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Lecture 5

The Russian Revolution, February - October 1917 (1)

N.B. Lectures 5 and 6 serve as a narrative history of the Russian Revolution and are not replacements for a more in-depth treatment of such an important event. For more information, please make sure you take a look at my RUSSIAN REVOLUTION page of resources.

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On Monday December 19, 1916 the corpse of Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was found and people knelt in the snow outside the Moika Palace to give their thanks to God and to Felix Yusupov, the man responsible for Rasputin's demise. On Tuesday, the Empress prayed over the corpse, smothering it with flowers and ikons. On Thursday night, Rasputin's body was buried in a plot of ground on the edge of the park at Tsarskoe Selo. His murderers could not be executed -- they were too popular. Not only that, Yusupov was married to the Tsar's niece, Irena. Instead, Yusupov was sent into temporary exile to his family estates to the south.

In August 1915, one year after the start of the Great War, Tsar Nicholas II had taken over Supreme Command of the Russian Army at the Stavka (HQ) at Mogilev. It was here that he first learned of Rasputin's murder. That day he walked his collies and watched a Path� serial called, The Streets of New York. He was too weak to survive, they said in Petrograd, power "hung over him like a shroud." His days in power were clearly numbered. Most venom was reserved for the tsarina. The crowds called her, "the German woman." Her dull and melancholy evenings were passed listening to chamber music and gazing into the fire. Each day, sometimes several times, she poured out her simple-minded political philosophy in letters to her husband at the Stavka. The Russians loved "to feel the whip," she wrote to Nicky. "It's their nature -- tender love and then the iron hand to punish and guide them."

February 1917 began bitterly cold. The streets of Petrograd were filled with ice. Food lines lengthened. "Never before has there been so much swearing, argument and scandal," wrote one Okhrana agent. There were 170,000 troops in the city, double the peacetime garrison, but the secret police thought them to be "raw, untrained material, unfit to put down civil disorders." The best troops, of course, were at the front. On February 14th, police agents reported that army officers had, for the first time, mingled with the crowds demonstrating against the war and the government on Nevsky Prospekt. "Behind the white columns of the hall grinned Hopelessness," a conservative said of the mood at the Duma debates. "And she whispered: ‘Why? What for? What difference does it make?'"

Food hoarding was common. Wood for heating was beyond the means of the poor and the temperature in middle class flats was kept just above freezing. Grain trains on their way to the capital were blocked by heavy snowfalls. International Woman's Day was held on Thursday, February 23rd. This gave an excuse for women from textile plants to stream into the streets shouting, "Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!" They pelted the windows of the engineering shops to bring the men out. Nikolai Sukhanov, the crotchety radical civil servant who was to become the Revolution's diarist and victim, thought the disorders unremarkable. He had seen them before. But what he now noticed was the strange attitude of the authorities. The crowds felt it too. They began overturning tramcars and sacked a large bakery. The "Pharaohs," slang for the police, stood by and did nothing. Okhrana agents noticed that skilled workers now joined the strikers. The agitators working the crowds no longer bothered to pull their overcoats over their heads in order to hide their faces. The troops hesitated when they were told to disperse the crowds. A Cossack officer shouted at some strikers led by an old woman, "Who are you following? You are being led by an old crone." The woman replied, "No old crone, but a sister and wife of soldiers at the front." Someone yelled, "Cossacks, you are our brothers, you can't shoot us." The Cossacks, great symbol of Russian ferocity and terror, turned away.

The tsarina thought there was no more to the events in Petrograd than children running about for excitement. "If the weather was cold," she wrote Nicky, "they probably would have stayed at home." She also wrote that she hoped that a young socialist lawyer by the name of Alexander Kerensky would be hanged. In a recent Duma debate, Kerensky had called for someone to do to the Tsar what Brutus had done to Caesar. In fashionable circles, the main talk was of the party Princess Radziwill was throwing the following Sunday. Quite a few people had simply missed the boat! As luck would have it, the weather stayed warm on Friday. Demonstrators were out again in force. It seemed that all of the city's 2.5 million residents were in the streets. Something was odd in the behavior of the Cossacks. The crowds had begun to cheer their customary tormentors. A Cossack unit was ordered to charge. The horsemen rode delicately in single file through the crowd. "Some of them smiled and one actually winked," wrote one observer.

