Celebrating the Russian revolution

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Eye-witness accounts

The terrible conditions inherited by the Bolsheviks from Tsardom

The specific achievements under socialism

Homeless children 1927

‘Comrade’ Coal in the hands of the people

Baku oil fields

Women in Muslim-dominated parts of the Soviet

Basis laid for rapid industrialisation in first Five Year Plan

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The Russian revolution may be 100 years old but reactionaries of all stripes, if they must see it at all, want to see it dead and rotting. In this state its use to them is in glorifying its actual and putative failures and turning a blind eye to its successes.

If the communists and their allies were able to achieve what they did in such backward conditions, what is that saying about the bourgeoisie today? Slovenly, past their use by date and basically backward (lift your game or get out of the way!)

Bourgeois leadership may have been fine against the feudalists. However it was pretty pathetic in Russia and China – to the point where the proletarian parties had to do it for them and did a vastly better job in the process. This last point is an irony of significance. And that’s the point about the advances of the 1920’s in the USSR: they need to ‘live’ and be exciting for us now – and be used as a contemporary point of comparison.

‘It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership.

‘There was little modern industry and thinking was more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary for a successful communist revolution. As the experience of other backward countries shows, even getting capitalism off the ground under these circumstances is hard enough, let alone a society that aims to supersede it’.*

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Eye-witness accounts

In browsing on the topic of the Russian revolution, I came across a 40 page pamphlet, Women in Russia. It was published by the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1928 and reveals some of the changes and improvements in everyday life for women in Russia in the short space of ten years after the revolution.

women in russia

Karl Marx once said that you can measure the progress of a society by looking at the condition of women within it and that great social changes were not possible without ‘the feminine ferment’. I think he was – and is – right.

The pamphlet is the report by a group of five English women who visited Russia on the occasion of the revolution’s first decade to see what was happening. They were Beth Turner, Rose Smith, Lily Webb, Fanny Deakin and Florence Maxwell.

I can’t find out much about them individually, except for Fanny Deakin who at some point in time joined the Communist Party. Fanny was also a graduate with distinction from the ‘University of Life and Hard Knocks’. The Working Class Movement Library outlines her story thus:

Fanny Deakin (1883–1968) was a lifelong activist from Silverdale in the North Staffordshire coalfield. Of the five children born to her marriage with Noah Deakin, only one survived into adulthood.  This experience, typical of that of many working class communities, led to lifetime campaigning for better maternity services.  But her political involvement incorporated membership of the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Party and, later, the Communist Party.  Her political experience was shaped by disputes in local collieries and, above all, by the 1926 General Strike where Fanny was involved in leading processions, holding protests and speaking at large gatherings. Her motivation was summed up as ‘Fighting for the Mothers’.

The five women visited Leningrad, Moscow, Kharkov and Baku in order to learn about health services, kindergartens, birth control and abortion. They also visited coalfields in the Don Basin and the newly developed oilfields in Azerbaijan. Their trip was funded by local collections in England.

If you want to know why so many working class people around the world were pro-communist or pro-Soviet back then, before the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and the development of today’s openly authoritarian oligarchy, ‘Women in Russia’ is one among many eye-witness accounts that helps explain the reasons.

Women had fought in the revolution and in the civil war. During the latter, for instance, 14,000 women took part in the military defence of Leningrad against the ‘White’ army forces of the anti-communist anti-Semite General Yudenich.

Women’s liberation from feudal autocracy was a promise of the revolution, and it was certainly achieved.

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The terrible conditions inherited by the Bolsheviks from Tsardom

In the decade after the Bolshevik-led victory, many foreign delegations visited to see for themselves what was happening, including some from the United Kingdom, which was geographically close and had a great militant working class socialist tradition of its own.

Could the seizure of state power by the Bolsheviks, the redistribution of land and the taking over of the principal means of production by the workers, lead to anything good? It’s amazing what was achieved so quickly, given the obstacles.

