Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 270th installment in the series.
March 15-17, 1917: The End of the Romanov Dynasty
After mass strikes and a huge military mutiny in Petrograd turned into revolution on March 8-12, 1917, there was still a chance – however slim – that Tsar Nicholas II or some other Romanov might continue on the throne, reigning as the mostly symbolic figurehead of a constitutional monarchy. However a series of missteps and accidents over the next few days closed this door forever, ending the 300-year-old dynasty and leaving the long-suffering country to endure yet more upheavals, culminating in a brutal civil war and finally ruthless dictatorship.
Fittingly Nicholas II wasn’t even present in the capital for the last days of the monarchy, following his departure for military headquarters at Mogilev just before the revolution began. Here he received sketchy, conflicting reports of protests in Petrograd from officials including Interior Minister Protopopov, who downplayed their seriousness, leading him to believe it was just another economic strike, easily contained like its many predecessors. Even when news of the military mutiny arrived, Nicholas II at first planned to suppress it with loyal troops, and ordered several divisions to Petrograd in preparation for a counterattack on the mutineers.
However the tsar was totally out of touch with the fast-changing situation. On March 12, the chairman of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, sent an alarming telegram begging Nicholas II to allow him to officially reconvene the Duma (now meeting despite the tsar’s order dissolving it) and form a new cabinet empowering reformists, warning that this may be the last chance to save the monarchy:
The last bulwark of order has been removed. The Government is completely powerless to suppress disorder. The troops of the garrison are unreliable. The reserve battalions of the Guard regiments are caught up by the revolt. They kill their officers… Give orders immediately to summon a new government on the basis outlined to Your Majesty in my telegram of yesterday. Give orders to abrogate your Imperial decree and to convoke again the legislative chambers… In the name of all Russia I implore Your Majesty to fulfill these suggestions. The hour which will decide your fate and that of the motherland has struck. Tomorrow may be already too late.
But Nicholas II, still hoping to restore order on his terms, refused to make this concession to the Duma – a fatal mistake, as the events of the next 48 hours would reveal.
Fearing for their lives amid the continuing anarchy, the liberal reformist members of the Duma had no choice but to form a new Provisional Government on their own. Lacking the tsar’s stamp of approval, they decided to shore up their legitimacy by seeking popular support, which would also help calm the angry mobs and restore order.
They knew exactly where to go. While the Duma generally represented the factory owners, middle class professionals, landowners and aristocrats, the mantle of representative of the “people” – meaning industrial workers and soldiers – had already been claimed by the new Petrograd Soviet, or “council,” which was convened on March 12 by various socialist parties and the newly-liberated members of the Central Workers Group, imprisoned by Protopopov a month before (the tables had now turned, as Protopopov himself was now under arrest along with most of the other tsarist ministers).
The hastily organized Soviet, modeled on councils established during the previous Russian Revolution of 1905, was hardly a democratic organization. Rather than straightforward proportional representation by district, it was composed of delegates chosen by the two big interest groups, soldiers and workers, as well as numerous sub-groups (such as divisions and regiments or factories and workshops). Because there were so many more units claiming representation within the Petrograd garrison – all the way down to brigades and companies – the soldiers had far more delegates in the 3,000-strong Soviet than the workers, even though the workers made up most of the population of the city.
Even more undemocratically, the Soviet only represented the civilians and garrison troops of Petrograd, a small fraction of the Russian Empire’s entire population of around 170 million, and as noted its composition was limited to soldiers and workers, even though most of the empire’s population were rural peasants – meaning the majority of the Russian population had no representation at all. Finally, the executive committee of the Soviet, the “Ipsolkom,” wasn’t even chosen by the Soviet’s own members, but was drawn instead from the leadership of the main socialist parties, including the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Trudoviks, and Bolsheviks, who usually made decisions on their own, without even consulting the rest of the Soviet.
