Women and the Russian Revolution

WomenRevStriking women workers kick-started the February 1917 revolution then, following the Bolshevik-led October revolution, women gained full legal equality with men. The preceding period had seen an intense battle of ideas between various strands of feminism – debates which are just as relevant to the struggles of today.

Many politicians and philosophers have said that you can judge a society by the way it treats its women and children. Global capitalism, then, stands condemned. Women are super-exploited at work with wages far below men’s, treated unequally for promotion and doubly exploited as carers at home. The plight of refugees fleeing starvation and war torn countries is an international disgrace. There isn’t a country on this planet that has overcome the epidemic of domestic abuse. Violence against women is commonplace around the world. Child abuse is covered up. In countries like Mexico women’s lives are cheap, their murder common to settle petty arguments between men. Rights to abortion are limited. In Ireland, the right of the unborn child is raised above that of the mother. In El Salvador, where women are at risk of the Zika virus, there is a complete ban on abortion and there is very little access to contraception.

And yet, 100 years ago, in a country that was still semi-feudal, the Soviet government passed a series of new laws giving women formal legal equality with men. Free abortion was every woman’s right. In tsarist Russia, on the other hand, peasant women lived under feudal relations. Unmarried women could not get passports to travel internally or abroad. A church manual recommended that the rod should hang over the bed and husbands were told that, if they loved their wives, they should beat them regularly. Women had no inheritance rights or say in family finances or property. Tsarist law stated that “the wife is held to obey her husband, as the head of the family, to remain with him in love, respect, unlimited obedience, to do him every favour, and show him every affection, as a housewife”. She was effectively her husband’s slave.

Russia underwent huge changes in the latter half of the 19th century. The country was economically and industrially underdeveloped compared with western Europe and the US. Feudal relations still existed in the vast rural areas. However, Russia was undergoing a process of industrialisation in the European part of the country, missing out many stages of the industrial revolution experienced in countries that had become capitalist states much earlier. For example, in England, cottage industries made way to small factories and then to much larger ones as production methods became more efficient. But there was no need for Russia to start at the beginning. The landowner-capitalists, often using foreign capital, imported the most modern technology and production methods.

Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the October 1917 revolution, refers to these processes in his theory of combined and uneven development, written in 1906. The factories needed workers and these came from the large peasantry. Factories with over 1,000 workers employed 41.4% of Russia’s workforce by 1914 compared with only 17.8% in the US, with the numbers of women workers rising exponentially in the 20 years before the war. By 1917, women made up 40% of the workforce. These new workers, fresh from an individual peasant existence, became part of an industrial workforce and quickly developed a collective class consciousness. They understood that their own individual interests were interlinked and dependent on their fellow workers.

Women rising

Almost as soon as women became workers in the factories, they began to engage in struggle for better wages and conditions, playing an active role in strikes and riots as early as 1872. By 1900, over six million women were independent wage earners. Despite poverty pay, they had an economic independence which they never had in the rural economy. Traditions broke down. It was a sharp break with the past.

Women became fierce fighters for a better life, driven by their miserable existence. Women in textile, engineering and other factories worked between twelve and 18 hours a day and were often paid half as much as the men’s (also inadequate) wage. It was not enough to feed and clothe them, let alone any children. Women were inadequately nourished for the hard labour and long hours endured and many did not live beyond 30 years. Mothers were unpaid during pregnancy, so forced to give birth next to the work bench. The average number of pregnancies was ten – one in four was stillborn. There was no access to birth control if you were poor. Babies were not allowed in the factories and many were abandoned or died a slow death due to malnutrition.

Despite all this, women were becoming militant. In 1898, striking women at two factories in the capital St Petersburg threw tobacco in the eyes of advancing police. Some joined the revolutionary underground. In 1900, Nadezhda Krupskaya’s booklet, The Woman Worker, appeared. Written in exile in Siberia and produced on an illegal printing press, it described the harsh conditions of working women. Nonetheless, it still concluded that working outside the home was an improvement for women because they were less isolated, could become conscious of their class identity, and had a degree of economic independence.

On 9 January 1905, which became known as Bloody Sunday, a priest called Father Gapon led a deputation to plead with the tsar. The people were asking for the working day to be cut to eight hours, for the right to strike and for the election of a constituent assembly by secret ballot and universal suffrage. They never reached the tsar’s Winter Palace. This peaceful deputation was attacked by thousands of troops. Women and children were at the front and bore the brunt of the onslaught. The total death toll was around 200 with 800 wounded. The call went out for a general strike, leading to the first revolution which brought about constitutional change.

