February Revolution
The Russian Tsar is removed from power
8 - 19 March 1917
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
During the February Revolution a series of protests broke out in Petrograd, then Russia's capital, because of food shortages and the general dissatisfaction of the population regarding the Tsar's regime. The protests quickly spiraled out of control when the Petrograd garrison mutinied and joined the protesters. In a few days, having lost all military support, Tsar Nicholas II had to abdicate the throne. A Provisional Government was established, supported by the Petrograd Soviet, at least until the Bolsheviks could organize themselves in order to seize power.
The February Revolution was the first of two revolutions that took place in Russia in 1917. The main event of the revolution took place in Petrograd, present day St. Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian Empire. Discontent against the monarchy erupted in mass protests against food rationing. The revolution ended with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the end of Imperial Russia. It is worth mentioning that the revolution is named the February Revolution, even though its events took place in March. The difference is explained by the Russian use of the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar was adopted by Russia later that year, after the October Revolution.

Entente efforts for 1917 were concentrated on General Robert Nivelle’s ambitious plans for a war-winning French offensive in the Champagne area, supported by a diversionary attack by the British at Arras. Yet a prominent role was still envisaged for the Russians. They were expected to place further pressure on the Germans by launching a major new spring offensive on the Eastern Front. The Russians cautiously insisted that May 1917 would be the earliest they would be ready to attack. But by then everything would have changed.

The Tsar himself was oblivious to the threat; he ruled by divine right and was therefore above such mundane considerations. Meanwhile, all about him his regime was falling apart with amazing rapidity. Political demonstrations multiplied exponentially and there was ever-increasing vigor in the protesters’ demands for food, political change and, increasingly, direct action.

Incompetence and corruption blossomed unfettered, while at the center the Tsar was publicly embarrassed by the adherence of the Tsarina Alexandra to the ludicrous cult of Rasputin, an unhinged religious mystic with a penchant for irreligious pursuits. The whole despotic system of government was resting on just a few weak individuals. Russia was being hollowed out from within, and the vacuum at the center was creating dangerous instability.

As more and more military units began to go over wholesale to the revolutionaries, the functionaries of Imperial government found themselves subverted on all sides. Many fled, while those who overtly resisted risked their lives. By the time General Mikhail Alekseyev had returned from sick leave to resume his position as Chief of General Staff, he could offer little support to the beleaguered Tsar. In 1905 the Russian Army had put down a revolution, but in 1917 it both lacked the enthusiasm and was far too occupied with the war to open fire on the people.

Discontent within the Army was only a small part of the story. The Russian home front was gradually collapsing under the intolerable strain of war. The Tsarist government did not have the flexibility necessary to cope with the plague of economic, political and social problems that infected the land. The Tsar himself perceived any form of democracy as a threat to his regime. Rather than introducing an increased measure of liberalism, he was more attracted to the idea of the total dissolution of even the tokenistic Duma.

Appointments to positions of considerable authority were routinely assigned by the Tsar on the grounds of either naked favoritism or the authoritarian credentials of the candidate. Spy scares raged through society, with particular suspicion falling on any Russian general unfortunate enough to have a Germanic name.

The Russian armies may have been short of food rations, but they actually had priority in the allotment of the harvests; the result was increasing food shortages in the major cities. Production of agricultural food stuffs was generally in sharp decline. As the populations of the cities began to starve, popular discontent spread.

Inflation was soaring, but wages remained static, so the poor were priced out of the market for whatever food was available. In a severe winter there were also shortages of fuel. The result was food riots, widespread industrial strikes and open political dissent, with most participants unanimous in blaming the Tsar and his government for their suffering.

In January 1917, an agent of the secret police reported that ‘Children are starving in the most literal sense of the word. A revolution’, he concluded, ‘if it takes place will be spontaneous, quite likely a hunger riot.’

