When we last left Russia, Tsar Nicholas had been forced into accepted a limited monarchy in 1905 and was not playing nicely with the new parliament. Never a good idea if you want to stave off civil unrest.*
In the years between 1905 and 1917, things went from bad to worse for Russia. The First World War destroyed whatever faith the Russian people still had in the tsarist government. Ill-equipped and badly led, the Russian army suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of Germany. By the end of 1915, one million Russian soldiers had been killed and another one million captured.
The government was equally inept at managing the home front. Its greatest failure was an inability to organize food distribution, creating rising prices (again) and artificial food shortages in the cities.
At the end of February, 1917, Petrograd** was in the throes of a general strike. The transportation system failed so there was no way to distribute the food that sat in the city’s warehouses. The streets were crowded with people standing in food lines in the bitter cold.
When the inevitable bread riot broke out, the police fired on the crowd. Everything was business as usual until the army unit that was sent to reinforce the police instead disarmed them and joined the strikers. Suddenly the bread riot was a full-scale rebellion. The February Revolution**** had begun.
It took several days for the news to reach Tsar Nicholas, who was with the army at the front. Once he got the news, it took a bit longer to make him understand that this was more than just another bread riot. On March 15, under pressure from both the Duma and his senior military officers, Nicholas abdicated in favor of his brother, the Archduke Michael. The Archduke, apparently quicker on the uptake than his brother, declined to accept the throne.
The Duma quickly established a provisional government, but it wasn’t the only candidate to replace the Romanovs. The leaders of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party organized the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which elected 2500 representatives from factories and military units around the city. Four coalition governments rose and fell between March and October. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks concentrated their power, forming soviets on the Petrograd model in major towns and cities and in the military.
On November 6, the Bolsheviks staged a relatively bloodless coup.***** Soldiers from the Petrograd Soviet seized strategic points throughout the city. The next day, the all-Russian Congress of Soviets approved the formation of a revolutionary Bolshevik government with Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) at its head.
The long awaited socialist revolution was on its way. It soon took an ugly turn, with the Bolsheviks extending government power in ways designed to keep other revolutionaries from rising up against them in turn.****** But that’s a story for another day.
*Charles I of England (1600-1649) tried the same trick of dissolving Parliament and ruling without one and look where it got him: deposed and beheaded.
**Formerly St. Petersburg. The name was changed in 1914 because many Russians thought St. Petersburg sounded too German.*** The city wouldn’t be Petrograd for long. In 1924, it was renamed Leningrad.
***On a smaller scale, here in the United States frankfurters became first liberty sausages and then hot dogs for the same reason.
****Which took place in March if you’re using the Gregorian calendar, which I am because otherwise I get confused.
*****Known as the October Revolution. See **** above.
******Beginning with censoring the press. Freedom of the press really is a cornerstone of democracy, people.