Part 3 of Elaine Jones’ four-part history of women workers and socialist activists in the Russian Revolution.
During 1917 the Bolsheviks were agitating for an end to the war, explaining why it was an imperialist war. Some patriotic pro-war people set up the League of Personal Example and began to organise highly disciplined shock battalions or death battalions to fight which could, they hoped, convince people to die for their country. It was in this atmosphere that Maria Bochkareva was charged to create the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death in May 1917. It fought in the “June offensive” on the Russian western front.
Maria Bochkareva organised her battalion with strict moral discipline and all the punishment and humiliation you would usually find in the army. Bolshevik agitators spread dissent in the battalion, arguing for a soldiers’ committee or for it to be disbanded. Kollontai reports that there were no proletarian women in the battalion, just peasants, wealthy women and students.
Liberal feminists lavished praise on The Battalion of Death. Anna Shabanova hosted a meeting with speakers Emmeline Pankhurst and Bochkareva in June 1917.
Pankhurst had been sent by Lloyd George to bolster the pro-victory spirit of women.
Another women’s battalion—the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion — was ordered to defend the Winter Palace against the Bolshevik-led insurrection on 25 October, but only 135 of the battalion were sent, and in the event even they refused to fight, saying their role was to fight at the front.
Undoubtedly the Bolsheviks, despite the limitations of earlier years, were the best propagandists and organisers of proletarian women in 1917. Everywhere women were being elected to serve on committees. The liberal feminists renewed their agitation for the vote. Proletarian women too wanted suffrage. The Bolsheviks had to compete (to a certain extent, they were forced to compete) for the political allegiance of proletarian women.
By 1917 a third of Petrograd’s factory workers were women; half of the workers in the chemical industry were women; two-thirds of the workers in food, textiles and tailoring were women.
The February revolution—beginning in earnest on International Women’s Day (though there had been a build up of strikes in the period before) — saw the establishment of a Provisional Government. The government did not and would not either end the war or solve the food crisis. However, political parties were made legal. The Bolsheviks used that opening to organise.
At the 13 March party congress, Vera Slutskaya proposed that a bureau of women workers be set up and the paper Rabotnitsa revived. In April and May agitational bureaus, commissions and groups were set up across Petrograd with a teaching cadre at the centre.
Eventually women’s commissions were established at the district party level. Clubs and trade union activities were used to draw non-party working women into party activities.
Throughout 1917 the women’s organisations worked to build a conference of women workers. This conference of 500 delegates representing around 80,000 women workers would meet shortly before the October revolution.
The Bolsheviks intervened in the liberal feminist meetings.
When the feminists held an “All Russian Women’s Congress” in Moscow a delegation headed by Inessa Armand repeated their earlier tactics of 1908 and walked out after reading political statements.
One example of a Bolshevik campaign was agitation among laundry workers who worked 13 or 14 hours a day.
The Bolsheviks called for public laundries, better conditions and the setting up of a library. The laundry workers went on strike and raised the political demands put forward by the Bolsheviks — opposition to the war and “all power to the soviets”.
The Bolshevik women agitated amongst soldiers’ wives for more money, but unlike the liberal feminists they did not appeal to the Provisional Government. They called on the Petrograd Soviet to force through the measure.
Alexandra Kollontai organised a committee for the distribution of funds to soldiers wives and a union of soldiers wives was set up in many cities. Kollontai also called on soldiers ’wives to send delegates to the soviets.
On 10 May Rabotnitsa reappeared. It was to be published several times a month and gained a circulation of 40-50,000.
It agitated about the war, high prices and labour conditions.
In the industrial-military centres of the city the work was supplemented by other campaigns. Nadezhda Krupskaya and Zhenya Egrova worked in the Vyborg district, Slutskaya on Vasilevsky Island, Ludmila Stul on Kronstadt naval base and Anna Itkina in the Narva district. InessaArmand travelled up to Moscow and organised around the journal “The life of the woman worker”.
Rabotnitsa relied on women workers’ support. A group of women workers had agreed to support Rabotnitsa even before it was produced — pledging three days’ pay. Money for copies sold was taken to the office where paper distribution and meetings were arranged; Rabotnitsa’s supporters also wrote articles for the paper. It was more than a journal— it was used to train agitators. In May a 10,000 strong meeting was held at the Cimizelli circus.
The Rabotnitsa group in Petrograd would write copy in the morning and then travel to the factories in the afternoon.
After a series of mass demonstrations in July there was a clampdown on political activity. Bolshevik women were even attacked by their workmates and denounced as spies.
But the tide would turn. A mass meeting in August called for the release of Kollontai from prison.
In the last couple of weeks before October, hundreds of thousands of workers took and consolidated their control of their factories and barracks. Peasant revolts swept the countryside. Two-thirds of factories had committees. In Petrograd 1200 deputies were elected to the soviet. In March and April there had been 700 soviets with 200,000 delegates across Russia. By October there were 1400 soviets. The Provisional Government had no grip on events — their declarations and orders were met with indifference. Mass meetings of thousands took place in halls, workplaces and streets — people were involved in controlling their own lives.
Kollontai wrote, “Stick to your revolutionary posts, women workers. All our strength, all our energy, all our thoughts must be given to strengthening the power of the revolutionary democracy, the power of the soviets. The place of working class women in these great days of the first proletarian revolution is amongst the courageous fighters for revolutionary ideals.”
The Bolsheviks were opposed to the politics of the women’s battalions — the prosecution of the imperialist war. But they were not against women fighting. Bolshevik women were involved in armed actions and in street fighting.
Women took part in the Red Guard. Several women were involved in Petrograd soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee. Women were involved at every level.
Lenin’s verdict: “In Petrograd, here in Moscow, in cities and industrial centres, and out in the country, proletarian women have stood the test magnificently in the revolution. Without them we should not have won, or just barely won.”