The February Revolution in 1917 saw working class people in Russia put themselves at the centre stage of history. They forced out Tsar Nicholas II—and ended over three centuries of Romanov family rule within days.
They had also begun a process that would put workers in control of society for the first time.
The revolution began on International Women’s Day—23 February, or 8 March in the modern calendar (see below). Tens of thousands of women textile workers struck in the capital Petrograd.
Within a day nearly half the city’s industrial workers had downed tools under the slogans of “Bread,” “Down with the Tsar” and “Stop the war”.
The Tsar was out of the country, but his wife the Tsarina reassuringly wrote to him. “This is a hooligan campaign … all this will surely pass,” she wrote.
It did not pass. Within two days workers had armed themselves. Soldiers, ordered to fire on the protests, joined the revolution. Whole regiments began to desert the army. The Tsar was forced to abdicate on 3 March.
The revolution was a result of decades of discontent and revolt within Russian society.
An earlier revolution in 1905 had seen workers set up the first workers’ councils called “soviets” to organise the struggle. These reappeared during the February Revolution.
The Tsar managed to regain control, but the revolution left people with the experience of creating their own democratic organisations. Despite harsh repression, struggles continued in the years that followed.
Alexander Shlyapnikov was a metal worker, trade union leader and member of the revolutionary socialist Bolshevik party. He described Russia in April 1914 as “a seething cauldron of revolutionary energy”.
As the horrific experience of the First World War sharpened this bitterness, Russia’s rulers prepared for the uprising.
Shlyapnikov said the government “had decided to spray 1917 with hot lead” but this didn’t deter people. On 11 February crowds of protesters marched through Petrograd shouting anti-war slogans and breaking shop windows.
By 14 February 98,000 workers were on strike from 58 different factories. The day before the revolution began, Putilov steel mill bosses locked out 20,000 workers who were demanding higher wages. Led by Bolshevik activists, they took to the streets.
After the women textile workers joined them on 25 February, Bolshevik workers broke into police stations and cut telephone lines to government offices. In response, police launched widespread arrests of revolutionary leaders the next day.
Some soldiers followed the Tsar’s orders to fire on striking workers and killed 169, injuring over 1,000. But other soldiers in their regiment were furious and joined the protesters on the street.
By 27 February around 200,000 were on strike and some 66,000 soldiers in the Petrograd garrison had joined the revolution.
Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote, “By the evening of 28 February, Petrograd’s Military Commander had to report that the revolutionary crowd had taken over all railway stations, all artillery supplies and, as far as he knew, the whole city.
“Very few reliable troops remained at his disposal, and even his telephones were no longer working.”
Peasants made up the largest group in Russia at the time, but workers drove the revolution forward. The working class had grown rapidly, with some estimates putting it at around 15 percent of the population.
The revolt was most powerful in the capital, where working class organisation was strongest, but it quickly spread across Russia.
The revolution flowed from a deep crisis that affected the whole of Russian society. Bosses wanted to develop a modern, capitalist system. Workers were sick of poverty, war and lack of democracy and the peasants wanted land.
No one was prepared to defend the old order, but there were disagreements over what should replace it.
Capitalists feared that the revolt could go beyond what they aimed for. It wouldn’t just get rid of the Tsar but also confront capitalism.
So those at the top tried to limit the revolution. The president of the parliament or “Duma”, Michael Rodzianko, sent a telegram to the Tsar on 26 February suggesting he appoint a new government. There was no reply.
On 1 March General Alexeev warned of “imminent dangers” and advocated forming a new government responsible to the Duma.
But finance minister Peter Bark described how Rodzianko “feared he would no longer be able to contain the revolutionary movement”.
Amid growing revolt, the Duma declared itself a Provisional Government on 2 March. It pledged an immediate amnesty for political offences and elections “on the basis of universal, direct, equal, and secret suffrage”.
But it refused to bring Russia out of the war, warning that “strict military discipline” would be maintained for soldiers on duty.
Some hoped that this Provisional Government would have more authority over workers in revolt, but its authority was limited from the start.
