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How Russia Was Pushed into Revolution

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How Russia Was Pushed into Revolution


This year Russia marks the one hundred year anniversary of the 1917 February Revolution. In Soviet times it was called a “bourgeois democratic revolution” (as opposed to the socialist October Revolution), but now more and more historians are inclined to view these events as a successfully planned oup. The publicist and historian Aleksandr Gorianin reflects on what this February Revolution actually was.

A Year Before the Bolsheviks

Let’s count backwards from the Bolshevik coup exactly one year. Lets forget everything we know about that year and immerse ourselves in the details of 25 October 1916 (by the old calendar) Lets try to make a prognosis on this basis. The picture looks clear. There are no more retreats, the Germans havent advanced further than Pinsk and Baranovichi, and the 1500-km Russian-Austrian front runs through the territory of Romania and Austro-Hungary. On the Turkish front, General Nikolai Baratovs corps has pushed their enemy out of Persia and is making its way into Turkish-controlled Mesopotamia—they are only a little more than 100 kilometers from Baghdad. The Germans are still a very difficult opponent, but its already clear that the war can only end with a German defeat. The production of military supplies has been figured out, and the ammunition famine is over. The military is so stocked with artillery and small arms that these munitions will be sufficient for the whole Civil War. Its already clear that the U.S. will enter the war in its last moments.

The February Revolution

The supply bottlenecks have been worked out, as they said back then, for delivering much-needed military supplies from Russias allies: the Romanov-on-Murman port (now called Murmansk) and the Murmansk railroad have been built, and the construction of a bridge across the Amur river has opened a road from Chita to Khabarovsk, which means that a Trans-Siberian thoroughfare runs entirely through Russian territory. The harvest has been successful this year: the livestock population has grown and the deficit of farm workers is bearable, especially since prisoners-of-war are now being used for farm labor. Interruptions to the food supply occur from time to time in various parts of the empire due to congested lines of transportation, but these are not critical problems. If nearly all food supplies are being rationed and are largely composed of substitute foodstuffs in Germany, Russia has only begun rationing sugar (since August 1916) and isnt even thinking about such substitutions. In the cities the military manufacturing allows for a postponement of army service, meaning that while there might not be a surplus of labor, but there is enough of it. Whats more, even when adjusted for inflation, workers incomes have risen by 9% between the years 1914 and 1916. Support payments have remained in place for the families of mobilized workers: 100% for those with children, and from 50%-70% for those without.

Soviet textbooks held as an axiom the claim that in February 1917 Petrograd workers rebelled against their impoverishment and unbearable working conditions. But here is the conclusion made by the Soviet academic Stanislav Strumilin, who was no apologist of prerevolutionary Russia: When one takes into account the lower prices of foodstuffs, necessities, and housing rentals, the incomes of Russian workers were among the highest in the world, in second place behind those of American workers…The real level of labor compensation (by purchasing power) in Russian industry exceeded the level of labor compensation in England, Germany, and France. Strumilin adds: the high level of compensation for Russian workers was combined with a greater number of leisure days and holidays than in other countries Right before the revolution, the average length of the working day in Russian industry was around 250 days. The numbers were completely different in Europe: around 300 working days a year, and up to 310 days in England. The working week was shorter in Russia in 1913 than in France: 57.6 vs. 60 hours, respectively.

As for the countryside, by the time of the February Revolution gentry households had lost their former significance: peasants sowed 89.3% of the countrys land in 1916 (either their own or rented) and owned 94% of livestock. The Russian government did not stop at fully annulling the redemption payments for former manor peasants (which cost the treasury 5.5% of its yearly budget), but it subsequently lowered the direct and indirect taxes paid by the peasantry. In spite of the war, population growth was observed, which was enhanced by the introduction of a prohibition law in 1914.

A new uniform was sewn for the Russian Armys spring offensive according to the pictures of Viktor Vasnetsovsoon the stockpile of these uniforms would be acquired by the Red Army, and its helmet-like headwear would be named after the Soviet commander Budyonny (poor Vasnetsov!). But most importantly, until the end of October 1916 it seemed that Russias political parties were conducting themselves reasonablyjust like their colleagues in other warring countries. Sitting in Zurich, Lenin lamented that an old man like him (he was 46) would not see the end of the Russian autocracy and wrote about the deathly political quiet shackling Europe.

