This revolution appeared to break out spontaneously, without any real leadership or formal planning. Russia had been suffering from a number of economic and social problems, which were compounded by the impact of World War I. Bread rioters and industrial strikers were joined on the streets by disaffected soldiers from the city's garrison. As more and more troops deserted, and with loyal troops away at the Front, the city fell into a state of chaos, leading to the overthrow of the Tsar.
The February Revolution was followed in the same year by the October Revolution, bringing Bolshevik rule and a change in Russia's social structure, and paving the way for the USSR.
Alexandra Fyodorovna of Hesse and Tsar Nicholas's ministers. The economic challenges Russia faced fighting a total war also contributed.
In August 1914, all classes supported and virtually all political deputies voted in favour of the war (despite calls from "defeatists", including Lenin of the Bolshevik party, that it was not a war worth fighting). The declaration of war was accompanied by a wave of jingoism and flag-waving, which served to effect a temporary moratorium on internal strife. After a few initial victories, such as in Galicia in 1915 and with the Brusilov offensive in 1916, the Tsar's armies were confronted with a number of very serious defeats. Nearly six million casualties had been accrued by January 1917. Mutinies sprang up more often (most due to simple war weariness), morale was at its lowest, and the (newly called up) officers and commanders were at times very incompetent. Like all of the major armies, Russia's armed forces suffered from inadequate supply. The pre-revolution desertion rate ran at around 34,000 a month. Meanwhile, the wartime alliance of industry, Duma and Stavka (Military High Command) started to work outside of the Tsar's control.
In an attempt to boost morale and to repair his own reputation of being a weak ruler, Nicholas announced in the summer of 1915 that he would become the new Commander-in-Chief of the army, in defiance of almost universal advice to the contrary. The result was disastrous on three grounds. Firstly, it associated the monarchy with the unpopular war; secondly, Nicholas proved a poor leader of men on the front line, often irritating his own commanders with his interference; and thirdly, whilst at the front, he was unavailable to govern. This left the reins of power to his wife, the German Tsarina Alexandra, who was unpopular and accused of being a spy and under the thumb of her confidant Rasputin, himself so unpopular that he was assassinated by the nobility in December 1916. The very assassination drove another wedge between monarchy and country over whether or not his death required grieving or celebration. Regardless, the Tsarina proved an ineffective ruler in a time of war, announcing a rapid succession of different Prime Ministers and angering the Duma. The lack of strong leadership is illustrated by a telegram from Octobrist politician Mikhail Rodzianko to the Tsar on 11 March [O.S. 26 February] 1917, in which Rodzianko begged for a minister with the "confidence of the country" be instated immediately. Delay, he wrote, would be "tantamount to death".
On the home front, a famine was looming and commodities were becoming scarce as a result of problems with the overstretched railroad network. Meanwhile, refugees from German-occupied Russia came in their millions. The Russian economy, which had just seen one of the highest growth rates in Europe, was blocked from the continent's markets by the war. Though industry did not collapse, it was put under considerable strain and when inflation soared, wages could not keep up. The Duma (lower house of parliament), composed of liberal deputies, warned Tsar Nicholas II of the impending danger and counselled him to form a new constitutional government, like the one he had dissolved after some short-term attempts in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution. The Tsar ignored the Duma's advice. Historian Edward Acton argues that "by stubbornly refusing to reach any modus vivendi with the Progressive Bloc of the Duma... Nicholas undermined the loyalty of even those closest to the throne [and] opened an unbridgeable breach between himself and public opinion." In short, the Tsar no longer had the support of the military, the nobility or the Duma (collectively the élites), at the same time as the legitimacy of the monarchy with the Russian people was at a low ebb. The result was revolution.
ProtestsPetrograd workers began several strikes and demonstrations. On 7 March [O.S. 22 February], workers at Putilov, Petrograd's largest industrial plant, announced a strike. Although some clashes with the Tsar's forces did occur, no one was injured on the opening day. The strikers were fired, and some shops closed, resulting in further unrest at other plants.
The next day, a series of meetings and rallies were held for International Women's Day, which gradually turned into economic and political gatherings. Demonstrations were organised to demand bread, and these were supported by the industrial working force who considered them a reason for continuing the strikes. The women workers marched to nearby factories bringing out over 50,000 workers on strike. By 10 March [O.S. 25 February], virtually every industrial enterprise in Petrograd had been shut down, together with many commercial and service enterprises. Students, white-collar workers and teachers joined the workers in the streets and at public meetings. In the streets, red banners appeared and the crowds chanted "Down with the German woman! Down with Protopopov! Down with the war!"
To quell the riots, the Tsar looked to the army. At least 180,000 troops were available in the capital, but most were either untrained or injured. Historian Ian Beckett suggests around 12,000 could be regarded as reliable, but even these proved reluctant to move in on the crowd, since it included so many women. It was for this reason that when, on 11 March [O.S. 26 February], the Tsar ordered the army to suppress the rioting by force, troops began to mutiny.
Tsar's return and abdicationThe Tsar had returned to his frontline base at Stavka on 7 March [O.S. 22 February]. After violence erupted, however, Mikhail Rodzianko, Chairman of the Duma, sent the Tsar a report of the chaos in a telegram (exact wordings and translations differ, but each retains a similar sense):
Nicholas' response on 12 March [O.S. 27 February], perhaps based on the Empress' earlier letter to him that the concern about Petrograd was an over-reaction, was one of irritation that "again, this fat Rodzianko has written me lots of nonsense, to which I shall not even deign to reply." Meanwhile, events were unfolding in Petrograd. The bulk of the garrison mutinied, starting with the Volynsky Life Guards regiment. In addition, the Cossack units that the government had come to rely on for crowd control, began to show signs that they supported the people. Although few actively joined the rioting, many officers were either shot or went into hiding; the ability of the garrison to hold back the protests was all but nullified, symbols of the Tsarist regime were rapidly torn down around the city and governmental authority in the capital collapsed – not helped by the fact that Nicholas had prorogued the Duma that morning, leaving it with no legal authority to act. The response of the Duma, urged on by the liberal bloc, was to establish a Temporary Committee to restore law and order; meanwhile, the socialist parties re-established the Petrograd Soviet, first created during the 1905 revolution, to represent workers and soldiers. The remaining loyal units switched allegiance the next day.The situation is serious. The capital is in a state of anarchy. The Government is paralyzed. Transport service and the supply of food and fuel have become completely disrupted. General discontent is growing... There must be no delay. Any procrastination is tantamount to death.—Rodzianko's first telegram to the Tsar, March 11 [O.S. February 26] 1917.
The Army Chiefs and the ministers who had come to advise the Tsar suggested that he abdicate the throne. He did so on 15 March [O.S. 2 March], on behalf of himself and his son, the hemophiliac Tsarevich. Nicholas nominated his brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, to succeed him. But the Grand Duke realised that he would have little support as ruler, so he declined the crown on 16 March [O.S. 3 March], stating that he would take it only if that was the consensus of democratic action by the Russian Constituent Assembly, which shall define form of government for Russia. Six days later, Nicholas, no longer Tsar and addressed with contempt by the sentries as "Nicholas Romanov", was reunited with his family at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. He and his family and loyal retainers were placed under protective custody by the Provisional Government.