Feb. - Oct. 1917
In February 1917, worker discontent with deteriorating living conditions, shortage of bread and continuing war led to mass strikes and street demonstrations, which on February 25th grew into a general political strike. Attacks on police stations and clashes with troops began. On February 27th, soldiers of the Volhynia regiment rose in rebellion. By the evening, over 66 thousand soldiers of the garrison sided with the rebels. On the same day, in response to the Emperor's edict disbanding the Duma, the majority of deputies formed the Provisional Committee. The government had already lost control over most of the city and the Provisional Committee took power. Nicholas II's attempt at sending a punitive expedition failed. Most front commanders advocated his abdication. The tsar's train en route from the General Staff headquarters was stopped by railroad workers in Pskov.
Elections to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies began on February 27. Headed mainly by the Mensheviks, the Soviet was supported by the garrison, but it hesitated to seize power in the country. On March 2, 1917 the Provisional Committee of the State Duma and the Petrograd Soviet agreed to form the Provisional Government of representatives of the Progressive Block with the participation of Labor Group member and Deputy Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet Alexander Kerensky. The same day Nicholas II signed the manifesto of abdication in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich. The latter abdicated in favor of the future Constituent Assembly.
The entire country recognized the Provisional Government, which was to act as an executive and partly legislative body, as well as perform supreme administration functions. However, the position of this government was not strong. Implementation of its directives depended on the support of the Petrograd Soviet which had real power in the capital. Having returned from emigration on April 3rd, Lenin called for the soviets to seize power.
In late April, Petrograd workers and soldiers started mass demonstrations, protesting against the Provisional Government's declaration of loyalty to the allies, which meant continuation of the war. These demonstrations resulted in a government crisis. The Military Minister Alexander Guchkov and Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov abandoned their offices. Kerensky was appointed Military Minister. The Provisional Government shifted to the left.
Democratization among local authorities was going on throughout Russia. Military commanders were being replaced on a mass scale. Combined with the weakness of the central government, these revolutionary upheavals led to a breakup of the country. The Russian army launched an offensive on June 18th, but after initial success, the army's unwillingness to fight resulted in its being routed by the much weaker enemy. The failure of the offensive caused a new political crisis, leading to the dominance of socialists - Socialists-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks - in the Provisional Government, now headed by Alexander Kerensky. However, this could not settle the general crisis in the country. Peasants refused to wait for the Constituent Assembly to resolve the land question. The proletariat wanted control of factories and plants, while workers' organizations within these enterprises would not assume any responsibility for production. The Bolsheviks aimed to gain power.
On July 4-5, the anarchists, supported by the Bolsheviks, made an attempt to use mass antigovernment demonstrations in order to seize power by force. Only by firing on the demonstration could the government put down the attempted coup. Some rioters, including several Bolshevik leaders, were arrested. Lenin refused to stand trial and went underground. Yet, the Bolsheviks continued to openly encourage the army in its resistance to the war and strive for influence in the soviets. The discontent of the masses with the government's indeterminate policy was growing. National minorities were tending toward separatism. In the Ukraine, the Central Rada demanded autonomy and openly prepared to declare independence.
By August 1917 it became evident that the Provisional Government was unable to save the country from collapse. It could neither maintain discipline in the army, prevent army committees and local soviets from taking real power, nor overcome the increasing economic crisis. An attempt to avert the collapse of the country was made by army commander-in-chief Lavr Kornilov. He reached an agreement with Kerensky to send loyal troops to the capital and create a government capable of conducting the war and enforcing order in the country. However, when Kornilov began to act, Kerensky declared that he was a rebel. The march of troops on Petrograd was frustrated and Kornilov arrested. Accused of collusion with the rebels by the left and of betrayal of national interests by the right, the Provisional Government finally lost the confidence of the people. Availing themselves of this situation, the Bolsheviks began to openly arm the Red Guards.
Neither proclamation of a republic in Russia in September 1917, creation of the Council of the Republic (Pre-Parliament), nor the assumption of duties of commander-in-chief by Kerensky, could defuse the political crisis. The Bolsheviks achieved key positions in the soviets and began open preparations for the coup. A considerable number of army officers preferred to remain neutral, unwilling to support Kerensky whom they hated, especially after the arrest of Kornilov. The Provisional Government had few, if any, defenders. At the same time, leaning on the majority in the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, the Bolsheviks aimed at an armed seizure of power. On October 10, 1917 the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party made the decision to prepare for armed insurrection. The Second Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies was cheduled to open on the 25th of October.
Barricades on Liteiny avenue, February 1917. Photograph