Russia, which had been battling decades of problems with an archaic social, economic and political structure with a monarch as its head, was ripe for revolution in early 1917. Starving peasants, an unpopular and a very costly war against the Germans finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Tensions had been rising in Russia for decades, but early in the 1900s, there had been a humiliating military defeat at the hands of Japan, a mutiny on the battleship Potemkin, and the awful firing on peaceful crowds by soldiers on Bloody Sunday had turned the people against Tsar Nicholas II.
So when the food riots in Petrograd, (modern day St. Petersburg) began, it set forth a chain of events that would initially lead to the tsar’s ouster and eventually set the table for the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin to take over Russia. The country would then become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But before that, the riots in Petrograd would encompass 90,000 people, many clamoring for bread and over 1300 Russians would be killed in the violence.
Tsar Out of Touch: The Russian monarchy like many of the dynastic rulers of the early 20th century were incompatible with modern systems of capitalism. And coincidentally, the reason it is called the “February Revolution” was that Russia continued to use the Julian calendar. Corruption was rampant in the Imperialist regime and the Russian military was ill-prepared, ill-equipped and led during World War I. The army suffered horrendous casualties against the much better equipped and led German army.
On March 8th, protesters hit the streets over the lack of bread, flour, and fuel. There, they teamed with over 90,000 people on strike and the crowds clashed with police. Women were marching in large numbers in accordance with International Women’s Day. And they encouraged protesters to demand an end of food rationing, to get out of World War I and to end the monarchy.
The next day, the crowds had swelled to 200,000. They demanded the Russian get out of the war, and that the Tsar be replaced with a more progressive leader. By March 10th nearly all of Petrograd was brought to a standstill by the strikes and protests. The Tsar, who had been visiting the front, ordered a Russian general, Sergey Semyonovich Khabalov to disperse the crowd with rifle fire and “to suppress the rioters with force.”
The capital was in chaos, certain units in the military had begun to mutiny and the government of the Tsar was frozen with indecision. The Tsar was wired with a bleak picture of the events:
The situation is serious. The capital is in a state of anarchy. The Government is paralyzed. Transport service and the supply of food and fuel have become completely disrupted. General discontent is growing … There must be no delay. Any procrastination is tantamount to death.
The Tsar left the front but was unable to get to Petrograd because the revolutionaries controlled the railroads. The Imperial Guards left their posts, basically abandoning the Tsar and his family. His closest confidantes advised him to abdicate the throne. Which he did on 3 p.m. on the afternoon of the 14th. He tried to hand over the throne to his brother Michael. Once he refused, it was done.
Three hundred years of Romanov rule in Russia was over. The Romanov family was placed under protective custody in the palace at Tsarskoye Selo along with their royal retainers.
The Provisional Government had shared dual power with the Petrograd Soviet and as a result, neither had the control needed to right the ship. Meanwhile, Vladimir Lenin, who had been in exile in Switzerland, returned to Petrograd on 16 April. He immediately tried to gain control of the Bolsheviks and do everything in his power to undermine the provisional government.
Initially, he didn’t curry favor with the Bolsheviks and the riots of July caused the government to put out arrest warrants on all of the prominent Bolshevik leaders. Lenin fled to Finland with many of the Bolshevik leaders. The new head of the provisional government, Kerensky never had firm control of the government and he constantly feared that troops would mutiny against him.
Finally, Lenin and the Bolsheviks would overthrow the Kerensky government during the October Revolution. Lenin survived two assassination attempts and finally moved the capital to Moscow as they feared the Germans would take Petrograd. He never liked the city but once there he rarely left for the rest of his life.
At first, Lenin tried to downplay his Marxist ideology to not scare off any support from non-Bolsheviks. The first order of business was getting Russia out of the war. He agreed to terrible terms from Germany and the Central Powers but it was just the beginning of a few years of civil war, strife with Poland and a consolidation of power that would give him absolute rule over the country.
Photos: Russian archives