The Russian Revolution: On the Eve of The February Revolution

On the morning of 30 December 1916, the people of Petrograd woke up to the news that the infamous priest Gregori Rasputin had been killed with poison. Rasputin was a charlatan, drunkard and serial-womaniser of upper class wives and daughters, but most importantly he was the closest adviser to the royal couple.

[All dates are according to the Gregorian calendar which is 13 days ahead of the Julian calendar used in Russia in 1917.]


While the Tsarina spent many days praying at Rasputin’s grave and kept his bloodstained shirt as a relic, celebrations were taking place on the streets of Petrograd where rumors were spreading that the priest had died by drowning - which would have made him ineligible for canonisation. The real significance of Rasputin’s death, however, was that it revealed an open division right at the top of Russia’s ruling class.

The murder was carried out by a group of nobles led by Prince Felix Yusupov, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and the  extreme right-wing monarchist Vladimir Purishkevich, while the liberal Maklakov apparently provided the conspirators with the poison. This revealed that the Tsar and Tsarina had become completely isolated within the ruling class.

[<< Part one | Part Three (to be published) >>]

Maurice PaleologueMaurice PaléologueThe French ambassador, Maurice Paléologue, wrote in his memoirs about the significance of Purishkevich in the plot:

“Purishkevich, who is over fifty, is a man of doctrine and action. He has made himself the champion of orthodox absolutism; he brings equal vehemence and skill to his advocacy of the theory of the ‘Tsar Autocrat, God's Emissary.’ In 1905 he was the president of the famous reactionary league, the Association of the Russian People, and it was he who inspired and directed the terrible pogroms against the Jews. His participation in the murder of Rasputin throws light on the whole attitude of the Extreme Right in the last few months; it means that the champions of autocracy, feeling themselves threatened by the Empress's madness, are determined to defend themselves in spite of the Emperor; and if necessary against him.” (An Ambassador's Memoirs - Maurice Paléologue)

The war

The last months of the Romanov dynasty was filled with plots and conspiracies. One after another, almost all layers of the ruling class - alarmed by the prospect of military collapse and revolution - turned against the Tsar, the Tsarina and the court clique around them.

Having assumed direct command over the army, the Tsar had now placed himself right at the centre of Russia’s crisis. While the army had made some small advances in the spring of 1916, the turning point came with the Brusilov offensive in June-September. Although this offensive actually achieved its main objectives - small territorial gains while also easing pressure on the allied armies on the western front - it did so at a massive cost. One million Russian soldiers died in what became the most bloody battle in world history.

The battle also broke the Austro-Hungarian army, but the German army was relatively unaffected and could easily recuperate from its losses. The Russian army, on the other hand, was thrown far back and was by and large broken on the Eastern front. The meaninglessness of the slaughter led to a collapse of morale. A sense of despair and hopelessness spread throughout the trenches. The Tsar was blamed for having ignored the sound advice not to venture on such an adventure. He proved to be a bad military commander and had become a liability for the whole war effort. Furthermore, he was jealously dismissing all the best and most far-sighted men around him.

At the same time, he was testing the ground for a separate peace with Germany. It was becoming obvious that Russia would never be able to achieve its own goal of extending its sphere of influence as far as Constantinople by force. In any case, England and France would never have allowed such an outcome.

The Tsar hoped that Germany would agree to drop its support for Turkey. This they would been prepared to accept on condition that Russia signed a separate peace. This would have changed the balance of forces on the western front to the advantage of Germany.

The Tsar was open to this idea, and in fact this was one of the reasons for personally replacing Grand Duke Nicholas, the previous commander-in-chief. However, the Russian bourgeoisie, although in principle they were not opposed to a separate peace deal, considered that their own position would be weakened if such a deal was brokered directly by the Tsar. Thus, with the backing of the British and the French, they embarked on a hysterical patriotic campaign against the “germanophiles” in the royal court - aimed at the Tsarina in particular.

Food shortages

Bread "tail"Police at a bread "tail"The war was putting enormous pressure on the economy. Production was being increasingly disrupted and food supplies were running out. All the weaknesses of the Russian economy were becoming evident. The loss of the western regions put even more pressure on imports of industrial machinery, while domestic factory output declined by 50 percent. As a result purchases of agricultural machinery in 1916 were just 10% of the pre war levels. At the same time 2 million horses and large cattle was requisitioned by the army.

In this situation the rich Kulaks grew stronger while the middle and poor peasants without access to modern machinery and with their animals drafted into the army, were impoverished and ruined. Gross grain yields and the sown area diminished. With the army swallowing up most of the crops and demand rising in the cities, prices began to go up.

At the same time, the rail network had far too low a capacity to satisfy the demands of the front as well as that of the cities. In many instances, even when supplies were available, bottlenecks on the rail network prevented them from reaching the cities. Landlords, Kulaks and middlemen were stashing away grain to force up the prices. A black market appeared as the goods disappeared from the stores. The attempts of fixing prices did nothing to stop the speculative trade. For the smaller holdings it lead to a turn towards isolation and self-sufficiency. In the end Tsarism could not intervene forcefully against the Kulaks and the big landlords, because they formed a key pillar of support for it in the countryside. For the working masses, the effect of the crisis was devastating. In an article called Famine amidst plenty published by The Times, 29 January 1917, the author wrote:

”Probably there is sufficient food in the country to feed the population for the next two years. The one problem to solve is how to distribute it. Here are a couple of instances well known to the writer. One and a half million poods [24,100 tons], of rye are lying in the elevators of T- station. Less than 250 miles away by direct railway line is a rye flour mill at D-, capacity: 3,000 poods of flour per day. The mill, though working exclusively for army requirements is standing still for want of grain. A mill with large stocks of grain situated within two miles of an oil-field was unable to work for more than a month  because it was impossible to obtain cistern-cars for bringing the oil fuel from the wells to the mill. (…)

