A Guide to the February Revolution

One hundred years after Russia's February Revolution, we answer your questions about the historic rebellion.

Barricades on Liteyny Prospekt in St Petersburg, Russia, 1917. Creative Commons

One hundred years ago today working people in war-torn Russia rose up against the hated tsarist autocracy. In late February 1917, strikes and demonstrations escalated into an uprising that clashed with — and eventually won over — the regime’s armed forces. Paradoxically, though the insurrection was led by a broad front of workers and socialists, a small group of liberals ended up in power.

How did the upheaval unfold? What was the role of the different parties? And why did a new revolution happen in October? To celebrate the centennial anniversary of the February Revolution, we’ve put together an introductory guide to this watershed event.

What Caused the Revolution?

By 1917, the tsarist regime had managed to alienate itself from almost every major social group in the country. In many ways, the autocracy was lucky to have survived as long as it did.

Decades of capitalist modernization gave rise to forces that tsarism could not keep in check. First and foremost was the working class. Though wage earners were a minority, their concentration in the big cities and workplaces gave them a political weight far beyond their numbers. Deprived of basic rights and freedoms, and subjected to intense exploitation, workers across the empire turned to radical politics.

During the 1905 Revolution they came within inches of toppling tsarism — only through brutal governmental repression was the revolutionary wave beaten back. By 1914 the country was again on the verge of insurrection, but Russia’s entry into World War I on August 1 postponed a new revolutionary outbreak for a few more years.

By far the largest social class in Russia was the peasantry. Demanding “Land and Freedom,” they too rose up in 1905–7, seizing estates, expelling landlords, and creating autonomous rural republics. Political life in the countryside eventually quieted down. Yet peasant protest was again on the upswing by 1916. A police report from the era tells the story: “In the villages one sees revolutionary ferment, similar to that of 1906–7: everywhere political questions are discussed, resolutions are passed against landowners and merchants, cells of various organizations are being established.”

The liberal upper class had more of a love-hate relationship with the regime. On the one hand, it generally opposed the most brutal and backwards aspects of tsarism, and it hoped to transform Russia into a stable constitutional monarchy. On the other, fear of the growing labor movement tended to push the propertied classes back into the arms of the tsarist state.

Still, seeking to avoid another revolution, liberal politicians begged the regime to reform itself before it was too late. However, because Tsar Nicholas II refused to consent to their proposals — and since the monarchy was increasingly discredited by the debauchery of its mystic adviser Rasputin — even the ever-waffling liberals had become open critics by 1917.

Russia’s declaration of war in August 1914 had briefly boosted the government’s popular support, but this soon evaporated. Millions of soldiers, mostly peasant in origin, lost their lives on the battlefront. Economic crisis set in and strikes spread in the factories. In 1916, native peoples in tsarist Central Asia revolted against the Russian state and bread riots by working-class women erupted across the empire. On February 22, 1917, the day before the February Revolution began, a Petrograd police report took note of the explosive situation:

The masses of workers are extremely agitated by the shortage of food. Almost all the police officers hear every day complaints that they have not eaten bread for two, three days or more. Therefore it is easy to expect major street disturbances. The acuteness of the situation reached such a point that some who were fortunate enough to be able to buy two loaves of bread cross themselves and cry from joy.

How Did the Uprising Begin?

The revolution began in Petrograd on International Women’s Day, February 23. (The Julian calendar of tsarist Russia was thirteen days behind the modern one.) Women textile workers in the Vyborg district seized the initiative by refusing to work and took to the streets to demand bread. They called on the neighboring workplaces to join them in striking — and when words were not sufficient, they turned to hurling rocks and scrap iron. By the end of the day, tens of thousands had joined the strikes and demonstrations. Bread, peace, and the end of autocracy were the demands.

In his famous history of 1917, Leon Trotsky observed that popular participation was the motor that drove the revolution forward:

At those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. . . . The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

Strikes and demonstrations snowballed on February 24. By the next day, Petrograd was paralyzed by a general strike. One socialist recalled the mood: “The atmosphere was tense . . . There was comradely enthusiasm. We would live or die together in the struggle.” When workers converged on the Nevsky Prospect — the capital’s main street — they were immediately confronted with the state’s armed forces. A report by a tsarist secret police agent describes what happened next:

Since military units did not block the crowd and in some cases even took measures to paralyze the police, the masses grew confident they would not be punished. Now, after two days of parading the streets unhindered, with revolutionary elements raising the slogans “Down with the war!” and “Down with the government!” the people are encouraged to think that a revolution has begun, that success is on the masses’ side, that the authorities are powerless to suppress the movement because the military refused to support them.

