Kropotkin’s hopes for a social revolution in Russia were revived in February 1917 when the Russian people spontaneously arose to overthrow the Czar. The following passages are from Voline’s account of the 1917 “February Revolution,” from his history of the Russian Revolution, The Unknown Revolution, other excerpts from which are included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Voline emphasizes the spontaneous nature of the February Revolution, arising from Russia’s disastrous war with Germany.
The February Revolution
On February 24 (Russian old style) disturbances began in Petrograd. Primarily provoked by the lack of provisions, they did not seem likely to become serious. But next day events took a sudden turn. The workers in the capital, feeling that the Russian people generally were in solidarity with them, extremely agitated for weeks, starving, and not even receiving any more bread, thronged the streets, demonstrated fiercely, and flatly refused to disperse.
Yet on this first day the demonstrations were cautious and inoffensive. In close-packed masses the workers, with their wives and children, shouted: “Bread! Bread! We have nothing to eat. Either give us bread or shoot us! Our children are dying of hunger. Bread! Bread!”
Besides the police, the Government sent detachments of mounted troops, Cossacks, against the demonstrators. But there were few troops then in Petrograd — except unreliable reservists. So the workers were not at all frightened. They bared their breasts to the soldiers, held up their children, and cried: “Kill us all if you dare! Better to be shot than to starve to death!”
Finally — and this was the key point of the episode — nearly all of the soldiers, smiling, walked warily towards the crowd, without using their weapons, and ignoring the orders of their officers. And many of the latter were not particularly insistent. In some places the soldiers fraternized with the workers, going so far as to give them their rifles, getting off their horses, and mingling with the throng. Naturally this attitude of the troops encouraged the protesting workers.
Here and there, however, the police and the Cossacks did charge groups of demonstrators carrying red flags, and several of them were killed or wounded.
In the barracks of Petrograd and the suburbs of the capital, the garrison regiments still held back from taking the side of the Revolution. And the government held back from sending them to combat it.
But the morning of February 26 brought a notable new happening. By decree, the Government ordered the Duma dissolved.
This was a sort of signal that everybody seemed to have been waiting for before beginning decisive action. The news, known everywhere in the capital almost instantaneously, spurred on events. From that moment, the demonstrations took on the character of a strictly revolutionary movement.
Shouts of “Down with Tsarism!”, “Down with the War!”, and “Long live the Revolution!” rang from the milling crowd, whose attitude steadily became more determined and menacing. All over the city the demonstrators resolutely attacked the police. Several public buildings were burned, including the Court House. The streets bristled with barricades. Soon many red flags appeared. The soldiers still maintained a benevolent neutrality, but more and more frequently they mingled with the throng. The Government could depend on its troops less and less.
Now it hurled the whole police force of the city against the rebels. The police quickly formed detachments for mass attack. They installed machine-guns on the roofs of various houses and even in some churches, and occupied all strategic points. Then they began a general offensive against the rising masses.
During that whole day of February 26 the fighting was hot. In many instances the police were dislodged, policemen were killed, and their machine-guns silenced. But elsewhere they resisted fiercely.
Tsar Nicholas II, who was at the war-front, was warned by telegram of the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile the Duma decided to continue sitting and not yield to the order to dissolve.
The decisive action occurred on February 27, 1917.
From early morning, whole regiments of the Petrograd garrison, no longer hesitant, mutinied, left their barracks, arms in hand, and took over certain strategic points in the capital, after brief skirmishes with the police. The Revolution gained ground.
At a given moment, a dense mass of demonstrators, defiant and grimly threatening, and partially armed, assembled in Znamenskaya Square and in the vicinity of the Nikolaievsky railway station. The Government sent two cavalry regiments from the Imperial Guard, the soldiers it still could trust, as well as a strong detachment of police, both on foot and mounted. The troops were supposed to support and assist the police.
After the usual summons [warning the demonstrators to disperse], the police commander gave an order to charge the crowd. But now another last-moment “miracle” occurred. The officer commanding the Guard cavalrymen raised his sabre, and with a cry of “Charge the police!” launched his two regiments against them. In almost no time the latter were beaten, thrown back, overwhelmed.
Soon the last resistance of the police was broken. The revolutionary troops seized the Government arsenal and occupied all vital points in the city. Surrounded by a delirious multitude, the regiments drew themselves up, with flags unfurled, before the Tauride palace, where the Duma — the poor Fourth Duma — was sitting, and put themselves at its disposal.
Shortly afterward the last regiments of the garrison of Petrograd and its suburbs joined the movement. Tsarism had no more armed forces in the vicinity of the capital. The population was free. The Revolution had triumphed.
The events which presently followed are well known.
A provisional government, composed of influential members of the Duma, was formed and ardently acclaimed by the people.
The provinces enthusiastically joined the Revolution.
Some troops were hastily withdrawn from the front, and were sent by order of the Tsar to the rebel-held capital, but were unable to reach it. For the railroad workers refused to transport them further when they drew near the city. Then the soldiers refused to obey their officers and went over to the Revolution. Some returned to the front; others simply dispersed.
Tsar Nikolai himself, returning to Petrograd by railroad, had his train stopped at Dno station and then had it take him back to Pskov. There he was joined by a delegation from the Duma and by military personages who had joined the Revolution. He could do nothing but accept the situation. After some trifling negotiations he signed his abdication, for himself and his son Alexis, on March 2.
For a moment, the provisional government sought to present the throne to the ex-Emperor’s brother, Grand Duke Michael, but he declined the offer, declaring that the fate of the country and the dynasty should be put into the hands of a regularly convoked Constituent Assembly.
The front hailed the accomplished Revolution.
Tsarism had fallen. Formation of the Constituent Assembly was the order of the day. While waiting for it to be called, the provisional government became the official authority — “recognized and responsible”. The first act of the victorious Revolution was over.
We have recounted the facts of this February revolution in some detail in order to bring out in relief the main point:
Once more, the action of the masses was spontaneous, logically climaxing a long period of concrete experience and moral preparation. This action was neither organized nor guided by any political party. Supported by the people in arms — the Army — it was victorious. The element of organization had to be introduced — and was introduced — immediately afterward.
(In any case, because of the repression, all of the central organizations of the political parties of the left, as well as their leaders, were, at the time of the Revolution, far from Russia. Martov of the Social Democratic Party, Tchernoff of the Social Revolutionary Party, Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Losovsky, Rykov, Bukharin, et al, were all living abroad. It was not until after the February Revolution that they returned home).
Another significant point also emerges from these events.
Again, immediate and specific impetus was given to the Revolution by the absolute impossibility of Russia continuing the war — an impossibility which naturally was intensified by the obstinacy of the Government. This impossibility resulted from the inextricable chaos into which the war had plunged the nation.