Bolsheviks on May Day 1917: ‘Long live the Third International!’

Twenty-five days later [after the funeral for fallen of the February Revolution] – during which time the soviets had gained much experience and self-confidence – occurred the May 1 celebration. (May 1 according to the Western calendar – April 18 old style.)

All the cities of Russia were drowned in meetings and demonstrations. Not only the industrial enterprises, but the state, city and rural public institutions were closed. In Moghilev, the headquarters of the General Staff, the Cavaliers of St. George marched at the head of the procession. The members of the staff – unremoved czarist generals – marched under May 1 banners. The holiday of proletarian anti-militarism blended with revolution-tinted manifestations of patriotism. The different strata of the population contributed their own quality to the holiday, but all flowed together into a whole, very loosely held together and partly false, but on the whole majestic.

In both capitals and in the industrial centres the workers dominated the celebration, and amid them the strong nuclei of Bolshevism stood out distinctly with banners, placards, speeches and shouts. Across the immense facade of the Mariinsky Palace, the refuge of the Provisional Government, was stretched a bold red streamer with the words: “Long Live the Third International!” The authorities, not yet rid of their administrative shyness, could not make up their mind to remove this disagreeable and alarming streamer.

Everybody, it seemed, was celebrating. So far as it could, the army at the front celebrated. News came of meetings, speeches, banners and revolutionary songs in the trenches, and there were responses from the German side.

The war had not yet come to an end; on the contrary it had only widened its circle. A whole continent had recently – on the very day of the funeral of the martyrs – joined the war and given it a new scope. Yet meanwhile throughout Russia, side by side with soldiers, war-prisoners were taking part in the processions under the same banners, sometimes singing the same song in different languages. In this immeasurable rejoicing, obliterating like a spring flood the delineations of classes, parties and ideas, that common demonstration of Russian soldiers with Austro-German war-prisoners was a vivid hope-giving fact which made it possible to believe that the revolution, in spite of all, did carry within itself the foundation of a better world.

MayDay1917 petrograd
May Day 1917 in Petrograd.

Like the March funeral, the 1st of May celebration passed off without clashes or casualties as an “all-national festival.” However, an attentive ear might have caught already among the ranks of the workers and soldiers impatient and even threatening notes. It was becoming harder and harder to live. Prices had risen alarmingly; the workers were demanding a minimum wage; the bosses were resisting; the number of conflicts in the factories was continually growing; the food situation was getting worse; bread rations were being cut down; cereal cards had been introduced; dissatisfaction in the garrison had grown. The district staff, making ready to bridle the soldiers, was removing the more revolutionary units from Petrograd. At a general assembly of the garrison on April 17 the soldiers, sensing these hostile designs, had raised the question of putting a stop to the removal of troops. That demand will continue to arise in the future, taking a more and more decisive form with very new crisis of the revolution. But the root of all evils was the war, of which no end was to be seen. When will the revolution bring peace? What are Kerensky and Tseretelli waiting for? The masses were listening more and more attentively to the Bolsheviks, glancing at them obliquely, waitingly, some with half-hostility, others already with trust. Underneath the triumphal discipline of the demonstration the mood was tense. There was ferment in the masses.

However, nobody – not even the authors of the streamer on the Mariinsky Palace – imagined that the very next two or three days would ruthlessly tear off the envelope of national unity from the revolution. The menacing event whose inevitability many foresaw, but which no one expected so soon, was suddenly upon them. The stimulus was given by the foreign policy of the Provisional Government, i.e., the problem of war. No other than Miliukov touched the match to the fuse.

L.D. Trotsky, “The April Days,” The History of the Russian Revolution


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