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Russia 1917 – how a revolution beat back a pandemic

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Governments across the world are failing to protect people from coronavirus. But there are better ways to tackle diseases. In Russia after the 1917 revolution, typhus posed a major threat—but revolutionary measures led by ordinary people stopped its spread, writes Charlie Kimber
Issue 2704
The Bolshevik Agit-Train spread public health information across Russia
The Bolshevik Agit-Train spread public health information across Russia

How would a society that has had a revolution deal with pandemics? A glimpse comes from Russia in 1917. The working class, headed by the Bolshevik party, took power in a revolution there in October. Immediately, they had to deal with waves of disease sweeping large parts of Europe.

Over the next four years cholera, smallpox and “Spanish Flu” had devastating effects. But the greatest threat was from typhus. In a time before antibiotics, typhus was fatal in a third of those who were infected.

It is spread by a bacteria which lives in the gut of the body louse. The insect lives in the clothes of its host and prospers in conditions of dirt, overcrowding, poor sanitation and illness.

The First World War provided a ­perfect breeding ground. Lice infested the uniforms of soldiers, travelling with them as they advanced and retreated.

They then spread to the populations of shattered cities, devastated rural areas and prisoner of war camps. Across eastern Europe millions of people were infected.

After the revolution in Russia, “White” armies were determined to crush the new workers’ society. They allied with invading forces from 14 countries to launch a civil war.

Vast numbers of starving people fled to escape marauding armies, pouring into cities that were already densely packed and where decent housing had been wiped out. The lice prospered.

The louse and death are friends and comrades, reads this 1919 poster

The louse and death are friends and comrades, reads this 1919 poster

In 1919 revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin was reported to have told a meeting of health workers, “All attention to this problem, comrades. Either lice will conquer socialism, or socialism will conquer lice.” This was not easy. Russia had been an economically backward country in 1914, and war and civil war had wiped out most of modern industry.

Russian society, run by democratic workers’ councils called soviets, met the challenge head on. Under workers’ control the health services had been ­nationalised and centralised—and were now free of charge.

This was crucial in developing a plan to survive typhus. The first task was to increase health provision massively.

The journalist Jakob Friis travelled to Russia in the midst of the pandemic and interviewed Dr Pervukhin from the organisation responsible for medicines.


He told him, “In consequence of the nationalisation of the drug stores, our scanty supplies of medicaments are distributed equitably. In spite of all external difficulties, the health conditions have become better during the past year.

“New factories for medicaments have been erected, and great stocks have been confiscated from the speculators. It would have been impossible for any capitalistic government to protect the popular health so well.

“We overcame the Spanish influenza better than the Western world did. We are in a position to combat epidemics with much greater force than in the old days.”

Friis was a member of the Norwegian Labour Party which after 1917 had joined the Comintern, the international organisation of revolutionary parties. He—and his Bolshevik interviewee—might have been expected to give a rosy account.

Men washing themselves in a public bathroom to prevent typhus, and have clothes cleaned in an industrial cleanser

Men washing themselves in a public bathroom to prevent typhus, and have clothes cleaned in an industrial cleanser

But much of his testimony is ­substantiated in an article written by a US ­professor in 1993. K David Paterson wrote, “Extensive efforts were made to educate the public. Railway carriages with special exhibits toured the areas under Soviet control.

“By November 1919, disinfection teams were treating 40-50,000 passengers daily in Moscow train stations. Eventually, the Soviet government set up some 250,000 beds for typhus patients and erected about 300 isolation and disinfection stations along the railways and waterways.

“Hundreds of bathing and disinfection detachments were created in the military to delouse the troops.”

Laboratories were set up to research and generalise effective measures.

Paterson continued, “Delousing did exterminate masses of lice. A two-inch layer of dead lice covered the floor of one Red Army disinfection room.

“Delousing, isolation, and education no doubt ­contributed to the ultimate abatement of the epidemic.”

In addition to the expansion of health facilities the Bolsheviks applied ­themselves to improving other areas of working class life, such as housing and schools. This took time.

In 1919 the newspaper of the soviets wrote, “Many thousands of workers still live in cellars and attics. The Angel of Death still walks in the suburbs of the cities and points at the dwellings of workers with his terrible hand.”

Crucially the anti-typhus measures were not just imposed from above. They depended on, and were implemented by, a network of workers’ organisations.


