Tuesday, 14 March 2017

History: The End of Tsarism

On this day, March 15th, one hundred years ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. This followed several weeks in which the capital, Petrograd, had slid towards anarchy. The war was not going well, and food supplies to the city had broken down, leading to shortages and severe price inflation. This in turn had led to strikes and demonstrations, which had soon turned violent. Most alarming of all, sections of the Petrograd garrison refused to supress the rioters, but instead joined the crowds on the streets. Police stations were attacked, and armed police who fired on rioters from the rooftops were lynched. Meanwhile the Tsar was away at the Front, and did not realise the seriousness of the situation until it was far too late. His only action was to suspend the Duma, the Russian Parliament, which at this stage was dominated by conservatives and moderate liberals, with hardly any left-wing representation. But the Duma refused to disperse. There were demands that the Tsar should go. Finally Nicholas, finding that he was supported by nobody, not even his generals, tamely surrendered and abdicated.
   Nicholas offered the crown to his brother, Grand Duke Michael; but Michael, feeling his accession would lack legitimacy unless he was recognised by the Duma, rejected the crown. After four centuries, Tsarism ceased to exist.

Into the gap left by the end of Tsarism stepped two different bodies. The Duma proclaimed a “Provisional Government”, headed by a liberal nobleman, Prince Lvov, with a radical lawyer, Alexander Kerensky, as its dominant personality. The second body was the “Soviet (that is, council) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”, which arose spontaneously in the city, and to which increasingly the masses looked for leadership. For the moment, the Soviet was dominated by moderate Socialists who were prepared to co-operate with the Provisional Government.
   There was general rejoicing, both in Russia and amongst her allies, as the Provisional Government freed all political prisoners, ended press censorship and announced future elections for a Constituent Assembly. The main reason this amity and optimism did not last was that the decision was also taken to keep Russia in the war. Over the next few months the army disintegrated and German forces advanced further into Russia. The food supply to Petrograd became ever worse as anarchy spread throughout the Russian countryside. Violence in the streets increased. The path was set for the Bolshevik seizure of power in the autumn.
   The Bolshevik Party had played no part in the fall of the Tsar. Lenin was in Switzerland (and was caught entirely by surprise by the fall of the Tsar), Trotsky was in New York and Stalin in exile in a remote part of Siberia. They now all returned to Petrograd and worked to seize control of events.   

These events are known as the “February Revolution”. In fact most of them took place in March under our calendar, but at the time Russia still followed the antiquated “Julian” calendar, thirteen days behind the West. Historians deal with this problem by indicating that the dates they cite are “Old Style” (O.S.) or “New Style” (N.S.) The date of March 15th, given above, is N.S. 

An American cartoon of the fall of the Tsar. Note the whip Nicholas is holding. It is labelled "German Influence", reflecting a widespread (but incorrect) belief that Nicholas's German-born Empress, Alexandria, was pro-German, and their friend Rasputin might have been a German agent.

1 comment:

  1. Russia, what a sad country in a way. Living at the historic crossroads of of death, pillage, and rape.