“All necessaries of life have risen, except tea, from two to 10 times their former peace prices. Butter, for instance, is eight times its former retail price, having risen from 45 kopeks to three roubles and 60 kopeks per 14.5 oz./lb. Mutton is 71 times dearer, now costing 1r. 50k. per 14.5 per oz./lb. Bread of varying quality, instead of the beautiful white color of uniform grade for which Russia was famed, costs 21 times more than formerly. In fact the household's expenses, with all luxuries cut out, with four meatless days per week, and with every effort to economize, are now about 4 times what they were in normal peace days.” (The Times,  29 January 1917)

Any attempt at solving the problems within the organisation of the war economy led to a fierce struggle between the bourgeoisie and the state bureaucracy. The liberal organs, such as the Red Cross and the Zemgor (the United Committee of the Union of Zemstvos and the Union of Towns), were playing an important role in the war effort. They acted as semi-official ministries. But this caused alarm within the Tsarist regime and the state bureaucracy. James L. Houghteling was a naive young American from a banker family who arrived in Russia just before the revolution to serve as special attaché to the US consul. With uninformed naivety he wrote about the conflict between the liberals and the state bureaucracy:

“The Zemstvo Union has a great stone building six or eight stories high on the Petrovka, a principal business street; every inch of it is occupied and it is a place to gladden the heart of an American. The atmosphere is absolutely different from that musty file-an-application-and- wait-three-weeks air which oppresses one in the huge ministry buildings in Petrograd. The overhead conveyors for ‘passing the buck’ are entirely lacking. The Union is taking care of all the wounded, is feeding and clothing the armies, operating tanneries, shoe-shops and commissaries, working with and directing the Peasant Co-operative Societies; in short, it is doing three-fourths of the work of the moribund War Office. What is more, it is doing it efficiently and honestly. The good work of the Union is a thorn in the side of the bureaucracy, as the comparison of results is too discreditable to the government. So the latter interferes on every pretext. A few months ago the Military Governor of Moscow forbade all public meetings of the Union and dissolved a convention of Zemstvo presidents which was discussing the care of the wounded, the boot-supply, and other treasonable subjects. This stupid interference has deprived the government of the support of the last 'die-hards' among the landed gentry. It is on a par with the recent outrageous arrest of the labor members of the War Industry Committee in Petrograd.” (A diary of the Russian revolution - James L. Houghteling)

The unification of Russia itself had been achieved with the establishment of a brutal oppressive apparatus and an all-powerful bureaucracy. What the liberals failed to grasp, or did not want to admit, was that Russian absolutism by its very nature, was a fetter on the full development of the bourgeoisie and could not share power with it.  At the same time, the bourgeoisie was not prepared to carry out its own revolution to the end, for fear of the rising working class.

“[In Russia] no manifestation of political or social activity escapes the interference, supervision or strangling grip of the central authority, and the whole life of the nation is the slave of an omnipotent bureaucracy” (An Ambassador's Memoirs - Maurice Paléologue)

An enormous part of the national wealth was swallowed up by the bureaucracy. Apart from sustaining the bureaucracy, the effect of this drain of wealth on the nation was to impede the rise of any competing social forces - something absolutism came increasingly to rely on. Conservatism was embedded in the DNA of the Tsarist state.

“By giving in time the six inches of reform, which were necessary, he might have saved the yards which a disillusioned country was to take by force afterwards. Those nearest him, however, saw the matter in another light. They told him that any concession now would be regarded as a fatal weakness and that the appetite of the reformers would only be whetted. This was an argument which never failed to convince the Empress(…)” - (Memoirs of a British Agent - Bruce Lockhart)

The state bureaucracy had found an ally in Rasputin who had developed a wide layer of allies in key positions. It was widely recognised that no major appointments were made without Rasputin’s approval. This made Rasputin himself the focal point in the battle between the state and the opposition.

Fear of revolution

“We must try... [to] show the Emperor, firmly and logically, but with due moderation, that he is leading Russia straight to disaster... there is no time to lose! The danger is pressing; every hour counts. If salvation does not come from above, there will be revolution from below. And that will mean catastrophe!” - Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna on February 23, 1917

What really brought the conflict within the ruling class into the open was the rising revolutionary tide in the autumn. The movement was gaining momentum by the day. Strikes, riots and protests were becoming daily occurrences. The liberals were arguing for the Tsar to give concessions from above in order to avoid a revolution from below (of course the concessions they demanded merely amounted to a power sharing deal with the liberals and nothing for the masses).

“With the advent of December the tone of the various anti government resolutions became bolder. In the factories the Social-Democrats and the Social Revolutionaries were now conducting an active revolutionary propaganda. Goaded to fury by the inanities of Protopopov, a former Liberal member of the Duma, who as Minister of the Interior  revealed himself as more reactionary than any member of the Black Hundred­s. The Zemstvo and Cities Unions defied his action in forbidding their Congress by passing a secret resolution which in the violence of its language exceeded all their previous political demands. There was, it is true, no word against the Emperor, but after a long preamble, in which full emphasis was laid on the ills from which Russia was suffering, the resolution de­clared that ‘the government, now become an instrument of the dark forces, is driving Russia to her ruin and is shattering the Imperial throne. In this grave hour in its history the country requires a government worthy of a great people. Let the Duma, in the decisive struggle which it is waging, justify the expecta­tions of the people. There is not a day to lose!’" (Memoirs of a British Agent - Bruce Lockhart)

With the Tsar at the front, the running of the country was taken over by his wife, who in turn was heavily influenced by Rasputin. The two became the focal point of the attacks of the ruling class - not so much because of their influence, but because the “opposition” was too cowardly to attack the Tsar himself for his glaring incompetence.

