On the 23 February 1917, International Women’s Day, a group of women textile workers in the Vyborg district of Petrograd went on strike in protest at bread shortages brought on by three years of imperialist war. Although political strikes were not unusual in Petrograd, this strike was to prove to be of historical significance as the spark that started the greatest revolution of the 20th century.
Over the course of the 23rd the textile workers began to ‘call out’ workers in other factories and the strike spread to other districts of Petrograd and by the end of the first day nearly 90,000 workers were out on strike.
The next day workers returned to the factories not to work but to hold short assemblies where they agreed to strike again. This time the strikes almost doubled in size spreading to new districts of the city and the cry of we want bread began to be drowned out by cries of “Down with the war!” and “Down with the Tsar!”
By the 25th the strike had grown to 240,000 workers and tens of thousands had assembled in demonstrations around the city. Street meeting were organised and at one meeting mounted police opened fire and wounded a speaker; shots from the crowd killed a police inspector and wounded the chief of police. Reports from the Tsarist secret police and from Bolshevik workers noted the inactivity of the Cossack cavalry in dispersing the demonstrations.
Up until the 26 February the use of firearms had been avoided by the military, but a telegram received by General Khabalov, then in charge of the district, from the Tsar commanded him to “suppress from tomorrow all disorders on the streets of the capital”. Khabalov passed down orders to open fire on any crowds that refused to disperse.
On the night of the 26th police arrested around 100 revolutionaries including members of the Bolshevik Petrograd Committee; a mutiny among soldiers in the Pavlosk Guard regiment was put down and at least 40 demonstrators were killed.
The army was now crucial to the fate of the revolution; the workers were by and large unarmed and although resolute under volleys of shots they could not hold out under sustained armed attacks. While detailed plans had been drawn up by the Tsarist regime to deal with an insurrection, military plans and garrisons of soldiers are only effective weapons for the ruling class for as long as those soldiers obey orders.
February 27 was to become the decisive day. That morning a Tsarist captain arrived at the barracks of the Volinskii regiment to a chorus of “we will not shoot” and was himself killed by a rifle shot. Soldiers plundered rifles and ammunition from the barracks and convinced some of the Preobrazhenskii regiment stationed in the same barracks to mutiny.
Soon soldiers spread out across the city to gather weapons from arsenals and to ‘call out’ soldiers stationed in other barracks. Regiment by regiment the military forces at the disposal of the Tsarist regime dwindled and police stations were destroyed.
A last ditch attempt by General Khabalov to send in another regiment ended, in his words, with ‘no results’; attempts to bring in reserves were thwarted as there was no access to ammunition.
On February 28 the last remaining troops who had not mutinied surrendered; the ministers of the Tsarist government were either arrested or surrendered voluntarily.
The Russian ruling class decided to sacrifice the Tsar to save their own skins. Tsar Nicholas was forced to abdicate.
After just five days four hundred years of Tsarist autocracy had been swept away and consigned to history. The fall of the Tsarist regime represented just the start of the most incredible eight months of revolutionary history. The fight for a workers state would continue,.
Suggested reading on the Russian Revolution
There are vast numbers of books on the Russian Revolution. The best by far is Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution – the only trouble is it is very long, over 1000 pages, but well worth it. Much shorter and very good is John Reed, Ten Days the Shook the World, an eye-witness account by a revolutionary American journalist. There is also Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October, and just published, 1917:Russia’s Red Year, a new graphic novel by Tim Sanders and John Newsinger. In March there will be a Special Edition of the Irish Marxist Review on the Revolution.