Russian History


The February Revolution

By early 1917, the existing order in Russia was verging on collapse. The country's involvement in World War I had already cost millions of lives and severely disrupted Russia's already struggling economy. In an effort to reverse the worsening military situation, Nicholas II took personal command of Russian forces at the front, leaving the conduct of government in Petrograd (St. Petersburg before 1914; Leningrad after 1924; St. Petersburg after 1991) to his unpopular wife and a series of incompetent ministers. As a consequence of these conditions, the morale of the people rapidly deteriorated.

The spark to the events that ended tsarist rule was ignited on the streets of Petrograd in February 1917 (according to the Julian calendar then still in use in Russia; according to the modern Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in February 1918, these events occurred in March). Driven by shortages of food and fuel, crowds of hungry citizens and striking workers began spontaneous rioting and demonstrations. Local reserve troops, called in to suppress the riots, refused to fire on the crowds, and some soldiers joined the workers and other rioters. A few days later, with tsarist authority in Petrograd disintegrating, two distinct groups emerged, each claiming to represent the Russian people. One was the Executive Committee, which the Duma (see Glossary), the lower house of the Russian parliament, had established in defiance of the tsar's orders. The other body was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies.

With the consent of the Petrograd Soviet, the Executive Committee of the Duma organized the Provisional Government on March 15. The government was a cabinet of ministers chaired by aristocrat and social reformer Georgiy L'vov. A legislature, the Constituent Assembly, also was to be created, but election of the first such body was postponed until the fall of 1917. Delegates of the new government met Nicholas that evening at Pskov, where rebellious railroad workers had stopped the imperial train as the tsar attempted to return to the capital. Advised by his generals that he lacked the support of the country, Nicholas informed the delegates that he was abdicating in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael. When Michael in turn refused the throne, imperial rule in Russia came to an end.