February 1917: Anatomy of a Revolution

During the 1930s, Stalin nationalized the Soviet economy and reinstituted the strict policies of wartime to create a command economy. He demanded laborers build the heavy industrial base that would create a modern industrialized economy, forced the peasants into mass collective farms that led to millions of deaths during the Great Famine (1932–1933), and provoked a mass migration of millions of peasants to the Russian urban centers (1928–1932). By 1934, Stalin declared the revolution was over.

Read this article. Make a timeline as you read and consider the long-term impact of the revolution on world history.

From Protest to Insurrection

On Friday February 24 (March 9) the strikes developed an impetus which turned them from a protest into an insurrection. Workers went to their workplaces, but only to hold mass political meetings which decided to continue the strike and demonstrate as before. However many more plants and 200,000 workers were now involved. Serious fighting with the police and mounted troops now covered the city's streets.

If the women workers had led the way on day one the star turn was preformed by the younger element (male and female) on day two.

"Before the revolution progressive young workers had engaged in underground work, occupied themselves in study circles, distributed leaflets and participated in strikes. Now … They marched in the front ranks of the demonstrators, attended rallies and clashed with the police… They were the first to inform the workers that troops and police were approaching, tell them where demonstrators were to assemble, what rallies were scheduled and so forth. Young workers organized pickets to prevent resumption of work. The police reported on February 24 that crowds consisting chiefly of young workers were stopping streetcars, singing revolutionary songs and throwing chunks of ice, bolts and other objects at the police".[15]

Magnificent heroism but ultimately doomed to failure if, as in 1905, the troops remained loyal to the regime. Workers had not forgotten that it was the Semyonovsky Regiment which had finished the revolution with their assault against the barricaded workers' districts of Moscow in December 1905. It was imperative from the workers' point of view that they won over at least a part of the garrison in Petrograd.

The softening-up process began on February 24. Although most of the mounted Cossacks initially did what they were told, there were one or two places where some sort of fraternisation or, more accurately, "sororisation", took place. It was again mainly women who went up to groups of soldiers telling them about their lack of bread, explaining that their men too were at the Front etc. Their aim was to shame them about the role they were playing.

The Bolshevik worker Kairuov recalled the first instance where the troops' support of the regime began to crumble. On Bolshoi Sampsonievsky Prospekt (in Vyborg)

"The Cossacks drew themselves up about sixty or seventy feet in front of the demonstration … The officer's command rang out, and the Cossacks, sabres bared, drove down on our totally defenceless unarmed column … Forcing their way through with their horses, their eyes bloodshot, the officers were the first to break into the crowd, and the Cossacks galloped behind … But such joy! The Cossacks rode single file into the aperture the officers had just opened. Some of them smiled, and one actually winked at the workers … Yells of "Hurrah" for the Cossacks rose from thousands of chests".[16]

In Znamenskaia Square the other traditional rallying point on Nevsky Prospekt (later renamed and still known today as "Uprising Square"), the police were greeted with a hail of stones and wood from one of the biggest gatherings. The Cossacks, on the other hand, were greeted with cries of "Hurrah" to which they responded by bowing low to the crowd. A mass political rally then ensued in which speaker after speaker called for the overthrow of Tsarism, and an end to the war. However such incidents of troops not attacking the demonstrators were rare on day two. Elsewhere the Cossacks assisted the police in harassing and beating workers.

These efforts to quash the movement failed and on Saturday February 25 the number out on strike rose to 300,000. More and more were trying to get to the great meeting places on Nevsky Prospekt, whilst more police and troops were detailed to stop them. The workers' strategy remained as before. Attack the hated police but avoid as much as possible clashes with the soldiers. This did not stop the Ninth Reserve Cavalry Regiment gunning down nine workers on the steps of the Petrograd City Duma on Nevsky Prospekt. Elsewhere though, the discipline of the Petrograd garrison was beginning to waver.

