Women marching in Petrograd, Russia, during the 1917 February revolution

Celebrating Pride is important to remembering the victories of the LGBT+ movement. This is increasingly crucial in the face of an intensifying backlash against the gains won in the past. With LGBT+ people worldwide facing an onslaught, a society on the verge of real liberation can seem far from within reach. 

Yet over 100 years ago, in a backwards Russian state that marginalised LGBT+ people, ordinary workers began to forge a new society where all oppressed people began to be accepted. From women to Jews and Muslims, as well as ethnic minorities and LGBT+ people, a world without oppression went from a distant dream to a potential reality.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 is the high point of human history. It put a country of 150 million people under workers’ control. In Tsarist Russia before the revolution, homosexuality was criminalised, sexism was brutal and antisemitism was rife.

But in February 1917 Tsarism was toppled after 300 years because of militant strikes, mutinies in the army and land grabs by peasants. The devastating effects of the First World War meant Russian workers faced horrific conditions. The ruling Tsarist elite was only interested in maintaining the imperialist conflict in Europe.

Some 1.5 million Russian soldiers deserted the army in 1916 with 2.5 million killed. Kulaks—landowners—hoarded grain to push up prices so people went days without food. Russia erupted in social unrest. In February workers staged strikes, factory occupations and marches. Women, who made up half of the workforce by 1917, played an important role in agitating and organising in their workplaces.

A key moment was a strike sparked by women textile workers at the Putilov factory in Petrograd. They marched out on International Women’s Day and threw snowballs at the factories where men worked, calling them to also walk about. That day 100,000 workers struck ­demanding bread and an end to the war, and the movement sparked by women turned into a general strike. Five days later the Tsar was overthrown.

The fightback provided the most oppressed with an opportunity to unite with their fellow workers. Socialist women had been arguing for this unity for years, but now they were proved right in practice. Leading revolutionary Leon Trotsky described how women went up to a cordon of soldiers and “almost commanded ‘put down your bayonets—join us’”. 

This was a crucial moment. When soldiers were called to suppress the protests, they instead rebelled and joined in. Often it was young women and the oppressed who were on the frontlines of the revolution. The removal of the Tsar led to the creation of the Provisional Government, based on a parliament as well as the rise of the soviets, or workers’ councils. 

Here workers sought to explore alternative ways of running society. In 1917 soviets spread across Russia, with 300 by May and 1,000 in October. Trotsky, a Jew, was propelled to one of the highest positions—chair of the Petrograd Soviet. Before the revolution there were few women who took up elected positions within their workplaces.

One woman worker states how male workers would jest, “There goes our elected representatives” as they passed by. This changed during the revolutionary process. Women’s membership to the Bolshevik party doubled, and trade union membership increased.  

But the workers, still starving and unemployed, were frustrated with the Provisional Government. Soldiers were being slaughtered and land had not been given to the peasants. On 25 October, with the backing of the Soviets, the Bolsheviks organised an insurrection. Workers under revolutionary leadership stormed the Winter Palace to overthrow the Provisional Government.

There was little resistance. The palace was guarded by a few loyal troops who disappeared as the workers approached. Workers seized railways, telegraph offices and other key communication points across Russia. The participation of oppressed people was crucial to October—and the months and years that followed.

The social basis for the oppression began to be dismantled following the transformation of Russian society.  Leading Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin said that “revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited.” The fight for liberation and socialism are intertwined.

The Bolsheviks insisted that the “separation of kitchen from marriage” was vital to uproot the material basis for oppression. So the family unit, where sexism and oppression of LGBT+ people is rooted, was confronted. Leading Bolsheviks like Alexandra Kollontai set up communal facilities such as laundrettes, mending centres, kitchens and nurseries.

These lessened the burden of domestic labour. By beginning to create alternatives to the rigid control of the family, new ways of living rose amid a wider struggle. Decrees enshrined women the full right to vote, equal pay, equal rights at work and maternity pay.

And, almost immediately after the seizure of power, homosexuality was formally decriminalised. By 1923 the Bolsheviks declared that “the state had no right to dictate what people do with their bodies in their own homes”. The Bolsheviks set up Zhenotdel, a department of the party based on organising women and making sure women’s liberation was not sidelined. 

The Bolsheviks held a women’s congress in November 1918. About 300 women were expected but 1,150 turned up. Russia was 50 years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of LGBT+ rights, even with imperialist forces invading Russia from every angle.

Without a complete understanding of transgender people, the Bolsheviks committed themselves to a broad understanding of gender. Lev Rosenstein, a psychologist, addressed students stating, “Women in Soviet Russia may take men’s names and live as men”.

One soldier who was assigned female at birth proudly said in a 1923 survey, “I want to be a man, I impatiently await scientific discoveries of castration and grafting of male organs”. And Russia had some of the first cases of same-sex marriage. One person had lived as a man since the revolution despite being assigned female at birth and married a woman in 1922.

It was brought to a court to judge its legality. The courts viewed the marriage as “concluded by mutual consent”. The principle of “mutual consent” and the possibility of accepting a non-heterosexual or cisgender marriage is far beyond what even advanced capitalist states provide today. Not everything changed overnight. 

Implementation was uneven, and the backwards ideas of the past weren’t swept away in one fell swoop. Debates still raged in the years following the revolution. But what the revolution did was make that liberation possible—and for a while a reality. We can only wonder where liberation could have led if the revolution had not been isolated and repressed.

The revolution was held back as the new society scrambled to defend itself against the invasion of 13 imperialist armies. Tragically LGBT+ emancipation was as temporary as workers’ power in Russian society. Following the brutality of the civil war and the failure of the revolution to spread, liberation was thrown back. 

Many of the workers who had made up the social basis of the revolution had fled to the countryside in search of food or had died to protect the revolution. After the death of Lenin in 1924, the state capitalist counter-revolution undertaken by Joseph Stalin hollowed out any remnants of LGBT+, or other, liberation.

Stalin oversaw a regime of oppression. He intensified the ideology and material support for the family unit. Homosexuality was re-criminalised, and a campaign of repression sought to root out homosexuality in Russia. Revolutionary author Maxim Gorky, who had gone over to Stalin, wrote in 1934, “Destroy homosexuals—fascism will disappear”.

The flame of liberation and workers’ power was snuffed out by Stalin’s false banner of socialism in one country. Lenin’s idea of revolutionaries being the “tribunes of the oppressed” was written out of history. But the revolutionary spark of liberation is far from extinct.

Movements for LGBT+ liberation exploded across the world following the 1969 Stonewall uprising. These movements have been often held back or co-opted by the system, despite significant gains being won by ordinary people fighting back from below. 

To secure LGBT+ liberation a complete transformation of society is necessary, as we can see from Russia that was years ahead of the rest of the world. Raising the rainbow flag with the red flag is crucial to not just win limited LGBT+ rights, but to win lasting and real liberation.

Join London Trans+ Pride on Saturday 8 July, meet at Trafalgar Square at 1pm

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