Some in the imperial elite still hoped that the protests would simply die down. Empress Alexandra wrote to her husband Tsar Nicholas II:

The strikers and rioters in the city are now in a more defiant mood than ever. The disturbances are created by hoodlums. Youngsters and girls are running around shouting they have no bread; they do this just to create some excitement. If the weather were cold they would all probably be staying at home. But the thing will pass and quiet down.

Those in the regime with a firmer grasp of reality took a more proactive approach. Hoping to drown the revolution in blood, the authorities ordered troops to open fire on the protesters the next day.

What Role Did the Soldiers Play?

The first cracks in military discipline emerged on February 25. A Bolshevik participant described one particularly dramatic moment of fraternization:

The tips of the bayonets were touching the breasts of the first row of demonstrators. Behind could be heard the singing of revolutionary songs, in front there was confusion. Women, with tears in their eyes, were crying out to the soldiers, “Comrades, take away your bayonets, join us!” The soldiers were moved. They threw swift glances at their own comrades. The next moment one bayonet is slowly raised, is slowly lifted above the shoulders of the approaching demonstrators. There is thunderous applause.

But what would happen now that the troops had been ordered to fire into the crowds?

At first, it seemed as if the government’s plan to crush the revolution would succeed. When workers returned to the city center on February 26, most of the soldiers obeyed their officers’ commands to disperse the demonstrations with gunfire. By the end of the day, hundreds of protesters had been killed. Demoralized by the massacre, one socialist leader that evening concluded that “the revolution is petering out . . . no one can do anything to the government now that it has taken decisive action.”

Events on February 27 showed that this pessimism was unfounded. Rank-and-file soldiers, the vast majority of whom were of peasant origin, had reached their breaking point. Disgusted at the role they had been forced to play in the previous day’s killings — and fired up by their own longstanding grievances — soldiers in the Volynskii Regiment mutinied that morning. Refusing to fire on any more protesters, the soldiers instead shot their commanding officer. Like the female textile workers on the 23rd, Volynskii soldiers fanned out across the city to spread the mutiny to their peers. By the afternoon, the army in Petrograd had imploded. Insurgent workers and mutinous soldiers now controlled the streets.

Moderate liberal leader Mikhail Rodzianko telegraphed the tsar to describe the situation:

The government is powerless to stop the disorders. The troops of the garrison cannot be relied upon. The reserve battalions of the Guard regiments are in the grips of rebellion, their officers are being killed. Having joined the mobs and the revolt of the people, they are marching on the offices of the Ministry of the Interior and the Imperial Duma.

A telegram report from General Khabalov to General Ivanov painted a similar picture:

I: In what parts of the city is order preserved?

K: The whole city is in the hands of the revolutionists. The telephone is not working, there is no communication between different parts of the city.

I: What authorities are governing the different parts of the city?

K: I cannot answer this question.

I: Are all the ministries functioning properly?

K: The ministers have been arrested by the revolutionists.

I: What police forces are at your disposal at the present moment?

K: None whatever.

It should be pointed out that these events contradict the widespread misconception that February was a peaceful revolution or that tsarism simply “fell” due to lack of popular support. The state did not “collapse” — it was overthrown.

Was the Revolution Spontaneous?

Liberal writers have generally portrayed the February events as “leaderless” and “spontaneous.” This notion fits in well with the narrative that February was a legitimate popular revolution whereas October was a conspiratorial plot imposed by a ruthless Bolshevik minority. The New York Times, for instance, recently wrote that “the February Revolution was largely spontaneous and unorganized . . . with no clear leaders” — October, in contrast, was a “coup.”

The problem with this account is not only that it dismisses the democratic dynamics of the October Revolution. Nor is its flaw solely that no mass movements are ever truly leaderless — even when formal organizations are not involved, some individuals or groups always take the initiative. The issue goes deeper: contrary to the “spontaneity” narrative, socialist organizations and leaders did in fact play a critical role in shaping the February Revolution.

By early 1917, virtually everybody in Petrograd saw that a mass uprising was imminent. Socialists initiated strikes and deepened their organizing efforts inside the army, in the schools, and in the factories. Through countless leaflets and speeches they stepped up their calls for the tsar’s overthrow. On February 20, a government official lamented that “more and more the mood of the mass of workers is rising under the influence of uninterrupted and systematic revolutionary agitation.”

