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Russian Working Women’s Political Activism in 1917: What sort of patriarchy did women confront?

This article draws on Anne Bobroff-Hajal’s research in Soviet and U.S. archives for the book Working Women in Russia Under the Hunger Tsars: Political Activism and Daily Life (1994), now available online as a free pdf download. The research focused on the factories of the Central Industrial Region around Moscow, selected because so many women – including married women – were employed in its huge textile and other factories.  The reader wishing more details of these women’s and men’s 1917 activism, their lives, and socialization rituals, will find a fuller picture in the book (and the Ph.D dissertation on which it’s based).

One of the best-known truisms of the February 1917 Russian Revolution is that it began with street actions of working women demanding food for their hungry families. What is less known is that this activism was widespread and unceasing throughout 1917 in the factory settlements and cities of the Central Industrial Region around Moscow, and that it took particular forms. The CIR was aflame all year with women workers attacking hoarders’ carts, searching speculators’ storehouses, and fiercely appealing to local authorities for food to feed their – as described by a poem in a penny-newspaper – “starving babies/… barely living children/Little arms, little legs like blades of grass.” (Gazeta-Kopeika, Sept. 1, 1917)

Women also attended rallies and carried red banners in Moscow demonstrations demanding higher allowances for soldiers’ families. A far smaller number of working women were active in pro-Bolshevik Moscow street fighting during the November Revolution, often in reconnaissance, first aid, and provisioning of men fighting on the barricades – sometimes taking over the guns of fallen male comrades. Only a tiny number of working class women remained politically active in the years after 1917.

In short, Russian working women in 1917 were militant, courageous, and strategic within the constraints of their time and place. Yet, as one woman said in the 1920s, “Our position in many respects remains difficult and unenviable. The kitchen, children, washtubs with laundry, work in the factory – this is our world, from which few have leapt to freedom.” What barriers did working women face – or what resources did they lack – to make a leap to freedom en masse?

Material foundations of activism: Women’s pre-1917 daily life work and living situations

Marx observed that when peasants become workers, drawn from scattered rural villages to be concentrated in factories, they are more able to form effective, ongoing organization in their own interests. Political beliefs alone are not sufficient for potent action; proximity and other material basics must also be present. In particular, living and working close together in large numbers brings easier contact, hence more possibilities for on-going organizations. Capitalism, Marx concluded, pre-organizes workers for socialism.

World-wide, cotton textiles were the original engine of the massive capital accumulation needed for industrialization. As was typical of many countries undergoing its earliest phase, most Russian factory women in the Central Industrial Region (CIR) around Moscow were textile workers. Other Russian women worked in tobacco, tea and food processing, rubber, and chemical plants.

Many 1917 Russian worker-activists were not far removed from their peasant villages. As had also been the case in the United States (beginning in the 1820s), there was no pre-existing pool of workers in Russia (late 19th century) to labor in newly-burgeoning textile mills. Instead, Russian peasants from the surrounding countryside were, as had been American farmers’ daughters, drawn to the factories and often housed in dormitories designed specifically for them.

In Russia, dormitories were built by factory owners. They housed entire families who worked in nearby mills, two or three families crowded into each room. The dormitories included communal cooking and laundry facilities in large spaces which later, during the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, proved ideal locations to host mass political gatherings. Yet although women lived and worked in a communal setting, as we will see below, their ongoing organization would be short-circuited.

Rare image of end of workday at a CIR Russian textile mill. Children (among women, foreground) have come to meet their mothers. Men leave in a separate group (background). John Foster Fraser, Russia of Today, 1916.

Early 20th century Russian workers’ living and working conditions were extremely difficult, with low pay, impossibly long working hours, dirty and dangerous working conditions, and no worker protection. Because women typically worked very long hours in the factory throughout their married lives – not uncommonly right up until each baby’s birth – most infants and toddlers were cared for by very young girls called “n’ianki.”

Newly built family-worker barracks at Moscow’s Tsindel’ silk factory. Even in this model barrack, each window represents a single room in which 2 to 3 families lived.


Since the sons and daughters of workers themselves typically began factory work between the ages of 11 and 17, the only girls available to take care of babies might be as young as 6 or 7. Tragedies often resulted – as when a toddler drowned in a pail of water, or fell down a latrine.

