An International Women’s Day march in the Russian capital of Petrograd began the protests which brought about the Russian Revolution in 1917.
With widespread food shortages, and the under-prepared Russian army and embattled civilian population suffering appalling losses in World War I, mass outrage drove protesters to the streets, sparking the February Revolution which would overthrow the Tsar.
‘The revolution was begun by women’
On 8 March 1917 (23 February in the Gregorian calendar, which Russia used at the time), thousands of women flooded onto Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd’s main street. Among their leaders were Poliksena Shishkina-Iavein, President of the League for Women’s Equal Rights (and Russia’s first female gynaecologist), and revolutionary Vera Figner. As eminent historian of the period Orlando Figes puts it: ‘The revolution was begun by women’.
By the afternoon, the crowd’s ranks had been swollen by female textile workers, who were striking over bread shortages. Men too joined the throng, which grew to 100,000. They marched through the streets of the capital, looting shops, clashing with police, and chanting “Bread!” and “Down with the Tsar!”
Two days later, as the protests continued to gather momentum, a general strike began among all Petrograd workers. Angry crowds swarmed the streets.
On 11 March, on the orders of the Tsar, the Petrograd army garrison entered the fray, firing on and killing some protesters. But the crowd’s resolve remained unwavering, and, the following day, demoralised soldiers defected to the ranks of the revolutionaries.
Factory workers and even soldiers began to elect deputies to the Petrograd Soviet, a council of workers following the model used in the general strikes of the 1905 Revolution.
With the loss of military support, Tsar Nicholas II could resist no longer, and the imperial government resigned. In its place, the Duma (parliament) formed a Provisional Government, which would compete for power with the Petrograd Soviet in the coming months.
On 15 March, the Tsar abdicated the throne on behalf of himself and his son. When his brother Mikhail refused to take up the crown, Tsarist rule in Russia was at an end.
Women’s wider involvement in the Revolution
While the fact that a women’s march began the February Revolution is largely undisputed, some historians fear that the focus on this seemingly spontaneous act minimises women’s involvement in the wider revolutionary movement.
The women’s suffrage movement in particular was closely intertwined with revolutionary activity. The Women’s Equal Rights Union, for example, played a key role in forming women’s groups during the general strike of the 1905 Revolution.
And in 1917, women’s activism didn’t end with the overthrow of the Tsar. On 19 March, female demonstrators took to the streets again to demand a promise of support for women’s suffrage from the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet. Shishkina-Iavein and Figner were again at the forefront, and, at a meeting with head of the Provisional Government Prince L’vov, the pair extracted the commitment which later led to women being given the vote under the Bolsheviks.
Russian women still in the vanguard
Throughout the Soviet era, female dissidents played a crucial role in radical movements, from the heart of government to underground literary groups. In 1917, Alexandra Kollontai became the first woman in history to be an official member of a government cabinet when Lenin appointed her People’s Commissar for Social Welfare. Under Stalin, poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva drew on their own experiences of personal tragedy to write haunting critiques of the Purges. And in 1979, feminist leaders Tatiana Momonova, Tatiana Goricheva, Natalia Malakhovskaya, and Julia Voznesenskaya were exiled by Brezhnev after self-publishing an article decrying gender inequality. These are just a few of the more famous figures from the period, but there are many more.
Today, Russian women remain at the forefront of protest movements in the country. In 2012, feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot gained worldwide fame for their performance inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in protest at the Orthodox Church’s support for Putin. Their radical advocacy for women’s rights and free speech continues a rich tradition of Russian women’s activism.