14 March 2018

In Petrograd in February 1917, contrary to general perceptions of Russia’s first revolution that year, it was the women who led the protests. On International Women’s Day on 8 March, as they paraded down the city’s main thoroughfare – the Nevsky Prospekt – their calls were not just for women’s rights and suffrage but also for bread. ‘Feed our Children’ they demanded! ‘We want bread!’ The city was starving; their men were away at the front, they could not feed their families. Much like the women who marched on Versailles in 1789, it was the women whose voice of protest helped spark the unrest, demonstrations and riots that followed, and that helped bring down the old regime.

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After the February revolution, the women continued to lead the way. With mass desertion from the Eastern Front an increasing feature of Russia’s collapsing war effort, a woman named Mariya Bochkareva made it her mission that women should once more set an example. She was already a fighting soldier; the tsar had allowed her to enlist in the reserve in 1915 and she had fought at the front where she had been wounded and decorated twice. In 1917, with the Russian Army – having already suffered 5.5 million casualties – in increasing disarray, Bochkareva resolved to set up her own Women’s Death Battalion. ‘Since our men are hesitating to fight,’ she argued, ‘the women must show them how to die for their country and for liberty.’ Soon after she gained permission from the Justice Minister Alexander Kerensky to set up the first women’s battalion to counter the widespread loss of morale.

In May, in Petrograd, Bochkareva held a mass recruitment rally at the Mariinsky Palace. Mother Russia was suffering, she exhorted; it was down to the women to set an example. Fifteen hundred of them answered the call to arms and entered the selection process.

They were derided wherever they went – mainly by male Russian soldiers – and jeered and humiliated as they marched through the streets of Petrograd. But this motley force of volunteer women became the big news story of 1917 for many of the Western correspondents based in the city.

The story of the Women’s Death Battalion appealed in particular to a group of American women, who pioneered women’s reporting in WWI and who followed the Battalion during their training and even travelled to the front with them. Women such as Rheta Childe Dorr, Louise Bryant, Bessie Beatty and Florence Harper – all of whom feature in my book Caught in the Revolution – but whose story has been little told till now.

The Russian Revolution

'Mother Russia was suffering, she exhorted; it was down to the women to set an example. Fifteen hundred of them answered the call to arms and entered the selection process.'

Where else but Russia, ground down by three years of war and on the brink of a terrible and violent revolution, would women so heroically come to the fore? The establishment of Bochkareva’s extraordinary battalion of women aged between 18 and 30 – some of whom were married with children – was syndicated across the American press. About 60 percent of Bochkareva’s volunteers were of peasant stock or working girls from the factories with sturdy physiques. But their ranks were swelled by more ‘genteel’ women unused to the rigorous demands made on them: daughters of doctors, army officers and civil servants. Bochkareva’s second in command, Mariya Skrydlova, was an 18-year-old, convent-educated admiral’s daughter and by no means the only recruit from the comfortable bourgeoisie and upper classes.

Soldiers - Russian Revolution

Several of them had already served as nurses at the front or in Petrograd’s hospitals for the wounded. But, experienced or not, all the women shared in a passion to support the Russian war effort, to bolster flagging morale and set an example to the many thousands of male recruits who by 1917 were deserting the front.

Mariya Bochkareva took no prisoners during her brutal training process. All the women’s feminine clothing was taken from them – except for their bras – and their heads were shaved. After being put through their paces by tough male instructors, they donned ill-fitting soldier’s uniforms; due to shortages many of them had no standard-issue army boots and were forced to wear ordinary shoes. They lifted the heavy military packs onto their backs and carried rifles – the only concession being that these were lighter than the men’s.

The Women’s Death Battalion was organized along similar lines to any male one: they had their own transport and medical staff, a signal corps and a machine gun company with four guns operated by the women. They even had their own scouting detachment of Cossack girls who were magnificent riders. They drilled hard, for six hours a day, like male recruits, and dug trenches.

In July 1917 Bochkareva’s women went into action at the front in Belorussia and fought with conspicuous courage, suffering 50 casualties. Among the wounded was Bochkareva herself. Brought back to Petrograd to recuperate, she was hailed as ‘Russia’s Joan of Arc’. While this might be something of a romantic overstatement, the wider role of women during that revolutionary year – and it is one that is still largely unsung – was the natural culmination of their involvement in the revolutionary movement since the 1870s. It demonstrated the depths of their courage, resilience and dedication. As one, male, American journalist said of them in 1917:

‘From the beginning the women have been the soul and chief inspiration of the revolutionary movement. In some ways it owes more to them than to the men; the women had usually the higher ideal, the greater readiness for sacrifice, the more dogged and dauntless persistence.’

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