The rising revolutionary tide terrified the ruling class who were begging the Tsar and the Tsarina to concede. But just when Russia was raising its voice higher than ever before, the royal couple seemed more distant from society than ever before. Around mid-December 1916, Paléologue recounts a conversation between the Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna and the Empress:

“‘It is with grief and horror,’ she said, ‘that I have observed the growth of hostile feeling towards your Majesty …’

“The Empress interrupted:

“‘You're quite wrong, my dear. As a matter of fact, I've been quite wrong myself. Only quite lately I was still thinking that Russia hated me. I know now that it is only Petrograd society which hates me, the corrupt and godless society which thinks of nothing but dancing and dining and takes no interest in anything but its pleasures and adulteries, while everywhere around us blood is flowing in streams! ... Blood! ... Blood!’

“She seemed to be almost choking with rage as she uttered those words, and had to stop for a moment. Then she continued:

“‘But now I have the great consolation that the whole of Russia - the real Russia, poor, humble, peasant Russia is with me. If I showed you the telegrams and letters I receive every day from all parts of the Empire, you'd see it all for yourself. But still I'm very grateful to you for speaking so frankly.’

“What the poor Tsarina does not know is that Sturmer had the brilliant idea - continued and improved upon by Protopopov - of getting the Okhrana to send her every day scores of letters and telegrams worded something like this:

“‘Oh our beloved sovereign, mother and guardian of our adored Tsarevitch ... Guardian of our traditions ... Oh our great and good Tsarina ... Protect us against the wicked ... Save us from our enemies ... Save Russia!’” (An Ambassador's Memoirs - Maurice Paléologue)

In the face of rising anger on the streets, the ruling elite was panicking. But Tsarism was unable to compromise, and when it did it was mostly too late and too little. When the British ambassador approached the Tsar on 13 January 1917 to warn of the impending disaster (and to put pressure on him not to give in to German agents) the Tsar replied coldly, “You tell me, Ambassador, that I must deserve the confidence of my people. Isn't it rather for my people to deserve my confidence?” He went on, “You seem to think that I take advice in choosing my ministers. You're quite wrong; I choose them myself, unassisted ..." (An Ambassador's Memoirs - Maurice Paléologue)

The ruling class thought that by killing Rasputin, they had removed the “dark influence” on the Tsar, but that only accelerated the process of disintegration. On a daily basis, within the the establishment plots and conspiracies were discussed and planned. The court clique around the throne became increasingly isolated and rumours even had it that an assassination had been attempted against the Tsarina.

Bruce LockhartBruce LockhartBruce Lockhart wrote:

“The story the next few months leading up to the first revolution is a chronicle of almost unrelieved pessimism: failures on the front (the Brusilov offensive against Austria had flattered only to deceive), boredom and ennui in official circles in the rear, bewildering changes of ministers, impotent protestations by the Duma, increasing discontent and murmurs not only in the villages, but also in the trenches.

“In St. Petersburg and even in Moscow the war had become of secondary importance. The approaching cataclysm was already in every mind, and on everybody's lips. The ruling class, awakened at last to the impending disaster, sought to warn the Emperor. Political resolutions, passed now, not only by the Liberals, but by the nobility, were showered like autumn leaves upon the Emperor. There was no disloyalty in these addresses. They merely begged the Tsar to change his counsellors, to replace them with men enjoying the confidence of the country. The Emperor made changes with the rapidity of a card-trick expert, and very rarely did they satisfy public opinion. On no occasion were they ever made in response to the demand, however discreetly made, of a public body. For this man of all the domestic virtues, this man of no vices and no will-power, was an autocrat by divine right. He could change his mind four times in as many minutes, but he could never forget his inheritance. ‘What is all this talk about the people’s confidence?’ he said, ‘Let the people merit my confidence’.” (Memoirs of a British Agent - Bruce Lockhart)

A revolution usually begins at the top with a crisis within the ruling class. This reflects the dead end of the old order. The old methods of ruling no longer satisfy the needs of the moment and the normal political charade and minor concessions cannot satisfy the rising mass movement. Seeing the impending disaster, the divisions within the ruling class deepen as the different factions try to find a way out. One faction argues that reforms from above are needed to avoid a revolution from below, the other argues that reforms will only encourage a revolution and that the movement must be crushed by force. But both factions are right and wrong at the same time. By the time such questions are posed it is for the most part already too late. But the vacuum created by this split is the prerequisite for the masses to step onto the scene.

Russia was no exception to this general law. The liberals and the nobility were asking for reforms, but no reform could satisfy the main aspirations of the masses. Any reform or retreat would only have released the pent up anger of years of oppression and senseless slaughter at the front. At the same time, no reform could raise the masses out of the chronic poverty and misery of their lives.

The court on the other hand, saw no room for concessions. With Protopopov as its spearhead it began a counter-attack. So aggressive were the actions of Protopopov that rumours were circulating that the Tsarina was provoking a revolution to allow her to sign a separate peace with the Germans.

On the one hand, preparations were being made to close down the Duma. On the other hand a plan was laid to drown in blood the coming uprising in Petrograd. The military forces in the capital, which were under the Northern Front, were separated and placed under General S. S. Khabalov, an insider of Protopopov and the Tsarina. Troops and arms were also transferred to strengthen the force in the capital. Khabalov developed a detailed plan  for maintaining order, coordinating the roles of the police and the military. Troops, police and gendarmes were assigned to different sections of the city, guarding specific factories, bridges, roads and public institutions. Tsarism was preparing to drown any dissent in blood.

Impotence of the Democrats

Pavel MilyukovPavel MilyukovFaced with such degeneracy and a rising revolutionary tide, the liberal bourgeoisie revealed two of its most basic characteristics: impotence and cowardice.

