The Revolution in Russia in February 1917 was the start of a long revolutionary progress. Russia would not achieve a state of normalcy for decades to come, first because of successive internal convulsions (the October Revolution
, the Great Purges
) then because of the enforced revolution brought about by a war
. But for Russia in the idealistic days of February this all lay ahead, unknown and hence unforeboding. Russia was democracy's first triumph in the twentieth century - it was not yet known she would also be its first casualty.
In 1917, Russia was in the middle of the Great War. Like all the other belligerent powers, it had expected a quick end ("It'll all be over by Christmas", as the saying went). However, it had been dragged into a war of attritition which its poor military and transport infrastructure, as well as its precipitous economy, were not designed to cope with. Just over a decade ago, the Russians had become the first European power to be defeated by an Asiatic one in the Russo-Japanese War, and despite some small improvements since its military was still not up to the pinch. Defeat in the war with Japan had already forced the Tsar, traditionally holding 'Supreme Unlimited' authority, to make concessions towards power-sharing. Failing to take the heat this time in what is the crucial test for a state would cost the Tsar his throne and ultimately his life.
By 1917, Tsar Nicholas II had been sat on the throne for 23 years. His dynasty had been there for 304 years, and there had been a Tsar of Russia since Ivan the Terrible in 1547. In just one month in 1917, all that history would be overturned. It all started with two things that move the course of human history more than is often apparent or admitted - women and bread.
The day the Revolution started was International Women's Day, which is on March 8 or, in Russia at the time due to a slightly different calendar, February 23.1 The war time economy was doing badly. Due to poor infrastructure around the country and the fact the Army had priority, there was never enough coal or flour in the capital city, Petrograd, to feed the population. Even when it could be fed, women were spending on average forty hours a week in various queues for provisions in scenes which would be echoed as the Great Depression swept Europe a decade later. Understandably they were getting annoyed, and this was International Women's Day, damnit.
The day was a landmark of protest in the socialist calendar, an excuse to march for women's rights, universal suffrage and the like (some optimism - the suffrage was virtually zero in Russia at the time, never mind universal!) But today would witness the most momentous protest in Russian history.
It all started with a strike by female textile workers against conditions and the bread shortage. Rationing was set to be introduced soon and there was a rumour flying around that the unemployed would be left to starve. There had already been bread riots, heaps of looting and street fights over provisions. Now the shops were laid bare, and a crisis atmosphere developed. Soon there were over 100,000 people on the streets, and the inevitable clashes with the police ensued. Violence from the police and apparent reluctance from the military to get involved exacerbated the situation. Revolutionary crowds fear bloodshed until it happens, but after the fact it tends to act as a spur onwards.
The same pattern was repeated for days - the people would come out and protest and agitate, and the police would half-heartedly (through fear rather than lack of will) try to repress them, while the garrison of soldiers increasingly intervened on the side of the protestors. After one incident where soldiers opened fire on the crowd, there was open mutiny in the rest of the garrison - most soldiers would not shoot upon their fellow citizens. When the garrison mutinied, things were too late for the Tsarist authorities. The government had lost effective control of the capital city.
At the time, Tsar Nicholas II was at Russia's military HQ, Stavka. In what had been a propaganda nightmare due to the general perception of him as indecisive and incompetent, he had declared himself the Commander-in-Chief of Russia's armed forces and now spent a growing amount of time away from the capital. His response to the disturbances in the capital was lethargic, and despite the increasing pitch of warnings he received he dismissed them as 'ridiculous things', even referring to one of his subordinates in the capital as 'that fat fellow'. By the time he took control of his senses and ordered General Alexeev to take troops from the Front to suppress the uprising, Alexeev had decided on which side his bread was buttered: he refused, adding a stipulation that the liberals and not the socialists should take power.
Nicholas was forced by circumstance to abdicate on March 2, after being assured by all of his subordinates that this would be necessary for him to save the dynasty. He resolved not to pass power to his son due to his acute illness, but rather to his younger brother the Grand Duke Mikhail. This was contrary to the Law of Succession, but under the circumstances it was allowed. As it happened, the Grand Duke was much too prudent and unimaginative a man to accept power, and the dynasty was liquidated. Crowds in Petrograd met this with rupturous applause.
What happened next was essentially the destruction of all power in Russia. It became, in the words of Lenin, 'the freest country in the world'. Two institutions of power emerged from February - one, the Petrograd Soviet's Executive Committee, made up of socialist intellectuals (and precious few actual workers, soldiers or sailors), and the Provisional Government which was made up of liberal nationalists. The Provisional Government had legal authority as power had been explicitly passed to it, but in reality it had no authority in the streets whatsoever without the approval of the Soviet. One of the earliest actions of the Soviet was to pass the infamous Order Number One, which brought about a massive restructure of the armed services in the favour of the common soldier. Here was the most flagrant manifestation of dual power - the soldiers of the army listened to the Soviet, while the officers listened to the Provisional Government.
Meanwhile, around the country the state collapsed. It had never been very strong anyway. Under the Tsarist system, one police officer could be responsible for nearly two thousand square miles of land. As the year wore on and it looked increasingly unlikely to the peasantry that the Provisional Government would sanction the sort of 'land reform' (i.e. expropriation) they wanted, they started to take the law into their own hands. There was precious little anyone could do to stop them, as no-one was going to be able to persuade the army to go and stop fellow-peasants carrying out social justice.
But what of the socialists? What happened between now and October? The Revolution and the collapse of Tsarism caught them completely by surprise. Lenin was in Finland, and Trotsky was in the United States of America. The leaders left behind in Russia and Petrograd were of a mediocre quality, and they awaited the return of their leaders. Revolutionaries hurried back quickly.2 The socialists had precious little to do with the Revolution in February, but they would have much to do with its future.
The dual power system which had been created had internal contradictions and tensions. Many of the liberals in government did not have radical enough aims to appease the workers and soldiers, and they wanted to continue the war. The credibility of the Provisional Government went from bad to worse after it emerged that it was still seeking territorial annexation, was wavering on the land question, and might even had been involved in a counter-revolutionary coup to restore law and order. The Bolsheviks, who had said from the start that the imperialist bourgeois government could not be trusted, reaped the rewards.
1Until 31 January 1918 Russia used the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar ran 13 days behind the Gregorian one which is used in the West, so in Russia it was February 23, hence 'February Revolution'. The October Revolution, similarly, actually occured when it was November in Western Europe.
2 Trotsky left some unpaid bills in the USA, where he had led a fairly spartan lifestyle. By the time his creditors caught up with him he was the Foreign Minister of the largest country on the planet.