Elliot Fernandez

The Russian Revolution of February 1917

The February Revolution known in Soviet historiography as the Burgess Democracy Revolution was the first of two revolutions that took place in Russia in 1917.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2022-12-20

The Russian February Revolution of 1917 was the first stage of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It caused the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. The revolution, born as a reaction to the authoritarian policy of the Tsar, and in particular, against the direct involvement of Russia in the First World War, led to the establishment of a new political regime through an alliance between the liberal and socialist party.

The Tsarist Russian Empire: A Historical Perspective from the Second Half of the 19th Century to the First World War

In the course of the World War I, the Russian Empire of Tsar Nicholas II collapsed. The Great War was the architect of the two revolutions of 1917. Russia entered the war because of its geostrategic interests in the Balkans, territory in dispute with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Russia thought it would win the war in a very short time, underestimating how little preparation it had in the event of a longer war. Compared to other European countries, Russia was very behind: lacked food, good communications, military personnel... In addition, the Russian military cadres were real incompetents.

Once the Great War began and faced with the first defeats of the Russian side on the eastern front, disappointments began between the soldiers and the population. The Sacred Union (movement of struggle for the homeland) broke up. The Russian working class and peasants were few patriots. In the middle of 1915 came the first serious problems. The Russian Empire could only recruit 5% of the population. A very rapid decomposition of the tsarist system began.

Russian Empire
Map of the Russian Empire before the First World War

From 1905 the Russian Empire was no longer, theoretically, an autocratic system. But the reality is that in 1914 it was the only absolute monarchy in Europe. In 1905, a first revolution had occurred, the result of the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. Then, already as a consequence of the First World War, the revolution of February 1917 and October of the same year took place.

The Great War caused the break between the legal country (which was immobilized) and the real country, formed by a large mass of peasants and a small but growing proletariat concentrated in urban areas. Russia has changed since the late 19th century. The new industrial working class and an increasingly disaffected peasantry was an explosive mix.

In 1861, the first agrarian reform from above was carried out, promoted by Tsar Alexander II. In 1905 the land hunger was increasing. The social situation of the peasants had not improved despite the legal reforms. Nor did the bourgeoisie, in 1905, feel satisfied in a political system that excluded them from all political participation. All this led to the revolution of 1905, when a new military disaster (Japan-Russia war) precipitated the crisis and highlighted the obsolete character of the tsarist regime.

The Revolution of 1905

On January 22, 1905 (January 9 of the Julian calendar), a day known as "Bloody Sunday", there was a peaceful protest march of peasants and workers in Saint Petersburg, where they basically demanded the improvement of their conditions of life The demonstration was savagely crushed by infantry soldiers and Cossacks, stationed in front of the Winter Palace, and caused a number of victims that is still debated today.

Assault on the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg
Protesters heading to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January 1905. Source: Wikimedia.org

The bloody crackdown sparked a wave of protests across Russia. The divorce between the tsar and the mass of peasants and workers was already more than obvious. The events that took place in 1905 made it possible for many elements of Russian society to take the path of active protest.

The main groups mobilized from 1905 were the peasants (for economic reasons), the workers (for economic reasons and anti-industrialism), the intellectuals and the liberals (with regard to civil rights), the armed forces (for economic reasons) and minority ethnic groups (cultural and political freedom).

Faced with growing discontent and popular pressure, the Tsar pushed for several concessions:

This liberal pseudo-parliamentary system, with the Duma as the national parliament, remained under the absolute control of the monarch.

The revolution of 1905 could not come to an end, this time, because Tsar Nicholas II kept the political police (Okhrana), the army and the Orthodox Church on his side. In addition, the tsar knew how to use the contradictions of the opposition forces to his advantage.

At that time, who could defend the bourgeoisie from the revolutionary danger represented by the popular classes? The tsar It was a contradiction. The bourgeoisie wanted change, but knew it was not strong enough to face the popular classes in a hypothetical revolution.

The political evolution of tsarist until the First World War

Between the years 1906 and 1914, the Russian Empire did not return to absolutism, but neither was a liberal parliamentary regime comparable to that of the rest of the European countries established. It was simply a pseudo-parliamentary system where the Tsar remained the absolute leader, with total control of the executive, foreign policy, the Church and the armed forces.

