Elaine Jones begins a four-part history of women workers and socialist activists in the Russian Revolution.
Read the other articles in this series here.
The role played by working class and socialist women in the 1917 Russian revolution highlights many important lessons for socialists. What were the political events that shaped the involvement of women in the Russian revolutionary movement? What kind of women got involved? What change did the Russian revolution bring for women? Why did some socialists organise among working-class women?
In the latter half of the 19th century Russia was still primarily based on a rural economy. But change was coming — cities were growing rapidly, industrial production was increasing and the old feudal social order was being shaken.
A woman’s lot in life varied according to which class she belonged to. Upper class women sometimes owned property. But all women were considered subordinate and expected to be submissive to men. Divorce was difficult. In law women were considered to be worth half of a man. For peasant women, and the increasing numbers of urban working-class women, life meant poverty, endless labour and abuse. But circles of better-off and middle-class women saw themselves as part of the intelligentsia and were challenging their alloted role. Some were involved in radical politics.
In the 1860s the Russian intelligentsia’s movement for political change began in earnest. This movement was broadly utopian socialist — their socialism was based on communal land ownership organised by the village. The movement would developed in many directions and its ancestors continuing into the twentieth century. They were known as “the Populists” or “Narodniks”. Maybe as many as a quarter of the different groups and networks were women.
These women sought access to education and through writings and petitions won segregated schools for women, some university courses and a medical school. This was Russia’s first feminist movement.
By 1900 the Russian Women’s Mutual Philanthropic society had been established. Even though it was for peaceful reform their organisations was still illegal. They also did charity work — “helping” the poor and prostitutes.
One wing of the Narodniks used terror tactics to avenge the brutal actions of the autocratic Russian state and, so they believed, to spark an uprising. Women were involved in these actions.
By 1908 many of these female activists were dead, imprisoned or exiled in a Siberian colony.
Russian Marxism. as it developed after the early 1880s, was in part based on a rejection of the tactics and politics of the Narodniks. They wanted to build an organisation that would base itself on the growing working class, against the bourgeoisie.
Small numbers of women were involved in the first Marxist circles from the beginning — Vera Zasulich is the most well known — working like the men in very difficult conditions, under constant fear of arrest by the Tsarist police. The first congress of the Russian Social and Democratic Labour Party was held in 1898.
In 1900 Lenin (living and working abroad) helped set up the newspaper Iskra (Spark) to help organise the new organisation, and to relate to a growing workers’ movement. The second congress of the party was held in 1903 in Brussels and London. There the party separated into two factions — the Bolshevik (majority) faction and the Menshevik (minority) faction.
The whole period from the late 1870s to 1900s was a time of awakening of class consciousness among the Russian proletariat, of strikes and walk-outs. Women were a large part of the new proletariat.
Women workers took an active part in the worker revolts at the Krenholm factory in 1872 and at the Lazeryev textile factory in Moscow in 1874.
They were involved in an 1878 strike at the New Cotton-Spinning Plant in Petrograd. They led a weavers’ strike contingent in the workers’ demonstration in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, during which factory buildings were wrecked. That action forced the Tsarist government in 1885 to bring in legislation prohibiting night work for women and children.
The new and intensified wave of worker disturbances in the mid- and late 1890s saw working women playing a full role. The socialist (later Bolshevik) Alexandra Kollontai described what these struggles meant for the woman worker:
“In these struggles as in all those that follow the woman worker, oppressed, timid, without rights, straightens up to her full height and becomes equal as a fighter and comrade. This transformation takes place unconsciously, spontaneously, but it is important and significant.
“However, no sooner had the wave of bitter strike struggle passed… than the women were once again isolated from one another, still unconscious of the need for organisation.”
Kollontai explained that “In those years it was still unusual to find a woman worker in the illegal party organisations. The life led by six million proletarian women in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century was still too dark. A 12-hour, or at best an 11-hour working day, a starvation wage of 12-15 roubles a month, accommodation in overcrowded barracks, the absence of any form of assistance from the state or society in case of illness, pregnancy or unemployment, the impossibility of organising self-help as the Tsarist government savagely persecuted any attempts at organisation by the workers – these were the conditions surrounding the woman worker.”
This in part explains why the women involved in building the underground socialist movement in Russia were sometimes from middle class, wealthy, even aristocratic backgrounds who had to leave their parental homes, break with their past and even leave children to the care of others, to become fighters against social injustice.
Between January 1905 the autumn of 1906 Russia was consumed by mass strikes and protests. As the strike wave spread many women workers were amongst the first to walk out. Women were at the front of the demonstrations on 9 January 1905 — Bloody Sunday — when 150,000 striking workers and their families marched through St Petersburg to deliver a protest to the Tsar only to be shot and ridden down by the army.
