The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

February 23 (March 8) 1917:
The Beginning of the Russian Revolution

Mar 6, 2017

On February 23, 1917 (March 8 according to the Western calendar), the revolution that would shake the world for decades began in Petrograd, once again called Saint Petersburg, the capital of Czarist Russia. While the heads of the European powers led their people to kill each other in the trenches of World War I for three years, the working class of Petrograd, after five days of strikes and street fighting, overthrew Czar Nicholas II and the regime of the czars that had ruled for centuries.

“The 23rd of February was International Women’s Day. The social-democratic circles had intended to mark this day in a general manner: by meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organization called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organization, and a most militant one – the Vyborg borough-committee, all workers – was opposing strikes.”.

Textile Workers Decide to Start the Movement

But, on February 23, “the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support. With reluctance...the Bolsheviks agreed to this, and they were followed by the workers – Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. But once there is a mass strike, one must call everyone into the streets and take the lead.”

That day there were 90,000 strikers, demonstrations, meetings in the working class neighborhoods. “A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal duma (the city council) demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat,” writes Trotsky.

The next day, “the workers come to the factories in the morning; instead of going to work, they hold meetings; then begin processions toward the center of the city. New districts and new groups of the population are drawn into the movement. The slogan “Bread!” is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: “Down with the autocracy!” “Down with the war!” The workers’ anger at the war and its privations added to their desire to clear away the hated Czarist regime.

“On the 25th, the strike spread wider. According to the government’s figures, 240,000 workers participated that day. The most backward layers are following up the vanguard. Already a good number of small establishments are on strike. The street-cars are at a standstill. Business concerns are closed. Attempts are made to organize street meetings; a series of armed encounters with the police occurs....”

“The mounted police open fire. A speaker falls wounded. Shots from the crowd kill a police inspector, wound the chief of police and several other policemen. Bottles, firecrackers and hand grenades are thrown at the gendarmes. The war has taught this art....”

“During this whole day, the crowds move from neighborhood to neighborhood, violently chased by the police, contained and forced back by the cavalry and certain detachments of infantry....

The crowd has a ferocious hatred of the police.... It is different with the soldiers. When soldiers are outside of the barracks, on sentry duty or patrol, or marching in formation, male and female workers gather and exchange friendly words with the troops. It is a new stage due to the development of the strike and the contact between workers and the army.

The Soldiers Come Over to the Side of the Insurgents

The war had changed the perspective of the soldiers. Under their uniforms, peasants merged with the working class. They were politicized and shared the same hatred of the war and of their officers. Even the troops specialized in repression, like the Cossacks, “had enough and wanted to go home,” writes Trotsky.

Little by little throughout the city, contact between the soldiers and the workers multiplied. “Thus in the streets and squares, by the bridges, at the barrack-gates, is waged a ceaseless struggle – now dramatic, now unnoticeable – but always a desperate struggle, for the heart of the soldier.... a great role is played by women workers in the relation between workers and soldiers. They go up to the lines of soldiers more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command: ‘Put down your bayonets – join us!’ The soldiers are excited, ashamed, exchange anxious glances, waver; someone makes up his mind first, and the bayonets rise guiltily above the shoulders of the advancing crowd.... the revolution makes another forward step.”

Trotsky further recounts how the Bolshevik Kayurov addressed the Cossacks: “‘Brothers – Cossacks, help the workers in a struggle for their peaceable demands; you see how the Pharaohs (the mounted police) treat us, hungry workers. Help us!’....” The Cossacks glanced at each other in some special way,’ Kayurov continues, “and we were hardly out of the way before they rushed into the fight.’ And a few minutes later, near the station gate, the crowd were tossing a Cossack in their arms who before their eyes had slaughtered a police inspector with his saber.”

The Fall of the Regime

The morning of February 27, “the workers streamed again to the factories, and in open meetings resolved to continue the struggle.... To continue the struggle today would mean to summon an armed insurrection.” In reality, wrote Trotsky, their task “was nine-tenths behind. The revolutionary pressure of the workers on the barracks fell in with the existing revolutionary movement of the soldiers.” One after the other, the regiments of the Petrograd garrison went over to the side of the revolution, and each mutinous regiment tried to convince others to assure itself that no retreat was any longer possible.

“During the 27th of February the crowd liberated without bloodshed from the many jails of the capital, all political prisoners.” By the evening of the 27th, the capital was in the hands of the insurgents. Within a few days, Moscow and the provincial cities fell and the Czar abdicated.

Who Has Power?

“The insurrection triumphed. But to whom did it hand over the power snatched from the monarchy?” asks Trotsky.

Once the fall of the czar became inevitable, some deputies in the Duma (the national assembly conceded by the Czar after the 1905 revolution) began to form a provisional government. But the real power was elsewhere. On the evening of February 27, at the initiative of the leaders of the socialist parties and the unions, 250 delegates from the factories and the insurgent regiments of the army gathered for the first meeting of the Soviet (Council in Russian).

“The experience of the Soviets of 1905 was chiseled into the consciousness of the workers. At every lift of the movement, even in war time, the idea of soviets was almost automatically reborn,” writes Trotsky. “From the moment of its formation, the Soviet, in the person of its Executive Committee, begins to function as a sovereign....In order to remove financial resources from the hands of the officials of the old power, the Soviet decides to occupy the State Bank, the Treasury, the Mint, and the Printing Offices with a revolutionary guard. The tasks and functions of the Soviet grow unceasingly under pressure from the masses.... The workers, the soldiers, and soon also the peasants, will from now on turn only to the Soviet. In their eyes, the Soviet becomes the focus of all hopes and all authority, an incarnation of the revolution itself.”

In these days of February, the determination of the working class had overthrown the Czar. Yet this was just the first stage of the Russian Revolution.