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May Day in Russia, 1917 – a beacon to workers across the world

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May Day 1917 saw massive celebrations in Russia—but tension was brewing against the provisional government
Issue 2551
May Day celebrations in Petrograd in 1917
May Day celebrations in Petrograd in 1917

Russia’s Provisional Government legalised May Day in 1917 after the February Revolution and made it an official festival.

But the protests on the newly legal May Day only helped deepen anger against the government.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “All the cities of Russia were drowned in meetings and demonstrations. Everybody, it seemed, was celebrating.

“So far as it could, the army at the front celebrated. News came of meetings, speeches, banners and revolutionary songs in the trenches, and there were responses from the German side.”

Under the Tsars, the only legal processions were funerals.

May Day protests before 1917 had brought thousands of workers onto the streets, but were often dispersed. This time armed workers marched in Petrograd, and prisoners of war marched alongside soldiers.

All the buildings on the Palace Square, including the Winter Palace, were decorated with revolutionary slogans.

Then foreign minister Pavel Miliukov described how 1 May was “the day of the first open celebration in Russia of the international workers’ holiday, May Day”.

He wrote, “Public buildings were decorated that day with gigantic signs saying, ‘Long live the International’.”

One such banner stretched across the Mariinsky Palace, where the Provisional Government was based. Trotsky wrote how “the authorities could not make up their mind to remove this disagreeable and alarming streamer”.

The day seemed to unite all of Russia. But Trotsky added, “Underneath the triumphal discipline of the demonstration the mood was tense.”


More battles were taking place in factories, rations were being cut and there was growing anger at the war.

Just days after the May Day celebrations, street protests erupted against Miliukov. A leaked note showed that he had promised the Allied governments that Russia would continue the war.

Furious protests followed, later known as the April Days. Soldiers and armed workers marched with posters reading, “Down with Miliukov” and “Miliukov must resign”.

Some took up the slogan, “Down with the Provisional Government!”

The Bolsheviks helped to lead armed protests driving Miliukov out. Historian of the revolution Sukhanov wrote, “Tremendous excitement reigned generally in the working class districts, the factories and the barracks.

“Many factories were idle. Local meetings were taking place everywhere.”

As the Bolsheviks grew in influence, Bolshevik leader Lenin came under increasing attack.

Days before the May Day celebrations, injured soldiers protested against Lenin—and for continuing the war. Newspapers carried claims that Lenin was a spy and an enemy of the people.

But in Petrograd, the Soviet stood firm against the lies and was able to hold sway among ordinary people.

By May Day Sukhanov wrote that the Soviet “had in its hands the totality of all real state power and the entire fate of the revolution”.

For the coming second revolution to be a success, that confidence needed to spread across Russia.

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

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