Killing started on Saturday, February 25th. The demonstrators were back. All factories had closed. The police opened fire on a mob that was beating a police officer with an iron tramcar lever, and fired a volley into the crowd near the Nikolaevsky train station and the demonstrators fled. A cavalry squadron shot down nine people on the Nevsky. But slowly the people began to command, forcing officers to abandon their carriages and rescuing those who had been taken by the police. The police were melting away, fearing for their lives. Politics played little part here. There were no leaders. "What do they want?" asked one bystander. "They want bread, peace with the Germans and freedom for the Yids," his companion replied.

Sunday began with a deceptive calm. The churches of Petrograd were full. The weather was warm and sunny and the scene so apparently uneventful that the tsar received a telegram that announced, "the city is quiet." So it was -- but not for long. A crowd started for the Nevsky, crossing the frozen river to avoid the police on the river bridges. They ran into an infantry unit near the Mioka canal at one o'clock. The troops knelt and fired two volleys into the crowd. Meanwhile, general fighting broke out in the Nevsky area. Students wearing Red Cross arm bands gave first aid to the wounded. At a nearby school for young ladies of the nobility, the girls heard a mistress use an unfamiliar and thrilling word: "Revolt!"

As the crowds were cut down, the tsarina was visiting the grave of Rasputin. "It seems to me that it will all be all right," she wrote to Nicky . "The sun shines so clearly and I felt such peace and quiet at His dear grave. He died in order to save us." An Okhrana agent was less certain. The game depended entirely upon the army, he reported. "If the troops turn against the government, then nothing can save the country." Meanwhile, Princess Radziwell's party was in full swing. The regime still had a few hours left.

The president of the Duma, Rodzyanko, became more and more alarmed over the course of Sunday afternoon. Those soldiers garrisoned in the city would not shoot at the mob -- in fact, many of them had gone over! If only they had used fire hoses instead of bullets. Rodzyanko then sent a telegraph to the tsar -- copies were also sent to the high commanders asking that they support his views. The meaning of the telegram was quite clear:

Situation serious. Anarchy in the capital. Government paralyzed. Transport of food and fuel in full disorder. Popular discontent growing. Disorderly firing in the streets. Some military units fire on one another, Essential immediately to order persons having the confidence of the country to form new government. Delay impossible. Any delay deadly. I pray to God that in this hour the blame does not fall on the crown.

After regular 5 PM tea at Mogilev, Nicholas invited a few commanders to read the telegram. How would the tsar respond? Nicholas suggested that since the Duma was to be prorogued (closed down) that evening, then nothing should be done and no answer was necessary. This caused some concern at the Stavka, but mostly among junior officers. One officer wrote in his diary: "why can't the tsar understand that he must show his will and his power?" Meanwhile, Nicholas wrote the tsarina about the pains he had suffered in his chest while at church that morning. At 9:20 PM he sent a final telegram to his wife saying that he would leave for Tsarskoe Selo on Tuesday. Then he read a bit and played dominoes.

The Volynsky guardsman who had shot down demonstrators held a meeting on Sunday night. They decided that they would not act as executioners but would join with the people. At seven o'clock on Monday morning, cartridges were issued and the unit formed up on parade in battle order. The Captain arrived with his orders. He was met with mutiny. "We won't kill anymore. Enough blood." From a barracks window a shot rang out and the Captain was dead.

The Volynsky mutineers ran into a nearby engineering barracks shouting, "Comrades, get your rifles!" The locked doors of the storeroom were broken down and the quartermaster was shot dead. The engineers joined the uprising marching into the streets where their band played to cheering crowds. The gates of the main arsenal were battered in and the depot commander killed. Thousands of revolvers were handed out to the crowds. Teenagers swirled out of side streets, shouting and firing their weapons at the pigeons on the streetcar wires.

