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  • James Houser

March 8, 1917 - The Russian Revolution Begins

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

March 8, 1917. A group of meetings and rallies in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), Russia, intended for International Women's Day, combine with an industrial strike into a series of economic and political riots. Under the strain of the Great War, the urban working class has finally snapped, and the Russian Revolution has begun.

There are multi-volume books that cover small portions of the Russian Revolution so this will not be a minute-by-minute examination like Remagen or a battle. Vladimir Lenin famously said of the Russian Revolution, "there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen." The Revolution was one of those weeks.

Russia in 1917 was ruled by the Tsar and the landed nobility, and had been slowly crumbling for decades. The enormous landmass and population were underdeveloped and uneducated, with most of the peasants still living in medieval-style villages. The economy was weak, and there was no middle class. The Tsar reigned as a dictator in theory, but in practice very few of the last several rulers of All Russia had been capable in any sense.

Nicholas II was not capable in any sense. A born micromanager, obsessed with detail, he was completely unable to manage a large nation like the Russian Empire, and had no leadership skills or ability to command whatsoever. At his father's funeral he had sobbed because he was so scared of being the Tsar, and now he ruled a backwards autocracy. Nicholas was essentially a dead link in the chain of command - and he was the top of the chain of command. Russia was the least functional kind of government: a dictatorship without a dictator.

Tsar Nicholas II (far left) and his family

His wife Alexandra, the Empress, was herself even more inclined to tyranny than her husband, but her attention was absorbed in matters of the household. Her hemophiliac son Alexei, the heir to the throne of the Tsar, was constantly sick and would have fits that brought him near death on a regular basis. Alexandra placed her entire trust in the charismatic and lecherous faith healer Rasputin, the only one who seemed to have the ability to alleviate Alexei's woes. This gave Rasputin near total control over the Empress, and through her the Tsar.

The Tsar and Tsarina only inherited the rot though - they were not its cause. Centuries of repression, the outsized influence of the stubborn nobility, the sheer size of the country and the diversity of its peoples, the lack of innovation or capitalist impulse, and the dismal state of education had turned the Empire of All Russia into the stumbling colossus of Europe. The repeated failure of liberal reforms turned most of the urban working class and educated classes, who strongly desired change, to Marxist and socialist politics.

In 1905, defeat at the hands of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War had nearly broken the system. The Revolution of 1905 caused widespread urban unrest, riots, mutinies and a borderline collapse of the state structure. Only severe and violent repression, along with the promise of some liberal reforms, prevented the Revolution of 1905 from gaining ground, and as soon as the land was calmed again Nicholas clamped down with an even tighter grip. He did not have the ability or imagination to turn himself into a constitutional monarch like the British King George V, or even the German Kaiser Wilhelm, both his cousins. The only response the Tsars ever had was to double down.

In 1914, events in Europe came to a head with the First World War. Early Russian optimism was soon shattered by heavy defeats at the hands of Germany, and by 1916 the Russian economy and society were on the verge of collapse. They had lost nearly 5,000,000 men in three years of war. Wartime demands caused widespread food shortages, and the virtual disappearance of foreign trade caused prices to skyrocket. Inflation spun out of control as the Tsar's government took out massive loans to continue the war effort, and this caused widespread starvation throughout the land. The pangs were felt worst in St. Petersburg, the capital - renamed to Petrograd to make the city sound less German.

The nobility, convinced Rasputin had been the source of all their woes, murdered him in December but somehow this did not magically solve all of Russia's problems.

The people were obviously losing patience with the disastrous war and their incompetent government. The Russian Duma, the Empire's nearly powerless legislative body, warned the Tsar in November 1916 that without major constitutional reforms disaster would ensue. Tsar Nicholas ignored the Duma's warning, convinced that what was needed was to remind the people of their duties. With the food shortage at its peak, the workers of Petrograd began a series of strikes in February 1917 demanding bread. These strikes were suppressed, but only grew in intensity.

On March 7 (February 22 in the old Julian Calendar, still used in Russia at the time), a series of rallies were scheduled by Russian liberals and socialists on behalf of International Women's Day. This merged with a major strike at the Putilov Plant, Petrograd's largest factory. The women of the Women's March started breaking into factories across the city and pulling out workers to join the strike, which reached 50,000 by day's end.

Crowd on the Nevsky Prospekt, March 1917

March 7 was the beginning - and for this reason it would be termed the "February Revolution." It did not stop there. By March 10, every factory and store in Petrograd had ceased to function, with masses of workers now joined by students, clerks, and teachers. The Tsar tried to summon up troops to stop the rioters, but very few reliable troops were available. Most refused to assault the crowd since it included so many women, and Russian soldiers seemed to sympathize a bit too much with the protestors.

Russian troops of the Provisional Government, 1917

On March 11, the troops were finally sent in to quell the riots and disaster struck. The soldiers immediately mutinied, shot or chased off their officers, and joined the revolt. As the crowd rampaged into government buildings, tearing down Tsarist symbols, the Duma declared a Provisional Government in the Tsar's absence.

The Tsar had been at army headquarters near the frontlines, and quickly took a train back towards Petrograd. He was stopped by a group of revolutionaries and Army Generals, who browbeat him into signing his abdication on March 15. The Tsar and his family were soon taken into custody.

Illustration of the Tsar's Abdication

The Provisional Government, a center-left organization that espoused liberal reforms, made the decision early on to continue the war - a choice that would have disastrous consequences. The socialists of the Revolution had formed their own parallel structure to the Provisional Government, a workers' council and bureau known as a "Soviet". As the socialists installed these Soviets across the Empire, they increasingly challenged the authority of the Provisional Government. Their complex relationship deteriorated further in April 1917, when the truly pivotal change arrived.

Germany had watched the Russian Revolution with glee, hoping its old foe would collapse, and decided to fan the flames even further. Much like a form of ideological germ warfare, they plucked an exiled Russian socialist from his refuge in Switzerland, escorted him through their territory, and had him smuggled into Petrograd. This was Vladimir Lenin, and his arrival in the city that would bear his name marked a new tenor to the Russian Revolution.

Lenin's party, the Bolsheviks, set themselves up in opposition to the Provisional Government, which was soon plummeting in popularity thanks to the continuation of the war and its failure to fix the mess the Tsar had created. On November 7, 1917, Lenin and his Bolsheviks launched a violent coup that overthrew the Provisional Government.

The six years that followed were some of the most terrible in Russian history. In March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk took Russia out of World War I on humiliating terms, but freed Lenin to handle the opposition. The Russian royal family - Tsar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, and their children - were all murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. Residual monarchists, various patriotic and separatist movements, the remnants of the Provisional Government, and other breakaway groups coalesced into a faction determined to end the Marxist Revolution of Lenin and the Bolsheviks - they called themselves the "Whites." Lenin's "Reds" marched off to war.

The Russian Civil War would ruin the brief, fleeting hope that anything like democracy or freedom would come out of the Russian Revolution. Brutal repression, state murder, the Gulags, starvation, and general chaos would only end with Red victory in 1923, and a year later Lenin was dead. The Russians had been through hell, and now they were under the new leader of the Soviet Union - Joseph Stalin.

Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent change inevitable.

Book Recommendation: The best book I've read on the Russian Revolution (it's a long one, though) is Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (New York: Viking, 1997).

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