The mass poverty and suffering under Tsarist autocracy was bad enough – the Bolshevik-led government in 1917 was starting off under terrible socio-economic conditions. Russia was very backward economically with little industry.

And then, with the revolution’s success, a civil war instigated by the anti-communists in Russia and supported militarily by more than a dozen western governments made things extremely difficult for the new socialist government. About 8 million people were killed in the civil war, for which responsibility lay with the instigators. In the areas controlled by the anti-communist ‘White’ armies, such as the Ukraine, massacres were carried out by the ‘Whites’ against communists and Jews.

On top of that, Britain and its War allies blockaded Russia from 1918 to 1920, making trade (and the wealth arising from it) impossible.

In 1921, to make matters even worse (if that were possible), lack of rainfall led to famine.

Yet, under conditions of social ownership based on workers’ control, with production geared to social need rather than private profit, much progress was achieved.

****

The specific achievements under socialism

The five English women properly contrasted the things they saw and experienced in Russia in 1927 to what they understood about conditions prior to the revolution:

In comparison with pre-revolution standards and conditions, the lot of the workers and peasants has improved almost beyond belief and is still on the upgrade.

Among the changes introduced by the Soviet government that particularly impressed the women were:

Equal pay for equal work enforced.

Laws against child labour. No child under 14 could be employed and those aged between 14 and 16 could not work more than four hours a day.

Allowance for single mothers. Unheard of in Tsarist times, the revolutionary government compelled fathers to pay one-third of their income in child support.

Birth control information was freely available and ‘secret abortion’ (what we would call ‘backyard abortion’) was countered by the provision of ‘skilled medical assistance’.

Workers’ committees established in each factory to make decisions, including the power to recall foremen and bosses. (In the Rabotchi textile factory which the women visited, the factory committee was dominated by women workers. The factory employed 5,750 workers and was previously owned by English capitalists. Under workers’ control, the factory abolished the humiliating practice of fines for lateness and introduced a medical clinic, crèche and kindergarten, subsidised meals, study groups, a library, games, sporting activity and a theatre).

Reduction of the working day from 10-and-a-half hours to 8 hours, with plans to reduce it to 7 hours in 1928. (This happened in January 1929).

Child care. Any workplace with more than 40 workers had to provide a crèche for the children of parents in the factory (paid for by the industry). Larger factories had kindergartens as well.

Free health care, including dentistry, introduced, with a program of new clinics and hospitals being built in cities and towns.

Expansion of maternity hospitals – 12,221 new ones built between 1917 and 1927.

– ‘Mother and child institutes’ set up to provide pre- and post-natal care.

– Conversion of the mansions and palaces of the rich into ‘rest homes’ for the workers.

Maternity leave. Workers received two months leave on full pay plus an allowance for staying at home to nurse the baby for nine months.

– Attachment of vocational schools to some large factories.

– Provision of rent-free accommodation for workers in places where factories owned the residences.

Free travel on public transport for workers who lived far from their workplaces.

– Programs introduced to improve health and safety in the workplaces, such as regular health checks, ventilation, drinking fountains and appropriate work clothing.

Expansion of formal education. In 1914, there were seven million children at primary school. In 1927, there were 10 million. In 1914, Russia had 90 universities. In 1927, there were 136.

Consumer co-operatives. Retail shops set up, with 15 million share-holders, along with state shops, accounted for 80% of business transactions.

* * * *

Homeless children

The ‘big enduring problem’ observed by the women in Russia was ‘one of the biggest problems’: homeless children. These were children ‘orphaned by war, famine and blockade’. The issue had been taken up by Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, and was, in part, a cultural problem. The children ‘prefer to roam about in bands… the wanderlust is in their blood’.

The state was trying to assist them, however, and the five women visited a former monastery that was now being used as a home for vagrant children. The chapel was still being used for religious purposes.

