February 1917: Anatomy of a Revolution

During the 1930s, Stalin nationalized the Soviet economy and reinstituted the strict policies of wartime to create a command economy. He demanded laborers build the heavy industrial base that would create a modern industrialized economy, forced the peasants into mass collective farms that led to millions of deaths during the Great Famine (1932–1933), and provoked a mass migration of millions of peasants to the Russian urban centers (1928–1932). By 1934, Stalin declared the revolution was over.

Read this article. Make a timeline as you read and consider the long-term impact of the revolution on world history.

First, the Chronology

February 23, 1917. A century ago, on International Women's Day (February 23 old style/ March 8 today), women workers of both home and factory took to the streets of Petrograd. Five days of strikes, demonstrations and over 1300 deaths later, the Tsarist edifice had crumbled. In these events, hundreds of thousands of men also took part but,

"It was the women who initiated the action in most cases, primarily working women from the textile mills".[2]

The final straw for the women workers had come with the breakdown in the supply of bread which began at the start of February when only half the food ordered for Petrograd arrived.

"Long lines stretched in front of shops and bakeries. A winter unprecedented in severity had set in, filling the streets with ice and piling snowdrifts on the roofs of homes, sidewalks and bridges of the city. Shivering from cold, poorly dressed young people, women and old men waited hours for bread and often went home empty-handed. Food shortages provoked an even greater ferment among the masses. In line they discussed why there was no bread and why prices were still rising; they wondered who was responsible for the people's misery and who needed the war. The Petrograd Okhrana observed that on days of severe crisis the queues had the same force as revolutionary meetings and tens of thousands of revolutionary leaflets. The street had become a political club".[3]

The war made these conditions particularly exacting for women. Many were left having to work long hours in war industries after their men were conscripted for the front, as well as look after children, and spend what little free time they had in long lines queuing for bread and kerosene. Bread became the issue which sparked off uncontrollable rage. In the days before International Women's Day bakeries had been sacked and bread shops stoned but what now transformed these bread riots into something more was that women (plus some male) workers held "stormy" mass meetings and decided to celebrate the day by going on strike and not just demonstrating.

Having decided to down tools in one factory they then went round others, sometimes throwing snowballs at windows to attract other workers' attention. Men and women poured out of factories to take part in demonstrations. All told that day somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 workers, the vast majority of them women, went out on strike demanding bread, peace and, more ominously for the regime, an end to Tsarism.[4]

"Workers stopped rapidly moving streetcars, forced motormen to halt, took away their operating wrenches, made passengers get out, turned the streetcars over and with shouts of "Hurrah!" moved on… Workers marched through the city's streets in a militant and joyous mood, singing "La Marseillaise", "Varshavianka", "Comrades, Boldly in Step", and other revolutionary songs. As they moved the demonstrations became living speakers' tribunes. Calling for struggle against the war and the monarchy speakers were carried on the demonstrators shoulders. Red flags waved here and there above the moving crowds. The revolution had begun".[5]

The propertied classes were soon to know it. In Petrograd factories were located in the suburbs but some were not so far from the city centre. These were found across the River Neva from the city's administrative heart, in Vyborg, the Petrograd side and Vasilievsky Island. Others were located further away to the south (such as the famous Putilov works in Narva district) and east of the city centre. However in the various demonstrations emanating from all these points the cry went up that they should march to "Nevsky".

On or near the great boulevard of Nevsky Prospekt was where all the main bastions of the Tsarist state had their headquarters. Workers' tradition played its part here as it would in so many of the events of the next few days. It was on Nevsky Prospekt by the Kazan Cathedral that the Narodniks (populists) had sponsored a demonstration back in 1876. Ever after it became a focal point for meetings and so, in 1917, workers once again headed for the square in front of Kazan Cathedral. To keep those from across the river joining the march on "Nevsky", troops and police blocked the bridges, especially the strategic Liteinyi Bridge which led from Vyborg (a Bolshevik stronghold known for its militancy). However, due to the severity of the winter, the Neva was frozen thick, so workers who could not get past the police patrols on the bridges, simply walked across the ice.

In taking strike action women workers went against the advice from all the political organisations who wanted to confine this socialist anniversary, as previously, to a formal demonstration against the war.[6] The worker V.N. Kaiurov of the Vyborg District Committee of the Bolshevik Party later justified the advice he gave to keep calm.

"We could feel the storm coming, but no-one could determine how it would be manifested. The highly charged mood of the masses forced the district committee to stop agitating, cease direct appeals for strikes and the like, and focus attention primarily on the maintenance of discipline and restraint during the upcoming demonstrations".[7]

This wasn't the view of all Bolsheviks. Although Alexander Shlyapnikov, the engineering worker and leading Bolshevik organiser in Petrograd, shared Kaiurov's position he had earlier informed Lenin (in his Swiss exile) that

"It is reported from Kharkov that... certain comrades take the position that we are living in the era of social revolution".[8]

There was no lack of evidence for this since there had been wave after wave of strikes since August 1916. It was at this point that a political strike movement, driven by acute food shortages and rising prices as a result of the war, had begun in earnest. From now on, "three quarters of the strikes between September 1916 and February 1917 voiced political opposition to the autocracy and the war".[9] As a foretaste of things to come soldiers of the 181st Infantry regiment who were quartered in Vyborg (and thus an easier target for Left Socialist Revolutionary and Bolshevik agitation) joined workers on a march to the Finland Station on 17 October. Similarly, when news came through of the possible execution of revolutionary sailors in Kronstadt, 77 factories went on strike and the government had to back down.[10]

