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The Fall of the Romanovs
Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in the Time of Revolution
By Mark Steinberg and Vladimir Khrustalev

Chapter One: Revolution

Well before the revolutionary upheavals of 1917, the democratic challenge to traditional structures of power in Russia worried Russian conservatives, among them Nicholas II. At the very beginning of his reign, Nicholas acknowledged the growth in Russian society of "senseless dreams of participation . . . in matters of internal administration."[1] Inspiring these dreams were powerful and dangerous ideas about inalienable rights and the moral and political necessity of civil liberty. Since the late eighteenth century, liberal ideas of the European Enlightenment had increasingly found a place in the thinking of Russia's educated elite, including many state officials. As the number and social influence of the educated grew - especially as economic development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fostered the development of a professional and commercial middle class - views about the need for civil liberties and public representation also spread.[2]

Even more troubling to the guardians of the traditional order, the poor also began to make use of the language of democratic rights and equality. Worse still, they often wove together demands for political inclusion with expectations of social justice and equality.[3] The peasants' dream of possessing all the land - necessary, they believed, to remedy their poverty and deserved because they were the ones who worked the land - had always touched on politics: the land would be theirs, peasants said, when a just ruler proclaimed to the peasant majority that they should take back from the rich land-owners what rightfully belonged to them. Similarly, when industrial workers (most of them peasants in origin and many retaining village ties) spoke of freedom and democracy, they typically understood these ideas not only as means of ensuring civil liberties and political representation but also as means of remedying poverty and ending harsh and humiliating treatment by those in authority. Government labor policies, which combined paternalistic efforts to ameliorate the lot of the poor with firm measures for maintaining order and control, tended, for their part, to encourage workers to see the state, and thus politics, as the key to economic and social change.

For lower-class discontent to erupt into open protest, however, peasants and workers needed to see their sufferings not as the inevitable lot of the poor but as correctable wrongs. They needed moral notions of social right and standards of justice and a belief that alternatives existed. In the decades preceding the revolution, such ideas were increasingly in evidence in the thinking of lower-class Russians. Growing literacy and a burgeoning popular press and literature were particularly potent influences. Journals, newspapers, pamphlets, and books did much to spread ideas about universal rights, the natural equality of all human beings, and the mutability of every political order. More subtle but no less subversive, the very act of reading and becoming more "cultured" gave many commoners a sense of self-esteem that made the ordinary humiliations and hardships of lower-class life harder to endure.

Popular discontent was about more than justice, democracy, and rights. It was also an expression of anger and resentment. Once aroused to open protest, as in 1905-1906 and 1917-1918, many lower-class Russians showed not only a desire to be treated as social and political equals - "as human beings," they liked to say - but also a desire to punish and humiliate, even to dehumanize, those who stood above them and whom they blamed for their sufferings. In this spirit, workers put foremen or employers into wheelbarrows, dumped trash on their heads, and rolled them out of shops and into the street or, less ceremoniously, beat them, occasionally to death. Peasants broke into the mansions of the gentry, smashed belongings, and burned what remained. Poverty had bred dreams of revenge and reversal as well as justice.[4] Nicholas and Alexandra and their children - living symbols of the old order - would feel the coarse edge of these feelings. They neither expected nor understood this plebeian rage.

During Nicholas II's reign, organized opposition to the autocracy was fragmented into dozens of legal and illegal parties and groups, many of which would play parts in the upheaval of 1917-1918 and in the fate of the tsar and his family. On the left stood varieties of socialists. Populist socialism, the oldest radical tradition, was organized in the prewar years by the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party and represented in the Duma, or legislature, by the Trudovik (Laborist) faction. Populists viewed the whole narod, the common people, as their constituency, and socialism as an order based on the ethical values of community and liberty. Marxists, who became numerous and influential, were organized mainly around the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party (RSDRP). They believed that they possessed a more "scientific" and rationalistic ideology than the populists. For them, socialism was historically destined to succeed capitalism as a more rational and progressive order, and the industrial proletariat was the class whose interests and struggles would bring the new order into being.