Workers’ Committees to Combat Epidemics were created in the cities and larger villages as early as 1918. Their task was to inspect lodgings and public institutions, to teach people about cleanliness, to distribute soap and to fight the louse. The party, the trade unions, women’s organisations and youth groups all joined in the struggle against disease.

The representatives of these Committees—workers and peasants themselves—communicated scientific information to the wider population.

A gigantic white louse from the ‘White’ army threatens the fortress of the Red soldiers.

A gigantic white louse from the ‘White’ army threatens the fortress of the Red soldiers.

This involvement of the working class was central to defeating disease.

In 1920 Nikolai Semashko, the top official responsible for health, wrote, “We may say without exaggeration that the epidemics of typhus and cholera were stopped chiefly by the assistance of the workers’ and peasants’ committees.

“The People’s Commisariat of Health can only ­overcome the numerous difficulties ­existing in this impoverished and devastated country by assuring itself of the support and assistance of the population.”

Some aid from Western countries did come to Russia—but only for the enemies of the Bolsheviks. The American Red Cross (ARC) made major efforts to support the White armies.

Julia F Irwin, a historian specialising in US “humanitarianism,” wrote, “Although ARC workers might have denied it, their relief efforts—aimed as they were at anti-Bolshevik soldiers and civilians—were in truth deeply political in design and execution.

“In the early twentieth century, just as it is today, American foreign relief represented a central pillar of American ­foreign relations.”

The Russian death toll from typhus between 1918 and 1922 was probably over two million. The dead included the father of the revolutionary leader of the Red Army Leon Trotsky. But the ­workers’ state then pushed the death toll back. Paterson wrote, “Under persistent attack by health authorities, typhus declined markedly after 1922.”

However, the lice infestations—and typhus—returned as the bureaucratic counter-revolution led by Joseph Stalin strangled workers’ power.


The intensified exploitation of workers and peasants, combined with the annihilation of every element of workers’ democracy, saw typhus rise—particularly in the prison camps.

Typhus reportedly killed tens of thousands of inmates in a single camp in the Kolyma district in 1938. As with every other area of life, the essence of the ­revolution was overturned by Stalinism.

None of that should take away from what was achieved in the early years after 1917. A few days before he died—from typhus—in 1920, John Reed, the revolutionary journalist, wrote an article that summed up the situation.

He said that workers’ power “does not mean that all is well with Soviet Russia, that the people do not hunger, that there is not misery and disease and desperate, endless struggle. The winter was horrible beyond imagination. Typhus, intermittent fever, influenza raged among the workers.

“The constitutions of the people, undermined by semi-starvation for more than two years, could not resist. The conscious Allied policy of blockading Russia against medicines killed untold thousands.

“Nevertheless, the People’s Commissariat of Public Health built a colossal sanitary service, a network of medical sections under control of the local Soviets all over Russia, in places where there had never been doctors before.

“Every township boasts of at least one new hospital, more often two or three.

“Hundreds of thousands of bright-coloured posters were put up everywhere, telling the people by means of pictures how to avoid disease, urging them to clean up their houses and themselves.

“In every town and city there are free maternity hospitals for working women.”

In the midst of war and famine the Bolsheviks carried out a more scientific, effective and democratic policy to fight epidemics than in the richest countries a century later.

That is why, in place of a capitalist society of poverty and pandemics, we fight for socialism.

Eyewitness – ‘Our children shall see a happy, free world’

“The windows in the station waiting-room were broken. The water pipes had burst, and the floor was coated with ice.

Upon this, and on tables, benches, everywhere, lay soldiers, uncountable grey heaps of them, tossing and muttering in the delirium of typhus.

The other waiting-room was in the same condition, but in one comer stood a stage brightly decorated with red banners and revolutionary posters, with a dim Kerosene lamp burning on a table, before which stood a young fellow in uniform making a speech to the dun mass of soldiers who crowded the place, lifting to him their flat, bearded faces with an expression of strained attention.

He was agitating for the Communist Party, pleading with the soldiers to join it, and to contribute to the party press.

‘Long must we still suffer,’ he said. ‘And perhaps even worse things than we suffer now, until our European comrades come to our help. And yet the European revolution itself will mean fresh sacrifices on our part, for we, who have not enough to eat ourselves, must feed our brothers, who will have even less than we. But through that darkness we must go, comrades, though all of us die, so that the world of our children shall be a happy, free world.’

And they cheered, those half‑frozen skeletons, waving their hats, their sunken eyes shining.”

John Reed, writing in the Communist magazine ‘Liberator’ in 1920

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