"In many cases, however the soldiers and Cossacks were passive and left it to the police alone to move against the people who neutralized the tsarist army. Male and female workers seized rifles pointed at them and pleaded with the soldiers to support the people. The workers' actions confused the soldiers and Cossacks and disorganized their ranks. Guns aimed at the people stopped firing. In some instances, soldiers and Cossacks indirectly aided the worker demonstrators and individual soldiers actually joined them. It was hard to capture such soldiers for the crowd helped hide them".[17]

This was an important step because, as the mass of workers became more confident that the Army would come over to them, it meant that their courage increased and they took on the police more and more. The latter found it harder to arrest demonstrators and get them to prison as the workers would often fight back and release their comrades. Strikes and demonstrations were moving towards all-out insurrection. The demand for bread was now secondary to the demand for an end of Tsarism. And to make matters worse for the regime, this demand was supported by students who also went on strike, and even shopkeepers now joined the workers demonstrations.

The crunch came on the evening of February 25 when the Tsar sent his famous telegram to Khabalov.

"I command the disorders in the capital end tomorrow. They are impermissible in time of war".[18]

It left the military authorities no option but to take the step they had been trying to avoid – calling on the troops to gun down the demonstrators. In a pre-emptive strike to try to decapitate the leaders of any actions Khabalov had over 100 people considered "seditious" arrested that night (this included the members of the Petrograd Committee of the Bolshevik Party). Posters were also put up warning the workers that weapons would be used against them if they re-assembled.

February 26 became the second "Bloody Sunday" of Nicholas II's reign. Sukhanov reported that in the morning

"The streets were hung with General Khabalov's new proclamations and others, torn down and crumpled, littered the ground. Publicly admitting in them his own helplessness and implying that his previous warnings had been of no avail, he was once again threatening decisive measures and a resort to arms ast disorders and mobs … The last desperate throw was being made".[19]

It certainly was. According to Chamberlin;

"There was firing on the crowds in four separate places in the central part of the city; and on Znamenskaya Square the training detachment of the Volinsky regiment used machine guns as well as rifles, with the result that about forty persons were killed and an equal number were wounded".

This was true but not the whole truth. Some members of the detachment first got into conversation with the crowds and were reluctant to follow orders. A Corporal Il'in was arrested by the unit's Captain, Lashkevitch, who ordered new patrols to fire to break up the demonstration. However there was little sign of fraternisation elsewhere and more machine guns were put not only in the hands of the troops but also the police.

There was another uncomfortable moment for the government towards the end of the day which gave a foretaste of things to come.

Towards evening there was an outburst of rebellion in one company of the Pavlovsk regiment; but it was put down with the aid of other troops, and the ringleaders were imprisoned in the fortress of Peter and Paul".[20]

The Government of the hapless Prince Golitsyn now felt confident enough to get the Tsar to dissolve the Duma[21] where the parties of the propertied classes had been negotiating to try to produce a government which "enjoyed the confidence of the country". It was an irrelevant gesture since the masses of workers were not counting on the members of the Duma anyway. The next morning "the decisive hour of the Revolution struck".[22]

"The firing on the crowds on Sunday … was the snapping point in the frail cord of discipline that held the garrison of the capital. The mutiny that was to transform the prolonged street demonstrations into a genuine revolution started in the very unit which had inflicted the heaviest losses on the demonstrating crowds: the training detachment of the Volinsky regiment. During the night the soldiers discussed their impressions of the day's shooting and agreed they would no longer fire on the crowds".[23]

On the morning of February 27 the Volinsky troops told their Captain (the same Lashkevitch) that they would no longer shoot. He responded by reading out the Tsar's order. This only sparked off a mutiny in which the captain himself was killed. The regiment poured out of the barracks and brought out the nearby Preobrazhensky and Litovsky regiments with them. For the troops this was no simple matter and many had hesitated between risking the firing squad for breaking their oath to the Tsar and joining the revolutionary working class movement. However the "molecular interpenetration of the army" (Trotsky)[24] [finally took its toll. Only 600 troops (mainly as individuals) had joined the demonstrators by the night of February 26 but the following morning 10,200 came over to the workers. By the end of the day this had swelled to 66,700.[25] Moreover, those troops who did not actually take to the streets with the workers, could not be relied on to come to the aid of the regime.

