With Russia faring poorly in World War I and facing severe food shortages, strikes and public protests happened in the country with increasing frequency during 1916 and early 1917. Violent encounters between protesters and authorities also increased.
On February 23, 1917, a large gathering of working-class women convened in the center of Petrograd to mark International Women’s Day. The gathering took the form of a protest demonstration calling for “bread and peace.” While the demonstration began peacefully, the next morning it turned violent as the women were joined by hundreds of thousands of male workers who went on strike and flooded the streets, openly calling for an end to the war and even to the monarchy. Feeding on their outrage with each passing day, the demonstrations became larger and rowdier, and the outnumbered police were unable to control the crowds.
With news of the unrest, Tsar Nicholas II, who was away visiting his troops on the front, sent a telegram to Petrograd’s military commander on February 25, ordering him to bring an end to the riots by the next day. In their efforts to carry out the tsar’s order, several troops of a local guard regiment fired upon the crowds on February 26. The regiment fell into chaos, as many soldiers felt more empathy for the crowds than for the tsar. The next day, more than 80,000 troops mutinied and joined with the crowds, in many cases directly fighting the police.
During this period, two political groups in Russia quickly recognized the significance of what was developing and began to discuss actively how it should be handled. The Duma (the state legislature) was already in active session but was under orders from the tsar to disband. However, the Duma continued to meet in secret and soon came to the conclusion that the unrest in Russia was unlikely to be brought under control as long as Nicholas II remained in power.
During the same period, the Petrograd Soviet, an organization of revolutionary-minded workers and soldiers dominated by the Menshevik Party, convened on February 27. They immediately began to call for full-scale revolution and an end to the monarchy altogether.
Despite the mutinies in the army and government, there was still no consensus that the monarchy should be dismantled entirely; rather, many felt that Nicholas II should abdicate in favor of his thirteen-year-old son, Alexis. If this occurred, a regent would be appointed to rule in the boy’s place until he reached maturity. Therefore, both the Duma and military leaders placed heavy pressure on the tsar to resign.
Nicholas II finally gave in on March 2, but to everyone’s surprise he abdicated in favor of his brother Michael rather than his son, whom he believed was too sickly to bear the burden of being tsar, even with a regent in place. However, on the next day Michael also abdicated, leaving Russia with no tsar at all. Responding to this unexpected turn of events, leading Duma members assumed the role of being the country’s provisional government. The provisional government was to serve temporarily, until a Constituent Assembly could be elected later in the year to decide formally on the country’s future government.
Although the provisional government was quickly recognized by countries around the world as the legitimate governing body of Russia, the Petrograd Soviet held at least as much power and had significantly greater connections with regional authorities in other parts of the country. The Petrograd Soviet was in essence a metropolitan labor union made up of soldiers and factory workers. By the time of Nicholas II’s abdication, it had some 3,000 members and had formed an executive committee to lead it. Dominated by Mensheviks, the group was chaotic in structure and favored far more radical changes than did the provisional government.
Though often at odds, the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet found themselves cooperating out of necessity. With every major decision, the two groups coordinated with each other. One man, an ambitious lawyer named Alexander Kerensky, ended up a member of both groups and acted as a liaison between them. In time he would become the Russian minister of justice, minister of war, and then prime minister of the provisional government.
The February Revolution was largely a spontaneous event. It began in much the same way as had dozens of other mass demonstrations in Russia in previous years and might well have ended in the same manner, if the military had not gotten involved. There was no plan or oversight for the way it happened, and few, if any, dedicated Russian revolutionaries were involved—most, such as Vladimir Lenin, were out of the country. Afterward, many political groups competed for power, but they did so relatively peacefully. The two main groups, the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet, disagreed completely about the direction that Russia should take, yet they did manage to work with each other. Meanwhile, the various rival political parties also developed cooperative attitudes and worked with one another. The arrival of Lenin in Russia in April 1917, however, immediately changed the situation.