In June 1905, 11,000 women textile workers downed tools in a town near Moscow. Far-right Black Hundred gangs killed 28 women and children. They hacked Olga Gankina, a young Bolshevik, to death when she was discovered with a suitcase full of weapons. Working class women entered the political scene in numbers in that revolutionary year. Peasant women were also becoming politicised. They rebelled against landowners and organised to resist the Cossacks sent in to smash them. The impetus had been the war with Japan creating a demand for more food when many male peasants had been called up to fight in the trenches, depleting the rural workforce.

In the summer of 1905 there was a series of riots by peasant women. Armed with rakes, forks and brooms, they stood firm against the Cossacks and police, driving them out of the villages. They braved rape, floggings and arrest. The women defended general peasant interests and fought in close unity with the men, bringing up their own needs in the course of battle. Peasant women, especially in the Caucasus, began demanding equal political rights. They supported the confiscation of privately owned land – but not if was given only to men.

Two movements

Working women found that the government wanted to exclude them from the Shidlovski Commission, set up after Bloody Sunday to look into workers’ grievances and working conditions. Women protested outside the meetings, demanding their political rights. This was the first time that Russian workers, male and female, had felt their full potential strength as a class. The idea of equality for women was firmly established. It was also favourable soil for the ‘bourgeois feminists’ who tried to unite women of all classes under their banner. They claimed this was ‘above class’. Ultimately, however, they represented the interests of women from the ruling capitalist class.

Two embryonic women’s movements were developing: capitalist and socialist. The bourgeois feminists were women from wealthy and aristocratic backgrounds who resented not having equality with men, who saw men as the main obstacle to achieving their goals. They had no intention of taking up the day-to-day problems facing working class and peasant women, or of putting forward a socialist alternative. They wanted to preserve their privileged position in tsarist Russia. They therefore limited the battle to obtain equal rights with men within the existing capitalist system.

Working class women saw things differently. They certainly did not see men as the main enemy. For them, the men of the working class were comrades sharing the same joyless existence. According to Clara Zetkin, a German socialist and supporter of Bolshevism, “bourgeois women campaigned against the men of their own class, while working women fought with the men of their class against capital”. (Quoted in Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography, by Cathy Porter)

The bourgeois feminists tried every means of establishing contact with working women. They attempted to organise women’s unions – again, ‘above the classes’. During 1905, in St Petersburg and Moscow, they took the initiative with the Union for Women’s Equality, which tried to organise the first meeting of servants – in union with their lady employers! – but the servants turned away and joined working class organisations and parties.

There are similar attempts today to unite women across classes – such as Women of the World, First Women, and the Women’s Equality Party. While they may raise some radical demands, none of these organisations look beyond the limitations of the profit-based capitalist system based on the exploitation of the working class – and the double oppression of women. They appeal, instead, for a ‘fairer, kinder capitalism’. Ultimately, therefore, these organisations are bourgeois in outlook, seeking equality with men under the current system. Socialists, on the other hand, are fighting for the liberation of women and men through a democratically planned, sustainable, socialist economy.

The Women’s Progressive Party in Russia also tried to organise cooks, laundresses and housemaids in 1905 with little success. The servants either struck separately, or they united under a common banner of servants. Their demands were for an eight hour day, a minimum wage and better living and working conditions. As the political debate sharpened the bourgeois feminists became a serious threat to the unity of the working class movement. At the first large women’s meeting, held on 10 April 1905 in St Petersburg, only two speakers (one of whom was a working woman) dared to voice dissent.

Bolshevik women

Alexandra Kollontai and other female Bolsheviks and socialists opposed linking up with the bourgeois feminists. The resolutions they put forward outlining these principles and emphasising the necessity of joint struggle for the common interests of working people were decisively defeated. They fought against the idea of a movement embracing women of all classes against the backdrop of a society based on class division. At the same time, they recognised that individual women may abandon their bourgeois background and place themselves on the standpoint of the working class – as Kollontai herself did.

The Bolsheviks were aware of the dangers being posed to the unity of the workers’ movement and there was much discussion about how to win working women to their banner. Individual members had been participating in the meetings organised by the bourgeois feminists. Now they began to draw the attention of the party to the demands and needs of working women, arguing for a programme for women and specific initiatives.

