MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events
February Revolution (24-27, 1917)
World War I had lasted 31 long months by February, 1917. Russian soldiers were being killed in mass, and bread lines at home were growing longer everyday. Peasants who had been sent to war lost their land by the expropriations of the kulaks, who by 1917 owned 90% of Russia's arable land. Food prices were thus on the rise: In 1916, food prices accelerated three times higher than wages, despite bumper harvests in both 1915 and 1916. The price of grain in 1916, already at two and a half rubles per pud, kulaks anticipated to raise up to twenty five rubles per pud. Hoping to raise prices, kulaks hoarded their food surplus.
Throughout 1916, the average urban labourer, mostly women, ate between 200 and 300 grams of food a day. In 1917, the tsarist government permitted the urban populations of Russia to buy only one pound of bread per adult, per day. In practice, workers sometimes went days without food. Strikes became commonplace.
On the morning of February 23, International Women's Day, "overcoming the resistance of their own revolutionary organisations, the initiative taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat – [by] women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers' wives. The overgrown breadlines had provided the last stimulus. About 90,000 workers, men and women, were on strike that day. The fighting mood expressed itself in demonstrations, meetings, encounters with the police. The movement began in the Vyborg district with its large industrial establishments; thence it crossed over to the Petersburg side. There were no strikes or demonstrations elsewhere, according to the testimony of the secret police. On that day detachments of troops were called in to assist the police – evidently not many of them – but there were no encounters with them. A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal duma demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat. Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, and inscriptions on them showed that the workers wanted bread, but neither autocracy nor war. Woman's Day passed successfully, with enthusiasm and without victims. But what it concealed in itself, no one had guessed even by nightfall.
On the following day the movement not only fails to diminish, but doubles. About one-half of the industrial workers of Petrograd are on strike on the 24th of February. The workers come to the factories in the morning; instead of going to work they hold meetings; then begin processions toward the centre. New districts and new groups of the population are drawn into the movement. The slogan "Bread!" is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: "Down with autocracy!" "Down with the war!" Continuous demonstrations on the Nevsky – first compact masses of workmen singing revolutionary songs, later a motley crowd of city folk interspersed with the blue caps of students. "The promenading crowd was sympathetically disposed toward us, and soldiers in some of the war-hospitals greeted us by waving whatever was at hand." How many clearly realised what was being ushered in by this sympathetic waving from sick soldiers to demonstrating workers? But the Cossacks constantly, though without ferocity, kept charging the crowd. Their horses were covered with foam. The mass of demonstrators would part to let them through, and close up again. There was no fear in the crowd. "The Cossacks promise not to shoot," passed from mouth to mouth. Apparently some of the workers had talks with individual Cossacks. Later, however, cursing. half-drunken dragoons appeared on the scene. They plunged into the crowd, began to strike at heads with their lances. The demonstrators summoned all their strength and stood fast. They won't shoot." And in fact they didn't.
Throughout the entire day, crowds of people poured from one part of the city to another. They were persistently dispelled by the police, stopped and crowded back by cavalry detachments and occasionally by infantry. Along with shouts of "Down with the police!" was heard oftener and oftener a "Hurrah!" addressed to the Cossacks. That was significant. Toward the police the crowd showed ferocious hatred. They routed the mounted police with whistles, stones, and pieces of ice. In a totally different way the workers approached the soldiers. Around the barracks, sentinels, patrols and lines of soldiers stood groups of working men and women exchanging friendly words with the army men. This was a new stage, due to the growth of the strike and the personal meeting of the worker with the army. Such a stage is inevitable in every revolution. But it always seems new, and does in fact occur differently every time: those who have read and written about it do not recognise the thing when they see it.
In the State Duma that day they were telling how an enormous mass of people had flooded Znamensky Square and all Nevsky Prospect, and the adjoining streets and that a totally unprecedented phenomenon was observed: the Cossacks and the regiments with bands were being greeted by revolutionary and not patriotic crowds with shouts of "Hurrah!" To the question, "What does it all mean? the first person accosted in the crowd answered the deputy: A policeman struck a woman with a knout; the Cossacks stepped in and drove away the police." Whether it happened in this way or another, will never be verified. But the crowd believed that it was so, that this was possible. The belief had not fallen out of the sky; it arose from previous experience, and was therefore to become an earnest of victory.