The city governor demanded a plan from the police chief. The existing security plan divided the city into sectors, each under the control of a unit that was now mutinying. News came in that a squadron of armored cars were rumbling down the Nevsky with red flags flying from them. Civilians began to urge regiments to come out. "Comrade soldiers," they shouted to a battalion of the Moscow regiment, "Come out: join the people!" The crowd broke down the picket fence and surged on the troops. The commander ordered his men to fire volleys and drew his own revolver. He was beaten to death. The troops began to shoot at their own barracks while the crowd broke into the armory and helped themselves to rifles and ammunition. The Kresty prison was taken and its 2400 prisoners were freed. Policemen, identified by their long coats and gray fur hats, were lynched in the streets. Station houses were set on fire. Other potential targets of the mob fled.

Alexander Kerensky was woken by his wife Olga at eight in the morning on Monday, February 27th. Kerensky was thirty-six, a Duma deputy who had found his moment. Born in Simbursk, he had become involved in radical politics at St.Petersburg in his teens, but had no time for fashionable terrorism or Marxism for that matter. He was, as one observer wrote, "unquestionably humanitarian and utterly Russian in every respect." On graduation, he started a legal aid office in the city, advising workers on their rights and representing them without fees. In 1904, he married Baranovskaya, the daughter of an army officer. During the 1905 revolution, he founded a socialist newspaper and served four months in the Kresty prison after a friend's revolver was found in his apartment. Kerensky was thrilled with his luck. "I was now," he wrote, "'one of us' in radical and socialist circles."

In 1912, troops shot dead 170 striking miners in the Lena goldfields in Siberia. The massacre caused deep resentment throughout Russia and Kerensky made a national reputation when he was appointed to the inquiry commission. He was elected to the Duma a few months later. Most Duma members thought him weak because he speeches were emotional. Almost alone, he denounced anti-Semitic atrocities. The war was a catastrophe for the Jews. Not a day passed without Jews being hanged on false charges of spying yet more than 250,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the ranks of the Russian army. Kerensky went in person to Kuzhi, a small town near the front in Kovno where Jews were being lynched for supposedly hiding Germans in their cellars. He examined the cellars and proved the charges false.

His Okhrana nickname was "Speedy" and on the 27th he hurried through the mutinous city of Petrograd to the right wing of the Tauride Palace where the Duma met. At one o'clock, a flood of soldiers and workers, scraps of red on their coats, arrived at the palace. Kerensky greeted them. "He is their vozhd, their leader," one onlooker whispered. By mid-afternoon, two provisional committees were set up in separate wings of the palace. One was dominated by moderate bourgeois members of the Duma and would later become the Provisional Government. The other was the first Petrograd Soviet to meet since 1905. The Soviet elected a permanent executive committee drawn from all socialist groups. The Bolsheviks had two members out of the fourteen. It decided to publish its own daily newspaper to be called Izvestia.

At eight o'clock on Monday evening Nicholas was cabled a warning that only a handful of his troops remained loyal. A state of siege was proclaimed. Any form of counterforce simply melted away. But the mutineers also felt their position desperate. They feared that loyal troops would be sent from the front to crush them. The defenders of the Tauride Palace, the center of the revolution, had no weapons heavier than four non-working machineguns. A volunteer sent out to buy lubricants for them returned empty-handed. But mutineers slipped into the deserted Maryinsky Palace. Grand Duke Mikhail demanded that loyal troops still holding the Winter Palace be withdrawn. He did not want the people to be fired upon from the House of the Romanovs. There should be no repetition of 1905, he remarked. Exhausted politicians, wrapped in their coats, slept in the armchairs and benches of the Tauride. Kerensky was there too. Meanwhile, a pair of soldiers cut Repin's famous portrait of Nicholas from its frame with their bayonets. Mutiny had won.