Not all Bolsheviks embraced this idea. Some were afraid that the working women might leave the class movement and become entangled in the snare of feminism. Nevertheless, a series of semi-legal meetings were held and, by spring 1907, the movement among working women was beginning to develop a mass character. The winter of 1907 marked the beginning of separate Bolshevik party work among proletarian women, aimed at bringing them into the revolutionary movement. The Bolsheviks called their own meetings where women from many trade unions discussed labour protection of women and children, maternity care, political equality and the attitude of the revolutionary party to the bourgeois feminist movement.

Differences with the bourgeois feminists became increasingly pronounced – Bolsheviks like Kollontai were prevented from speaking at feminist meetings. Nevertheless, when the feminists called an All-Russia Women’s Congress in December 1908, the Bolsheviks felt that it could provide a platform to propagate the ideas of socialism and explain the main differences between socialist and bourgeois feminism.

Over 50 meetings were held in St Petersburg alone in just two months to elect delegates from the trade unions and discuss the congress. In the end, there were only 45 representatives of the organised working class at the congress, and 700 representatives of bourgeois feminism. Yet this tiny group of working women was able to highlight the fundamental issues at stake. Immediately the proceedings began, the representatives of the workers’ organisations formed themselves into a separate group. They proposed independent resolutions which were systematically voted out by the majority.

The congress decided to create an all-women’s organisation which, it was claimed, would be ‘above class’. The group of working women delivered a separate statement of their position and left, refusing to enter into a bloc with the bourgeois feminists. It is important to note that, by this time, Russia was in the throes of renewed and brutal reaction. The revolution of 1905-07 had been defeated, the workers’ movement was on the retreat, socialist activists arrested and imprisoned. Bourgeois ideology regained the upper hand, even though it offered no way forward for the vast majority of women or for society in general.

For the broad mass of women workers the congress and the intervention by their working class representatives were of great educational significance. They helped draw a distinct line between bourgeois feminism and the proletarian women’s movement. Illusions in the possibility of permanently uniting all women in the fight for women’s rights and interests were shattered.

There are times, of course, when joint struggles can be conducted – for example, on abortion rights – but it is important that working class women maintain an independent class programme. In the modern context, we can agree with bourgeois feminists on the legal right to abortion. On the other hand, organising a mass campaign to defend the NHS against cuts and privatisation to allow safe, free abortions – absolutely essential to working class women – would not necessarily appeal to those feminists who see equality as an individual or exclusively gender-based question.

Kick-starting revolution

The Bolsheviks in Russia and internationally continued to develop their programme and campaigning work on women in the period before the first world war. The war itself led to many hardships including starvation. By 1917, rebellion was fermenting among workers and soldiers. Those who suffer most, fight hardest for change. International Women’s Day (8 March) fell on 23 February 1917 according to the Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time. Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day.

According to Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), “even a Bolshevik organisation and a most militant one at that – the Vyborg borough committee – was opposing strikes. The temper of the masses was very tense and they were afraid that any strike would threaten to turn into an open fight”. They did not call for strikes but prepared “for revolutionary action at some indefinite time in the future”.

Even so, women textile workers in several factories did go on strike. Their families’ stomachs couldn’t wait. Their demands were simple: bread and herrings. The women sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support. The Bolsheviks only agreed reluctantly – Lenin and Trotsky were in exile in Switzerland and the USA at the time. Other workers followed. Women had thereby initiated the February revolution. The strike of the women textile workers had not happened without warning: it was the direct consequence of years of socialist propaganda and campaigning involving many working class women, combined with the harsh material conditions they endured.

It took two revolutions, in February and October 1917, to end the war and overthrow the tsar, landlordism, capitalism and private property. The midwives of the revolution played a full role in the months between February and October, organising, campaigning, and speaking at meetings and in the soviets – the councils of workers, soldiers and peasants. Alexandra Kollontai was elected onto the Bolshevik party’s Central Committee in 1917.

Overcoming obstacles

As soon as the workers had taken power, forces of reaction were organising against them. Russia was still an economically underdeveloped country and its resources had been ravaged by the rapacious demands of the first world war. Yet immediately, the Bolsheviks began the job of building socialism alongside the proletariat. Alexandra Kollontai was given the job of Commissar of Social Welfare. Her encounters and experiences in that role are indicative of the problems the Bolsheviks faced in such a poor country, defending itself against reactionary forces inside and outside of Russia – 21 armies were sent to quash the revolution.

