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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.