The mutineers had the run of the city on Tuesday. Trucks with rifles and bayonets drove through the streets while looters broke into the palaces. The French ambassador mused that the era stretching back to Catherine the Great had come to an end. He was right. Nicholas spent the day on the imperial train on his way to join his wife at the Alexander Palace. Shortly after midnight, the train was flung into reverse 90 miles short of Petrograd because the next station was in rebel hands. In the early hours of March 1, after 303 years, a Romanov was fleeing from his people. The train stopped at Pskov station. Here, in the drawing room car, March 2, 1917, Nicholas signed the act of ABDICATION.

The official death toll was 1224 -- the equivalent of a few hours' casualties in the war. The Americans hailed the event as a "fitting and glorious successor" to their own revolution. US ambassador David Francis said that it was the realization of the American dream. But there were two governments in Petrograd. The Provisional Government, dominated by middle-class members of the Duma and the Soviet of workers' and soldiers' deputies. The two governments represented different classes and sharply different political platforms. The Soviet wanted an eight hour day, land grants to the peasants, an army with voluntary discipline and elected officers, and an end to the war. The Provisional Government, on the other hand, wished to continue the war and to keep social change at a minimum. Georgy Lvov, a prince and a landowner, became the first Prime Minister of revolutionary Russia.

More biographical details about Lenin are available hereLenin was in Zurich at the time of the revolution. When the first reports came in from Petrograd, he was astonished. Stuck in a miserable apartment whose windows could only be opened when the nearby sausage factory closed for the night, Lenin had recently told a meeting of socialists that he did not expect a revolution in his lifetime. "The tsarist monarchy has been smashed, but not finally destroyed," Lenin wrote in his first Letters from Afar (March 7, 1917).

The Soviet of Workers' Deputies is an organization of the workers, the embryo of a workers' government, the representative of the interests of the entire mass of the poor section of the population, i.e., of nine-tenths of the population, which is striving for peace, bread and freedom.

The conflict of these three forces determines the situation that has now arisen, a situation that is transitional from the first stage of the revolution to the second.

Of more importance perhaps, was the fact that his Bolsheviks had played little part in the activities in Petrograd those final days of February 1917. The Bolshevik Party was at this time, marginal. It was riddled with informers and Lenin spent the majority of his time engaged in internal disputes with other socialists. However, Lenin held out great potential for the Germans. He was opposed to the war, an "imperialist and capitalist war." If he returned to Petrograd now he was sure to undermine the Russian war effort. And he wanted to return to Russia. He had to return to Russia. But how? The Swedes would not help return him but the Germans offered a sealed railway car which would take Lenin across enemy lines and back to Russia. "It was with a sense of awe," wrote Winston Churchill of Lenin's German support, "that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia." Lenin arrived at Petrograd's Finland Station late at night on April 3 and gave a speech before he had even left the platform. In three sentences, Lenin outlined the Bolshevik program and his contempt for the Provisional Government: "The people need peace. The people need bread and land. And they give you war, hunger, no food, and the land remains with the landowners."

In May Leon Trotsky returned. Sentenced to life in Siberia for his part in the 1905 Revolution, he had fled across the Arctic taiga in a reindeer sled, guided by a local so drunk that Trotsky had to kick him and take off his fur hat to keep him awake. After a week he found himself safely at a railroad station and was soon in Paris. He was deported during the Great War to Spain and then went to New York a few days after Rasputin's murder. News of the February Revolution came to him in the $18 a month flat he furnished on the installment plan on 164th Street in the Bronx. He left New York with regret, a city he called "the fullest expression of our modern age."