A Coup, Not a Revolution

The February Revolution was the result of a conspiracy between the Progressive Bloc (an association of liberal and centrist factions in both houses of parliament: the State Duma and the State Soviet) and the Central Military-Industrial Committee. The reasoning of the conspirators is understandable: they had come to the conclusion that the tsar needed to be deposed as quickly as possible since this act would become unthinkable afteror even on the threshold ofa victory against the Germans.

The fateful day was 1 November 1916, when the Progressive Bloc broke the political moratorium by demanding that the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Boris Stürmer, retire on account of rumors that he intended to make a separate peace with Germany. Stupidity or betrayal? the preening leader of the Duma faction of cadets, Pavel Milyukov, repeated several times from the tribune. Nikolai II removed Stürmer but put off the question of a responsible ministry (i.e., a government responsible to the Duma). A vote of no confidence for the new head of the government, Alexander Trepov, was the signal to begin preparations to dethrone the Emperor. (The Duma was joined in their lack of confidence by the upper chamber, the State Council). Four months later this dethronement occurred, totally surprising Lenin and the Bolsheviks. And Milyukov had assured (and perhaps even himself believed) that the Progressive Bloc was the lifejacket of the drowning monarchy

Memoirs by contemporaries and minor participants reveal that the February Revolution was the result of a conspiracy by those at the top. This also emerges in their letters and diaries. (Once they realized what they had done, the main participants either modestly denied their authorship or expressed themselves only indirectly for the rest of their lives.) The participants in this conspiracy were not interested in compromise or even a temporary truce with the regime lasting until the end of the warwhich demonstrates their exceptional political naivety. (And this is a generous explanationwe wont mention the less generous ones.) As strategists and thinkers, they had not outgrown even the simplistic populists of the nineteenth century. A purely negative relationship to the government, systematic opposition, is a sign of the infantilism of ones political thought. So the classic thinker of Russian liberalism, the father of constitutional rule in Russia, Boris Chicherin, tried in vain to instill in his political heirs (who, it turns out, werent really heirs at all).

A.I. Guchkov

Prominent public servants, tradespeople, leaders and owners of large enterprises, and Duma members were all pulled into the conspiracy, and there must have been hundreds who were partially or fully initiated. The historian Viktor Brachev concludes: One can say that everyone knew about the existence of a conspiracy in January and February of 1917except the tsar, who quietly left on 22 February for the military high command.

In Soviet times, the thesis of an antirevolutionary bourgeoisie could not be put into doubt, and any attempt to do so was sharply cut off. According to the Soviet Historical Encyclopedia, the motive forces of the February Revolution were the proletariat and peasantry, and the hegemon of the revolution was the working class the workers brought masses of soldiers in their wake. In the mid-1980s they at least started to discuss bourgeois and Masonic plots against the monarchy, but only to ridicule and repudiate them. This inertia can be observed to this day. Perhaps this is why the foundational body of post-Soviet books about the hidden workings of the February Revolutionary is still made up primarily of popular literature, memoirs, and reprint editions of works by émigrés (S. P. Melgunov, G. M, Katkov, V. S. Kobylin, and others)although serious scholarly studies have also managed to appear recently (S. V. Kulikov, V. I. Startsev, F. A. Gaida, and others) to reinforce the thesis that the February Revolution was the result of a conspiracy. In 2011 V. A. Nikonov released a landmark work (over 900 pages), The Fall of Russia. 1917, bringing ideas of an artificial, elite-driven cause for the February events together with the view of them as spontaneous mass events.

It was observed long ago that the latter are impossible without the former. Mikhail Novorusskii, a former terrorist and participant in the assassination of Alexander III, wrote many years before the February coup: Building barricades and strewing their corpses across the streets was always the privilege of the fourth estate of all nations (i.e., the common people). This external fact doesnt tell us anything about the inner workings. If were talking about revolutionary organizations, neither strength of spirit or a surplus of heroism will make them active if the monetary resources supporting them have dried up. As a member of a terrorist group, Mikhail Novorusskii was well acquainted with this issue.

