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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.
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