Lenin speaks in Moscow’s Trekhgorka factory kitchen/dining room, 1917. Both women and men are in the audience. Library of Congress.

Working women’s and men’s pre-1917 daily life organization

In workers’ families, women were responsible for childcare. Women came home after work and began their second job: domestic work and children. Each woman lived a lifetime of socialization which focused her deeply-felt commitments on her individual nuclear family’s needs. Because women workers weren’t typically literate – and in the days before radio, television, or the internet – their socialization took place almost entirely via an age-specific series of holiday rituals, fortune-telling, chastushki-performance, courtship dances, marriage rituals, proverbs, lullabies, and married women’s songs. All these activities emphasized that each married woman’s most deeply-felt commitment must focus on her own husband and children, downgrading bonds with the women alongside whom she worked at home and in the factory.

One example of how this translated into daily life was the way women used communal kitchens in the evening: “Here, by the stove, the inhabitants of the barracks usually gather and busy themselves each with their own tasks: women look after the children, wash the laundry, cook, check each other for lice, gossip, etc.” (V. Ermilov Byt rabochei kazarmy, 1930, p. 5) So while gossiping with other women, and perhaps checking each other (and their children) for lice, each woman cooked for her own family. Yet Russia had a widespread tradition of artels, in which single men who worked together bought, prepared, and ate food together. Women did each of these steps separately for her own family within the communal space, then carried the cooked food back to their room to eat, despite the fact that this work probably could have been done more efficiently and less expensively as an artel. Women also did laundry side by side, in bathhouses or other facilities, but again each for her own family. Women’s socialization – and/or the actual needs of children underlying it – inhibited mothers’ sharing housework communally, even when living in communal settings.

Dormitory rooms were shared by 2 or 3 families, with parents’ beds separated by curtains. Babies were positioned in cradles above their parents’ bed. Older children slept on the floor. Lapitskaia, Trekhgorka, Moscow, 1935, and Moskva vchera i segodnia, Moscow, 1978.

In sharp contrast, a striking feature of Russian male working class culture was its intense emphasis on what anthropologists call male bonding. Russian labor leaders called this phenomenon “tsekhovshchina,” often translated as “shopism.” My archival and newspaper research shows that, from daily leisure activities to men’s workplace and after-work rituals, sports, and songs, men were socialized to bond tightly with the (male) workers of their own factory or factory workshop (e. g. the weaving, printing, or dyeing workshop in a textile plant). Descriptions of male workers’ public bonding behaviors were constant in Russian working class newspapers of the early 19th century. Endless lotto, card, and other games, alcohol, mass brawls (stenka na stenku), soccer, group singing, and public feats all cemented a man’s primordial bonds to the other men of his own factory or workshop as against men of other factories or workshops.

The most extreme, chilling illustration of this gendered contrast was guliania dances (where courtship often took place) and wedding rituals in which young marriage-aged women and men metaphorically enacted the prohibition against women coming to each other’s aid when one of them was being beaten by her husband. This resulted in a situation (described in working class newspapers and elsewhere) that often took place in public as workers received their factory pay: women workers would appeal to their husbands to come home to their families instead of going out with with their buddies, to not infrequently drink up their entire wage. The husband, surrounded by a crowd including his laughing male solidarity group, would reject the wife’s pleas. If the situation escalated, he might hit her, and even women in the crowd would not defend her. As one working class newspaper description of such a situation read, “The unhappy woman turned to go home. Many [in the crowd] expressed sympathy with her, but no one approached her, and no one asked her about anything.” (Kineshemets, March 1, 1913) For as another working woman told an ethnographer much later, if a wife complained about being beaten, “they’d say, ‘You heard when you were married what they read in church: “a wife fears her husband.”’ That means you have to put up with it!” (Gosudarstvennyi Literaturnyi Musei, f. 263)   Another informant told an ethnographer many years later, “My husband bullied me. Men were tormentors, they could even beat you. What were you going to do? Usually you’d keep quiet about it – we were ashamed to talk to each other. [Men] did everything. He’d beat you unmercifully – and that was that. Where were you going to complain?” (GLM, f. 263)

Each woman’s entire life force – all the emotional energy of her many sad disappointments and humiliations was brought to positive focus on taking care of her children by the husband who often was the source of so many of her troubles. In short, daily life socialization and living arrangements readied women to be strategic and utterly fierce in their side-by-side searches for food each for her own family.

