Nicholas II’s demise began in February 1917, after two-and-a-half years of total war and more than two decades of dissatisfaction with tsarist rule. Like the unrest of 1905, the February Revolution began spontaneously, a popular revolt rather than an organised insurrection. At the heart of this unrest were shortages of food and fuel. Russian cities had begun to suffer food shortages just months after the outbreak of war. In April and May 1915, both Petrograd and Moscow were paralysed by so-called ‘food pogroms’, as women and workers rioted in protest against the unavailability of meat and bread. But these marches were a shadow of what was to come. By 1916 urban food shortages were even more critical. The war had increased demand but food production had fallen away significantly, prompting St Petersburg to authorise grain requisitioning in 31 different provinces. Some historical research suggests that Russian farmers were producing enough to feed the nation – but this food was just not reaching the cities.
These 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 but at the start of 1917 was receiving just one-sixth of this amount. Bread shortages, not unknown in Russian cities even at the best of times, became endemic. In February government ministers responded by rationing bread, which triggered an increase in unrest, protests and looting. By the end of the month, almost 200,000 people were on strike in the cities. All this should have caused great concern for the Tsarina who, with the Tsar away at the front, was effectively in control of the government. But she dismissed it as “a hooligan movement”, writing to her husband that “if the weather was cold they would probably stay at home”. It was to prove a fatal misjudgement.
“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
For a fortnight the tsar ignored panicked messages and reports, pleading for his return to Petrograd. Nicholas instead responded as he often had before: by ordering the Petrograd garrison into the streets to enforce order. Meanwhile, the Duma, which had been growing in confidence and anti-tsarist belligerence, began to insist on the replacement of government ministers. 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 considered to be 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 and charged them with formulating plans for a temporary national government. On the same day (February 28th) the city’s Soviet, which 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 given delegated authority from the Duma; the other with no official authority but backed by the disgruntled working masses.
Whatever the importance of the Duma and the Soviet, the critical group at this time was the Imperial Army. If the army decided to obey the tsar’s orders, the February Revolution would be crushed. Fearing an imminent slaughter in Petrograd, and perhaps an 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 since few soldiers in Petrograd intended to obey them. Garrison battalions sent to deal with protestors and rioters often did 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.
Finally succumbing to the realities of the situation, Nicholas II boarded a train back to St Petersburg – but his journey was soon stalled by breakdowns in railway infrastructure. The tsar’s train 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. The tsar, still clinging to the idea that his dynasty could be saved by force, asked for time to consult his generals. But the delegation had come armed: they showed Nicholas telegrams from his generals that urged him to resign the throne. Eventually, Nicholas relented and signed the instrument of abdication, surrendering the autocratic power to Michael, his brother. Michael, however, refused to accept the crown unless an elected constituent assembly offered it to him. The throne, therefore, became empty. With the stroke of a pen, Nicholas II signed away more than 300 years of Romanov autocracy.
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.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The February Revolution” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/february-revolution/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].