From this point the wave of revolution was unstoppable. Although Shlyapnikov had refused to distribute the few weapons the Bolsheviks had (on the grounds that a few handguns would not make any difference when the main aim of the workers should be to win over the troops) some revolvers (often taken from the police) had found their way into workers' hands. These were used sporadically to pick off policemen, a fact which seems to have encouraged the crowds to march more directly towards the lines of police and soldiers. In the demonstrations up until then workers had run down side streets to avoid fire and then regrouped back on the main street whenever they could. Now, although some of them would be killed, they marched frontally towards the armed defenders of the state. They seemed to recognise that they could not waste time and only this step could bring victory closer. Whilst the police did not waver, the conscript garrison of Petrograd was not prepared to carry out further shootings.

Khabalov was witnessing the unravelling of his forces. He had ordered armoured cars to attack the demonstrators but the squadron commander told him they would be ineffective when surrounded by a crowd. Although the cars were then disabled the workers repaired them quickly. They then used them to assault police stations and, more importantly, the Telephone Exchange which was still defended by the police. Once inside workers and students ordered the telephonists to disconnect all the lines to the government whilst some soldiers acted as sentries to make sure that the telephone system continued to work (rather inefficiently) for the revolution.

Whole sections of the city and key buildings were now in workers' hands. A last attempt to disperse the crowd by General Kutepov's punitive detachment led to many deaths on Liteiny Prospekt but the sheer numbers of demonstrators eventually overwhelmed them. As darkness fell, Kutepov realised he had lost his troops. They had simply melted into the crowd. The regime decided to retreat to defensive positions with the few reliable troops they had left but even this turned out to be impossible.

Workers and soldiers now were fraternising in more direct ways. Several regiments crossed the Liteiny Bridge into the working class district of Vyborg. As they approached the Finland Station they met a crowd of workers coming from the factories. Among them was Mikhail Kalinin (future head of the Soviet state). According to him the soldiers yelled "Where are our leaders? Lead us". Kalinin claims he jumped on a platform and replied "If its leaders you want, Kresty (The Crosses) Prison is right here but first you have to free your leaders". There were 7,600 prisoners (in a gaol designed for 4000) including members of all the opposition parties like the Bolshevik Petrograd Committee and the Menshevik leaders of the Workers Group in the War Industries Committee. Thousands of workers and soldiers surrounded the prison and eventually they simply stormed the main gate. Not only were all prisoners freed but all records were burned. The same scene was repeated at all the other prisons across Petrograd over the next few days.

By the morning of 28 February the few remaining defenders of Tsarism in the capital were counting on troops arriving from the front as their last hope. They came alright, but not to save the Tsar. As they came into contact with revolutionary workers and soldiers most of them went over to the revolution. Some even fought with their own officers who had tried to machine gun them. Even those stationed to defend the Tsar's family at Tsarskoe Selo came over to the revolution.

Although almost the entire Petrograd garrison had now joined the revolution, the battle for the capital was not over. The hated "pharaohs", as the police were called, having seen their stations ransacked, spread out across the city. Donning civilian clothes or soldiers greatcoats, they sniped at demonstrators from rooftops at strategic points (church belfries being a favourite) and tried to pick off as many of the demonstrators as they could. In combating this "The masses themselves displayed initiative and independence which was especially important in achieving this task".[26]

On the evening of February 27 a Military Commission (nominally under the Provisional Government – see below) was set up to coordinate the despatch of troops to where they were most needed. This was either to defend key points of the city or answer workers' demands to wipe out some machine gun nest or another. In the chaos of the moment it did not always work out neatly. The Military Commission were often too slow to act, so workers and soldiers took to guarding important public buildings on their own. This was necessary not only against the "pharaohs" but also against looters and those determined to take advantage of the breakdown of the system for their personal advantage. Amongst the latter were not only the criminals freed alongside the political prisoners, but those who still supported the regime. The latter egged on rioters to create chaos in order to discredit the revolution. It is testimony to the remarkable self-discipline of so many in the revolutionary camp that despite some looting and other understandable excesses (mainly against the police) very few of these attempts succeeded.