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The Russian Revolution saw workers transform society—and themselves

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Issue 2568
The train of culture on its way to the countryside
The train of culture on its way to the countryside

In February 1913 mass demonstrations of workers and peasants filled the streets of the Russian capital. They were celebrating 300 years of tyranny by Tsar Nicholas II’s Romanov dynasty.

Yet four years later in February 1917 those same women and men overthrew the Tsar. As their revolt continued, it prised open the door to a socialist society based on human liberation.

That’s because the Russian Revolution wasn’t just a change at the top of society.

People’s everyday lives were changing. Through the process of fighting back, ordinary working class people began to take control over their own destinies.

As they did so, the grip of what the revolutionary Karl Marx called the “muck of ages”—bigoted ideas such as sexism, superstition and deference—began to loosen.

Society was being turned upside down. Historian SA Smith describes how workers began telling bosses what to do—and sacking those who refused.

He describes how workers dealt with the chief of the Puzanov factory’s Black Hundreds, a right wing Tsarist murder squad.

“He was tossed in a wheelbarrow, red lead was poured over his head, and he was ignominiously carted out of the factory and dumped in the street.”

The foreman was fired for “rude treatment of workers” and “forced overtime”.

“Wheel barrowing” was common. Smith describes how “at the Baltic shipyard at least sixty members of the administration were demoted, transferred or carted out of the factory in wheelbarrows”.

Workers took over the running of their own factories through factory councils. And through bigger workers’ councils—or “soviets”—they set about directing society as a whole too.


Human potential that had been held down for so long was being unleashed.

Socialist journalist John Reed, an eyewitness to the Russian Revolution, wrote that “all Russia was learning to read, and reading–politics, economics, history—because the people wanted to know.

“We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches.

“When they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, “Did you bring anything to read?”

The soviets seized power from the Provisional Government in October 1917. A new workers’ government passed decrees that furthered the changes already afoot.

Trains were dispatched across Russia to bring literacy, culture and revolutionary ideas. After 1917 there was a flourishing of art, literature and culture with bottom-up workers’ art collectives.

Revolution had begun to uproot the old social relations. The power of the church was being challenged, though not broken.

The basis of sexual oppression was also being challenged as communal kitchens, laundries and nurseries were set up to free women from domestic labour.

Some 90 percent of Petrograd’s population and 60 percent of Moscow’s ate communally in 1919.

But taking this further depended on the revolution spreading—and getting help from more advanced nations, such as Germany and Britain.

Instead it was isolated, and its gains undermined by civil war and counter-revolution.

But for a few years workers proved how much of what we’re told is human nature can be turned on its head.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution

1917 Timeline

18 August (31 August by the modern calendar)

  • Petrograd Soviet votes to abolish the death penalty
  • Despite the objection of Menshevik leaders, the vote is 900 for and four against
  • Provisional Government decides to respect the Soviet decision rather than provoke workers’ anger

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