The opening days of the Russian Revolution


Paul Vernadsky

23 February marks the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the Russian revolution of 1917. This extract from Paul Vernadsky’s forthcoming book on the revolution describes the background and opening events — the democratic revolution, ousting the Tsar, which would eventual lead to a workers’ revolution.

In October 1917 the Russian working class, led by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP, Bolshevik party), took power through their mass, democratic soviets (councils). The workers constituted their own state based on the collective and democratically-organised armed force of labour, allied with rank-and-file soldiers, mostly peasants in uniform.

The Bolshevik party established a workers’ government that carried out exactly what the workers and peasants demanded: an end to the war, land to those who worked it, a shorter working day and workers’ control over production. They brought liberation to the oppressed, separating the church from the state, relaxing marriage and divorce laws, granting self-determination to nations previously imprisoned by the Russian empire. They succeeded in shattering the old bourgeois state, most notably its army, gendarmerie and old state bureaucracy.

They proceeded to deconstruct capitalist relations of production and put in place an economic system where the imperative was social need, not private profit. The story of twelve months that shook the world, the first time that workers have taken power and hung onto it for a period of years deserves to be discussed and assimilated to every modern revolutionist’s theoretical arsenal. Russia Few predicted at the start of 1917 that Russian workers would finish the year ruling their own state and spark a worldwide surge for socialism. Yet Russia on the cusp of 1917 was a society rife with contradictions, a tinderbox ready to blow.

In the words of a contemporary “everyone knew then that the country was living on a volcano”. By 1917 the conditions for revolution were present. An incompetent government, a discredited monarch, divisions within the ruling elite, alienation of wide sections of society from the regime, deteriorating economic conditions, industrial strikes, extreme war-weariness, resentful armed forces, a revival of activity by revolutionary parties, widespread anxieties and a sense that something had to break soon.

Russia was a backward country, but part of the capitalist world economy. There were an estimated 160 million people living within the Russian empire, with 80% peasants. Around a fifth lived in urban spaces, with thirty cities reaching the threshold of 100,000 inhabitants. St Petersburg and Moscow both had around two million people, while Riga, Kiev and Odessa had half a million each. Russians toiled under the yoke of the Tsarist absolute monarchy, which forbade even the limited liberal freedoms found elsewhere in Europe and whose secret police (the Okhrana) and its Siberian prisons repressed those who raised their hands against the regime. Russian economy and society was subject to the most extreme pressures from what Trotsky called the laws of uneven and combined development. Economically, politically and socially Russia consisted of “the most primitive beginnings and the latest European endings”.

In the three decades before the revolution, imperial Russia underwent an industrial revolution. Spurred by pressure from the capitalist world economy and sponsored by the Tsarist state, foreign and domestic capital jump-started a modern mode of production. At the centre of these contradictory processes were the workers, “thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plough”.

The working class consisted of about 3.5 million factory and mine workers (with over 400,000 in St Petersburg and Moscow), together with construction workers, railway workers, dockers and various kinds of wage labourers. In all, about 18.5 million workers, or 10% of the population. It was a diverse working class, with more than 100 different ethnicities (including about twenty major nationalities) of widely differing size, culture, language, beliefs and economic development. Working-class struggles erupted in these industrialised areas from the 1870s onwards. In June 1896 there was a mass strike movement in St Petersburg. Then in 1905 workers rose in revolution as part of a wider social protest including liberal bourgeois forces criticising the Tsar.

Workers drove the movement. Three million took part in strikes. They organise soviets — democratic workers’ councils — based on workplaces in towns and cities, with directly elected, recallable representatives and loquacious assemblies. The revolt forced the autocracy to concede a toothless parliament (the Duma) and make some limited reforms. But it soon resorted to repression, beating down the peasants and workers, driving their organisations underground, without ever extinguishing the fire. In the first six months of 1914, some 1.3 million factory workers alone took strike action.

Repressed and atomised by wartime conditions, they rose again with almost a million strikers in 1916. Nationalist fever swept Russia on the outbreak of war, throwing back the working class movement. The capital St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd to make it sound less “German”, although anti-war socialists kept using the old name. The fighting took a terrible toll on the Russian population, after fifteen million people were drafted into the army. By the end of 1916, Russia had lost about 5.7 million soldiers, 3.6 million of them dead or seriously wounded, with the rest prisoners of war. There was seething discontent at the front, with the death penalty used for deserters. In the rear, the Petrograd garrison had about 180,000 troops, with another 150,000 in the surrounding suburbs and some two million in total. Soldiers, conscripted peasants and workers in uniform, yearned for peace.