Among the political parties created or legalized, it is worth noting:

The various political parties in play found it extremely difficult to act freely. Censorship continues to work. There were elections in the Duma, but the vote was not proportional but state-based. The tsar maintained the right of veto and was the one who decided. It was an absolute falsification of what a liberal parliamentary system should be.

The opening speech of Tsar Nicholas II before the two chambers on April 27, 1906
Tsar Nicholas II's opening speech to both houses on April 27, 1906.

Despite the events of 1905, the Tsarist regime was able to retain political control of the country at least until 1912. During this period, the "third phase of Russian industrialization " took place. A new agrarian reform was carried out by Prime Minister Stolipin, who abolished the Mir and liberalized the purchase and sale of agricultural properties. Stolipin's intention was to create a group of prosperous peasants (the kulaks) who would provide social support to the Tsar's government.

The economic development of this period allowed the tsarist regime to control the social and political situation. Stolipin's idea was to create a broad middle class that would be the basis to sustain the system. The reality was that his agrarian reform only benefited the agrarian bourgeoisie. With these reforms of the system, the tsarist regimen could be maintained until 1912.

The big problem with the Russian economy was that its development depended on foreign investments. While there was a stage of economic expansion, investments came to Russia. But when the problems started, from 1912, the investments left. At the time when the capitalist system entered a phase of recession, tsarist, which had been able to control the various social sectors, saw how the discontent of the bourgeoisie, the peasantry and the proletariat grew. This is what happened from 1912.

In 1912 the concern within the regime for a new revolution grew. At the time of the outbreak of the first world war the situation was very serious. In some circles of the tsarist regimen, they were considering suppressing the Duma and regaining the powers it had lost by establishing a military dictatorship.

Map of Russia between the October Revolution of 1917 and the end of the Civil War in 1922

At first, the war momentarily saved the tsarist regime. The Holy Union symbolized the union of the Russian people against foreign enemies. But the left forces were very reluctant to the patriotic union.

But faced with the first defeats in the war, the Holy Union disintegrated. The Great War caused desertions, riots, strikes in the cities... Everyone was convinced, except the Court, that the revolution would come. But would the revolution be from below or from above?

The revolution of February 1917. Provisional and Soviet Government of Petrograd. Soviets and political parties

The revolution of February 1917 was from below and absolutely spontaneous. No political party was behind it. The main political parties in Russia in 1917 were:

Regarding the First World War, each party had a different opinion:

City of Petrograd
Map of events in the city of Petrograd, now Saint Petersburg (capital of the Russian Empire at the time) during the February Revolution of 1917. Original source: Wikipedia.org

When the world war broke out, the policy of the Holy Union slowed down the growth of the opposition at first. But when the first defeats against the German army began in October 1914, the population began to understand that a long-lasting war would ensue. And they also begin to be aware that the tsarist regime is not prepared for this kind of war. The different political forces that since 1905 were demanding the modernization of the system from 1914 began to prepare to replace the monarchy or even for a much more breakaway exit.

The Kadet party was taking positions for the moment when the tsar could no longer refuse the changes that society demanded. Until 1914 it had been the party of the intellectuals, but with the war it was being absorbed by the bulk of the urban agrarian bourgeoisie.

The revolutionary forces were in trouble. Despite everything, they were restructured, in the face of what seemed irreversible at the end of the war: change of tsar or change of regime. Should the revolution, whether political or social, come from below or from above?

If the revolution came from above, it meant that the bourgeoisie would control the situation. If, on the other hand, it was a revolution from below, it was the people who would take power and demand Russia's withdrawal from the war.

In 1917 the revolution came from below, from a spontaneous manifestation of the population. And the agitations increased. The situation reached its limit when the tsar gave orders to dissolve the demonstrations. But the army, unlike what happened in 1905, refused to fire on the crowd in Petrograd.

Demonstration in the streets of Petrograd in 1917
Demonstration in the streets of Petrograd in 1917

In 1905 the Tsar controlled the situation because the opposition was not united and kept the army, the church and the police on his side. In 1917 the Tsar lost his supporters. With a small push the regime fell.

These events forced Nicholas II to abdicate on March 2 (JU) (March 15, GR).

The main Russian political parties

Russian Democratic Constitutional Party (KD)

A series of liberal groups were born from the Kadet party, which in 1915 formed the progressive block with the aim of being ready for the moment the war ended. According to this group, democratic changes had to materialize. In the first moment of the revolution of February 1917 this group took possession of the control.

