home | 1901-WW2 Index


previous | next

The Russian Revolution Begins

In December 1916 a few conservatives in Tsar Nicholas' court conspired to remove him from power. They were led by a General Kroymov, who was disgusted by mismanagement of the war effort. He and his co-conspirators were hoping not only to have the war effort better managed but also to prevent the uprising of common people that they had increasingly feared.

Also in Nicholas' court were people disgusted by the influence that the monk Rasputin was having over the tsarina, Alexandra. That December, two weeks before the New Year, a handful of aristocrats murdered him.

Members of Russia’s powerless House of Representatives, the Duma, were calling for the tsar's abdication and for a government that had “the people's confidence.”  The capital, Petrograd, was crowded with war refugees and workers who had migrated there to work in war industries. It was in the cities that people suffered most from food shortages, and the Petrograd police department was reporting that shortages might cause.

Labor unrest intensified in Petrograd at the beginning of the year, and General Kroymov concluded that it would be best to postpone his plan to overthrow the tsar. Petrograd's labor leaders had no serious plans to oppose tsarist rule. They were less accustomed to influence than were rebels at court such as General Kroymov.

Tsar Nicholas II

Nicholas II, Emperor or Russia, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland

In exile in Switzerland, Vladimir Lenin did favor overthrowing the tsar, but at the age of forty-six he believed that "old men" such as he might not live to see the great revolution to which he was devoting his life.

Petrograd's organized feminists had something other than overthrowing the tsar on their minds. On March 8 – International Woman's Day – they paraded with placards calling for equality and freedom. Labor leaders held back from supporting the women's march, but some striking male workers joined their demonstration. And they were joined by hungry women who had been turned away from bread lines empty handed. The march developed to a size that was a surprise to all who could see it. From the marchers came shouts of "give us bread." Some marchers smashed the windows of bakery shops they had come upon, and they stole bread.

The size of the demonstration on March 8th inspired a larger demonstration for the next day. On March 9 approximately 30 percent of the city's workers marched -- some of them on strike and some of them locked out of their work places. And the demonstrators were joined by university students. From the marchers came more shouts for bread. A few shouted against the autocracy and the war, and more bakeries were sacked. When the marchers reached the center of the city they came upon Cossack soldiers on horseback. These Cossacks were recruits unaccustomed to the crowd control that Cossack soldiers had often performed in the capital. The marchers saw that the Cossacks were without their whips and their usual hostility. The crowds cheered them, and the Cossacks returned their friendliness, which further encouraged the marchers.

Marchers in Petrograd

Sunday, March 11, two minutes before being fired upon by police. Photo of marchers in Petrograd two minutes before being fired upon

Women and soldiers, March 1917

March, 1917, women and soldiers, the sign announcing a Soldiers' and Workers' Soviet.

On March 10th, most of the city joined the demonstration. No trolleys, trains or taxis ran. No newspapers were distributed. Some people carried red banners and shouted "down with the war." Referring to Tsarina Alexandra there were shouts of "down with the German woman." And that night, mobs sacked and set fire to police stations.

At his headquarters at the front, Nicholas received news of demonstrations in the capital and believed it was of little consequence, and he sent an order forbidding any more demonstrations or assemblies. Early Sunday morning, March 11, huge posters were plastered around Petrograd announcing that all demonstrations and assemblies would be dispersed and all those who were not back at their jobs Monday would be conscripted into the military and sent to the front. And on Sunday morning, a number of military regiments in combat gear appeared in the city.

That Sunday, crowds filled the streets as they had the day before, and they tore down the government warnings. In the afternoon, a military unit – the Pavlovski Guard – fired into a group of demonstrators, killing forty or fifty and wounding others. Some soldiers who had been ordered to fire, fired into the air. Elsewhere more marchers were shot, but marchers continued to feel the power of their numbers. Where they were fired upon by police they chased the police away. The police in Petrograd numbered about 3,500 – too few for any hope of controlling the people in the streets.

On Monday morning, soldiers were ordered by their commanders against the demonstrators. These were draftees and reservists in their thirties or forties and unhappy about the indignities they were suffering in the military. Rather than follow orders to shoot at civilians, they began shooting their officers. Officers fled. About half of the soldiers joined the demonstrators, some of them in armored cars. The other half stood by passively, and soldiers with the marchers shouted "down with the war" and "down with the Romanovs."

