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The February Revolution

By early 1917, the existing order in Russia verged on collapse. The country's involvement in the Great War had already cost millions of lives and caused severe disruption in Russia's backward economy. In an effort to reverse the steadily worsening military situation, Emperor Nicholas II commanded Russian forces at the front, abandoning the conduct of government in Petrograd (St. Petersburg before 1914; Leningrad after 1924) to his unpopular wife and a series of incompetent ministers. As a consequence of these conditions, the morale of the people rapidly deteriorated.

Due to logistical issues, it was impossible to supply all the country with food and the government was focusing on the front – with cities behind the lines, including Petrograd (former St. Petersburg), facing a starvation crisis. “Industry was hopelessly incapable of solving the problem. The urban population suffered in the second half of the war,” historian Mikhail Florinsky wrote. Also, the royal family and Nicholas II were viewed as talentless and useless rulers unable to win the war or bring peace to the country. The people reached breaking point.

Winston Churchill wrote about Russia and Nicholas II: [Winston Churchill. The World Crisis 1916-1918. Vol.1 N.Y. 1927. (P.227-228)] “It is the shallow fashion of these times to dismiss the Tsarist regime as a purblind, corrupt, incompetent tyranny. But a survey of its thirty months' war with Germany and Austria should correct these loose impressions and expose the dominant facts. We may measure the strength of the Russian Empire by the battering it had endured, by the disasters it had survived, by the inexhaustible forces it had developed, and by the recovery it had made. In the governments of states, when great events are afoot, the leader of the nation, whoever he be, is held accountable for failure and vindicated by success. No matter who wrought the toil, who planned the struggle, to the supreme responsible authority belongs the blame or credit.

"Why should this stern test be denied to Nicholas II? He had made many mistakes, what ruler has not? He was neither a great captain nor a great prince. He was only a true, simple man of average ability, of merciful disposition, upheld in all his daily life by his faith in God. But the brunt of supreme decisions centred upon him. At the summit where all problems are reduced to Yea or Nay, where events transcend the faculties of man and where all is inscrutable, he had to give the answers. His was the function of the compass needle. War or no war? Advance or retreat? Right or left? Democratise or hold firm? Quit or persevere? These were the battlefields of Nicholas II. Why should he reap no honour from them? The devoted onset of the Russian armies which saved Paris in 1914; the mastered agony of the munitionless retreat; the slowly regathered forces; the victories of Brusilov; the Russian entry upon the campaign of 1917, unconquered, stronger than ever; has he no share in these? In spite of errors vast and terrible, the regime he personified, over which he presided, to which his personal character gave the vital spark, had at this moment won the war for Russia."

The February Revolution was the result of a conspiracy between the Progressive Bloc (an association of liberal and centrist factions in both houses of parliament: the State Duma and the State Soviet) and the Central Military-Industrial Committee. The reasoning of the conspirators is understandable: they had come to the conclusion that the tsar needed to be deposed as quickly as possible since this act would become unthinkable after — or even on the threshold of — a victory against the Germans.

There were great contradictions between Moscow (Old Believer, paternalistic in ideology) and Petersburg (pro-European, liberal) trade and industry groups. As shown in recent years by A.V.Pyzhikov, these contradictions (namely, Moscow merchants and industrialists from Old Believers) that played a significant role in all three Russian revolutions of 1905-1917 [Pyzhikov AV Peter-Moscow. The battle for Russia / A. V. Pyzhikov. – M .: Olma Media Group, 2014.].

Comparing Russia with other belligerent countries, historian S. V. Volkov wrote that the burden and trials on the Russian economy was lower than in other countries, both in the Allied camp and among its opponents; that there were no objective preconditions for the revolution, that Russia's military position on the eve of the revolution did not give cause for concern, and comparing the burden on the human resources of the countries participating in the First World War, he cited such figures [Volkov, S.V. "The Forgotten War", 2004.]: The share of the mobilized in Russia was the smallest, only 39% of all men aged 15-49, while in Germany 81%, Austria-Hungary 74%, France 79%, England 50% Italy – 72%. At the same time, for every thousand people mobilized in Russia, there were killed and dead 115, while Germany – 154, Austria – 122, France – 168, England – 125, etc.).

