March 8th has a double meaning in world history. First it is International Women’s Day, a holiday that celebrates women all over the world except, it seems, in the United States. March 8th is also marks the beginning of the Russian Revolution, which is perhaps the most defining event of the 20th century. Today marks its 90th anniversary.
On March 8, 1917 scores of women protested WWI, bread prices, and poverty in Petrograd’s industrial Vyborg district. As they passed the district’s factories, the women encouraged workers to join the protest. As one worker from the New Lessner Factory described the scene:
Women’s voices were heard in the alley onto which the windows of our department opened, shouting “Down with the war! Down with the high cost of living! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!” . . . Throngs of militant women workers filled the alley. Those who spotted us began waving their arms and yelling “Come out! Stop work!” Snowballs pelted the windows. We decided to join the demonstrations.
By the end of the day, over 100,000 workers were on the streets by the end of the day.
The protesters then attempted to cross the Neva river to the government upper class districts. As they turned down Nevsky Prospect, they were met by police, who dispersed the crowd. The Russian Revolution had began.
I thought it would be best to revisit these first days of what became known as the February Revolution by excerpting some reports from the Okrana, the Tsarist secret police. Among many things, these documents demonstrate an unfolding of events, an increase in chaos, and the escalation of violence. The documents are taken from The Russian Provisional Government, 1917 which was complied and edited by none other than Alexander Kerensky in 1961.
Memorandum of February 24 of the Okhrana Section to precinct superintendents regarding the events of the first two days.
On February 23 at 9:00 am, the workers of the plants and factories of the Vyborg district went on strike in protest against the shortage of black bread in the bakeries and groceries; the strike spread to some plants located in the Petrograd, Rozhdestvenskii, and Liteinyi districts, and in the course of the day 50 industrial enterprises ceased working, with 87,534 men going on strike.
At about 1:00 pm, the workmen of the Vyborg district, waling out in the crowds into the streets and shouting “Give us bread,” started at the same time to become disorderly in various places, taking with the on the war their comrades who were at work, and stopping tramcars; the demonstrators took away from the tram drivers the keys to the electric motors, which forced 15 tramway trains to quit the lines and retire to the Petrograd tramway yard.
The strikers, who were resolutely chased by police and troops summoned [for this purpose], were dispersed in one place but quickly gathered in other places, showing themselves to be exceptionally stubborn; in the Vyborg district order was restored only toward 7:00 pm.
Memorandum from the Okrana, complied on February 24, late in the evening, to the Ministry of the Interior, to the Prefect, to the Office of the Prosecutor, to the district chiefs of police, and the Commander of Troops.
The strike of the workers which took place yesterday in connection with the shortage of bread continued today; in the course of the day 131 enterprises with 158,583 workers shut down.
According to the materials at out disposal, starting with February 25 the telephonic communications from the precincts became much more scarce . . . .
. . . Here are some of the more characteristic of these communications.
On February 25 a crowd of about 6,000 workmen proceeding from the Bol’shoi Samsonievskii Prospekt along Botkinskaia Strett toward Nizhnii Novgorod Street was met by Cossacks and a detail of police; present on horseback was Shalfeev, Chief of Police of the 5th District. The crowd dragged him down from the horse and began to beat him with sticks and an iron hook used to switch railway points policemen fired into the crowd (evidently the Cossacks were inactive) and the shots were returned from the crowd. The Chief of Police was seriously wounded and was taken to a military hospital.
On February 26 the number of telephonic communications sharply declines . . .
Among these communications, which mention several cases of assaults on the police and also several cases of policemen and soldiers firing at the crowd, with killed and wounded in two cases . . ., there appears for the first time a report on a direct mutiny of the soldiers:
Police Sergant Kharitonoc reported that at 6:00 pm the 4th company of the Pavlovsk Guard regiment, in an outburst of indignation against their [regimental] training detachment, which had been detailed to the Nevskii Prospekt, and which had fired at the crowd after leaving its barracks which are located in the riding school of the court stables, proceeded toward the Nevskii Prospekt under the command of a noncommissioned officer with the intention of removing [the details of the training detachment] from their posts; however, on its war, in the vicinity of the Church of Christ the Saviour, the 4th company met a mounted patrol of 10 policemen; the soldiers abused the policemen, calling them “pharaohs,” and firing several volleys at them, killing one policeman and one horse, and wounding one policeman and one horse. Then the soldiers returned to the barracks where they staged a mutiny. Colonel Eksten came to put it down and was wounded by on the soldiers; his hand was cut off; later a detachment of the Preobrazhenskii Guard Regiment was summoned; it disarmed and surrounded the mutineers.
February 26, 1917. Collaborator’s pseudonym “N. N.” Information received by Lieutenant Colonel Prutevskii. Party: various sources.
In the State Duma spirits are high. Under the presidency of Rodzianko a conference is now taking place in relation to the firing by the troops without forewarning and the shootring of isolated individuals.
Among the deputies it is being said that Police Inspector Krylov was not killed by the mob, but was hacked by a Cossack because he had fired at the Cossacks, who refused to obey the order to disperse the crowd.
A certain manufacturer living at 128 Nevskii Prospeckt has telephoned several times to Rodzianko, stating that all those who appeared near his house were being shot one by one; he had counted 15 of them.
A number of faction sessions are set in the Duma for tomorrow, February 27. The Bureau of the Progressive Bloc has proposed to Convene an extraordinary session of the State Duma tomorrow, the 27th; the progressists and the Trudoviks support the bloc’s proposal, but Rodzianko declared that for reasons of procedure he was unable to convene an extraordinary session.
Tomorrow at [12:00] noon the Sen’oren convent will be convened, and at 2:00 pm a private conference of all the members of the State Duma will take place.
The Social Democrats and the Trudoviks provoke the Duma by saying that it should tell the Government either “Continue to shoot” or “We must head the movement which is taking place.”
The Progressists and the Kadets meet this provocation halfway. But do not disclose their plans.
The Octobrists, the Nationalists, and the members of the right are frightened and declare that no questions should be presented to the Government now because everything is under the orders of the Commander [of the Petrograd Military District], who, according to the law, may not be questioned and has the right to suspend the activity of any institution; they frighten the left by saying that he may also close the State Duma . . .”