Saturday, March 25, 2017

2585. Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi: Her Life and Times

By Kamran Nayeri, March 25, 2017
Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi

A necessary introduction
Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi, a flamboyant female Iranian socialist who was named by the Amnesty International’s political prisoner of the year in 1978 died of a stroke in Paris on March 13, 2017, at age 81.  

I learned about it from Farrokh, my lifetime friend who was like me active in the New York-based Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran (CAIFI) in the 1970s.  While CAIFI publicized the plight of dozens of political prisoners in the Mohammad Reza Shah’s Jails, The case of Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi was always a central case.  A non-sectarian defense committee that defended all prisoners of conscience, including leftists of various ideologies, nationalists, and Islamic oppositionists and welcomed the support of all regardless of their political allegiances, CAIFI won over the support of some prominent liberal Americans, including Kay Boyle, Daniel Ellsberg, and Ramsey Clark.  In the case of Vida Hadjebi, CAIFI won over Columbia University sociologist Allan Silver who personally took a letter of protest signed by the Canadian Association of Sociologists to Iranian Embassy in Washington D.C regarding her detention. American Feminist Kate Millett, the National Organization of Women representative and Anne Roberts, Amnesty International representative, and other concerned U.S citizens publicly denounced the imprisonment and torture of Vida Hadjebi and the treatment of women prisoners of conscience in Iran. 

When I read the BBC Persian news about Vida Hadjebi’s death, I also watched their 2014 interview with her.  It was the first time I saw her speak and I was moved by her speech and mannerism.  I then realized how little I knew about this woman who I had spent so much time defending against the Shah’s dictatorship. We used to think that Vida was, in fact, a sociologist and that is how we presented her to the public and that is why the Canadian Association of Sociologists protested her arrest.  But Vida was really a sociologist by default. She was a socialist who had studied architecture, In 1969, upon returning to Iran and when in need of work to raise her young child she found what turned out to be a short-term job at the Institute for Social Science Studies in Tehran. Three years later she was picked up by the Shah’s secret police the SAVAK on a tip from the CIA she was “the contact person for the international left!”  

This prompted me to research Vida’s life and writings to the best I could and what follows is what I have learned through reading her memoirs and other writing.  Vida’s colorful political life is exceptional and yet representational of the political life of many in the Iranian left in the period after the 1953 CIA-M16 coup d’etat that inaugurated the 25-year U.S.-backed dictatorship of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and how unprepared they/we were for participated in the 1979 Iranian revolution which contributed to its eventual defeat.  I conclude with a meditation on Vida’s paradoxes in part in place of a dialogue I wish I could have had with her had I known her in person.

I must note that this presentation of Vida’s life is almost exclusively from her own accounts of it.  In my reading of Vida’s memoirs and other writings, I have noticed errors.  So, my account is colored by Vida's possible self-report biases and my own inability to catch all of her errors if in fact there are more than I have noticed (but what I found is often insignificant).  Needless to say, this writing is also completed quickly because I wanted it to reach the public soon after her passing.  I may learn more about Vida’s life and reserve the right to correct any remaining errors and add new significant information should that become necessary. 

Early life
Vida was born in the then middle-class Pich-e-Shemiran neighborhood of Tehran in 1935.  She was one of five children and her parents were well to do and well connected secular Iranians who were very supportive of their daughters. They remained a significant pillar of support for Vida until their death at the end of the 1970s. 

Vida’s childhood memories showed her sensitivities to the plight of others, human or non-human.  She recalls her horror when farm animals were slaughtered in her house, a common practice before slaughterhouses where built to regularly meet demand for meat while hiding the brutality and suffering. Although from a Muslim family, she attended a unisex Armenian elementary school that also accepted Jewish and well-to-do Muslim students. When in high school, she attended the Zoroastrian-run Anoushirvan Dagar.(endnote 1)  She recalls how in her Armenian elementary school sectarian fights broke out from time to time. But she also notes that in her Zoroastrian high school where Muslim, Armenian, Jewish, and Bahai students also attended, she never witnessed a teacher discriminating between them. She later notes how her sense of justice developed very early in life but it took her a long time before joining any social justice group.  As a child, she followed the example of her brother Ghahreman who was two years older and preferred playing ball to drawing or painting.  In high school, she became part of the basketball team. 

As a teenager, it was her older sister Pari that Vida looked up to.  Pari was active in the youth organization of the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party and it was she who first introduced Vida to socialism: “Pari said: ‘Socialism means everyone livings well, like in the Soviet Union, not that some be rich and others be poor.’” But Vida had an independent character and for reasons not disclosed didn’t find the Tudeh Party attractive.

The post-world War II period in Iran was a period of mass radicalization due to the weakening of the Pahlavi regime and the damaging impact of the war.  New political parties were formed, including the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party.  In the Kurdish regions and in Azerbaijan nationalist parties that wanted autonomy came to power in 1946.   The popular sentiments against the Anglo-Persian Oil Company that was formed in 1909 and was still taking 51% of the profits from the Iranian oil were on the rise.  On April 28, 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh, a nationalist member of the parliament, became the prime minister and immediately introduced legislation to create the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Established in June, NIOC took over the British-controlled oil industry. Vida attributes the origin of her unflinching opposition to the Mohammad Reza Shah’s regime to her witnessing of the military trial of Mossadegh who was deposed on August 19, 1953, by the CIA-M16 coup d’etat that returned the Shah’s to power unleashing a quarter of a century of dictatorship.   

Student years in Paris

Friendship with Farah Diba
In 1956, Vida traveled to Paris where Pari now lived and on her uncle’s recommendation enrolled at École Spéciale d'Architecture (although she initially wanted to study medicine).  It so happened that another Iranian woman who Vida knew was also studying at the École, Farah Diba.  Vida and Farah were both athletes and members of the basketball teams of their respective high schools in Tehran (Fara Diba had studied at Jeanne d'Arc high school in Tehran).  As it turned out their mothers also were classmates at Jeanne d’Arc high school.  They became very close friends in Paris; according to Vida, Farah while not a leftist did not support the Shah’s regime either.  However, when in 1959 the Shah asked Farah to marry him and she accepted.  Vida, on the other hand, had met a Venezuelan socialist in Paris and married him in 1958. 

 Thus, the two friends’ lives diverged greatly.  Twenty-six years later, in 1986, when riding her son’s car in Paris to distribute her recently published socialist magazine, Aghazi No (A New Beginning), Vida noticed a large black car pulling to their side at the stop light.  A woman called her from the back seat of the black car: “Vida, I am Farah!”  Surprise, Vida asked: “What are you doing here?”  Farah didn’t respond to this silly question returning to formalities: “How are you?”  Vida responded: “Very well; waiting for the next revolution!”  Farah’s face darkened, turning away from Vida, ordering her driver to move on! They never met again. 

Radicalization of Iranian students abroad
Vida’s immediate impressions of Paris were negative.  Part of this was because of anti-Algerian racism she witnessed. Vida was shocked to learn that even the French Communist Party supported the colonization of Algeria.  At the same time, she was subjected to harassment by Algerian men in Paris who called her a racist for refusing them.  

Pari introduced Vida to the Iranian political circles.  There were continuous debates about the lessons of the 1953 coup and the role of the Tudeh Party.  In 1960, the Confederation of Iranian Students in Europe was formed by those who opposed the Shah’s regime.  After Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, there was a crisis in the pro-Moscow parties around the world. A group split from the Tudeh Party that formed the pro-Beijing “The Revolutionary Organization of the Tudeh Party.”   Her sister Pari broke with the Tudeh Party in the process.  Pari and her friend, Shahrashoub Amirshahi turned their interest to the emerging feminism in France.  Much later in her life, Vida also turned to feminism. The French women had only achieved the right to vote in 1945.  Vida notes that pro-Moscow Communist parties, including in France opposed the woman’s right to equality and to choose abortion.

