Russia's Year Zero:
The true story behind the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917
In the space of just nine months in 1917 Russia underwent two revolutions, changing the country's destiny forever. In February the Russian monarchy collapsed.
In October, squeezing out the moderate forces, the Bolsheviks seized power, leading to a bloody civil war. Subsequently, the Soviet government steered the country for 70 years.
Oleg Yegorov, RBTH
"Once again that fatso Rodzianko wrote me some nonsense, to which I will not even respond." This is how Russian Emperor Nicholas II reacted to troubling news delivered by Chairman of the State Duma Mikhail Rodzianko, who on Feb. 26, according to the Old Style calendar (March 11, according to the New Style), wrote that the situation in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) was critical: The capital was seized by popular revolt.

Rodzianko beseeched Nicholas, who was supreme commander (Russia was fighting in WWI and the emperor was the commander-in-chief), to introduce a constitutional monarchy, create a government responsible to the Duma and thus appease the protestors. The tsar, certain that the Petrograd garrison would suppress the revolt, ignored his requests. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

- Until January 1918 Russia lived according to the Julian calendar, which "lagged behind" the commonly used Gregorian calendar by two weeks.

- This means that today the days of the February Revolution fall during March and the October Revolution during November. RBTH indicated the dates according to the Julian calendar with New Style dates in parentheses.
Nicolas II at the Supreme Command Staff HQ in Mogilev during World War I
The government troops took sides with the rioters and on Feb. 28 (March 13) Nicholas received a telegram about the complete defeat in Petrograd. The tsar's train was not even allowed entry into the capital and two days later, under pressure from the generals who were convinced that the emperor's resignation would save the country Nicholas officially abdicated the throne in favor of his brother Mikhail.

"All around is betrayal, cowardice and deception!" he wrote in his diary. Two days later, on March 5 (March 18), Mikhail stood down, ending 300 years of Romanov rule. There would never be another tsar in Russia.
Bread riots
The revolt that brought down the Russian monarchy began on Feb. 23, 1917 (March 8), on International Woman's Day. Beginning with a strike by weavers from factories in Petrograd's Vyborgsky District, the protest quickly spread throughout the entire city. According to Georgy Katkov, historian and author of The February Revolution, 90,000 people participated in the revolt on the first day.

Eyewitnesses wrote that the revolution began suddenly. "No one imagined that Woman's Day would become the first day of the revolution," wrote author of The History of the Revolution Leo Trotsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders. Katkov underlines that initially the protesters' main slogan was, "We want bread!" There were serious problems with bread supplies in Petrograd and in the winter of 1917 enormous lines for bread appeared for the first time. Then there were political demands: "End the war!" and "Down with autocracy!"
Citizens of Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) queuing to buy food, 1917
The revolt expanded with every day. The protesters fought with the police and the government decided to use military force. On February 26 (March 11) Alexander Kerensky, a member of the State Duma and future minister, stated: "The revolution has failed!" expecting the army to mercilessly suppress the rioters. But on the following day the troops began siding with the revolt en masse: Soldiers killed officers that tried to resist. The revolt quickly absorbed all the regiments stationed in the city and the revolution's victory was sealed.
Revolutionary logic
Although for contemporaries the February Revolution appeared to be a sudden phenomenon, a century later historians are convinced that it was a logical event. By the end of February 1917 several factors in Russia had coalesced. They exacerbated an already agitated atmosphere, setting the stage for the utter collapse of the existing power structure:
1. War weariness
In August 1914, when WWI was beginning, Russian society was excited about it, uniting behind the tsar and the idea of protecting the Fatherland. Almost three years later, after enormous losses (the number of Russian casualties in 1916 alone was more than two million), the mood was completely different.