The revolution which began in 1905 saw the first Soviets — self-organised democratic workers’ decision making bodies — which show how working class self-rule is possible. Delegates were elected from factories, work places and army barracks, and committees set up to organise self defence, policing, militias, to make laws, and control production.
Those events turned many women into revolutionaries — teachers, school girls, students, and the intelligentsia.
These are some of the stories of those times.
Two non-party students assisted a Bolshevik urban guerrilla group prepare an armed uprising in Kronstadt. Both were shot, one while pregnant.
The Bolshevik Olga Genkina was torn to pieces by the Black Hundreds (Tsarist-loyal terrorists) who found her carrying a suitcase with propaganda and arms.
Yakoleva was pulled out of a May Day demo and jumped on by armed men — she recovered from her injuries and remained a key organiser and fighter.
Rozaliya Zalkind served as an Iskra agent — she directed the Moscow uprising of December 1905 in charge of deploying armoured trolley cars on the streets. In 1917 she once again organised armoured cars and divisions of men and women.
Many of these women were converts from Populism to Marxism. They had been inspired by heroic deeds and the horrors of capitalism but now Marxism gave them a method of struggle and a scientific understanding of the world.
The more revolutionary women were won to Bolshevism and they took part in all levels of the organisation. They were organisers and teachers. They were couriers and smugglers. They distributed literature and weapons, organised and spoke at meetings. In 1905 these women learned administrative and military skills which would be used again in 1917.
Most would marry someone in the party. Some children were born in prison. Children of underground couples had to be taught how to conceal publications and leaflets. One daughter of a Bolshevik agent wondered why her mother gained and lost weight when travelling from flat to flat and was confused as to why her parents who always told her to tell the truth when they were forever lying about what they were doing!
Many women’s groups were set up. The Women’s Progressive Party and the Alliance for Female Equality were established by middle class “bourgeois” feminists. But women workers were also now thinking about their political rights as well as making economic demands. Kollontai explains,
“That women workers were no longer indifferent to their lack of rights is also shown by the fact that, of the 40,000 signatures on petitions addressed to the First and Second State Dumas [undemocratic Parliaments set up by the Tsar] demanding that electoral rights be extended to women, a large majority were those of women workers.”
The collection of signatures was organised by the Alliance for Female Equality and other bourgeois women’s organisations but was conducted at plants and factories. The woman worker still naively accepted the hand held out to her by bourgeois feminists. These “suffragettes” — like their equivalents elsewhere in Europe — turned to working women to get support and to organise them into purely feminine, supposedly non-class, but essentially bourgeois alliances — to win rights for bourgeois women! However, a healthy class instinct and a deep mistrust of the “fine ladies” saved women workers from being attracted to this kind of feminism and prevented long-term or stable fraternisation with bourgeois suffragettes.
For the women of the working class, exhausted by the burden of intolerable working conditions and the material insecurity of their families immediate demands were somewhat different: a shorter working day, higher pay, a more humane attitude on the part of the factory administration, less police surveillance, more freedom of action.
The bourgeois feminists were particularly disappointed by their initiative among domestic servants. On the initiative of the bourgeois feminists, the first meetings of domestic servants were held in St Petersburg and Moscow in 1905. The domestic servants eagerly responded to this call to “organise” and turned up at the early meetings in large numbers. However, when the Alliance for Female Equality tried to organise them according to their own tastes, i.e. to set up an idyllic, mixed alliance between lady employers and domestic employees, the domestic servants organised their own special trade unions.
The domestic servants’ movement overflowed the boundaries predetermined for it by the feminists. During 1905 domestic servants organised direct action even in the most remote regions of Russia. This took the form either of mass strike action, or of street demonstrations. The strikes involved cooks, laundresses and maids; there were strikes according to profession, and strikes that united all domestic servants. The demands made by the domestic servants were usually limited to an eight-hour working day, a minimum wage, more tolerable living conditions (a separate room), polite treatment by the employer, etc.
This political awakening of women was not limited to the urban poor. For the first time in Russia, the Russian peasant woman took to protest. The end of 1904 and the whole of 1905 is a period of continuous “petticoat rebellions”.
The peasant women attacked military and police headquarters where the army recruits [involved in a war with Japan] were stationed, seized their men folk and took them home. Armed with rakes, pitchforks and brooms, peasant women drove the armed guards from the villages. They were protesting against the intolerable burden of war. They were arrested, tried and given severe punishments.
In this protest, as elsewhere, a defence of peasant (class) interests and of purely “female” interests are closely interwoven.