“My hostess kept her eyes fixed on me. 'How little you resemble a Cossack! You’re so pale, so slender, so shapely-like a young lady. That’s what my women think; they’ve already told me you’re a girl in disguise!' ” – Nadezhda Durova, The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars
On May 1, 1917, workers around the world celebrated May Day, and even though it was April 18 on the Russian calendar, the Saint Petersburg workers’ council commemorated the holiday in solidarity with the European proletariat. The significance of May Day had been articulated by Bolshevik party leader Vladimir Lenin long before the Russian Revolution. While confined to a czarist prison in 1896, he wrote a pamphlet explaining the significance of the holiday for Russian workers.
“In France, England, Germany and other countries where workers have already been united in powerful unions and have won for themselves many rights,” he wrote, “they organized on [May 1] a general holiday of Labor. Leaving the stifling factories, they march with unfurled banners, to the strains of music, along the main streets of the cities, demonstrating to the bosses their continuously growing power. They assemble at great mass demonstrations where speeches are made…”
The Saint Petersburg celebrations followed the pattern outlined in Lenin’s 1896 pamphlet. Claude Anet, a foreign correspondent for Le Petit Parisien, a French newspaper, wrote that outside the Winter Palace “The huge square was like a human ocean in which the swaying of the crowd resembled the motion of waves [with] thousands of red flags with gold lettered inscriptions fluttering in the wind.”
Dozens of speeches marked the event, as well as military orchestras playing both the anthem of the French Revolution, the Marseillaise, and popular Russian songs. Anet observed that numerous banned called for “land, liberty, peace, down with the war.”
Under house arrest with his family at a palace just outside Saint Petersburg, the former czar, now known as Colonel Nicholas Romanov, complained about the celebrations in his diary as his guards joined in the festivities. Nicholas wrote, “Abroad, it’s May 1 today, so our blockheads decided to celebrate with street processions, musical choirs and red flags. Apparently, they came right into the [palace] park and placed wreaths on the tomb [of victims of the February Revolution].”
At the time, Nicholas and his wife Alexandra were still being investigated by the Provisional Government for their wartime conduct, and the gates of the palace park attracted both revolutionary demonstrators, outraged that the Imperial family were continuing to live in relative comfort, and curious onlookers, hoping to catch a glimpse of the former czar out for a walk with his daughters under guard.
May Day fell during the “April Crisis,” when the Provisional Government was torn between the Prime Minister, Georgy Lvov, a nobleman who belonged to the kadet party, and the leaders of the political parties on the left. Even the coalition government that emerged from this struggle could not mend the rift as the Bolsheviks refused to join other socialist parties in working with the Provisional government.
The key difference between the ruling Provisional Government and the Bolsheviks was Russia’s participation in the First World War. Lvov and Minister of War Alexander Kerensky were committed to continuing the conflict, while Lenin favored an immediate peace that would end the “imperialist” war. While the Provisional Government urged soldiers to stay at their posts on the front, Lenin encouraged fraternization with German and Austrian troops and the breakdown of the traditional hierarchy of military discipline.
Back in November 1914, at the beginning of the war when Nicholas II was still in power, a peasant woman fleeing an abusive marriage named Maria Bochkareva petitioned the czar for permission to enlist in the Imperial Russian army. As Bochkareva explained in her memoirs, “The [local] commander was deeply impressed by my obstinacy, and wanted to help me. He suggested that I should send a telegram to the [czar], telling him of my desire to defend the country, of my moral purpose and beg him to grant me permission to enlist. The commander promised to draw up the telegram himself, with a recommendation of his own and have it sent from his office.”
Nicholas assented and in Bochkareva’s memoirs, she wrote about being mocked and sexually harassed by her fellow soldiers until she proved herself on the battlefield, earning their respect. Over the course of the war, Bochchareva was wounded twice and received three medals for bravery.
