The February Revolution: Russia 1917 Part 1

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Under the slogan ‘Power to the Soviets, Land to the Peasants, Peace to the Nations, Bread to the Starving’, the working class in Russia seized state power. In 2017 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the beginning of the most important struggle for socialism, peace, and progress in our history.

In the wake of October 1917, the newly-founded Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) aimed to banish exploitation from every sphere of social and economic life, to develop its industry and agriculture to provide for all its people, and to revolutionise political, cultural, and social institutions. As a result, the world was transformed. The example of seizing the control of a nation away from capitalists and imperialists inspired socialist revolutions across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas and the victorious proletarian revolution gave unstinting support to national liberation struggles in oppressed nations. This legacy lives on in socialist Cuba and in all those fighting oppression and imperialism.

Here, at the beginning of 2017, with imperialist warmongers once again forcing humanity to the brink of world war and devastation, we must learn the lessons of October 1917. It was the Bolshevik Revolution that brought an end to the slaughter of millions of working class people at the behest of imperialism in the First World War. It was the Communist movement that fought the opportunists in the social democratic parties who tried to shackle the working class to the interests of imperialism. It was the determination and sacrifices of the Soviet Union that ensured victory over fascism and it was the example of the Soviet Union that generated welfare reforms in Britain as the ruling class feared that the working class might follow the example of the Revolution.

The challenges that faced the USSR in the 20th century still face the socialist movement worldwide today. As Lenin argued on the eve of taking power:

‘Every revolution means a sharp turn in the lives of a vast number of people. … During a revolution, millions and tens of millions of people learn in a week more than they do in a year of ordinary, somnolent life. For at the time of a sharp turn in the life of an entire people it becomes particularly clear what aims the various classes of the people are pursuing, what strength they possess, and what methods they use. Every class-conscious worker, soldier and peasant should ponder thoroughly over the lessons of the Russian revolution ...’ VI Lenin, Lessons of the Revolution

Over the coming year FRFI will be publishing articles which analyse the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution. To begin this series, we are reprinting an article, first published in FRFI in 1987, by PATRICK NEWMAN on the February Revolution 1917, the first revolution of that year which overthrew the 304-year-old dynasty of the Romanov Tsars. This began the uprising which lead to the second revolution – the Bolshevik Revolution in October – that brought the working class and peasantry to power.


February Revolution

Six weeks before the February revolution, Lenin, then exiled in Switzerland, lamented: ‘We of the older generation [he was 47] may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.’ (CW 23 p253). Why was Lenin so pessimistic? Why did the revolution come so quickly?

It seemed that, despite the immense sufferings inflicted on soldier and civilian alike by the bloodiest war in history, the revolutionary movement had virtually ceased to exist. Apart from the Easter Rising in Ireland (April 1916), there was no organised mass opposition to the war. The Labour parties of Europe, which fully supported the war, were firmly in command.

Yet the apparent strength of the imperialist regimes was an illusion, especially in Russia, the weakest link in the imperialist chain.

Already in the revolution of 1905–07 the working class and peasantry had shaken the Tsarist regime to its very foundations. The First World War intensified the crisis of Russian society. The decadent regime of the Tsar could find few reliable points of support even among the privileged classes; it was opposed by a small but very powerful working class concentrated in enormous factories, and the masses of the oppressed peasantry unable to exist on their tiny plots of land.

In Russia, unlike Europe, the middle classes and aristocracy of labour formed an insignificant social stratum, unable to act as a brake on the revolutionary movement for very long. Finally, the masses had a determined revolutionary leadership, the Bolshevik Party (communists).

War and Revolution

The dominant political question up to and throughout the revolution was Russia’s participation in the imperialist war. Mobilisation and suffering took place on an enormous scale. Of the 15.5m strong army, 1.6m were killed and 2.5m taken prisoner.

The Russian officer class, closely tied to the absolute monarchy of the Tsar, imposed a brutal, humiliating and inept regime upon the soldiers’ ranks. Flogging was reintroduced in 1915 and officers freely used their fists against soldiers without fear of retribution. Feudal serfdom had been abolished in society in 1861, yet in the army feudal manners prevailed – the soldier was always addressed with the familiar ‘Ty’ used for animals and children; often he was the officer’s personal servant.