Despite all this, the liberal Duma members who formed the Provisional Government saw that the Soviet had the backing of the revolutionary mobs and was already proclaiming itself the voice of the people, making it the closest thing to a democratic body in Petrograd at the moment. Desperately casting about for a source of legitimacy after Nicholas II refused to provide it, the new Provisional Government turned to the Soviet, which agreed to endorse the government – with some important conditions (described below).
Now that the Provisional Government could base its legitimacy on popular support, it no longer needed the tsar. Belatedly realizing that the events in Petrograd were spinning out of control, Nicholas II decided to return to his residence outside Petrograd at Tsarskoe Selo in the early morning of March 14, but logistics intervened: the imperial train and its escort had to take a circuitous route to enable a train carrying loyal troops to go ahead of them to fight the mutineers in Petrograd – another seemingly minor detail with major consequences.
After embarking on its roundabout journey, the imperial train halted about 200 miles southeast of Petrograd because the way was blocked by troops who had gone over to the revolution. Backing up, the imperial entourage now proceeded west to the town of Pskov, headquarters of the northern section of the Eastern Front.
This accident had two unforeseen results. The first was that Nicholas II was separated from his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, who had helped stiffen his spine on previous occasions, encouraging him to take a hard line with dissidents in the Duma. The second was that he came under the influence of General Nikolai Ruzsky, pro-reform commander of the northern front, and also received a stream of discouraging telegrams from General Mikhail Alekseyev, second in command of the Russian Army after the tsar himself.
Still in Mogilev, Alekseyev was getting alarming reports from all over, including the news that the disorder had spread to Moscow, the other center of the Russian armament industry. Alekseyev warned the tsar that the continuation of the war effort, his primary concern, would be impossible if disorder spread: “A revolution in Russia – and this inevitable once disorders occur in the rear – will mean a disgraceful termination of the war, with all its inevitable consequences, so dire for Russia… It is impossible to ask the army calmly to wage war while a revolution is in progress in the rear.”
Shocked by the wavering attitude of his own top generals, late on March 14 Nicholas II reversed his earlier position and declared himself ready to compromise by allowing the Duma to form its own reform cabinet – but it was too late, as the Provisional Government had by now formed its alliance with the Petrograd Soviet, which it couldn’t abandon for fear of sparking more mob violence. Early on March 15 Rodzianko responded with a telegram to Ruzsky: “It is obvious that His Majesty and you do not realize what is going on here. One of the most terrible revolutions has broken out, which it will not be so easy to quell… I must inform you that what you propose is no longer adequate, and the dynastic question has been raised point blank.”
Alekseyev, now more alarmed than ever, ordered the transcript of Rodzianko’s telegrams with Ruzsky be shown to Tsar Nicholas II, and at 3 p.m. the tsar – who considered the defense of Russia his primary responsibility – agreed to abdicate in order to allow the war effort to continue. His abdication address, signed on March 15, made his reasons clear (below, the original text):
Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war. The destiny of Russia, the honour of our heroic army, the welfare of the people and the whole future of our dear fatherland demand that the war should be brought to a victorious conclusion whatever the cost… In these decisive days in the life of Russia, We thought it Our duty of conscience to facilitate for Our people the closest union possible and a consolidation of all national forces for the speedy attainment of victory. In agreement with the Imperial Duma We have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power.
Unable to bear the idea of going into exile without his son Alexei, he also abdicated on behalf of the tsarevich (something he technically had no right to do) and the line of succession passed to his own younger brother, the Grand Duke Michael, who tentatively agreed to accept the crown on March 16.
However on March 17 the members of the Provisional Government, now with the backing of the Soviet, warned Michael that any attempt to take the throne would probably lead to fresh violence. The Grand Duke responded that he would only accept the crown if he had the support of the Russian people, which would require the convening of a new constituent assembly – something that would take weeks if not months. Until then he would stand aside and respect the authority of the Provisional Government. On that anti-climactic note, the Romanov Dynasty had ended.
