The February Revolution

february revolution
A Soviet depiction of the tsar surrendering the crown – to workers and peasants.

The February Revolution was a largely spontaneous uprising that brought about the abdication of Nicholas II and the end of tsarism in Russia. It was largely caused by Russia’s involvement in World War I, which placed enormous strain on Russia’s economy, leading to significant shortages, while highlighting the gross incompetence of the tsarist regime.

Russia’s war-gutted economy

The February Revolution had several long-term and medium-term causes. At the heart of the popular unrest in February 1917, however, were shortages of food and fuel.

Many Russian cities had begun to suffer food and fuel shortages just months after the outbreak of war. In April and May 1915, Petrograd and Moscow were both paralysed by so-called ‘food pogroms’, where women and workers rioted in protest against the unavailability of meat and bread.

These marches were a shadow of what was to come. By 1916, urban food shortages were even more critical. The war increased demand but food production had fallen away significantly. This prompted St Petersburg to authorise grain requisitioning in 31 different provinces.

Some historical research suggests that Russian farmers were producing enough to feed the nation. This food was not reaching the cities, however, due to shortages and failures in Russia’s transportation networks.

Shortages in the cities

Food shortages became perilous during the winter of 1916-17. Severe weather cut railway connections between the frontline, the cities and rural areas, affecting the movement of resources and personnel.

This disruption was most keenly felt in the cities, where much-needed food supplies failed to arrive by rail. According to one source, Moscow required 120 freight cars of grain a day to feed itself. At the start of 1917, it was receiving just one-sixth of this amount.

Bread shortages, not unknown in Russian cities even in prosperous times, became endemic. In February, government ministers responded by rationing bread. This triggered an increase in unrest, protests and looting. By the end of the month, almost 200,000 people were on strike in the cities.

Alexandra’s misjudgement

All this should have caused great concern for Tsarina Alexandra, who with the Tsar away at the front, effectively held the reins of government. Alexandra did not perceive the dangers of public unrest, however, dismissing it as “a hooligan movement”. In letters to Nicholas, she told him that “if the weather was cold, they would probably stay at home”. It was to prove a fatal misjudgement.

For a fortnight, the tsar received panicked messages and reports pleading for his return to Petrograd. He ignored them initially then responded as he had before: by ordering the Petrograd garrison into the streets to enforce order. 

Meanwhile, the Duma, which had been growing in confidence and defiance, began to insist on the replacement of government ministers. Mikhail Rodzianko, the Duma president, telegrammed the tsar and informed him that:

“There is anarchy in the capital. The government is paralysed. It is necessary immediately to entrust a person who enjoys the confidence of the country with the formation of the government. Any delay is death”.

Annoyed by what he thought was Rodzianko’s overreaction, Nicholas made one last fatal mistake: he ordered the dissolution of the Duma. This time, however, the Duma refused. Not only did it continue meeting, it also formed a provisional committee of 12 men. This committee was asked to formulate plans for a temporary national government. 

The Petrograd Soviet re-forms

On the same day (February 28th), the city’s Soviet, which had first met amid the turmoil of 1905, decided to reform. Comprised mainly of Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Petrograd Soviet pledged to represent the interests of workers, soldiers and sailors.

Russia now had two new political entities: one unelected but with authority delegated by an elected Duma, the other with no authority but backed by the disgruntled working masses.

Whatever the significance of these groups, the army was even more important. If the Petrograd garrison had obeyed the Tsar’s orders, the February Revolution would likely have been crushed. 

Fearing an imminent slaughter in Petrograd and perhaps the outbreak of civil war, the Duma’s provisional committee asked military commanders not to carry out the Tsar’s orders. They need not have worried because few soldiers in Petrograd intended to obey them.

Garrison battalions sent to deal with protestors and rioters did little and often nothing. Some dismounted or broke ranks and joined the protestors they had been ordered to shoot. One platoon, issued with orders to fire on demonstrators, chose instead to shoot its commanding officer.

Confrontation in Pskov

february revolution
Nicholas II’s rule came to an end in a carriage of his royal train, stranded in Pskov.

Finally accepting the realities of the situation, Nicholas II boarded a train back to Petrograd. The Tsar’s carriage was delayed on a siding at Pskov, just across the Estonian border.

On March 2nd, Nicholas was met in his railway car by a delegation from the Duma which insisted on nothing less than his abdication. Nicholas, still clinging to the idea that his dynasty could be saved by force, responded by asking for time to consult his generals.

The delegation had come ready and armed for this eventuality. They showed Nicholas telegrams from his generals, some of which offered him no support, some of which urged him to resign the throne.

The tsar abdicates

With no other options, Nicholas relented and signed the instrument of abdication. Unwilling to burden his sick son with the monarchy, the tsar abdicated his autocratic power to his younger brother, Grand Duke Michael.

Michael, who understood the mood of the nation and the great peril facing Russia’s ruler, refused to accept the crown unless it was offered it to him by an elected constituent assembly.

With the stroke of a pen, Nicholas II had signed away more than 300 years of Romanov autocracy. As Nicholas returned to his family powerless, questions remained about who would rule Russia.

A historian’s view:
“Historians sometimes contrast the February Revolution’s ‘spontaneity’ – the idea that it arose from popular protests without direct political leadership – to the ‘conspiratorial’ October Revolution, which is often described as a coup d’etat. The idea that the February Revolution occurred spontaneously also contrasts sharply with the ‘party line’ in histories published in the Soviet Union, which held that the Bolshevik Party led the masses in the February Revolution. But neither the socialist parties in the new Petrograd Soviet, nor the liberals in the Duma’s provisional committee anticipated that the February 23rd strike would snowball into revolution.”
Michael C. Hickey

february 1917 revolution

1. The February Revolution began as a public strike about food and fuel shortages in the Russian capital Petrograd.

2. War and domestic mismanagement had caused the transport system to fail, reducing the movement of food especially.

3. In late February food protests in Petrograd became a popular revolution, prompting the Tsar to dissolve the Duma.

4. This order was ignored. The Duma instead formed a provisional committee to organise a temporary government.

5. When soldiers refused the Tsar’s orders to fire on civilians, and his generals refused to back him, he eventually agreed to abdicate. The document was signed in a stranded railway car in Pskov on March 2nd 1917.

Citation information
Title: “The February Revolution”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: July 30, 2019
Date accessed: February 28, 2023
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