Venezuela
It was through Pari that Vida was acquainted with the Latin American leftists who met in coffee shops of quartier latin in Paris, including Oswaldo Barreto, a Venezuelan law student and a member of the French Communist Party, who she married in 1958. In 1960, in Venezuela, Vida gave birth to a boy who they named Ramin. Even though Oswaldo’s father was black, his Italian mother searched all over the baby’s body to make sure he is pure white!  Being satisfied, she told Vida: “Only his hair may become curly.”  Such was the racism ingrained in Venezuela. 

Vida had moved to Venezuela in 1959 to live with Oswaldo and enroll in the well-respected program in architecture at the Central University of Venezuela. Eventually, Oswaldo became a leading member of the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). Around that time, due to the influenced of the Cuban revolution the PCV began organizing  Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (or FALN, Armed Forces of National Liberation) for guerrilla warfare although the conditions allowed for the PCV’s participation in the elections.  Vida traveled along with Oswaldo who gave speeches on behalf of the PCV election campaign.  They often held their electoral rallies in the central park of each town. That is how Vida learned about Simón Bolivar (1783 – 1830) whose statue was in every park. Bolívar was the military and political leader in the war for independence from Spain that resulted in the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama as sovereign states. In his election speeches, Oswaldo offered the PCV’s electoral plank which included “social justice,” “sufficient wages,” and 100 grams of meat daily for all.  Vida who still did not call herself a socialist was pleased by these promises.  Because of the high illiteracy rate voting cards were colored red for the PCV and white for the rightwing Democratic Action Party that won the election.   

Because of her attraction to the Cuba revolution, Vida joined the newly formed youth group of the PCV.  She notes that the PCV was the only Communist Party that seemed to emulate the July 26 Movement’s road to power.  Oswaldo and Vida who lived in different town because of their respective work eventually divorced. Oswaldo went to Cuba for training for guerrilla warfare and returned to join the FALN under the nom de guerre Otto.  Vida contributed to the FALN through transportation of arms.  She recalls that once while transporting arms she was stopped by the police. The officer asked for her driver’s license but in her rush, she had forgotten her purse.  Nervously, she told the officer she doesn’t have it, it is in her purse at hoe. The officer asks: “What is in the back of your car!’  Vida being nervously responded: “Guns!  The officer smiled thinking she is joking and let her go.  The FALN armed campaign was defeated and Vida was devastated by losing close friends in the armed clashes with government forces.  When Ramin was two and half years old they left Venezuela for Iran. 

A short stay in Iran
Vida had not completed her studies in architecture in Paris or in Caracas.  She returned to Tehran for family support to raise her son.  While her parents were more than happy to help raise Ramin, Vida found no possibility to work.  Her only recourse was to ask for Farah’s favor who was now well settled in as the Queen.  And her uncle who had good relations with the royal family brought her several invitations from Farah. But Vida was reluctant. 

It also became a turbulent time.  Her stay overlapped with the initial phase of the Shah’s White Revolution which combined a state-sponsored path to capitalist modernization and industrialization and a desire to undermine forces opposed to monarchy from the left and the right.  Vida recalls how ayatollah Kashani who turned against the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh joined his disciple ayatollah Khomeini who had come out publicly against the first two provisions of the White Revolution, the women’s right to vote and land reform.  She bitterly complains about the nationalists and the student movement at the time who did not support the women’s right to vote because it was a “reform from the top.”  Tudeh Party, with green light from Moscow, and hope for legalization, unconditionally supported the White Revolution.  Vida found the satirical magazine Tofigh’s position closer to her own views: it put a cartoon of a group of men on the cover with a sign that said: “Now that you have given women their rights, give us men our rights too!”  Tofigh was eventually closed down.  Vida also witnessed the 15 of Khordad (June 5, 1963) revolt by pro-Khomeini forces who were in some locations confronted with machine guns and dozens, perhaps hundreds, were killed.  Some 320, including Khomeini, were arrested.   But Khomeini’s life was spared after ayatollah Mohammad-Kazem Shariatmadari, a senior religious leader, declared Khomeini as a Marja, or a “Shia source of knowledge.” The regime figured Khomeini’s execution would do more harm than good.  He was eventually exiled to Iraq.  Vida recalls the male chauvinist and sectarian character of the forces involved in the protest. When she and her female friend went to the bazaar, a center of support for the revolt, they joined a crowd that was reading a Khomeini flier posted on a wall. A man approached them yelling “get lost you, dirty women.”  When they pulled back, they noticed there were no other women. They crowd was entirely men! 

Algeria: Ben Bella and Che Guevara 
In late 1964 and early 1965 Vida with her son were in Algeria because Oswaldo who was now part of the pro-guerilla warfare faction in the Communist Party of Venezuela was attending meetings to organize some shipment of arms to Latin American revolutionaries and he wanted to visit with his son.  

Vida was shocked to see poverty and discrimination in Algiers while Algerians in the higher echelon of power lived next to the French and other foreign managers of Western companies in the well-to-do section of the city.  She was also shocked to see a resurgence of Islamic culture that discriminated against women.  Even the Algerian Communist Party (previously a branch of the French Communist Party) had separate sections for its female and Jewish members.  Ben Bella, the president who called himself a socialist, observed Ramadan fasting. 

She also comments on how the personnel of the Cuban embassy and the French socialist intellectuals such as Maxime Rodinson focused their political analyses on the centrality of the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggle and reformism of the pro-Moscow Communist parties and criticized anyone who spoke in defense of artistic or individual freedoms in Algeria as aiding the imperialist enemy.  She admits that given the context her own views gradually changed in the same direction.  

A highlight of Vida’s visit was the February 1965 Afro-Asian Conference in which Che Guevara spoke.  She writes: “It was unbelievable.  It was the first time that a minister of a socialist country openly and without hesitation criticized the Soviet Union and China and the internal relations in the ‘socialist camp.’” (for the text of Guevara’s speech, see here). 

Cuba
In January 1966, Vida flew to Havana from Prague to attend the Tricontinental conference.  She was pleased but surprised to see Haydée Santamaría who was the head of the Cuban delegation giving her speech wearing hair rollers!   She was also shocked to see two officials from the Shah’s regime representing Iran.  When she protested to the Cubans, they said they have no problem with excluding them but to do so she had to get the agreement of the Soviet Union and China delegations.  When Vida approached the Chinese, they listened with expressionless faces, then shook their heads and walked away!  The Soviet delegation was less dismissive; they simply said the matter is out of their hands.  This was a time when Moscow was pursuing “peaceful coexistence” with Washington and China was calling the United States a “paper tiger.”  

Vida was impressed with the achievements of the Cuban revolution and fell in love with Havana. 
“Upon entering the Havana airport it was as if we had entered another world.   There were no grey and dry airport officials or an oppressive atmosphere. Havana, unlike Prague and East Berlin, was hospitable and naturally green and colorful, with many beautiful palm trees….Streets were bustling with lively people…” 

Vida adored Fidel Castro. 

“Cuban people viewed Castro as a brave man with integrity. In the Revolution Square, they stood under the burning sun for hours to listen to his speeches and in spontaneous questions and answers with him they felt they are being consulted on domestic and foreign policy…” 

She admired the Cuban policy at the time that required office workers to work three week on their jobs and one week in production activities. 

After the conference one night she and Oswaldo were awakened by Fidel Castro before dawn.  After sending off his guards to breakfast, Fidel started a conversation that began on the need for method and tactics in baseball and went on to his use of this observation in guerrilla warfare conducted by the July 26 Movement.  “He is sincere and speaks with enthusiasm and distinction…I have never met anyone with such energy and greatness before.”  Fidel told them that the Soviet Union was among the last states to recognize the Cuban revolution while the U.S. was among the first!  Vida also relates that Fidel said: 

“We were not socialist at the beginning. Che Guevara was a communist…Our main problem was political and economic independence.  After the nationalization of American companies and under the pressure of sanctions we called ourselves socialist.” 

