The year 1917 was a significant one in the history of the Great War, and in no country was that more true than Russia. It began with a revolution in February of that year in which power was transferred from the autocratic Romanov dynasty to a provisional government and ended with a toppling of the same provisional government and seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. To understand the implications of the latter, it is necessary to understand the events of the former.
The revolution started on February 23 when citizens, angry over ration shortages, took to the streets in protest. These protesters were joined by those celebrating International Woman’s Day, and subsequently, by a large number of male and female workers in the nearby factories. As the protests spread, thousands invaded the streets, attacking police, looting shops, and demanding food. Historian Orlando Figes writes of the unfolding events; “By Sunday morning, 26 February, the centre of Petrograd had been turned into a militarized camp. Soldiers’ pickets and armed policemen stood at the major intersections and strategic buildings; mounted patrols rode through the streets; officers communicated by field telephone; machine-guns…pointed down the Nevsky Prospekt; and in the side streets were military ambulances standing by.”[i] That Sunday started quietly enough, but as more and more workers began to once again take to the streets, violence again broke out, this time with increasingly deadly consequences. Soldiers, sent into the city to help quell the uprising, would occasionally open fire into the crowds of people, and dozens were wounded and killed.
By the morning of the 27th, it was clear that what had started as a protest had now turned into a full-scale revolt. The Duma (Russia’s parliamentary body), who had been ordered to disperse, refused to do so, but instead formed a provisional committee entitled the Temporary Committee of Duma Members for the Restoration of Order in the Capital and the Establishment of Relations with Individuals and Institutions. Pavel Miliukov, who would serve as the Foreign Minister of the Provisional Government, stated, “A decision has been reached. We’re taking power.”[ii] More importantly, the military regiments in the capital who had been ordered with suppressing the protests were beginning to question their role. One regiment, the Volynsky, confronted their commanding officer about the orders to fire into the crowd. Sensing the danger, he ran, and the soldiers killed him. Members from other regiments began to join as well, as they “stormed the regimental arsenals, killed several of their officers and spilled in their thousands on the streets…”[iii] These mutineers soon joined the crowds of workers and protesters tussling with police and attacking government buildings.
Informed of what was happening, Nicholas sent a telegram to the Military governor of Petrograd, General Khabalov, stating “I order that the disorders in the capital, intolerable during these difficult times of war with Germany and Austria, be ended tomorrow. Nicholas”[iv] The Chairman of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, informed Nicholas that the capital was degenerating into anarchy, at which Nicholas responded, “That fat Rodzianko has sent me some nonsense which I shall not even bother to answer.”[v] He would live to regret these sentiments.
Nicholas’s government swiftly began to collapse. On the evening of the 27th, his Council of Ministers submitted their resignations. Afraid for their lives, some of them even turned themselves in to the Duma to be arrested. Their fears were well-founded. “Some 4,000 tsarist government officials were seized by the crowd in the February Days, and the fate of many of them was not one that anyone would envy.”[vi] The Duma promptly ordered the arrest of all ex-members, but this was partially to keep them out of the hands of the mob.
Meanwhile, the workers were beginning to gain some organization, and that same day, the Petrograd Soviet was formed. The Soviet, which had most of the power due to sheer force of numbers, but lacked the political capital necessary to rule, would soon form an uneasy alliance with the Duma’s provisional committee. They submitted a list of demands to the Duma in order to cement this alliance, however, among which included amnesty of political prisoners, freedom of speech, press and assembly, abolition of police bodies and creation of a people’s militia, and no punishments for military units who had taken part in the revolution. One big obstacle was also dealt with in the form of a piece of legislation called Order Number One. In order to get the mutinous soldiers off the streets and back in their barracks, the government promised them immunity from their rebellion and pardoned the murder of many of their officers. The order also severely loosed regulations in the military, which would eventually cause major problems for the Provisional Government in their efforts to keep the war going.
Events continued to move swiftly. On the second of March, a cabinet for the Provisional Government was formed, and a prime minister selected named Georgy Lvov. Nicholas had completely lost power, which now belonged to the Soviet and the Provisional Government. He attempted to hold out a few more days, but by March 15, Nicholas was confronted with the inevitable. Meeting with representatives of the new government, Nicholas agreed to abdicate the throne, and also opted to abdicate on behalf of his young son as well. Power passed to his brother, who quickly declined to take up the mantle of leadership, and the Romanov dynasty was no more. The Provisional Government now officially ruled Russia.
Things were about to change even more drastically, however. The leadership of the Provisional Government elected to keep Russia in the war, for various reasons. Those reasons, however well intended, would ultimately doom their new government to failure. The shaky foundation on which the Provisional Government was built would not last, and a major reason why arrived in Petrograd in April of 1917.
Vladimir Lenin had returned home.
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[i] Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. (New York: Penguin Books, 1996). Pg. 312
[ii] Sukhanov, N.N. The Russian Revolution 1917. Tr. Joel Carmichael. (London: Oxford University Press, 1955). Pg. 68