The hardships of the war in Russia were much less severe than in Austria-Hungary and Germany or France, and no more severe than in England. Nevertheless, unlike these countries, in Russia, almost from the very beginning of the war, a conspiracy against the supreme authority (against Nicholas II) was brewing, and by lat 1916 this plot had found a real plan.

The fateful day was 1 November 1916, when the Progressive Bloc broke the political moratorium by demanding that the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Boris Stürmer, retire on account of rumors that he intended to make a separate peace with Germany. “Stupidity or betrayal?” the preening leader of the Duma faction of cadets, Pavel Milyukov, repeated several times from the tribune. Nikolai II removed Stürmer but put off the question of a “responsible ministry” (i.e., a government responsible to the Duma). A vote of no confidence for the new head of the government, Alexander Trepov, was the signal to begin preparations to dethrone the Emperor. (The Duma was joined in their lack of confidence by the upper chamber, the State Council). Four months later this dethronement occurred, totally surprising Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

The spark to the events that ended tsarist rule was ignited on the streets of Petrograd in February 1917 (according to the old Julian calendar then in use in Russia). Provoked by shortages of food and fuel, crowds of hungry citizens and striking workers began spontaneous rioting and demonstrations on March 7 (February 23, according to the Julian calendar). Local reserve troops, called in to suppress the riots, refused to fire on the crowds, and some soldiers joined the workers and other rioters. On March 12, with tsarist authority in Petrograd rapidly disintegrating, two separate bodies emerged, each claiming to represent the Russian people.

One was the Executive Committee of the Duma, which the Duma had established in defiance of the tsar's orders of March 11. The other body was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, founded on the model of the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905. With the consent of the Petrograd Soviet, the Executive Committee of the Duma organized the Provisional Government on March 15.

Delegates of the new government met Nicholas that evening at Pskov, where rebellious railroad workers had stopped the imperial train as the tsar attempted to return to the capital. Advised by his generals that he lacked the support of the country, Nicholas informed the delegates that he was abdicating in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael. When Michael in turn refused the throne on March 16 (March 3), the rule of tsars and emperors in Russia came to an end.

The establishment of soviets of workmen in the factories adversely affected industrial administration, and was 1ikely responsible for a rapid fall of production in the manufacturing industries. The establisment of soviets among the troops, who were war weary and desired peace, contributed further to destroy the Russian Army as a fighting machine. Wholesale desertion began, and the army became a powerful factor in the process of disintegration throughout Russia after the February revolution in 1917.

The peasants from the moment of the revolution of February 1917 began to seize the estates of the landowners, and were encouraged in this course by the bolsheviks during the summer of 1917. The area of land under cultivation began to decrease as a result of the disturbed state of the countryside. The peasants ceased bringing their grain to the towns as a result of the fall in production and the great rise in the prices of manufactured goods. Such food as the peasants did bring to the towns was commandeered by the Government at fixed prices, but the price given was such that it did not enable them to purchase the articles of common necessity which they needed.

The disturbance of the balance of exchange between town and country was a general result of the events accompanying and following the February revolution.

In Soviet times, the thesis of an antirevolutionary “bourgeoisie” could not be put into doubt, and any attempt to do so was sharply cut off. According to the Soviet Historical Encyclopedia, “the motive forces of the February Revolution were the proletariat and peasantry, and the hegemon of the revolution was the working class… the workers brought masses of soldiers in their wake.” In the mid-1980s they at least started to discuss “bourgeois” and “Masonic” plots against the monarchy, but only to ridicule and repudiate them.

The proposition that the February Revolution was the product of Westernizing reformers fits perfectly with Putin's political narrative of a century later. The authoritarian Tsarist regime, aspects of which Putin has restored, is depicted as victorious on the battlefield, and is held blameless for the collapse of the regime. The authoritarian Soviet regime that followed is also off the hook, since the October Revolution was just trying to pick up the pieces of the mess of the February Revolution.

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Page last modified: 01-12-2018 17:37:40 ZULU