In real political life, socialists were divided far more intricately than these general descriptions of their dogmas reveal. Populists differed among themselves over such issues as the use of terror, the importance of peasant communalism, and the formation of an alliance, if any, with liberals. Marxists differed among themselves - often with rancor - over questions of organization (for example, how centralized and authoritarian the party should be), tactics (whether workers should ally with other classes), strategy (whether Russia was ready for socialism), and philosophy (how important ethics and revolutionary faith were compared with scientific reason). Many of these disagreements among Marxists led to the split in the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in 1903. But even these two groups were divided into factions, and many intermediary groupings stood between them.[5]

The liberal opposition was also a formidable but divided force.[6] In the years after the 1905 revolution, the Octobrist Party - formally, the Union of 17 October - represented the moderate wing of organized liberalism. Established by liberals who accepted as sufficient the limited political concessions that Nicholas II offered in his manifesto of 17 October 1905, Octobrists generally cooperated with the tsar's government. On the eve of World War I, however, even the Octobrists were at odds with Nicholas's policies, and they could often be heard criticizing the government in the Duma, where they formed the largest single bloc of deputies. This shift toward the opposition provoked a split among Octobrist deputies. Conservatives, led by Mikhail Rodzianko, challenged the more liberal leadership of Aleksandr Guchkov, as a result of which Rodzianko replaced Guchkov as Duma chairman. But by the end of 1916, even Rodzianko was turning against Nicholas II and his government.[7]

To the left of the Octobrist Party was the Constitutional Democratic Party, typically abbreviated to Kadet Party, but sometimes known by its formal name, the Party of the People's Freedom. The party leader was a Moscow history professor, Pavel Miliukov. The Kadets viewed the semi-constitutional order created after the 1905 revolution as unfinished and inadequate. Though not opposed in principle to a monarchical system, the Kadets insisted that a government should he responsible to a democratic parliament. Instead of the current system, which gave the tsar unlimited authority to appoint and dismiss ministers, they sought a political structure in which ministers were subject to parliamentary approval. And instead of the existing electoral law, which gave different social groups unequal electoral weight in selecting deputies to the Duma, they called for universal, direct, equal, and secret suffrage.

The Kadets also sought social reforms to improve the lives of ordinary Russians. The product of more than social conscience or political maneuvering, their social concern was essential to their political idealism. Unlike most Octobrists, who were especially solicitous of the needs of landowners, or the Progressists, members of another liberal party, who spoke for the interests of large-scale industry and finance, and certainly unlike the socialists, who represented labor, the Kadets refused to represent the interests of any one class. They insisted that they were "above class" and even "above party." This ideal may have been partly self-delusion, but it also reflected their ideas about government and nation. Although Kadets were devoted to the liberal idea of individual rights, they saw a nation as founded on free social community and patriotic solidarity, with unity overshadowing both individual and class, and they saw the democratic state as properly acting in this civic spirit.[8] These assumptions would have great political consequence. They nurtured noble political dreams and practical political courage. But they also bred an intolerance of - even an inability to understand - the class anger and class struggles that were so pervasive in Russia.

The outbreak of the world war temporarily quieted political and social protest, focusing resentment on an external enemy.[9] But the fragile patriotic unity did not last long. As the war dragged on, it exacerbated most of the problems in Russian life. The economy strained to keep up in a war that mobilized an unprecedented amount of human and material resources. Shortages of all sorts became epidemic - military equipment and supplies, fuel and raw materials for factories, food for the cities and for the troops - and prices soared. At the front, the army performed poorly and soldiers suffered from shortages of necessities ranging from boots and food to guns and shells. Carnage at the front and economic hardship in the rear helped revive and intensify civic protest.

At the very start of the war, liberals appealed to the tsar to establish a "government of national confidence." In line with their traditions, they also organized public voluntary associations to aid the war effort. In July 1914 (according to the Russian calendar, war was declared on 19 July), Duma members established a Provisional Committee for the Relief of Wounded and Sick Soldiers (under the leadership of Rodzianko). At the same time and for the same purpose, urban and rural councils of local administration, in which liberal professionals played a very large role, organized the All-Russian Union of Zemstvos and the All-Russian Union of Town Councils. In. 1915 these unions merged to form the All-Russian Union of Zemstvos and Town Councils (known by the abbreviation Zemgor), headed by a Progressist, Prince Georgy Lvov. Also organized in 1915, to coordinate military production, was the Central Military-Industrial Committee, which had branches in many cities and included representatives of business, labor, government, and the professions. It was haired by the Octobrist leader, Guchkov.