Revolutionary Socialist Party or SR

Of the various revolutionary parties, the SR was until the civil war the party of the masses. The Russian Social Democratic Party was divided. It was a Marxist party.

The Eserist party, born at the end of 1890, began to take shape between the years 1904-1905. In 1905, it was equipped with statutes and a political program. It had a program of immediate scope and another in the long term: the socialization of the land and workers' control of the factories.

Viktor Chernov
Viktor Chernov, leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party

It was a non-Marxist party. Its leader was Viktor Chernov. It was the only non-Marxist party within the Second International.

They are also known as neo-populists or neo-rarodniki. The first populists were born from the 60s of the 19th century. It was a product of the changes in the social structure that occurred in the Russian Empire, starting with the first agrarian reform of 1861, which created the "Statute of the Peasants", which meant the legal liberation of the peasants. The agrarian reform was done from above. In practice the peasants remained tied to the land. Part of the land was privatized or put up for sale. With this statute, the free peasants saw their economic and social situation degrade. The reform only served to increase the unrest.

Peasants were part of agrarian communes, the Mir or Obshchina. The Mir was run by an assembly of family heads. The Mir had communal lands and redistributed them in a rotating manner to all the families. The Mir was jointly and severally liable for the communal obligations. The assembly was responsible for enforcing the peasants' obligations and in addition to being supportive. If a farmer stopped paying, it was the commune that covered the costs. Social mobility was very slow. Positive aspect of the Mir: he was in charge of education, road maintenance, communal lands...

The first Russian populists emerged from the small agrarian nobility, when they realized the deterioration of the living conditions of the peasants. For the populists, the political system had to be ended, but it was necessary:

But the path of education did not have the expected effects. Then they will choose the path of terror and enter a spiral of repression. Terrorist organizations emerge. At the end of the decade of the 80s they practically disappeared.

Proposals of the populists:

In 1880 populism practically disappeared. From the mid-1890s, populism reappeared, now known as neo-populism. This group is what ended up forming the Revolutionary Socialist PartyTheir base was the peasantry, but they realized that there was also a worker base present. Industrialization was already a fact in Russia. That is why the party promoted an alliance with the working class. Agrarian party with important tentacles in the working class. Long-term program of land socialization.

Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP)

This party was organized from 1912. It was born from the fusion of different Marxist nuclei: Lenin and MartovThe key figure of Marxism in Russia was Georgi Plekhanov, the introducer of Marxism.

What brings them to the division?

In 1912 a Congress was held in Prague. There it was considered how the Social Democratic Party should be organized. One branch of the party supported the idea that labour parties should accept as members anyone who accepted the statutes and subsidized the party.

Lenin in 1918

In 1902, Lenin proposed, in the work "What is to be done? " that this model of the Labour Party did not work. For Lenin, it was necessary to have an organized party with professionals of the revolution, disciplined and organized like an army. Lenin believed that if the working class was left to act independently of the class party it would tend to transform itself into a reformist class, affluent, on the model of British trade unionism. Lenin rejected the English model of trade union reformism. The party had to play the leading role, to be the workers' conscience.

At the 1903 congress, Lenin had raised the ideas he defended in his book "What is to be done?". There the Bolsheviks apparently remained in the majority, but it was not entirely real. The Bolsheviks were the minority group until the revolution of February 1917. The battle of the Bolsheviks took place around the magazine Iskra. Lenin will lose control of the magazine.

A very important issue was related to the pace of the revolution (1905). With the failed revolution of 1905 we had seen the support of the bourgeoisie for the tsar and the strong popular mobilization. Lenin asserted that the system could not be changed from within. He thought that one should not go to a bourgeois revolution, following Marxist orthodoxy, but that one could make a leap. Given the level of disunity of the bourgeoisie, we had to go towards a pact between the democratic-bourgeois section, the peasants and the industrial working class to go to a system of a democratic republic of workers and peasants plus the democratic section of the bourgeoisie

Lenin argued that the revolutionary phase should be accelerated by skipping the bourgeois phase. In 1912 the Bolshevik party was formed.

Leninism: "The Theses of April"

Lenin wrote in 1902 “What to be done? ” where he theorizes about the party model that will have to make the revolution. In general terms, he argued that:

At the London Congress of 1903 the embryo of the schism that will break the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was opened. There Trotsky made harsh accusations against the party. The Bolsheviks will be a minority until the summer of 1917. From 1904 onwards, they also lose control of the party organ, Iskra.

