“”We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.
|—Vladimir Lenin, speaking in Switzerland on January 9, 1917, showing that even he was caught off guard by the imminent revolution
“”We could hear women's voices in the lane overlooked by the windows of our department: 'Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!' I and several comrades rushed to the windows... Masses of women workers in a militant frame of mind filled the lane. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting 'Come out! Stop work!' Snowballs flew through the windows. We decided to join the demonstration.
|—A February Revolution participant recalling the pivotal role of women
|Tomorrow is a mystery,
but yesterday is
|Secrets of times gone by
The February Revolution (referred to by Soviet historians as the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution) began in early March 1917, and represented the culmination of decades of unrest against the misrule of the Russian Empire. It was the first of two revolutions which took place in Russia in 1917; the second, the October Revolution, brought Vladimir Lenin to power as the leader of the Bolshevik faction and began the Russian Civil War. This earlier revolution set things in motion by seeing the dissolution of the Tsarist regime and its replacement with the Russian Provisional Government. The revolution is also notable for being largely spontaneous, having no real leadership or goals beyond expressing anger against the monarchy and the ongoing war.
World War I proved to be the primary spark that lit the tinder of unrest, as Russia's participation in that apocalyptic conflict resulted in millions of deaths, famine, and economic collapse. Shortages of food and fuel were especially harsh in the imperial capital Petrograd (now called Saint Petersburg), and discontent with rationing resulted in rioting, strikes, and mutinies. Tsar Nicholas II's government proved totally unable to halt the resulting movement. After eight days of violence and political paralysis, the final nail in the Tsar's coffin came when the military as a whole turned against him. Nicholas II abdicated his throne and allowed Prince Georgy Lvov to form a Provisional Government.
By the way, you've probably noticed that the actual revolution started in March rather than February. The Russian Empire used the old Julien calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, another sign of its backwards nature, and the old calendar ran 13 days behind the modern calendar. Thus, by the Russian calendar, the revolution was in February. Russia wouldn't join the rest of the world in following the Gregorian calendar until the October Revolution.
In total, the rioting and government crackdowns during the revolution cost the lives of over 1,300 people. It was, and is, a great tragedy that the ride wasn't over yet.
Shittiness of the Russian Empire
“”The February 1917 revolution [...] grew out of pre-war political and economic instability, technological backwardness, and fundamental social divisions, coupled with gross mismanagement of the war effort, continuing military defeats, domestic economic dislocation, and outrageous scandals surrounding the monarchy.
|—Alexander Rabinowitch, Research Scholar at the St. Petersburg Institute of History
The Russian Empire sucked, and pretty much always had. It had been the largest country in the world for decades, but that was a problem since the 1800s and early 1900s didn't really provide many ways to efficiently manage a state of that size. Compared to Western Europe, the Russian Empire was politically, economically, and socially backwards. The Industrial Revolution had relatively little impact there, and the empire still had a near-Medieval social structure where almost the entire population were agrarian peasants who labored under an autocratic absolute monarchy. The closest thing the Empire had to a genuine democratic body was the State Duma, which was dominated by gentry, landowners, and businessmen and was generally controlled by the whims of the Tsar.
What little industry there was existed mostly within Petrograd and Moscow. As you can imagine, the Russian Empire was ill-suited to participating in a modern, industrialized, total war. A major foreshadowing of Russia's inability to compete in the modern world came in 1904, when it had its ass kicked by the upstart secondary power Japan across the board during the Russo-Japanese War.
Especially destructive to the Russian Empire was the Tsarist government. Tsars still relied on divine right to rule, claiming their positions were ordained by God, and they had ministers and a civil service who answered only to them. In reality, the civil service was irredeemably corrupt; it was based on bribery and nepotism rather than actual competence. The Tsar during World War I was Nicholas II, who was lazy, weak-willed, and constantly distracted by the illness of his heir. Worst of all, the Tsarist regime had a secret police force called the Okhrana, which was formed in 1881 to combat socialism and never hesitated to use torture and extrajudicial murder to root out dissent.
