Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 266th installment in the series.
February 9, 1917: Russian Unrest Triggers Crackdown
The murder of Rasputin in mysterious circumstances in December 1916 didn’t seem to lessen his impact on Russian public affairs, as his malign influence continued to make itself felt through the followers he maneuvered into positions of power before he died. One particularly baneful legacy was the appointment of Alexander Protopopov, a spiritualist crackpot apparently suffering from mental disorders associated with late-stage syphilis, as interior minister, with power over the police and domestic security forces.
Protopopov endeared himself to the Siberian holy man and his patroness, the Tsarina Alexandra, by virtue of reactionary attitudes including his unwavering belief in the absolute power of the Tsar, whose authority sprang directly from God’s favor, paired with profound distrust and hatred of the liberal reformers demanding a greater role for the Imperial Duma, or parliament – the closest thing Russia had to a democratic institution, founded by Nicholas II in 1905 as a concession to head off revolution following Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War.
Luckily for the old regime, for years the fractious pro-democracy groups in the Duma had remained divided between political parties and movements like the Octobrists, who supported a constitutional monarchy; the Party of People’s Freedom, or Cadets, representing left-leaning professionals and intellectuals; and the Trudoviks, a moderate pro-labor party. There were also several Marxist groups, whose loyalty to the throne was in doubt, including the Socialist Revolutionaries, a broad-based movement led by Viktor Chernov and originally focused on agrarian reform, and the Social Democrats, devoted to the cause of the small but expanding industrial proletariat, who had previously aligned themselves with socialist parties in the rest of Europe.
As it happened the Social Democrats were further divided into two additional splinter groups – the Mensheviks, originally led by Julius Martov, who wanted to create a large, democratic-style political party, and the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, who favored a smaller organization divided into revolutionary cells and devoted to the violent overthrow of Tsarism. Both Martov and Lenin were currently in exile in Switzerland, which only added to the general confusion about who was in charge among the many pro-reform factions.
But despite their seemingly endless disarray the pro-reform groups were buoyed by events that lay largely outside their control, with Protopopov playing a central role.
Desertion and Dissent
As the war entered its third year, Petrograd was in ferment thanks to the combination of mounting shortages (top, a bread line) and a brutally cold winter, as well as a swelling number of deserters from the front. Across Russia, of 14.4 million men who had been called to the colors from 1914-1916, by the end of the latter year between one and 1.5 million had deserted, including at least 60,000 who left during the bloody success of the Brusilov Offensive.
As elsewhere in the First World War, the reasons for desertion were obvious enough. George Lomonosov, a high-ranking Russian officer with Menshevik sympathies, recalled conditions on the southern portion of the Eastern Front, which now included Romania, in the first months of 1917:
There was plenty of ammunition but a scarcity of food… Dead horses had to be eaten. The railroads, on account of the dreadful condition of the locomotives, began to become paralyzed… The extent of the paralysis of the railroads at the Roumanian front can be seen from the fact that they were compelled to stop the sanitary trains and instead ship the wounded in the freight cars which had been emptied of provisions sent to the front. The thermometer registered 14 degrees below zero and many of the wounded froze to death in these unheated cars.
Yvonne Fitzroy, volunteering with a group of Scottish nurses on the Romanian portion of the Eastern Front, recorded similar conditions in late January 1917:
Some of our men were evacuated to-day. They go in the same open carts even in in this awful weather. It’s an appalling thought… It may be worth while to mention here that on one occasion during the worst of this terrible weather one of the aforementioned carts arrived, and when we went to carry the wounded in we found only two bodies frozen stiff under coverings that were just a sheet of ice. They had only about a quarter of a mile to travel to reach us.
Another awful account comes from Lady Kennard, another volunteer nurse, who recorded the aftermath of a train wreck, and incidentally confirmed that criminal behavior was widespread among Russian soldiers at the front in January 1917:
In our English hospital here there is a man who has had his foot amputated. He lay pinned under a burning car. A hatchet was brought by a doctor to a French officer standing near, and the doctor said: “Do it if you can; I have no instruments and feel paralysed.” The Frenchman did the thing in the whole horror of the sunlight, whilst the Russian privates who were his charge took advantage of the opportunity and pillaged passenger luggage on the train.