Some British and French observers convinced themselves that liberalism in Russia would tap the energies of the middle classes, promote the talented and permit the full flowering of that country’s latent potential. After the 1905 revolution, the Tsar agreed to the establishment of the Duma, an assembly elected on a broad suffrage and initially dominated by liberals. The Tsar had accepted the Duma with bad grace. Neither war nor foreign policy lay within the competence of the Duma, and it rapidly became clear that if it had any purpose after July 1914, it was to discuss and not to legislate.

At the local level, the Zemstvo, a form of county council, became a vehicle for welfare activity and for the involvement of professionals in public service.

In the summer of 1915, as the Russian armies fell back, the Tsar agreed to reconvene the Duma, which so far had been restricted to the briefest of wartime sessions. The moderate intellectuals, businessmen and professionals coalesced in a Progressive Bloc and, under the umbrella of foreign policy and liberalism, demanded ‘the formation of a united government’ and ‘decisive changes in the methods of administration’.

Pavel Milyukov of the Kadet Party said, ‘we don’t seek power now... the time will come when it will simply fall into our hands, it’s only necessary at present to have a clever bureaucrat as head of the government’. That was not the Tsar’s vision. He saw the Duma not as a vehicle for national unity but as a threat to his power.

Dynastic duty impelled the Tsar to discontinue the session of the Duma just as it had already prompted him to transfer his uncle, Grand Duke Nikolai, to the Caucasus command and to take over the supreme command of the army himself. ‘God’s will be fulfilled,’ he wrote to his wife as he arrived at headquarters. ‘I feel so calm. A sort of feeling after the Holy Communion!’

In Petrograd, what loomed was not liberalization for the better conduct of the war, but socialism to end the war. The population of the city had increased by one-third between 1914 and 1917 as the war industries expanded. But output per worker fell, despite longer working hours. Skilled males were replaced by unskilled females, children and prisoners of war. Many under-performed because of weakness and hunger. Food was simply not getting into the capital in sufficient quantities.

The British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, was only too conscious of criticisms of Russia’s autocracy both in his own country and in France: these dented the Entente’s claim to be fighting for liberalism. In September 1915 he suggested to the Tsar that the Asquith coalition might be a model for united government. In February 1916 he urged him to concede to liberal pressures ‘as an act of grace for services rendered’. But the Tsar dismissed those of his ministers who took a similar tack and distanced himself from those he appointed in their stead by removing himself to the army’s headquarters in Mogilev.

Buchanan told the Tsar that he must regain the people's confidence. Nicholas' response was: 'Do you mean I am to regain the confidence of my people, or they are to regain my confidence?' Buchanan diplomatically replied 'both', but warned that 'in the event of revolution, only a small part of the army can be counted on to defend the dynasty'. But Nicholas took no notice.

At Mogilev the Tsar was not far enough forward to create a bond with the soldiers of his army, but was too far from Petrograd and Moscow to be sensitive to the currents of political opinion. The second gap was mediated for him by his wife who, despite her English birth, believed that ‘autocracy was the only regime that could hold the Empire together’.

Writing after the war, Buchanan confessed that Alexandra might have been right. It was one thing for well-established liberal states to move in the direction of authoritarianism for the duration of the war; it was quite another for an authoritarian government to move toward liberalism which many hoped would last beyond the return to peace. Moreover, the strains imposed on Russian society by the war, and the expectations that those strains had generated looked increasingly unlikely to be controlled by constitutional reform.

With a censored press, Petrograd had become a hotbed of rumor. Tsar Nicholas chose to leave the capital to work at the General Headquarters more than 400 miles to the south in Mogilev (now in Belarus). Rumors spread of the increasing influence of his wife and her adviser, the holy man Grigori Rasputin. At the end of 1916 Rasputin was assassinated by a group of nobleman who opposed his influence. But Rasputin’s influence over the Tsarina Alexandra and affairs at the court were yet another embarrassment for the Tsar.