Small group of men singing as they wander streets after work. New York Public Library Special Collections.

Russian women’s food activism in 1917

Conditions became even worse during World War I. Families of men drafted into the Tsarist army were paid inadequate allowances. Food became scarce, partly because the Russian railroad system wasn’t adequate for both military and civilian transport; in addition, the Tsarist government’s wartime policies resulted in merchants’ speculating and hoarding on a massive scale. After the Revolution in February, 1917, the Provisional Government tried to remedy the situation by establishing local provisioning committees at the city and gubernia level; they were often unsuccessful.

The food that was available was likely to be of terrible quality, potentially fatal for children. “Moscow milk is…a complicated chemical combination which has very little milk and a lot   of all sorts of muck.” (Gazeta-Kopeika, Aug 20, 1917) A provincial newspaper noted, “Children’s acute stomach diseases occur purely from bad food…. A child’s stomach…cannot tolerate either sour milk or mixtures of water and black and half white bread, so the children are dying like flies. In the new [Kostroma] cemetery, the little mounds of young victims are sprouting up out of the fresh mud.” (Povolzhskii vestnik, July 4, 1017)

Long lines (called khvosty, “tails”) began to appear outside food shops. Each woman’s search for food became highly organized. When queues first appeared, women sent their children to wait while they were at work in the factory. When khvosty started to form hours before dawn, women took over the task themselves, lining up in the freezing cold in the wee hours. When shops began running out of food so those still in line had to run to join another line elsewhere and then again maybe somewhere else, “among the simple people, … even before women get out of bed they are discussing and planning out several bread shops for the ‘attack.’” (Gazeta-Kopeika, Jan. 14, 1917)

As food shortages grew during 1917, women had to get in line hours before shops opened. Oktiabr’ v Zamoskvoreche, Moscow.

Women stood or sat together for hours. A reporter described a khvost beginning to gather at 1 am one cold Moscow night:

“From the lanes, women’s figures begin to emerge imperceptibly, muffled in kerchiefs, and they gather in little groups in defined places. Near some of the groups, fires are lit. The nights up till now have been diabolically cold…. Some, leaning against a wall, doze, trying to return to their interrupted sleep; others, rousing themselves in the cold, exchange a few frosty words, lapse into silence for a time, then again another phrase is heard and you look – alongside the dry twigs of the fires crackles the sound of women’s speech…. My neighbors peacefully conversed about domestic affairs.” (Vlast’ naroda, May 16, 1917)

But peaceful conversation ended when women couldn’t get food, yet saw others hiding it or carting it off under cover. Women were utterly fearless in their attacks on anyone they saw withholding food their children needed: shop owners (and the upper class women for whom they often kept food aside), hoarders, speculators, officials, and hungry soldiers who tried to cut ahead of them in line. One newspaper referred to these women as “the Moscow ‘amazons.’” Working class newspapers in 1917 described countless women workers’ actions directed at shopkeepers and city or district provisioning committees.

In mid-July, for example, around the textile mills of Yaroslavl, the flour and bread being sold was so full of bran it caused severe stomach ailments in children. A crowd of enraged women gathered at the city food store and “began to kick up a row and… threatened to tear all the store managers to pieces; they tore off the door and began to drag out members of the provisioning commission by the arm….” The following day, the situation was no better, so the women now turned to the district provisioning committee. “The women raised a racket and demanded that the president of the provisioning committee…come out and talk to them. They conducted themselves threateningly toward the office employees…. A unit of police was ordered there. Work at the committee was ended [for the day].” When bad flour continued to be sold over the following week, women were seen “now at the provisioning committee, now at the shops, outraged over the food situation and calling for violence toward those meeting in the committee.” (Golos, July 15, 18, 19, Aug. 4, 1917)

In the isolated factory settlement of Norskoe, which had no provisioning committee of its own, hungry women repeatedly made overnight trips by boat downriver to Yaroslavl. On one of these trips, “eighty-eight of the starving,” both women and men, set off in the morning.