When Kollontai arrived at her headquarters, her entry was blocked by an officious commissionaire. The Committee to Save the Country, richly funded by the major banks and supported by the nobility, had paid a month’s salary to civil servants in all the new commissariats so they would come out on strike and cripple the new workers’ state. Kollontai contacted a Bolshevik working at the commissariat who called a meeting of workers from nearby factories and the lower paid members of staff – cleaners, messengers, janitors and boilermen. They stormed past the doorman. But the saboteurs had been at work. The workers found mounds of shredded documents and smashed typewriters. The keys to the safe were missing.

Kollontai’s social welfare department was left with no money or equipment. It was besieged every day by nurses seeking food for orphanages, starving street children, peasants demanding compensation for floods and fires, and hordes of injured and disabled veterans desperate to receive their benefits. Eventually, the leaders of the reactionary strike were arrested, the keys to the safe handed over, and Kollontai could begin to develop socialist welfare. She abolished the old hierarchy in her ministry and salaries were levelled down with her own.

Owing to the war the plight of women was pitiful. Many mothers had been forced to abandon their children. Babies had been scooped off the streets in baskets and taken to ‘angel factories’ which were rife with dysentery, scurvy and syphilis. Each baby’s identity was a number on their knuckles. Thousands of children escaped when they were old enough. In 1922, there were approximately seven million street children in the cities. Kollontai was determined to turn the appalling orphanages and foundlings’ shelters into properly run mother-and-baby homes. She developed crèches to help working mothers.

Between 1917 and 1927, the Soviet government passed a series of new laws giving women formal legal equality with men. Marriage was made an easy registration process based on mutual consent. Either partner could take the name of the other or both could keep their own names. The concept of illegitimate children was abolished. Free, legal abortion was made every woman’s right. By 1927, marriage did not even have to be registered, and divorce was easily available on the request of one partner, with or without the knowledge of the other! Homosexuality was decriminalised.

With the establishment of communal crèches, laundries and canteens, woman would be liberated from domestic chores, free to develop relationships without economic or social considerations. They would also have more time to participate fully in the democratic running of the workers’ planned economy. ‘Backward’ Russia’s social policies were far in advance of its more economically developed neighbours. In fact, the achievements of the planned economy a century ago can be envied today by women and other groups in society facing discrimination.

Stalinist reaction

Trotsky wrote: “The position of woman is the most graphic and telling indicator for evaluating a social regime and state policy. The October revolution inscribed on its banner the emancipation of womankind and created the most progressive legislation in history on marriage and the family”. (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38) But he also warned that to institute political equality of men and women was one thing. Industrial equality of women and men in factories was more difficult. Equality in the family, however, would be the most difficult task of all to achieve.

Even if the workers’ state of Soviet Russia had not degenerated into Stalinism, the road to genuine equality would not have been easy. But the years of civil war following the revolution and the failure of the revolutionary wave across Europe, meant that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was left isolated with its economy in virtual ruins. Workers put in long hours in the factories to make the equipment and produce the goods needed to defend the revolution against the invading armies. Little time or energy was left for democratic decision making.

The nurseries and crèches that Alexandra Kollontai had legislated for were ill-equipped and understaffed. Mothers began to make alternative arrangements. The communal restaurants served poor quality food and the laundries lost and damaged items. Women began to retreat back to the home. A bureaucracy was developing under Stalin which became a privileged caste. Gradually, society became organised to suit the bureaucracy’s needs and greed. It wanted to increase the population to help the USSR industrialise and become a leading power, and to further its own interests.

The lack of proper funding meant that the state was not providing safe abortions and this was used as an excuse to make abortion illegal. Access to contraception was controlled by the state. The title of Mother Heroine was established in 1944 for mothers who raised ten or more children. The family was promoted by the bureaucracy as a means to reinstate hierarchical relations and to influence and attempt to control young people. Under Stalinism, the position of women in society worsened. Since the reintroduction of rampant gangster capitalism following the collapse of Stalinism 1989-91, domestic abuse has been decriminalised. Homosexuality is once again a crime.

There are many lessons to be learned about how to organise women, the importance of challenging bourgeois feminist ideas and the heroic and steadfast role working class women can play in overthrowing oppression in all its forms. Once again we see women rising against sexual oppression, for reproductive rights, and in defence of jobs and services against austerity. Women have taken the lead in opposing the right-wing misogynist and racist ideas of US president Donald Trump. Poor and oppressed women across the world will play a vital role in breaking the chains of capitalism, and in building a new socialist society. We are standing on the broad shoulders of our mothers and grandmothers, as well as our fathers and grandfathers.