The Tsarist Downfall of February 1917
Word Count: 3298
On 2 March, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in favour of his brother Michael(1). With the stepping down of the Tsar, the autocratic regime that had ruled since the inception of Russia many hundreds of years earlier came to a final end, replaced by a provisional government that was itself to be replaced shortly with communists that held power until 1991.
The downfall of the autocracy in Russia was undoubtably one of the most important events of the twentieth century. It is no surprise, then, that historians have tried to speculate on the causes of the revolution. One event that has captured the interest of historians in this matter is World War I. Alan Wood writes, "The nature of the relationship between Russia's involvement in the First World War and the 1917 Revolution is a topic which has been mulled over by historians ever since the events took place."(2) On one hand historians, such as Wood, take the stand that Russia was on the brink of collapse in July of 1914, and thus the war didn't matter as the Tsar would have fallen very soon in any case. Others, including eminent historian Richard Pipes believe in that the war accelerated the revolution, speeding up something that would have not have occurred for a while, or possibly not at all, had the war not occurred. Pipes' view is the one that is the most acceptable.
The economic and political situation before the war will be examined as well as the economic and political situation during the war.
Russia before the war was very close to collapsing. Many problems faced the country, including problems stemming from their economic situation and political problems. Together, they put the country and the autocracy in a very unstable situation that could tip over at any moment and take the Tsar with it.
Up until the First World War, Russia's economy had been doing well. Russia grew from "being one of the least economically developed countries in Europe to one of the world's leading industrial producers."(3) Russia began industrializing relatively late compared with other advanced nations. Its industrial output began to grow in earnest after 1890, the year that Pipes believes as the beginning of the "opening phase of the Industrial Revolution" in Russia.(4) During the 1890's, industrial output increased annually by 8%, and between 1907 and 1914 the annual increase was around 6%. Modern items such as locomotives and cars were produced, and the demand for consumer goods increased. By the beginning of the war Russia was the world's fourth largest producer of coal, steel, and pig iron.(5) But because of her relative industrial infancy and the massive foreign investment in her(6) that had allowed her economy to grow, Russia was susceptible to external economic changes. She was hurt by the European recessions that occurred (i.e. 1900-1903), but prospered from the booms. As a result of the booms, and with the good domestic economic situation, Russia, by 1914, had become the world's fifth largest industrial power.(7)
While Russia's economy was doing well overall due to industrialisation, all of the negatives that came with it did appear. These included rapid growth, dense concentrations of people in small areas leading to crowded and unsanitary living conditions, dangerous and unsanitary working conditions, and low wages.(8) As had happened in other nations that had undergone industrial revolution, mass discontent grew and spread, finding expression in strikes. In 1912, there were 2032 strikes.(9) In April of 1912, when the military shot striking workers at Lena, the proletariat, already rising up in demand of better working and living conditions and higher wages, turned more against the government and became more political. The slogans used were supported by revolutionaries such as Lenin and Trotsky.(10) However, due to highly successful police penetration in revolutionary groups, they could not do much more than cheer.(11) "In the first half of 1914...there were over 3000 strikes, and two-thirds of them were associated with political demands."(12) In the summer of 1914, there were "huge demonstrations against the monarchy"(13) The aims of the strikers: a democratic republic, an eight-hour work day, the release of all gentry-held land, and no delay in the fulfilment of the above demands.(14)
The political situation before World War I was not too wonderful. Both political and entirely non-political activities were suppressed by Tsar Nicholas. Yet suppression only increased anti-government feelings, as in the case of the university protests of the 1890s. In 1905, the government could have fallen because of repression that led to strikes and demonstrations, but it did not because it granted some concessions in return for its continued existence. However, political activity against the government was beginning to recognize the way it must work to bring about change and began to do so slowly.