Vida met other leaders of the Cuban revolution in other occasions, such as Celia Sánchez and Manuel Piñeiro.  She became a friend to Fidel Castro and brought him French cheeses from Paris in her visits.  She writes of the simplicity of Fidel’s living quarters: 

“The first time I saw the two-room apartment of Castro on the second floor of an old building I was surprised at its simplicity.  He had invited Oswaldo and I for dinner. I lost my composure when I realized that the legendary Celia Sánchez was also there.” 

Despite her many political experiences, Vida still made important mistakes.  Upon urging of Pari and her husband, Vida agreed to work with Mohsen Rezvani, a leader of the Maoist split off from the Tudeh Party, The Revolutionary Organization of the Tudeh Party, to arrange for guerrilla training for a dozen of their members in Cuba.  She raised this with Manuel Piñeiro who readily agreed with the condition that Vida to be the interpreter.  She then adds: 

“It was not yet a week after their arrival to Cuba that I realized they are enemies of Cuba and consider Che Guevara a betrayer… I asked Rezvani why then you came to Cuba for military training?   He simply said: ‘we came for military training and have nothing else to do with the Cubans’….They were not interested in learning anything about the Cuban revolution..and hardly left their residence during their stay.” 

The Cuban revolution, of course, paid for their entire trip. 

Paris: May 1968
Vida was in Paris during the pre-revolutionary crisis of May 1968 marked by mass student protests and general strike of millions of workers that paralyzed the country.  Vida remembers how the French were no longer “grim and unfriendly” and “everyone seemed rejuvenated and happy”. Streets were turned into a forum for discussion and debate about social concerns. Vida joined groups of students of fine arts that showed critical films and made colorful fliers with revolutionary slogans, such as “Beauty is in the streets,” “Social will against the private administration,” “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” “Accept our intentions as reality,” and “Long live factory occupations.”  

Vida recalls how the French Communist Party (PCF) that opposed factory occupations and the general strike quickly was discredited: “Even workers who belonged to the PCF, tore apart L’Humanité (PCF’s paper) in the streets.”   At the same time, political tendencies that supported the uprising quickly gained influence. Vida notes this about the Maoist groups but does not mention the Trotskyists who were more substantial and helped organized some of the key protests.  

After conferring with the leaders of key political parties, including the PCF, President Charles de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly on May 30. He announced an election, scheduled for June 23, and ordered workers to return to work, threatening to institute a state of emergency if they did not. The government had leaked to the media that the army was outside Paris. Already organized, immediately after the speech, about 800,000 de Gulle supporters marched through the Champs-Elysées waving the national flag.   

The protests movement died down.

Return to Iran
It was in spring of 1969 that Vida retuned to Tehran with the intention of staying permanently. Ever since she left for France to study, she had visited Tehran for brief periods. She had even left her son Ramin to live with her parents. But she had always returned to her adventures in Europe and elsewhere.  This time was supposed to be different.  

At the airport, she was stopped by the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK. Three “big men in dark suits” poured over her suitcases and took an item of no significance to examine later.  But eventually, she was waved through.  In later years, Vida came to believe that the SAVAK did not arrest her then to be able to follow her around to find her political contacts.  
Before returning to Iran, Vida had participated in the seventh congress of the Confederation of the Iranian Students in Frankfort.  This was her first and only time to participate in their gatherings.  During the congress, Vida served as the interpreter for the Spanish-speaking guests.  “The only thing I took away from the congress was that the Sino-Soviet conflict has now spread to the Confederation of the Iranian Students.” The Maoist The Revolutionary Organization of the Tudeh Party successfully carried out the explosion of the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party.  Meanwhile, the factions that remained shared one thing in common: the desire to copy the revolutions in other countries, from China and Vietnam to Albania and Cuba in Iran:  “There was no questioning of what these ‘models’ have to do with the problems of the student movement or the situation in Iran,”  Vida remarks. 

The SAVAK continued to shadow Vida and her family. She was dumbfounded why: “No [political] activity seemed serious to me except armed struggle.” 

Finally, through a friend Vida found a job at the Institute for Social Science Studies, headed by Firouz Tofigh, a friend of the family.  She was assigned to the Section on Sociology of Nomadic and Rural Populations.  Other notables who worked at the Institute at some point in time included Abolhassan Banisadr, who became the president in the Islamic Republic, Manoucher Hezarkhani, a physician who founded the short-lived National Democratic Front after the 1979 revolution, Amir Parviz Pouyan, a founder of the Organization of People’s Fedai Guerrillas (OPFG) who was killed in armed confrontation in 1971, and Mostafa Shoa’ian who with Nader Shaygan-shamasbi, Marzieh Ahmadi-osku’i and others formed the People’s Democratic Front which in 1973 merged with the OPFG. 

As was the state policy, the scholarly research of the Institute was only made available to the “relevant ministries” and was not allowed for publication without permission from the authorities. Vida and her fellow researchers ran into the repressive apparatus a number of times even for their regular research functions. Vida was also continually followed by the SAVAK. 

In Shah’s dungeons
On July 24, 1972, Vida’s automobile was followed by a Mercedes Benz. Thinking that they were woman-chasers, she sped up. The Mercedes ran into the back of her car forcing her to stop.  When she got out to protest someone hit her on the head and she lost consciousness. It was the SAVAK.

Vida was taken to the office of Mohammad Hassan Nasseri, the SAVAK torture known by the prison name of Azodi, in the notorious Evian prison.  She was beaten by four men and then taken to the basement where the head of the prison, Parviz Sabeti known as Hosseini, interrogated her.  Hosseini threatened Vida: “Either you cooperate and tell us everything or we will killed you under torture, put your body in your car, set it on fire and throw it off the Ozgol Bridge.”  By the end of the night Vida had fainted under flagging twice and both her legs had turned black up to her knees.   Thus began Vida’s arduous prison experience which she describes in her memoirs.  Only after the 1979 revolution, Vida learned from a televised statement by the former torturer Tehrani (Bahman Naderpour) that her harsh treatment was caused by the CIA report to the SAVAK about her visit to Cuba and that she was “the contact person for the international left groups.”

Unbeknown to Vida (I will get back to this in the concluding section), the New York-Based Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom (CAIFI) had made her case a central campaign in defense of political prisoners in Iran.  As noted in the introduction, a host of prominent organizations and individuals spoke on her behalf and in 1978 Amnesty International named Vida its political prisoner of the year.

In the summer of 1976, Vida recalls, Capitan Rouhi who was said to have been trained in Israel, was placed in charge of the prison. One day, a prison guard brought Vida, who was in solitary confinement, three books and said they were from Capitan Rouhi. Vida was socked as those in solitary confinement were deprived of reading materials.  It turned out the three books were credible reports from repression in the “socialist countries,” in Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia.  Some time later, Vida was taken to the office of Capitan Rouhi where some of her torturers were present as well. She was politely offered a chair and after some phony formalities asked what she thinks of the books.  She responded that she believes they were true.  They all brightened up and the jubilant Capitan Rouhi exclaimed: “Very well, we should have her tell it on the television.”  Vida responded: “But there is one condition. That I preface it with a report of what I have seen in this prison!” The party mood faded, Vida was taken back to her cell and there were no more books offered to her. 

In her descriptions of the political relations among the political prisoners, Vida offers some insight into the problem of why the Iranian leftist showed such a lack of interest or ability to defend democratic freedoms in the 1979 revolution.  “Regardless of differences in political allegiances, as far as the system of values and political-cultural standards were concerned those who supported or opposed armed struggle or those who were religious or ‘leftist’, they all shared an opposition to Western capitalism and the concept of universality of the right to liberty and human rights.”  She then recounts how the two dominant political groups, the Fedayeen and the Mujaheddin controlled the political lives of the political prisoners by imposing their own rules and sanctions. Vida was censored for humming Beethoven’s Ninth symphony because the composer was banned after the Cultural Revolution in China! 

