March 1917

Russia's February Revolution

By Joanna Sondel-Cedarmas

At the end of 1916, Russia's domestic situation was extremely difficult. The prolonged war made the imperfections of the political system and state apparatus, along with the inadequacy of the arms industry and the lack of infrastructure completely apparent. The situation was further complicated by the breakdown of society and an increasing anti-war sentiment among the soldiers.

According to the British historian Christopher Hill, the revolution broke out mainly because of the disconnect between the autocratic Tsarist system and the needs of modern Russian society, which had been fighting a war for more than two years that accelerated the revolutionary crisis. The situation deteriorated further due to the harsh winter of 1916-1917, which paralyzed the rail system, preventing provisions from reaching the cities in northern Russia. At the beginning of 1917, in many cities, particularly in Petrograd, there was a shortage of food and fuel, and some industries (including the largest armaments factory Putilov) were forced to stop production and lay off tens of thousands of workers.

Consequently strikes and food riots became more intense. The first major battle took place in Petrograd on 23 February (10 March according to the Gregorian calendar) during the parade held for International Women's Day. On 24 February, there was a general strike with 350,000 hungry workers in attendance, demanding the end of the war, better living conditions and the end of the autocracy. The next day the protesters were joined by soldiers, mostly reservists. In the absence of a firm reaction by the authorities, the crowd became more and more aggressive, though their demands were initially financial in nature.

Tsar Nicholas II, who had gone to the front on 22 February, did not realize the seriousness of the situation in the capital and, on 25 February he ordered the military commissioner of the city to restore order by force. In the end it was this order by the Tsar that led to the outbreak of the revolution. On 26 February, when soldiers of the Pavlovski Replacement Regiment opened fire on the crowd of demonstrators killing 140 civilians, the Petrograd garrison joined the protesters. But the crucial day was that of 27 February. Given the lack of reaction from the soldiers, who refused to fire on the crowd, the crowd took possession of the Peter and Paul Fortress: plundering the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior and Security, destroying  official documents and taking possession of arsenals, there was also looting of shops, restaurants and private residences. At sunset on 27 February, Petrograd was in the hands of the revolutionaries, and a red flag was waving over the Winter Palace. The military leadership had been unable to restore order, with only 2,000 loyal soldiers, 3,500 police and Cossacks on horseback. In this situation the Tsar ordered an elite battalion, composed of decorated veterans, under the command of General Nikolay Ivanov, to go to Petrograd, and also ordered his commanders to send eight regiments, supported by artillery groups, to the outskirts of the capital. On the morning of 28 February, the Tsar left Mogilev for Tsarskoye Selo, but because of revolutionary soldiers who were blocking the railway line the train he was travelling in was diverted to Pskov, where the headquarters of the Northern Front was located.

Under pressure from his generals, on 2 March, Nicholas II abdicated in favour of his youngest son Alexei, and sent the Crown Prince Michael to Tsarskoye Selo, where he and his family were interned. At the same time, on 27 February the Duma leaders formed the Provisional Committee of the State Duma to restore order in the capital and relations between institutions and people. The same day, The Petrograd Soviet, which had been convened at the initiative of the Mensheviks, together with the Workers' Group decreed that a competition for central power was taking place. The Committee, however, held all of the most important elements of real power, like the military, railways, post and telegraph, in its hands. The decision-making power soon passed into the hands of the Executive Committee Исполком [Ispolkom], which included both Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary delegates. During the night of 28 and 29 February 1917, the Provisional Committee of the Duma and the Petrograd Soviet established the Provisional Government of the liberal Prince Georgy Lvov, who had assumed full power after the abdication of the Tsar. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was entrusted to Pavel Milyukov, while the Minister of Justice, and later on the Ministry of War, was given to Alexander Kerensky, vice president of the Petrograd Soviet and a member of its executive committee (Исполком).

As a result, Russia created a particular government system known as dual authority (двоевластием), which lasted until October 1917. According to the American historian Richard Pipes, the executive committee (Исполком), which served as both the legislative and executive authority, was an organ of a democratic bourgeoisie government, a sort of supreme court, the conscience of the revolution. The government was nothing without its consent, and it seemed to act in all areas of life.  

Thus, under the command of the executive committee (Исполком), on 1 March the armed forces came under the control of the Provisional Committee and the government lost all power over them: the Commissars appointed by the Ministry of War, the chief of staff and the personnel at the front and in the fleets. Similarly, orders of the military commanders at the front would have no effect without the prior approval of the Исполком and its commissars. On 3 March, the Исполком ordered the arrest of the members of the royal family, including the Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich.