‘Comrade’ Coal in the hands of the people

As some of the women came from coal mining families and areas, they were also able to compare with the situation in England, as they experienced it. They visited two coal mines in the Don Basin and were favourably impressed. The Russian miners, for instance, worked a 6 hour day or an 8 hour day depending on the depth at which they worked underground. Under the Tsar, it was either 10-and-a-half or 12 hour day.

The mine workers enjoyed a month off each year, on full pay, whereas in England, the women said, coal miners dreaded holidays as it meant financial hardship. Fanny Deakin knew this from experience, as her husband was a coal miner.

Mine workers mostly lived in new housing developments, which the women said were based on the ‘English garden cities’, near the mines.

Under workers’ control, every pit-yard had a medical clinic and health-and-safety inspectors were brought in, for the first time. Medical treatment was free – an impossibility under the old order.

Work gear was also supplied free of charge, and mine workers retired at the age of 55 on a pension. When in between jobs, miners received ‘generous’ unemployment insurance.

Unlike under capitalism, coal production was increasing in the Soviet Union because of modernisation, not because of the workers being compelled to work faster.

Experts from Germany were recruited by the Soviet government to assist with new mines that were being sunk and the construction of power plants to supply electricity to areas that had lacked it.

****

Baku oil fields

The women visited part of the Baku oil field, and this is what they experienced:

In Baku we saw oilfields of enormous extent. They cover over a hundred square miles. Oil is exported from here to India, France, Britain, Italy, Turkey, Persia and America, and the wells now dug will last for fifty years.

Fabulous wealth is represented in this wonderful oilfield, and it is easy to see why it is coveted by the British capitalists.

On our way, we saw the place where the British General Thomas set fire to several oil tanks in 1917, when he was compelled to retreat. He blew up many buildings and a large part of the population.

When capitalists owned the oilfield, the workers were housed in mud huts without windows — places that reminded us of the middens in some of our English slums.

Now, 20,000 men are employed erecting houses. On one estate alone, accommodation has been provided for 10,000 families. Rents average 1s. 6d. a week, and each group of houses has an up-to-date wash-house and each estate its own social club for recreation.

The houses are built in family flats on the American style, each with its verandah… Gas, electricity and heating are all free. The average wage is about 35s. a week.

The workers have, in addition, many benefits from social insurance for which there are no deductions from their wages. When they are ill, they receive full pay for a month. Women get eight roubles a month (4s. a week) for nine months while nursing a baby, and 30 roubles (£3) at their confinement. At death, 45 roubles (£4 10s.) is paid for funeral expenses.

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Women in Muslim-dominated parts of the Soviet

The report says:

It was in their work amongst the Eastern peoples, particularly the women, that the Bolsheviks encountered some of their most serious difficulties.

A backward and illiterate population, bound by superstition, religion and prejudice to keep its women in a state of seclusion, hidden from the eyes of men, bought and sold like cattle, subject to the whims and wishes of their husbands, had to be made to realise that the revolution had come, bringing with it freedom for women as well as men.

Under the influence of Bolshevik organisers tens of thousands of Eastern women threw off the “parandjak,” a hideous black veil of horsehair they had previously been compelled to wear when walking abroad, and dared to show their faces unveiled.

Although this was but a symbol of their new-found freedom, it was strenuously resisted by the priests and wealthy peasants. Women were beaten, in some cases to death, and murder and violence were frequent. Some of the organisers themselves met their death at the hands of the infuriated men.

Laws had to be passed for the protection of women who dared to unveil themselves, and funds were raised for the relief of the families of those who were killed during the campaign.

In spite of these difficulties the work progressed, and Eastern women are being drawn into the work of the co-operatives, the factories and even of the Soviets. In 1926-7 some 951,812 Eastern women took part in the elections to the rural Soviets, and 36,258 were elected as members of the Soviets.

****

Basis laid for rapid industrialisation in first Five Year Plan

The progress made in the first decade laid the basis for the first Five Year Plan adopted in 1928, which saw further rapid progress in the economic and social realms. The successes of the first 5 Year Plan influenced US President Roosevelt’s decision to officially recognize the Soviet Union in 1933.

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