Tuesday, March 7, 2017

100 years of the outbreak of the Russian Revolution March 8 (February 23), International Women's Day

March 8 (February 23 by the old Russian calendar) marks the centenary of the overthrow of the tsarist government in Russia, that began on International Women's Day. Mass demonstrations by women workers defied the troops and brought about the desertion of the Petrograd garrison and the downfall of the centuries old Tsarist empire..
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World War I had lasted 31 long months by February, 1917. Russian soldiers were being killed in mass, and bread lines at home were growing longer everyday. Peasants who had been sent to war lost their land by the expropriations of the kulaks, who by 1917 owned 90% of Russia's arable land. Food prices were thus on the rise: In 1916, food prices accelerated three times higher than wages, despite bumper harvests in both 1915 and 1916. The price of grain in 1916, already at two and a half rubles per pud, kulaks anticipated to raise up to twenty five rubles per pud. Hoping to raise prices, kulaks hoarded their food surplus.

Throughout 1916, the average urban labourer, mostly women, ate between 200 and 300 grams of food a day. In 1917, the tsarist government permitted the urban populations of Russia to buy only one pound of bread per adult, per day. In practice, workers sometimes went days without food. Strikes became commonplace.

On the morning of February 23, International Women's Day, "overcoming the resistance of their own revolutionary organisations, the initiative taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat – [by] women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers' wives. The overgrown breadlines had provided the last stimulus. About 90,000 workers, men and women, were on strike that day. The fighting mood expressed itself in demonstrations, meetings, encounters with the police. The movement began in the Vyborg district with its large industrial establishments; thence it crossed over to the Petersburg side. There were no strikes or demonstrations elsewhere, according to the testimony of the secret police. On that day detachments of troops were called in to assist the police – evidently not many of them – but there were no encounters with them. 

A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal duma demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat. Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, and inscriptions on them showed that the workers wanted bread, but neither autocracy nor war. Woman's Day passed successfully, with enthusiasm and without victims. But what it concealed in itself, no one had guessed even by nightfall.


On the following day the movement not only fails to diminish, but doubles. About one-half of the industrial workers of Petrograd are on strike on the 24th of February. The workers come to the factories in the morning; instead of going to work they hold meetings; then begin processions toward the centre. New districts and new groups of the population are drawn into the movement. The slogan "Bread!" is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: "Down with autocracy!" "Down with the war!" Continuous demonstrations on the Nevsky – first compact masses of workmen singing revolutionary songs, later a motley crowd of city folk interspersed with the blue caps of students. 

"The promenading crowd was sympathetically disposed toward us, and soldiers in some of the war-hospitals greeted us by waving whatever was at hand." How many clearly realised what was being ushered in by this sympathetic waving from sick soldiers to demonstrating workers? But the Cossacks constantly, though without ferocity, kept charging the crowd. Their horses were covered with foam. The mass of demonstrators would part to let them through, and close up again. There was no fear in the crowd. "The Cossacks promise not to shoot," passed from mouth to mouth. Apparently some of the workers had talks with individual Cossacks. Later, however, cursing. half-drunken dragoons appeared on the scene. They plunged into the crowd, began to strike at heads with their lances. The demonstrators summoned all their strength and stood fast. They won't shoot." And in fact they didn't... https://www.marxists.org/glossary/events/f/e.htm


A meeting of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies, April 1917. © BETTMANN/CORBIS
A meeting of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies, April 1917