An International Women’s Day demonstration in Petrograd on 8 March 1917 led to the overthrow of the tsar
Photo: Female protesters in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) on 8 March 1917. Photograph: Fototeca Storica Nazionale/Getty Images
Wednesday 8 March 2017 07.00 GMT
Last modified on Wednesday 8 March 2017 12.13 GMT
The first day of the Russian Revolution – 8 March (23 February in the old Russian calendar) – was International Women’s Day, an important day in the socialist calendar. By midday of that day in 1917 there were tens of thousands of mainly women congregating on the Nevsky Prospekt, the principal avenue in the centre of the Russian capital, Petrograd, and banners started to appear.
The slogans on the banners were patriotic but also made forceful demands for change: “Feed the children of the defenders of the motherland,” read one; another said: “Supplement the ration of soldiers’ families, defenders of freedom and the people’s peace.”
The crowds of demonstrators were varied. The city’s governor, AP Balk, said they consisted of “ladies from society, lots more peasant women, student girls and, compared with earlier demonstrations, not many workers”. The revolution was begun by women, not male workers.
In the afternoon the mood began to change as female textile workers from the Vyborg side of the city came out on strike in protest against shortages of bread. Joined by their menfolk, they swelled the crowds on the Nevsky, where there were calls of “Bread!” and “Down with the tsar!” By the end of the afternoon, 100,000 workers had come out on strike, and there were clashes with police as the workers tried to cross the Liteiny Bridge, connecting the Vyborg side with the city centre. Most were dispersed by the police but several thousand crossed the ice-packed river Neva (a risky thing to do at -5C) and some, angered by the fighting, began to loot the shops on their way to the Nevsky.
Balk’s Cossacks struggled to clear the crowds on the Nevsky. They would ride up to the demonstrators, only to stop short and retreat. Later it emerged that they were mostly young reservists who had no experience of dealing with crowds. By an oversight they had not been supplied with the whips used by Cossacks to disperse civilian crowds. This weakness emboldened the workers to come out in even greater numbers in the following days.
On 24 February as many as 150,000 workers had taken to the streets. They marched from the industrial areas, crossed the bridges, and occupied the Nevksy, looting shops, and overturning trams and carriages. There were fights with the police and Cossacks on the bridges. By mid-afternoon the crowds on the Nevsky had been swollen by students, shopkeepers, office workers and spectators. Balk described the crowds as “consisting of the ordinary people”.
Historians have long argued about whether these demonstrations were spontaneous or organised by revolutionaries. My own view is that they were more spontaneous than organised but that they had an internal organisation of their own in the form of unnamed members of the crowd who shouted out directions. Then there was the political topography of Petrograd – defined by the bridges, the Nevsky, Znamenskaya Square, the Tauride Palace, or seat of the Duma – that set the movements of the crowds.
On 24 February Znamenskaya Square became the focus of attention, as a large rally amassed there in the afternoon. The huge equestrian statue of Alexander III – a symbol of immovable autocracy popularly nicknamed “the Hippopotamus” – was conquered by revolutionary orators, who made their speeches from it, calling for the downfall of the monarchy. Few in the vast crowd could hear what they were saying, but it did not matter: the people knew what they wanted to hear and the mere sight of this act of free speech – in full view of the police – was enough to confirm in their minds that a “revolution” was taking place. Later that evening, after the crowds had finally dispersed, the police found the word “Hippopotamus” engraved on the plinth of the statue.
Orlando Figes is the author of A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution. A new edition marking the centenary of the revolution is available now