On 8 February a group of liberals met with the French ambassador and the French minister of colonies, M. Doumergue,  who was visiting Petrograd for the allied conference. The other participants were General Polivanov, the mathematician Vassiliev - liberal members of the Council of Empire -  as well as Milyukov, Maklakov and Shingarev, all leaders of the “Cadet” Party in the Duma. As usual with these types of conversations, in January and February they led to the question of disposing with the Tsar. At one moment, Doumergue, tried to calm the conversation down and called for “patience”. That made Milyukov and Maklakov burst out, “We've had quite enough patience! ... Our patience is utterly exhausted! Besides, if we don't act soon, the masses won't listen to us any longer.” Maklakov repeated the words of the French counter-revolutionary, Mirabeau, “Beware of asking for time! Disaster never gives it!”

That was the extent of the “courage” of the Russian bourgeoisie - to sit in lunches and dinners day after day, at the houses of ambassadors and noblemen, to propose grand plans of a palace revolution and coups, without ever lifting a finger. Faced with the collapse of Tsarism politically and militarily, it could do nothing because it feared the revolution more than it feared the Tsar or even the Germans. Even when they knew that the Tsar was planning to disband the Duma, the liberals were unable to act. Milyukov admitted this proudly when he said, at the first session of the Duma on 27 February, “Our only deeds are our words and only words”.

Even their words, however, were only pronounced reluctantly. In November 1916 (hopeful) rumours spread within the ruling class of the Cadets organising violent demonstrations outside of the Duma. The French Ambassador asked Milyukov if there were any serious plans. His reply sums up Russian liberalism: "No, nothing serious. But certain things will have to be said from the tribune. Otherwise we should lose all our influence with our constituents and they would go over to the extremists."

Protopopov, on the other hand was a man of action. He proceeded to gradually chip away at the liberals, banning their meetings and firing their supporters in the state. On 12 February, he proceeded to arrest all members except two - who were police spies - of the Labour group of the War Industries Committee of Petrograd. This was a class collaboration organ set up between the big industrialists and the right-Mensheviks as well as the Socialist-Revolutionary party. Its very existence, no doubt, had stopped many strikes and protests, but Protopopov regarded it as a threat. The arrested Labour Group leaders appealed to the workers not to strike, but instead organised a pro-war demonstration in front of the Duma on its opening day, 27 February.

Ironically, the two remaining members, who were agent provocateurs, managed to convince 58 factories - 90,000 workers - to strike, but no one turned up to the Duma opening. Protopopov and Khabalov were delighted and encouraged by their success. The mood in the Duma on the other hand was depressed. Rodzianko, the Duma president explained:

“The opening of the Duma passed off quietly. There were no signs of any Labour delegation, but large police forces had been mustered in the neigh­bouring courtyards. In order not to add more fuel to the already smouldering fire (sic.!), I limited my inaugural speech (sic.!) to a mention of the army and its loyal fulfilment of its duty. Instead of dealing with the general political situation, the debates were diverted to the food supply (...)

“[S]pirits were at a low ebb. Even Purishkevich's speech lacked verve. The Duma felt itself powerless, weary of the useless struggle, almost reduced, indeed, to the role of passive spectator. Yet, despite everything, the Duma clung to its old position and did not proceed to an open rupture with the Government. Its sole weapon was the spoken word - and this was emphasized by Milyukov when he said that the Duma ‘would act with words, and with words only.’" (The Reign of Rasputin: An Empire's Collapse - M. V. Rodzianko)

These gentlemen could talk about the backwardness of Russia and the inefficiency of Tsarism, but the more words they uttered the more clearly was their own cowardice and impotence exposed. The task of uprooting semi-feudal Tsarism fell on another class which was angry and looking for an outlet.

The conditions of the working class

Absolutism had always placed great pressure on the living conditions of the working masses, but the war raised these pressures to new levels.

WWI Women Aircraft FactoryIn spite of 6-8 percent yearly growth in industry, the conditions of the Russian working class had been worsening in the 10 years prior to the 1917 revolution. The mood within the working class was increasingly bitter and the few rights which had been gained by the workers’ movement were gradually undermined by years of reaction and the First World War.

The Tsarist factory management reflected the combined and uneven development of Russia. At its inception, it managed the extremely modern factories with the same crudeness and violence of the early stages of capitalism. Threats, sanctions, fines and physical violence were acceptable methods of “encouragement” to raise productivity levels. The 1905 revolution had a sobering effect on the industrialists, but after it was defeated, management wanted to reassert itself and restored many of its old methods.

The beating of workers, the degrading ritual of searching workers as they left the factories and fining them for the most arbitrary reasons was normal practice. The hated foremen, the low ranking managers who ruled the shop floors like their own small private kingdoms, were in charge of carrying out these methods, supported by the even more hated sluzhashchie, a layer of white collar workers who were used as the extended arm of management amongst the workers.

When the war began, the ruling class was temporarily strengthened by the sweeping mood of patriotism. Under the banner of “defence of the fatherland” overtime limits were lifted - working hours actually increased for the first time since 1905 - and laws protecting female and child labour were annulled. Management, unhindered by the law and with the active support of the state, increasingly used threats of sending workers to the front, jail or exile to assert itself.

The safety and wellbeing of the workers were of secondary concern for the industrialists. In 1912, the director of the Okhta explosives factory, General Somov, remarked to the Duma after an accident which killed five and injured fifty, “Such accidents do happen and will go on happening. I for one never enter the factory without first making the sign of the cross.” This statement is revealing of the attitude of the Russian capitalists towards the working class. A female worker described the conditions in the melinite shop of the same factory in 1915: “In the part where they do the washing and spraying, the air is so suffocating and poisonous that someone unused to it could not stand it for more than five or ten minutes. Your whole body becomes poisoned by it.” It is true that the Okhta explosives factory was notoriously unsafe, but the attitude of General Somov was not far from that of the bourgeoisie in general.

Outside the factory gates the bosses inflicted a more brutal type of violence on the workers - that of chronic poverty. Sergei Prokopovich, a Russian Menshevik, estimated that one needed about three times the average annual wage of a worker to support a family in Petrograd. In the context of wartime expansion of production, wages - which started from a low base - increased slightly, mainly as a result of increased overtime and longer working hours. But this increase was soon eaten up by spiralling inflation. Throughout the country, real wages fell during the war, in particular in the course of 1916. Petrograd, home to the crucial defence industries, was probably the only region of Russia where real wages rose in industry. But that only lasted until the winter of 1916, after which wages fell rapidly. By the time of the February Revolution, Petrograd wages were around 15% to 20% below the level of 1913.