The contrast with the privileged life of aristocratic officers, favored by money and connections as well as social status, was appalling. Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, the son of a Russian count, recalled life as a newly-inducted officer just before the revolution, when the officers still enjoyed the services of a gourmet chef as well as chamber music to suit:
The other officers came back after their leaves had expired and we decided to give a party for the many officers of other squadrons. At such parties there was a lot of food and a lot of drinking… Food was plentiful because there was a supply center for the whole division where one could buy delicacies that had been brought from the city. Otherwise eggs, butter, meat and poultry could be bought in some of the local villages. So with the delicacies from the city, the local food, and the fantastic cooking of Samsonov, I never ate better than from the moment I went to war. There was also a string band made up of soldiers and they played all kinds of music to entertain the officers. That was of course a tradition that went back to the days before the reforms in the army under Tsar Alexander II, when soldiers were serfs in uniforms and officers were gentlemen officers.
No surprise, then, that revolutionary sentiments were already circulating among soldiers at the front. In early 1917 Kennard noted: “Something is in the air and it has affected, curiously enough, chiefly the Russian soldiers. They appear restive and talk in groups with an excitement disproportionate to the quiet of this interval. We hear the most fantastic rumours…” According to an ordinary Russian soldier, Dmitry Oskin, discontent was fueled by partisan newspapers from home. In January 1917, Oskin wrote in his diary: “… Borov gets hold of a whole pile of new editions. They accuse the Government of greed, indecision and secret negotiations with the Germans. We read all this in secret. Zemlianitsky says: ‘It’s time to finish off this war, brothers!’”
This dark talk of revolution among frontline soldiers quickly spread back to the civil population and reserve troops via the flood of deserters. Many AWOL troops, who were often illiterate peasants, simply returned to their home villages – but a significant proportion wound up in Petrograd, Moscow, or one of the empire’s other big cities, where they typically lived by begging and petty crime if they couldn’t find informal work as manual laborers.
Proletarians and Police
The swelling masses of deserters in Petrograd mixed with disaffected factory workers, many of them women, angry about soaring prices for flour, sugar, meat, and other basic foodstuffs – the result of sky-high inflation as the government printed more and more money to help finance the war effort. From printing around five million roubles per day before the war, the volume of new currency issued by the state bank jumped to 30 million roubles per day in 1915 and 50 million per day by early 1917.
Inevitably this sent the rouble into a nosedive. As in other belligerent nations, official attempts to impose price controls were for the most part laughably ineffective, their only result being to drive trade in controlled goods on to the thriving black market. Meanwhile shortages worsened because of disruptions to rail networks from heavy snow and lack of maintenance for engines. Devaluation and corresponding price inflation accelerated precipitously in the first months of 1917, according to Lomonosov, who recalled his surprise at conditions in Petrograd when he returned from the front in February 1917:
I realized that the rouble had fallen in value more in the last two months than during the entire war. The queues that I noticed in Petrograd on the following day showed me that there was also very little food in the capital. To get bread, it was necessary to stand in line three or four hours; for milk, five or six hours; and for shoes, many days and nights.
With hunger widespread among industrial workers and deserters, anger at the government boiled over in a series of strikes and protests, which often turned violent when the hated police attempted to break them up. This in turn prompted the authorities to deploy the fearsome Cossacks to back up the police, creating a cycle of violence as repression triggered more protests. Indeed Rasputin’s dead hand was even now pulling the strings, as Protopopov seemed determined to undermine what little popular support the autocracy still enjoyed.