The 1979 revolution
Early expressions of mass discontent such as clashes between Tehran’s shantytown dwellers with the municipal workers and the police in their effort to “beautify Tehran” by demolishing their shelter, gave way in February 1978 to the mass mobilization of one million in Tabriz, the seat of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and the autonomous Azerbaijan government in 1946. By the November of 1978, soon after Vida was freed, there was a general strike of the oil workers and many millions took to the streets of Tehran and all other major cities chanting “Down with the Shah.” On January 16, the Shah left Iran for good and on February 11, 1979, monarchy became part of the Iran’s past history. 
In her memoirs, Vida rejects the view of a small group of the Iranian leftists who denied the 1979 revolution as if nothing of substance had changed. She also criticizes the larger section of the left for their political support to Khomeini. The Tudeh Party, which on the encouragement from Moscow, replaced it General Secretary, Iraj Eskandari, the French educated former Qajar prince, with Nourredin Kianouri, a grandson of Sheikh Fazlolah Nouri, the founder of political Islam and an outspoke enemy of the Constitutional Revolution, had come down squarely in support of Khomeini. Most Maoist groups pursing the Chinese Three Worlds Theory formed the Ranjbaran Party (Toilers Party) supporting Khomeini.  

Meanwhile, the Organization of People’s Fadai Guerrillas was badly behind the times, using the crisis of the regime they reinitiates urban guerrilla warfare by attacking police and military targets and once trying to occupy the U.S. embassy.  

Vida says that she felt the need for “a paper to report news and offer analysis from a non-religion and independent” point of view.  Accordingly, she wrote a letter to the leaders of the Fedayeen who began publishing their paper Kar (Labor) a month after the February revolution. Vida contributed to its production until the May 1979 when the Fedayeen headquarters came under armed attack.  But in her own words “until that day, none of us had considered the resolution of the organizers of the November [1978] mass demonstration that called for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in place of the monarchy.” In her memoirs she approvingly cites statements by two intellectuals, Shahrohk Meskoob and Mostafa Rahimi, that demanded minority rights as the condition for freedom in any society.  And then recounts the wave of attacks on the individual, political and human rights.  
The Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas that Vida had just joined was in the midst of a political turmoil. At the center of the dispute was the attitude towards the Islamic Republic which itself was predicated on the nature and dynamics of the Iranian revolution.  A faction later known as the Fedayeen Majority followed the Stalinist “two-stage theory” of the Iranian revolution which was widely held in the Iranian left at the time, except for the Trotskyist movement organized in the Socialist Workers Party. According to this “theory,” capitalistically undeveloped countries had to go through a capitalist phase of development before they can embark on the road to socialism.  Thus the character of the Iranian revolution was “bourgeois” and its needed the “national bourgeoise” to lead it. The role of the socialist currents and the working class movement was to support this “national bourgeoisie.”  Thus, the debate among all Iranian leftist currents on the eve of the 1979 revolution was whether the Khomeini leadership or some parts of it represented the Iranian national bourgeoisie.  Only the Iranian Trotskyist movement clearly declared the Khomeini-Bazargan provisional that came to power on February 11, 1979, as a capitalist government that must be replaced by a government of workers and peasants. 

 In the summer of 1980, a group named Fedayeen Minority split because they characterizes the Islamic Republic as “dependent capitalism.”  Vida remained with the Fedayeen Majority that now explicitly supporting Khomeini and moving in the direction of merging with Tudeh Party.  In the face of this political pressure, Vida, in collaboration with two others, submitted three pamphlets to the Majority faction opposing its course. The first questioned the Majority’s attitude towards the Islamic Republic as suggested in its title: “Angry at Imperialism, Fearful of the Revolution.”  The second questioned political support the Majority was giving the Islamic Republic in its anti-labor and repressive actions during the Iran-Iraq war. Vida and her collaborators did not call for an independent socialist policy to defend Iran against the imperialist-supported Iraqi invasion but drew attention to the ruinous effects of the war suggesting the need for its early termination. The third was a critique of the “non-capitalist road to development.” Actually, the so-called “theory of non-capitalist road to development” was a restatement of the Stalinist “two-stage theory.” 

They were promptly expelled.  Basing themselves on these documents, they formed the Left Faction of the Majority. Alas, by 1981 Vida and many other former political prisoners were forced into hiding. 

Paris: A new beginning?
Vida went into hiding in Tehran in the summer of 1981 when the Islamic Republic unleashed a rein of terror after the Mujahedin leadership responded to repression with a series of terrorist attacks that killed dozens of highly placed figures of the regime.  For Vida “underground life was like a prison…” Vida also suffered personal tragedies. She lost her mother before her released from prison, her father died in 1979 and her uncle committed suicide. Without a source of income, her brother Kamran and Vida sold their family estate at the low-price of one million toman (about $100,000) to an up-and-coming Islamic Bazaar merchant. All her immediate family and many in her extended family eventually left Iran. Having sent her son Ramin to Paris, in 1982 she followed using smugglers connected to the Kurdish Democratic Party. 

Back in Paris, like many others Iranian leftists, she felt defeated and politically disoriented.  She bemoans supporting the Mujahedin-controlled “Council of National Resistance” based in Paris as a “democratic alternative” to the Islamic republic and her continued clinging to the fantasy of the Soviet Union as being socialist until it finally collapsed (“I held the Soviet Union to be close to my ideals,” she wrote in the preface to Dad-e-Bidad).  Although she founded a magazine called Aghazi No (A New Beginning) in 1985, in collaboration with two former Fedayeen Majority dissidents, Mojtaba Taleghani (a son of ayatollah Taleghani) and Nasser Mohajer, her continued political confusion leaves no room for doubt that she remained unable to radically question her life-long held views of about socialism and what is politically needed to achieve it.  At any rate, this project collapsed due to conflict among its founders.  I know Mohajer embraced post-modernism and Vida herself toyed with democracy as an end-in-itself. At the same time she experienced an episode of deep depression that required treatment. 

In 1999, her beloved sister Pari died. Vida put together a small book of tribute (Pari Hadjebi: As Her Friends Remember Her, 2002). The small book includes a sample of images of Pari’s colorful abstract paintings.  In 2003 and 2004, Vida published the two-volume  Dad-e-Bidad: The First Prison of Political Women (in Iran) that includes prison stories of 37 female political prisoner in the Shah’s jails (she interviewed 35 of them). Finally, in 2010 she published her memoirs, Yadha. In 2015, Vida lost Ramin, her son, to cancer. There are articles and interviews of Vida in various publications and sources and from different periods in her life that I hope someone will collect and publish as a collection.

Vida’s regrets and my own
Up to now, I have simply outlined Vida’s political life story relying on her own writings.  In this concluding section, I will critically discuss her reassessments of her political life.  Much of what the reader will find are my questioning of her reassessment which as the above heading shows I regret I could not discuss with Vida when she was alive. 

Vida’s political reassessments
Vida’s reassessments are fragmented. In her memoirs, Yadha, they appear in most chapters sometimes in a confusing manner, that is it is not always clear which of her critical comments are contemporaneous and which are her more mature view formulated sometimes decades later.  And, if the reader is familiar with the events, political currents and personalities involved, and socialist theory, history and norms, Vida’s reassessments at times appear as misinformed or misguided.  