The workers at the Erikson, one of the foremost mills in the Vyborg district, after a morning meeting came out on the Sampsonievsky Prospect, a whole mass, 2,500 of them, and in a narrow place ran into the Cossacks. Cutting their way with the breasts of their horses, the officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the Prospect galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. "Some of them smiled," Kayurov recalls, "and one of them gave the workers a good wink" This wink was not without meaning. The workers were emboldened with a friendly, not hostile, kind of assurance, and slightly infected the Cossacks with it. The one who winked found imitators. In spite of renewed eff6rts from the officers, the Cossacks, without openly breaking discipline, failed to force the crowd to disperse, but flowed through it in streams. This was repeated three or four times and brought the two sides even closer together. Individual Cossacks began to reply to the workers' questions and even to enter into momentary conversations with them. Of discipline there remained but a thin transparent shell that threatened to break through any second. The officers hastened to separate their patrol from the workers, and, abandoning the idea of dispersing them, lined the Cossacks out across the street as a barrier to prevent the demonstrators from getting to the centre. But even this did not help: standing stock-still in perfect discipline, the Cossacks did not hinder the workers from "diving" under their horses. The revolution does not choose its paths: it made its first steps toward victory under the belly of a Cossack's horse. A remarkable incident! And remarkable the eye of its narrator [Trotsky] – an eye which took an impression of every bend in the process. No wonder, for the narrator was a leader; he was at the head of over two thousand men. The eye of a commander watching for enemy whips and bullets looks sharp...
Strikes increased in mass, calling for an end to the war, for bread, the overthrow of the tsar, the dismantling of the police; while the tsar deployed more soldiers and police to stand against the revolting people. On several occassions civilians were gunned down, the government using rifles and machine guns from the roofs and windows of buildings, fearing to be in the streets. Massacres occur on the Nevsky Prospect on the 26th of February, street fighting breaks out in several places, with both police and workers being beaten.
Towards evening of the 27th, a stream of soldiers, workers, students and miscellaneous people flows toward the Tauride, Palace. Here they hope to find those who know everything -- to get information and instructions. From all sides ammunition is being carried by armfuls into the palace, and deposited in a room that has been converted into an arsenal. At nightfall, the revolutionary staff settles down to work. It sends out detachments to guard the railway stations, and despatches reconnoitring squads wherever danger lurks. The soldiers carry out eagerly and without a murmur, although very unsystematically, the orders of the new authorities. But they always demand a written order. The initiative in this probably came from the fragments of the military staff which had remained with the troops, or from the military clerks. But they were right; it is necessary to bring order immediately into the chaos. The staff, as well as the new born Soviet, had as yet no seals. The revolution has still to fit itself out with the implements of bureaucratic management. In time this will be done-alas, too well.
The revolution begins a search for enemies. Arrests are made all over the city-"arbitrarily," as the liberals will say reproachfully later. But the whole revolution is arbitrary. Streams of people are brought into the Tauride under arrest such people as the Chairman of the State Council, ministers, policemen, secret service men, the "pro-German" countess, whole broods of gendarme officers. Several statesmen, such as Protopopov, will come of their own volition to be arrested: it is safer so. "The walls of the chamber which had resounded to hymns in praise of absolutism, now heard but sobbing and sighs," the countess will subsequently relate. "An arrested general sank down exhausted on a near-by chair. Several members of the Duma kindly offered me a cup of tea. Shaken to the depths of his soul, the general was saying excitedly: Countess, we are witnessing the death of a great country."
Meanwhile, the great country, which had no intention of dying, marched by these people of the past, stamping its boots, clanging the butts of its rifles, rending the air with its shouts, and stepping all over their feet. A revolution is always distinguished by impoliteness, probably because the ruling classes did not take the trouble in good season to teach the people fine manners.
In the ensuing days of the revolution the Duma attempted to negotiate with the tsar to resume power, but failed. The Petrograd Soviet refused action. Some Kadets and the leaders of the Progressive Bloc suggested a military dicatorship to the Grand Duke Mikhail (Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Military), but failed. Having no where else to turn but to themselves, a Provisional Government was created by the Russian Duma. It lasted for less than eight months, before being overthrown by the October Revolution.