The year 1917 is remembered for two Russian revolutions – February and October. The February event was a true coup d’état, with the Tsar’s Duma government being replaced by a provisional government – a coalition of previously split factions of opposition. The October Revolution was the Bolsheviks’ definitive bid for power, and was followed by bitter and chaotic civil war.
|Most of the world lost 13 days in 1582. Some, |
including Russia declined the offer.
Last stooge of the Tsar and
(particularly) the Tsarina.
The Tsar’s final nominees for his Duma government proved no more acceptable to the opposition than their predecessors. Led by the unstable interior minister, Protopopov, the government suspended the Duma through January, and forbade the annual congress of the towns and 'zemstvos' delegates (the primitive local government structures throughout most of Russia). They diverted imports of British and American arms arriving at the northern ports to the rooftops and key positions in Petrograd as the rumbling of discontent in the capital grew louder.
In mid February an Allied delegation was visiting the city, including Lloyd George’s Minister, Lord Milner, and the French General Castelnau. The more moderate opposition leaders, including Miliukov appealed for calm, but Milner reported back that Revolution was inevitable though not, perhaps, immediately. The final straw broke the long-suffering Petrograd citizens backs when the bread rations failed.
Revolution day by day.
Thursday 8th March (23rd Feb Julian calendar). With fine weather and a clear blue sky overhead, the Duma was half-heartedly debating food shortages. News came that bakery shops had been looted in the poorer quarters, and that women and students were marching in protest in the government quarter.
Friday 9th March (24th Feb. JC). As the Duma convened with greater urgency, there were many more people on the streets, amongst a heavy presence of police and soldiers. While the people distrusted the police (and hated the secret police), they bantered good naturedly with the soldiers, who assured them they would not shoot at them, and they were just as hungry.
|Good humour and non violence gave way to |
stridency and tension.
Saturday 10th March (25th Feb. JC). Workers went on strike, swelling the numbers and disruption on the streets. Increasingly strident calls for the government to go replaced the banter about food shortages.
Sunday 11th March (26th Feb. JC). The government finally reacted- unhelpfully – by posting widespread proclamations that police would disperse all crowds forcibly. Shots were fired, and up to 200 civilians were killed. One of the regiments of the Imperial Guard mutinied. Word was sent to the Tsar at the front that ‘anarchy reigns’ in the streets and that he must act urgently. His response was to order suspension of the Duma, and that he would send forces to re-establish order. But the Duma refused to be suspended, instead electing a provisional executive committee, hailed as the sole constitutional authority of Russia.
Monday 12th March (27th Feb.JC). This was the day the Revolution finally exploded. The soldiers of the main Petrograd garrison, now numbering over 150,000 men refused their orders to move into the centre. There, the Household Troops elite group, the Preobrojenski Guards refused to fire on the protesters, instead shooting their officers. When reinforcements were sent in, they too mutinied. By 11am the Law Courts were on fire, and by early afternoon public buildings were occupied and prisoners en masse – many of them political – were being released from prisons. Documents from the offices of the secret police were burnt in the streets. Later that afternoon, the Duma elected twelve men to serve as the Provisional Government (PG) of Russia.
Tuesday 13th March (28th Feb.JC). The takeover had happened. Any of the Tsar’s forces reaching Petrograd promptly joined the people. However, a coup d’état in the capital meant little at this stage to the rest of Russia. News travelled slowly across the vast and disparate empire, and the Tsar was still officially in command of the army. Later that day a boost came with support in Moscow being indicated by cable messages.
Wednesday 14th March (1st March JC). With the coup d’état a fait accomplit in Petrograd (sic), The PG set about analysing its priorities - top of the list being the Tsar, still officially the monarch. However, an interesting and growing dynamic was the PG’s relationship with the masses on the street. As more and more soldiers joined the factory workers, the Council of Labour rapidly swelled to become the Council of Worker’s and Soldiers’ Delegates – or Soviet.
Thursday 15th March (2nd March JC). The Tsar had returned to his front HQ at Pskov (Oblast), having been barred by armed resistance en route to Petrograd. At 2am, in the presence of his senior generals, Russki and Brusilov, he resolved to abdicate. A phone call to the Duma confirmed that the PG would accept nothing less. Initially he was advised to abdicate in favour of his son, but he refused, and signed the statement in favour of his brother Grand Duke Michael. Miliukov announced the decision to the Duma that morning.
The PG was in favour of a
constitutional monarchy and minded to accept the offer, but when the news hit
the streets the Soviet exploded in protest, demanding a republic. For some
hours the fragile pact between the Duma and the Soviet was at risk. The PG of
12 members was without a natural leader, but the emerging favourite was the
Siberian Lawyer, Alexander Kerensky. A staunch republican, he bravely entered
the lion’s den of the Petrograd Soviet and debated passionately for a period of
organisation and stability to enable the Revolution to succeed. He won the day,
and the support of the Soviet, albeit at the cost of the Grand Duke’s regency.
Later that night, a deputation (including Kerensky) delivered the news to the
Grand Duke, urging him to renounce the Regency, and pass all constitutional
power to the PG. He did so, and with that pen stroke the Romanov dynasty passed
|Grand Duke Michael.|
Regent Monarch for
but a few hours.
In one breathless week, a coup d’état had moved Russia from Empire to Republic. Given the size and influence of Russia, this revolution had been relatively bloodless. But, of course, severe haemorrhages were still to come. By late March, Kerensky was emerging as leader of the coalition PG, but he had to manage the Soviets - now springing up all over Russia – with their bewildering array of factions. Mensheviks; Bolsheviks; Social Revolutionary Party (of left, right or central persuasion offshoots) jostled with others in a furious revolutionary discourse. The peoples of the Russian Empire were only 44% ethnic Russians – the remainder comprising nearly 150 ethnicities incorporating nationalist views at all levels of maturity.A successful coup, but there would be another revolution in 1917, and years of civil war and repression to follow.