Food, the largest element in the budgets of working class families, took up about half of all income. A survey in the Baltic shipyard in 1917 showed that 60% of income was spent on food and lighting. The second largest item of expenditure for working class families was accommodation. Only a minority could afford separate accommodation. The majority of workers lived in partitioned rooms in badly sanitised neighbourhoods.

Putilov factoryConcentrated in geographically small areas, huddled into giant factories, employing some of the most modern production techniques in the world, the relatively small working class was immersed in the most modern capitalist environment. Tsarism partially used the influx of peasants into the factories to combat the growing socialist influence, but the peasant mindset was quickly shaken up by the demands which the new conditions exerted on them. The individualism and resigned nature of peasants entering the factory immediately came under pressure of the factory environment which quickly led to collaboration in the workshops and collective struggle against the bosses. A. Buiko, a first generation Petrograd worker, recalled the internal revolution which the peasants underwent when they were integrated into the Petrograd proletariat:

“In the first years before I outgrew my still peasant attitudes, I felt myself alone and constantly experienced fear before other people. But once I grew close to my comrades, I began to feel unshakeable ground beneath my feet. Confidence and assurance appeared: 'I am not alone - there are many of us. We are all as one. The consciousness of this imparted so much energy that it lasted for the entire ensuing struggle.” (The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime - David Mandel)

But while the underlying trend amongst the working class was towards collective actions to deal with their problems, to Tsarist absolutism and the industrialists - which were often one and the same - dissent was not permissible and was often met with police and military repression. Under the pretence of the war, most unions were shut down and collective action sanctioned. In February 1917 only eleven tiny illegal and three legal unions (printing, pharmacy and shop assistants) were left in Petrograd. Even meetings and the organisation of canteens and cooperatives were forbidden. The smallest attempts by the workers to express themselves was crushed under the iron heel of Tsarism. The smallest conflicts would immediately tend to take on a political character. The step towards revolutionary politics was not long in coming in these conditions.

The peasantry

“The subsoil of the revolution was the agrarian problem.” - (History of the Russian Revolution - Leon Trotsky)

Life in the countryside was also grim, and further exacerbated by the War. The reform in 1861 had abolished serfdom, but it did not completely eradicate the remnants of feudalism and placed an intolerable burden of heavy repayment on the shoulders of the Russian peasants. Nothing was solved and by 1900 around 85 per cent of Russians were still peasants, living in extreme poverty while the nobility still owned the best land.The Stolypin agrarian reforms during the years of reaction that followed the defeat of the 1905 Revolution attempted to break up the old village communes and create a layer of rich capitalist peasants (Kulaks) as a basis of support for the regime. But this only further undermined the position of the vast majority of the peasants, who hated the reforms. In some regions it took peasants nearly 20 years to obtain their land. Many were forced to pay inflated prices for land and the majority were given inadequate plots, from which they could barely scrape out a living. The main effect was to force a large number of peasants to sell their land to the wealthy Kulaks and join the proletariat or to take up seasonal work in the towns. By the time the war began almost one million peasant households, five million people, had joined the ranks of the proletariat. Along with the disintegration of the peasantry came the beginning of the disintegration of the centuries old loyalty to Tsarism. This tendency was accelerated by the War which had mobilised 10 million peasant youth and organised them in an army led by the Tsar himself that lost battle after battle at the cost of countless lives.

Even before the war, peasant riots and violent protests were on the rise. The passive, resigned mentality of the peasants was giving way to a mood of rebellion and anger. Maurice Paléologue, described the two main elements in the muzhik’s consciousness:

“The muzhik is famed for his endurance and fatalism, his gentleness and meekness; his tenderness and resignation often border on the sublime. But all at once you will see him assert himself and rebel. (...) I know no country where the social fact is so impregnated with the spirit of tradition and religion; domestic life so solemn, patriarchal, inspired by so much tenderness and affection, enveloped in so much poetry and reverence. Nowhere are family duties and responsibilities accepted more readily; the irksomeness and privations, distresses and adversities of daily life borne with more patience.

“On the other hand, in no other country are individual revolts more frequent and sudden, and nowhere do they create such a sensation. On this point the records of crimes of passion and fashionable scandals abound in startling examples. There is no excess of which Russians, whether men or women, are not capable, the moment they have decided to ‘assert themselves as free beings.’” (An Ambassador’s Memoirs - Maurice Paléologue)

The enormous burden of the war on the peasant masses tipped the scale even further towards an insurrectionary direction. Aside from the economic crisis, millions of the strongest hands were removed from the countryside. Discontent began to spread to the most conservative areas. Paléologue recalls a conversation on 9 February 1917, with a prince who had just come back from a visit to the rural city of Kostrovna:

“It is one of the provinces of the Empire where dynastic loyalty is most intense and the hereditary tendencies, social habits and national sentiments of the Russian people are preserved in all their integrity. I am therefore somewhat anxious to know the state of public feeling in that region (...):

“‘Things are going badly! They're tired of the war they don't understand anything about it now except that victory is impossible. And yet they haven't clamoured for peace so far. I've seen a melancholy and resigned discontent in all quarters. Rasputin's murder has made a vivid impression on the masses.'

“‘Oh! What sort of an impression?’

“‘It's a very curious phenomenon and thoroughly Russian. To the muzhiks Rasputin has become a martyr. He was a man of the people; he let the Tsar hear the voice of the people; he defended the people against the Court folk, the pridvorny. So the pridvorny killed him! That's what's being said in all the isbas.’

