February Revolution

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

More than three centuries of Romanov dynastic rule came to an end in late February 1917 when striking workers and mutinous soldiers in Petrograd forced tsar Nicholas II to abdicate the throne. The Revolution began on February 23 (March 8 NS) when working-class women, observing the socialist holiday of International Women’s Day, took to the streets of the capital to protest against food shortages and high bread prices. This was not the first of such protests during the war, but over the next several days, encouraged by calls from activists in the revolutionary underground (including Bolsheviks), crowds of both men and women swelled and marched to the center of the city. There, units of the regular police as well as Cossacks and soldiers from the Volhynian regiment attempted to disperse them but with limited success. Indeed, by February 27, with Petrograd at a virtual standstill, key military units went over to the side of the crowds, seized arsenals of weapons, and on the following day placed the tsarist ministers under arrest. The tsar, who had taken personal command of the army, sought to return to Petrograd to restore the status quo ante, but was persuaded by his own generals and a delegation of politicians from the State Duma that only his abdication could achieve social peace.

On March 2 the provisional committee of the State Duma, consisting of leading moderate and liberal politicians, declared itself a Provisional Government. When the crowd outside the Tauride Palace taunted Pavel Miliukov, the leading politician of the Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) Party and the first Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Provisional Government, with cries of “Who elected you?” his response was “We were elected by the Russian Revolution.” But as suggested by its very name, the new government’s authority was limited, and from the outset it was acknowledged that only a popularly elected Constituent Assembly could decide the political structure of the country. Moreover, simultaneous with the government’s formation, the socialist parties (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries) called upon workers and soldiers to elect deputies to soviets. In Petrograd the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies formed an Executive Committee which met in almost continual session. Initially dominated by Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Executive Committee determined its main purpose to be the defense of “democracy” for which it extended support to the “bourgeois” Provisional Government on a conditional basis. Soviets soon emerged in other cities and eventually in rural areas as well.

The overthrow of tsarism was greeted with popular acclaim. The loss of effective state authority gave the public unprecedented freedom of assembly and expression and resulted in the establishment of new newspapers, political organizations, trade unions, and other institutions of civil society. These, the halcyon days of the revolution, lasted about a month. During this time, the Provisional Government, guided by the spirit of political liberalism, issued a stream of decrees covering education, labor relations, religious affairs, and other spheres of public life. With respect to food shortages, it felt compelled to establish a state grain monopoly to be administered by elaborate hierarchy of provisioning committees under a Ministry of Food Supply. However, on the main, “burning” questions of Russia’s continued participation in the war, and land reform, the government either confined itself to setting up committees to study the question or deferred any decision until the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. In retrospect, it is easy to see this relative inaction as having fatally undermined the Provisional Government.

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