The next day, the government agreed with the Исполком for the dissolution of the Police Department, and police bodies and police functions were entrusted to civilian militias. Governors were removed from the territories and responsibility for them passed to heads of the provincial offices. An 8-hour workday was introduced in all factories, including the defence industry. Reactionary newspapers were shut down and editors were forbidden to publish newspapers and magazines without the approval of the Committee. The February Revolution, which led to the collapse of the Tsarist regime and the emergence of a democratic republic in Russia was a relatively bloodless coup. The total number of victims is estimated at between 1300-1400 people. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution did not lead to the suspension of hostilities. The provisional government continued the war against the Central Powers, and in June 1917 opened a new offensive in Galicia.

A Pietrogrado alcuni giorni fa sono cominciati i disordini. Anche le truppe, purtroppo, hanno cominciato a prendervi parte. È una sensazione terribile sentirsi così lontani e ricevere soltanto notizie brutte e frammentarie. Non passo molto tempo ad ascoltare i nuovi dispacci. Durante il giorno faccio una lunga passeggiata lungo la strada principale che porta ad Orsha.

(Dal diario di Nicola II nei giorni della rivoluzione di febbraio)

La Rivoluzione di Febbraio e il crollo della Russia

di Alessandro Chebat

Dopo l'offensiva di Brusilov il fronte orientale era caduto in una sostanziale impasse, sia per i maggiori sforzi tedeschi ad ovest, sia per l'incapacità delle armate zariste di ripianare le enormi perdite subite nella primavera del 1916. All'interno dell’Impero Russo la siuazione andò deteriorandosi per la carenza di generi di consumo e il crollo dei rifornimenti alimentari per i principali centri abitati. La situazione divenne ben presto critica quando a Pietrogrado giunsero solamente 49 carri ferroviari giornalieri di vettovaglie, a fronte degli 89 previsti. Tale stato di emergenza era frutto di due cause principali strettamente legate alla guerra. Mentre la produzione di grano crollava da 76.291.000 tonnellate del 1915 a 62.225.000 del 1917, la requisizione del materiale rotabile dirottato al fronte aggravava la lentezza dei trasporti, già in difficoltà a causa dalla rete ferroviaria insufficiente e del lungo percorso che divideva Mosca e Pietrogrado dai granai ucraini. Buona parte del raccolto inoltre veniva assegnato direttamente all'esercito così che nel 1916/1917 giunsero alle città solamente 4.831.000 tonnellate di grano.

Alla crisi alimentare si univa la crescente urbanizzazione delle città dovuta al boom economico innescato dalla Grande Guerra. La Russia, unica eccezione tra le potenze belligeranti, conobbe una straordinaria crescita economica con la borsa in costante rialzo. Nel 1917 le fabbriche russe, contrariamente al 1914, potevano far fronte alla produzione delle armi leggere e delle munizioni per l'esercito e della quasi totalità dell'artiglieria (tutti gli obici leggeri e medi e tre quarti dell'artiglieria pesante). Altrettanto consistente fu la crescita della produzione di carbone, di prodotti chimici e dei macchinari.

Il prezzo di questo enorme sforzo fu, tuttavia, la crescita esponenziale del proletariato urbano che in Russia era tradizionalmente combattivo e politicizzato. La società russa - estremamente arretrata nelle campagne, priva di una forte borghesia moderna nelle città e con un potere politico che restava nelle mani dello zar e di una ristretta classe dirigente - non riuscì a sopportare quest’intenso sviluppo economico. Il regime zarista non era più in grado di far fronte alle esigenze di una società complessa. Infatti la trasformazione repentina produsse una diffusa e crescente conflittualità sociale ed una forte necessità di rinnovamento che poteva avvenire solamente tramite un radicale cambiamento nello stato e nella società.

Fu così che il 23 febbraio 1917 scoppiarono i primi disordini a Pietrogrado e videro migliaia di donne scendere in strada a causa delle carenze alimentari e delle condizioni di vita: era la nascita del movimento rivoluzionario. Il 25 dello stesso mese lo zar Nicola II telegrafò al generale Chabalov, comandante della piazza di Pietrogrado, autorizzandolo ad usare la forza contro gli scioperanti. Tuttavia, dopo le prime sparatorie diversi sottufficiali esortarono i soldati a disubbidire rifiutandosi di fare fuoco. Due giorni dopo il reggimento Volinskj si ammutinò, presto imitato da altri reparti. Diversi edifici pubblici furono occupati con le armi e contemporaneamente i bolscevichi assunsero il controllo dei lavoratori insorti nel quartiere operaio di Vyborg. Quello stesso giorno, a palazzo Tauride, nasceva il Soviet di Pietrogrado, che riuniva operai e contadini. Soldati e lavoratori si unirono rapidamente, isolando le truppe filogovernative dai depositi di armi e munizioni e prendendo possesso di ampie aree della città. Di fatto già il 28 febbraio Chabalov aveva perso il controllo di gran parte di Pietrogrado.