Nicholas was told the extent of the disorders, and he ordered troops at the front sent to Petrograd. In the early morning on Tuesday, Nicholas and his entourage boarded his blue and gold railway car and headed for Petrograd, where he intended to set matters right. In Petrograd on Tuesday public buildings were set ablaze. Successful rebellion was inspiring more rebellion and disorder. At the Kronstadt naval base, just outside the city, sailors were killing their officers, and In Petrograd were wild celebrations and the sacking of mansions.

On Tuesday, members of the Duma formed a group called the Provisional Committee for governing the city. And elsewhere in the capital a citizen's Council was formed – the Russian word for council being soviet. Its deputies were chosen from the city's factory and rebel military units. Its full name was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. In addition to the deputies, anybody could come and join in the unending talk and debate – in the tradition of Russia's village assemblies.

At two in the morning, Wednesday, about a hundred miles short of the Petrograd, soldiers hostile to the tsar, with machine guns and artillery, halted his train. The tsar's train retreated and headed for a military base at Pskov, about 140 miles southwest of the capital, arriving there in the evening. The base commander boarded the train and told Nicholas that he had no army there that would support "His Royal Highness." Nicholas and his entourage were bewildered and remained on their train, not knowing what to do.

On Thursday, Soviet deputies sent to enlisted men in military units in Petrograd an order to take control of military equipment from their officers. Thursday night, representatives from the Petrograd Soviet and the Duma met, and it was agreed that there would be amnesty for all political prisoners and that preparations would be made for the creation of a Constituent Assembly to be elected by universal ballot. It was agreed that new elections would be held for local governments and that those military units having participated in the revolution could keep their weapons and not be sent to the front. Following this accord, the Duma's "Provisional Committee" was renamed the "Provisional Government." It was also agreed that all police departments would be disbanded. It was believed that the police would be replaced by armed citizens.

Nicholas was still in his railway car at Pskov and unable to find troops with which to maintain what was now a mere fantasy of power. Railwaymen were refusing to operate trains to carry military units to the capital. Nicholas spoke of passing the monarchy to his son. Then he changed his mind, deciding that he did not want his frail son exposed to more danger. In his diary he wrote that he was abdicating "for the sake of Russia, and to keep the armies in the field."

Nicholas offered his throne to the Grand Duke Michael, and at one in the morning on Friday, March 16, he began his journey by train back to his field headquarters. On the 17th, Grand Duke Michael rejected the offer unless it was given him by popular mandate. And with no such mandate in the offing the Russian monarchy – one thousand years old – came to an end.

Because of the snow, some rural areas would not hear news of the abdication for weeks, but in Russia's cities the news was accompanied by wild celebrations. People in these various cities created their own local Soviets, and in the days ahead people flocked to these Soviets seeking better working conditions, more pay, an eight-hour day and a union shop. The Soviet in some communities created an armed militia that policed the streets. Soviets spread through the military, with some enlisted men calling for electing their own officers.

When peasants in distant rural areas finally heard news of the tsar's abdication many believed they were free to confiscate land from the rich. And peasants in the army began deserting and rushing home to get in on the land grabbing.

France responded to its republican and revolutionary traditions and telegraphed Petrograd its fraternal greetings and congratulations. In Britain the tsar had been unpopular. For years, Britain's press had depicted the tsar as a tyrant and wielder of the knout (a Russian whip). Britain's prime minister, David Lloyd-George, cabled his congratulations to Russia's new Provisional Government.

At his field headquarters, Nicholas wrote a message of good-bye to his "dearly beloved" troops. In late March the Provisional Government had Nicholas arrested at his headquarters and put on a train that took him to his palace just outside Petrograd. There Nicholas and his family were under house arrest, but they were pleased to be united again and began living in the comfort that his private wealth and servants made possible.

Despite the comfort, Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, thought it best to go into exile, Nicholas hoping to be invited to England by his cousins – England's royal family. But the British monarchy was hesitant to associate itself with the unpopular and fallen tsar, and the invitation would never arrive. Another cousin, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm offered Nicholas and his family safe passage through Germany. But because of the war, Nicholas was upset with the Kaiser and refused the offer.


Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie, 2000

The Romanovs, by Virginia Cowles, 1971


Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.