February 8 is the anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg University (SPU). Traditionally, students celebrated in the centre of the city, and had a fun time. However, the government of the 1890s viewed all unsanctioned events as subversive and political in nature. Nicholas II, like his predecessor Alexander III, was a reactionary who felt it necessary to retain his absolute or almost absolute power. They did not want any more of the disturbances in the city and, as the celebration of 1899 drew closer, asked the Rector of the SPU, V.I. Sergeevich, to tell all of the students at the university that their celebration would no longer be tolerated. Sergeevich posted warnings and spoke to students, but nothing came of it. The students tried to celebrate, but they were blocked by police at two bridges on their way to the centre of the city. There were clashes, and the students' claimed that they were beaten with whips. During the next two days, the students voted to strike until the government compelled the police to respect their rights. The protest movement was taken over by political radicals, and an organizing committee was formed to direct the strike. Other universities were contacted, and soon all universities were shut down. Everybody was waiting for an end to police brutality--there were no political demands at this time.
Then the government arrested the leaders of the strike. On March 4, organizers issued a manifesto that "...called on all the oppositional elements in Russia to "organize for the forthcoming struggle," which would end only "with the attainment of its goal--the overthrow of autocracy" "(15) Richard Pipes writes, "The government chose to treat a harmless manifestation of youthful spirits as a seditious act. In response, radical intellectuals escalated student complaints of mistreatment at the hands of the police into a whole scale rejection of the "system." "(16)
In November 1900, there were protests at Kiev University after two students were expelled. Other universities started to protest, and soon 210 students were forced into the army as a consequence of their protests. More strikes resulted, and more students were expelled. The universities quickly became the points of political opposition: "...universities now became thoroughly politicized. Students increasingly lost interest in academic rights and freedoms, only caring for politics..."(17) This set the stage for later political events. A massive anti-governmental feeling arose from the repression of non-political events that posed no harm to autocracy.
In 1905, another major political event occurred which helped to bring about the fall of the government--the October Manifesto. It was issued on the 30th of October by the Tsar following Bloody Sunday, a massacre that had left over 1000 dead and many more wounded.(18) It had begun as a peaceful demonstration by workers. Harold Shukman describes the situation after the slaughter: "The peasants were rioting, the workers were striking...Practically the whole of society came onto the streets to demand political reform."(19) The manifesto promised three things: a constitution, civil liberties, and a Duma that would be elected by people from all classes and that had the power to pass laws and control administration. The October Manifesto was a victory for liberals.
The first Duma came into being in 1906 and was severely restricted. It could not appoint ministers, the government could not be held responsible to it, it could not pass laws autonomously, and it was liable to dissolution at Nicholas' will.(20) The Constitutional Democrats, a radical group, got a majority. They pressed for universal male suffrage, cabinet responsibility to the Duma, and a constitutional government. Not surprisingly, Nicholas did not like it, and he dissolved the Duma two months after its inception.
The second Duma was opened in February of 1907, and it was even more radical than the first according to Pipes. There were 222 socialists.(21) This Duma was dissolved in June of 1907. After its dismissal, Nicholas and the premier, Stolypin, altered the rules for election so that conservatives would dominate the Duma.(22)
In November 1907, the third Duma began, and it lasted until 1912. This Duma "...accepted the limits of political behaviour newly imposed and aimed to gain influence over the government by co-operating with it..." (23)
So, by beginning of World War I, Russia can be seen as being, as Wood writes, at a point of crisis. There were popular demonstrations and strikes calling for a democratic republic, politicized youth, and people within the government, the Duma, beginning to work against the Tsar. Revolution, some historians write, was now inevitable because of this situation.
World War I began at the beginning of August, 1914. When war broke out, a tide of nationalism took the inhabitants of the country, unifying them and pacifying their demonstrations and strikes so that all could be devoted to fight Germany and defend the Motherland--for the instant. Some historians, like Pipes, maintain the point-of-view that the war accelerated the downfall of the autocracy. Indeed, the war affected the popularity of the government in a hugely broad and negative way and had massive economic impacts that can all be seen as accelerators of the revolution.