“‘But the public in Petrograd was overjoyed when Grishka's death became known! Why, people rushed to the churches to light candles at the icon of Saint Dimitri because they then thought that it was the Grand Duke Dimitri who had killed the dog.’

“‘In Petrograd men knew all about Rasputin's orgies, and to gloat over his death was one way of showing hostility to the Emperor and Empress. But I have an idea that, speaking generally, all the muzhiks of Russia think the same as those of Kostrovna…’” (An Ambassador’s Memoirs - Maurice Paléologue)

Albeit in a distorted form, this conversation reveals a growing class hatred amongst the peasantry who saw in Rasputin a believer, a man of the people, who was murdered by the parasitic privileged court clique. Trotsky remarks in his History of the Russian Revolution, that the only reason the peasantry didn’t rebel more was due to the fact that its most active elements were mobilised in the army.

On 3 March 1917 Paléologue reports that the Bishop of Viatka and a close ally of Rasputin, had painted an even bleaker picture in a conversation with the Tsarina. The Bishop said that “he had observed that the demoralization of the people was making alarming progress every day. The men who returned from the army, sick, wounded, or on leave, were giving utterance to scandalous opinions; they openly professed unbelief and atheism and did not even shrink from blasphemy and sacrilege... [T]he bishop accounted for the unwonted number of sensational crimes of violence which have been recorded in recent months not only in the diocese of Viatka but the neighbouring dioceses. The Bishop said that strong action by the clergy was necessary. ‘But I confess with grief to Your Majesty,’ he admitted, ‘that the general demoralization has not spared our priests, particularly in the country districts. A few are real saints but the majority are abandoned and degraded. They have no influence with their parishioners.’”

In the trenches

War is always a two edged sword for the ruling class. It brings with it at first a wave of patriotism, but by sharply revealing the class antagonisms in society, the same patriotism and self-sacrifice soon give way to their opposite. The war brought all the rottenness and misery of Tsarist Russia to the fore.

The peasant soldiers were ripped out of isolated and stagnant villages and brutally introduced to the realities of modern life. Tsarism not only organised the peasantry, it also shattered its centuries long illusions and mythical beliefs in the “little father”.

An interesting study by Allan K. Wildman (The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers' Revolt - March-April, 1917) reveals the profound discontent and seething rebellion gripping the soldiers at the front during the months preceding the Revolution.

The horrors and sufferings at the front had a profound effect on the consciousness of the peasants. A censor's evaluation of 170,000 letters sent to and from the Second Army [Western Front] for February 1917 reported "a depressed mood bordering on despair of the home front, owing to requisitions, soldiers' wives being forced to sell off livestock, and inflation." Of the 170,000 letters, around 18,300 were destroyed while around 13,000 were partially let through with deletions. Of the remaining letters 34,000 were marked as "cheerful," 8,000 as "depressed."

A soldier wrote on 15 February:

“It's shameful that we have to suffer a third year for God knows what... Are we to blame that the government acquired enemies by letting in German colonists, giving them lands, letting them get into positions of authority over the Russian people? The German is now ruling our country. The Russian peasant has no way of getting anything, neither education nor a free life. He has been given only one right - to go begging in Christ's name, and now they make him defend, not the fatherland, but the landowning ‘barons’.”

On top of the senseless killing of soldiers in hopeless offensives, the question of food and inflation - which according to one soldier's letter “fattens the rich and ruins the poor both physically and materially.” -  became hot topics in the last months of 1916. The food crisis was just as severe on the front as it was in the cities. Bread rations were reduced, first from three to two pounds a day and then to one pound. Sometimes bread was completely absent from the meals and was replaced by other food or cash which was useless when there were no supplies to buy. One substitute for bread was lentils (chechevitsa), which the soldiers hated.

The letters from the front reported in Allan Wildman’s study were full of remarks on the food situation: "The G.I. grub is worse than garbage, you could die of hunger." "The food is so bad it makes the horses sick." "All you get anymore is peas with water, and, oh yes, chechevitsa." "They feed us worse than dogs." By the time of the February revolution, the situation was critical: "There is no more bread, nothing to eat." "We sit here for days on end without bread." "Cold and hunger, nothing but deprivation!" "I'd rather be killed than starve like a dog”.

When the Tsar quashed a rumor about an imminent peace, a soldier wrote to a friend in the rear: “They've put out an order that there will be no peace until full victory. And you know how badly they feed us - only beans for dinner and supper. Tell your comrades that we all ought to stage an uprising against the war.”

The punitive measures by the officers were another source of anger. Sometimes officers would flog the soldiers just to excite them before an attack, or sometimes for no reason whatsoever. But the soldiers increasingly resisted. A letter from the front at the end of 1916 read:

“We were in battle for nine days and the Germans gave us a good licking, knocking out a third of the regiment and leaving only 30 men per company, and now again they want us to push the Germans out of their trenches; and we agreed, but two of us were shell-shocked and went to the dressing station. There the colonel and the priest took them and beat them with 25 strokes of the rod and sent them back to the front line. When we saw that, we blew up and screamed, 'Send us the priest, the colonel, and the doctor, and then we'll fight!' We sent a telegram to the tsar, telling him to take us and shoot us, but we won't fight anymore.” (The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers' Revolt - March-April, 1917 - Allan K. Wildman)

Mutinies had been common from the beginning of the war, but they were increasing in number and magnitude. In the autumn of 1916, 86 mutinies were reported to have involved entire regiments. Each case was centered on the question of orders to launch an attack. As Wildman reports:

“The junior officers who ordered their men out would typically be answered by shouts in the dark or from the rear ranks: ‘We won't go!’ ‘We'll hold the front, but we won't attack!’ ‘Anyone who moves will get shot!’ ‘Give us boots and warm clothing first!’ The trouble usually started in one company and spread to others by threats to shoot if they moved. Mere rumors that a neighboring unit refused to move aroused the fear of an exposed flank and could immobilize an entire regiment.” (The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers' Revolt - March-April, 1917 - Allan K. Wildman)

The fearful Okhrana registered the collapsing morale. A military censor's report of the Sixth Army on 18 October 1916, reported that the letters to and from the front revealed "an extremely acute and threatening universal dissatisfaction with rising prices and the impunity enjoyed by speculators," and that many soldiers were convinced that "after the war we'll have to settle accounts with the internal enemy."  Another soldier wrote: "the pomeshchiki started the war to wipe out the muzhiks, and to keep them from taking over pomeshchik land."

