Before the Bolsheviks attained power in October 1917, there was a prior popular revolution in which the Russian Romanov Monarchy fell in February 1917. It was replaced by the Provisional Government composed of democratic elements. This fall of the Russian Monarchy was a catastrophe in the making.
At the time Russia was in a terrible war. Some 1.7 million soldiers would be killed and many more wounded and captured by the enemy. Russia had experienced massive defeats, losing Poland and Western Ukraine. Russia was straining to maintain the massive cost of this war.
There are three basic ways to finance a war. Tax the country. Finance the war through war bonds or loans. Or print money. Governments chose the last option, since it requires only starting up the printing presses. Russia used that option. At first economic activity was booming as is the case when governments fool people with cheapened money, then it becomes known that the prices are rising all around and so people try to beat the rise by raising prices in anticipation. Prices rose by 4 times from 1914. Wages earners are hurt the worst since they can’t set their own prices and will begin to fall behind the inflation spiral. This was the case in Petrograd, where most of the war munitions were produced.
What precipitated the revolution was the food shortage. Fundamentally the Russian Government could not afford to feed both the soldier and the city resident. The peasant sold grain through middlemen and didn’t receive the requisite increase in price for their grain they required; inflation was raising prices of everything that the peasant bought. So the peasant had little incentive to sell grain; they reverted to subsistence farming and hoarded their grain. As an indication the economic system was collapsing, the Russian government had begun to requisition gain. This was no real solution and the cities continued to be short of food. Nonetheless, the Russian government had to feed the army as well. In addition the transportation rail system was strained as well. Transportation of goods had to be rationed between the war at the front and the populace further contributing to food shortages.
There was much political and labor unrest after the initial euphoria of the first year of war. In fact October 1916 was the heighth of political demonstrations by far with 177 strikes involving 175,000 strikers. In the last 18 months of war labor strikes were common ranging from 13 to 48 strikes a month involving 6,000 to 53,000 workers.
Already, experiencing regular shortages of food, on February 23, 1917 International Women’s Day triggers a strike of the women textile workers that spreads to the metal workers and then to demonstrations on the streets.
The Okhrana, the oppressive and omnipresent secret police, that had infiltrated virtually a aspects of society, warned of the danger of a social explosion. They gave word to the authorities the situation in the working class districts was a tinder box. Living with constant unrest had left the authorities deaf to the real peril that was forth-coming.
The only response by the authorities was crackdowns. Striking workers were being drafted and sent to the front. Labor leaders were arrested and imprisoned or sent into exile. It was at this time that the Bolshevik party was decimated, since all radical groups were infiltrated by Okhrana.
The Russian Empire was suspicious of civil society. So even, labor mutual aid groups were suppressed deemed to be vehicles of political activity and hives for radicals. Despite the authorities opposition Liberal charitable organizations like All-Russian Union of Zemstvos (Local Councils) organized for the sick and the wounded and the All-Russian Union of Towns for municipal self-governments became deeply involved in food supply.
Critically, the Cossacks, a southern Russian nomadic peoples frequently used as the regime’s enforcers, acted with indifference, when asked to suppress the strikes of February 23. Strikes mushroom across all districts of Petrograd on the next day. Cossacks are once again no use to the regime and even chased away the police.
On the third day of strikes, February 25 there is a general strike and the city of Petrograd is paralyzed. Police under provocation fire on demonstrations and 9 are killed. Some soldiers called to quell the rioting defect. Police chiefs, Shalfeev and Krylov are killed by the rioters. General Khabalov, head of the Petrograd military district, got a telegram from Czar Nicholas to quell the demonstrations by any means necessary. Police arrested 100 leaders of the demonstrations.
On the 26th what were presumed to be loyal Troops began firing on demonstrators. There were some 300,000 troops stationed in Petrograd. Czar Nicholas was confident that they could restore order. Chairman of the State Duma (assembly) Rodzianko contacted the Czar to let him know “the situation is serious. The capital is in a state of anarchy” and to beg him to recognize a consultative body, a cabinet, in efforts to calm the populace. This of course was the weakest step towards reform regarding the upheaval of the populace. This tentative step of a consultative cabinet wouldn’t be close enough to quench popular unrest. Nicholas’ comment was, “Again this fat Rodzianko has written me all sorts of nonsense, to which I will not even reply.” Nicholas, forever the autocrat, refused this conciliation and called for the elected Duma to be prorogued or closed instead. Doing away with the Duma at this point was an ineffectual, belated move and the misguided thing to do anyway. Unbeknownst to him Nicholas would cease to be Czar in four days.
The next day the soldier’s insurrection began in earnest in Petrograd and the military began to disintegrate. Arms are seized, so insurrecting soldiers couldn’t be restrained by their officers. Officers were killed or forced to flee by their subordinates most importantly the NCO’s. Discipline in the Czarist Army was very harsh, the officer core being alienated from their soldiers. The common soldier demanded to select his own officers. Additionally, prisons are forced open, releasing prisoners.