Even outside the barracks, soldiers were reminded of their subordinate position – they were not allowed to visit theatres and restaurants, ride inside a tramcar, or enter public parks, which displayed the sign Dogs and Soldiers forbidden to enter.

The war quickly revealed the ineptitude of Tsarist Russia. For most of 1915, the Russian army had 3% of the shells necessary for heavy battle conditions; an entire army of 140,000 men was sent to the front without rifles, so that the soldiers had to rely on taking rifles from the enemy. During the winter the 7th Army infantry had to march barefoot.

Petrograd

The war heightened class contradictions in the economic and political capital, Petrograd (Leningrad [now St Petersburg]). The bourgeois district (Nevskii) was as elegant as any European city, with grand ornamented buildings, paved streets, electric lighting and tramcars. The poor lived in wooden shacks, with unlit and unpaved streets, no public water supplies or transport. Physically the classes were separated by the river Neva – at any time the river bridges could be raised to prevent access.

The main issue in the class struggle was very simple – bread. From the summer of 1915, food supply became a major problem, which worsened dramatically in the first two months of 1917. People had to live on the equivalent of one small sliced loaf of bread per day – for this they might have to queue all night, with some of the queues being four deep and one mile long. The police reported hearing widespread complaints of not having eaten at all for two or three days.

Yet despite the growing suffering of the masses, Tsarism was able to continue the war unhindered by revolution for nearly 2.5 years. It could do so for two main reasons: political collaboration and intense repression.

The ‘liberal’ opposition to Tsarism based on the capitalist manufacturing class and sections of the aristocracy was by its own confession far more frightened of a revolution against the Tsar than it was of Tsarism itself, because they felt that such a revolution would then turn against their privileged position and their property. How right they were!

Of the working class and peasant parties, only the Bolsheviks had consistently denounced the war as an imperialist war. Under the most difficult circumstances Lenin’s party worked underground to organise political strikes against the war and to begin agitation among the army.

Repression

Between July 1914 and December 1916, 40,000 (17%) of the pre-war industrial workers, including 6,000 strike leaders, were mobilised into the army, thus removing from the struggle the most experienced fighters. Being the leading opponents of the war, the Bolsheviks bore the brunt of this repression – in six separate police raids in December 1916 almost the entire Petrograd Committee was arrested and their printing press confiscated. Their leadership was in exile for the entire war.

In mid-January 1917 the military commander of Petrograd, Khabalov, completed a plan for crushing any attempt at insurrection. Their first line of defence was the 3,500 police; the second line, the 3,200 Cossacks; and as a final defence, the garrison of 180,000 reserve soldiers. Within a 30- mile radius a further 280,000 troops were available. Clearly, the Cossacks would play a crucial role, but they were expected to be reliable given their privileged position (they served under privileged conditions in the army and could expect a grant of land at the end of their service).

Revolution delayed

At the end of December 1916 there began a series of attacks on food stores, led by women and youths, but this did not as yet take an organised political form. In fact the masses seemed undecided. Thus on 9 January 1917 there was a successful strike, involving more than 40% of the Petrograd workers of the capital, yet only 24% supported the strikes of 10-14 February. In neither case was the movement strong enough to organise street demonstrations. The uprising took the revolutionary leaders by surprise, as they did not pay any particular attention to what was to be the first day of the revolution, International Women’s Day.

Day one: 23 February International Women’s Day

The burdens of war fell heaviest on working women. During the war the number of women workers had doubled (to 130,000), forming one third of the Petrograd labour force. Concentrated in the food and textile industries, their wages were less than half of the metal workers’.

Until February 1917, there were relatively few strikes in this section. Now this changed rapidly with strikes at the textile mills. Women simply abandoned work and marched to neighbouring factories shouting ‘Bread!’ They had strong support from the young workers in their own factories – there were 32,000 child workers (9% of the workforce) in Petrograd.

