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.


The picture at the top of the article is from a defensist" demonstration before the February Revolution when "Down with the war" was not yet so common. It shows soldiers wives demonstrating for increased rations. Their banners read "An increased ration to the families of soldiers, the defenders of freedom and of people's peace" and "Feed the children of the defenders of the motherland".

[1] Collected Works Volume 31 (Moscow 1964) p 95.

[2] Russia's Second Revolution, E.N Burdzhalov (English translation by Donald J Raleigh, Indiana University Press, 1986) p.106. This "may well be the best book in any language on Russia's February Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd" (Donald J. Raleigh). Burdzhalov, like Anna M. Pankratova was a new breed of Soviet historians who after 1956 broke the mould of Soviet historiography by investigating all the "heroic" claims about the role of the Bolsheviks (and Stalin). He was sacked as editor of Voprosy Istorii (Problems of History) but never recanted and carried on working to give a more accurate picture of the revolution from below. He died from Parkinson's in 1985. His story is told in the translator's introduction. In using quotations I have retained Raleigh's US spelling.

[3] Op.cit. p.105. The Okhrana were the Tsar's secret police.

[4] Op. cit. p.113 This paragraph including the "stormy" description also comes from p.106

[5] Op.cit p.110

[6] Women's Day started as an idea of the Socialist Party of America in 1908-9 to celebrate a women workers' strike and became "International" after Luise Zeitz and Clara Zetkin proposed such a day at the 1911 second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. Russian women first celebrated it as a demonstration against war in 1913 (so the next year the Tsarist police arrested the organisers to prevent a repeat). It thus entered into the special days of celebration of the Russian working class like May Day and January 9 (anniversary of Bloody Sunday 1905).

[7] Quoted in Burdzhalov op. cit. p.106

[8] Alexander Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917: _Reminiscences from the Revolutionary Underground_ (Allison and Busby, 1982) pp. 189-90. Lenin shared the views of the Kharkov comrades. On January 9 1917 he told a meeting of young workers in Zurich "We must not be deceived by the present grave-like stillness in Europe. Europe is pregnant with revolution. The monstrous horrors of the imperialist war, the suffering caused by the high cost of living everywhere engender a revolutionary mood; and the ruling classes, the bourgeoisie and its servitors, the governments, are more and more moving into a blind alley which they can never extricate themselves without tremendous upheavals". This after he said "… the Russian revolution – precisely because of its proletarian character … – is the prologue to the coming European revolution" ("Lecture on the 1905 Revolution" in Collected Works Volume 23 (Moscow 1964) pp.252-3

[9] S.A. Smith Red Petrograd, (Cambridge 1983) p. 51

[10] Loc.cit.

[11] Op. cit. p. 52

[12] Maurice Paleologue An Ambassador's Memoirs (1923)

[13] Burdzhalov op. cit. p.117

[14] Quoted in Burdzhalov p.120

[15] Op.cit. p. 123

[16] Op. cit. p.124

[17] Op. cit. p.131

[18] W.H Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution Volume One (New York 1965) p. 77. Chamberlin originally published what was regarded as a classic work in 1935. It is a tremendous achievement for its time and he clearly consulted many of the sources used by Burdzhalov. At the time critically sympathetic to the revolution he turned against it after Stalin's forced collectivisation created famine in Ukraine. He had a low opinion of Khabalov's abilities but this seems to be based on the evidence of other Tsarist officials after the event. It is typical of bourgeois historical method that individuals rather than material circumstances are seen as the prime movers in history. Khabalov may have been weak but his problem was that Tsarism was lost as soon as the Petrograd garrison went over to the working class. The suggestion by Balk (the Governor of Petrograd) that if Khabalov had started shooting workers on the Thursday or Friday rather than Sunday then the revolution would have been beaten down is wishful thinking. Once the shooting started the very weakness of the state was on the line – as events on the Sunday showed.

[19] Sukhanov The Russian Revolution 1917 – A Personal Record p. 25

[20] Loc. cit. "Pavlovsk" is given as "Pavlovsky" in other sources.

[21] The Duma or Parliament was conceded by Nicholas II to split the liberals from the workers and peasants in an effort to put an end to the 1905 Revolution. The first two Dumas lasted only months before the voting system was changed. Landowners got one third of the seats and the urban population also one third of the seats. Unsurprisingly there were few representatives of the workers (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) in the Fourth Duma elected in 1912. The small Bolshevik faction had been arrested and deported to Siberia on account of the Party's revolutionary defeatist position (which Kamenev, the Bolshevik Duma leader shamefully failed to defend at his trial) in 1915. Golitsyn, although only 67 years old, often fell asleep at Cabinet meetings due it is often written to his "advanced years"!

[22] Chamberlin op. cit p.78

[23] Loc.cit.

[24] L. Trotsky The History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto Press 1977) p.167

[25] Burdzhalov op. cit. p. 170

[26] Op.cit. p. 223

[27] 1315 people died in the February Revolution. 53 were officers, 602 soldiers, 73 police and 587 "citizens". Chamberlin op. cit. p. 85

[28] Trotsky op.cit. p.179

[29] Burdzhalov op. cit p. 185

[30] Ferro op. cit. p.37

[31] In Leninism under Lenin, (Merlin, 1975) p. 117

[32] The words come from the first page of S.A. Smith's Red Petrograd quoted earlier where he contrasts the bourgeois parts of the city with the "eery squalor" of the proletarian districts. His Chapter One provides as good a description of working and living conditions in Petrograd in 1917 to be found anywhere.

[33] "…welfare ratios for unskilled workers in Moscow and St.Petersburg were higher than in Milan. Italian cities had the lowest standard of living in Europe. (Allen)". From Pre-revolution living standards: Russia 1888-1917 Ekaterina Khaustova, Russian State Social University (Kursk, 2013).

[34] Sukhanov The Russian Revolution 1917 – A Personal Record p. 11 In Italy the Socialist Party's position of "neither support nor sabotage" for the imperialist war (hoping, like Kautsky, that it would go away) was hardly as positive as Sukhanov makes out here.

[35] One of the leading industrialists who became a minister in the Provisional Government, Guchkov (leading member of the Octobrist Party) was still trying to save the monarchy 3 days after the Provisional Government had been formed! He had plotted earlier to overthrow Nicholas II but only to replace him with his son under the regency of his brother Michael. The other industrialists followed Guchkov though when he finally threw in his lot with the revolution. They all now suddenly found a taste for constitutional government.

[36] Shlyapnikov op. cit. p.4

[37] This and preceding quotes from loc.cit. p.3

[38] S.A. Smith op. cit. p. 38

[39] S.A. Smith op. cit. pp. 40-1

[40] S.A. Smith op. cit. p. 50 (Table 10). The "political" and "economic" distinction was one made by the police.

[41] Op.cit. p. 55

[42] Burdzhalov op. cit. p. 138

[43] Trotsky op. cit. p. 169

[44] Collected Works Volume 29 (Moscow 1964) p. 396

[45] Quoted in Burdzhalov op. cit. p. 105. He got it from Shlyapnikov's memoir. The leaflet is very close to one Bolshevik women students issued the year before. The Interdistrict Women's circle was headed by Anna Itkina who with the rest of the group joined the Bolsheviks in 1917. See R. Stites The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism 1860-1930 (Princeton,1990) p. 386

[46] S.A. Smith op. cit. p. 52

[47] Burdzhalov op. cit. p. 119