These associations, which the government encouraged, were important sources of organizational experience and strength for liberals, but they also signified something deeper and more consequential: the development of organized civic involvement in public affairs. The autocracy's dismissive disregard of this emergent civil society was a major reason that the old regime was swept away by revolution in February 1917. Not coincidentally, many leaders of these civic organizations would soon take their places in the first post-Romanov government.

During the summer of 1915 a Progressive Bloc of Duma deputies formed, uniting Kadets, Octobrists, Progressists, Progressive Nationalists, and other liberal groups. Representing a large majority of Duma deputies, the bloc demanded a cabinet of ministers that would enjoy "the confidence of the public" - a moderate demand, given that many liberals were already calling for a "responsible" cabinet. In reply, the Council of Ministers, aware of the need for concessions, expressed willingness to work out a compromise. But Nicholas II was determined not to make the same mistake that he had made in 1905, w hen he had submitted to the advice of some of his ministers and agreed to establish a Duma. Instead, he ordered the Duma prorogued. When this decision was reported to the Council of Ministers, at a meeting on 2 September 1915, the foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, said that he feared political upheaval: "Tomorrow blood will flow in the streets, and Russia will plunge into the abyss!"[10] Although his prediction was premature, it is plausible to argue that had Nicholas II conceded to the moderate demands of the Duma majority - and accepted the advice of his own ministers - the coming revolution might have been avoided or at least its fury might have been abated.

Against this background of social change, rising political discontent, autocratic immobility, and national crisis, the manifestation of autocratic willfulness that contemporaries dubbed "ministerial leapfrog" - the appointment and firing of ministers in rapid succession - seemed particularly outrageous. The tsar's absolute power to appoint ministers was the most conspicuous limitation of the Duma's authority. Insult was added to injury during the world war, especially after the tsar went to the front as commander in chief, when the power to appoint the government seemed to fall into the hands of the "German" empress, Alexandra, and her "dissolute" holy man, Rasputin. The description by a leading historian of Russia accurately echoes the opinion of many contemporaries: "A narrow-minded, reactionary, hysterical woman and an ignorant, weird peasant . . . had the destinies of an empire in their hands."[11] The abysmal quality of the appointments - rumors were rife that Interior Minister Aleksandr Protopopov was demented from advanced syphilis - made the political unaccountability of the ministers all the more grating.

Meanwhile, worsening economic conditions and growing popular frustration with the war provoked more strikes and provided fertile ground for the arguments of socialist activists. Nicholas and Alexandra's letters suggest only a slight awakening to the seriousness of public discontent and a persistent tendency to trivialize its causes. By the fall of 1916, Nicholas briefly recognized the political dangers inherent in the fact that "the people are beginning to starve."[12] Throughout these final months of the old regime, government officials, notably those responsible for public order (especially the secret security police), repeatedly warned that economic hardship - shortfalls in fuel and raw materials, which idled thousands of workers; increasing prices, which pushed the poor to the brink of starvation; and bread and other food shortages - were fostering a dangerous public mood.[13]

By the beginning of 1917, reports from police agents - who lived and worked among various classes of the population and whose reports were regularly summarized for higher officials - abundantly described the popular threat to social and political order: meetings in and around factories at which speakers complained about high prices and the persistent shortage of bread, about the war, and about the lack of a democratic government; demands for, and work stoppages in support of, higher wages and direct provision of bread; factories shutting down when workers declared that they were too hungry to work and needed to search for food; the dissemination of subversive leaflets and proclamations by an astonishing variety of parties, unions, and committees; street demonstrations, complete with red flags and revolutionary songs and banners; scattered violence against police and cossacks; assaults on businesses, especially food shops; and the appearance of guns and other weapons in workers' hands. Also reported were numerous muggings, robberies, suicides, and fires. Agents employed to keep under surveillance "the progressively inclined and oppositional segment of the capital's society" similarly reported, in January 1917, "a wave of animosity against those in authority in wide circles of the population." Among the working-class women who stood out in the cold on the lengthening bread lines in Petrograd, the mood was especially tense. According to a February report by an agent of the Petrograd Okhrana, "These mothers, exhausted from standing endlessly in lines and having suffered so much in watching their half-starving and sick children, are perhaps much closer to a revolution than Messrs. Miliukov, Rodichev, and Co. [leaders of the Kadet Party], and of course they are much more dangerous."[14]

Conservatives and liberals alike sought to halt the approach of revolution by forcing reform. As Alexandra angrily noted in her letters to Nicholas, liberal attacks on the government in both the Duma and the press grew more impassioned and hostile. Talk of a palace coup became common in the highest social circles by the end of 1916 - among the grand dukes, among monarchist members of the State Council, in aristocratic salons, and in the officers' corps.[15] The only echo of these discussions in practice was the murder of Rasputin in December 1916, the result of a conspiracy uniting a leading rightist politician, a prince related by marriage to the imperial family, and one of Nicholas II's cousins.

