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Mutiny and rebellion in the shadow of a world war

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Issue 2537
Russian and German soldiers defied orders and fraternised
Russian and German soldiers defied orders and fraternised
Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker will be running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution

Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker is running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution. Click here for the introductory article, and for the full list go to

The Socialist Workers Party will also be holding events throughout the year including a major conference on 4 November.

The dates of the Russian Revolution can be confusing. Russia used the Julian or Old Style calendar until 24 January 1918, when this was replaced by the Gregorian or New Style calendar. To convert Old Style dates to New Style dates, add 13 days. So 26 October 1917 Old Style becomes 8 November New Style. Importantly, the labour movement in Russia celebrated International Women’s Day and May Day on the same New Style date as workers elsewhere.

1917 timeline: 22 January 1917

  • The Bolshevik party helps organise protests marking the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre of demonstrators
  • In Moscow some 30,000 workers strike
  • A further 145,000 workers strike in Petrograd. Baku, Nizhni Novgorod, Novocherkassk, Voronezh, Kharkov, Rostov-on-Don, the Donbass area and other cities.

The Russian Revolution was born amid the slaughter and chaos of the First World War.

Up to 2,500,000 Russians were killed in the war and up to 5,000,000 wounded.

Conditions for soldiers were dire. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “The troops soon turned out to have neither weapons nor even shoes.”

Untrained soldiers were sent into battle without arms or ammunition. Russia suffered a series of demoralising defeats.

But the bitter experience of the war had an impact on soldiers’ ideas.

Trotsky wrote, “‘Everything for the war!’ said the ministers, deputies, generals, journalists. ‘Yes,’ the soldier began to think in the trenches, ‘they are all ready to fight to the last drop…of my blood.’”

A secret service agent reported that the army was “full of elements of which some are capable of becoming active forces of insurrection”.

Meanwhile ordinary people in Russia starved and froze as the war sucked up resources.

Much of Russia’s agricultural machinery and other equipment was in need of repair.

Russia relied heavily on imports for goods and raw materials but the war virtually stopped them.Factories were starved of raw materials, hitting production.

Writer Arthur Ransome described Russia as under siege and without provisions.

“Russian towns began to be hungry in 1915,” he wrote.

Russia’s national income fell by a third during the war. As the government borrowed and printed money to fund the war effort, inflation soared.

In Moscow, retail prices doubled in the first two years of the war. By early 1917 they had trebled in twelve months.

Food prices rose more than any other commodity. Peasant landowners, or Kulaks, hoarded grain to push prices up even higher.

In 1916 the average worker ate between 200 and 300 grams of food a day. In 1917 people were allowed just 450 grams of bread a day.

In reality people went days without food.

The war put extra strain on Russia’s transport system, paralysing the economy. In the summer of 1915 more than a fifth of trains were being used to evacuate people and move equipment.

Over half a million peasant households were displaced and there were fewer agricultural workers left to harvest food.

“The number of peasants who could not sow their fields increased,” wrote Trotsky. “Peasant hostility towards the war sharpened from month to month.”

The war created up to six million refugees across the Russian empire, transforming cities and towns.

Historian Peter Gatrell described how in the cities of Ekaterinoslav and Pskov, one in four inhabitants were refugees.

Newspapers characterised the refugees as a “human torrent” and even “locusts”.

Some people resented the refugees while for others the crisis added to their anger at the Tsar.

Food shortages and the brutality of the war sparked the strikes and protests that kickstarted the February Revolution.

Workers at the huge Putilov factory in Petrograd struck on 4 March 1917.

Four days later women textile workers struck and protested in Petrograd demanding bread and peace. Other workers joined them.

When soldiers were called to suppress the protests, they rebelled and joined in. Eventually all 150,000 soldiers of the Petrograd garrison joined the revolution.

A wave of mutinies among soldiers and sailors followed.The February Revolution got rid of the Tsar and ushered in a provisional government.

But workers, soldiers and sailors also set up workers’ councils, or soviets.

In October, another revolution put the soviets in charge. The new workers’ government immediately took Russia out of the war.

War provoked the revolution. Ultimately the revolution put an end to it.

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