After the start of the war and after nationalism had worn down, the popularity of the government started to plummet. In 1915, Russia lost to Germany, losing Poland and other lands. Russians could not believe that they lost and so blamed the loss on treason. The wife of the Tsar, a German, though fully devoted to Russia, took the blame. There were more suspicions of "treason in high places"(24) when a Russian with a German name was appointed Prime Minister in 1916: Boris Stürmer.(25) While none of the beliefs of treason were true, they created much "animosity toward the Crown"(26), eventually leaving it "friendless and defenceless."(27)
Economic troubles began on July 27, 1914 when the government suspended the ability to convert rubles into gold and gave the treasury permission to print paper money without any regard to the amount of gold that was in the vaults in order to repay loans and pay for the war.(28) As a result, the amount of paper money in Russia increased by around 600%. In July of 1914, the ruble was backed 98% by gold in the vaults. In January of 1917, though, this had dropped to 16.2%.(29) By the second half of 1916, with over 7,972 million rubles in circulation, prices had risen by over 398%.(30)
Inflation did not hurt the peasants too much as they controlled the food.(31) They hoarded what grain that they produced, and were reasonably comfortable. In contrast, inflation was very much felt by those who lived in the cities, and it hurt . For workers, salaries rose in paper rubles from 85.5 rubles per month in 1913 to 255.6 in 1917. However, that was in paper rubles. As more were being printed and as inflation rose the actual value of the wages dropped from 85.5 gold rubles 1913 to 38 gold rubles in 1917.(32) Prices increased with inflation, and many people could not afford to buy what little food was available. Long bread lines formed in the cities. Scores of poor people waited in line for hours in the cold to purchase a little bit of bread.
The industrial situation in Russia during the war added to the peoples' problems. The government gave contracts to many companies, and according to Michael Florinsky, this had "a detrimental effect upon the general economic conditions of the country by monopolizing for the use of the army most of the output of articles of general consumption." (33) As a result of the war effort, 78% of the machine-construction business was given to army requirements. The production of agricultural tools dropped by 80% compared with figures prior the war.(34)
The output for the civilian market suffered with the emphasis on war goods. Service writes, "There was little a peasant could buy" (35) This shortage of goods prompted the farmers hoard their food.(36) Peasants received money that was declining in value. They could not buy the products that they required, and thus did not bother to sell their produce.(37) In 1915, a fuel and metal shortage impaired the manufacturing of civilian and military goods, aggravating the economic problem.
As these problems grew, the citizens of the towns grew more and more irritated. They began to voice their anger at those who they believed were at the root of the problem--the government. Labour unrest began again and "waves of strikes pounded official Russia in late 1915 and again in late 1916."(38)
Internally the government, by 1917, had been significantly weakened because of the power that it had given the Dumas. Political opposition was so great that, when the feelings of the nation were released in the riots that began toward the end of February, the Tsar could do nothing but abdicate.
The fourth Duma (1912-1917) was conservative. However, Pipes writes that:
"...during the war, the tsarist government attempted to make peace with the opposition by granting the Duma in fact, if not in name, much of what it wanted, such as the power informally to approve of ministerial appointments...The intelligentsia treated every conciliatory move by the government as another sign of weakness and an opportunity to press for more demands."(39)
There was unrelenting hostility between the government and the opposition. Liberals and socialists took the war as an opportunity to denounce the government and claim that they were the real enemy.(40) Dangerous speeches, such as Kerensky's on the first of November 1916, were given under protection of parliamentary immunity. In that speech he called for the removal of those who "ruin, humiliate, and insult it [the country]."(41) Later in 1916, the Duma managed to get Stürmer, the Tsar-appointed Prime-Minister, dismissed. This first success was followed by further successful ministerial dismissals, including Protopopov.(42)
Political activism was escalating. Radicals from within the Duma and from without openly incited the country to rebellion. All of the political parties united against the monarchy in face of its increasing weakness.(43) The conservatives started to believe that "the only way to save the monarchy was to remove the monarch."(44). Calls were made to the workers to strike and to call for the removal of the autocratic regime. On 23 February 1917, a women's procession organized by socialists marched in Petrograd.(45) The following day, workers began to strike. Then the soldiers mutinied as they had had enough of war and no longer had any faith in their officers and the regime because of continued defeats.(46) As Robert Service writes, "No civilian or military group wanted autocracy preserved."(47) (Italics mine) After being pressured by an unofficial group of politicians from the Duma, Nicholas II abdicated on March 2, 1917. It was the end of the autocracy in Russia.