The definitive break will come over the question of the pace of the revolution:

Lenin from 1905 observed that the level of decomposition of tsarist regimen was priceless. The Russian bourgeoisie was extraordinarily weak. That's why Lenin broke with Marxist orthodoxy and bet on jumping the phases. He defended the need to promote the popular-democratic revolution that rested on the alliance of the popular classes (peasants), the industrial proletariat and the democratic fraction of the bourgeoisie. He agreed with Trotsky in the defence of permanent revolution.

When Lenin raised the possibility of revolution in Russia, it had to follow throughout Europe. They were internationalists. This changed with Stalin, who broke with this doctrine and promoted "socialism in one country" in 1924.

In 1912, the Socialist Revolutionary Party finally broke up in Prague. The Bolshevik party is born. Between the years 1912-1914 Lenin's position within the Socialist International was very weak. In 1914 the International practically dissolved. Until 1914 Lenin had not considered the option of creating a new International.

Until 1917 the debate on the pace of the revolution was a theoretical debate. From February 1917 it was a practical problem, raising a problem of alliances and a genuine political battle.

The World War I could have been the possibility of reunification between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. With the February revolution, reunification was attempted again, but it was not possible. The differences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were not so great. Both spoke of an intermediate stage and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The social composition of both parties was very similar. A small nucleus belonged to the Gentry (small agrarian nobility), large industry workers, some peasants and the intelligentsia.

On the agrarian question both were basically in agreement. The Mensheviks spoke of municipalization of the land and the Bolsheviks of nationalization. This was a big difference from the Socialist Revolutionaries.

Lenin's leadership was often in question. But since it was a disciplined party, the decisions were enforced. It was a party with a lot of internal debate. From 1905 the tsar established a pseudo-parliamentary regime. The Mensheviks gave more value to legal work, within the Duma, than to clandestine work.

Since the revolution of February 1917, the Bolshevik party was still closed and disciplined, but in the February-October period it became a much more open party to become a party of the masses. It went from 24,000 members in February to 250,000 in October 1917. Why this growth? Because they were able to propose and elaborate a series of aspects that made the proletariat feel identified with them.

Agrarian question

The Bolsheviks raised the need to collectivize the lands. The peasant had no technical knowledge to invest. For the land to be productive it was necessary to go to large farms. Lenin before the war was aware of the weight of the peasants and ended up assuming the program of the Socialist Revolutionaries. Lenin will talk about "the land for the peasants". We had to go to socialized agriculture, but by way of the agrarian commune, which had to take over the land and distribute it equitably. This step should not have been taken by the state, but by the MIR or Obstxina.

The coercive function of the MIR had to be eliminated and the solidarity one left: education, health issues, maintenance of ports and roads. The commune had to be responsible for distributing the land equally. To go to the socialist society, the coercive function had to be removed from the MIR and left as an institution that gave way to socialism. It would be a key institution.

The Bolsheviks took over the program of the revolutionary socialists. It involved the expropriation of land from the great owners (nobility) and placing it in the hands of the State. In practice, this meant that they gave the land they had expropriated to the MIR or to the Peasants' Soviets. A sector of the left-wing Revolutionary Socialist Party entered the government in October 1917.

Social structure in the field:

Role of anarchists:

Different views of anarchism:

In October - December 1905 they will play a very important role in the Soviets. The revolution of February 1917 until October 1917 will be the golden age of anarchism. It is estimated that at the end of 1917 there were 10,000 anarchists. They were circumstantial allies of the Bolsheviks in the revolution and the civil war, until 1920. The most important personage was Nestor Makhno. In the civil war, the anarchists fleeing from the Germans took refuge in the south of Belarus and created a communal organization: Makhnovshina. At the end of 1920 there was a confrontation between the Red Army and the anarchists.

Role of the Soviets

They were born in the course of October 1905, spontaneously, without the impulse of any party. It was a spontaneous organization of the proletariat. They will end up talking about the formation of a democratic Republic.

Trotsky became vice-president of the Petrograd Soviet. Soviets were councils. Each factory elected 3 delegates, who were made up of neighbourhood soviets. They are revocable. Democratic life was very fluid. In February 1917, the Petrograd Soviet was born, driven by political forces. There will be from the liberals to the extreme left.