The February Revolution (which, according to New Style dates, actually took place in March) developed out of a wave of industrial strikes in Petrograd from January to March 1917. It gathered force when workers at Russia's largest factory were locked out on March 7 and when women workers at a few factories, angered by the food shortages, marched out from their factories on March 8 demanding bread. Men at nearby factories joined them, and over the next two days antigovernment demonstrations grew to include most of the industrial work force. By March 10 they were joined by students and broad sections of the urban lower and middle classes. Soldiers who were called out to help break up demonstrations acted with reluctance. The government's ordering of troops to fire into the crowds on March 11 broke the fragile bonds of discipline among the soldiers, who were mostly recent draftees with the same grievances as the demonstrators. A revolt by one detachment of the Volynsky Guard Regiment the morning of March 12 (February 27 O.S.) quickly spread to other regiments. By midday the government lost control of the means of armed coercion and collapsed.
To this point the revolution had been mainly a popular revolt, with little leadership. What there was came from socialist activists at the factory level and from individuals who emerged as organizers of factory demonstrations and leaders in attacks on police stations and other symbols of authority. The revolutionary parties, whose main leaders were in exile, played few leadership roles before March 12. But leadership was necessary to consolidate the revolution that had taken place in the streets. Two groups stepped forward on March 12. One was a group of Duma leaders who had watched the events of the preceding days, concerned about their implications for the war effort but also realizing that this might offer the long-sought opportunity to force Tsar Nicholas II to reform the government. That evening they formed a "Temporary Committee of the State Duma," which would take governmental responsibility in Petrograd. They opened negotiations with the army high command to secure its support in forcing Nicholas to make concessions. The involvement of these respected public figures proved vital in the following days.
At the same time, a multiparty group of socialist intellectuals met at the Duma building and led workers and soldiers in the formation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. This was a more avowedly revolutionary body, committed to making the street revolt into a sweeping social and economic as well as political revolution. The Duma Committee and the Petrograd Soviet leaders immediately, if warily, began to cooperate to consolidate the February Revolution and to form a new government. On March 15 they announced formation of a Provisional Government that would govern Russia until a new governmental system could be created by a Constituent Assembly, which was to be elected by universal franchise. The same day Nicholas II gave way to the reality of events and the pressures from his army commanders, and abdicated. News of the revolution in Petrograd sparked mostly peaceful revolutions in the cities and towns of Russia. New city governments, drawn primarily from liberal circles of educated society, replaced the old government authorities, while alongside them local soviets of workers and soldiers deputies sprang up.
The new government was drawn primarily from the liberal political leadership of the country. Its head, the minister-president, was Prince G. E. Lvov, a well-known liberal. The socialist Petrograd Soviet leaders promised to support the new government insofar as it pursued policies of which they approved. This political situation, however, was very unstable. The existence of the Petrograd Soviet alongside the Provisional Government robbed the latter of much of its actual authority, giving rise to what quickly was dubbed "dual-authority" (dvoyevlastie ). The government had the generally recognized official authority and responsibility but not the effective power, while the Soviet had the actual power but not responsibility for governing. This situation emerged because the Soviet commanded the primary loyalty of the industrial workers and garrison soldiers, the main bases of power in Petrograd, and could call on this support in a conflict with the government.
The February Revolution resulted not merely in the overthrow of the monarchy and creation of a new government, but in an unleashing of popular self-assertion and the formation of thousands of organizations dedicated to expressing popular aspirations. Factory committees, soldiers' committees, trade and professional unions, cultural clubs, minority nationalist organizations, feminist groups, householders' associations, and other organizations were created to safeguard and advance the interests and hopes of the population in its varied identities. These became a major force in the later unfolding of the revolution as they asserted themselves and as political parties and leaders struggled to articulate their demands and win their allegiance. Gaining control over popular activism became one of the key tasks of the political elites and would-be leaders of the revolution.
