March 15, 1917 – Tsar Nicholas II steps aside, paving the way for Russian women to get the vote.
As Women’s History Month continues, let’s look at how the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia on this day 106 years ago was, in part, thanks to women speaking out for equality and their rights.
Russia’s “February Revolution”, which marked the end of the monarchy, actually took place in March. This was because, at the time, the nation still followed the Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind the Gregorian method used in Western Europe. To avoid confusion, we will use Gregorian dates in this article.
At the outset of the revolution – and on the first International Women’s Day held on its now fixed date of March 8 – women marched to protest the poor conditions following the strain of World War I. Imperial Russia was at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, fighting as allies of the British, French and Italians.
Russia had been vastly unprepared for the outbreak and scale of the war and as a result was struggling not only militarily but economically as the country adjusted to the demands of modern warfare. Women bore much of the brunt of the suffering, worrying about memories of their male family in battle and the economic struggles in their daily lives.
When female textile workers in the Vyborg industrial district of Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) went on strike after getting tired of working hard all day to earn the money to pay for bread that was rarely available despite the long queues, they found a multitude of support.
Thousands marched to the center of Petrograd, demanding “bread” and “dignity”. Police tried to stop them from crossing the bridges into the city centre, which is on an island in the Neva River, but many simply crossed the frozen winter water on foot to reach the other bank.
The impressive protest by women quickly spread throughout the city and across the country and the government and civil authorities were brought to their knees. Trust and confidence in the tsar and the royal family was at an all-time low, thanks to decades of brutality, lack of investment and development in Russia, as well as countless hardships caused by the war.
The backlash – or lack thereof – from above has done nothing to quell the protests, but instead has stirred up public anger and raised the level of protests and demonstrators. Calls have diversified to end Russia’s role in the war, with teachers, students, army deserters and white-collar workers joining the dissent. The already divided Russian government increased infighting and turned against Tsar Nicholas II.
He abdicated the throne on March 15, and his decision ended more than 300 years of rule by the Romanov family, paving the way for a republic with a socialist form of government reflected in modern Russia.
While the Russian Revolution didn’t end with Tsar Nicholas’ abdication, it certainly set off the onset of years of turmoil, with the uprising continuing until 1923.
While the abdication ended years of royal rule in Russia — which also led to his and his family’s executions — makes this historic day significant for the tsar’s own actions, women are at the heart of this story. In fact, choosing him actually granted Russian women the right to vote in a roundabout way.
Nicholas was furious at the women’s protest, even authorizing General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to shoot any woman who refused to stand down. While some were killed, the post-abdication caretaker government gave women the right to vote following their protest action. In May 1917, a law was passed giving women over the age of 20 the ability to elect the Constituent Assembly. Russia was actually one of the very first nations to allow women to vote in the world, with only New Zealand – in 1893 – Finland (1906), Denmark and Iceland (both 1915) beating them.
While March 15 is, therefore, a happy day for equality and democracy in Russian history, it marked the beginning of the end for the Tsar and his family. On July 17, 1918, Nicholas was killed by a firing squad consisting of seven Central European Communist soldiers and three local Bolsheviks under the command of chief executioner Yakov Yurovsky. His wife Alexandra and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maira, Anastasia and Alexie were also shot dead, along with members of their entourage. Court doctor Eugene Botkin, lady-in-waiting Anna Demidova, head cook Ivan Kharitonov and valet Alexei Trupp, who had chosen to stay with the family, suffered the same fate.
Despite this unhappy ending, Nicholas, his family, and executed staff have all since been canonized as “passion bearers” by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. In 2000, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were also recognized as holy martyrs by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.