Print Edition - 2017-03-09  |  ASIANEWSNETWORK

Women’s vanguard

  • The female workers didn’t know they were sparking a revolution
- Mahir Ali

Mar 9, 2017-

What eventually became known as International Women’s Day was something of a novelty 100 years ago today, when female workers took to the streets of Petrograd to voice their demands for bread and peace, prompting workingmen to follow suit.

None of the instigators knew they were sparking a revolution. Within days, the Tsar of All the Russias abdicated. The nation’s absolutist monarchy came to a sudden end. A provisional government was put in place, but it was obliged to share power with the already established Soviets of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies.

There was some crossover between the two institutions. Alexander Kerensky, for instance, who became justice minister and eventually led the provisional government was also a Social Revolutionary deputy in the Petrograd soviet. The post-tsarist administration diverged sharply from the popular will in deciding to persist with Russia’s role in the First World War.

Bread, however, could not be won without peace. And before long it became obvious that the primary group of deputies in the soviet who were unequivocally demanding an end to Russia’s role in the war belonged to the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

The war had not been going well for Russia: huge losses among ill-equipped and often involuntary peasant recruits in the confrontation with encroaching Germans on the western front were combined with grievous food shortages at home, notably in the cities. By desperately seeking to cast himself as a warrior-king, Tsar Nicholas II only served to provide further evidence of his widely catalogued weaknesses.

By many accounts, Nicky—as he was known to his royal cousins in Germany and England—was a reluctant emperor, well aware of his inadequacies in the autocratic role. That did not, however, incline him towards meaningful reforms. In 1905, in the wake of a revolutionary upsurge following a defeat against Japan, he had acceded, against his better judgement, to the demand for an assembly known as the Duma.

It was hardly a democratic institution, but its relations with the palace were nonetheless fraught. St Petersburg was rechristened as Petrograd at the outset of the war, because the original nomenclature seemed too German, but Nicholas could do little about the fact that his wife was also of German origin. It wasn’t just her ethnicity, though, that earned the empress the growing mistrust of her subjects, but the fact that she was completely under the spell of a self-ordained and inordinately lecherous ‘holy man’ by the name of Grigori Rasputin.

The ‘mad monk’, as he became known, claimed to be the sole individual capable of curing the tsarina’s only son’s haemophilia. He also came to exercise considerable control over affairs of state, making his wishes known to the tsar via his wife. In 1916 alone, according to a recent account by Christopher Danziger in Oxford Today, “he was responsible for dismissing four prime ministers, five ministers of the interior, three foreign ministers, three war ministers, three ministers of transport, and four ministers of agriculture”. The status quo became increasingly untenable.

When Prince Felix Yusupov—one of Russia’s richest men, who had inherited his title via his mother from Tatar ancestors generously rewarded for converting from Islam—masterminded Rasputin’s assassination at the end of that year (when a massive dose of poison failed to have any discernible effect, the monk apparently survived a shooting and had to be drowned), it was with the express purpose of preserving the monarchy. Subsequently asked whether his action had in fact precipitated the overthrow of the tsars, Yusupov reportedly responded: “The revolution happened because I didn’t kill him in time to stop it.”

There may be something in that, but the consequences of the revolution were also hard to handle for the disparate successor regime, which found itself increasingly at odds with the restive soviets, which were beginning to spring up across the vast country. Bolshevik deputies commanded a relatively inconsequential minority 

in the Petrograd soviet at the time. Many of their leaders were in exile. Their most notable theoretician, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, had been caught on the hop, as in 1905, this time in Zurich

As soon as he received news of events in Petrograd, the man better known as Lenin began plotting his return to Russia across war-riven Europe. In far away New York, another revolutionary refugee, the recently arrived Lev Davidovich Bronstein, aka Leon Trotsky, began soliciting contributions to fund his passage to Russia. Both of them were instrumental in the events that subsequently unfolded that year, culminating in the truly earth-shaking October Revolution.

The February Revolution (thus known because Russia at the time followed the Julian calendar) tends to be looked upon as merely the prologue to that momentous year, 

but it was a crucial watershed—spearheaded by a largely female vanguard.

Published: 09-03-2017 09:07

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