Mystic, hypnotist, and official necromancer to the court, Rasputin, some claimed, had planned the assassination of the somewhat liberal prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin, in 1911. Other rumors swirled around Rasputin concerning his influence at the court, some due to his own bragging of his close connections to the royal family.

Alexandra made Rasputin a court favorite despite his unsavory reputation, peasant manners, and unkempt beard. Alexandra admired him because he seemed able to relieve her son Alexei’s symptoms of hemophilia. Due to Rasputin’s closeness to Alexandra, liberals within the government believed he secured the appointment, not only of clergy, but also of government ministers who were favorable to a reactionary position or who were working to undermine the war effort.

An adherent of an obscure Russian sect that claimed the only way to purge the soul of sin was to indulge in it, Rasputin gained notoriety for participating in drunken sexual orgies with admiring women of the aristocracy and with prostitutes.

As the Tsar dismissed competent ministers and replaced them with incompetents on the advice of Rasputin and Alexandra, members of the royal family and members of the state Duma grew more and more desperate to bring an end to his influence. Opposition to the management of the government sprang from politicians on both the right and left of the political scale.

Some members of the aristocracy and some politicians conspired to rid themselves of Rasputin and his reputed hold on the government. Prince Felix Yusupov (a nephew of the Tsar) and a small group of fellow aristocrats invited Rasputin to a private party where they poisoned him. Rasputin proved extremely difficult to kill. When the poison did not work, the conspirators shot him several times, and then threw him in the frozen Neva River.

Russia was in a state of flux, racked by an incoherent revolution: not a rigorously planned affair, but rather a series of simultaneous uprisings against a corrupt regime. Two organizations emerged with ambitions to control events: the first was the liberal-minded Provisional Government, set up by prominent members of the Duma to try to control developments until democratic elections could be organized for later in the year; more threatening to the establishment was the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (or Soviet), which adopted a socialist viewpoint.

In the early stages of the revolution, the competing bodies were able to adopt a modus vivendi, coexisting in a dual structure and, for the most part, putting aside their differences to protect their position from the prospect of a counter-revolution.

A system of Soviets came into existence, more or less spontaneously, throughout the country, made up of the men in army units and factories. In the end, the villages also set up such councils to safeguard the revolution and ensure its promotion.

As the Romanian armies collapsed, the Russians were forced to extend their lines to the south. This became the responsibility of the new Chief of Staff at the Stavka, General Vasily Gurko, who had temporarily replaced General Mikhail Alekseyev who was on extended sick leave. To expand the number of divisions in the line, Gurko converted them from sixteen battalions per division to twelve. These reforms did little to improve military efficiency while proving a distraction from some far more pressing underlying problems.

The Russian reorganization was a very ambitious program, for although it promised to create another sixty divisions, the question was whether the Russians had the experienced senior officers and staff to bring them into action, or indeed the artillery batteries needed to give them the requisite firepower. The extra divisions were supposed to be of front line quality, but were soon allowed to deteriorate into second line formations, incapable of reaching the standards required.

The winter of 1916-17 was exceptionally severe, which exacerbated the transport and supply difficulties faced by the Russians, who were already struggling to cover the new Romanian sector of the front. Although the performance of the munitions industries had improved, it was apparent that the supply of many of the basics of life – food, winter uniforms and even essentials such as boots – was still lagging far behind demand. Ominously, this triggered several mutinous riots among the worst affected regiments.

Early in 1917, Russian generals were full of fight. The prospect of American intervention against Germany gave the Russians and western Powers alike a hope of final success in 1917. Nonetheless, there was to be little fighting in the east in 1917.

A wave of strikes in the capital and elsewhere broke out. However, the regime had dealt with strikes and protests before, and the Tsar and his ministers did not view the disturbances very seriously. The fall of the monarchy, known as the February Revolution, came about so quickly and spontaneously that it almost seemed accidental. The strikes in Petrograd did not turn particularly violent at first, and the Tsar left the capital to return to the general headquarters in Mogilev, leaving instructions with the minister of interior to disperse the last remaining strikers.