"Belief in ultimate success and trust in the command were completely undermined," historian Nikolai Golovin characterized the public's attitude.
Russian soldier attempting to stop comrades deserting the battlefield, WWI
2. Economic problems
Writer Victor Shklovsky observed in February 1917 how Petrograd residents stood in lines and "with infatuation looked" at plain bread. The paradox is that when the revolution began there was enough bread and other products in the country, but because of logistic problems it was supplied only to the front. Behind the lines, in the capital, interruptions with bread deliveries led to hunger, which only added fuel to the fire of mass indignation.

"Industry was hopelessly incapable to solve the problem. The shortage of industrial goods together with the ineffectiveness of the railroads led to the suffering of the urban population in the second half of the war," wrote historian and economist Mikhail Florinsky.
Queuing for bread
3. Political crisis
"People [in the capital - RBTH] are seriously expecting not only revolutionary outbreaks but also a palace coup," said reports to the interior minister in 1917. Nicholas and his family's authority plumbed new depths. The State Duma demanded that the tsar introduce a constitutional monarchy and government responsible to the people.

Nicholas ignored all the demands. The people considered the tsar a talentless ruler and Empress Alexandra, who was German, was accused of being a spy for the German Empire. Meanwhile, the royal couple isolated themselves and did not notice what was happening around them.
The Diarchy
In March, as soon as the monarchy fell, Russia established a strange system whereby power belonged to two independent structures (known as a diarchy): The Provisional Government and the Soviets.

The Provisional Government was composed mostly of former parliamentarians and was dominated by moderately liberal forces. Its aims were to create a broad Constituent Assembly that would determine the future of the country and the form of government and write a new Constitution. The government held patriotic positions, saying the war would be fought "until the victorious end."
The Provisional Government: chairman, Count Georgy Lvov (2nd left) and military and naval minister, Alexander Kerensky (2nd right) sitting with senior military officers.
The Soviets were elected organs that were formed "at the bottom" of society - in factories and military units - and were dominated by socialists. The Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies played a central role. It was created in the first days of the revolution and had big influence among the lower classes of society.
Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies of the Petrograd Soviet, Tauride Palace, Russia
Officially, the Provisional Government ruled "under agreement" with the Petrograd Soviet. But in practice the two structures frequently clashed and the frail system was destined to failure. The diarchy ended in July 1917 when the Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky concentrated power in its hands. Actually, Kerensky's rule did not last long; on Oct. 25 (Nov. 7) the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government.
Chaos and freedom
The period between the two revolutions was contradictory. With the fall of the old regime society obtained unprecedented freedoms: All political parties were allowed and there was freedom of the press and assembly. On the other hand, the country was thrown into chaos. While the Provisional Government and its rivals had been fighting for power there was no one who could create order on a practical level.
Handing out newspapers to representatives of armed forces outside the offices of newspaper "Izvestiya of Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies"
"Robberies, shootings, lynching and murders became part of everyday life," wrote midshipman Nikolay Reden in his memoirs. "The whole country floundered in a cauldron of anarchy." American journalist John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, agreed. "Enormous Russia, bearing the new world, writhed in pain." Reed writes about shootings on the streets but also about the birth of the new man. "In new Russia every man has received the right to vote and workers' newspapers, Soviets and unions have appeared."
From February to October
The force that overthrew the Provisional Government was the extreme left party, the Bolsheviks. Their leader, former political émigré Vladimir Lenin, had arrived in Petrograd from Switzerland on April 3 (April 16) and immediately began propagandizing the radical line. In his "April Theses" program Lenin demanded an immediate end to the war, land nationalization and the replacement of the "bourgeois-liberal" Provisional Government with a Soviet government. At the time his plan was not supported.
In April 1917 in a letter to Russia's WWI allies Provisional Government Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov wrote that Russia would maintain all its obligations and continue the war until the victorious end. This provoked anger among the masses - they were tired of war and for two days held protests and demonstrations. The people demanded an end to the war, the dissolution of the government and power to the Soviets. But the crisis was resolved: Milyukov was dismissed and moderate socialists (not Bolsheviks) were included in the government.
A new crisis occurred in July. On July 3-5 (April 16-18) the Bolsheviks, sent an armed crowd of sailors, workers and anarchists onto Petrograd's streets, clashing with forces of the Provisional Government. With the help of loyal military units the government was able to disperse crowds of protester who were shouting: "Power to the Soviets!" The Bolsheviks were labeled as German spies and were outlawed. Lenin temporarily fled to Finland and Minister-Chairman Alexander Kerensky concentrated power in his hands.
After the attack from the left, the Provisional Government was struck from the right. On Aug. 25 (Sept. 7) Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army General Lavr Kornilov began an assault on Petrograd, intending to establish a military dictatorship - by agreement with Kerensky. However, in the end Kerensky, fearing loss of power, broke the agreement with Kornilov and turned for help to the forces of the left. With the help of the rehabilitated Bolsheviks the assault on Petrograd was stopped. Nevertheless, Kerensky's authority greatly suffered.
Bolshevik triumph
"We old men may not live to see the battles of the upcoming revolution," Vladimir Lenin, informal leader of the Bolshevik party, said in January 1917. Back then, an émigré in Switzerland, he entertained the possibility that he would not be able to participate in the political struggle. But things turned out completely differently: At the end of October that year he would head the revolution against Kerensky and the Provisional Government.