In the face of a deepening crisis, liberals hesitated to defy the tsar's authority. Most liberals - notably in the Progressive Bloc, which retained a firm majority in the Duma - were immobilized by their own political logic: Although they foresaw a political upheaval if nothing changed, they were committed to principles of legality and thus opposed to a revolutionary challenge to the power of the tsarist regime; they were also justifiably afraid of provoking real revolution in the streets. Thus, when the Duma reconvened on 14 February 1917, a day marked also by strikes aimed at reminding the Duma of public discontent, the leader of the Progressive Bloc, the Kadet Pavel Miliukov, spoke against those in the Duma who demanded revolutionary action; he insisted that "the word and the vote" must remain their only weapons. The war of words launched in the Duma seemed only to underscore the powerlessness of the body as long as it remained within its legal mandates. Many liberal Duma deputies felt a tragic foreboding: "The deputies wander around like emaciated flies. Nobody believes in anything. Everyone has lost heart. Everyone feels and knows their powerlessness. The situation is hopeless."[16] Only when revolution broke out in the streets were liberals compelled to take serious political action.

On 22 February 1917, after spending two months in Petrograd and at the palace in Tsarskoe Selo, Nicholas II returned to Staff Headquarters at Mogilyov, near the front (Map 1 ). He did so confident that no serious challenges threatened his authority. He accepted the assurances of his minister of internal affairs, Aleksandr Protopopov (a trusted favorite who had been supported by Rasputin) that the situation was under control. By contrast, he was unmoved by the steady stream of supplicants who had been coming to the palace since the start of the new year - grand dukes, provincial nobles, and conservative and liberal members of the Duma - to convince him that revolution was impending if political changes were not made. Even the army's acting chief of staff, General Vasily Gurko (General Mikhail Alekseev was ill), reportedly warned Nicholas, "Your Imperial Majesty, you are willfully preparing yourself for the gallows. Do not forget that the mob will not stand on ceremony."[17]

On Thursday, 23 February (8 March) 1917, thousands of women textile workers in Petrograd shut down their factories, partly in commemoration of International Women's Day but mainly to protest bread shortages, thus adding to the already large number of men and women on strike. Strikers marched through the streets shouting "Give us bread" (Daite khleb and Khleba, khleba). Crowds headed toward the city center. Demonstrators - who were in a nasty mood, according to police reports - broke store windows, halted street-cars, and forced other workers to join them. During the next two days, encouraged by hundreds of experienced rank-and-file socialist activists, workers in factories and shops throughout the capital went on strike.

By the 25th virtually every industrial enterprise in Petrograd was shut down, as were many commercial and service enterprises. The demands - visible on banners and audible in the shouts of demonstrators and in speeches at rallies - escalated, again with the encouragement of activists, from demands for bread to appeals to end the war and abolish the autocracy. Demonstrators marched and protested all the more boldly when police and cossacks, under orders to show restraint, hesitated to stop them. Students, white-collar workers, and teachers joined workers in the streets and at public meetings. Although the protests and meetings were generally peaceful, the potential for mass violence was barely contained: some workers carried sticks, nuts, bolts, screws, pieces of metal, and, occasionally, pistols; crowds smashed shop windows, especially the windows of food and bread stores; looters became more common; demonstrators attacked and beat police officers - fatally on a couple of occasions. Although socialist activists condemned the violence and vandalism, the outbreaks became more frequent. Meanwhile, liberal and socialist deputies in the Duma shrilly denounced the current government and again demanded a responsible cabinet of ministers.

