Russian Revolution: Compare and Contrast of the February and October Revolutions and the Role of Women
The Russian Revolutions of 1917 have a broad basis of comparison and contrast. The focus here will be to outline similarities and differences between the February and the October Revolutions with emphasis on the nature of the action taken during the most crucial points for each. Both will be analyzed with respect to their beginning stages, climax and immediate reaction, and a final point to dwell on the significant role of women apparent in both instances.
Prior to discussion on this topic, it is first necessary to clarify an issue regarding calendar use. Take note that the February and October Revolutions actually took place on the eighth of March and the seventh of November respectively in 1917 according to the calendar currently in standard global use. Russia at the time of these revolutions was making use of the Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the current standard. The dates to be used here will be based on as they were at the time and place of the Russian Revolutions, February 23, and October 25, 1917 in Petrograd.
One major factor behind the February Revolution was the First World War which had been carrying on for several years. This caused social breakdown and reduced faith in the government. Tension among the people accumulated as the months leading to February 25 “had been a continuous battle to make ends meet in the face of rising prices and to find enough fuel and food to keep from freezing and starving” (Thompson 18). This problem was the result of the unusually harsh winter battering Russia at the time, greatly hindering the function of cargo trains carrying food and fuel. A rumour that the government was planning to implement a ration policy on bread prompted many to flock to bakeries and greatly exhaust the supplies (Pipes 272-3). This lead to long line ups outside of bakeries that were struggling to adequately supply the demand, leading to further tension and growing masses on the streets of Petrograd.
The factors behind the October Revolution differ greatly from those of February, it is characterized more so by political activity and a plot for governmental domination, rather than mounting discontent among the masses. The October Revolution began in April when Vladimir Lenin drew together a Soviet party, the Bolsheviks, in order to overthrow the then currently established Provisional Government. However, Lenin was forced into hiding somewhere in Finland when leaders of the Bolshevik party began to be arrested and persecuted. Despite this, Lenin was able to maintain the party by continuing contact from Finland with remaining clandestine Bolsheviks in Petrograd (Carr 4).
Petrograd Riot, July 4, 1917
On the night of October 24, Lenin, who had formerly returned to Petrograd, and the Bolshevik party were ready to take over Petrograd, the capital of Russia, and claim it for their new government. Mainly through the efforts of Leon Trotsky, an aid to the Bolshevik party, their takeover was a meticulously organized plan to target and take over various points in Petrograd such as railroad stations, banks, telephone service areas, and places of media production. It is in this respect that the two revolutions truly contrast, “nothing could have made a more telling contrast with the [February] Revolution, which had occurred haphazardly, without any planning whatsoever” (Halliday 113).
The climactic actions of both revolutions contrast in a similar way that the culminating factors behind them do. The mounting tension preceding the February revolution ultimately culminated in the breakout of demonstrations on the streets of Petrograd by those frustrated with food and fuel shortages, as well as those who lost employment as a result of factory closure. The number of demonstrators mounted up to 300,000 in several days and there was much violence. Police began to fire on the crowds and many were killed. The crowds ended up turning on the police, killing many and burning down police stations. Army troops and special force divisions were deployed in order to disperse the crowd, but after the first day, most decided to mutiny against the government and join the demonstrators, greatly increasing their numbers and force. The demonstrations continued until the old order of government collapsed under the weight of the revolution.
In stark contrast to the out of proportion mass demonstrations of February is the October Revolution, which was carefully organized and conducted quietly under the cover of night with little notice. When the various communications and information centers of Petrograd discussed above were seized by the Bolsheviks, they turned to their final destination, the Winter Palace, where the last of the Provisional Government remained congregated. Within the Winter Palace, “Bolshevik besiegers slipped through gates and windows, climbed over walls, and sneaked through underground basements and corridors” (Thompson 129) in order to avoid the guard forces. This stealthy action stands in direct contrast to a particular instance in February where demonstrators avoided blocked bridges in the city by crossing the frozen Neva River in mass numbers out in the open. The October Revolution was not at all as violent as that of February, the Bolsheviks “encountered almost no violent resistance. The streets remained calm, and citizens continued to go about their everyday business” (Fitzpatrick 56-57). This stands in contrast to the open fire taken on the crowds of February, and their equally violent retaliation.