Let me illustrate this point with Vida’s reassessments of the Cuban revolution which she embraced as a young woman in her visit in 1966.  Vida’s criticism of the Cuban revolution bundles up genuinely important concerns (she doesn’t call it that but we can classify them as concerns with socialist democracy), with faulty analysis of events based on misinformation, and undue criticism of the Cuban revolutionary leadership as she lacked any coherent theory of socialism herself.  Is it trues as Vida claims that after the 1960s Cuba withdrew its support for the anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World under pressure from Washington and Moscow?  From Angola in the 1970s to Venezuela of today there is an unbroken policy of support for the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles by the Cuban revolution. Vida mistakenly considers the Communist Party of Cuba as just another pro-Moscow party and Cuba political system just another case of Soviet style-rule. She mistakenly believes that Cuban another Soviet-style one-party system.  When did Vida’s revolutionary Cuba of the 1960s degenerated to a one-party totalitarian state? In Vida’s view after Fidel Castro replaced Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado as the President of Cuba in 1976!  Vida seems unaware that the post-revolution Communist Party of Cuba (PPC) was constituted on October 3, 1965 as the result of a unification of three political currents: July 26 Movement, pro-Moscow Popular Socialist party, and the Student Directorate.  This means that Cuba was a single-party state when Vida was dinning with Fidel Castro in his humble two-room apartment in 1966. (The present day PCC should not be confused with the Stalinist Communist Party of the 1930s which was renamed as the Popular Socialist Party in the 1940s).  Another historical fact: Cuban revolutionaries think their one-party system is based, not on the Stalinist totalitarian model but on the ideas of José Martí who thought Cubans should unite in one party to face the imperialist United State. 

Similarly, Vida accepts the claim that General Arnaldo T. Ochoa Sánchez and Colonel Antonio de la Guardia y Font who were tried and executed for drug trafficking and massive corruption in July 1989 were really victims of a power struggle with Fidel Castro!  She complains bitterly that Fidel Castor joined Hugo Chavez and Islamic Republic President Ahmadinejad in opposition to Washington!  Should socialist governments refuse the opportunity to join in as broad a coalition of world governments as possible to oppose Washington’s policies, especially when they are directed against the Cuban revolution?  The problem with Vida’s approach to the Cuban revolution is not that it is critical.  The problem is she is misinformed, misguided, and really does not possess any explicit theory of socialist revolution to gauge the record of the Cuban revolution critically. 

Now Vida could have engaged in a discussion with other socialists, including myself, who studied the Cuban revolution.  While she was in Paris, I published in Farsi well over a dozen, often long articles well documented, to help educate the Iranian socialists about the Cuban revolution (A polemical essay with a critique of the Cuban revolution appeared in Arash and the rest was published in Negah between 2000-06).  While a strong supporter of the Cuban revolution, I have also been critical of it and expressed these criticisms in my writings (For my recent critical assessment of the Cuban revolution see, Nayeri, January and October 2015; for my critique of Fidel’s views on Ahmadinejad see, Nayeri, 2010).

Vida’s socialism
Vida’s own narrative makes it clear that she did not mount an active search for any theory of society and radical social change.  Rather, her political life was shaped largely by being in or going to places where some significant political event was underway, sometimes simply in the company of her companion Oswaldo. She also met and befriended revolutionary leaders like Fidel Castro. But for socialists, as Lenin reminds “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” (Lenin, 1902).  This is because the socialist revolution is the first self-conscious, self-organized, and self-acting social movement in history. If we cannot conceive of socialism at least in broad outlines, if we do not possess a radical critique of capitalism and class societies the preceded it, and if the direct producers are not the agency for radical social change, how can we ever transcend the bourgeois and pre-bourgeois forms of alienation, oppression, and exploitation? The idea of socialism as “social justice” that young Pari offered the teenage Vida in the early 1950s was an acceptable beginning. But it hardly scratched the surface of the problem of socialism.  And, there is no indication that Vida ever mounted a search for a deeper understanding by consulting key works of Marx, Engels, Lenin. Vida never studied the Cuban revolution that she believed was on a socialist course in the 1960s and to whose leaders she was fortunate to have an easy access. 

But Vida’s lack of interest in the “big questions” and lack of interest in studying the classics of Marxian socialism was symptomatic of the Iranian socialist movement at large.  When I researched the influence of Marx’s Grundrisse (written in 1857-58, and expertly translated into Farsi by Bagher Parham and Ahmad Tadayon) in Iran, I discovered that while the book sold well it was never reviewed or nor there was any evidence that it became subject of any study group formed by socialists or by academics. (see, Musto, ed. 2009, chapter 26)  The Trotskyist movement that I belonged to probably was one the most literate socialist tendencies in the Iranian left. Not only its initial membership were well-educated college students in the United States and Western Europe, we were closely tied to the Trotskyist parties in the U.S., Britain, and France, and in the United States where I lived in the 1970s, the U.S. Socialist Workers Party published many books and pamphlets, a political weekly (The Militant), a theoretical review (International Socialist Review), a well-edited weekly international political review (Intercontinental Press), had bookstores in many cities that held weekly forums, had study groups, and the SWP held annual socialist conference/conventions.  The Satter League itself had regular study groups, mostly but not exclusively organized around Trotsky’s key writings.  But only a few individuals (I am thinking or two, maybe three) in the entire Trotskyist movement had read Marx’s Capital, and there was no effort to systematically read Marx’s and Engels’ key writings.  By and large, we did not know historical materialism, dialectics, and critique of political economy.  Thus, we had no deep understanding of capitalism, of socialism, of the transitional period, etc. Add to this, a general lack of knowledge of world history, especially in the twentieth century.

With a lack of critical attention to the intellectual basis of Marxian socialism comes Vida’s blind acceptance of the Soviet Union as the socialist model despite her many reservations, until it collapsed, and she never justified the view that real revolutionary politics is guerrilla warfare.  Never mind that these views negated Marx’s theory of socialism, and Lenin’s as in his The State and Revolution, 1917, and, Trotsky’s sustained critique of the degeneration of the Soviet socialism as in The Third International After Lenin: The Draft Program of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals, 1928, and The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? 1936).  I have seen no evidence that Vida consulted any of these sources and if she had what conclusions she drew from her studies.  

Vida and Trotskyism
I find it rather strange that Vida never makes any reference to the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran (CAIFI) or the Iranian Trotskyist movement that led it and was the only socialist current that in the aftermath of February 1979 characterized the Khomeini-Bazargan provisional government as capitalist and called for its replacement with a workers and peasants government.  It may be worthwhile considering why.

It was CAIFI that made Vida’s imprisonment and torture part of its ongoing campaign soon after her imprisonment until she was freed in October 1978 drawing international attention to the injustice in her case and the plight of women political prisoners in the Shah’s jails.  As I explained in the introductory section, this campaign won the support of a significant layer of American intellectuals resulting in the Amnesty International’s decision to choose Vida as its Political Prisoner of the Year in 1978.  Yet, Vida credits the Confederation of Iranian Students which did not wage any sustained campaign on her behalf. In fact, Vida herself recalls in her memoir that the Maoist The Revolutionary Organization of the Tudeh Party, which was a dominant force in the Confederation, accused her of being a SAVAK agent just before she returned to Iran in 1969.  The Maoist and National Front currents that were in the leadership of the Confederation of the Iranian Students had no ongoing campaign in defense of political prisoners. Rather, the held to the ultra-leftist view that the Confederation should defend only the “revolutionaries” in the Shah’s jail.  As a friend who was part of a Maoist current in the Confederation reminded me, at one point posters of Vida as a political prisoner was circulated by some of the political forces in the Confederation but with The Organization of People’s Fadai Guerrillas (OFPG) logo, implying she was guerrilla in the Shah’s jail. Not only, this was factually wrong and dishonest, Vida was not a member of the OFPG until after her release from prison in October 1979, it was also an ultra-leftist error that played into the hands of the Shah’s regime. Surely, guerrillas fighters were in the Shah’s prisons, but so were writers, poets, artists, intellectuals, religious leaders, union activists, members of the oppressed nationalities, teachers, students, and others.  Our task was to show to the world the scope and the barbarity of the U.S.-supported Shah’s rule.

Like Vida, whose was the subject of character assassination by the Maoists, CAIFI and its activists were also attacked. When the prominent writer and poet, Reza Baraheni was released from the Shah’s prison because of CAIFI’s campaign he became a keynote speaker in its public events when he traveled to the United States.  Political currents in the Confederation of Iranian Students attacked Baraheni and CAIFI as being agents of the SAVAK.   Clearly, Vida hesitated to recognize CAIFI’s contribution because of the leading role played by the Iranian Trotskyists in it. By doing some she also proved ungrateful to prominent intellectuals who spent their time and resources over the years to defend her against the Shah’s regime, including Kay Boyle, Daniel Ellsberg and Ramsey Clark, and Kate Millet. 