Workers marched through Petrograd, and tens of thousands did so in other Russian cities. Although most were doing so to protest their hunger, a significant minority bore banners which linked social distress to political calls: ‘Down with the war’ or ‘Down with the autocracy’. Revolutionary socialists wanted delay in order to coordinate these protests. But female textile workers took to the streets to demand bread. By the afternoon they had been joined by metalworkers from the war industries, and now the targets were the government and the war.

The size of the demonstrations was swelled by a sudden rise in temperatures, which brought the discontented out into winter sunshine, at first to search for food, then to join the activists in the streets. By the 10th of March, 200,000 workers were crowding the center of Petrograd, smashing shops and fighting the outnumbered and demoralized police.

The Tsarina wrote one of her tender, loving letters to her ‘own priceless, beloved treasure’, fortifying him and blaming the Duma: ‘It’s a hooligan movement... But this will all pass & quieten down.’

The Petrograd army garrison had become a sort of staging area for raw peasant recruits prior to their further training and shipment to the front. The interior minister, A. D. Protopopov, ignored warnings that the large garrison of troops in Petrograd could not be trusted. When Protopopov ordered the Petrograd garrison troops to march on the strikers, they refused. Four regiments of troops mutinied and shot a few of their officers. The armed but disorganized soldiers joined the workers in the streets, then seized armories and provided more arms to the massed civilians.

Protopopov refused to work closely with the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, which had experience in breaking revolutionary organizations and strikes, and chose to rely on the demoralized and raw garrison troops for security.

There were five regular regiments in the city, but compared with the rest of the Russian army they were disproportionately urban. Their off-duty socializing had alerted them to the grievances of the working-class population. Soldiers in the Pavlovskiy barracks mutinied. By the following morning 20,000 of them were on the streets. The instrument of the Tsar’s authority had not exactly broken in his hand, as Nicholas himself was unable to get to Petrograd.

Within days, the city police could no longer control the partially armed mobs, and groups of soldiers turned their machine guns, armored cars and rifles on the weak police forces. The rebelling troops broke into the prisons and city jails, freeing political prisoners as well as common criminals. During these armed clashes, the first meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, or council of workers and soldiers, dominated by socialists of the various wings of those parties, convened. The ministers of government fled their offices, in fear that the rioters would wreak their anger on them.

Revolutionary propagandists had long been at work among the troops, but they did not cause the rising, and no faction stood ready to take over. The Duma hastily set up a 'Provisional Committee' only when it heard that a crowd of 80,000 was approaching. By that time an alternative source of power, the Petrograd Soviet, had come into existence.

The Tsar's government was accustomed to civil disorder and had always before found means to put it down. In the last resort, as in 1905, it called out the army to shoot the crowds. By 1917, however, the infantry of the guards had been used up several times over. Those stationed at Petrograd belonged to the reserve battalions and were either new recruits or wounded veterans, very reluctant to be returned to duty. Their officers were for the most part recent products of the cadet schools.

One of the soldiers in the Petrograd garrison, Fedor Linde, recorded his reaction to the first attempts at repression of the demonstrations near the Tauride Palace. ‘I saw a young girl trying to evade the galloping horse of a Cossack officer. She was too slow. A severe blow on the head brought her down under the horse's feet. She screamed. It was her inhuman, penetrating scream that caused something in me to snap. I cried out wildly: “Fiends! Fiends! Long live the revolution. To arms! To arms! They are killing innocent people, our brothers and sisters!"’

The Tsar heard of these difficulties and, from Mogilev, he ordered the Duma dissolved, apparently believing the liberal leaders in that body responsible for the crisis. A small group of representatives in the Duma defied the order, and, when they heard that the Tsar planned to return to Petrograd with loyal troops, the main group of the Duma demanded that the Tsar abdicate. Railway workers cooperated by shunting the Tsar’s train aside. The Tsar seems to have believed, like Louis XVI in July 1789, that his throne was threatened by nothing more than a rebellion from below. He did not grasp that the army of the capital, the chief prop of his authority, was, like the Gardes Francaises in Paris in 1789, in revolt against his rule and that the political class was following its lead.