Shortly before his death, Guchkov admitted in conversation with the diplomat and writer Nikolai Bazili in Paris that he led the conspiracy and named its members, but he added (evidently insincerely) that the plan he had developed was not realizedeverything went differently. Sure, everything went differently, but that was later. The plan to depose the tsar worked as planned. Guchkov didnt touch on the matter of monetary resources.

February Flash Mob

Not long before the disruptions started, on 14 February 1917, Kerensky pronounced from the tribune of the Duma: The historic task of the Russian people at the present moment is the task of eliminating a medieval regime without delay, whatever the costs. How could this be possible in the parliament of a warring country? The newspapers joyfully seized upon such words, and they were read in the trenches. Such speeches were hardly accidentalthey clearly were part of the conspirators script for bringing about a palace coup, and they were spoken in order to prepare the country. At a time of war!

The conspirators hurried, hoping to forestall the tsars order about responsible government. This document had already been signed by the Emperor and lay on the desk of the Minister of Justice, Nikolai Dobrovolsky, who had been appointed recently (20 December 1916). This order was to be publicized on Easter (2 April). Did the Emperor want for his concession to the opposition to look like a conciliatory gift for the holiday, an Easter egg, and therefore a little bit less of a concession at the end of the day?

Nikolai II at the Dno railway station a day before his abdication

Those who dont believe in conspiracies or in the mass movements, but believe instead that events have a mystical undercurrent, remember how Rasputin (allegedly) warned the tsar: You will rule as long as Im alive. Two weeks before the beginning of 1917 the mischievous monk was killed. And soon after, in February, heavy snowfall caused a short pause in flour delivery to Petrograd. This pause was deliberately lengthened by a participant in the plot, Nikolai Gavrilov, who managed the Special Council for Foodstuffs. This brought about the first lines outside bakeshops. Some people worked hard to spread rumors that bread cards would soon be brought into use. On 23 February disruptions-- skillfully organized by someonewere already breaking out on the streets.

There is shocking evidence that the February Revolution began as a well-organized flash mob (of course, such a concept didnt exist then). The Petrograd city administrator, General Alexander Balk, describes the events of the International Women Workers Day (23 February, or 8 March by the new calendar)when a womens protest was organized in Petrograd (the workers in Vyborg joined in later)in the following way. The traffic along Liteyny and Nevsky Avenues, writes the general, was unusual, calculated. The points of convergence were Znamenskaya Square, Nevsky Avenue, and the State Duma. There were many ladies in the crowd A thick crowd slowly and peacefully moved along the sidewalks, had lively conversations, laughed, and around two oclock one could hear plaintive, suppressed voices: bread, bread. And so it was everywhere all day. The crowd sort of moaned, bread, bread. But their faces were lively, cheerful, and apparently satisfied by what they thought was a clever pretext for protestingThere was no famine. People could get whatever they needed...It was enjoyable for them to put the police in a stupid and ridiculous position. And in this way a number of entirely loyal people, and especially young people, unconsciously paved the way for the bloody events that have played out over the past days.

By pure coincidence right at this time a number of major defense (!) initiatives in Petrograd declared a lockout, a temporary pause in work. One hundred thousand workers were no longer occupied at their stations and went out to kick up a fuss on the streets. The director of the largest of these factories, the Putilov factory, was a member of the conspiracy, General Aleksey Manikovsky.

By pure coincidence certain mysterious humanitarian funds came up with money on hand to give to the active participants in the demonstrations as a reward. By pure coincidence some rails on the Finland railroad turned out to be loose, and this delayed the arrival of loyal units to the capital from Finland.

After the first day of commotion, it would not have been difficult to prevent the slide into chaos with a simple measure: engineers should have detonated the ice on the Neva River and Obvodny Canal (so that protestors would not be able to cross to the downtown via the ice), and armed barricades should have been set up on the bridges. This would have cut many of the Obukhov and Putilov factory workers off from the mass demonstrations, but more importantly, it would have cut off Vyborg, where the working class was paid less.

Workers at the Putilov factory making shrapnel

Provocateurs quickly appeared from nowhere and took over the crowd. It suddenly became evident (though it was already well-known) that the reserve regiments stationed in the capital had become so comfortable in their barracks and so spoiled by their well-fed and safe life at the rear that they were ready to support any disorder or antiwar slogans as long as they could evade being sent to the front and parting with the lovely chambermaids of the capital. Not for nothing did clever people call the capitals garrison The Petrograd Running Clubafter two-and-a-half years of war it included many soldiers who were partially fit or shied away from the front under some kind of excuse. As concerns the Guard, the most loyal and competent were sadly stationed at Łomża. It is telling that the removal of these unreliable units from Petrograd was demanded long before by those who were rumored to be German spies: Premier Boris Stürmer and Minister of the Interior Alexander Protopov.