Historians have debated the extent to which socialist agitation to commemorate International Women’s Day was directly responsible for the outbreak of revolution on February 23. On that day, the inter-district Marxist group’s leaflet declared:

The government is guilty, it began this war and cannot end it. It is tearing the country apart, it is its fault that you are going hungry. The capitalists are guilty — it is being waged for their profit. . . . Enough! Down with the criminal government, and all its gang of plunderers and murderers. Long live peace. . . . Down with the autocracy! Long live the Provisional Revolutionary Government!

Though the evidence for the 23rd itself is inconclusive, socialist agitation indisputably paved the way for the insurrection — and, once it began, organized socialists played a determining role in its outcome. Over the following days, they led street demonstrations, sparked strikes, built banners, spoke in mass meetings, agitated inside the army, and coordinated armed actions. In the words of historian Michael Melancon:

Socialists had no specific plans in advance to launch revolutionary disturbances on February 23 and bring them to fruition on February 27. What they did have, as overwhelming evidence indicates, was an orientation to promote strikes and demonstrations and, if they showed promise, to prolong them and push them toward revolution. Direct and organized socialist involvement and intervention occurred at every single stage.

Socialist intervention was critical not only for the eventual victory of the February Revolution, but also for the particular shape of governmental authority that replaced tsarism. The course of events in Petrograd was in large part determined by conflicts between socialists over the fundamental strategic choice of 1917: whether to promote the “hegemony of the proletariat” or an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie.

What Did the Socialists Want?

In February — and throughout 1917 — the socialist movement was split between radicals and moderates. The left socialists included Bolsheviks, non-factional Marxists, left Socialist Revolutionaries, and left Mensheviks. Of these groups, the Bolsheviks were the largest and they would soon become the country’s leading radical force. Their message was simple: the only way to meet the needs of the people and lead the democratic revolution “to the end” was for workers, leading an alliance with the peasants, to seize power.

Rejecting calls for a bloc with liberals, Bolsheviks declared that a regime of workers and soldiers was needed to bring peace, bread, agrarian reform, the eight-hour day, and a democratically elected Constituent Assembly. By taking power, they argued, Russia’s workers would unleash a world socialist revolution. A February 27 Bolshevik proclamation gives a good sense of their stance:

The immediate urgent task of the Provisional Revolutionary Government is to establish relations with the proletariat of the belligerent countries with a view to the struggle of the proletariat of all countries against their oppressors and their slave masters, against the governments of Tsarist type and the capitalist cliques, and with a view to the immediate cessation of the bloody slaughter inflicted on the enslaved people.

During the first days of insurrection, the radicals held the initiative. But their call on workers to gather at the Finland Station to form their own provisional revolutionary government fell flat. Instead, the crowds responded to the moderate socialists’ February 25 proposal to assemble at the Tauride Palace and (as had been done during 1905) elect representatives to a new representative workers’ council: the Soviet.

Of the moderates, the Mensheviks were the most influential. Unlike the Bolsheviks, they viewed the bourgeoisie as an indispensable ally of the proletariat in the fight for social change and democracy. An alliance with liberalism, they felt, was needed to defeat the threat of a right-wing counterrevolution. In the words of Georgian Menshevik leader Noe Zhordania, “one must try to grasp the essence of the current revolution at the head of which stand three main forces: 1) the proletariat 2) the progressive bourgeoisie and 3) the army . . . It is impossible to subordinate today’s tactics to the interests of one class.”

In line with this approach, moderate socialists rejected the leftist proposal for the new Soviet to take all power into its own hands. According to the Mensheviks, workers should not take part in government until the moment of socialist revolution, the conditions for which were not ripe in underdeveloped agrarian Russia. In the final days of February, Menshevik leaders successfully convinced the Soviet to sanction the establishment of a purely bourgeois administration.

What Did the Liberals Do?

Russia’s liberal leaders did not want a revolution. During the first days of the upheaval, they refused to take part in or support the struggle. Instead, they begged the tsar to reform the government in order to placate the mob and re-establish order. But Tsar Nicholas — aptly described by one Russian poet as “stubborn, but without will” — rejected their pleas. On February 27, Nicholas commented that “again, this fat Rodzianko has written me lots of nonsense, to which I shall not even deign to reply.”

