Premised on the indisputable fact that women’s role in the revolutions in Russia of 1905 and the two revolutions of 1917 have been largely hidden from history, Judy Cox’s book redresses the imbalance in the torrent of publications two years ago marking the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution which largely ignored it.
Her slim volume is thus a welcome antidote. Using secondary sources, she challenges the dominant narrative from a socialist-feminist perspective and introduces the reader to many lesser-known Bolshevik women.
Her underlying argument is to dispel the myth that female revolutionaries were merely handmaidens to well-known male leaders.
The names of the few women who are known to us today — Nadezhda Krupskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Vanessa Armand and Anna and Maria Ulyanova — derive their status from their relationships with famous male leaders, Lenin in particular.
Cox’s aim is to show that a core of female Marxists were central to the revolutionary process and to the establishment of socialist state power.
Many in this study were already seasoned revolutionary Marxists well before the 1905 revolution and their hostility to the tsarist regime had resulted in their imprisonment or exile, or both. Far from being mere ciphers of male leaders, they were theoreticians and socialist activists in their own right.
Krupskaya wrote The Woman Worker in 1899 while she was in exile in Siberia. It was the first written work on the situation of women in Russia, thereby laying the foundations of a deeper understanding of the importance of mass work among women.
A whistle-stop tour through the three Russian revolutions serves to highlight the role of Bolshevik women as militant activists and political leaders.
Mass strikes, in which women played a major role, were the catalyst for the 1905 revolution. The result, as Cox reveals, was that the Bolsheviks gained “a network of committed female activists … and a core of female leaders.”
By 1917, a vast number of women were working both in factories replacing conscripted men and in wartime munitions factories.
On February 23 1917 — March 8 in the Gregorian calendar — International Women’s Day was marked by strikes and huge demonstrations of women. The Bolshevik paper Pravda acknowledged that this led to the revolution.
Contrary to the traditional view, this was not merely a spontaneous uprising of hungry women demanding “bread and herrings.”
Cox documents the important role played by the women’s circle of the Petrograd Committee of the Bolshevik Party and the anti-war activity of the militant Vyborg district.
The leader of the Vyborg Bolsheviks was Zhenia Egorova and other female leaders are mentioned by Cox. Hopefully, this might stimulate further archival research to discover more about these women.
But it is clear that even these brief references justify the author’s conclusion that “it was the Bolsheviks who provided some of the most inspirational and courageous leaders for the ‘leaderless’ revolt.”
During the period of the “dual power” from February to October 1917, Bolsheviks were heavily engaged in agitational work among women, assisted by the reappearance of the paper Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker) which came out several times a month with a circulation of 40-50,000 and whose editorial board included Krupskaya, Armand and Konkordia Samoilova.
In March 1917 laundry workers, led by the Bolshevik Sofia Goncharskya, struck for four weeks and a month later 100,000 soldiers’ wives staged a march and demonstration demanding better rations and an end to the war. Kollontai addressed their rally.
Female workers were actively involved in opposing Kornilov’s attempted coup in August that year — they helped build barricades and “Red Sisters” organised medical assistance.
In September Samoilova organised the first formal conference of female workers, reconvened after the October Revolution.
During and after the revolution very many women were enrolled as Red Guards in a variety of roles, including as combatants.
As testimony to the importance of women in the revolutionary period, one of the first decrees of the socialist government was the Code on Marriage and the Family of October 1918. This encapsulated a revolutionary vision of social relations based on women’s equality.
The book’s second section briefly recounts the revolutionary lives of nine Bolshevik women including the Ulyanova sisters, the latter usually deemed noteworthy only because they were Lenin’s siblings.
But they were active revolutionaries in their own right, independently of their brother, and Cox documents their lifetime activism. Their story typifies those of the many other Bolshevik women who have escaped the notice of the male gaze.
The “condescension of history” has relegated them at best to the sidelines, at worst to invisibility. Cox’s book is a welcome intervention in redressing this anomaly.
The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 by Judy Cox
(Haymarket Books, £16.99)
This article originally appeared in the Morning Star.