Nicholas had left for Stavka in Mogilev. During the next few days, some of his generals advised him that only his abdication could save the monarchy. He attempted to return to Petrograd. When his train arrived at Malaya Vishera, 100 miles from the capital, he was told that the line to Petrograd was blocked by troops with artillery and machine guns, but he could go east to Moscow or west to Pskov.

The North Front's headquarters were at Pskov, so he went there, to be met by the Front commander, General Nikolai Ruzsky, with the news that the entire Petrograd Garrison had mutinied, and four regiments sent to restore order had been stopped on the outskirts, and had then deserted en masse.

While Nicholas was still at Mogilev, Russia's parliament, the Duma, was discussing its mandate in the Tauride Palace. At the same time, Soviets – committees of the common people formed spontaneously not only in factories and workshops but in military units also – were meeting, sometimes in almost permanent session, passing resolutions and appointing representatives to supervise or even replace those in established authority.

In Petrograd, the chief Soviet had nominated an executive committee, the Ispolkom, which was acting as the representative body of all political parties, including the Marxist Mensheviks and Bolsheviks as well as the moderates. The Duma formed a Provisional Committee which anticipated the creation of a new government.

At the front, the officers of the General Staff recognized the force of irresistible events. A proposal to dispatch a punitive expedition to Petrograd under the command of General Ivanov was cancelled by the Tsar himself when he conferred with his military advisers at Pskov.

Ruzsky urged the Tsar to establish parliamentary government. Alekseyev, on whose advice the Tsar had depended but who had been sick in the period immediately preceding the revolution, endorsed Ruzsky’s view. But by now the situation was irrecoverable. The Duma had established a provisional committee which called on the monarch to abdicate; advice which Ruzsky seconded. Faced with the choice between loyalty to the crown and loyalty to the nation, the Russian army opted for the latter.

There was trouble in the wings for the Russian generals, too. The Petrograd Soviet had been induced by an incursion of armed soldiers to pass ‘Order Number One’, a manifesto for military personnel allowing political representation, much expanded individual freedoms and a degree of Soviet control. Although originally only directed to the Petrograd area, the order spread rapidly throughout the services, including the Army at the front. Soon Soviet-style committees were thriving almost everywhere.

To attempt to sort out the continuing shortages of food and basic supplies, it was decided to reduce the size of the army by releasing all men over forty-three years old. Even so, desertions continued to rise, and soon the Russian Army was a rapidly shrinking force. In these circumstances, Alexeyev admitted that he would have to delay the promised May offensive.

The Soviet at once claimed authority over the Petrograd garrison. It issued 'Army Order Number One', proclaiming itself the 'Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies' and decreeing that in all political actions military units must obey only its orders. Discipline must be observed on duty, but off-duty standing to attention and saluting were abolished and titles were replaced by 'Mr General', 'Mr Colonel', etc. Company Committees must control all weapons, and in no circumstances issue any to officers.

The preamble made it clear that the order applied only to the Petrograd Garrison, but copies reached the front, and discipline crumbled in their wake. In April, two Duma members visited the front and concluded that the morale of the artillery and Cossacks appeared intact, but the cavalry's was unknown, and much of the infantry was 'shaken'.

Order Number 1 required that all units form committees of elected representatives of the lower ranks. Order Number 1 did not of itself demand that officers be elected, but that was its outcome. Officers had to court popularity, and some of those who did not were lynched, while others were arrested.

‘Between us and them is an impassable gulf,’ one officer wrote at the end of March. ‘No matter how well they get on with individual officers, in their eyes we are all barins. When we talk about the narod, we mean the nation; when they talk about it, they understand it as meaning only the democratic lower classes. In their eyes, what has occurred is not a political but a social revolution, which in their opinion they have won and we have lost.’

