Resistance in Russia: A Reflection on International Women’s Day

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

This year’s International Women’s Day, on March 8th, was marked across the world with various marches, proclamations and campaigns highlighting inequalities and celebrating women. In the last two years, we have seen feminist campaigns in various institutions to challenge ongoing inequalities that disproportionately affect women, including sexual abuse, the gender pay gap and governmental policies. The earliest observance of a day for women was held by the Socialist Party of America on 28th February 1909 in New York at the suggestion of Theresa Malkiel. German Marxist Clara Zetkin initially proposed an International Women’s Day in 1910 with no fixed date. It had been predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted by the United Nations in 1975. Many historical demonstration actions have occurred on International Women’s Day, including in 1981 a demonstration when French women marched under the banner of the Movement for the Liberation of Women (MLF).

One popular instance of resistance, often evoked when discussing International Women’s Day action, is the bread riot and strike movement sparked by Russian women on 8th March 1917 (23rd February 1917 in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time). However, within historical scholarship on the February Revolution, women’s role as instigators of organised resistance is often contested and undervalued. The strike movement in the Russian capital of Petrograd was initiated by women workers and angry housewives in bread queues on International Women’s Day. Bread riots in urban and smaller cities was an established form of resistance against local institutions.[1]

The consuming war industry meant that women were responsible for the support of families whilst husbands and brothers were at the front. Therefore, many of the housewives involved in the bread riots were also workers. Far from a mere ‘bread riot’, then, women workers also took part in the economic strike for better factory conditions and higher wages. Indeed, after the strike had begun slogans of ‘down with hunger’ and ‘bread for workers’ changed to ‘down with the war’ and ‘down with the Tsar’.[2] Women workers in the Vyborg district also defied the calls to remain calm from labour leaders and stopped working on the 23rd of February, calling male factory workers to join them.[3] The following day, about 200,000 female and male workers went on strike, and the demands of the crowd became more overtly political.  As such, the ‘bread riot’ which sparked the strike was only spontaneous and unprecedented in the way that it involved the larger population in a short space of time and during increasing discontent with the war.

The soldiers’ presence intensified the politicised strike in Moscow as well as Petrograd in February 1917 and indicated that the strike could easily culminate in revolutionary activity. The mutiny of the troops on the 28th of February marked the turning point from economic and political strike to the start of the Revolution. This incident can be attributed to the initial success of turning a disorder into a strike movement. Thus, the use of ‘riot’ as opposed to ‘strike’ diminishes the role and dissenting power of women, and suggests that the strikers had no clear motives in protesting governance or the war. Far from being a glorified ‘bread riot’, the role of the disorder sparked by the women should be ascribed its proper place as a key instigating factor of both the strike movement and the Revolution as a whole. The role of women as individual protesters, as well as active players in society as workers, wives and mothers in the revolution, serve as a historic reminder of the forms that collective action can take in bringing women together to voice discontent.

[1]Barbara Alpern Engel, “Not by Bread Alone: Subsistence Riots in Russia during World War I”, The Journal of Modern History, 69: 4 (1997), 705.

[2] Engel, “Not by Bread Alone: Subsistence Riots in Russia during World War I”, The Journal of Modern History, 69: 4 (1997), 697.

[3] Ronald Grigor Suny, “Revising the Old: the 1917 revolution in light of new sources”, The Worker’s Revolution in Russia 1917: The View from Below. Kaiser, Daniel ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1987), 61.

Image: Women protest in Petrograd on International Women’s Day, 1917, State museum of the political history of Russia.  (Wikimedia)

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