Russia’s February Revolution Was Led by Women on the March
How the downfall of the Romanovs finally came about 100 years ago
“I can’t remember a single day when I didn’t go hungry…I’ve been afraid, waking, eating and sleeping…all my life I’ve trembled-afraid I wouldn’t get another bite…all my life I’ve been in rags-all through my wretched life – and why?”- Anna, wife of a locksmith in The Lower Depths (1903), Maxim Gorky
When we think of the Russian Revolution today, the most well-known event is the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party seized power, laying the foundation for the creation of the Soviet Union. But 1917 was a year of two revolutions in Russia. First came the February Revolution, which precipitated the collapse of the ruling Romanov dynasty and introduced new possibilities for the future of the Russian state. (Note that below we use the Gregorian calendar dates, even though Russia used the Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind. That’s why the revolution happened in March on the former calendar, but in the titular February on the latter.)
The eventful month brought a too-little-too-late realization on behalf of the Czar, Nicholas II, that three years of fighting in World War had depleted Russian infrastructure. Soldiers faced munitions shortages and the cities suffered through food scarcity. A particularly cold and punishing winter exacerbated the situation. On February 17, Nicholas wrote to his cousin and wartime ally, George V of the United Kingdom, “The weak state of our railways has long since preoccupied me. The rolling stock has been and remains insufficient and we can hardly repair the worn out engines and cars, because nearly all the manufactories and fabrics of the country work for the army. That’s why the question of transport of store and food becomes acute, especially in winter, when the rivers and canals are frozen.”
In his letter, Nicholas assured George that “everything is being done to ameliorate the state of things” but he seems to have hoped that the spring thaw and the eventual end to the hostilities would solve the problem.
His hopes were misplaced, however, as his problems were about to get much worse, especially with his female subjects.
In the country’s urban centers, with men on the battlefield, women took on new roles in the workforce, as they did throughout Europe during the war. Between 1914 and 1917, 250,000 more women began working outside the home for the first time. By the outbreak of the February Revolution, close to one million female workers lived in Russia’s cities, but were paid half the wages of men and endured substandard living conditions. The journalist Ariadna Tyrkova wrote, “Day by day, the war has changed attitudes about woman. It has become increasingly clear that the unseen effort of a woman and her labour often support the entire economy of a country.”
Like the French Revolution in 1789, a bread shortage in the capital precipitated unrest. After long shifts in the factories, female factory workers stood in bread lines alongside other women including domestic servants, housewives and soldiers’ widows. In these bread lines, news and rumors about planned rationing spread. When Saint Petersburg municipal authorities announced on March 4 that rationing would begin ten days later, there was widespread panic; bakeries were sacked, their windows broken and supplies stolen.
As he had throughout the previous months, Nicholas once again underestimated the extent of the unrest and again departed for military headquarters more than 400 miles away in Mogliev, which is now in Belarus, against the advice of his ministers. In the czar’s mind, leadership of the military took precedence during wartime, and he was concerned by the mass desertions occurring in the aftermath of munitions shortages and defeats at the hands of the Germans.
The next day, March 8, was the annual celebration of International Women’s Day. The weather had improved and comparatively warm 23 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures and bright sunshine seemed to encourage crowds to assemble in public spaces. Since 1913, Russian revolutionary factions, including the Bolsheviks, had encouraged women to celebrate the occasion as an opportunity to build solidarity. ..At the textile factories, women went on strike and marched to the metal works to persuade the men employed there to join them.
An employee of the Nobel Engineering works recalled, “We could hear women’s voices in the lane overlooked by the windows of our department: ‘Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!’ I and several comrades rushed to the windows…Masses of women workers in a militant frame of mind filled the lane. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting ‘Come out! Stop work!’ Snowballs flew through the windows. We decided to join the demonstration.”
By the end of the day 100,000 workers went on strike, holding banners that said “Bread” and “Down with the Czar.” The number of demonstrators increased to 150,000 by the next day. The crowds were swelled by the presence of curious onlookers from all social backgrounds. Street theatres performed scenes from plays including Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which was widely viewed as an indictment of the treatment of the urban poor under czarist rule.
Nicholas and his wife, Empress Alexandra, who remained at the Alexander Palace just outside Saint Petersburg with their five children, continued to underestimate the seriousness of the discontent. Alexandra was dismissive of the protestors, writing to Nicholas at military headquarters, “The rows in town and strikes are more than provoking…It’s a hooligan movement, young boys and girls running about and screaming that they have no bread, only to excite – then the workmen preventing others from work – if it were very cold they would probably stay indoors. But this will all pass and quieten down – if the Duma would only behave itself – one does not print the worst speeches.”
The Duma, the representative assembly Nicholas reluctantly granted following unrest in 1905, struggled to maintain order as the strikes and demonstrations continued. Duma chairman Mikhail Rodzianko telegraphed Nicholas at military headquarters on March 11, “The government is completely paralyzed, and totally incapable of restoring order where it has broken down…Your Majesty, without delay summon a person whom the whole country trusts, and charge him with forming a government, in which the population can have confidence.” Instead, Nicholas placed his confidence in the military reserves stationed in Saint Petersburg to restore his authority.
Though in past moments of revolutionary sentiment, the military had stood by its czar, by 1917, the armed force was demoralized and sympathetic to the demonstrators’ cause. The presence of large groups of women among the demonstrators made soldiers particularly reluctant to fire on the crowds. When the soldiers joined the demonstrators, as opposed to firing upon them, the end of the Romanov dynasty was near.
In his history of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, who joined the Bolsheviks in September 1917 and became one of the party’s most prominent figures, wrote, “A great role is played by women workers in the relations between workers and soldiers. They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command, ‘Put down your bayonets; join us!’” Instead of suppressing the demonstrations, the regiments stationed in Saint Petersburg joined them, expressing their own grievances against the Czarist regime.
In exile in Switzerland, Vladimir Lenin followed events in Russia with interest but he distrusted the growing leadership role of Duma, fearing that the result of the unrest would be the replacement of one privileged elite with another, with the workers and peasants again excluded from any real influence.
The involvement of the military in demonstrations against his rule finally persuaded Nicholas to take the unrest seriously. In the early hours of March 13 , Nicholas departed military headquarters by train to address the collapse of his authority in Saint Petersburg. He would lose his throne over the course of the journey.