The Tsar could not find support anywhere. The Russian Army stood aloof, its senior generals bluntly recommending his abdication as the solution. This was hardly what Nicholas II wanted – or, indeed, expected – to hear, but as the situation spiralled out of control he was left with no choice. Finally he abdicated in favor of his brother, the Grand Duke Michael, who promptly rejected the poisoned chalice. The Tsar named Prince Lvov as prime minister and abdicated at the same time.

While Nicholas was travelling to Pskov, General Rodzyanko spoke to Alexeyev, who agreed that Nicholas must abdicate. He sent telegrams seeking all the Front commanders' opinions. Their replies all recommended abdication.

Nicholas named his only son, Alexei, the young boy with hemophilia, as his successor, with the provision that the Tsar’s brother, Mikhail Aleksandrovich, should be regent until the son came of age. He later altered the succession so that the crown was to go directly to his brother.

The Petrograd Soviet and the Duma agreed that the crown should pass to the Tsar’s brother, Mikhail, but Mikhail refused, at the urging of Alexander Kerensky and others of the Duma. Mikhail indicated he would serve if called by an official constituent assembly, but in the meantime he refused to assume the ‘Supreme Power’.

The decisive influence upon the Tsar had been the advice of his Chief of Staff, Alexeyev, who had cabled him in the following terms: ‘A revolution in Russia... will mean a disgraceful termination of the war... The army is most intimately connected with the life of the rear. It may be confidently stated that disorders in the rear will produce the same result among the armed forces. It is impossible to ask the army calmly to wage war while a revolution is in progress in the rear. The youthful makeup of the present army and its officer staff, among whom a very high proportion consists of reservists and commissioned university students, gives no grounds for assuming that the army will not react to events occurring in Russia.’

The French and British showed little concern for the Tsar’s person, officially recognizing the Provisional Government as his legitimate successor within a week of his abdication. In this they were encouraged mainly by the fact that the new regime seemed inclined to continue the Russian war effort. The revolution that established the Provisional Government seemed to observers in the West to represent the replacement of the monarchy by a republic of sorts. Many signs of liberal reform gave credence to that view, such as increasing freedom of the press, labor reforms, and promises of equality for women.

The Tsar's abdication also meant that France and Britain were better able to present the war as the democracies of the Entente fighting against the despotic regimes of the Central Powers – something they could hardly push with much conviction while Russia was still ruled by Tsars. This would prove especially useful in trying to inveigle the United States of America into the war.

From Britain, Prime Minister David Lloyd George congratulated Prince Lvov, noting that Russia now stood with the nations that based their institutions on responsible government, allowing him to characterize the war as one of a fight for freedom against Prussian military autocracy.

Russia’s Western allies may not have welcomed the revolution but they were hardly surprised by it. Representatives of Britain, France and Italy had conferred with the Russians in Petrograd at the end of January. Both the British and French military representatives came away convinced that the Russian army would not be able to mount a major offensive in 1917.

The hope that Russia would come good in 1918 was one which optimists clung to after the revolution: if, as a result, ‘efficient people’ took charge, Christopher Addison, the British minister of munitions, wrote in his diary on 16 March, ’it is the biggest blow to the Germans since the beginning of the War.’ Others who knew Russia better, and recognized the challenges faced by its Provisional Government, found their faith that the war could be won through liberalism wavering.

It might be thought that the Germans would launch an offensive on the Eastern Front in order to try and capitalize on the state of chaos within the Russian Army. However, they took a more subtle course of action. As a result it was decided to facilitate the passage of the Communist-inspired Bolshevik party leader, Vladimir Lenin, in a special sealed train travelling from Switzerland through Germany, Sweden and Finland to Russia where, the Germans hoped, this experienced political agitator would act as a plague bacillus and destroy the host body.

A direct military assault ran the risk of triggering the underlying patriotism of the Russian troops; far better to let them tear themselves apart from within.

