Interview: Women in the Revolution

Estelle Cooch interviews Katy Turton author of Forgotten Lives – the role of Lenin’s sisters in the Russian Revolution

Anna Ulianova, Inessa Armand, Evgenia Bosch

The role of women in the February Revolution is relatively well known about, but how involved were women in the events of October?

As you would expect, women were participants in the October revolution, but they did not have a ‘visible moment’ in the way that they did in February. There were no marches, they did not call working men out to join them and they did not appeal to the soldiers to stop firing on the crowds. This is explained by the different natures of the February and October revolutions. The former had a huge popular element, while the latter was a seizure of power led by a single party. Thus Bolshevik women took on roles such as organising transport, carrying communications, and offering medical support in the October days. In the new Soviet state, they found themselves consigned to administrative roles or to typically ‘female’ areas of government work: healthcare, public welfare and education. Very few were nominated as Central Committee or Soviet candidates and even fewer were elected.

Some women played a role in opposing the Bolsheviks. Women soldiers, led by Maria Bochkareva, participated in the ill-fated defence of the Winter Palace and Countess Sofia Panina, the assistant minister to the Minister of Education and the only woman in the Provisional Government, was part of a delegation which went to the Battleship Aurora to try to persuade the crew not to fire on the Winter Palace.

Lastly, it is important to recognise that women across Russia were politically engaged with the revolutionary events of 1917, this being demonstrated by their high turnout (70%) in the elections to the Constituent Assembly.

In your outstanding book on Lenin’s sisters you talk about the “solar system myth”. Could you explain to readers what you mean by that?

The ‘solar system myth’ is a term I use to describe how Anna, Olga and Maria Ulianova’s relationship with their brother Lenin has been portrayed in history. There has been a persistent assumption that because Lenin led the Bolsheviks to victory in October 1917 and became the leader of the new Soviet regime, the lives of his sisters, from their childhood onwards, revolved around him. As a result, very little attention has been paid to the sisters as independent revolutionaries in their own right, who outlived Lenin by over a decade and pursued distinct careers in the underground and in the Soviet regime.

 Most readers will know relatively little about Lenin’s sisters – Anna, Olga and Maria – could you briefly introduce them and explain Anna and Maria’s relationship to the Soviet regime after Lenin’s death?

There were six children in the Ulianov family, three boys and three girls. Alexander, the eldest boy, was executed at the age of 21 for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Alexander III. Anna, the eldest girl, had been at university at the same time as Alexander and had been involved in some of the same illegal revolutionary activity as her brother. She was able to guide Lenin, Olga and the two youngest siblings, Maria and Dmitrii, in their efforts to join the revolutionary movement too. Olga died at the age of 19, but the remaining siblings all became active members of the RSDLP and then of the Bolsheviks. After the revolution, Maria became the Executive Secretary of Pravda while Anna worked first for the Department for the Protection of Childhood and then Istpart (the Commission on the History of the October Revolution and the Russian Communist Party which oversaw the collection and publication of sources related to both the event and the Bolsheviks). Lenin’s death heralded a period of great insecurity and uncertainty for Old Bolsheviks, including Maria and Anna, as the Party faced internal conflict over economic policy and the question of leadership. Anna found herself in disagreement with Stalin over Lenin’s biography: she wished to publish the facts of Lenin’s Jewish roots, while Stalin opposed this. Maria participated in the Party debates, initially siding with Stalin and Bukharin against Zinoviev, Kamenev and Krupskaia, her sister-in-law, but eventually retreated in the face of the worsening situation.

Why do you think the role of women organisers in the Bolsheviks has often been overlooked?

The role of women organisers in the Bolsheviks has been increasingly well documented by such historians as Barbara Clements, Jane McDermid, Anna Hillyar and Moira Donald. What has been less successful is the integration of these research findings into the ‘general narrative’ of 1917. This is partly because so few Bolshevik women found roles at the very top of the new Soviet Government, but also because there is a persistent tendency for women’s history to remain separate and distinct from other fields. Thus, historians writing about ‘The October Revolution’ tend not to draw on research written about women. It will be very interesting to see if the books on the revolution published in this centenary year follow or buck this trend.

I especially enjoyed reading your work on children in the revolutionary movement before the revolution. Could you talk a little about their place in the movement and the difficulties of undertaking this research?

Just as women have been overlooked in histories of the revolutionary movement, so too have children, yet they were a constant presence. From an early age they would be trained to be silent in the presence of strangers and especially the police. They were taught never to mention or name visitors who were staying in their homes since these were often other revolutionaries. Their rooms, beds and toys were often used as hiding places for illegal literature or even weapons. Older children were sometimes used as look outs or go-betweens and once they were adults they often became revolutionaries themselves.

Socialists are famed for leaving personal details out of their autobiographies and memoirs, yet when you start looking for children in the sources, they are relatively easy to find. They tend not to feature consistently in single narratives, however, so it is difficult to trace the entire life of a child of a revolutionary. It is possible to discuss more general patterns of the types of roles children played in the movement and the ways in which revolutionaries dealt with being parents.

Another problem with researching children is that most sources related to them are from an adult perspective. Either the child is now grown and writing his/her own memoirs or it is the parent of the child writing. Nonetheless, it is possible to gain an insight into how children felt about their lives: their frustration at being dragged along with their parents round a town on party business or their pride in helping their parents with revolutionary work. One memoirist, Vera, the daughter of the Mensheviks Eva and Mark Broido, remembers feeling her happiest as a child when Eva took her into exile with her as it meant that she was able to spend time with her mother.

Significant numbers of leading Bolsheviks were parents. How did parents manage to combine their parental and political responsibilities?

The work of a revolutionary in the Tsarist regime was perilous and many in the underground argued that party members should remain single so as not to put family members at risk. Yet, inevitably life went on regardless. People joined the revolutionary movement already parents or they became parents while already party members. Sometimes parents (often, but not always the mother) withdrew from the movement to care for their children, but at other times they combined their work with their parental duties. There are cases of printing presses being hidden in private homes and only being operated at night once the children were asleep. There are also lots of examples of parents relying on the help of their own parents or their siblings to look after their children while they worked. Sometimes even party comrades took in other revolutionaries’ children, if, for example, they had been arrested.

Regardless of the strategies parents used to ensure their children were cared for, many (especially, though not always, mothers) wrote later about feeling guilty over being a poor parent because of their commitment to the revolutionary movement. They worried that their children’s education had been disrupted or that they had not received enough parental affection.

There has been a recent resurgence in feminist and women’s movement around the globe. What can the women of 2017 learn from the Russian women of 1917?

In 1917, there was a deep belief amongst male politicians and revolutionaries that women were more backward and more conservative than men, and less likely to embrace reform of society, yet time and again, women proved themselves to be interested in politics and keen to implement improvements in their lives. On a whole raft of issues, it very quickly became clear that it would be male obstruction which would undermine efforts to emancipate women. As a result, the gains which women made were often vulnerable to counter-reform.

I think, above all, women in 2017 should take inspiration from the Russian women of 1917, whether their sympathies lie with the liberal, feminist reformers of the February revolution or the more radical socialist women of October. Both groups of women demonstrated what women can achieve when they work together. Their experiences do also highlight, though, that women can never take their rights and position in society for granted and must always defend them when they are encroached upon.


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