This time the Bolshevik revolt was successful: They were joined by the Soviets and by the army. On the night of Oct. 25 (Nov. 7) the revolutionaries seized the central post and telegraph office and swiftly and successfully stormed the Winter Palace (the government's residence). Kerensky fled the city and the other ministers were arrested.

Storming and sacking of the Winter Palace
Coming to power and proclaiming the power of the Soviets, the Bolshevik government immediately issued two decrees: The Decree on Peace and The Decree on Land. The first proclaimed "immediate peace without annexations and contributions," the second took away all the land from the landowners and gave it - through the government - to the peasants.
Peasants reading Lenin's decrees on land and peace
The subsequent fate of Russia was supposed to be decided by the Constituent Assembly, convened in January 1918. However, the Bolsheviks, who did not have a majority in the Assembly but basically controlled the situation, opted for another solution. "The guard is tired," anarchist and guard leader Anatoly Zheleznyakov told the deputies and holding his weapon, terminated the first and last assembly on Jan. 6 (Jan. 19). On the following day the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly and took over power.
Why did they win?
In 1917 the Bolsheviks were far from being the largest party in Russia and they also held radical, extreme left positions. Historians say that Lenin and his supporters were able to maintain power thanks to their strong organization and readiness to promise the people that its wishes would be met "immediately" without waiting for victory in the war, the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, etc. The people's main demands were peace and land and the Bolsheviks, as soon as they came to power, declared that there would be peace and land.
"The issue of concluding peace was equivalent to power. He who solves it, who has a concrete program, will govern Russia. In the end that is how it happened," believes Doctor of Historical Sciences Igor Grebenkin. It is this difference, he thinks that - with respect to the Provisional Government, which was "afraid to even address" these global problems - guaranteed victory for the Bolsheviks.

"Each minute our party is ready to take power in its entirety," Lenin stated in June 1917 during a rally of the Soviets. There was laughter in the room - no one believed the potential of the Bolsheviks. But several months later no one was laughing: The Bolsheviks indeed seized power in its entirety. It was still a long way until the final victory: there was still the Civil War, which lasted until 1923 and took the lives of almost 13 million people. But the Bolsheviks won that war too. In December 1922 they declared the creation of the first socialist state in the world, the USSR. The communists would govern Russia for almost 70 years.

Text by Oleg Yegorov, Alexey Timofeychev
Images: RIA Novosti; Getty Images; Global Look Press;
Archive Photo; Karl Bulla; TASS
Design and layout by Slava Petrakina
Assistant : Yulia Rybina
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