The sudden end of the monarchy doubtless came as a shock to conservative Russians, including many older people who couldn’t imagine a world without the supreme ruler. This reaction cut across class lines, as many peasants also held traditional views. Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, then a young army officer, recalled the reaction of two senior men from very different backgrounds:
When I told it to my orderly, he started weeping. At the same table was sitting an old, gray-haired army colonel, and when he heard the tragic news, he started sobbing and he said, “Now that the Tsar has abandoned us I am going to serve the Sultan of Turkey.” That old colonel had been brought up with the notion that he had to serve a master, and his master was the Tsar, who held his power by the Grace of God and was anointed in the Moscow Cathedral in a great, great ceremony. For that colonel, the Tsar’s word was God’s word, and he reigned and he ordered by the Grace of God. And now this old colonel was deprived of the Tsar that he loved, and so sobbing and weeping he declared that he would go to the Turks, the arch enemy of all Russia, and serve the Sultan. You have to really comprehend the state of mind of an old Russian line officer to understand the tragic meaning of what he was saying.
Meanwhile the Soviet’s endorsement of the Provisional Government was far from enthusiastic, due to the socialist Ipsolkom’s deep distrust of the “bourgeois” liberals appointed by the Duma to lead it. As a result they reserved the right to veto or ignore any decisions they disagreed with, and also asserted the right to legislate and make policy on their own, creating an unusual (and unstable) two-headed government: real power was held by the Soviet Ipsolkom, while the Provisional Government, now led by the ineffectual idealist Prince Lvov, played an increasingly marginal role.
Why didn’t the Ipsolkom just brush aside the Provisional Government and seize power right from the start? While the answer is complicated, the socialists who dominated the Soviet’s executive committee apparently made the decision for a few main reasons.
At a pragmatic level, the Soviet’s executive committee realized that the experienced politicians and statesmen of the Provisional Government were better equipped to carry on the war effort against Germany – which most of the socialists still endorsed as a struggle against imperialism – especially in matters of strategic coordination and obtaining financial support from Russia’s French and British allies.
In a cynical calculation, the Ipsolkom also seems to have decided it would be advantageous to leave the job of enforcing many unpopular but unavoidable measures to the Provisional Government, basically using the liberal reformers as lightning rods for popular discontent while the Soviet hung back, intervening only when the vital interests of “the people” were at stake. Once again, Russia’s relations with the Western Allies are a good example: as many ordinary Russians distrusted Britain and France, it was better to let the Provisional Government dirty its hands dealing with the foreign imperialists.
Luckily, ideology provided a convenient fig leaf: as Marxist determinists, the more doctrinaire members of Ipsolkom could always argue that the Provisional Government corresponded to the bourgeois phase of the state that Marx predicted would inevitably follow the feudal phase (the tsarist regime) and be supplanted in its turn by the communist phase (that is, themselves). As such it was a necessary evil which they would allow to exist, if only temporarily, in order to enable the reorganization of society by the bourgeoisie, thus setting the stage for the proletariat's eventual seizure of power. In reality the government provided a ready source of ministerial and bureaucratic jobs for them and their followers – earning the contempt of Lenin, leader of the radical Bolsheviks, who advocated the immediate overthrow of the "bourgeois" state.
In the long run the tension between the Provisional Government and the Soviet provided a political launch pad for the only person who happened to be a member of both – Alexander Kerensky, the ambitious young lawyer who somehow managed to straddle the two worlds, liberal and socialist, and later seemed to offer the only hope of national unity, parlaying his indispensable position and charisma into a short-lived dictatorship.
Dereliction and Desertion
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, however, the two-headed government produced exactly what might be expected: chaos. Dmitrii Fedotoff-White, an officer in the Russian Navy, expressed what was doubtless a common feeling of bewilderment in his diary on March 15, 1917:
It is so strange to see the names of the old generals alongside those of liberal barristers and leading socialists. This is a topsy-turvy world. I am unable to understand anything. It is not even quite clear who wields the real power. A council of workers and soldiers has made its appearance in addition to the government formed by the Duma. Where did it come from?