In the first two months of 1917, over half a million workers took strike action, the lion’s share of them in the capital. In spite of police raids, on 9 January 150,000 workers went on strike in the capital, led by metal-workers. On the 14 February, the day the Duma opened, about 90,000 were on strike in Petrograd and several plants stopped work in Moscow. Hundreds of university students, ignoring threats by the police, marched down the Nevsky Prospect in the capital singing revolutionary songs. Bread rationing was introduced, sparking queues and the sacking of some bakeries. These were “the heat lightnings of the revolution, coming in a few days”.

On 22 February, bosses locked out workers at the Putilov plant, throwing 30,000 onto the streets. The prologue to revolution was over. At the start of 1917 an autocracy ruled, although when the tsar took control of the army during the war, the government was left to Tsarina Alexandra and her mystical adviser Grigori Rasputin. The largest forces in the Duma were the constitutional monarchist Octobrist party of Alexander Guchkov and Mikhail Rodzianko, the liberal bourgeois Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) led by Pavel Miliukov, and the bourgeois-liberal Progressist Party led by Ivan Efremov, Alexander Konovalov and Pavel Riabushinskii. During the war, even these forces of order become a focal point of opposition to the imperial regime. The forces of the left were savagely repressed and existed legally only through a small number of representatives in the Duma and in some semi-legal trade unions.

The largest party was the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a populist party with roots in the earlier Narodnik (people’s) revolutionary movement, who considered themselves the union of the intelligentsia, the workers and the peasants. The Labour Group (Trudoviks), a peasant party, had ten deputies in the Duma, including Aleksandr Kerensky. The other main forces claimed the mantle of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). In the underground, SRs played a significant role in building trade unions, cooperatives, cultural-educational societies and other workers’ organisations. The memoirist Nikolai Sukhanov, who shifted from the SRs to social democracy, estimated that the SRs had the allegiance of one-third of the working class before the First World War.

The SRs were divided into factions and suffered splits, such as the SR-Maximalists. The right supported the Tsar’s government in the world war, while the left led by Maria Spiridonova and Mark Natanson opposed the conflict. Victor Chernov was the leading theorist of the party, but represented the party centre and was politically weak. The SR leaders were mostly in exile at the outbreak of revolution and much of their loose organisation was in disarray. Nevertheless, it represented a significant force in the Russian revolution.

The RSDLP was formed in 1898 on the model of the German Social Democratic Party. “Social democrat” at that time meant a socialist strongly influenced by Marxist ideas and in Russia, by the specific Marxist ideas of George Plekhanov (Populists, too, read Marx). However at the second congress in 1903, held in exile, the party split into two factions: the Bolsheviks (derived from the Russian for majority) led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (minority), headed by Julius Martov. These factions reunited within the RSDLP in 1906-07, but diverged after the Tsarist regime re-established itself and subsequently divided for good.

Social democrats disagreed about issues such as the character of the next revolution, about whether to “liquidate” the party into a broad labour congress and over “otzovism” (recall-ism), withdrawing from attempts to work in the Duma and other legal organisations and concentrating exclusively on underground work. These splits deepened from 1912 as working class militancy revived and was further extended at the outbreak of war, despite attempts by conciliators to unify the factions.

Some Menshevik liquidationists supported the war, whilst Menshevik internationalists opposed it. Lenin favoured defeatism for Russia (in a reactionary imperialist war revolutionaries should consider the defeat of their “own” government the lesser evil), while Trotsky took a more straightforward
internationalist position, promoting slogans for peace. Within Russia the pro-war factions worked in the workers’ group of the war industries committee, while Bolsheviks, the interdistrict committee (Mezhraoinka) and other social democrats managed to carry on the class struggle from their strongholds in the Vyborg district of Petrograd and the giant Putilov factory.

There were also a small number of Russian anarchists either in exile or active with the country. The anarchist-communists took their inspiration from Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, advocating free federation of communes, while the anarcho-syndicalists looked to workplace organisation (and some individualist-anarchists rejected all forms of organisation). Anarchists took part with social democrats and SRs in fomenting strikes, distributing leaflets and agitating for the downfall of the regime.

Thursday 23 February was international women’s day in the Russian calendar (some 13 days behind the system used in the rest of Europe, where it was 8 March). Revolutionaries had planned demonstrations and strikes for this socialist festival, but the day was transformed by protests by working-class women, angry that after working for twelve hours they had to wait in food lines with no guarantee of getting any bread or provisions. Throngs of militant women workers marched on the large factories across Petrograd and brought out 90,000 workers to join the demonstrations on that day. Factory activists organised strike committees and called for the continuation of strikes on Friday 24 February. Some 200,000 workers come on strike in Petrograd, about half the industrial workforce.