On the steamboat on the way, the group by chance met a member of the Yaroslavl provisioning committee, F. M. Plitin, and, accosting him, began to demand the immediate delivery of bread. Plitin, stunned by the women’s assault on him, began to try to …explain…that there was not enough flour. But the women insistently demanded bread….

Getting off the steamboat in Yaroslavl, all eighty-eight people went with Plitin to the provisioning committee. Here they made a statement about their hunger; many women cried “We don’t even have a crust of bread at home, our children are dying of hunger…”

Those present were given baked bread, which they divided among themselves…. The resulting picture was overpowering! (Golos, Sept. 17, 1917)

Flour was located at a nearby mill and brought back to Norskoe by boat. But a week later, when Norskoe again had no food, workers got back on the boat to Yaroslavl and were barely prevented from throwing Plitin and another official overboard.

Women began demanding searches of storerooms and homes of merchants and other wealthy citizens suspected of hoarding. In Pozhekhon’e, for example, the “proletariat in skirts” became convinced that a shop assistant who worked in the city store was secretly stockpiling goods for himself and “carried out a search in the [shop assistant’s] home without permission of the authorities;” in Moscow a crowd of women demanded a search of a private apartment where goods were discovered and confiscated. (Golos, Aug. 17, 1917; Vlast’ naroda, Sept. 7, 1917)

Soldiers join food actions in Yaroslavl and Kostroma

Rank-and-file soldiers from local garrisons, whose own food supply was faltering, appeared on breadlines in the summer of 1917 looking for food themselves. Soon they joined women in ad hoc food actions. When women began to demand widespread inspections, the soldiers supported them with arms, though they were often put down by elite military units. (e. g. Golos, Sept. 10, 1917)

But by the late summer and fall, at least in Yaroslavl and Kostroma, soldiers moved from their alliance with women to a much more powerful alliance, this time with factory-based organizations of male workers. The joint soldier/factory committee goal was to carry out systematic, building-by-building searches of the entire city, confiscating all major stockpiles of food.

In Yaroslavl in May, the factory committee of the mammoth Iaroslaskaia Bol’shaia textile mill had arrested its director for astronomically raising food prices in the factory shop. In July, following popular disorders over the high bran content of flour being sold in the city, factory committee representatives met with delegates from all other factories and plants in the city to discuss what action to take. No women workers appear to have been involved in this factory committee organization, even though 6500 women worked in this mill along with 5000 men. In short, the factory committee was involved in various organized initiatives regarding food even as women’s more ad hoc food activism was going on in the streets beyond the factory gates.

Yaroslavl’s citywide searches began in September. Work stopped at Iaroslavskaia Bol’shaia, and workers gathered in the factory school to meet with representatives from the soviet and other groups. Though the Yaroslavl soviet tried to dissuade workers from conducting searches, by the next day, demonstrations of about 500 workers compelled it to call on soldiers to enforce three days of searches in two monasteries, other religious establishments, food shops, trade firms, a consumers’ cooperative, city council offices, an orphanage, the fire station, and private apartments and houses. The city was divided into sections, each assigned a search party consisting of representatives of workers, armed soldiers, and militia. (Golos, July 26, Aug. 17, 18, Sept 10, 22, 24, 26; Iaroslavskaia mysl’, Sept. 22, 23)

No women participated in these searches. Rather, newspapers described them in the crowds milling about the streets and outside the gates of buildings being searched, waiting to hear what food had been found – and sometimes carrying out their own small-scale, independent, “unauthorized” searches.

In Kostroma (and perhaps in other working class areas as well), a similar evolution took place. First, armed, hungry soldiers supported women’s food actions. Later, the city council was forced to authorize workers to “hurriedly organize commissions of deputies from workers, soldiers, and peasants to carry out searches. At the head of each commission was a representative from the workers. Each committee was given an armed soldier for protection.” Almost 500 tons of food were discovered, including wheat and rye flour, oats, groats, rice, sugar, and tea. (Povolzhskii vestnik, Aug. 20, 22, 23, Sept. 10, 1917)

Thus, searches in which women took a major part remained ad hoc even when the women were supported by the armed strength of soldiers. Women did not develop systematic plans, dividing the city into regions and assigning some of their number to cover each area. Most significantly, women did not integrate their actions into existing workers’ and soldiers’ institutions, as did the organized inspections.

