International Women’s Day and the February Revolution

by Richard Evans

International Women’s Day (always  on the 8th March) is the day of the beginning, in Russia, of the spontaneous uprising known as the ‘February Revolution’ (due to its date in the old Russian calendar). A hundred years ago today, the women of Petrograd (then the capital of Russia, now known as St Petersburg) came out onto the streets and were fired on by Tsarist troops, which sparked strikes and further demonstrations, leading to the abdication of the Tsar and power being transferred to the people of Russia.
The February revolution led to the formation of a republic with democratic rights, such as the freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and free speech. Restrictions on religion, class and race were removed. There was a general amnesty for political prisoners. The police were made accountable to local government and the penal system was overhauled. The death penalty was abolished. And preparations were made for the election of a Constituent Assembly with universal adult suffrage to draw up the constitution for the new democracy.
After a further insurrection on 7th November (known as the ‘October Revolution’ in the old style calendar) power was systematically taken away from the soviets (committees of workers, peasants and soldiers that had sprung up spontaneously in February) and the Constituent Assembly was forcibly disbanded, leading to an increasingly oppressive one-party dictatorship.
As always, there were benefits of party membership in a one-party state. In early 1918, Lenin had backed the plan for special closed restaurants for Bolsheviks in Petrograd and by 1921, party members had higher salaries, special rations, subsidised apartments and hotels, exclusive shops and hospitals, private dachas (country houses), chauffeured cars, and first class rail travel. 5,000 Bolsheviks and their families lived in the Kremlin and special party hotels in Moscow (the new capital). The Kremlin alone, had 2,000 service staff in its private quarters (in 1920, the domestic budget for these free services was higher than the budget for social welfare for the whole of Moscow). Top party leaders had their own use of landed estates, complete with servants (Lenin occupied the estate of General Morozov at Gorki and Trotsky had one that had belonged to the Yusupovs). And there was large scale corruption by party members, including the releasing prisoners for money and the selling of confiscated goods on the black market.
As a result there were widespread strikes and demonstrations. So, four years later, International Women’s Day was marked by the sailors and workers of Kronstadt (a hot-bed of Russian socialism) transmitting greetings to the women of the world as they were being attacked by the Red Army for trying to rescue the revolution from the brutal one-party dictatorship that was being consolidated by the Bolsheviks. It represented the last stand of the workers against the bureaucratic state that was to carry out horrific crimes in the name of socialism, over the next 70 years.
Some of the earliest critics of the moves towards the bureaucratic control of the Russian state were women. Alexandra Kollontai was a socialist feminist and leader of Workers’ Opposition, a faction of the Bolshevik Party formed in 1920 to fight against the growing bureaucracy and the exclusion of the trade unions in the running of their factories. Workers’ Opposition was banned in March 1921. And Rosa Luxemburg, who was born in Congress Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) wrote a masterpiece of criticism of the revolution in 1918, forty years before many socialists were able to see the problems of a dictatorship of one party.
Does this history have any relevance today outside Russia and Eastern Europe? Well only as a warning against vanguard parties and those who believe the hopes of the working class can be expressed within a monolithic organisation.

2 thoughts on “International Women’s Day and the February Revolution

  1. Joe Foster

    Just another article that takes a grain of truth and manages to turn it into a big lie. It would take more than a couple of paragraphs to reply to all of the points made by Richard Evans.

    But just as an example it is suggested that Lenin had access to his own private estate at Gorki. In fact Lenin as a result of attempted Assassination in 1918 still had a bullet lodged in him which resulted in deteriorating health and a stroke in 1922 leaving him paralysed on his right side. Occasionally he went there to convalesce and spent last 6 months of his life there.
    In fact Lenin forced into exile prior to revolution made sacrifices to finance Publications and the Bolshevik Party. Even after the revolution when offered a Salary increase in a letter to the office manager council of peoples commissars he writes “…Point out to me the justification for raising my salary from 500 to 800 Roubles a month and in view of the obvious illegality of this increase give you a severe reprimand”.

    As for Trotsky the Yusupovs estate (which became a hospital for Soldiers and later a sanatorium) was used to take foreign visitors briefly in his role as Foreign Minister. Also used as a place to issue military orders. After this as most know he was travelling around the country as Leader of the Red Army.

    It is suggested that Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolsheviks were just out to “Feather their own nests”. Speaking of “Feathering Nests” George Osborne wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes if he was a delegate of the Soviet. Imagine him saying “I am just off to my new job as Editor of Newspaper to advance my Career, but don’t worry I can still represent you”. Instead of having to wait years for him to resign the Soviets had a far superior system with right of recall and could rightly ditch him without hesitation!

    Aside from the issue of the Russian Revolution isn’t it always the case that the Press and Media will denigrate Socialists and anyone, as in the Case of Jeremy Corbyn, who challenges their Anti- working class and pro-austerity agenda. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Media don’t also try to link Jeremy with Stalinist methods in defending his leadership!
    They try to link Lenin and Trotsky with Stalinism. In fact in opposing Stalin Trotsky and his Family all paid with their lives and Trotsky was assassinated by Stalin’s Agent.

    To answer all the points on Krondstadt, constituent Assembly etc. would take more than a couple of paragraphs. I would suggest perhaps that you have a discussion or debate on the Russian Revolution. I would be prepared to speak and introduce a discussion on it or debate with anyone. No doubt there will be more to come denigrating the Russian Revolution and by implication the very idea of Socialist Policies or Socialism. I think we need to set the record straight.


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