The only time I came across the word “Trotskyism” in Vida’s writings it is when she recalls the Fedayeen Majority leadership used it to attack her critique of “non-capitalist road to development.”  Trotsky (1937) recalls how the label of “Trotskyism” was cooked up by Zinoviev and Kamenev in collaboration with Stalin in 1924 to muddle discussion of his criticism of the Politburo’s policy.  Lenin, who died in January 1924, had expressed his own criticism of the Politburo’s policy and enlisted Trotsky to continue this fight (see, Lenin, 1922-23).  Trotsky was the central leader of the 1917 Russian revolution and one of the most prominent socialists of the twentieth century, who organized the Left-Opposition to defend and extend the Bolshevik heritage against the rising bureaucratic counter-revolution in the Communist Party and the Soviet government.  He was expelled from the party in 1928, exiled Turkey, and eventually in Mexico in 1940 on the orders from Stalin.  In 1936, with the irreversible degeneration of the Communist International, Trotsky and the international movement that continued to defend and extend the Bolshevik-Leninist tradition, the Fourth International was established whose cadres were called Trotskyists.  

A generation who time has passed
Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi was a trailblazer for Iranian socialist women. Her colorful political life, her audacity to stand up to the Shah’s repressive regime, her love for social justice are examples for the new generation of Iranians to emulate.  But Vida was also a child of the mid-twentieth century Iranian socialist movement, heavily influenced by Stalinism, and by the post-world war guerrilla movement that in its many reincarnations proved its limitations for radical social change.  At the turn of the millennium, neither Stalinism nor guerrilla warfare are serious options for the newly radicalized working people. Even the vision of socialism of the Second, Third and Fourth Internationals need to be radically re-examined in the view of the planetary crisis that we have become aware of since the 1970s.  Today it is ecological socialism, a radical reconceptualization of socialism as an ecologically sound mode of production, that can provide the humanity with the hope of overcoming the planetary/social crisis that capitalism and decades of the treachery of Social Democracy and Stalinism have brought forth.  Vida sought a new beginning. I wished I could have talked to her about my vision of ecocentric ecological socialism (for an outline, see, Nayeri 2013).

Endnote:
Khosrow I (also known as Chosroes I and Kasra in classical sources; 501–579, most commonly known in Persian as Anushiruwān (Persian: انوشيروان, "the immortal soul";,[2] also known as Anushiruwan the Just (انوشيروان دادگر, Anushiruwān-e Dādgar), was the King of Kings (Shahanshah) of the Sasanian Empire from 531 to 579. Source: Wikipedia

References:
Ahmadi Khorasani, Noushin. “The Tree That Was Not Irrigate by Hate: An Appreciation of Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi.” (In Farsi; a collected articles about and interviews with Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi). The Feminist School, 2012.
BBC Persian. “In other words: An Interview With Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi.” (In Farsi) 2014
Hadjebi Tabrizi, Vida. Pari Hadjebi: As Her Friends Remember Her. (in Farsi), 2002.
———————————. Dad-e-Bidad: The Prison of Women Political Prisoners. Volume 1. 2003. 
———————————. Dad-e-Bidad: The Prison of Women Political Prisoners. Volume 2. 2004. 
———————————. Yadha. Volume 1. in Farsi. 2010.
—————. The State and Revolution, 1917.
Nayeri, Kamran. “The Iranian Revolution, Imperialism, and Fidel Castro,” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism.  October 2010.
————————. “Economics, Socialism and Ecology: A Critical Outline--Part 2.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism.  October 2013. 
————————. “The Cuban Revolution and the Decline of the American Empire: Opportunities and Challenges, Part 1,” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. January, 2015. 
————————. “The Cuban Revolution and the Decline of the American Empire: Opportunities and Challenges, Part 2,”Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism, February 2015.
Omid, Behjat. “I Am Not Regretful: An Interview With Vida Hadjebi Tabrizi.” (In Farsi)  Deutsche welle, 2014.  

