caused the government to conduct grain requisitioning in the countryside. As Petrograd bakeries closed and supplies dwindled to a several weeks’ supply, tsarist authorities exacerbated the crisis by claiming there were no shortages. The Okhrana reported numerous clashes between police and working women on Petrograd bread lines. Mothers “watching their half-starving and sick children are perhaps much closer to the revolution than Messrs. Miliukov, Rodichev and Co. and of course they are much more dangerous.”


On February 22, the Bolshevik Kaiurov addressed a Vyborg women’s meeting, urging women not to strike on International Women’s Day and to listen to “the instructions of the party.” Much to Kaiurov’s chagrin — he would later write that he was “indignant” that Bolshevik women ignored party directives — five textile mills struck the next morning.


Women instigators in the Neva Thread Mills shouted, “Into the streets! Stop! We’ve had it!” pushed the doors open, and led hundreds of women to nearby metal and engineering works. Pelting the Nobel Engineering factory with snowballs, throngs of women convinced workers there to join, waving their arms and yelling, “Come Out! Stop Work!” Women also marched to Erikson works, where Kaiurov and other Bolsheviks met briefly with factory SRs and Mensheviks and unanimously decided to convince other workers to join.


Police reported crowds of women and younger workers demanding “Bread” and singing revolutionary songs. Women grabbed red banners from men during the march: “It’s our holiday. We’ll carry the banners.” At Liteinyi Bridge, despite repeated charges by the demonstrators, police blocked them from marching to the city center. By late afternoon hundreds of workers crossed the ice and were attacked by police. In the center “one thousand, predominantly women and youths” reached Nevsky Prospect but were dispersed. The Okhrana reported that demonstrations were so provocative that it was “necessary to reinforce police details everywhere.”


Sixty thousand of the 78,000 strikers were from the Vyborg district. Although anti-war and anti-tsar slogans were raised, the most prominent demand was for bread. Indeed, tsarist authorities considered this just yet another bread riot, although they were alarmed at the hesitation of their trusted Cossack troops to charge the demonstrators. That night, Vyborg Bolsheviks met and voted to organize a three-day general strike with marches to Nevsky.


The next day, the strike movement doubled to 158,000, making it the largest political strike of the war. Seventy-five thousand Vyborg workers struck, as did twenty thousand each from the Petrograd, Vassilevski, and Moscow districts, plus nine thousand from Narva. Working-class youth street fighters took the lead, battling police and troops at bridges and for control of Nevsky in the city center.


At the Aviaz factory, Menshevik and SR speakers called for the removal of the government, pleaded with workers not to engage in irresponsible acts, and urged them to march to the Tauride Palace, where Duma members desperately tried to persuade tsarism to make concessions. Bolsheviks in Erikson implored workers to march to the Kazan square and to arm themselves with knives, hardware, and ice for the impending battles with police.


A mass of 40,000 demonstrators fought police and soldiers on the Liteinyi Bridge, but were again rebuffed. 2,500 Erikson workers were confronted by Cossacks on Sampsonievsky Prospect. Officers charged through the crowd, but the Cossacks followed cautiously through the corridor just opened by the officers. “Some of them smiled,” Kaiurov recalls, “and one of them gave the workers a good wink.” In many places women took the initiative: “We have husbands, fathers, and brothers at the front . . . you too have mothers, wives, sisters, children. We are demanding bread and an end to the war.”


Demonstrators made no attempt to fraternize with the hated police. Youths stopped street cars, sang revolutionary songs, and threw ice and bolts at the police. After several thousand workers crossed the ice, fierce battles raged between the demonstrators and police for control of Nevsky. Meanwhile, workers managed to hold rallies at the traditional revolutionary sites of Kazan and at the famous “hippopotamus” statue of Alexander III in Znamenskaya Square. The demands became more political as speakers not only demanded bread but also denounced the war and autocracy.


On the 25th, the strike became general, with over 240,000 factory workers joined by office workers, teachers, waiters and waitresses, university students, and even high school students. Cab drivers vowed they would only drive the “leaders” of the revolt.


Again workers began by rallying at their factories. At a boisterous Parvianen Factory meeting in Vyborg, Bolshevik, Menshevik, and SRs orators urged workers to march to Nevsky. One speaker ended with the revolutionary verse: “Out of the way, obsolete world, rotten from top to bottom. Young Russia is on the march!”


Demonstrators engaged in seventeen violent clashes with the police, and soldiers and workers managed to free comrades grabbed by the police. Rebels gained the upper hand, overwhelming tsarist forces on many bridges or crossing the ice to the center. Taking control of Nevsky, demonstrators again rallied at Znamenskaia. Police and Cossacks whipped the crowd, but when the police chief charged he was cut down — by a Cossack saber. Women workers again played a crucial role: “Put down your bayonets,” they urged. “Join us.”


By evening, the Vyborg side was controlled by the rebels. Demonstrators had sacked the police stations, captured revolvers and sabers from tsarist sentinels, and forced the police and gendarmes to flee.


The rebellion pushed Tsar Nicholas II to the brink. “I command the disorders in the capital end tomorrow,” he proclaimed, and ordered the commander of the Petrograd garrison, Khabalov, to disperse crowds with firepower. Khabalov was skeptical (“How could they be stopped the next day?”), but accepted the directive. At city hall, the minister of interior, Protopopov, urged the autocracy’s defenders to suppress the disorders: “Pray and hope for victory,” he said. Early the next morning, proclamations were posted banning demonstrations and warning that the edict would be enforced with arms.


Early on Sunday the 26th, police arrested the core of the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee and other socialists. Factories were closed, bridges were raised, and the city center was transformed into an armed camp. Khabalov telegraphed headquarters that “it has been quiet in city since morning.” Shortly after this report thousands of workers crossed the ice and appeared on Nevsky singing revolutionary songs and shouting slogans, but soldiers systematically fired on them.


Detachments from Volynsky Regiment were tasked with preventing rallies in Znamenskaya Square. Mounted patrols whipped the crowd, but failed to disperse them. The commander then ordered troops to fire. Although some soldiers shot into the air, fifty demonstrators were killed in and around Znamenskaya, and dispersed workers hid inside houses and rushed into cafes. Most of the slaughter was carried out by crack loyalist units used to train noncommissioned officers.

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