When conservative workers in other factories did not at first wish to join the strike voluntarily, they bombarded them with rocks and pieces of iron to bring them out. The strike mainly occurred in the Vyborg District, extending to 61% of all workers there.

What made this strike different was that the workers attempted to stage a demonstration on the Nevskii. They were prevented from crossing the bridges, but groups managed to cross over on the ice. At this stage the police were forbidden to shoot, so there were no serious casualties and only 21 arrests.

Of great significance for the future was the vacillation and hesitation shown by the Cossacks, hitherto among the regime’s most loyal supporters. They too wanted an end to the war and realised that this could only come about with the overthrow of the Tsar.

Day two: 24 February

The Vyborg factories, led by Bolsheviks, continued the strike movement. As the crowd approached the Liteinyi bridge they faced 520 armed soldiers and police, including Cossacks. Sabres unsheathed, the Cossacks galloped behind their officers to attack the defenceless demonstrators.

Instead of a massacre – a decisive turning point. The Cossacks broke discipline, not attempting to disperse the crowd. Elderly women then approached the Cossacks to persuade them to come over to the workers’ side. Workers dived under the Cossack horses to make their way onto the bridge. The number of workers on strike was greater than any previous strike during the war, and the workers succeeded in holding mass rallies (36,800 people) on Nevskii for the first time since 1905.

Day three: 25 February – the general strike

The number of strikers increased to 300,000 (85% of the workforce), with the Putilov factory (24,000 workers) in the SE district taking part for the first time. The movement took a giant step forward by raising the political demands ‘Down with the Autocracy’ and ‘Down with the War’ for the first time.

Violent clashes occurred for the first time: in crossing the Liteinyi bridge the crowd killed the police chief trying to prevent their passage; and in the Vyborg district workers wrecked the police stations.

In all there were 17 serious conflicts with the police, the demonstrators using rocks, broken bottles, and sharp pieces of ice. But the most telling incident happened in Znamenskaia Square. When the mounted police attacked a rally, a Cossack killed the leading police officer. Later in the day the first group of soldiers joined the revolutionary crowd, but this was an isolated incident. Elsewhere soldiers opened fire leaving nine dead.

Day four: 26 February Bloody Sunday

Khabalov decided it was time for bloody repression: he issued two proclamations, threatening to mobilise strikers to the most dangerous front; and giving permission for soldiers to shoot on street meetings.

But the people were not to be daunted. Again the demonstrators crossed the ice, and by late morning had assembled on the Nevskii. Four major shooting incidents took place, all involving the more reliable troops of the training detachments – special military units designed to train NCOs. The most serious was on Znamenskaia Square where the commander of the Volynskii Regiment, Lashkevich, ordered his troops to fire: 40 were killed.

Now everything depended on the army – if it did not support the proletariat, the movement would be shattered. The first signs were not encouraging: 100 men from one regiment mutinied, but returned to barracks and were disarmed.

Day five: 27 February Insurrection

The soldiers who made the first decisive move were from the Volynskii Regiment. On morning parade, they killed Lashkevich and left the barracks to win over other regiments. By noon they had 10,200 soldiers on their side. They were joined by workers from the Vyborg District.

By the end of the day 66,700 troops had joined the insurrection. During this day only one battalion, in which the soldiers were sons of the middle and upper class, showed substantial resistance.

However, it was only small contingents of soldiers, frequently led by Bolshevik workers, who took the decisive actions, such as the freeing of political prisoners. Elsewhere, they captured the Arsenal, burnt down police stations and courts, and destroyed official records.

The downfall of the Tsar

Within two days, almost the entire garrison had taken the side of the revolution. Five days later the Tsar finally abdicated. He had been unable to find a loyal army from anywhere else in Russia to defeat the revolution.

The 304-year-old Romanov dynasty had been overthrown – what would follow it? The masses had made the revolution, but the Provisional Government which came to power had a Prince for a Prime Minister and representatives of bourgeois parties in all but one of the ministerial posts. How did the masses let power slip from their hands?

The dates are in the old Russian calendar, ie 13 days behind the western calendar

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 255 February/March 2017