Saturday, March 11, 2017

2584. The Story of the Russian February 1917 Revolution

By  Kevin Murphy, Jacobin, March 8, 2017
The Petrograd Soviet Assembly in 1917. Photo: Wikipedia
That the most important strike in world history started with women textile workers in Petrograd on International Women’s Day 1917 (February 23 in the old Julian calendar) was no coincidence. Working up to thirteen hours a day while their husbands and sons were at the front, these women were saddled with a life of singlehandedly supporting their families and waiting in line for hours in the subzero cold in hopes of getting bread. As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa states in his definitive study of the February Revolution, “No propaganda was necessary to incite these women to action.”
Russia’s deep social crisis stemmed from the tsarist regime’s failure to enact any meaningful reforms and the economic chasm between the wealthy and the rest of Russian society. Russia was ruled by an autocrat, Tsar Nicholas II, who repeatedly dismissed the Duma, a powerless electoral body that by law was dominated by men of property.
On the eve of the war, strike activity rivaled that of the 1905 Revolution and workers erected barricades on the streets of the capital. The war gave tsarism a temporary reprieve, but mounting military defeats and some seven million casualties brought unprecedented accusations of regime corruption from virtually every section of society. So deep was the rot that the future prime minister, Prince Lvov, led a conspiracy — though without taking action — to deport the tsar and incarcerate the tsarina in a monastery. Rasputin, a charlatan monk who had gained enormous influence in the tsar’s court, was murdered not by anarchists but by monarchists in December 1916.
On the Left, the Bolsheviks were the dominant force in a wider milieu of revolutionaries leading the largest strike wave in world history (the pro-war segments of moderate socialists often refrained from strike action).
For years they’d battled tsarism. Thirty political strikes had been launched in the half-decade since the 1912 Lena Goldfield massacre of 270 workers, and they’d braved round after round of tsarist secret police (Okhrana) arrests. The breakdown of arrested revolutionaries in 1915 and 1916 registers the relative strength of the Left in Petrograd: Bolsheviks 743, non-party 553, Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) 98, Mensheviks, 79, Mezhraionsty 51, anarchists 39. With some six hundred Bolshevik members in metal, engineering, and textile factories in Vyborg, the district was by far the most militant throughout the war.
On January 9, 1917, the twelfth anniversary of the bloody Sunday massacre that sparked the 1905 Revolution, 142,000 workers struck. When the Duma opened on February 14, another 84,000 workers walked out, an action led by pro-war Mensheviks.
Mounting food shortages caused the government to conduct grain requisitioning in the countryside. As Petrograd bakeries closed and supplies dwindled to a several weeks’ supply, tsarist authorities exacerbated the crisis by claiming there were no shortages. The Okhrana reported numerous clashes between police and working women on Petrograd bread lines. Mothers “watching their half-starving and sick children are perhaps much closer to the revolution than Messrs. Miliukov, Rodichev and Co. and of course they are much more dangerous.”
On February 22, the Bolshevik Kaiurov addressed a Vyborg women’s meeting, urging women not to strike on International Women’s Day and to listen to “the instructions of the party.” Much to Kaiurov’s chagrin — he would later write that he was “indignant” that Bolshevik women ignored party directives — five textile mills struck the next morning.
Women instigators in the Neva Thread Mills shouted, “Into the streets! Stop! We’ve had it!” pushed the doors open, and led hundreds of women to nearby metal and engineering works. Pelting the Nobel Engineering factory with snowballs, throngs of women convinced workers there to join, waving their arms and yelling, “Come Out! Stop Work!” Women also marched to Erikson works, where Kaiurov and other Bolsheviks met briefly with factory SRs and Mensheviks and unanimously decided to convince other workers to join.
Police reported crowds of women and younger workers demanding “Bread” and singing revolutionary songs. Women grabbed red banners from men during the march: “It’s our holiday. We’ll carry the banners.” At Liteinyi Bridge, despite repeated charges by the demonstrators, police blocked them from marching to the city center. By late afternoon hundreds of workers crossed the ice and were attacked by police. In the center “one thousand, predominantly women and youths” reached Nevsky Prospect but were dispersed. The Okhrana reported that demonstrations were so provocative that it was “necessary to reinforce police details everywhere.”
Sixty thousand of the 78,000 strikers were from the Vyborg district. Although anti-war and anti-tsar slogans were raised, the most prominent demand was for bread. Indeed, tsarist authorities considered this just yet another bread riot, although they were alarmed at the hesitation of their trusted Cossack troops to charge the demonstrators. That night, Vyborg Bolsheviks met and voted to organize a three-day general strike with marches to Nevsky.
The next day, the strike movement doubled to 158,000, making it the largest political strike of the war. Seventy-five thousand Vyborg workers struck, as did twenty thousand each from the Petrograd, Vassilevski, and Moscow districts, plus nine thousand from Narva. Working-class youth street fighters took the lead, battling police and troops at bridges and for control of Nevsky in the city center.
At the Aviaz factory, Menshevik and SR speakers called for the removal of the government, pleaded with workers not to engage in irresponsible acts, and urged them to march to the Tauride Palace, where Duma members desperately tried to persuade tsarism to make concessions. Bolsheviks in Erikson implored workers to march to the Kazan square and to arm themselves with knives, hardware, and ice for the impending battles with police.
A mass of 40,000 demonstrators fought police and soldiers on the Liteinyi Bridge, but were again rebuffed. 2,500 Erikson workers were confronted by Cossacks on Sampsonievsky Prospect. Officers charged through the crowd, but the Cossacks followed cautiously through the corridor just opened by the officers. “Some of them smiled,” Kaiurov recalls, “and one of them gave the workers a good wink.” In many places women took the initiative: “We have husbands, fathers, and brothers at the front . . . you too have mothers, wives, sisters, children. We are demanding bread and an end to the war.”
Demonstrators made no attempt to fraternize with the hated police. Youths stopped street cars, sang revolutionary songs, and threw ice and bolts at the police. After several thousand workers crossed the ice, fierce battles raged between the demonstrators and police for control of Nevsky. Meanwhile, workers managed to hold rallies at the traditional revolutionary sites of Kazan and at the famous “hippopotamus” statueof Alexander III in Znamenskaya Square. The demands became more political as speakers not only demanded bread but also denounced the war and autocracy.
On the 25th, the strike became general, with over 240,000 factory workers joined by office workers, teachers, waiters and waitresses, university students, and even high school students. Cab drivers vowed they would only drive the “leaders” of the revolt.
Again workers began by rallying at their factories. At a boisterous Parvianen Factory meeting in Vyborg, Bolshevik, Menshevik, and SRs orators urged workers to march to Nevsky. One speaker ended with the revolutionary verse: “Out of the way, obsolete world, rotten from top to bottom. Young Russia is on the march!”
Demonstrators engaged in seventeen violent clashes with the police, and soldiers and workers managed to free comrades grabbed by the police. Rebels gained the upper hand, overwhelming tsarist forces on many bridges or crossing the ice to the center. Taking control of Nevsky, demonstrators again rallied at Znamenskaia. Police and Cossacks whipped the crowd, but when the police chief charged he was cut down — by a Cossack saber. Women workers again played a crucial role: “Put down your bayonets,” they urged. “Join us.”
By evening, the Vyborg side was controlled by the rebels. Demonstrators had sacked the police stations, captured revolvers and sabers from tsarist sentinels, and forced the police and gendarmes to flee.
The rebellion pushed Tsar Nicholas II to the brink. “I command the disorders in the capital end tomorrow,” he proclaimed, and ordered the commander of the Petrograd garrison, Khabalov, to disperse crowds with firepower. Khabalov was skeptical (“How could they be stopped the next day?”), but accepted the directive. At city hall, the minister of interior, Protopopov, urged the autocracy’s defenders to suppress the disorders: “Pray and hope for victory,” he said. Early the next morning, proclamations were posted banning demonstrations and warning that the edict would be enforced with arms.
Early on Sunday the 26th, police arrested the core of the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee and other socialists. Factories were closed, bridges were raised, and the city center was transformed into an armed camp. Khabalov telegraphed headquarters that “it has been quiet in city since morning.” Shortly after this report thousands of workers crossed the ice and appeared on Nevsky singing revolutionary songs and shouting slogans, but soldiers systematically fired on them.
Detachments from Volynsky Regiment were tasked with preventing rallies in Znamenskaya Square. Mounted patrols whipped the crowd, but failed to disperse them. The commander then ordered troops to fire. Although some soldiers shot into the air, fifty demonstrators were killed in and around Znamenskaya, and dispersed workers hid inside houses and rushed into cafes. Most of the slaughter was carried out by crack loyalist units used to train noncommissioned officers.
Yet the bloodletting didn’t quash the rebellion.
A police report describes the rebels’ astounding level of resilience and sacrifice:
In the course of the disorders it was observed as a general phenomenon, that the rioting mobs showed extreme defiance towards the military patrols, at whom, when asked to disperse, they threw stones and lumps of ice dug up from the street. When preliminary shots were fired into the air, the crowd not only did not disperse but answered these volleys with laughter. Only when loaded cartridges were fired into the very midst of the crowd, was it found possible to disperse the mob, the participants . . . would hide in the yards of nearby houses, and as soon as the shooting stopped come out again into the street.
Workers appealed to the soldiers to put down their arms, attempted conversions that involved a struggle for the very heart of the soldier. As Trotsky remarked, the contacts “between working men and women and the soldiers, under the steady crackling of rifles and machine-guns, the fate of the government, of the war, of the country, is being decided.”
On the evening of the 26th, the Vyborg Bolshevik leaders met in a vegetable garden on the outskirts of the city. Many suggested that it was time to call off the revolt, only to be outvoted. The most vociferous advocate for continuing the battle was later discovered to be an Okhrana agent. From a military perspective the revolution should have ground to a halt after the 26th. But the police could not crush the rebellion without the support of thousands of soldiers.
