Russia’s Collapse: February 1917
Feb 20, 2012
The February Revolution began on this week 95 years ago. And many welcome its coming. The Bolsheviks, as a sign of things to come. The liberals, as the dawn of liberty, to which they consider themselves heirs. Those who welcome it are confident that the revolution is inevitable, as Russia was losing the war, its economy was in shambles, its army was falling apart, its human resources had been exhausted, famine was threatening and an incompetent autocratic government was leading the country blindly. All of this, or course, was far from the truth. But even those who were skeptical about the revolution saw objective reasons for its emergence. Pavel Milyukov, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party [Kadets], described the reasons as such: weak statesmanship, poor social integration, extremist tendencies among the intelligentsia, cultural immaturity, stubbornness of the regime and a lack of sincerity in its concessions. All of this is quite true. But such could be said of Russia not only in the early 20th century but also in the early 19th century and 21st century as well.
Revolutions are rarely inevitable; more often than not, they are the work of man. Revolutions first take form in the minds a select few, who are capable of inciting a critical mass of people with their anti-systemic pathos. And it is not necessary to stir up an entire country – just the capital cities can suffice, as Lenin proved. In 1917, apart from the general impoverishment of a large portion of society (which had always been the case in Russia) and the existence of an unusually active and malcontent oligarchic and aristocratic elite as well as an intelligentsia that provided a substantial cadre of fanatical revolutionaries, Russia was not overwhelmed by conditions unavoidably pushing it toward revolution.
The situation was in fact quite different. When February arrived, Russia was prepared to successfully continue fighting in the war. The country armed, equipped and sent into battle 60 army corps, compared to the 35 it had at the start of the war. The standing army in 1915 had close to 4 million troops; by the end of 1916 this number had reached 7 million. Frontline forces were well suited for battle, as seen in the heroic feats of the Russian army in 1916, both in offensive operations (which were greater in number) and in defensive maneuvers. Aviation had assumed its place in military and the Russian fleet was expanding rapidly. The countries of the Quadruple Alliance, led by Germany, had more reason to consider themselves doomed. It was already clear that the world’s largest economy, the United States, would soon join forces with the Triple Entente. The country had succeeded in great increasing its coordination with its allies, and military and technical support from the West had begun to arrive.
Russia substantially bolstered its own military-industrial complex: in comparison to the start of the war, by 1916 machine-gun production had increased six-fold, light arms production – nine-fold, three-inch shells – 16-fold. In record time – 12 months – a 1050 km railroad was built to Murmansk, where external aid was received, and by 1917 in total 12,000 km of railroad track had been built out of the 17,000 km stipulated in the government’s military transport program.
The economic situation during the war was rather difficult throughout the country, but Russia has always been something of a mess. It should be noted that, on the one hand, food provision problems in Russia were substantially less than in other countries engaged in the conflict, were largely restrict to major cities and the peasantry was almost completely unaffected. Russia was not facing famine and economic ruin in the winter of 1916-1917; there was enough bread and industry was on the rise. The hunger and economic collapse would come a year later thanks to the actions of the revolutionary governments.
The human price of the war was enormous, but nonetheless smaller than was commonly assumed in Soviet times. Our casualties, 5.5 million dead and wounded, were less than those of Germany (6.05 million), which fought on two fronts. The proportion of people mobilized for the war in Russia was less than that of any of the major European powers. Throughout the entire war 8.7% of the Russian population was mobilized in the army, while for Britain this figure stood at 10.7%, in France and Austria – 17%, and in Germany – 20.7%.
History, of course, scorns “what-ifs”, and we will never know when and how the First World War would have ended if not for the Revolution, which resulted in Russia’s shameful defeat and the most humiliating separate Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. But we do know that the war came to an end: Germany capitulated in November 1918. It is logical to assume that had Russia remained among the warring countries, had the strategic plans agreed upon by allies been implemented, then the war could have ended with the same result – the triumph of the Entente – but only earlier and with Russia’s participation. And Nikolai II had postponed domestic reforms until the end of the war.
As Plato knew, a consolidated elite is invulnerable to the masses. The reason behind the February Revolution was an irreconcilable split in the elite, positing an enormous part of the political class and intelligentsia against the regime. The ideological and organizational work was carried out by parties and organizations of a liberal and socialist mindset as well as certain representatives of the financial and industrial oligarchy headed by Alexander Guchkov and the Zemstvo movement, representing Zemgor and military-industrial complex. These were the channels used, alongside masonry, to provide access to the military chiefs, who to a large degree guaranteed the success of the overthrow, launched by a revolt of reserve troops at the Petrograd garrison. It was the military leadership, and General Alekseev above all else, who forced Nikolai II to abdicate and stopped any suppression of the revolt. These groups explained their anti-government actions by need to save the country from pro-German traitors, represented by Empress Alexandra and Rasputin’s circle. But in the 95 years since, even the most meticulous research has failed to turn up an evidence of such betrayal or conspiracy (despite the horrid details of Rasputin’s life). But the autocracy actually had already ceased to exist back in 1906, when with the adoption of the Russian Constitution of 1906 the country became a dualist constitutional monarchy.
The revolution was also the fault of the powers that be – namely Emperor Nikolai II. However, his guilt is not what it is often claimed to be: a lack of liberal reforms or betrayal of national interests in favor of Germany. Implementing liberal reforms during a time of war would be suicidal for any state, and the emperor was an undeniable patriot. His main weakness was that while he was a fine wearer of the crown and a good top bureaucrat, he was a poor monarch as a politician. He did not like politics and he did not trust politicians. Major political figures, such as Witte or Stolypin, were few and far between in Nikolai II’s circles and they largely felt out of place. He too often placed his hope on heavenly powers and too infrequently played to the sympathies of the elite. He lost the information war. The tsar failed to pay proper attention to the atmosphere on the streets and the emergence of massive opposition to the state. And, finally, he displayed a lack of resolution to fight for power until the end, which deprived him of substantial support, thus opening the doors to revolution…
Revolution came, putting an end to Russia as it had existed for many centuries during a time of world war. The fathers of the revolution (the Provisional Government’s composition had been decided back in 1915) did not fully comprehend the nature of power or the country which they intended to govern. A nation at war was for the first time in history proposed a very extreme form of political liberalism. Acting with full conviction that representatives of the former regime were incompetent, against the people and likely to betray, the Provisional Government in sound mind and body liquidated the entire government apparatus of Russia, leaving the Bolsheviks (with their idea of tearing down the old state machine) with practically nothing to do. On March 7, Prime Minister Georgy Lvov said: “The Provisional Government has removed the old governors, and new ones will not be appointed… The future belongs to the people, which is revealing it genius in these historic days.” The mechanism of local administration in Russia had ceased to function. National frontiers began to break off. The Provisional Government completely destroyed Russia’s law enforcement system. The functions of preserving law and order were taken up by armed groups in a state of progressive decay. Within a matter of months the Provisional Government ceased to exist; it had no defenders. The power vacuum left behind was quickly filled by a marginal ultra-left party which established its own dictatorship, and the country founded itself in the midst of a fratricidal civil war.
February 1917 is one of the saddest times in Russian history. Over the course a few days, Russian statehood was destroyed and, together with it, a great country.
Doctor of Historical Sciences
Russkiy Mir Executive Director
Dean of the School of Public Administration, Moscow State University
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