Later in the same entry he noted:
Instructions from Petrograd are also far from helpful. They are issued by: (1) The Military Committee of the State Duma; (2) The Provisional Government; and (3) The Petrograd Soviet. Sometimes instructions appear bearing the joint signatures of two or all of these bodies. The seamen are giving credence only to documents signed by the Petrograd Soviet.
The military situation was about to become even more chaotic thanks to the first major policy decision from the Petrograd Soviet, Order No. 1, decreed March 14, 1917. Issued by the Soviet in response to the Provisional Government’s attempts to reestablish control of the army, it abolished all rank within the military in favor of a new system of democratic control – in short, the end of military hierarchy and discipline. From now on, officers had no authority to give orders or compel soldiers to carry them out; instead, all decisions, including those regarding basic military functions like attack and defense, would be made collectively by the soldiers in their own councils, each essentially a small version of the Soviet, under the influence of “political commissars” appointed by the Soviet.
Unsurprisingly, the result of Order No. 1 was almost total paralysis, as officers were stripped of their rank and soldiers no longer feared punishment for disobedience (if someone was bold enough to try giving an order). Many officers, demoralized by the effective abolishment of their profession and the traditions which had structured their lives, simply quit and went home. Others struggled to maintain the basic cohesion of their units, and continue the fight against the Germans, through the undignified means of flattering and cajoling rank and file soldiers.
The female soldier known by the nom de guerre Yashka (real name Maria Bochkareva), serving as a sergeant, recalled the sudden change in attitude:
There were meetings, meetings, and meetings. Day and night the Regiment seemed to be in continuous session, listening to speeches that dwelt almost exclusively on the words of peace and freedom… All duty was abandoned in the first few days… One day, in the first week of the revolution, I ordered a soldier to take up duty at the listening-post. He refused. “I will take no orders from a baba,” he sneered, “I can do as I please. We have freedom now.”
In many places Russian frontline troops, understandably reluctant to risk their lives, began fraternizing with the enemy, who were naturally eager to help undermine discipline in the opposing forces. General Anton Denikin left a vivid account of a typical day at the front in the weeks immediately following the revolution (below, Russian and German troops fraternizing).
The first to rise are the Germans. In one place and another their figures look out from the trenches; a few come out on the parapet to hang their clothes, damp after the night, in the sun. A sentry in our front trench opens his sleepy eyes, lazily stretches himself, after looking at indifferently at the enemy trenches. A soldier in a dirty shirt, bare-footed, with coat slung over his shoulders, cringing under the morning cold, comes out of his trench and plods towards the German positions, where, between the lines, stands a “post-box”; it contains a few number of the German paper, The Russian Messenger, and proposals for barter. All is still. Not a single gun is to be heard. Last week the Regimental Committee issued a resolution against firing…
Charles Beury, an envoy from an American relief organization, struck a similar note in his account of conditions on the Turkish front in Anatolia, where the soldiers also refused to fight:
When we asked the Russians at the front why they did not shoot, they said, “What’s the use? If we fire, the Turks simply fire back; someone is likely to be hurt and nothing is gained.” Class distinction between officers and men had broken down… The soldiers’ committees passed on any action and no important movement was possible without their consent.
While these soldiers were obviously shirking their duty, at least they remained in the trenches – unlike thousands who opted to join the swelling crowds of deserters behind the lines, contributing to the disorder and logistical difficulties in the big cities. With no one left to stop them, it was just a question of hitching a ride on a train or peasant wagon, or simply walking hundreds of miles (a prospect which didn’t deter men used to marching dozens of miles a day).
