Wives of soldiers demand increased rations during a demonstration along Nevsky Prospekt after the observance of International Women’s Day, February 23, 1917. (Photo by K. Bulla. Courtesy of Central Archives of the State of Kino-Photo-Phono documents, St. Petersburg.)
The centenary of the Russian revolution
November 7, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the world’s first socialist state. To commemorate the occasion, People’s World presents a series of articles that present broad assessments of the legacy of the revolution, of the Soviet Union and the global communist movement that grew out of it, and of the revolution’s relevance to radical politics today. Proposals for contributions are welcome and should be emailed to [email protected]. Other articles in the series can be read here.
The centenary of the Russian Revolution in 2017 has generated a lot of interest, not all of which is helpful or enlightening. However, one aspect of the two 1917 revolutions that has been almost completely ignored is the role of women.
The commonly held view is that Russian women featured only twice in 1917. The first time, in Petrograd on February 23, as harbingers of the revolution that established the Provisional Government which took over after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.
The second time, bourgeois women played a reactionary role as part of a battalion defending the Winter Palace, the seat of government, against an attack by Lenin’s Bolsheviks on October 25.
These two events happened, but citing them only lazily does no justice to the extremely important role of women throughout the revolutionary process as “midwives of the revolution” – to quote the title of The book by Jane McDermid and Anna Hilyar. They were present at birth and played a crucial role in the final stages of childbirth. Moreover, they played a vital role in the defense of the revolution during the Russian Civil War of 1919-20.
To appreciate the role of women, one must go back to the 1905 revolution in Russia when the women’s movement took off with the formation of the League for Women’s Equality.
Like many similar organizations in Europe at the time, this one focused on women’s suffrage and included mostly bourgeois women. However, Clara Zetkin in Germany understood that women were divided along class lines and recognized the need for working class women to fight for themselves. As she said in 1907 at the International Conference of Socialist Women in Stuttgart, “class contradictions exclude the possibility of working women becoming allies of the bourgeois feminist movement.
“It does not mean that they reject bourgeois feminists if these, in the struggle for universal female suffrage, were to stand by their side to fight the common enemy on different fronts.”
This message was echoed in Russia by Konkordiya Samoilava, Alexandra Kollontai and many other Bolshevik women who, in 1907, formed the Working Women’s Mutual Assistance Center to spread socialist ideas among working-class women, to encourage women to join the now legal trade unions, and also to ensure that the socialist movement does not continue to ignore women’s issues.
Although International Women’s Day was inaugurated in 1910, it was not celebrated in Russia until 1913.
Lenin actively supported the campaign among working women and was among those who advocated the publication of a new newspaper, Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker), first published in 1914.
The outbreak of World War I that year was a major brake on the activities of the labor movement and, as elsewhere in Europe, deepened left/right divisions among socialists.
This was very apparent in Russia where the Russian Social Democratic and Labor Party (RSDLP) had already split in 1903 into Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) factions; but the division was even more irreconcilably bitter given the latter’s support for the war, in contrast to the popular anti-war policy of the Bolsheviks.
The issue of support against opposition to the war also deepened class divisions in the already fractured women’s movement.
The bourgeois feminist movement supported the war, while working class women, influenced by their Bolshevik sisters, increasingly opposed World War I.
In 1917, large numbers of women worked in factories, both in munitions and to replace male conscripts. On February 23, 1917 (March 8 in our modern Gregorian calendar), International Women’s Day was marked by strikes and huge protests by women.
The Bolshevik newspaper Pravda reported that this led to the revolution: “…the first day of the revolution was Women’s Day…the women…decided the fate of the troops; they went to the barracks, talked to the soldiers, and the latter joined the revolution… Women, we salute you.
However, contrary to the traditional view, this was only the beginning of the involvement of working women in the revolutionary process. For bourgeois feminists, it was the end.
The latter strongly supported the new provisional government led first by Georgi Lvov and then by Alexander Kerensky and, although still campaigning for the vote, their main demand was “war for victory”.
It was from these pro-war women that the Women’s Battalion was formed to fight both the Germans and the Bolsheviks.
Working women at this time were totally opposed to war, government and the assumption that bourgeois women could speak for themselves. Thus, the strike continued, even among workers in the hard-to-organize services. For example, in March 1917, the laundry workers, led by a Bolshevik, Sofia Goncharskya, went on strike for four weeks.
In April 1917, 100,000 soldiers’ wives staged a march and demonstration to demand better rations and an end to the war. Kollontai addressed their gathering.
The Bolsheviks were heavily engaged in agitational work among women aided by the reappearance of the newspaper Rabotnitsa, which came out several times a month with a circulation of 40–50,000 copies. Nadezhda Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife) and Inessa Armand were on the editorial board.
Women workers were active in opposing General Lvar Kornilov’s military coup attempt in August; they helped build barricades and the “Red Sisters” organized medical assistance.
In September, Samoilava organized the first formal conference of women workers – it was reconvened after the October Revolution.
During and after the revolution, scores of women were enlisted as Red Guards in a variety of roles, including as combatants.
A testament to the importance of women in the revolutionary period, one of the socialist government’s first decrees after coming to power was the revision of the Family and Divorce Law in December 1917, substantiated less than a year later. over there Marriage and family code (October 1918). This encapsulated a revolutionary vision of social relations based on women’s equality.
The role of women in the Russian revolution is best summed up by Lenin who, in a conversation with Clara Zetkin in 1920, said: “The working women acted magnificently during the revolution. Without them, we would not have been victorious. Today, 100 years later, those words should be a salient reminder of the revolutionary role of women.