Sadly, the confusion in peoples minds was not helped by the position of the Holy Synod. When Petrograd was besieged by demonstrations and unrest in the streetsespecially from 24 February onthe Synod passed up the opportunity to turn to the faithful with an appeal that would have been read in churches and posted on the streets. It would have been a forceful warning and carried the Churchs punishment if disobeyed. But the leading member of the Synod, the Kiev Metropolitan Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky) could not forgive Nikolai II for removing him from the capital to Kiev and responded to this suggestion with the following: This is always how it is. When we arent needed, they dont notice us, but in a moment of danger they turn to us first for help. And he didnt agree to make such a declaration in the Churchs name. (The Procurator of the Synod, Nikolai Raev, was absent from the meeting.) Metropolitan Vladimir doubtlessly regretted his words bitterly in the coming days. Less than a year later, soon after the Bolsheviks had taken Kiev, he was brutally murdered outside the Kiev-Pechersk Monastery.

Psychological Confusion

The sages who planned the February coup overlooked one main thingas did those who rejoiced when it happened: they had released the negative energy of the masses. The confusion that the tsars abdication on 2 March 1917 caused in the minds of the common people had few precedents in Russian history. A mighty way of life that had been working for centuries suddenly fell away. (Ivan Bunin)

The first to benefit from what happened were indisputably the members of the Progressive Bloc. But the socialist and separatist parties, who played no role in deposing the tsar, happily took advantage of these events. They very quickly stomped over the liberals, whose brilliant minds clearly did not imagine such a scenario.

On 1 March 1917, Churchill would write later, the tsar was still on his throne. The Russian Empire and Russian Army were holding on, the front was holding fast, and victory was guaranteed The system headed by Nikolai II at that moment was winning the war for Russia. Churchill had in mind 1 March by the Gregorian calendar, that is, 16 February for the Russian Empire. If Nikolai had come to his senses that day, everything could have turned out differently. In any event, the fateful outcome was not predetermined. The tsar could have come to his senses and conducted himself like a man even 13 days later, on 1 March by the old style. He could have simply called his personal convoy into the train car where the traitorous general Ruzsky forced him to abdicate. In any case, Churchills words are a good warning to anyone who is prone to delusions about the apparent obviousness of the situation.

Members of the Provisional Government

However bleak the events of those days may have lookedthe Volynsky regiments betrayal, the fateful inaction of General Khabalov, the treachery of the rail workers, the undignified behavior of the military command, and even the Emperors abdicationthey did not lead necessarily and unambiguously to a national catastrophe. There is one other detail, which hasnt exactly gone without notice but has somehow not got the attention from historians it deserves. On 27 February 1917 the State Duma, which had already been dissolved, gave birth to a new agency not provided for by the law: the Provisional Committee of the State Duma, headed by M.V. Rodzianko, and on 2 March this newly created committee formed the Provisional Government. Nonetheless, this Provisional Governmentwhich had come from within the Dumabroke from the Duma right away. It broke with the agency of popular representation to which it owed its own existence! The Duma had many reasonable delegates, and even the Progressive Bloc was coming to its senses. Perhaps this was the direst of all the mistakes made by the Provisional Government.

In the event of a speedy renewal of the Dumas work, the monstrous Order No. 1 that decimated the army would have been completely impossible. So-called dual power would have been impossible. So would have been many other fateful events and circumstances. In hindsight, it is unbearable to relive the legal vacuum of those days and weeks even today, a century later. Why didnt that feeling torment those who were leading events back thenthe staunch democrats of the Progressive Bloc? They were evidently certain that they had made the best of an opportunity and taken the shortest path (past the Duma) to become the real power. Feeling themselves to be in power, they stopped hurrying. In so doing, the Provisional Government signed a sentence condemning themselves, Russian parliamentarism, and, in the final analysis, tens of millions of people.

Aleksandr Gorianin


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