On his arrival in Russian in April 1917, Lenin duly called for an end to the war and a socialist redistribution of land. The February revolution was over, but the troubles in Russia had just begun. Lenin traveled from Switzerland with the permission of the German authorities. Although his enemies used that fact to suggest that Lenin actually worked for the Germans, his trip had been funded by several Bolsheviks who had made fortunes using their underground connections to arrange the smuggling of western products into wartorn Russia.

When Lenin arrived in Petrograd, an enthusiastic crowd greeted him at the Finland railway station. After his impassioned speech, they seemed eager for him to seize power and install the proletariat revolution. Lenin, however, held back, seeking better timing.

Though General Erich Ludendorff later admitted that the German army 'had been fought to a standstill, and was utterly worn out', the Germans considered that they had done well enough in the east to transfer eight divisions to the west. They were somewhat surprised when in January-February 1917 the Russian army attacked, gaining some ground in Bukovina. However, at the end of February joint German-Austrian counterattacks recovered it all.

Two governing bodies replaced the monarchy: the Petrograd Soviet and a Temporary Committee of the Duma. Together they agreed in supporting a Provisional Government. The only member of the Duma to be a member of the Soviet was the popular socialist lawyer Alexander Kerensky. The Petrograd Soviet appointed him as one of two vice-chairmen, and he served the Provisional Government first as minister of justice and later in other posts. He readily worked as a liaison between the Soviet and the Duma over the next months.

Kerensky’s reputation as a defender of political dissidents and victims of the Tsar’s secret police had earned him support among both liberals and socialists. As an effective speaker he seemed an ideal go-between for the liberals and others in the Duma and the Soviet, dominated by Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and Bolsheviks. Despite his initial popularity and his position in both the Duma and in the Soviet, Kerensky soon made political enemies on every side.

The revolution left Russia without the apparatus of government, since by an agreement signed between the Duma cabinet and the Petrograd Soviet all provincial governors, the agents of administrative power, were dismissed and the police and gendarmerie, the instruments of their authority, disbanded. All that was left in place outside the capital were the district councils, the zemstva, boards of local worthies without the experience or means to carry out the orders of the Provisional Government.

From March to November 1917, the uneasy balance of power continued between the Petrograd Soviet, increasingly supported by other urban and regional soviets, and the Duma.

The orders of the Provisional Government were, in any case, subject to the veto of the Soviet, which arrogated to itself responsibility for military, diplomatic and most economic affairs, leaving the government to do little more than pass legislation guaranteeing rights and liberties to the population.

The two bodies at least agreed on one thing: that the war must be fought. They did so from different motives, the Provisional Government for broadly nationalist reasons; the Soviets, to defend the revolution. While they continued to denounce the war as ‘imperialist’ and ‘monstrous’, the Soviets nevertheless feared that defeat by Germany would bring counter-revolution.

The revolution travelled along the railway lines to the front. It reached the combat zones furthest from Petrograd – Romania and the Caucasus – last. Although most Russian soldiers were fed up with the war, they were still committed to the defense of their country. Senior commanders recognized in March that the way to restore order was not to oppose the establishment of soldiers’ committees but to endorse them – just as they had endorsed the fall of the Tsar – in the hope of then reuniting the army and the nation in the prosecution of the war.

Alexander Kerensky, first as Minister of War and then as head of the Provisional Government, supported this strategy of restoring order. He launched an offensive in July, which failed, and then appointed the youthful and heroic Lavr Kornilov commander-in-chief, with a mandate to restore discipline. But he now feared the threat of counter-revolution more than that of revolution.

The Germans took Riga at the beginning of September, and when Kornilov began to push troops toward Petrograd for its defense they were seen to be the outriders for a counter-revolutionary coup, not the agents of the Provisional Government. Kerensky turned to the Petrograd Soviet and its militia, the Red Guard, under Leon Trotsky, to check Kornilov.