Nicholas received ambiguous information about the seriousness of events. Reports were also partially overshadowed by news that his children had been stricken with measles just after he left Tsarskoe Selo. On the 24th and 25th, word of the disturbances reached him at Headquarters - in Alexandra's letters (Documents 3, 5 ) and in telegrams from War Minister Mikhail Beliaev, Minister of Internal Affairs Protopopov, and the military commander of Petrograd, General Sergei Khabalov. Alexandra discounted the disturbances: "Its a hooligan movement, young boys&girls running about&screaming that they have no bread, only to excite -&then the workmen preventing others fr. work - if it were very cold they wld. probably stay in doors. But this will all pass&quieten down - if the Duma wld. only behave itself" (Document 5). Although the official reports were more thorough in describing the scale of the disturbances - the spreading strikes, the demands for bread, the mass demonstrations on Nevsky Prospect (Petrograd's main throughfare and the symbol of its urbanity), and the attacks on police officers - they also assured Nicholas that the police and the army were having no difficulty in controlling the disorders.[18] This was far from accurate.

About 9:00 p.m. on 25 February, General Khabalov received a telegram from Nicholas that was decisive in setting in motion actions that would transform the unrest into revolution: "I command you tomorrow to stop the disorders in the capital, which are unacceptable in the difficult time of war with Germany and Austria."[19] Meeting with his unit commanders an hour later, Khabalov ordered them to use all necessary force to disperse crowds, including firing at demonstrators, and he issued a proclamation to the population, posted the next morning, banning demonstrations and warning that this order would be enforced with arms. He also publicly warned strikers that they would be conscripted and sent to the front if they did not return to work by the 28th. That evening, on 25 February, the Council of Ministers was informed of the tsar's command to use military force to restore order. A majority of the ministers dismissed Protopopov's sanguine assurances that all would be well and suggested forming a new cabinet in consultation with the Duma as the only way to end the disorders. They delegated two members to begin negotiations with the Duma.[20]

On 26 February, as demonstrators again poured into the streets of Petrograd, police and soldiers, as commanded, fired systematically into the crowds, wounding and killing many. The show of force convinced many socialist leaders that the regime was determined and able to restore order.[21] It also convinced the Council of Ministers to abandon efforts to achieve a political compromise with the Duma - that no longer seemed necessary. Instead, the council recommended to Nicholas that he again prorogue the Duma, which he did. After the confident and effective use of force, the telegram from the chairman of the Duma to Nicholas on the night of 26 February (Document 6) insisting that "state authority is totally paralyzed and utterly unable to reimpose order" seemed to conflict with the facts, and thus the pleas for a cabinet responsible to the Duma hardly seemed worth answering. Indeed, Nicholas dismissed the warning: "That fat Rodzianko has written all sorts of nonsense to me, to which I will not even reply."[22] That night Rodzianko was handed the order proroguing the Duma. But the tsar's confidence was Dremature.

Leaders of the rebellion and of the government both underestimated the psychological and moral effect on the soldiers themselves of the order that they shoot at demonstrating civilians. Most obeyed the order on the 26th. But as they returned to their barracks, they thought and talked about whether to follow orders or their consciences the following day. The answer soon emerged in regiment after regiment: mutiny. On the morning of the 27th, workers in the streets, many now armed and ready for combat with troops, were joined by insurgent soldiers, often with red ribbons tied to their bayonets. With the disintegration of military authority in the capital, effective civil authority collapsed. The streets became a theater of revolution: workers and soldiers broke into weapon factories and arsenals and armed themselves; they liberated revolutionaries from prisons and also a great number of ordinary criminals; they invaded police stations, including central police headquarters, and set them ablaze; they assaulted policemen. "Requisitioned" trucks and cars crammed full of rebels sped around the streets. Everywhere soldiers, workers, and students were walking and driving about, sometimes draped in cartridge belts, carrying weapons, often more than one, and firing into the air. Numerous accidental injuries and deaths occurred along with deliberate ones. Looting and pillaging were also common: wine stores were broken into, store windows were smashed, goods were stolen from various businesses, and the homes of the rich were burglarized.

Increasingly aware of the gravity of the situation, Khabalov appealed to the tsar and the military command to "quickly send reliable units from the front."[23] Although the war minister, Beliaev, was still cabling Staff Headquarters his assurances that "calm will soon arrive" (Document 9), by evening he, too, was urgently informing Headquarters that "the situation in Petrograd has become extremely serious" and appealing for troops from the front.[24] Nicholas was not ill informed about the seriousness of events. As he wrote to Alexandra on the 27th, "I saw many faces here with frightened expressions" (Document 11). In response, he announced his own departure for the capital and ordered the transfer of reliable troops there, under the command of General Nikolai Ivanov, to restore order by force (Documents 10, 12.).

© 1995 Yale University

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