Se le ragioni dei civili nell'innescare il movimento rivoluzionario erano piuttosto chiare e legate alle ristrettezze economiche imposte dallo stato di guerra, quelle dei militari erano più varie. Innanzitutto va sottolineato come la rivolta si estese soprattutto tra i reparti scelti, tendenzialmente leali allo zar e provenienti dalle aree rurali, composti tuttavia da veterani rientrati in servizio dopo essere stati feriti e giovani reclute inesperte. Tra questi uomini, chiusi in caserme improvvisate, delusi dal cattivo andamento della guerra, ebbero luogo intense discussioni se aderire o meno all'insurrezione.

A rendere ancor più fertile il terreno della rivolta giungevano la scarsità di ufficiali esperti nelle retrovie e la presenza di una grande massa di sottoufficiali di estrazione sociale non troppo dissimile dai propri sottoposti e convinti della mancanza di scopi nella guerra e dell'invincibilità del nemico. Complessivamente fu una rivolta provocata dal malcontento di soldati e graduati di truppa, tradizionale caposaldo del regime zarista, e dalla scarsità di prodotti alimentari tra la popolazione civile. Un peso determinante nell'innescare il malcontento, ebbero infine le enormi perdite subite: dopo tre anni di guerra esse ammontavano a 8.750.000 morti, feriti e dispersi.

La Duma, temendo un’aggressione dei propri membri e ritenendo impossibile prendere le parti del vecchio regime, decise di formare un comitato di governo provvisorio. Dopo aver raggiunto un accordo con il Soviet degli operai e dei soldati, il 15 marzo fu varato un governo presieduto dal liberale Georgij E. L'vov, di cui faceva parte anche Aleksandr Fëdorovic Kerenskij, esponente dell'ala moderata del socialismo rivoluzionario. Atterrito dagli eventi lo zar abdicò lo stesso giorno: era la fina della dinastia Romanov e della Russia imperiale.

I semi della successiva Rivoluzione d'Ottobre erano stati gettati e l'ostinazione dei nuovi governi provvisori nel proseguire una guerra impopolare e disastrosa avrebbe radicalizzato ulteriormente il nascente movimento rivoluzionario. Interessante notare come nonostante alle origini della rivoluzione russa vi fosse il cattivo andamento della guerra, a crollare fu lo stato zarista ancor prima dell'esercito. Infatti mentre all'interno del paese e nei reparti di retrovia la rivolta montava, la maggior parte delle unità schierate al fronte rimasero ai propri posti, con ammutinamenti, defezioni e diserzioni poco rilevanti se messe in relazione alla totalità degli uomini schierati (circa 150 mila uomini su oltre 7 milioni di soldati). La formulazione delle Tesi di Aprile e il ritorno di Lenin in Russia avrebbero dato vita ad un ben più ampio movimento rivoluzionario.

Bibliografia:

Martin Gilbert, La grande storia della Prima Guerra Mondiale, Milano, Mondadori, 2000

David Stevenson, La Grande Guerra. Una storia globale, Milano, Rizzoli, 2004

Marc Ferro, La rivoluzione del 1917: la caduta dello zarismo e le origini della rivoluzione d'ottobre, Firenze, Sansoni, 1974

Link:

http://www.sapere.it/sapere/strumenti/studiafacile/storia/L-et--contempo...

http://www.raiscuola.rai.it/articoli/la-rivoluzione-russa-linsurrezione-...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/February_Revolution (EN)

Disorders started several days ago in Petrograd; unfortunately, even the troops have begun to take part in them. It is a sickening feeling to be so far away and to receive fragmentary, bad news. I did not spend much time listening to reports. During the day I took a walk along the highway towards Orsha.

(From the diary of Nicholas II in the days of February Revolution)