The reformed Petrograd soviet was already in session when the formation of the Provisional Government was announced. On 1 March the Petrograd soviet issued Order No 1 that said government orders to the army should not be seen as valid without its approval.
The new government had no choice but to accept this “dual power” situation. As war minister Alexander Guchkov said, “The Provisional Government does not possess any real power. Its directives are carried out only to the extent that it is permitted by the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”
A Soviet of Workers’ Deputies proclamation on 28 February read, “The old power must be completely crushed. In order to succeed, the people must create their own governmental organ.”
It added, “We invite the entire population of the capital to organise local committees and take into their hands the management of local affairs.” And people did.
New workers’ organisations sprung up in Russia’s industrial centres. Soviets were created in cities and urban districts.
New trade unions were set up. Fitzpatrick wrote how workers set up factory committees “to deal with management”. Some took over management functions to block closures.
Workers’ militias replaced the police. Soldiers set up elected committees and challenged the officers’ control of regiments. In the months after the revolution, the army fell apart.
The villages were quiet in February, as many peasants were away fighting in the war. But within months “the countryside was sliding into turmoil”. Peasants burned down manor houses and seized land.
In February, largely spontaneous action got rid of the Tsar. But it took determined political organisation and leadership to take the struggle further, block attempts at counter-revolution and put workers in charge.
Most leading Bolsheviks were abroad or in exile at the time of the revolution. But the party played a key role. Thousands of workers and soldiers rushed to join it in the run-up to the revolution. By 1917 it was a mass party.
Fitzgerald explained why the Bolsheviks won support. “While other socialist and liberal groups jostled for position in the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet, the Bolsheviks refused to be co-opted,” she wrote.
“While other formerly radical politicians called for restraint, the Bolsheviks stayed out on the streets with the irresponsible and belligerent revolutionary crowd.”
In the months following the February Revolution, class and political divisions increasingly came to the fore. Liberals “moved towards an anxious conservative stance in defence of property and law and order”.
But workers and soldiers became more radical—and eight months later, another revolution put them in charge.
The strike that lit the fire on International Women's Day
The women who toiled in the textile mills of Petrograd’s Vyborg district were low-paid, unskilled and downtrodden.
After working 12-hour shifts, they were expected to do the cleaning, cooking and childcare.
But on 8 March 1917, International Women’s Day, these women textile workers launched a militant strike against growing bread shortages. Mainstream historians dismiss their struggle that began the February Revolution as a “bread riot”.
Despite their union trying to hold them back, 128,000 took the streets and marched to the bread lines. Singing revolutionary songs, they ransacked bakeries and grocery stores and redistributed the goods.
The workers—and the revolutionary Bolshevik party—worked hard to spread the action. They marched on other factories and threw snowballs at the windows calling on male workers to down tools and join them.
Red banners began to appear in different parts of the city echoing the women workers’ demands.
Some 90,000 workers had already been on strike—and bosses had locked out steel workers at the nearby Putilov plant the day before. By the next day the strike had doubled in size, with around half of industrial workers in Petrograd walking out.
Their demand for bread also radicalised into calls against the monarchy and the First World War.
The third day brought 240,000 workers onto the streets, but the army was expected to mobilise against them. Workers now had to win over the soldiers if the revolution was to succeed—and again women led the way.
They approached the infantry, took hold of their rifles and commanded them to put down their bayonets and join the workers. As the army began to refuse orders, the Tsar’s days were numbered.
After the February Revolution women workers became more organised. By the summer they had set up strike committees and through militant action gained dramatic wage increases and the eight-hour working day.
At the Vyborg spinning mill, they seized the boss, carted him out of the factory in a wheelbarrow and threatened to tip him into the canal. Poised at the edge of the bank, he shakily signed the wage increase.
Women were also part of the factory militias that defended the revolution against the old order.
Women workers were one of the most oppressed and low paid groups.
But through the revolution they became more confident—and were at the forefront of fighting for a socialist society based on human liberation.