Besides calling for “Bread!” workers raise slogans such as “Down with autocracy!” “Down with the war!” It was a popular revolt. On Saturday 25 February, a general strike kicked off in Petrograd. The police shot at protesters and revolutionists were arrested. The strikes spread wider, with a quarter of a million workers involved. Larger numbers of students and middle-class elements swelled the demonstrations. Students from Petrograd university and the various technical institutes abandoned their studies for the streets. Women faced down soldiers with bayonets, urging them to join the protests. Clashes with the police escalated, and the demand went up to “Disarm the pharaohs!”

On Sunday 26 February, Tsar Nicholas dissolved the state Duma and ordered soldiers to suppress the protests. But Cossack soldiers, long feared by the revolutionaries, winked to indicate their sympathy with the demonstrators – the forces of coercion were no longer willing to repress. Tens of thousands of workers were on the streets. Captain Lashkevich ordered the Petrograd-based Volynskii regiment to use sabres and whips to disperse the crowd and then after the warning bugle, ordered soldiers to fire into the crowds. Chastened soldiers debated the killings in their barracks overnight and the following day they rebelled. They shot their commanding officer — the same Lashkevich who had ordered firing on the crowds the day before.

On Monday 27 February the revolution reached its zenith. The temporary committee of the state Duma, headed by Rodzianko, was formed with a specific goal “to restore order”. But the workers were not finished. Apparently at the suggestion of the Menshevik liquidator Fedor Cherevanin, prominent representatives of the trade-union and co-operative movements together with leftist Duma deputies met to call for a soviet of workers’ deputies to be formed. The Petrograd soviet was reconstituted that evening. The Duma committee and the Petrograd soviet met in opposite wings of the Tauride Palace, the meeting place of the state Duma, which became the physical focal point of the revolution.

Tsarism had been effectively ousted and dual power (dvoevlastie) was being created, whereby a provisional government replaced the fallen autocracy but was “weak to the point of impotence”. Effective power lay in the hands of the soviets. Petrograd bore the brunt of the fighting in the February revolution. The Petrograd city council estimated the numbers killed, wounded and injured at 1,315, of whom 53 were officers, 602 soldiers, 73 policemen and 587 citizens of both sexes.

Who led the February revolution? The sympathetic American historian William Chamberlin described the collapse of the Romanov autocracy as “one of the most leaderless, spontaneous, anonymous revolutions of all times”, while Stalin’s Short Course claimed the credit entirely for the Bolsheviks.

Neither view stands up to scrutiny. Historian Michael Melancon provides copious evidence for socialist agency and leadership of the February revolution, but from a diverse and multifaceted range of organisations. Despite constant repression, by autumn 1916 revolutionary leaders of various socialist groups had begun to coordinate their activities, because they considered the situation to be revolutionary.

During February 1917 an all-socialist leadership group met regularly and continued to do so throughout the protests. Because of differences in outlook, “the left socialists also maintained a separate informational group and the socialist Duma faction performed the same role for the moderates”.

They encouraged demonstrations for bread and attempted to transform these into revolutionary uprisings. All agreed on the overall immediate goal of overthrowing tsarism, although differences in goals and tactics remained. As international women’s day approached, the all-socialist group met but could not agree on slogans. The left socialists, especially the SRs, Left Mensheviks, Mezhraionka and Bolshevik groups pushed for the demonstrations on 23 February, a socialist holiday.

The right socialists, “still smarting at the defeat of their plans as regards the opening of the state Duma on 14 February, were hesitant”. Socialists intervened on 23 February to prolong and deepen the protests. They “issued leaflets, led factory strikes and demonstrations in the streets, held meetings at all levels, including of the joint socialist groups, and agreed on slogans to be used each day”. By the 25 February, the right socialists joined the movement and began to urge the election of soviets.

On 27 February, a group of right socialists, including the SR Kerensky and the Mensheviks Matvei Skobelev and Nikolai Chkheidze, with others, formed the provisional executive committee of the soviet and issued calls for factories and soldiers to send elected deputies to the Tauride Palace. Meanwhile, left socialists issued leaflets urging the movement forward to full revolution. But the rightists prevailed and by evening the soviet executive committee was elected, replicating the composition of the joint socialist group and transforming itself into a proto-government.

Socialists had no specific plans in advance to launch revolutionary disturbances on 23 February and bring them to fruition on 27 February. What they did have, was “an orientation to promote strikes and demonstrations and, if they showed promise, to prolong them and push them toward revolution. Direct and organised socialist involvement and intervention occurred at every single stage”. On 2 March the Tsar abdicated, as did his nominated successor Grand Duke Mikhail a day later. The first provisional government was formed by the provisional committee of the Duma, with Prince Georgi Lvov as minister-president and a cabinet including Miliukov (Kadet) as minister of foreign affairs, Guchkov (Octobrist) as minister of war and Konovalov (Progressist) as minister of trade. It was supported by the Petrograd soviet leaders and Kerensky was made minister of justice. On 3 March the provisional government announced the revolution to the world by radio and installed itself in the Marinskii Palace.