In January and February a series of government’s escalations and missteps pushed an already volatile situation in the capital, Petrograd, towards crisis and finally revolution. On January 19, Tsar Nicholas II attempted to sweep dissent under the rug by postponing the next meeting of the Duma from January 25 until February 27, then departed for his headquarters near the front, leaving Protopopov in control of the capital. However this move to sideline the Duma triggered huge protests, and on January 20 Protopopov declared martial law in Petrograd, placing the capital under the command of the Cossack general Khabalov.
Two days later, on January 22, 1917 over 100,000 workers walked out and marched through the city to commemorate “Bloody Sunday,” an infamous event which took place during the Revolution of 1905, when the Imperial Guard fired on a large crowd of unarmed protesters, killing over 100. With a major meeting of all the Allies due to take place in late January and early February, Protopopov had to tread carefully – but he was still determined to crush the defiant workers’ movement.
After another strike brought 100,000 workers on to the streets of Petrograd on February 7, on February 9 Protopopov struck back by ordering the arrest of the Workers’ Council of the Central War Industries Committee, which had organized the strikes and called for another protest on February 27 in support of the Duma. This was foolish, to say the least: the Central War Industries Committee had been created by industrialists with the regime’s stamp of approval to coordinate production of munitions, and the Workers’ Council played a key role in maintaining stability by ensuring that factory workers felt they had a voice in its decisions. True, the Workers’ Council was organizing strikes to voice dissatisfaction with rising prices and deteriorating living conditions, but these were legitimate complaints – and, crucially, the Council still supported the war effort.
By ordering the arrest of the Workers’ Council, whose members he accused of plotting revolution, Protopopov wasn’t stamping out dissent, as he thought, but rather hollowing out one of the last pillars of support for the monarchy. Worse still, Nicholas II doubled down on this short-sighted policy by threatening to dissolve the Duma until the next elections, scheduled in December 1917. Although this threat was never enacted, their heavy-handed actions angered the progressive elements in the Duma and the industrialists who had organized the Central War Industries Committee, who looked at the growing threat of violence in Petrograd and increasingly doubted the Tsarist regime’s ability to maintain order.
In fact, even the regime’s closest allies were beginning to wonder whether the mild-mannered and ineffectual Tsar Nicholas II, isolated at his military headquarters in Mogilev, 500 miles south of Petrograd, had any idea what was going on. It didn’t help that Protopopov and other key ministers sent a steady stream of assurances that there was no real cause to worry via telegram, as Pierre Gilliard, the personal tutor of the tsarevitch Alexei, later wrote: “Why did he not try to recover by his acts that confidence of the Duma which he felt he was losing? The answer is that those around him had made it impossible for him to find out for himself what was really going on in the country.” By the same token, Nicholas II himself seemed to realize that he was out of touch with events, writing in his diary on February 20: “Riots began in Petrograd a few days ago; unfortunately the military started to participate in them. What an awful feeling to be so far away and receive only snippets of bad news!”
But it is incorrect to attribute the Tsar’s actions (or inaction) to simple lack of information about the situation; there is no denying that Nicholas II, as the sole heir to a 300-year-old absolute monarchy, was also profoundly reactionary in his own attitudes, and was unceasingly reinforced in these tendencies by the Tsarina Alexandra.
One telling anecdote reveals the yawning ideological chasm between the emperor and the liberal reformers. On January 13, 1917, the French ambassador Maurice Paleologue recorded a story related to him by the British ambassador, George Buchanan, describing his meeting with Tsar Nicholas II, in which Buchanan pleaded for him to appoint ministers who had the confidence of the Russian people. According to Buchanan,
The Emperor's manner was cold and stiff; he broke the silence only to put forward two objections in a dry tone. The first was: “You tell me, Ambassador, that I must deserve the confidence of my people. Isn’t it rather for my people to deserve my confidence?” The second was: “You seem to think that I take advice in choosing my ministers. You're quite wrong; I choose them myself, unassisted ... “ And thereupon he brought the audience to a close with the simple words: “Good-bye, Ambassador.” At bottom, the Emperor has simply given expression to the pure doctrine of autocracy, by virtue of which he is on the throne.