A century ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, one week after the start of the February Revolution. Here is how Russia remembers those events.

Rebellious soldiers driving a car during the 1917 February revolution in Petrograd. Photo: State Museum of Political History of Russia

For Petrograd society, exhausted by two and a half years of war, the week of Monday, February 20, 1917 was billed to be memorable. A big artistic event was scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 25: a grand opening of the prominent theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s new production of Masquerade in the Alexandrinsky Theater. The massive performance with a cast of more than one hundred actors, lavish decorations and elaborate costumes, Meyerhold’s new interpretation of Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov’s classic love story had been keenly anticipated by the public, both as an artistic masterpiece, and as an escape from the bleak economic and political realities. 

That last week of February of 1917 did turn out to be rather memorable; not for cultural reasons but as the beginning of the Russian Revolution.

The tectonic upheaval started on Feb. 23 Old Style (Mar. 8, according to the New Style calendar) with an innocuous women’s march to mark the International Women’s Day. The demonstration quickly turned angry, and after several missteps by the Tsar’s government, people’s discontent had boiled over. By the beginning of the following week, Russia’s capital was gripped by revolutionary chaos. Under pressure from his ministers, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on Thursday, March 2, 1917.  The chain of events that brought down the Romanov dynasty took only a week to unfold.

Blizzards and Bread Lines

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the February Revolution was its spontaneous nature. It was like a bolt of lightning, which no one had predicted.

The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan observed in Russia Leaves the War that the February Revolution was “not a contrived revolution. No one planned it. No one organized it. Even the Bolsheviki, who for years had dreamed of such a day and had conceived of themselves as professionals in the art of producing revolutions, were taken wholly by surprise.”

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To be sure, adverse changes had been accumulating for a while. In early 1917, the situation in Russia increasingly met Vladimir Lenin’s famous criteria of “the three signs of a revolutionary situation:” a crisis of the upper classes, suffering of the oppressed classes, and a significant rise in the level of political activity among the masses. But such dialectic analysis only helps to confirm that revolutionary clouds had been gathering. It does not answer why the Russian Revolution began at that particular moment.

So, why did lightning strike on Thursday, February 23, 1917?

According to many historians, the immediate trigger was a bout of cold weather. A spell of frosts and blizzards in early February had disrupted life in Russia’s capital and brought the railways to a standstill.  This led to the closure of many factories. Thousands of desperate unemployed workers were growing increasingly angry, and that anger was looking for an outlet. When the weather suddenly became warmer, people took to the streets.

The other component in the revolutionary mix was bread, or rather, rumors of bread shortages. By and large, those were just rumors. The Russian capital never ran out of provisions. It is true that some stores ran out of stock as the cold disrupted logistics. But the authorities had enough flour to feed the city for at least two weeks.

The cold weather and bread problems alone were not enough for a revolution. Mild bread riots happened in Petrograd before. When suppliers were restored, the situation always calmed down. There was no obvious reason why it would have been different this time. Russia’s Interior Ministry led by Alexander Protopopov had been effective in arresting most socialist leaders. Those who escaped arrests, like Lenin and Leon Trotsky, had emigrated. Nobody expected a revolution to occur any time soon.

It seems that the final straw was a series of missteps by Tsar Nicholas II. The last Russian Tsar had never been a wise ruler. Nicholas’s order to fire upon peaceful protesters contributed to the outbreak of the First Russian Revolution in 1905. Twelve years later, Nicholas did it again.

The Tsar received the news of the demonstrations in the capital some time on Friday, Feb. 24. Nicholas and his entourage were eight hundred kilometers away, in the military headquarters at Mogilev. The Russian army was getting ready for a spring offensive.  The 160,000 strong Petrograd garrison was deemed reliable. The mood was resolute, and the Tsar was confident in the strength of his Power Vertical.

On the evening of the following day, the Tsar telegraphed General Sergei Khabalov, the Chief of Petrograd Military District, the following message: “I command you tomorrow to stop the disorders in the capital.” On Sunday, the center of Petrograd had turned into a military camp. 

The troops fired on the demonstrators, and 200 were killed. But the revolutionary virus had already infected the troops. The army mutinied and soldiers joined the revolt. Policemen were killed, shops were looted, and the government's authority had quickly collapsed. Three days later, the Tsar abdicated and Russia welcomed a Provisional Government headed by Prince Georgy Lvov with Alexander Kerensky as the justice minister.

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During the Soviet era, the February Revolution was reduced to a footnote, a precursor to the much bigger event of the Great October Socialist Revolution. But many scholars, both in Russia and abroad, now hold a very different view, interpreting the February Revolution as a political change of outmost importance that, for the first time ever, gave Russia a democratic system of government.

Remembering Through the Eyes of the People

During the 20th century, Russia viewed its history largely through ideological lenses. Ideology brings clarity. But it also discards many details, including, above all, the human experience. It is, therefore, refreshing to see that 100 years later after the February Revolution, Russia has developed the ability to look at its History in a subjective way.

One example of this effort to humanize the past is Mikhail Zygar’s Project 1917 that uses the modern format of short posts to bring together collective memories of those revolutionary days, both from those who played active roles like Lenin, Trotsky and Kerensky, and from those who simply observed, like Russian writers and poets Ivan Bunin, Anna Akhmatova or journalists from the New York Times. The stream of personal recollections written at a time when nobody knew how it would all end makes it a fascinating reading.

A traditional historian may say that this focus of subjective memories may be entertaining but not terribly useful. Analyzing the diaries written, for example, by Russian and Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev is no more illuminating than looking at dinner menus in the salon of Titanic on the night when she sank. It is certainly interesting to see how Titanic’s passengers spent their last hours, but it does not help to explain why the unsinkable ship sank.

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However, a personal, anecdotal and occasionally frivolous approach used by Project1917 seems like a good way to mark the centennial anniversary of the February Revolution. After all, the best way to prevent a repetition of a similar tragedy is to remind ourselves how little control people had over the events. The citizens of Petrograd protested because they wanted a parliamentary republic; instead they would soon get Red Terror.

But in February and March of 1917, the Bolshevik coup was still several months away. The February Revolution did not entirely interrupt the normal course of life in Russia’s capital.

On Saturday, Feb. 25, the Masquerade performance opened to a full house, despite the fact that many patrons had to literally dodge the bullets that were already flying on Nevsky Prospect. Meyerhold’s treatment of the Lermontov classic turned out to be so successful that it ran in the Alexandrinsky Theater all the way until 1940, when Meyerhold was shot on Stalin’s orders. The 1917 production of Masquerade is now considered an important achievement of Russia’s theatrical art, and some of the decorations and costumes from that lavish performance have survived in several Russian theaters to this day.