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Historical Notes: The Lost Revolution

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No nation had suffered more terribly than Czarist Russia as World War I entered its third year in 1917. It was not only the estimated 6,000,000 Russian dead and wounded in the trenches. At home, the winter had been cruelly severe even by Siberian standards. Russia’s rickety railroads were no longer able to funnel sufficient food into the cities, and bread lines in the capital of Petrograd (now Leningrad) grew longer each day. The orgies and intrigues of the Czarina’s mad mystic Rasputin had riven Nicholas II’s court. It was in this chill ambiance of discontent and deprivation that, 50 years ago this week, a revolution that began almost casually in Petrograd swept out the Czar and changed the course of Russian and modern history.

To historians it is known as the February Revolution.* Unlike the October Revolution that followed it and installed Lenin and Communism in power, the February Revolution was unplanned and unplotted. In a nation teeming with would-be revolutionaries, the uprising was a total—and embarrassing—surprise. Lenin himself was in Zurich, and only two months previously had mournfully predicted that his generation would not live long enough to see the Czar overthrown, so distant seemed the prospect. “Who led the revolution?” Socialist Leon Trotsky later asked. He answered himself ruefully: “Nobody. It happened of itself.”

“Give Us Bread!” The first sign of spontaneous combustion occurred when workers in Petrograd’s giant steelworks demanded a 50% wage increase. They were turned down and promptly went on strike; 40,000 of them fanned out through the city urging other workers to strike as well. Thousands of women were demonstrating outside the empty food stores, wailing “Khleba!” (Give us bread!) Each day the number of people milling through the streets increased until, active or acquiescent, nearly the whole population was involved. Cossacks and police blossomed on bridges and corners to keep order, but they were hardly needed. The crowds were peaceable, almost festive.

Then matters soured. Sporadic shooting began, killing 200 people in one day. The army was ordered to crack down; instead, the Pavlovsky regiment of guards in the city refused to fire on the crowds, mutinied, and was joined next day by the Volynsky regiment. That night Czar Nicholas, who was away at his military headquarters, cabled back an order to the city’s military authorities to dissolve the Duma, the elected parliament that he had created. The leaders of the Duma, among them a fiery lawyer and orator named Alexander Kerensky, defied the Czar and sat down to form a coalition provisional committee to take charge. The garrison of Petrograd backed up the Duma, and it was the commander of Petrograd, with the support of all the other army commanders, who sent word to the Czar demanding that he abdicate. Surprisingly, the Czar meekly obeyed.

Vacuum of Power. Thus, virtually without bloodshed, nearly 400 years of czardom was swept away in a stroke. But creating from scratch a new government able to rule the vast reaches of Russia proved far more difficult. The Duma committee had included every shade of political color, from socialists to disaffected aristocracy. To head the first provisional government that followed. Prince Lvov, a liberal nobleman, was chosen. The Bolsheviks soon withdrew their tacit support from this “bourgeois” government, and Lenin hurried back to Petrograd to organize his attack. By July 2 he had mounted a sufficiently impressive uprising of sailors and workers to cow Prince Lvov into resigning.

Alexander Kerensky took over and began a race against time and Lenin’s Bolsheviks—a race to establish democracy in Russia. A bill of broad political and civil rights was promulgated, religious freedom established, the then radical notion of an eight-hour working day instituted, and plans drawn up for land reform, the most pressing problem of all. Kerensky, who quickly became a national hero, pinned his hopes on elections for a constituent assembly. But his government was torn between those who wanted to opt out of the war and those who felt that Russia’s obligations to the Allies should be honored. Hardly anyone experienced in government existed, and all the pre-revolutionary problems remained and multiplied. Above all, Russia still carried the serf’s burden of its long, dismal past. Oppressed and kept muzzled for centuries, the Russian people, suddenly and unexpectedly liberated, asked too much of the government that they felt was their own.

All these factors combined to create an uncertainty, a vacuum of aggressive power, that Lenin’s hard-eyed coalition of workers and soldiers could exploit. Backed by Trotsky and the youthful Iosif Stalin, Lenin late in October sent his armed Bolsheviks to take over all the main government buildings in Petrograd. Kerensky’s government was besieged in the Winter Palace. When it refused to surrender, the cruiser Aurora fired a warning blank, the palace was stormed, and the Cabinet arrested—save for Kerensky, who managed to escape. The coup d’état was complete in Petrograd; democracy in Russia had been executed by Communist hands.

Freedom to Destroy. The Bolsheviks at first tried to provide a façade of popular approval for their takeover. Certain that they would triumph, they permitted Kerensky’s elections for a Constituent Assembly to be held. To their chagrin, they got only 175 seats out of 707. The delegates* had met for only 17 hours when Lenin ordered his soldiers to disband the Assembly forever. What Kerensky and the provisional governments’ other well-meaning democrats had accomplished in eight months was little more than to provide Lenin with sufficient freedom to destroy them. Kerensky himself went into exile and lives today in New York City, aged 86. He is a humane and civilized monument to what Russia might have been if only the revolution that no one made could have been mastered.

* Czarist Russia then kept time by the Julian calendar, which ran 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used elsewhere in the West. The Communists soon got in step, and thus now celebrate their own October Revolution in November.

* Among them was TIME Contributing Editor Mark Vishniak, then a Social Revolutionary delegate from the district of Yaroslavl. A journalist and lawyer, Vishniak helped draw up the electoral laws for the Constituent Assembly, was elected its secretary. The author of some two dozen books on Russian affairs, he was the senior member of TIME’S Russian desk for many years, now advises it from semi-retirement.

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