World War I, even though it started out by pacifying the nation and creating a sense of nationalism, ended up bringing about large anti-governmental feelings from all aspects of society, from the peasants to the workers, from the army to the nobility.
Could the revolution have occurred without the war? Alan Wood writes in his book The Origins of the Russian Revolution 1861-1917, that this has been a question that historians have thought about since the event occurred and that each answer has historians which support it. Wood himself takes the stand that the conditions in Russia before the war were so severe that the revolution was inevitable. It is true that by August 1914, Russia had reached a point of crisis with the large number of strikes and demonstrations that called for change, the massive anti-governmental feelings that resulted from events such as the repression of university students whose actions that were suppressed had no political goals, and the Dumas that had begun to work subtly against the government.
But the revolution would not have happened as quickly as it did had the war not occurred. There were still many in society who supported the Tsar--the anti-government feelings were really only limited to the revolutionaries, students, and some workers. The Duma had only begun to work in such a way as to take power away from the government, revolutionary groups were weak as they had been penetrated heavily by the police, and the Tsar could still rely on the army to put down any disturbances.
The war, however, changed that. Though there was a brief period of relative calm, anti-Tsarist feelings began to arise again after situations on the home and real fronts, including losses and the lack of food and consumer goods, became increasingly prevalent. It was not only the workers, students, and revolutionaries: there was no group that wanted the Tsar to stay. The economic problems faced by Russia were certainly not around before the war, and they had huge effects. During the course of the war the Duma had begun to take power away from the government. Revolutionaries began to incite the population even more, eventually bringing about the strikes and demonstrations of February-March 1917. In addition, the Tsar could no longer count on his army for support in suppressing the population, as moral dropped lower with each recurring defeat. They no longer wanted to fight and showed this by joining with others who did not want the government to remain in power. In short, the revolution was accelerated by the First World War.
1. Who subsequently abdicated in favor of a provisional government led by Prince Lvov.
2. Alan Wood, The Origins of the Russian Revolution 1861-1917 (London: Methuen, 1987), 5.
3. Wood, 40.
4. Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 79.
5. Robert Service, The Russian Revolution 1900-1927 (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1986), 7.
6. Service [The Russian Revolution 1900-1927 (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1986), 6] writes that 47% of Russian securities were owned by foreigners by 1914.
8. Wood, 27.
9. Service, 23.
15. Service, 7.
16. Ibid., 7.
17. Ibid., 8.
18. Robert Wolfson, Years of Change (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978), 104.
19. Harold Shukman, "Causes of the Russian Revolution," Modern History Review, September 1995, 2.
20. Service, 16.
21. Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 179.
22. Service, 16.
23. Ibid., 16.
24. Richard Pipes, Three "Whys" of the Russian Revolution (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1995), 26.
26. Ibid., 27.
28. Michael T. Florinsky, The End of the Russian Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931), 41.
29. Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 235.
30. Ibid., 236.
31. Ibid., 236.
32. Florinsky, 126.
33. Ibid., 43.
34. Ibid., 43.
35. Service, 27.
36. Florinsky, 43-44.
37. Ibid., 44.
38. Service, 29.
39. Pipes, Three "Whys" of the Russian Revolution, 24.
40. Ibid., 25.
41. Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 253.
42. Ibid., 257.
43. Ibid., 258.
44. Ibid., 269.
45. Ibid., 274.
46. Wolfson, 326.
47. Service, 31.
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Article name: The Tsarist Downfall of February 1917 essay, research paper, dissertation