Thus the anonymous British embassy official believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Henry Stopford, wrote on March 23, 1917: “The news from the Russian trenches is bad – utter ruin of all discipline and the wholesale deposition of officers, if not worse!... Whole regiments are leaving the Front and walking off to their homes…” And Denikin described soldiers’ activities in Petrograd: “They were holding meetings, deserting, indulging in petty commerce in shops and in the street, serving as hall-porters and as personal guards to private individuals, partaking in plundering and arbitrary searches, but were not serving.”
The spreading disorder disrupted communications and transportation, endangering the food supply of the big cities. George Lomonosov, a senior officer and engineer in charge of the military railways, received a frantic message from the chief of a rail station outside Petrograd on March 15, 1917:
I earnestly beg of you to do something to safeguard the line and especially the station of Oredezh from pillage by drunken and hungry soldiers… All the stores were pillaged today. An attempt to loot the former provision station was prevented by my personal appeal to the troops. All the employees are terrorized and their last piece of bread is taken away from them… Yesterday Locomotive No. 3 arrived carrying fifteen drunken soldiers who had been shooting all the way from Viritza. The employees refuse to go to work in the day time for fear of being shot… besides that, the peasants today looted the co-operatives and the freight station and we were obliged to give them out flour destined for shipment. The man in charge of the station was beaten and is almost dead. The situation is very threatening. We cannot telegraph or telephone.
Nor was this disorder confined to the military. In an incredibly ill-advised move, the Provisional Government attempted to curry favor with the long-oppressed population by disbanding the police, who would be replaced by citizens’ militias, and firing all the regional governors and provincial bureaucrats appointed under the tsarist regime. Day-to-day responsibilities of government would be left to revolutionaries with no experience of any kind.
Equally harmful was the order that all civilians, including state employees, should form their own democratic councils modeled on the Soviet, which would henceforth manage everything from mines and power generation to canals and railroads by popular decisions. On March 18 Lomonosov recorded his colleagues’ reaction to the latest upheaval:
Boublikoff and I were thunderstruck… what kind of representation of employees and workmen in the administration of the railroads were they speaking of? What kind of parliamentarism was possible in a railroad organization which was to work like a clock, submitting to a single will whose foundation lies in the command of each second? “And what’s most important,” Boublikoff shouted, “we must give them something now, you understand, now, immediately!”
Despite all the confusion and chaos, ordinary Russians – and sympathizers abroad – were still wildly optimistic about the future of the country now that the tsarist regime had been overthrown. Vasily Mishnin, a medical orderly stationed at a field hospital in Belarus, expressed a typical view in his diary on March 19, 1917:
Such joy, such anxiety that I can’t get on with the work… Good Lord, it’s so great that Tsar Nicholas and the autocracy no longer exist! Down with all that rubbish, down with all that is old, wicked, and loathsome. This is the dawn of a great new Russia, happy and joyful. We soldiers are free men, we are all equal, we are all citizens of Great Russia now!
Many Western liberals, who deplored the tsarist tyranny and found it hard to square the alliance with Russia with their own ideals, also believed a bright democratic future had dawned. On that note Clare Gass, an American nurse volunteering in France, wrote in her diary on March 17, 1917: “Definite news of a revolution in Russia reached us today. The people at last are demanding freedom from the many trials which for years they have borne.” Similarly Yvonne Fitzroy, volunteering with Scottish nurses on the Romanian front, wrote in her diary on March 18, 1917: “There is the wildest enthusiasm and confidence everywhere… Everyone is beaming, and one cannot even in these early days but rejoice at the change of attitude.”
Not everyone shared the unbridle optimism, however. Fedotoff-White, the Russian naval officer, quietly confided his personal skepticism in his diary on March 15, 1917:
The people believe that the Golden Age has come to Russia with the Revolution – and are convinced that theft, murder, and other crimes will now cease. Prisons will be closed and men will treat each other with love and consideration. It all strikes me as a little pathetic… Those simple creatures believe that human nature has been changed overnight and is now freed of all evil impulses.