The previous afternoon workers had approached the Pavlovsky barracks: “Tell your comrades that the Pavlovsky, too, are shooting at us — we saw soldiers in your uniform on the Nevsky.” The soldiers “all looked distressed and pale.” Similar pleas resounded throughout the barracks of other regiments. That evening, Pavlovsky soldiers became the first to join the rebels (though, realizing they were isolated, they returned to their barracks and thirty-nine leaders were promptly arrested).
Early on the 27th, the revolt reached the Volynsky regiment, whose training corps had fired on demonstrators at Znamenskaya Square. Four hundred mutinied, telling their lieutenant, “We will no longer shoot and we also do not wish to shed our brother’s blood in vain.” When he responded by reading the tsar’s order to suppress the rebellion, he was summarily shot. Other Volynsky soldiers joined the rebellion and then moved to the nearby barracks of the Preobrazhensky and Lithuanians regiments, who also mutinied.
One participant later described the scene: “A truck packed with soldiers, rifles in hand, parted the crowd as it roared down Sampsonievsky. Red flags waved from the bayonets of rifles, something never seen before . . . the news the truck brought — that troops had mutinied — spread like wildfire.” While a punitive detachment led by General Kutepov went unchecked for hours — firing on demonstrators and trucks filled with workers — by evening, Kutepov wrote, “a large part of my force mixed with the crowd.”
That morning, General Khabalov had strutted around the city barracks threatening soldiers with the death penalty if they rebelled. That evening, General Ivanov, whose troops were en route to support the tsar’s loyalists, telegraphed Khabalov to assess the situation.
Ivanov: In what parts of the city is order preserved?
Khabalov: The whole city is in the hands of revolutionists.
Ivanov: Are all the ministries functioning properly?
Khabalov: The ministries have been arrested by the revolutionists.
Ivanov: What police forces are at your disposal at the present moment?
Khabalov: None whatever.
Ivanov: What technical and supply institutions of the War Department are now in your control?
Khabalov: I have none.
Apprised of the situation, General Ivanov decided to retreat. The military phase of the revolution was over.
The paradox of the February Revolution was that while it swept away tsarism, it replaced it with a government of unelected liberals who were horrified by the very revolution that had placed them in power. On the 27th “were heard sighs . . . It’s come, or indeed frank expressions of fear for life,” wrote a liberal Duma deputy. This was interrupted briefly by joyful, but inaccurate, news that “the disorders will soon be put down.” Another observer noted that “they were horrified, they shuddered, they felt themselves captive in hands of hostile elements traveling an unknown road.”
During the revolution, “the position of the bourgeoisie was quite clear; it was in position on the one hand of keeping their distance from the revolution and betraying it to tsarism, and on the other of exploiting it for their own purposes.” This was the assessment of Sukhanov, a leader of the Petrograd Soviet who was sympathetic to the Mensheviks and would play a crucial role in handing power over to the liberals.
He would get plenty of help from more moderate socialists. The Menshevik leader Skobelev approached Rodzianko, chairman of the Fourth Duma, to secure a room in the Tauride Palace. His purpose was to organize a soviet of workers’ deputies, in order to maintain order. Kerensky allayed Rodzianko’s fears that the soviet might be dangerous, telling him, “somebody must take charge of the workers.”
Unlike the workers’ soviet of 1905 that emerged as an instrument of class struggle, the soviet formed on February 27 was established after the revolt, and leading members in its executive committee were almost exclusively intellectuals who had not actively participated in the revolution.
There were other shortcomings as well: representatives for the 150,000 soldiers in Petrograd were vastly overrepresented in this workers’ and soldiers’ soviet. It was overwhelmingly male, the handful of women delegates among the 1,200 delegates (eventually almost 3,000) woefully underrepresented. The soviet didn’t even discuss the March 19 women’s suffrage demonstration, in which 25,000 participated, including thousands of working-class women.
The Petrograd Soviet did approve the famous Order Number 1 — which empowered soldiers to elect their own committees to run their units and to obey officers and the Provisional Government only if the orders did not contradict those of the soviet — but this order was enacted on the initiative of radical soldiers themselves.
Still, the soviet’s formation forced the liberals and their SR ally Kerensky to act. Rodzianko argued that “if we don’t take power, others will,” because there was already “elected some sort of scoundrels in the factories.” “Unless we formed a provisional government at once,” Kerensky wrote, ”the soviet would proclaim itself the supreme authority of the Revolution.” Under the plan, a self-nominated group calling themselves the Provisional Committee would act as a counter to the soviet. But the plotters were not very confident in their own plan; they let the Menshevik and SR leaders of the soviet do their dirty work.
The Menshevik algebra of revolution mandated that the “government that was to take the place of Tsarism must be exclusively bourgeois,” Sukhanov wrote. “The entire state machinery . . . could only obey Miliukov.”
Negotiations between the soviet executive and the unelected liberal leaders took place on March 1. “Miliukov perfectly understood that the Executive Committee was in a perfect position either to give power to the bourgeois government or not give it,” but, Sukhanov added, “the power destined to replace tsarism must be only a bourgeois power . . . We must steer course by this principle. Otherwise the uprising will not succeed and the revolution will collapse.”
Soviet leaders were willing to drop even the minimal “three whales” program that all the revolutionary groups had agreed to (the eight-hour day, the confiscation of landed estates, and a democratic republic) if the liberals would only take power. Frightened by the prospect of having to rule, Miliukov stubbornly insisted on making a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy.
Incredibly, the socialists conceded and allowed the tsar’s brother, Michael, to decide for himself whether he should rule. Receiving no assurances of his personal safety, the Grand Duke politely declined. All these backroom negotiations were, of course, conducted outside the purview of the workers and soldiers.
The “dual power” system that emerged from these discussions — the soviet on one side and the unelected Provisional Government on the other — would last for eight months.
Ziva Galili has described these negotiations as “the Mensheviks’ finest hour.” Trotsky likened it to a vaudeville play divided by halves: “In one, the revolutionists were begging the liberals to save the revolution; in the other, the liberals were begging the monarchy to save liberalism.”
So why did the workers and soldiers, who had fought so valiantly to overthrow tsarism, allow the soviet to hand power over to a new government that represented the men of property? For one, most workers had yet to sort out the policies of the various socialist parties. Additionally, the Bolsheviks themselves were not very clear about what they were fighting for, in part because they had retained a (quickly outdated) understanding of the revolution as bourgeois-democratic, in which a provisional revolutionary government would rule. What this meant in practice, particularly after the Provisional Government’s formation, was open to different interpretations.
Although Bolshevik militants played a critical role throughout the revolutionary days, they often did so in spite of their leaders. Women textile members struck in February over the objections of party leaders who considered the time “not yet ripe” for militant action.
The leadership of the Bolshevik Bureau (Shliapnikov, Molotov, and Zalutsky) was also lacking. Even after the February 23 strike, Shliapnikov argued it was premature to call for a general strike. The Bureau failed to produce a leaflet to give to the troops and refused demands to arm the workers for impending battles.
Most of the initiative came from either the Vyborg district committee, who acted as de facto leaders for the city party organization, or from rank-and-file members — especially on the first day, when women ignored party leaders and played a decisive role in sparking the strike movement.
Throughout March, confusion and division roiled the Bolsheviks. When the Petrograd Soviet handed over political power to the bourgeoisie on March 1, not one of the eleven Bolsheviks in the executive committee opposed it. When left Bolsheviks delegates in the soviet put forward a motion calling for the soviet to form a government, only nineteen voted in favor, and many Bolsheviks voted against. On March 5, the Petersburg Committee supported the soviet call for workers to return to their jobs, even though the eight-hour day, one of the revolutionary movement’s main demands, had yet to be instituted.
The party bureau under Shliapnikov moved close to the radicals in Vyborg, who were calling for the soviet to rule. But when Kamenev, Stalin, and Muranov returned from Siberian exile and took over the bureau on March 12, the party’s policies veered sharply to the right — to the delight of Menshevik and SR leaders and to the ire of many party militants in the factories, some of whom urged the expulsion of the new triumvirate.
Lenin was among the irate. On March 7, he wrote from Switzerland, “This new government is already bound hand and foot by imperialist capital, by the imperialist policy of war and plunder.” Kamenev, by contrast, argued in Pravda on March 15 that “free people” will “stand firmly at their posts, will reply bullet for bullet, shell for shell.” And in late March, Stalin spoke in favor of unifying with the Mensheviks and argued that the Provisional Government “has taken the role of fortifier of the conquests of the revolution.”
Lenin was so concerned with the leadership’s right turn that on March 30, he wrote that he preferred an “immediate split with anyone in our Party, whoever it may be, to making concessions to the social-patriotism of Kerensky and Co.” No lawyer was needed to clarify Lenin’s words or about whom he was speaking. “Kamenev must realize that he bears a world-historic responsibility.”
The essence of Leninism from 1905 emphasized total distrust of liberalism as a counterrevolutionary force and a sharp critique of those socialists hell bent on trying to appease it. And yet Lenin’s own 1905 formulation that called for a provisional revolutionary government to carry out a bourgeois revolution had contrasted with what he termed Trotsky’s “absurd and semi-anarchist ideas” calling for a “socialist revolution.” Lenin himself now moved toward this absurd idea for socialism while conservative Old Bolsheviks understandably accused him “Trotskyism.”
In many ways the coup d’etat of early March was typical of those over the last century — a small unelected clique usurping power for their own class purposes at the expense of a movement that placed them in power. There were two major differences, however. One was that there was a party of the working masses that would fight relentlessly for its interests. And second, there were soviets.
The Russian Revolution had only just begun.