On February 28 all military units in Petrograd have joined the insurrection. The military leader of the Petrograd district, Khabalov, is arrested and the hated leader of the all too power Ministry of Interior, Protopopov, surrenders to the insurrectionists. The military high command decides to strike back and Nicholas feels compelled leave the war command center at Mogilev near the front to join his wife in the Tsarskoe Selo palace near Petrograd. He would begin a train journey that would end with his abdication.
Nicholas II was hidebound; he wouldn’t budge from the principle of ruling Russia as an autocrat. The Autocrat was designated by God, a divinely appointed regent, with freedom to rule with little or no constraint. He said he promised his father upon his death to maintain this autocracy. In the upheaval of 1905 a Duma, an assembly was granted but Nicholas always insisted it was at his pleasure. He refused to recognize a monarchy constrained by a constitution or allow any designated advisory body or council or any representative cabinet. Liberals urged this upon him throughout the war as a means to reduce the social tensions that were building up. Russia’s only reaction under Nicholas was to use surveillance and crackdown on unrest as a response to social unrest. Ironically, Russia got her autocrat a decade later with Stalin as General Secretary of the Communist party. He would send millions to their deaths.
Czar Nicholas would spend part of two days attempting to reach Tsarskoe Selo, first heading directly to Petrograd but then shunted east to reach a village, Bologoe, southeast of the capital the next day only to be told the route to Petrograd was blocked as well. He traveled west to Pskov, arriving 8 pm on March 1.
During his meanderings the situation in Petrograd had completely fallen apart, a fragile Provisional government had been coalesced under the idea the Czar Nicholas had to go. This is the only thing that could conceivably quell the populace. With control of the railroad transport there was manipulation of the routing of the Czar’s train schedule to delay his arrival to the capital. They had been in communication with the military and convinced them that an attack on Petrograd would cause Civil War. Russia was in the middle of a war already with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. To preserve Russia they needed to jettison the monarchy.
Czar Nicholas II was convinced in Pskov that his abdication would bring the social unrest to an end. At first it would be his hemophiliac son who would be the next Czar but Nicholas decided his son would abdicate too and the crown would fall to his Uncle Michael Alexandrovich. Unfortunately, he acquiesced to the Provisional government, saying he would wait on them to determine the upcoming form of government. The Romanov Russian monarchy was over. They had written their own death sentences. Czar Nicholas and his whole family were butchered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918.
The fall of the monarchy precipitated a chain of events that led to the rise of the Bolsheviks, Lenin and Stalin and a mass of atrocities. This is the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.
Much of the blame for the fall of the monarchy I am afraid to say can be placed on Czar Nicholas II himself. He insisted on rejecting any accommodation with reform, a reform that was desperately called for. It must be remembered that the society was tragically divided, which included a revolutionary element, the left Social Revolutionaries who engaged in assassinations of Russian governmental officials, as a matter of policy, which included the assassination of two ministers of interior and the Czars’ uncle Sergei. Nicholas’s grandfather, Alexander II, who freed the serfs and who had a benign policy towards Finland, was assassinated in 1881. Nonetheless, a constituent assembly, much like Germany’s Bundestag with a responsible cabinet would have given the Russian monarchy firmer footing. Czar Nicholas rejected it all and chose to rule with the secret police, Okhrana and oppression. I suspect Nicholas relied on his belief that the vast peasantry supported the monarchy, but they turned out to be simply spectators in the social upheaval. (Richard Pipes [See below.] provides a far more sophisticated analysis of Russia and its collapse, some of which highlights Russia’s unpreparedness for a deliberative parliament with which the Monarchy could work. For example nearly all elements of the political spectrum were quite sympathetic to Social Revolutionaries reign of terror on the Czarist regime administration. Thousands were said to have been assassinated before the War. The peasants on the other hand, which owned 90% of the land, were organized under thousands of communes, led under a patriarchal setup, that was devoid of patriotic allegiance to the monarchy.)
Nicholas in 1915 after devastating loses of Poland and western Ukraine decided to propagate the war at the front, dismissing his cousin Nikolay Nikolayovich. It was a mistake to remove himself from the capital and isolate himself at the front. And leave himself open to the vagaries of the military events.
The entrance itself into World War I was nothing less than idiocy. Russia had no vital interests in the Balkans other than prestige, acting on the violation of the integrity of Serbia that ignited the conflict. It wasn’t ready for the war and shortly proved it really couldn’t afford a modern war, which caused the death and disability of millions and bankrupted the country. These were colossal blunders that destroyed Russia and brought down the monarchy. Nicholas made that final decision to declare war, against not a few who cautioned restraint.
I point you to the brilliant works of Richard Pipes, the Russian Revolution and Russia under the Bolshevik Regime. These offer far more nuance, insight and analysis than this humble monograph presumes to offer.