Socialist Worker

Simmering Petrograd was ready to boil over

Rapid capitalist development in Russian cities gave birth to a working class that dug the Tsar and capitalism’s grave

Issue No. 2545

A strike at the giant Putilov weapons factory

A strike at the giant Putilov weapons factory

The Russian working class was unique in 1917, in both its composition and position in global capitalism.

Rapid capitalist development in Russia had a profound impact on the shape of the working class as peasants rushed to the cities in search of work.

Workers were concentrated in industrial centres, such as Petrograd, that were among the most advanced in the world.

At the same time, this growing working class was drawn from the peasantry and retained deep ties to the land.

In 1908 half of single workers still owned land. This didn’t stop them being workers, but it meant that deep contradictions ran through the newly-forming class.

By 1918 that figure had dropped to 12.5 percent.

In western European countries, such as Britain, France and Holland, capitalism had developed over the course of centuries. In Russia, this process was rapidly accelerated.

By 1917 there were “at least 18.5 million workers in the empire, about 10 percent of the population,” according to historian SA Smith.

Around two thirds of these had only recently begun working in industry.

In Petrograd there were 417,000 industrial workers and more than 70 percent were “in enterprises of more than 1,000 employees”.

The rapid expansion and concentration of the working class also had a rapid effect on workers’ ideas.

The conservatism that was associated with sections of the working class in advanced capitalist economies did not have the same purchase in Russia.

Living conditions in the cities were brutal and conditions in factories were appalling. After a factory explosion killed five workers at the Okhta explosives factory, the director general Somov declared, “Such accidents happen and will keep on happening.

“I for one never enter the factory without first making the sign of the cross.”


Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described the conditions necessary for a revolution. There must be a political crisis for the ruling class and “the suffering and want of the oppressed classes” should be “more acute than usual”.

This was true in Russia.

As millions were conscripted to fight in the First World War, many industrial workers were spared this death sentence.

The most militant workers tended to be the most skilled, who were also less likely to be sent to the front.

Despite this 6,000 metal workers in Petrograd were conscripted. Bosses used it as a punishment for militants.

The conditions women suffered were even worse because on top of factory work they had to rear children and do domestic work.

But women textile workers played a central role in the February Revolution, leading the strike movement that toppled the Tsarist dictatorship. By 1917 women made up almost exactly a third of the entire workforce in Petrograd.

The lived reality of workers in their industrial strongholds meant they knew what was at stake in the fight against the Tsar and Provisional Government that replaced him.

During the revolution workers’ councils (“soviets”) sprang up in villages, towns and cities to direct the revolution and run society.

Workers also understood the need to win the peasants to the revolution.

The Petrograd Soviet raised 65,000 roubles to send some 3,000 agitators into the countryside with literature to win over peasants to the revolution.

This workers’ self-organisation laid the basis for the second uprising in October 1917, when the working class seized power.

1917 timeline

27 February (11 March in the modern calendar)

  • Bolshevik party agitators visit the Volynsky Regiment to strike up a relationship
  • By noon the soldiers decide to kill the commander of the company that fired on demonstrators the previous day
  • By nightfall, 66,000 men of the Petrograd garrison had joined the striking workers—fully armed

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution. Read our coverage at

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