On Saturday the UK will mark Armistice Day. An official cult of remembrance requires that this week people in the public eye – politicians, newsreaders, sports personalities and so on – wear the red poppy that commemorates British service personnel.
I am wearing the white poppy, that commemorates all the victims of all wars. It’s a socialist, anti-militarist tradition that I think should be spread more widely.
The horrible destruction in Syria, unleashed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to protect his power from a popular uprising and generalised into a multi-sided war, is reason enough to wear the white poppy.
And this year it can also serve as a reminder of the greatest popular anti-military uprising in history – in Russia in the summer of 1917.
The women workers of Petrograd (now St Petersburg) began the 1917 revolution in February, by striking and demonstrating against the first world war (in which Russia was allied with Britain and France) and the hardships it brought.
Soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, by refusing to fire on the protesters and pledging their allegiance to the soviet (workers’ council) in the city, assured the collapse of the 300-year-old tsarist dynasty.
The new provisional government that took over after the February revolution promised the restive army that it would end the war … but not immediately. In June 1917 it tried to launch an offensive against the German and Austro-Hungarian forces on the eastern front.
Whole units, battalions and regiments refused to fight. Some of them met, adopted a formal resolution, and in some cases arrested or lynched their officers. Others simply abandoned the battlefield and streamed home, guns in hand. They figured it was better to deal with the authorities at home – if there were any – than to die trying to kill equally innocent soldiers on the “other” side.
There had already been cases of fraternisation, such as the “Christmas truce” between British and German soldiers, and of desertion. But nothing on this scale. A whole army simply refused to obey orders.
No wonder president Putin, who has built his reputation on bloody, murderous interventions in Chechnya in 2000-01 and Ukraine in 2014-15, recalled 1917 as a “betrayal of Russia from within”. Nothing could be scarier to the governments of today than the prospect of people, once again, refusing to kill each other for mythical nationalist ends.
In 1917, the unprecedented military mutiny combined with the seizure of land by peasants and the political revolt of urban workers. The provisional government collapsed.
The result was the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, the first party that claimed to rule in the name of working people – although they failed to do so, which is another story – and the centenary of that takeover is on Tuesday (7 November).
One of the new government’s first acts was to issue a Decree on Peace. They ordered the head of the army to negotiate a ceasefire on the eastern front and, when he refused, encouraged front-line regiments to agree ceasefires with the German and Austro-Hungarian troops in the trenches opposite – effectively, an endorsement of the rebellious soldiers’ actions in the summer.
These measures did not bring peace. Within months, Russia was plunged into a bloody civil war which killed more of its people than the first world war did. Nevertheless its withdrawal from the first world war showed what mass anti-war action could do.
Here is a declaration by the Smolensk Initiative Group of Women and Mothers – one of the thousands of grass-roots organisations that sprung up during the Russian revolution – published on 5 May 1917 by the independent socialist newspaper Novaya Zhizn. I think it gives a good idea of what working-class people thought about the war and how to stop it.
To all Russian Women and mothers. We, a group of Russian women and mothers, are joining the protest of the working people against the war. We are also extending our hand to women and mothers the world over.
We are deeply convinced that our extended hand will meet the extended hands of mothers the world over. No annexations or indemnities can compensate a mother for a murdered son. [They were referring to the moderate socialists’ slogan, “peace without annexations and indemnities”].
Enough blood. Enough of this horrible bloodshed, which is utterly pointless for the working people. Enough of sacrificing our sons to the capitalists’ inflamed greed. We don’t need any annexations or indemnities. Instead, let us safeguard our sons for the good of all the working people the world over. Let them apply their efforts not to a fratricidal war but to the cause of peace and the brotherhood of all peoples. And let us, Russian women and mothers, be proud knowing that we were the first to extend our brotherly hand to all the mothers the world over.
Smolensk Initiative Group of Women and Mothers.
That’s from a wonderful collection of the documents of the rank-and-file movement, Voices of Revolution 1917, edited by Mark Steinberg (Yale University Press, 2001), p. 98. GL, 6 November 2017.
■ More on Russian and Ukrainian history here.