Finally, the Tsar also relied on the military, mainly the army, to maintain his power. Officers were aristocratic nobles who gave zero shits about the welfare of the ordinary peasant soldiers who formed most of the army's backbone. Ordinary Russian soldiers had to deal with harsh discipline, poor pay, and poor conditions. This didn't make them terribly loyal, as you can imagine. One of history's classic mistakes is failure to pay your fucking soldiers.
Shittiness of the Russian church
The Russian Eastern Orthodox Church was, and is, historically one of the foundations of the Russian nation. For most of its history, it served a vital role in propping up the Russian Empire's tyrannical rule. In 1721, Tsar Peter the Great took the extraordinary step of formalizing this relationship by placing the church under Russian government control. Russian peasants may have been illiterate, but they weren't stupid, and they knew full well that the church had been reduced to a Tsarist puppet.
Church teachings changed significantly to reflect the Tsarist message. Official Church doctrine stated that the Tsar was appointed by God, and that any opposition to the Tsar was tantamount to opposition against God. Similar to Dominionism ideology in the United States, the Russian church insisted that Russia was God's land and that all things in Russia were as God intended them. Always remember that God wants you to be a peasant constantly on the brink of starvation and the Tsar is His chosen agent in making that happen. Amen!
Respect for the church and its priests declined dramatically over the centuries, as peasants increasingly came to view priests as corrupt and hypocritical.
Shittiness of Russian class divisions
Russia's ruling class during the imperial age was less than 1% of the entire country's population, representing the Tsar's family, the nobility and landowner class, and high-ranking church officials. These people dominated the Russian civil service and government ministerial positions. Upper class individuals who weren't necessarily ruling class represented a further 12% of the population. Landowners kept peasants in cycles of debt in order to keep them toiling on the land, and they even had authority to punish peasants with public floggings. Many peasants referred to the landowners derisively as "Little Tsars".
The tiny middle class, largely in Russia' major cities, only represented some 1.5% of the population and generally filled the unique needs of cities like lawyers and businessmen. Around 4% of the population were the working class, toiling in factories for pitiful wages and living in cramped flats in the cities; in 1904, an average of 16 people lived in a working class flat, with six people per room. Trade unions were banned by the Tsar, safety regulations were nonexistent, and the average workday was around 11.5 hours. Pretty shitty.
Everyone else, around 82%, were peasants. Before 1861, they were serfs, but the abolition of serfdom actually made their living conditions worse, as it allowed landlords to punish them with debt systems while the government squeezed the peasants with taxes. Peasants were constantly on the verge of starvation, as they lacked the industrial infrastructure to produce sufficient food for themselves. And yet their landlords and the government demanded product from them for export. Also super shitty.
Shittiness of World War I
The Russian Empire, as you may already know, performed abysmally in the First World War. Russia had inadequate railroads for military mobilization, corruption had sapped its military of funds to maintain any level of preparedness, and aristocratic politics ensured that no one felt confident enough to actually acknowledge these deficiencies. World War I began in 1914, and Russia managed to run out of artillery shells by 1915. Amazing.
Russia also failed to form a unity government like the United Kingdom and France had done, once again a consequence of aristocratic politics. By 1917, tens of thousands of soldiers were deserting per day, and Russia had lost huge swathes of territory and millions of soldiers. Nicholas II also took personal command of the Russian military, which was a stupid and disastrous decision since he was a shitty commander and being in the field took him away from his government. The government, left in the hands of the Tsar's wife, ground to a halt. Meanwhile, the Tsar's presence in the field made the Russian public view him as being personally responsible for the Russian army's huge casualties and military failures. All in all, not a smart move, Nick.
With so many peasants being conscripted into the army to make up wartime losses and other peasants being driven out of the German Empire's occupation zones, Russia's food production suffered greatly and almost immediately resulted in hideous famines. Hyperinflation, that classic economic menace, reared its ugly head, causing wages to plummet and prices to soar. Food shortages were especially harsh in the cities, where huge numbers of people crammed together suddenly had nothing to eat and no way to fix that problem. Uh oh.