Workers' memories were stoked by strikes and demonstrations on every occasion that demanded emoration. On 9 January 1917 109 workplaces had gonestrike to remember the anniversary of Bloody Sunday 1905.[11] Commenting on this strike only two days before the International Women's Day demonstrations, the last French Ambassador to the Tsar sent this message to his government:

"Please tell the President of the Republic and the President of the Council that you have left me very anxious. A revolutionary crisis is at hand in Russia; it nearly broke out five weeks ago and is only postponed. Every day the Russian nation is getting more indifferent towards the war and the spirit of anarchy is spreading among all classes and even in the army. About the end of last October a very significant incident occurred in Petrograd; I reported it to Monsieur Briand. A strike broke out in the Vibori [Vyborg – ed], quarter and as the police were very roughly handled by the workmen, two regiments which were in barracks in the vicinity, were sent for. These two regiments fired on the police. A division of Cossacks had to be hastily called in to bring the mutineers to their senses. So in case of a rising the authorities cannot count on the army. My conclusion is that time is no longer working for us, at any rate in Russia"[12]

From this point on even the rumour of a Bolshevik leaflet was enough to spark off a strike. Seeing this radicalisation, the pro-war ("defencist") Workers Group in the War Industries Committees (set up in 1915 to improve war production) felt compelled to urge workers to strike in favour of a new ministry. 11 of the Workers Group were then arrested and within a week a large strike at the Putilov works provoked the capitalists to lock out their workers on 22 February. This strike gave added impetus to the next day's International Women's Day demonstrations to create a movement which would sweep away centuries of Tsarism.

However the Bolsheviks in Petrograd themselves did not, at first, make the connection and, by all accounts, they were the best organised amongst all the revolutionary parties and groups in the capital. They thought that the simmering anger of the workers would not mature into a full-scale assault for a few more months, and that the ideal date would be the next great workers' anniversary on May Day. In the meantime they felt that they should not be provocateurs of something that would go off at half-cock. They considered that the consequences of a defeat would only have set the revolutionary movement back. The spontaneous movement of a working class that had reached the end of its patience swept aside all that caution.

Ironically this caution of the revolutionaries may have assisted in the development of the movement on that first day. The fact that the state knew that revolutionaries were urging caution (all political organisations were deeply infiltrated by the Okhrana) meant that the forces of repression also underestimated the strength of the movement on International Women's Day. On previous traditional workers' anniversaries like January 9 the regime knew about the revolutionaries' plans from their spies. They even knew how long strikes were planned to last. This was not the case on February 23. General Balk, the Petrograd City Governor later admitted that "Early on February 23 a strike involved half the factories and plants. I had no idea this would happen. This movement took us by surprise. No police units were on the streets. I called the units always available, mounted police, gendarmes and cavalry detachments".[13]

These units brutally attacked the demonstrators with whips and truncheons. 23 were arrested, but no-one was shot. This was a conscious policy of the military commander of the Petrograd district, General Khabalov. It appears that some members of the Tsarist ruling class had also learned lessons from 1905. Although taken aback by February 23, Khabalov had previously drawn up general contingency plans to deal with "unrest" which the regime had long been expecting. Khabalov was later criticised as "indecisive" by other monarchists (i.e. for not shooting down demonstrators from day one), but his plan wasn't bad as a policy of graduated repression went.

The idea was that the police (with mounted units) alone would deal with "disturbances" on the first day and would not fire on demonstrators. Instead they used their batons and whips to crack skulls and lacerate bodies to break up any group of workers that they came across. Workers would run away and then regroup elsewhere but demonstrations and street meetings remained fairly scattered. At the end of International Women's Day Khabalov could congratulate himself that things had gone pretty well. A few policemen had been badly injured but as this was just a "spontaneous" outburst then calm would soon be restored. His pre-emptive strikes a few days earlier, which included the smashing of the Bolshevik printing press and the arrest of many revolutionaries, should have ensured that no-one would be able to capitalise on the day's anger.

Or so he thought. Whilst the ruling caste was breathing a sigh of relief the Bolsheviks were re-evaluating their position. In meetings that night in the Vyborg district they decided to take an active part in spreading the movement if it continued. According to Shlyapnikov, in his memoir of the February days,

"We did not regard the movement that started on February 23 as the beginning of a resolute assault on the tsarist throne. But we took objective conditions into account. The workers' economic position had sharply worsened, people were dissatisfied with the war, the bourgeoisie was displeased with the failure to win the war, and also the entire economic ruin was intensifying and the reaction was fierce, and thus we admitted a revolutionary hurricane might arise even from such an insignificant wind. Therefore we watched the movement of February 23 with extreme care and attentiveness, and all organisations were directed to develop the movement, not to limit it to a fixed period as was common in those times".[14]

There were only, at most, 2000 Bolsheviks in Petrograd at this point, but the social character of the organisation was overwhelmingly working class. It was agreed that the Bolsheviks should go to work and wherever they could lead workers back onto the streets. Similar decisions seem to have been taken by some anarchists and those of the Inter-District (Mezhraionsty) Group of Social Democrats to which Trotsky (then in exile in the US) belonged. However the real dynamism of the movement at this point would have to come not from the relatively small politically organised parts of the class but from the enormous mass of workers themselves. The revolutionaries, particularly the Bolsheviks, were important in this movement but they did not direct it, except in the fact that it was what they had long been working for inside the wider working class.