8 March 1917 saw the February Revolution on the streets of Russia’s then capital, St Petersburg. Rupert Colley summarizes the events leading up to the revolution, the revolution itself and the abdication of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II.
(Up until January 1918, Russia used the ‘Old Styled’ Julian Calendar that was 13 days behind our Gregorian calendar, hence the revolution of 8 March is referred to as the ‘February Revolution’.)
Twelve years earlier, the Russian Revolution of 1905, triggered by the events of Bloody Sunday in St Petersburg, heralded the beginning of the end for the Russian tsar, Nicholas II. Strikes and insurrection crippled the country eventually forcing Nicholas to introduce his ‘October Manifesto’: ‘The disturbances and unrest in St Petersburg, Moscow and in many other parts of our Empire have filled our heart with great and profound sorrow… Fundamental civil freedoms will be granted to the population, including real personal inviolability, freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association.’
It was, in effect, an end of the tsar’s autocracy and the beginning of a constitutional monarchy. Its promise of civil liberties (freedom of speech, press and assembly), a broad franchise, and a legislative and elected body (the Duma, the national parliament) was, in itself, revolutionary.
But, unable to diminish his autocratic rule, Nicholas soon clipped the wings of this new parliament, dissolving it a number of times and reducing its authority.
Since the revolution of 1905 and particularly the events of Bloody Sunday, Nicholas II had become a reviled figure, overly influenced, it seemed, by his wife, the Empress Alexandra. The Russian people never took to the Empress, granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria. They found her aloof and, as a German, doubted her loyalty and resented her relationship with her soothsayer mystic, Grigory Rasputin.
With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Russia’s economy buckled – wages doubled but prices trebled; inflation soared, taxes rose, workers went hungry. Strikes ravaged the country, each one swiftly dealt with by the tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana. In the countryside, peasants suffered as their means of work were swiped from under their feet – their horses requisitioned for war and their sons conscripted – many were never to come back. The Duma proposed political reform and the formation of a government that would ‘enjoy public confidence’ but the tsar, again protective of his autocracy, blocked such proposals, and sacked all those who had instigated it.
The soldier on the front found himself insufficiently equipped, undertrained and poorly led to face the efficiency of the Germans. Desertion was rife.
On 7 March 1917 (22 February, Old Style), workers at the massive Putilov industrial plant in Petrograd came out on strike. (The tsar had changed the name of St Petersburg to the less Germanic-sounding Petrograd in August 1914). The following day, 8 March, International Women’s Day, the women of the city, queuing in endless food queues, began to demonstrate. The word spread rapidly and within a day the whole city had been brought to a standstill by strike. Spontaneous and leaderless, the revolution had started. Crowds gathered bearing banners that read, ‘Down with the tsar! Down with the war! Down with the German woman!’
Cossacks sent to quell the revolt, if necessary by force, merely sympathised. 500 miles away in the Belarus town of Moghilev the tsar, refusing to leave the front and underestimating the extent or seriousness of the unrest, ordered in the troops. The Petrograd garrison however refused to open fire against the demonstrators, especially when so many were women, electing instead to join their ranks. It was whole-scale mutiny against the tsar. Workers established workers’ councils, or ‘soviets’, determined to bring an end to the tsar’s autocracy.
Other towns followed the capital’s lead; army units mutinied, workers downed tools; chaos ruled; the tsar’s grip on power seemed increasingly tenuous by the day. The Duma urged him to face the situation and respond to the demonstrators’ demands; even his younger brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, warned him of the folly of inaction. Nicholas responded by warning that if the Duma insisted on continuing these ‘quarrelsome debates’, he would dissolve the Duma.
On 11 March, the Chairman of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, sent the tsar a desperate telegram, ‘The situation is serious. Measures must be taken at once; tomorrow will be too late. The capital is in a state of anarchy; troops of the Petrograd garrison cannot be relied upon. The Government is powerless to stop the disorder… General discontent is growing… Your majesty, do not delay. Any procrastination is tantamount to death.’ Nicholas’ wrote in his diary, ‘this fat Rodzianko has written me lots of nonsense, to which I shall not even deign to reply’. (Rodzianko was large, once introducing himself to the tsar’s son, the tsarevich Alexei, as the ‘fattest man in all Russia’.) Nicholas did, however, do as he warned – on 12 March, he dissolved the Duma.
Abdication of the tsar
On 11 March, with the situation getting increasingly tense, liberal members of the now former Duma sided with the Petrograd soviet and formed a provisional government. Its first task was to demand the abdication of the tsar.
Finally, on 15 March 1917, the tsar was on his way back to the capital, but his train had been held up at the town of Pskov. His situation was hopeless – he had lost the support of the people and the loyalty of his military. Representatives of the army and the new government came to meet him. ‘Do not sign any paper or constitution,’ advised his wife, ‘or any other such horror’.
But realising he had no alternative, Nicholas II announced his abdication in favour of his sickly son, Alexei. But on advice of his doctors, the tsar nominated instead his brother, Michael. Michael however, resentful that he wasn’t asked, refused to accept the position but took it upon himself to sign the necessary proclamation transferring power to the will of the people and the Provisional Government. Thus, after 304 years, the Romanov dynasty had come to an abrupt end. Few mourned its passing.
Nicholas, his wife and family, and immediate members of his entourage were initially detained at Tsarskoye Selo, a town 15 miles south of Petrograd. They were soon transferred to Tobolsk in Western Siberia then, in April 1918, taken to Yekaterinburg in the Urals. It was here, on the orders of the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin (pictured), during the night of 16/17 July 1918, the family was shot dead. (Nicholas’ brother, the Grand Duke Michael, was later arrested by the Bolsheviks, detained, then murdered on 13 July 1918).
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.