Left with no other option, the liberals finally decided to side with the revolution in order to contain it. Their top leaders established a Provisional Committee on February 27 that declared itself to be the supreme governmental authority. This body, however, was left adrift since the liberals had no support among the insurgent workers and soldiers. To effectively rule, you need an armed apparatus — and in Petrograd those with arms placed their support in the Soviet.

Luckily for the liberals, moderate socialists had no desire to establish a workers’ government. Equally anxious to fill the power vacuum, Soviet and liberal leaders met on the evening of March 1. The latter were obliged to accept the Soviet’s terms for conditional support: the new Provisional Government would have to grant political freedom and legal equality for all, abolish the police and establish a people’s militia, release all political prisoners, refrain from reprisals against mutinous soldiers, and convene a Constituent Assembly as soon as possible.

These were important victories. But the crucial questions of war and land reform were conspicuously absent from the agreement. So too was the question of the monarchy, which the liberals still hoped to preserve as a bulwark of “law and order.” Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on March 2 and proposed to hand the throne over to his brother Mikhail Alexandrovich. Protests from below convinced Mikhail to wisely decline the offer on the following day.

After a centuries-long reign, the Romanov dynasty had finally been toppled. A soldiers’ journal expressed the popular euphoria: “There are times when one wants to embrace the whole world in joyful ecstasy and kiss everyone without end.” A British reporter for the Manchester Guardian similarly observed that “the whole country is wild with joy, waving red flags and singing Marseillaise. It has surpassed my wildest dreams and I can hardly believe it is true.”

Why Did “Dual Power” Fail?

By early March, the basic structure of “dual power” had been established in the capital and across the empire. The Provisional Government nominally ruled the land, but the Soviets held more real power and authority. Elected by nobody, and isolated from the lower classes, the administration’s survival depended on the support given to it by the moderate socialist leaderships. In the eyes of most politically active workers and soldiers, the Soviets were the sole legitimate authority — the bourgeois regime would be supported only insofar as it obeyed the instructions from below. Workers and their representatives would thus have to exercise a strict “control” over the government to ensure that their demands were met.

Initially, the Mensheviks held firm to this oppositional stance and sought to use their strength to push the government in a progressive direction. In the first weeks of the revolution they rejected the liberals’ attempts to maintain monarchal rule; they asserted the Soviet’s political control over the army ranks; and they initiated a major international campaign to pressure the Russian and foreign governments to take concrete steps towards ending the war. To quote Marc Ferro, “the Soviet placed the [liberal] Duma Committee at the helm, but in order to direct it at will aimed a pistol at its head.”

The viability of the Menshevik “dual power” plan hinged on two factors: the bourgeoisie’s ability to meet the people’s urgent demands and the proletariat’s ability to refrain from pushing too far, too fast. Events would soon show that neither class behaved in the way the Mensheviks had hoped. Despite the Soviet’s campaign for peace, Russian liberals — backed by French and British imperialism — continued the war and declared that no major social reforms would be implemented until military victory. When news of the administration’s war plans became public in April, anti-government demonstrations and riots broke out in the capital, against the wishes of the Soviet leadership.

This “April Crisis” made it clear that the current Provisional Government lacked popular legitimacy to govern. A restructuring of the administration — and Menshevik strategy — was required. Forced to choose between their principled opposition to participation in a capitalist government and their commitment to an alliance with liberals, the Mensheviks chose the latter.

The moderate socialists’ decision to enter the Provisional Government in May marked a major turning point. By tying their fates to a paralyzing governmental alliance with liberal politicians, they quickly alienated themselves from their mass base and set the stage for the rise of forces calling for a more radical break. As historian Michael Melancon notes:

Suspicion toward or outright opposition to a bourgeois-oriented government or a coalitional socialist-bourgeois government did not arise in association with Bolshevik agitation but existed from the outset as part of the outlook of most socialists and their laboring constituencies. Bolshevik agitation’s role was in placing that party in a position to reap organizational benefits from the existing popular attitudes toward the Provisional Government when it failed to live up to what were perceived as minimal demands made upon it and when SR and Menshevik leaders disastrously associated themselves and their parties with it.

Though Bolshevik policy and tactics evolved over the course of the year, their basic message generally remained consistent from February onwards: to end the war and meet the people’s demands, workers and their allies had to seize the full reigns of power. The famous call “All Power to the Soviets!” concentrated this push for a break with the bourgeoisie. In the fall of 1917, the Bolsheviks and allied radicals won a majority in the country’s Soviets. In October they took power.