With Nicky out in the field being useless, governance was left to his wife, who unfortunately didn't have any fucking clue, either. Under her rule, the government cycled through various ministers, barely giving anyone a chance to handle the ongoing crises before seeing them fired and sent packing. This cost the government most of its competent thinkers, or thinkers of any sort, for that matter. Tsarina Alexandra also totally underestimated the risk of public unrest, repeatedly dismissing political unrest as the work of "hooligans" and insisting that protesters would stay home because it was cold outside. This serves as a useful reminder that female leaders can be dumbasses, too. Instead of actually handling government issues, Alexandra busied herself with religious cranks, faith healers, and alternative medicine, most infamously striking a close friendship with the madman monk Rasputin.
Amid the rapidly deteriorating situation in the capital, various ministers started begging Nicholas II to come back to Petrograd and fix things. Mikhail Rodzianko, the Duma president, telegrammed the Tsar to say, "There is anarchy in the capital. The government is paralysed. It is necessary immediately to entrust a person who enjoys the confidence of the country with the formation of the government." To paraphrase, Nicky Boy responded with a nice ol' "fuck you" to what he read as Rodzianko's overreaction, and ordered the Duma to dissolve itself.
The Duma responded with (again, paraphrasing here), "[we] recognize the [Tsar] has made a decision, but given that it's a stupid-ass decision, [we've] elected to ignore it." Not only did the Duma refuse to dissolve, it actually put together an exploratory commission to investigate the idea of forming a provisional government without the Tsar.
Strikes and protests
On 3 March, workers at the Putilov Plant, one of Petrograd's largest factories, refused to continue working and launched a general strike. This touched a nerve with people all over the capital, who started to join in on anti-government protests. The following few days of protests would be driven by women. 8 March was the celebration of International Women's Day, an occurrence which was encouraged by left-wing political forces in Russia, and women's celebration of the event rapidly transformed into a huge anti-government rally calling for a solution to the food crisis. By the end of the day, the rally had 100,000 participants, which increased to 150,000 by the next day. People were pissed. Instead of suppressing the demonstrations, many soldiers posted in the city actually joined them. Soldiers get hungry, too.
The protest movement only got bigger as the days went on, proving the Tsar and Tsarina dead wrong. Protests escalated in violence as well, sometimes becoming riots and often seeing clashes with Russian police.
On 10 March, the Tsar started taking the movement seriously. But then he made an even more stupid decision by ordering his troops in the city to disperse the protesters by shooting at them with live ammunition, calling the protests "impermissible". However, Petrograd soldiers proved unwilling to shoot Petrograd civilians, and some units actually attacked other units that had tried to obey the Tsar's orders. Other units outright joined the protesters in the streets, and at least one unit shot its commanding officer instead of firing on protesters. In the absence of the military, government authority in the capital broke down completely.
Some military units then opened their arsenals to the anti-government movement, and helped arrest the remaining government ministers loyal to the Tsar. At this point, the capital of the Russian Empire had effectively declared independence from the Russian Empire.
Abdication in Pskov
On 13 March, Nicholas II finally decided to return to Petrograd in order to defend his power, but it was way, way too late. Revolutionaries already controlled most of the railroad lines around Petrograd, and members of the Duma halted the Tsar's train outside the city of Pskov, near Estonia. The Duma members demanded the Tsar's abdication, saying it was the only way out of the February crisis. Nicholas hesitated and asked to consult with his generals in the hopes that the military would support him. The Duma members had prepared for that, though, and confronted the Tsar with letters from most of his generals announcing that they wouldn't start a civil war just to protect the monarchy's power. Nick denounced the generals as cowards and traitors, but it's not like talking shit would change anything.
As the final straw, the Duma members also informed the Tsar that the rising militancy in Petrograd was starting to become a serious physical threat to the Tsarina and the Tsar's children, who were still in the capital and were becoming the target of serious public hatred. This is foreshadowing, by the way.
With no choice left, Nicholas angrily abdicated his throne. The problem was that his sick heir was still a child, so the throne had to go to the Tsar's brother Grand Duke Mikhail. Mikhail, however, wasn't really interested in taking the throne, and ruled as Tsar for just a day before abdicating himself. The Russian imperial throne was empty, and the Tsar returned to Petrograd only to be placed under house arrest in his own palace with his family.
The Provisional Government prepared by the Duma assumed power in the absence of the Tsar and amid much public optimism. Unfortunately, the Provisional Government would be crippled by various factors, including the ongoing war and conflict with the Bolsheviks. The political failure of the Provisional Government led to the October Revolution.
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