The mood was acquiring a class character and the muzhiks were coming closer to the workers. During the strike wave at the end of 1916, Wildman reports, the Central Military Censorship Commission wrote:

"It is impossible not to notice in the letters both to and from the army the increasingly sharp manifestations of dissatisfaction with the internal political situation in connection with the general disorganization of the home front and the ever increasing prices of objects of prime necessity. Rumors are reaching the army of disorders, strikes at the factories, disturbances in rear military units, etc., and these rumors, often exaggerated and dressed up, evoke a sinking morale in the troops and extreme anxiety concerning their families."

The commission said that 40 percent of the letters from home contain references to strikes and that "recently rumors have so increased that soldiers in the rear are joining the workers

or are demonstrating their dissatisfactions on their own."

The peasantry was ready for rebellion, but as a class the peasantry is incapable of playing and independent role. Historically, the agrarian question was solved in the bourgeois revolutions where the peasantry tail-ended the rising capitalist class, but here the capitalist class were incapable of breaking with the old regime. This was the basis for the coming together of the workers’ movement and the peasant rebellion. Trotsky explained the process at play:

“The law of combined development of backward countries – in the sense of a peculiar mixture of backward elements with the most modern factors – here rises before us in its most finished form, and offers a key to the fundamental riddle of the Russian revolution. If the agrarian problem, as a heritage from the barbarism of the old Russian history, had been solved by the bourgeoisie, if it could have been solved by them, the Russian proletariat could not possibly have come to power in 1917. In order to realise the Soviet state, there was required a drawing together and mutual penetration of two factors belonging to completely different historic species: a peasant war – that is, a movement characteristic of the dawn of bourgeois development – and a proletarian insurrection, the movement signalising its decline. That is the essence of 1917.” (History of the Russian Revolution - Leon Trotsky)


In the final analysis, a regime that is unable to provide even the most basic necessities - such as bread - is doomed. Tsarism was not able to solve this question in its simplest and most basic form. Food scarcity was the most explosive question in the run up to the February revolution. It was discussed in every circle and on every occasion. Food queues, starting off as exceptional occurrences, became the norm.

“Last summer the poorer people took up their positions outside the Petrograd municipal meat shops at 10 o'clock in the evening. The sun had hardly set over the Elagin Island, where fashion and wealth enjoyed their ease and the wonders of the white nights, before the poor, basket in hand, began their weary vigil. Some waited 10 and 12 hours for a morsel of meat, which, in no case, exceeded three Russian pounds. Since then we have seen queues become the rule-for meat, for bread, for milk, flour, vegetables, for sugar people wait in long "tails." Rich and poor participate in them, the latter in person, the former by proxy through their servants.”- (The Times, 29 January 1917)

The police began to patrol the “tails” and forbade them from assembling before 6am. By February and January, with temperatures below -30 degrees, the queues were increasingly spilling over into riots. The situation was desperate.

Meanwhile amongst the rich and the privileged, the situation was different. At the state banquet on the occasion of the allied conference at the end of January 1917, the French ambassador complained that the menu (Potage crème d'orge, Fruites glacés de Gatchina, Longe de veau Marengo, Poulets de grain rôtis, Salade de concombres, Glace mandarine) was simply bourgeois and not matching the “far-famed splendour of the imperial cuisine”.  With typical liberal ignorance and detachment, James L. Houghteling, the young American bankers’ son in Moscow, explained an incident in early February:

“At dinner I sat between the hostess and Mrs. Lockhart, wife of the British Consul, both of whom are charming. We talked mostly of the international situation, nothing original, and small talk. Someone said that in one of the bakeries the other day, at the time the bread gave out, the crowd spied three wagon-loads of flour in the back-yard. They seized them and found that they were consigned to the postmaster of Moscow and two other officials. People are beginning to rebel and to cry out that there is plenty for the rich and powerful, but only bread-cards and scarcity for the poor. Russian manners are somewhat different from ours. Before entering the dining-room we stood around a table in the hall which was loaded with all sorts of hors d'oeuvres and liqueurs, and had a fair-sized meal of them. Throughout the dinner Mr. G. kept constantly rising and circulating about the table with a bottle in each hand, filling the glasses of his guests.”

Houghteling’s companion at the banquet, the British Consul Mr. Lockhart saw things far more clearly.

“I found the atmosphere of St. Petersburg more depressing than ever. Champagne flowed like water. The Astora and the Europe — the two best hotels in the capital — were thronged with officers who should have been at the front. There was no disgrace in being a "shirker" or in finding a sinecure in the rear. I had an impression of senseless ennui and fin de siécle. And in the Streets were the long queues of ill-clad men and garrulous women, waiting for the bread that never came."

The first tremors

Putilov Plant Petrograd meeting of workers July 1920In the streets however, the mood was heating up. Hungry and overworked, the workers and soldiers started to rebel. In October 1916 a massive series of strikes political strikes against inflation and against the war and involving more than 120,000 workers had already swept through Petrograd. At one factory, after the strikers had overwhelmed the police, two regiments from nearby barracks were sent in to crush the strike. Instead of firing on the workers, however, the regiments fired at the police and had to be disarmed by hastily called Cossack regiments.

