Taking it to the Streets: International Women’s Day, March 8, 1917

One hundred one years ago today, thousands of Russian women took to the streets to protest high prices and food scarcity. “Down with high prices” and “down with hunger,” they shouted. Their voices did not go unheard. Thousands joined them the next day as a labor strike broke out. On March 9 (February 25 according to the Russian calendar), approximately 200,000 workers filled Petrograd. Their new battle cry? Down with the tsar.

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, one character describes how he went bankrupt as happening “gradually and suddenly.”[1] “Gradually and suddenly” is also an extremely apt way to characterize the 1917 February Revolution in Russia. The revolutionary spark kindled by the massacre of Father Gapon and his followers in 1905 was temporarily dimmed by Nicholas II’s creation of the Duma and other assorted attempts at reforms. The next twelve years saw steady economic decline, rampant inflation, military setbacks and defeats in World War I, and a continued increase in the people’s distrust and disfavor with their autocratic government. All of these factors contributed to the February Revolution, but what caused it to occur at that specific time? Why not in January, or the previous December? The revolution needed a flashpoint, and that came in the form of a loaf of bread. The person who wants to identify the roots of the February 1917 Revolution need look no farther than what was on (and more importantly, what was not on) Russian dinner tables. More than allegiance to any revolutionary dogma or nationalist feeling, Russians of every class and creed shared the experience of persistent food insecurity. Food scarcity does not link to the entire revolutionary movement in a straight line, but it is both a common theme and symbol of the problems within the Russian government, military, and people themselves.

“It all began with bread,” wrote historian Orlando Figes in his social history of the Revolution.[2] As the country mobilized for war, the majority of the nation’s food production was earmarked for sustaining the millions of men (and women) serving at the front (and rear).[3] Even this was not enough, as soldiers complained of the lack of provisions, arms, and other necessities. “In Ivov, before the eyes of 28 thousand soldiers, five people were flogged for leaving their courtyard without permission to buy white bread,” wrote soldier A. Novokov.[4]

Food insecurity was even worse on the home front. As peasant farmers realized they could not buy enough food to support their families, they turned to farming subsistence crops like potatoes and oats instead of traditional grains. In the cities, workers had money to buy food, but near constant food shortages meant there was no food to buy. “We will soon have a famine,” wrote Maxim Gorky to his wife, Ekaterina. “I advise you to buy ten pounds of food and hide it.”[5] Most would not be able to make such preparations. “They say: work calmly, but we are hungry and we cannot work,” wrote a group of female workers in June 1915. “They say there is no bread. Where is it then? Or is it only for the Germans that the Russian land produces?”[6]

Everyone seemed to recognize Russia’s situation was dire except the tsar. While his country starved, the “little father” of Russia dined in style. Describing a typical meal at Tsar Nicholas II’s table, Alexander Mosolov writes of “soup…followed by fish, a (game or chicken) casserole, vegetables, sweets, (and) fruit.”[7] The ruling family washed down this abundance of food with “madeira, white and red wines for breakfast… and different wines served at lunch, as is the custom everywhere else in the civilised (sic) world.”[8] There is no more powerful demonstration of the tsar’s disengagement from the people he ruled than the royal family enjoying the finest Bordeaux while his people could barely scrape enough food together to keep themselves alive. Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned, but the Romanovs did feast while the Russian people starved.

The people were hungry, the army was in disarray, and the government seemed out-of-touch at best, but the situation was still not quite ripe for revolution. The people needed a common cause they could rally behind. This cause crystallized in the bread lines of Petrograd. Figes described the Petrograd bread lines as almost “a sort of political forum or club, where rumours, information, and views were exchanged.”[9] As they realized common experiences and concerns, the people began to organize. Put quite simply by Figes, “(t)he February Revolution was born in the bread queue.”[10] Organized civil disobedience took a more violent turn as bread shortages led to bread riots. Strikes and walkouts in factories increased the number of people demonstrating in the streets, making it ever more difficult for the police to regain control. The tsarist government fell, the Romanov Dynasty ended, and a Provisional Government made up of leaders of the Duma was left to pick up the pieces. It should be no mystery why the Bolsheviks captured the imagination of the people. Their promises of peace, land, and bread neatly summed up the needs of every Russian soldier, farmer, and worker, man or woman, child or adult.

When compared to other causes of the Revolution—World War I, failed reforms, tsarist incompetence—bread seems insignificant. Lack of bread, however, is extremely significant. The Russian government could not meet the needs of its people. Hundreds of thousands died at the front lines and at home while the Duma struggled against a tsar who had no understanding of his country’s issues or impending demise. The 1917 February Revolution in Russia continued a legacy of protest that included the 1789 women’s bread riots in revolutionary France and the bread riots in Richmond, Virginia (then capital of the Confederacy) in 1863. Food insecurity inspired women to speak, and gave them a message to which their societies listened.

One hundred one years later, women still wait in bread lines, walk miles for clean water for their families, and struggle to care for their families. Equal pay and equal rights continue to escape even the most modern, “civilized” nations. It is easier to create hashtags and slogans than real change. On this International Women’s Day, we recognize the women who spoke up and walked out. We salute the women who continue to refuse to let the status quo determine their present and stifle their future.

 

[1] Ernest Hemingway (1926) The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner, 2006 ed.), Book 2, chapt. 13.

[2] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 298.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “A. Novikov to A. I. Ivanova, Moscow, “Excerpts from Soldiers’ Letters, Intercepted by Censors, 1915-1917,” in Russia in War and Revolution, 1914:1922: A Documentary History, ed. Jonathan Daly, Leonid Trofinov, accessed June 6, 2016, http://www.snhu-media.snhu.edu/files/course-repository/graduate/his/his630, 12.

[5] Maxim Gorky quoted in Figes, 300.

[6] “Proclamation of Kostroma women workers to soldiers, June 1915,” in Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922: A Documentary History, 11.

[7] Alexander Mosolov, “At the Emperor’s Court, Book IV” in At the Court of the Last Tsar, accessed June 14, 2016, http://www.alexanderpalace.org/mossolov.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Figes, 300.

[10] Ibid.

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