It was not only domestic events which separated the army’s officers from their men. Kerensky hoped the war would unite the nation and the revolution. But the decision of the All-Russian Conference of Soviets to support a peace without annexations or indemnities made those who supported the war’s continuation seem imperialist. Moreover, peace promised land reform and redistribution. Peasants wanted to be at home when that happened. The rise in desertions was not immediate but the process of disintegration was now under way.

German and Austro-Hungarian propaganda played on the worries about land redistribution. Thus the pressures on the Russian army came not just from the rear, but from the other side of the line as well. The spontaneous truce of Christmas 1914 on the western front had had its eastern-front counterpart, albeit at Easter and in every year up to and including 1917. OberOst, the German commandment for the war in the East, now condoned such fraternisation. It was also supported by Russian revolutionaries, who hoped to spread the revolution westwards.

A renewed war effort needed leadership of its own, and neither the Soviet nor the original Provisional Government was headed by figures of inspiration. The Ispolkom's members were socialist intellectuals; the Prime Minister, Prince Lvov, a benevolent populist. In the circumstances it was to be expected that leadership should pass to a man of dynamism. He appeared in the person of Alexander Kerensky. Kerensky’s government would direct Russia’s destiny throughout the summer, until the October Revolution.

The socialists were obsessed with abstract political ideas and had no understanding of practicalities, nor did they wish for any. Lvov had a high-minded but hopelessly unrealistic belief in the capacity of ‘the people’ to settle the direction of their own future. The Bolsheviks, who knew what they wanted, were excluded from influence by the people's reborn bellicosity.

Kerensky’s unsocialist instinct for power but impeccable socialist credentials allowed him to combine membership of the Ispolkom with ministerial office, and to enjoy the strong support of ordinary members of the Soviet.

First appointed Minister of Justice, Kerensky became Minister of War, then Prime Minister, and at once set about a purge of the high command, which he regarded as defeatist. Alexei Brusilov, the army's most successful commander, became Chief of Staff, while Kerensky's own commissars were sent to the front with the mission of encouraging an offensive spirit among the common soldiers.

Suddenly, as the result of a few days of rioting and disorder and chaotic meetings of the Duma, the monarchy had ended. Surprisingly, the February Revolution that destroyed the monarchy had come at the price of only 169 people killed and another 996 wounded. Far worse casualties were to follow, however.

The February Revolution was not political in origin. It was initially a protest against material deprivation and became a revolution only because the military garrison of Petrograd refused to join in the repression of the demonstrators and then took their side against the gendarmerie and the Cossacks, the state's traditional agencies of police action.

The Soviet’s order on army matters decreed an end to officers’ authority. Henceforth that authority could, in most units, be enforced only through agreement with the unit’s council.

The division of power between government and Soviet was, in fact, artificial. The government had control of the bureaucracy, but increasingly it lost control of the armed forces, and it owed most of its power to the Soviet. But the Soviet did not know how to use its power yet. Most of its early leaders earnestly wished that the Provisional Government would do the job.

The Soviet had pledged itself, quite early on, to ‘peace without annexations or contributions’. But, as became increasingly clear, the German government was not interested in this, except from tactical motives, so that, unless the Soviet wanted to see Ludendorff invade Russia, it must go on fighting the war. In this event, power must be left to the generals. In the same way, the maintenance of the economy must be left to bankers and industrialists who understood these things.

It was only after Lenin’s return to Russia that the Bolsheviks adopted an out and-out revolutionary program: unremitting class-war in town and country, immediate peace, all power to the Soviets. It was not until September that the Soviets became, in majority, Bolshevik.

The system did not break down because of Bolshevik agitation alone. To begin with, the Bolsheviks were just as confused as the other parties. They too accepted that the revolution must be defended against German imperialism. After the March Revolution they were eager, to their subsequent embarrassment, to get back to normal — with Lev Kamenev and Stalin appealing for ‘order’ in the army and the factories, and Maxim Gorki telling people to get back to work.