In the six months from September 1916 to the start of the revolution a little over one million worker-days were lost in Petrograd, three-quarters of these in political strikes. The first two months of 1917 alone saw 575,000 workers taking part in political strikes. In all the factories revolutionary groups were forming, often around Bolshevik workers. There were meetings, strikes and protests on a daily basis. A police report wrote:

"According to the spokesman for the war industry workers' group, the proletariat in the capital is on the verge of despair. It is believed that the slightest disturbance, or the smallest pre­text, will lead to uncontrollable riots with thousands of victims. In fact, the conditions for such an explosion already exist. The economic condition of the masses, in spite of large raises in wages, is near the point of distress... Even if wages are doubled, the cost of living has trebled. The impossibility of obtaining goods, the loss of time spent queueing up in front of stores, the increasing mortality rate because of poor housing conditions, the cold and dampness resulting from lack of coal... - all these conditions have created such a situation that the mass of industrial workers is ready to break out in the most savage of hunger riots.

“The legal restrictions which weigh on the workers have become unbearable and intolerable. Forbidding changes of employment from one factory to another or from one job to another has reduced the workers to a chattel state, good only for ‘cannon fodder.’ Restrictions on all meetings, even for the purpose of organizing cooperatives or canteens, and the closing of unions are the reasons why the workers, led by the more educated and perhaps the more revolutionary among them, adopt an openly hostile attitude to the government and protest against the continuation of the war." (The Russian Revolution of 1917 - Marc Ferro)

Revolutionary propaganda and anti-war propaganda was increasingly sought. The Bolsheviks were growing fast, but the movement was growing faster. This was not just in Petrograd, but also in, Moscow, Nizhni-Novgorod and elsewhere. Bolsheviks everywhere reported, wrote Shlyapnikov, that “Illegal leaflets and proclamations were no longer shunned but sought, asked for and read with interest and trust. Hatred of the government had plumbed the very depths of society and this terrified the bourgeois liberal top dogs.”

Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks were not always in touch with the real mood and were overwhelmed on several occasions. On 9 January, between two and three hundred thousand workers struck to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the beginning of the 1905 revolution.

The right-Mensheviks organised in the Labour Group opposed strikes and instead called for protests in support of the war effort on the opening of the Duma on 14 February. The Bolshevik committee, opposed this and called for strikes on 10 February, the anniversary of the arrest of the Bolshevik Duma deputies.

The strike on 10 February was successful, but not as successful as the strike on the previous day. 90,000 workers came out this time. The Bolshevik committee saw the decline in strikers as a sign that the mood was not yet ready for an all out struggle. Thus, their preparations were for the buildup of a movement in time for May Day of that year. For 8 March (23 February old-style) they opted to call for a demonstration rather than strikes.

By mid-February, only a 10-day reserve of flour remained in Petrograd. Khabalov decided to introduce bread rations cards on 28 February. The next morning, 1 March, there were massive queues in front of the bakeries and in front of all food stores which all emptied quickly. Then the crowds began to break into the stores. This occurred for several days, mainly when the people had been waiting in -20 degrees for hours only to be told that "there isn't any more". This was the mood amongst thousands of poor who had taken up an almost permanent presence on the streets just before the February revolution.

The final element which was added to the mix came on 3 March when a strike broke out in a small shop of the Putilov factory. The workers demanded wage increase to make up for what they had lost to spiralling inflation. Meetings were held in solidarity with the workers across the factory, but the bosses would not concede. The strike spread throughout the factory. Then on 7 March the bosses countered by locking out all of the 26,700 Putilov workers. A strike committee was formed, and delegations dispatched to other factories to drum up support. Thus, on the eve of the February revolution, the most conscious workers from the Putilov works and the enraged masses from the bread queues were already on the move, announcing the imminent break out of the Revolution.

Many bourgeois pundits have put the blame for the revolution on the “irrational” actions of the Tsar and the Tsarist regime in the last months of its existence. If the Tsar had only co-opted the liberals, they say, if he had granted reforms, he could have prevented the revolution and Russia would have embarked on a period of bourgeois democracy. This is typical of bourgeois academics, to reduce great historical events to the accidental actions of this or that individuals. But a revolution more than anything, shows how in the final analysis, the actions of individuals are guided by the historical process.

The Russian revolution had been prepared for decades before those months. Decades of rot developing in every pore of Tsarism, decades of oppression and pent up anger, centuries of tormenting of the peasantry all brought together by the great slaughter of World War One. In all of this the incompetence of the Tsar was an expression of the senile decay of Tsarism itself. A deal with the liberals and the introduction of some kind of government of national unity, would not have changed matters fundamentally, except maybe to discredit the liberals even more before the revolution would finally erupt. Even in the best of cases, liberal democracy, in the form it existed in Russia, had no intention of dealing with any of the burning problems of the masses. Trotsky gave the definite answer to the question:

“But how could Russia with her belated development, coming along at the tail end of the European nations, with her meagre economic foundation underfoot, how could she develop an “elastic conservatism” of social forms - and develop it for the special benefit of professorial liberalism and its leftward shadow, reformist socialism? Russia was too far behind. And when world imperialism once took her in its grip, she had to pass through her political history in too brief a course. If Nicholas had gone to meet liberalism and replaced one with Milyukov, the development of events would have differed a little in form, not in substance. Indeed it was just in this way that Louis behaved in the second stage of the revolution, summoning Gironde to power: this did not save Louis himself from guillotine, nor after him the Gironde. The accumulating social contradictions were bound to break through to the surface, breaking through to carry out their work of purgation. Before the pressure of the popular masses, who had at last brought into the open arena their misfortunes, their pains, indentions, passions, hopes, illusions and aims, the high-up combination the monarchy with liberalism had only an episodic significance. They could exert, to be sure, an influence on the order of events maybe upon the number of actions, but not at all upon development of the drama nor its momentous climax.”

The Russian Revolution was ripe. Independent from, and in fact in opposition to, the will and plans of all rulers, institutions, parties and organisations, the masses were determined to take their destiny into their own hands and no force could stop them once they were on the move.

Putilov factory