As the new political system was unstable, it took some time for the main contours of power to become clear. While political parties remained important, three broad political blocs quickly emerged: liberals, moderate socialists, and radical left socialists. The liberals, represented especially by the Cadet Party (Constitutional Democrats), dominated the first Provisional Government and then shared it in coalition with the moderate socialists from May to October. The moderate socialists—the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) predominantly—were the main force in the Petrograd and most other soviets around the country. The radical left—Bolsheviks, left-wing Mensheviks, and SRs, anarchists—were at first a small minority voice, but soon grew as the alternative to the "coalition" of liberals and moderate socialists when the Provisional Government failed to satisfy popular aspirations. Socialism was the overwhelming political position in 1917, and therefore the conflict between the moderate and radical socialists determined the main course of politics in 1917.
The moderate socialists, primarily Mensheviks and SRs, took form first. A key development here was the return of a group of socialist exiles from Siberia in March. Under the leadership of Irakli Tsereteli, a Georgian Menshevik, they established the policy of Revolutionary Defensism as the basic policy of the Petrograd Soviet (and, in fact, for most soviets in the country). Revolutionary Defensism spoke to the desire of the populace for an end to the war by calling for a general negotiated peace based on the principle of self-determination of nations and without annexations or indemnities. At the same time it addressed still strong patriotism by calling for continued defense of the country until this peace could be achieved. The Revolutionary Defensists also were willing to cooperate with the liberals in the Provisional Government, and beginning in May some of their leaders entered the government in what was called "coalition" governments—that is, ones with liberals and socialists, after massive antiwar demonstrations underscored the weakness of the government and strength of the Soviet.
A radical left opposition to these policies existed from the beginning, but received a major reinforcement by the return of political exiles from Western Europe. The most important of these proved to be Vladimir Lenin, who electrified politics on his return in April by denouncing not only the government, but also the policy of the dominant Revolutionary Defensists. This made the Bolsheviks relatively impotent in the optimistic mood of the spring of 1917, but positioned them to receive the support of the dissatisfied sections of the population in the summer and fall as the policies of the Revolutionary Defensists and the Provisional Government failed to find a way out of the war or to solve domestic problems.
The Provisional Government initiated important and far-reaching reforms, especially in areas of civil rights and individual and group freedoms. However, the new leadership faced almost unsolvable problems. The desire for peace was immense, and failure to make progress on ending the war undermined both the Provisional Government and the Revolutionary Defensist leaders of the Petrograd Soviet. This problem was compounded by an enormously unpopular, and unsuccessful, military offensive in the summer, which drove the soldiers and many others leftward politically. The government also failed to move swiftly to meet the peasantry's expectations for land reform. During the summer and early fall the economy deteriorated rapidly, food and other goods became ever scarcer, crime rose, and other social and economic problems multiplied, along with rising social tensions. Demands for autonomy or even separatism grew among some of the national minorities. The cumulative problems gave rise by June to a call for "All Power to the Soviets," a call for a more radical, soviet-based, government that would act more vigorously to end the war and solve the many problems. This resulted in massive street demonstrations in favor of soviet power in July (the "July Days"). This in turn was followed by an attack on the government from the right on September 9–13, the unsuccessful putsch by General Lavr Kornilov. Meanwhile, the Provisional Government was unstable, undergoing fundamental restructuring (accompanied by violence and major crises) in May, July, and September. During one of these Alexander Kerensky, a moderate socialist, became head of the government on July 21.
By September the radicals were winning reelections to the leadership of soviets, workers' and soldiers' committees, and other popular institutions. The Kornilov Affair gave an enormous boost of support for the Bolsheviks and radical left. Bolshevik-led coalitions took the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet—the most important political institution in the country—and soviets in Moscow and elsewhere. This, in addition to the increasing social problems and tensions, prepared the ground for the October Revolution.
See also: april theses; bolshevism; kornilov affair; lenin, vladimir ilich; mensheviks; nicholas ii; october revolution; revolution of 1905
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Rex A. Wade
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February Revolution (in Russian history)
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