There were precedents for women serving in combat roles in the Russian army. During the lengthy war between Imperial Russia and Napoleon’s France in the early 19th century, Nadezhda Durova, the daughter of a Moscow soldier, enlisted in the cavalry disguised as a teenaged boy. When she awarded the Cross of St. George for gallantry by Alexander I, the czar said, “I have heard that you are not a man. Is that true?”
Durova managed to convince Alexander not to send her home to her father and she served for ten years in the cavalry. After the Napoleonic Wars, the poet Alexander Pushkin persuaded Durova to write her autobiography, The Cavalry Maiden, which became the earliest Russian memoir published during the lifetime of its author. The book received good reviews and the initial print run sold out, but Durova faded into historical obscurity until she became the subject of a 1908 young adult novella by Lydia Churilova entitled A Daring Girl, which inspired a new generation of Russian women.
Bochkareva was not the only woman to join the Russian army. The Saint Petersburg correspondent of The London Times wrote about a 16-year-old Moscow high school student named Zoya Smirnova who ran away to the front with 11 of her female classmates. From the reports:
The soldiers treated the little patriots quite paternally and properly, and having concealed them in the [train] cars took them off to the war. A military uniform was obtained for each; they donned these and unobstructed arrived at the Austrian frontier, where they had to detrain and on foot proceed to Lemberg [now Lviv, Ukraine]. Here the regimental authorities found out what had happened, but not being able to persuade the young patriots to return home allowed them to march with the regiment.
The girls saw action in the Carpathian Mountains. Smirnova witnessed the death of a friend and was wounded twice before being persuaded to leave the army and become a nurse. Reports of women soldiers fighting under male pseudonyms, and receiving the St. George’s cross for bravery, appeared throughout the war.
By May 1917, however, the war had dragged on, with male soldiers deserting their posts on the Eastern front in droves. Bochkareva, in a meeting with Kerensky, proposed an unconventional solution: the creation of all-female battalions would shame the men into continuing the fight. Bochkareva recalled in her memoirs, “I was introduced to Kerensky at the Winter Palace…. After dinner Kerensky greeted me and told me he would permit me to form a battalion of death in my name…They issued uniforms and equipment, and provided instructors.”
On May 21, Bochkareva issued a call to arms, stating, “Men and women citizens!...Our mother is perishing. Our mother is Russia. I want to help save her. I want women whose hearts are pure crystal, whose souls are pure, whose impulses are lofty. With such women setting an example of self sacrifice, you men will realize your duty in this grave hour.”
The speech, which was reprinted in the newspapers the next day, attracted 2,000 volunteers. Only 500 met Bockkareva’s high standards during training. In her memoirs, she claimed, “I sent away 1,500 women for their loose behavior,” which included flirting with male instructors.
But she also had political motives for dismissing volunteers. While male soldiers formed councils or soviets to represent their interests to their officers, Bockhareva did not permit her recruits to question her authority. Her example inspired the creation of other women’s battalions across Russia. As Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, authors of Midwives of the Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917, write, “There were similar initiatives in the cities of Moscow, Saratov, Tambov, Mariupul, Ekaterinburg, Kiev, Tashkent, Ekaterinodar, Odessa, Minsk, Pskov, Riga and Ufa.”
The creation of all-female military units captured the imagination of advocates of women’s equality both within Russia and abroad. The Provisional Government had acknowledged the contribution of women workers in overthrowing the czar by allowing them to become political deputies and promising women the vote in future elections. Now, Russia appeared to be expanding women’s participation in the military beyond the roles permitted by any other European power. British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst visited Saint Petersburg at the head of a British delegation and praised the fortitude of the female soldiers, stating “I honor these women who are setting such an example for their country.”
After a few weeks of training, the Women’s Battalion of Death departed for the Eastern front. Thousands of Saint Petersburg’s residents gathered at the train station to watch the women leave for war. The success of the summer hostilities, known as “The Kerensky Offensive,” would help determine the fate of the Provisional Government, which remained committed to the war while Lenin’s Bolsheviks promised “Peace, Land and Bread.”