The war continued. "A great pump which sucks out the strength of the country," wrote one observer. Kerensky became War Minister in early May. He was idolized at mass meetings for the war effort. It is said that women flew into fits of hysteria and threw their jewelry at his feet. Bruce Lockhart, a British diplomat and secret agent thought Kerensky the most powerful speaker he ever was to hear -- more powerful than even Adolf Hitler. By the end of June, Kerensky's summer offensive was a disaster. Regiments dissolved as thousands of deserters streamed away from the front, killing any officer who tried to stop them. Behind the front, the few civilians left were filled with fear and the women snatched their skirts and fled when they saw soldiers. Further back, trains were so overloaded with deserters that car axles caught fire from the weight.

The fiasco at the front hurried the Bolsheviks into a premature uprising -- The July Days. The men of a machinegun regiment infiltrated by Bolshevik agitators marched through the capital, urging the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the hanging of Kerensky. A mob joined them. Bourgeois Petrograd hid in terror. Regiments loyal to the government were drafted into the city and the attempt to force an issue failed. Details of German payments to the Bolsheviks were leaked to the press. Lenin was an agent of Berlin! Lenin fled, hiding in a haymakers' hut before crossing the border into Finland. Trotsky was arrested. His new home was the Kresty prison.

On July 21, Lvov resigned and Kerensky formed a new government which busied itself with foreign relations and constitutional reform. Meanwhile, Russia disintegrated. Food was scarce and money flooded off the presses. 476 million rubles were printed in April, one billion in July. Inflation reached 1000 per cent. Government printing plants could no longer cut the sheets of currency so the sheets were issued to the public who had to cut the notes with scissors. In the factories, the men "come to work drunk, speak at meetings drunk….They drink methylated spirits, varnish and all kinds of other substitutes." In Tambov province, peasants ran Prince Boris Vyazemsky off his estate and looted his house. At the railroad station, deserters discovered him. They ran him through with their bayonets and clubbed him with iron bars. Then they cut off his head.

"Power," one observer wrote, "was hanging in the air." Kerensky was a man of authority. He thrived on it. He used the imperial train, he lived in the imperial suite in the Winter Palace, he slept with his mistress in Alexander III's bed. His commander-in-chief, the wiry Cossack, General Lavr Kornilov, mounted a confused rightest coup in early September against the government, with a division of mountain troops. It did not reach Petrograd: the rail line was cut and agitators worked on the men as they milled about the track. The "counter-revolution" collapsed. Kornilov was placed under house arrest while the general who had led the attack on Kornilov's orders shot himself.

The Bolsheviks were rehabilitated by the blundering Cossack reactionary and Kerensky found himself isolated. Officers, tainted with Kornilov's counter-revolution, lost all control of their men. Louise Bryant, a young American correspondent and later the lover of John Reed, arrived at the docks of the Vyborg to watch soldiers on the adjacent platform shouting: "The officers! The bright, pretty officers! They threw them in the canal," she filed to The Philadelphia Public Ledger. "They have just finished it now. They have killed fifty and I heard them screaming." In the rear, two young officers disguised as soldiers were flung from a train into a gorge, "falling like dolls," Bryant wrote. At the front, troops fraternized with the Germans, who gave them tobacco and wine. Russia was breaking up. Nationalist movements rolled through the Ukraine, Finland and the Baltic States. Cossacks, Bashkirs, Siberians, Buryats declared themselves independent. Racial hatred boiled over. Jews were particular targets. "The pogrom movement is rising," the Russkiye Vedomosti correspondent in Bessarabia reported. "Talk is heard of shifting all the blame on the Jews."

Kerensky took brandy and morphine. "He really is hysterical," his secretary told Louise Bryant. "He weeps and is so dreadfully alone. I mean, he cannot depend on anyone." There had still been no elections for the Constituent Assembly, the parliament promised since March. Committees had examined the American, Belgian and Swiss constitutions in their search for perfection. They discussed the merits of proportional representation and an upper house -- "All Russia, it seemed, was just talking and talking." Leon Trotsky, "a son of a bitch but the greatest Jew since Jesus," in the eyes of an American Red Cross representative, was a doer, not a talker. And he had just been released from prison. The stage was now nearly set for the greatest drama and the greatest dream of the twentieth century -- the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

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