The first day of the Russian Revolution – March 8 (February 23 in the old Russian calendar) – was International Women’s Day, an important day on the socialist calendar. At noon that day in 1917, tens of thousands of women, mostly women, were gathering on Nevsky Prospekt, the main avenue in the center of the Russian capital, Petrograd, and banners began to appear.
The slogans on the banners were patriotic but also forcefully demanded change: “Feeding the children of defenders of the fatherland,” it read; another said: “Complete the ration of the families of the soldiers, defenders of the freedom and peace of the people.”
The crowds of protesters were varied. The city’s governor, AP Balk, said they were “society ladies, many more peasant women, students and, compared to previous protests, not many workers”. The revolution was started by women, not by men.
In the afternoon, the mood began to change when female textile workers on the Vyborg side of town went on strike to protest the bread shortage. Joined by their men, they swelled the crowds on the Nevsky, where the cries of “Bread!” and “Down with the Tsar!” By late afternoon, 100,000 workers had gone on strike and clashes erupted with police as workers attempted to cross the Liteiny Bridge, connecting the Vyborg side with the city center. Most were dispersed by the police but several thousand crossed the icy Neva (risky at -5°C) and some, angered by the fighting, began to loot shops en route to the Nevsky.
The Balk Cossacks struggled to clear the crowds on the Nevsky. They rode towards the demonstrators, only to stop short and retreat. Later it emerged that they were mostly young reservists who had no experience in crowd management. By oversight, they had not been provided with the whips used by the Cossacks to disperse the civilian crowds. This weakness emboldened the workers to go out in even greater numbers the following days.
On February 24, no fewer than 150,000 workers took to the streets. They marched from industrial areas, crossed bridges and occupied the Nevsky, looting shops and overturning trams and cars. There were fights with the police and the Cossacks on the bridges. By mid-afternoon the crowd on the Nevsky was swelled with students, shopkeepers, office workers and spectators. Balk described the crowd as “made up of ordinary people”.
Historians have long argued over whether these protests were spontaneous or organized by revolutionaries. My own view is that they were more spontaneous than organized, but had their own internal organization in the form of anonymous crowd members shouting directions. Then there is the political topography of Petrograd – defined by the bridges, the Nevsky, Znamenskaya Square, the Tauride Palace or seat of the Duma – which determines the movements of the crowds.
On February 24, Znamenskaya Square became the center of attention, as a large gathering gathered there in the afternoon. The huge equestrian statue of Alexander III – symbol of an irremovable autocracy popularly nicknamed “the Hippopotamus” – was conquered by revolutionary orators, who gave their speeches there, calling for the fall of the monarchy. Few people in the huge crowd could hear what they were saying, but that didn’t matter: people knew what they wanted to hear and the mere sight of this act of free speech – given and with the knowledge of the police – was enough to confirm in their belief that a “revolution” is underway. Later that evening, after the crowd had finally dispersed, police found the word “Hippopotamus” carved into the base of the statue.
Orlando Figes is the author of A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution. A new edition marking the centenary of the revolution is available now