The February Revolution

Kirstin Roberts tells the story of an uprising that toppled three centuries of Tsarist rule.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

THE POLISH revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote that humanity faces a choice--either the continued barbarism of capitalism or the revolutionary transformation of society to create a world fit to live in.

This choice appeared starkly in the years between 1914 and 1917--in the form of the carnage of the First World War. The outbreak of world war in 1914 was a turning point. The mask of "progress" that the industrial revolution had worn was ripped away to reveal the imperialist conflict and savagery beneath.

The First World War was the terrible product of capitalism. The rapid industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th century spread capitalism around the globe, and the richest states became locked into competition for the world's resources and markets.

One of the most horrific aspects of the war was the mismatch between generals' use of 19th century battle tactics and 20th century weaponry, like machine guns and chemical weapons. This contributed to the enormous human cost. Ten million people were killed or died as a result of the war. Russia alone lost close to 2 million.

The First World War involved extensive use of trench warfare: the hideous spectacle of men digging themselves into the ground--often, their own graves--separated from the enemy by a "no man's land."

At Verdun, the war's longest battle, an average of 100 shells a minute were fired for five months--23 million in total. Two million men fought at Verdun, and by the end, half were dead. Yet at the end of the encounter, the battle lines were almost exactly where they had been at the beginning.

Russia was pitted against the economically and technologically superior German war machine, so Russian commanders responded by throwing at it a mountain of human bodies--poor peasants whose lives were seen as "expendable" in the eyes of the state.

The first major battle on the Eastern front occurred when German forces surrounded and destroyed the Russian army at the Battle of Tannenberg. Because of the total incompetence of the Tsar's generals, nearly a quarter of a million Russians lost their lives in this one battle alone.

To add to the tragedy, the vast majority of working-class political parties across Europe had abandoned their previous opposition to war. This left the once-powerful European workers' movement confused and demoralized. The Bolshevik Party in Russia, led by Lenin, was among the few to maintain an internationalist position of opposition to war.

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THE SENSELESS barbarism of the war left the Tsarist system in Russia in a state of general collapse and crisis by 1917. One-fourth of the Russian Empire's richest lands had been lost to Germany--despite 6 million Russian soldiers killed, wounded or captured.

The destructiveness of the war was matched by a breakdown in Russia's economy. Prices rose far above wages, and food and fuel were in short supply. By early 1917, the average working woman of Petrograd was spending 40 hours a week in bread lines.

Scandalous corruption and ineptitude at the highest levels of Russian society provoked even previously loyal subjects of Tsar Nicholas into a movement against his system. Strikes and demonstrations for better wages, against war profiteering, and for price controls grew in number and militancy throughout 1915 and 1916.

A police report in early 1917 stated that Russia's working class was

on the edge of despair...the slightest explosion, however trivial its pretext, will lead to uncontrollable riots...The inability to buy goods, the frustrations of queuing, the rising death rate owing to poor living conditions, and the cold and damp produced by lack of coal...have all created a situation where most of the workers are ready to embark on the savage excesses of a food riot.

On February 23, 1917 (March 8 on the Western calendar--Russia's ran 13 days behind), this despair turned into open revolt.

February 23 was International Women's Day, a socialist, working-class holiday in celebration of the struggles of working women to emancipate themselves and their class. As Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, later wrote:

The social-democratic circles had intended...meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organization called for strikes that day.

But the women textile workers of Petrograd came out on strike, and they dragged behind them the Bolshevik Party-led metal workers of the Vyborg district.

The Bolshevik Party--the most consistently revolutionary worker's party in Russia--initially urged its membership not to participate in the strikes, fearing that the workers' movement was not yet ready to defend itself against an inevitable crackdown by the government.

But the Bolshevik rank and file threw itself into the developing rebellion, with more experienced party activists on the ground often providing the lead as masses of people took more and more decisive action.

By the end of International Women's Day, 90,000 workers were on strike. The next day, the 24th, about half of Petrograd's workers were on strike, and large numbers were demonstrating in the streets. "The slogan "Bread!" wrote Trotsky, "is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: 'Down with the autocracy,' 'Down with the war!'"

By the third day, large numbers of soldiers who had been mobilized to squash the demonstrations had instead joined the revolt, and could be seen using their weapons to shoot at police stations and liberate political prisoners.

Since the infantry could not be relied on to fire on the people, the government brought out its most reliable and elite troops, the Cossack Calvary. But the Cossacks, too, refused to fire on the workers.

Instead, according to witnesses at one demonstration, the Cossacks winked at the demonstrators and fraternized with them. With their commanders watching helplessly, they allowed the protest to proceed--these feared warriors pretended not to notice as the workers crawled under their horses and into the streets.

By February 27, barracks of peasant soldiers in the cities, training to eventually take their turn in trenches at the front, began to rebel openly and come over to the side of revolution. Large numbers of these soldiers were mobilized by the most militant workers to seize the police stations, arrest government officials and army officers loyal to the Tsar, and drive troops loyal to the government out of the cities.

The Tsar's ministers fled or were arrested. Finally, on March 2, three centuries of Romanov rule came to an end, when the Tsar abdicated.

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MANY OF the most decisive acts of the revolution that brought down the Tsar were spontaneous and unplanned. But it would be wrong to ignore the crucial role of experienced and organized revolutionaries in the workplaces and army during the February uprising.

In particular, members of the Bolshevik Party played key roles in the strikes, street battles and demonstrations.

While no left party had predicted the date or the exact path that the revolution would follow, it was clear to all--except, perhaps, the clueless Tsar--that Russian society faced an extreme crisis that held revolutionary implications.

The Bolsheviks stood out not for their ability to predict how the revolution would unfold, but for their preparation and dedication to the power of workers to transform society since the first Russian Revolution in 1905. The influence of these ideas--voiced by a layer of experienced party activists in workplaces across Russia--were of decisive importance in steering the revolution to victory.

Again, Trotsky explained the dynamic:

The mystic doctrine of spontaneousness explains nothing...In the working masses, there was taking place an independent and deep process of growth, not only hatred for their rulers, but of critical understanding of their impotence, and accumulation of experience and creative consciousness, which the revolutionary insurrection and its victory only completed.

To the question, "Who led the February revolution?" we then answer definitively enough: conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.

The February Revolution was a beacon of inspiration to workers and the oppressed the world over. The horror of the First World War had an alternative: the overthrow of those who led their countries to fight.

Morgan Price Phillips, an English journalist in Russia at the time, wrote of the spirit of these heady days,:

I knew this was coming sooner or later, but did not think it would come so quickly. Whole country is wild with joy, waving red flags and singing Marseillaise (the French revolutionary anthem). It has surpassed my wildest dreams, and I can hardly believe it's true...

Long live Great Russia, who has shown the world the road to freedom. May Germany and England follow in her steps.

The Russian working class and peasantry had taken the first steps toward securing their own emancipation. Immediately following the abdication of the Tsar, workers' and soldiers' councils began to form across Russia, as they had in 1905.

But while the working class proved in February that it could topple a hated and rotten regime, it also proved it was, as yet, unable to take and hold power for itself. Instead, power remained, for the time being, in the hands of Russia's capitalist class. This paradox, as later articles will show, could not last long.

This article first appeared in the March 2, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.