Why did women not use factory-based solidarity groups as did their husbands, fathers, and sons? And in November Moscow street fighting, why did women serve factory-based men’s units on the barricades only as individuals, not as groups of women based in factories no less than their male counterparts? We can’t yet answer these questions definitively, but clues can be teased out from the historical record.

Towards understanding early 20th century Russian working class patriarchy

During 1917 Moscow street fighting and throughout the Civil War, men’s factory- and shop-based solidarity groups formed a ready-made foundation for fighting units. Russian labor historian Diane Koenker wrote:

Throughout the summer [of 1917], individual factories had organized armed or semi-armed units of young men, usually for the defense of their own factories. After the Kornilov mutiny, these units were augmented by fighting squads, formally Red Guards, organized under the aegis of factory committees, raion soviets, or Bolshevik party committees.” (Koenker, Moscow Workers, 337)

A worker memoirist wrote that on the eve of October street fighting, “one plant competed with another as to who could arrive more quickly at the Soviet to get arms.” Another recalled “Detachment after detachment thronged to the Soviet. The first to arrive was the [workers’] detachment from Zolotorozhskii yard. After them ran, racing each other, the Guzhonov plant, the workers of the Podobedov plants, the Dangauer foundry, the Mars clothing factory, the Karavan tea factory, and others.”

The same kind of male solidarity was also seen among Red Guard detachments from workers’ towns and settlements at a distance from Moscow, which seized institutions of power in their localities, and sometimes traveled to Moscow to support street fighting there. Male workers continued to ally easily with revolutionary-minded soldiers of the former-Tsarist army, just as they had done during food searches.

These factory- and shop-based male workers’ groups later transitioned seamlessly into units ready to fight on distant fronts in the Civil War. In their memoirs, working men who fought during the Moscow October Days and the Civil War virtually always identified themselves and other workers as members of particular factory or other local solidarity groups. As we’ve seen, women workers had no similar group-bonding structures. In fact their socialization specifically deleted them from group bonding.

How did it happen that Russian male workers’ “shopism” was pre-positioned so well to form the basis of fighting units during the revolution and Civil War?

Clues from historic Russian druzhina military units and U.S. army units today

Gerald M. Easter’s brilliant (though too little-known) research on early provincial Bolshevik party groups traces the ways in which their powerful emotional solidarity was shaped beginning even before the Revolution, by underground activity’s constant threat of secret police arrest and Siberian exile. These groups’ internal commitments were further developed, Easter’s research shows, during years of desperate Civil War fighting in military units of tightly-bonded soldiers, focused around military leaders.

Today we are aware of the powerful emotional bonds that form within American fighting units (all male until recently) on faraway battlefields. U.S. soldiers often say that, once on the battlefield, they don’t fight for the “glorious” ideological goals identified by the government back in Washington DC. Instead, they fight solely for the safety and lives of their fellow soldiers, with whom they form deep, powerful bonds they experience as they go through life-or-death situations together.

While Easter wasn’t looking only at Russian/Soviet workers, his conceptualization provides clues, partly because he notes a historic similarity to druzhina organization that underlay the period of the “gathering of the lands” around Muscovy to form the early Russian state. As with historic druzhinas, “the Bolshevik druzhina played dual military and political roles.” (Reconstructing the State, 34-5)

The material basis of Russian working men’s patriarchy

To understand the daily-life forces that shaped patriarchy among the Russian male working class (and peasantry), we need to comprehend the demands the Tsarist state placed on these men in addition to the demands of their factory work lives. In particular, the burden of military conscription had weighed heavily on rural and urban masses for centuries up through 1917, and shaped, one would surmise, peasant and working class culture. The rank-and-file conscript’s term of army service was reduced from life to 25 years after the late 18th century conquest of the Crimea. Following Russia’s 1855 defeat in the Crimean War, military service became compulsory for all males at age 20: a 6 year full-time term plus 9 years in the reserve. Around the time of World War I all men became liable for conscription at age 21, with a commitment for active and reserve service that lasted until age 43. While Tsarist army units were not factory-based as in the Bolshevik period, it seems plausible that male worker/peasant culture was formed for centuries by the need for men to learn to bond tightly with groups of the men immediately around them, as something of a rehearsal for army life.