It is also noteworthy to mention a political comparison between the two revolutions. The February Revolution marked the end of the Romanov autocracy, which had been established for hundreds of years prior to the revolution. The October Revolution marked the end of the Provisional Government, which had only been established for the eight months between the February to the October Revolution. Both resulted in political reform, but the means by which this was achieved as well as the time the overthrown governments had been established greatly differs.
The role of women in particular with regards to both the February and October Revolutions stands out so much that it deserves special attention outside of the general discussion. This feminist perspective offers insight into the often unrecognized contribution that women make in shaping history.
It is clear that women played a significant role in the February Revolution. The tension caused by food shortages and other hardships of the particularly harsh winter were felt by everyone, “especially the women who had to wait in line for hours in the bitter cold, sometimes to find that there was no food to be had” (Curtiss 29). One can easily assume that frustration was greatest among women under these conditions, which mixed dangerously with the numbers of them that had accumulated while waiting for bread at various bakeries throughout Petrograd. The catalyst in this precarious situation was the official declaration that bread supplies had run out, leading the women into discontent which set off the revolution of February.
Also at this time, “women workers of several Petrograd textile plants went out on strike; and they were soon followed by thousands of men from the metal factories” (Halliday 12). Despite general assumptions that women are not as revolutionary as men, “it was women workers whose strike on International Women’s Day [(February 23)] had precipitated the February Revolution” (Fitzpatrick 47). It is apparent from this that women played the greatest role in the beginning stages of the February Revolution, the groundbreakers so to speak. They opened the way for the many other frustrated citizens to make a difference in their lives, which was at its worst because of the ongoing war running parallel to the revolutions in Russia.
Turning now to the October Revolution, the role of women is somewhat different, but also very significant. While the Provisional Government had appointed several different forces to protect against the Bolshevik revolutionaries in Petrograd; the inukers, Cossacks, and miscellaneous others, “the most reliable troops the government had on hand were the recently recruited Women’s Battalion” (Halliday 114). It is evident that they were indeed the most reliable because the Cossacks, inukers, and many others abandoned the Winter Palace, which was the final standing structure not yet taken by the Bolsheviks, leaving only the Women’s Battalion and a some young cadets to defend the Palace.
There exists a point of comparison when one considers how both revolutions were greatly influenced by the role of women. The point where this notion contrasts is in the nature of their role. In the revolution of February, it was many women who started off the demonstrations and general revolt characteristic of that revolution, followed by the joining of many other civilians and even troops who were assigned to disperse the crowds. Alternately, in the revolution of October, it was women who were the primary final standing force against the revolutionaries, as other forces had abandoned their post alongside them. As a result of being outnumbered, these defending women fell as the Bolshevik revolutionaries took the Winter Palace, and in effect, overthrew the Provisional Government.
The Revolutions of February and of October differ in many ways, but one can also note various parallels between them. February was the culmination of various tensions among the masses, while October came about from a concentrated and organized political effort. They both, however, resulted in major governmental reform. Woman played a major role in both revolutions. In February, it was a mass of women on the streets of Petrograd who set the demonstrations of the revolution in motion and who managed to outnumber the forces against them. In October, it was a small force of women who allowed the final stage of the revolution to take effect as they were outnumbered by revolutionaries.
Carr, Edward Hallett. The Russian Revolution. New York: The Free Press, 1979.
Curtiss, John Shelton. The Russian Revolutions of 1917. Malabar: Krieger Publishing Company, 1957.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Halliday, E. M. Russia in Revolution. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1967.
Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.
Thompson, John M. Revolutionary Russia, 1917. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981.