The February Revolution and the collapse of Russia

by Alessandro Chebat

After the Brusilov Offensive the Eastern Front had come to a substantial impasse, due both to increased German efforts in the West, and to the inability of the Tsarist armies to compensate the huge losses suffered in the spring of 1916. The situation inside of the Russian Empire continued to deteriorate due to a lack of consumer products and difficulties in supplying food to main population centres. The situation soon became critical when only 49 railway cars of provisions per day reached Petrograd, instead of the 89 that were planned. This state of emergency was the result of two main causes closely linked to the war. While the production of wheat plummeted from 76,291,000 tons in 1915 to 62,225,000 in 1917, the requisition of rolling stock redirected to the front further burdened the slow transport system that was already in trouble due to the inadequate rail network and the great distance that separated Moscow and Petrograd from the Ukrainian granaries. Much of the harvest was allocated directly to the army, so that only 4,831,000 tons of wheat reached the cities in 1916/1917. The food crisis was also exacerbated by the growing urbanization of the cities due to the economic boom triggered by the Great War. Russia - alone among the belligerent powers - experienced extraordinary economic growth and a steady upward climb in the Stock Exchange. In 1917, Russian factories, in contrast to 1914, were able to produce all of the small arms and ammunition needed for the army and almost all of the artillery (all light and medium howitzers and three-quarters of the heavy artillery). Equally significant was the increase in coal production, chemicals and machinery. The price of this huge effort, however, was the exponential growth of the urban proletariat which, in Russia, was traditionally combative and politicized. Russian society, extremely backward in the countryside and lacking a strong modern middle class in the cities, together with political power that remained in the hands of the Tsar and a small ruling class, was unable to handle this intense economic progress. The Tsarist regime was no longer able to meet the growing needs of a complex society. Indeed, the sudden transformation led to growing social unrest and a strong need for change that could only come about through a radical shake up of the state and society.

Thus on 23 February 1917, the first riots broke out in Petrograd and saw thousands of women take to the streets due to food shortages and living conditions: it was the start of the revolutionary movement. On 25 February, Tsar Nicholas II telegraphed General Khabalov, commander of Petrograd garrison, authorizing him to use force against the strikers. However, after the first shootings several non-commissioned officers urged their soldiers to disobey the orders to fire. Two days later, the Volynsky regiment mutinied, soon followed by other units. Several public buildings were occupied by armed groups and at the same time the Bolsheviks took control of the insurgent workers in the Vyborg district. On the same day, the Petrograd Soviet, which united workers and peasants, was set up in the Tauride Palace. Soldiers and workers came together quickly, cutting pro-government troops off from weapons and ammunition, and taking possession of large areas of the city. By 28 February Khabalov had already lost control of most of Petrograd.

If the reasons for the civilians' unrest that triggered the revolutionary movement are quite clear, related as they were to the economic constraints imposed by the war, those of the military were more varied. First of all it should be emphasized that the revolt spread particularly among the special units, which tended to be loyal to the Tsar and came from rural areas, yet were composed of wounded veterans returning to service and young inexperienced recruits. These men, housed in improvised barracks, and disappointed by Russia's poor performance in the war, engaged in intense discussions about whether or not to join the insurrection. Further fuel for the revolt came from the shortage of officers in the rear and a large mass of non-commissioned officers that came from walks of life not too dissimilar from their subordinates and convinced of the lack of purpose in the war and the enemy's invincibility. In general the revolt was sparked by the discontent of the soldiers and tiered ranks, the traditional stronghold of the Tsarist regime, and the scarcity of food among the civilian population. A final determining factor in triggering the discontent was the huge losses suffered after three years of war: amounting to 8,750,000 dead, wounded and missing.

The Duma, fearing an attack on its own members, and believing it impossible to take the side of the old regime, decided to form a Provisional Government committee. After reaching an agreement, on 15 March, the Soviet of workers and soldiers announced a government chaired by the Liberal Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov, and also including Alexander Kerensky, an exponent of the moderate wing of revolutionary socialism. Appalled by the events, the Tsar abdicated the same day: it was the end of the Romanov dynasty and of imperial Russia.

The seeds of the October Revolution had been sown and the obstinacy of the provisional governments in pursuing a disastrous and unpopular war would further radicalize the nascent revolutionary movement. Interestingly, given that the losing tide of the war was one of the primary causes of the Russian revolution, the Tsarist state would collapse even before the army. In fact, even while the uprising was sweeping the country and units in the rear, most of the front-line units deployed along the front remained at their posts, with only minor mutinies, defections and desertions compared to the total number of deployed men (about 150,000 men out of over 7 million soldiers). The issuing of the April Theses and the return of Lenin to Russia would lead to a much broader revolutionary movement.

Bibliography:

Martin Gilbert, La grande storia della Prima Guerra Mondiale, Milan, Mondadori, 2000

David Stevenson, La Grande Guerra. Una storia globale, Milan, Rizzoli, 2004

Marc Ferro, La rivoluzione del 1917: la caduta dello zarismo e le origini della rivoluzione d'ottobre, Florence, Sansoni, 1974

Links:

http://www.sapere.it/sapere/strumenti/studiafacile/storia/L-et--contempo...

http://www.raiscuola.rai.it/articoli/la-rivoluzione-russa-linsurrezione-...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/February_Revolution (EN)

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