Women in the Russian Revolution | One of the first waves of Feminism in World
The October Revolution of 1917 brought forward to the frontline of history not only millions of workers and peasants but also a whole contingent of outstanding women representatives of the intelligentsia and the working class who became the torchbearers, the beacons of the political consciousness of Russia that was undergoing a revolutionary ferment. One may recall that in the beginning of the XX century Russia topped the list, as far as, the sheer numbers of educated women and women-doctors is taken into consideration. – Ranjana Saxena*
A hundred years have passed by since the two Russian revolutions – the February bourgeois-democratic and the October-Socialist revolution took place. In the history of human civilization, the October revolution heralded a new era, of a hitherto, untried political system. Indeed, historical events of such magnitude can rightly be appraised only after hundred years, when from politics they shift to the realm of epistemology. In this context, it needs to be highlighted that, after the Bolsheviks came to power in the former USSR in 1917, just in years almost a thousand ordinances concerning the socio-political life of the people came into existence. Many of those ordinances are still functional in present-day Russia. The colossal task of building a ‘new country’ thus was put in order and that is something, which cannot be negated.
The October Revolution of 1917 brought forward to the frontline of history not only millions of workers and peasants but also a whole contingent of outstanding women representatives of the intelligentsia and the working class who became the torchbearers, the beacons of the political consciousness of Russia that was undergoing a revolutionary ferment. One may recall that in the beginning of the XX century Russia topped the list, as far as, the sheer numbers of educated women and women-doctors is taken into consideration.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was experiencing a time of massive political turmoil. After a long drawn second half of the 19th century distinguishable by its revolutionary fervour a series of revolutions in 1905 and 1917 resulted in the transition from a Tsarist autocracy to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The revolutions of the early 20th in Russia saw the women joining the centre stage of political and social life. Bright and versatile figures such as Larissa Raisner, Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand, Nadezhda Krupskaya became famous in the history but they were by no means an exception! Behind them stood hundreds of other Russian women who participated in the revolution and left an inedible mark in the history of the revolution.
These women were from varied backgrounds; of myriad social, political dispositions; from the working class and the aristocracy; the girl-students and nurses; the Bolshevik supporters and the social-democrats; the women from the nobility, as well as the commander of the Women’s Battalions of all female combat units. The women joined the revolutionary processes of the ‘big change’ as Socialism promised to change everything and bring about the radical social transformation. It promised to eradicate exploitation and suppression of the exploited people in all spheres of life. It came with a promise of an egalitarian polity. Even if not everyone understood the ideological tenets of socialism, they understood that they needed a better life. Pitirim Sorokin, an American-Russian sociologist, wrote in his dairy “In case the future historians debate on the issue as to what started the Russian revolution, they need not give a confused theory. The revolution was kick-started by the hungry women and children demanding bread. They started destroying tramcars and small shops. Later along with the workers and the politicians, they began to pull down the powerful edifice of the autocracy”.
That year the International women’s day saw the women workers of the textile mill in the Vyborg district of Petrograd marching on the streets of Petrograd, moving from factory to factory appealing to workers to join them in the protest. They demanded solidarity from the men workers and urged the government to put an end to the war that was shattering their lives. The slogans of these women were against the Czar, the war and for workers and soldiers unity.
Apart from the working women, the revolution saw the participation of women from all walks of life. The massive participation of the Russian women was the result of a long tradition of women’s struggle that had seen the Russian women of the 19th century protesting against their unequal status in the society. The women’s movement for equality or the ‘women’s question’, as it was termed in the 19th century Russia had quite a few precursors. The starting point in the history of Russian Women’s movement could be the turbulent times of Peter the Great, when The czar was ‘opening a window’ into Europe and new attitudes towards women began to take shape.
A full-fledged campaign for women’s equality in Russia emerged in the 60s of the 19th century, riding high on the general upsurge of the democratic movement. In fact, the 19th century is said to have been shaken by two issues: the ‘peasant’ and the ‘women question’.
The first serious discussion on the ‘Women Question’ was initiated in articles written in 1859 by the champion of women’s education M.L.Mikhailov, later many progressive-minded men, and subsequently, also many women joined this struggle upholding women’s right to equal and higher education. The ‘triumvirate’ of the women’s movement were Trubnikova, Stasova and Filosofova. They made a very formidable contribution to the ‘women’s struggle in the second half of the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, the Russian women had many achievements as a result of the struggle put up by the men and women of the 1860s. Beginning in the 20th century the Russian women’s movement acquired a more organised character, though ideologically it became more divided.
The women’s movement progressed from the demand for higher and equal educational, professional opportunities to civil and political rights. During this period Russia was inundated with women’s newspapers, journals, creative writings, as well as, with women’s organisations working for women’s welfare. The Russian women had already fought for equal access to higher education and to professional opportunities. A.Shabanova, P.Sishkina, A, Tyrkova were amongst the women activists of this period.
In the year 1917, the Bolsheviks appealed to the working class women to join their ranks to transform the lives of the Russian women. They rallied around the journal ‘Rabotnitsa’ (Working woman). The women who actively participated in the construction of a ‘new’ Soviet society were E.Stasova, A. Kollontai, Inessa Armand, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vera Figner, K.Samoilova, M. Spiridonova, E.Breshkovskaya and many others.
Krupskaya had been an activist engaged with propaganda work for the revolution since 1890 and in 1917 became a member of the State committee for education. A. Koolontai had also been a revolutionary activist since 1890 and post-October revolution was given the charge of the ‘Zhenotdel’, the party’s cell aimed towards propaganda work amongst the women. M.Spiridonova was a political activist and a leader of the leftist social democrates’ group. E.Breshkovskaya – also an activist in the revolutionary movement was one of the founder members of the Socialist Revolutionary party and its combat unit. Popularly known as the ‘grandmother’ of the Russian revolution, she carried out propaganda work amongst the peasants.
The systematic transition, which followed 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, had women’s liberation as a key component of its program. The Revolution ushered in a series of radical legal and social reforms. The Bolsheviks had envisaged to liberate the women from the ‘domestic’ slavery through the provisions of public restaurants crèches and communal laundries. They promised to destroy all traces of the former inequality and prejudices against the Russian women.
With these views, the new Soviet government passed new decrees and laws declaring the Russian women equal in all aspects to men. The new marriage and divorce decree was a step forward in many ways. Men and women had equal rights to property acquired after marriage. According to the decree, women seeking divorce were no longer required to explain the reasons in the court. A law was passed in 1920 legalising abortion. In fact in 1918 Alesandra Kollontai, the them Minister of Social Welfare had even declared theat “Family was no longer a necessity-either for its members of for the State” Kollontai also was of the opinion the “enslavement of women is intrinsically linked with the division of labour according to sex: whereby men perform productive labour and women subsidiary”.
In order to draw the women into the mainstream massive awareness programme targeting women as a social group were initiated through the ‘Zhenotdel’.
To conclude it may be argued that for many women participating in the revolution the resolution of the ‘women’s question’ was linked with the cardinal changes in the social system. Many women along with men had been behind the bar, had been sent to Siberia and been hanged for protesting. In Russia the women had been involved in struggles at every stage of the revolutionary period, beginning with the pre-revolutionary days of protest of the late 19th century to the times of October revolution in 1917. Early 20th century may have been a chaotic period, but it was also essentially a dynamic and energized period that at women made marched on with many historic victories in the history of women’s rights in Russia.
*Ranjana Saxena is Associate Professor for Russian, Department of Slavonic & Finno-Ugrian Studies, University of Delhi
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team
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