Why was the military burden on Russian workers and peasants historically so heavy? Perry Anderson ascribes absolutism’s early onset in Russia to “the constant material pressure on Russia of the Tartar and Turcoman pastoralists of Central Asia.” (Lineages of the Absolutist State, 201) For centuries, these brilliant nomadic horsemen lived largely from slave raids; each year during their “harvesting of the steppe,” they rode across the plains (occasionally even to Moscow) to abduct hundreds or thousands of Russian men, women, and children, marching them in chains back across the steppes to sell in slave markets in Crimea and elsewhere. The French and English words for “slave” derive from “Slav” because for many centuries the two were synonymous in Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Powerful enemies across the wide open plain to the West, says Anderson – including Sweden and Poland – maintained Russia’s centralized state longer than any other in Europe; Anderson identifies it as the only absolutist state “in the continent to survive intact into the 20th century.” (Lineages, 328)


DETAIL: Playground of the Autocrats by Anne Bobroff-Hajal. Russian elites took full advantage of Russia’s unique geographic need for continuous military mobilization to amass vast wealth and power for themselves; this setting may have shaped intense working class patriarchy. More of the art here.

Does Russian working class culture show evidence of being shaped by military service? 

In addition to the daily-life organized brawls men fought, fighting appears in many of the lyrics male workers sang together in groups. Historically, men’s songs, “communicating for the most part outside-the-family (vnesmeineyi) social relations of men…[were] freely carried from region to region of the Russian land by tramps, coachmen, and by war service.” (Lopatin, Prokunin, Russkie narodnye liricheskie pesni, 186) One subject of these songs was heroic military units fighting gloriously even to death. Many other men’s songs addressed the alienation they experienced in army service – and by association in other areas of life: “He died far from his home village/he died far from his family…./ These eyes were never closed/By caressing, tender hands…. Strangers bury the soldier/Deep in the frozen earth/There beyond the gate where only the winds howl,/ Somewhere in that God-forsaken place, far away….” (Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Literatury I Iskusstva, f. 1432) And


A guelder rose with a raspberry

Early, early blossomed,

At this time

A mother gave birth to a son.

She reared him, fed him…

Having raised him up on his feet

She relenquished him to be a soldier…

In a strange land

Without wind, it dries and shatters;

The company commander

Chews out blameless [soldiers].

[Mother:] “My dear little child,

Come back.”

[Son:] “My dear mother

We can’t come back

Now our will is not our own.

It’s the will of the magnificent tsar.”   (TsGALI, f. 483)


These songs give us a window into the range of feelings Russian working men experienced within the patriarchal system of which they themselves weren’t far from the bottom rung, subject to factory owners, foremen, government officials, army commanders, and the Tsar.

Continuation of Tsarist social structures across the years of Revolution and Civil War

Russian working women were extremely, militantly active in the streets of the CIR throughout 1917 in the attempt to get food for their families. For the most part, their activism was an extension of their intense daily life commitment to taking care of their children – particularly in the absence of reliable income and attention from fathers. Russian working women were “amazons,” as the reporter described them, for their children both in daily life and during 1917. Yet as food searches and confiscations by revolutionary-minded soldiers and male-based factory organizations became more organized, women were pushed and/or stepped aside. It appears that the military demands of the Tsarist state strongly contributed to a gendered daily life division of labor that inhibited women’s capacity for long-term organized action during the Revolutions. The onset of three years of Civil War renewed the need for battle-ready groups of men, resulting in reproduction of Tsarist male social organization.


Anne Bobroff-Hajal is a New York-based artist, writer, and environmental activist with a Ph. D. in Russian History. Her intensively-researched art explores social structures that historically arose within specific geographies, currently Russia and the United States. She lived in the USSR for a year doing archival research for her Ph.D. dissertation, “Working Women, Bonding Patterns, and the Politics of Daily Life: Russia at the End of the Old Regime.” Her art is shown widely; Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for Russian and East European Studies will have a solo show of her art on Russia Fall, 2018. Russian History study guides illustrated with her art are here.