8 MARCH, 1917: False Start

A bit like damp inside a wall, the way in which information travels can be mysterious, counter-intuitive even.  Take today’s big, important centenary.  Thursday, 8 March 1917 was the first day of the uprising in Petrograd known to Western posterity as the February Revolution, and to most Russians as the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution – but the date isn’t as well known as it used to be, and that’s because of the Internet.  Here’s why.

Once upon a time, we picked up most of our history in books.  A lot of history books through the ages have been guilty of at least some political or academic bias, but even the most rabid, ridiculous propaganda needed to get basic stuff like dates right, by way of appearing sufficiently informed to compete in the arena of opinion. These days, the ‘right’ answer to anything is whatever’s most popular on the Internet, presumably on the grounds that going with the majority makes for best guesses, and whatever’s most popular tends to attract a lot of hits, increasing its apparent popularity and keeping it top of the chart.

Bad luck all round, then, that the oldest and best-established source for Internet facts about the First World War is the Times Chronology. A day-by-day diary of the War, written at the time and now out of copyright, it has a lot to recommend it – it’s nicely wide-ranging, for instance, and it translates into a very user-friendly website – but it is still the news as reported at the time, complete with all the Anglocentric bias, propaganda and (inevitable) ignorance that characterised the wartime British press.

The February Revolution came to the notice of The Times on 12 March 1917, when the uprising was on the point of proceeding to what we might call Stage Two, the overthrow of the Tsar and the formation of a new government.  That’s therefore the opening date of the Revolution as reported in the Chronology, and therefore the date quoted as fact by thousands of other sources (and presumably millions of schoolkids) all over the world.  Oops.

Popular history’s accidental loss of the February Revolution’s opening days flags up the need to root out and critique the sources of conflicting Net-facts, but there’s another point here that seems worth making.  Mass reinvention of memory isn’t a completely new phenomenon – I once blundered into redefining casualty figures for a Second World War battle by publishing an average of all the other figures quoted, and that was back in the 1980s – but the Net has been giving it some epidemic muscle.  The seeds of this year’s ‘post-truth’ have been germinating on our devices for some time, looking like innocent mistakes of no great consequence but training us all to accept the idea that the loudest, most persistent voice is probably the one to believe.

Then again, the seeds of post-truth in general have been around a lot longer. It can be argued that they go back to Napoleonic era propaganda, the Bayeux Tapestry or even the Bible, but the blame for their full flowering in the modern era is often pinned on the Russian Revolution of 1917, which enshrined as doctrine the state’s right to invent truth for its own purposes.  That was of course the altogether more celebrated Bolshevik, or October Revolution, a highly effective coup d’état carried out by a few people with a plan. The February Revolution, on the other hand, didn’t come with a plan. The uprising that erupted in the streets of Petrograd on 8 March – that tore down centuries of Tsarist rule and still ended up as a footnote to history written by the winners – was an outbreak of unadulterated chaos.

I’m not going to repeat myself by going into the toxic mix of longstanding social tensions, rapid industrialisation confined to tiny hotspots, governmental repression and wartime pressures that had the Russian Empire’s economy, society and political system on the ropes.  A browse through the ‘Russia’ category should fill in at least some background to a wave of industrial unrest, fuelled by primitive pay and conditions amid a government-sponsored orgy of civilian shortages and elite profiteering, that was sweeping the industrialised cities of Petrograd and Moscow in early 1917.

In Petrograd, a mass strike call by socialist and workers’ groups was answered by 140,000 workers on 22 January (we’re sticking to the modern calendar here) and followed by the arrest of its leaders. Another mass strike brought out 85,000 Petrograd workers on 27 February, and from that point worker protests spun out of control. Wildcat strikes all over the city were joined by civilians of all kinds protesting at rumours of bread rationing (pretty much the ultimate disaster signal for an empire covered in wheat fields), and demonstrators congregated in the city centre from 8 March, demanding food, peace and – as their numbers grew over the following days – revolution.  If you’re reminded, weather conditions aside, of scenes in Cairo during the Arab Spring, you’re not far off the mark.

Russian spring, 1917

The Tsarist regime was by now quite used to turning its guns on protestors, but troops began refusing royal orders to fire on civilians on 11 March.  Most of the Petrograd garrison had joined the rebels by 13 March, and similar scenes had put Moscow in rebel hands by the next day.  Meanwhile, as the Army’s plans for a pro-monarchist advance on Petrograd fell apart for lack of reliable troops, the imperial cabinet had resigned en masse on 12 March and liberal deputies in the Duma had attempted to co-opt the uprising by forming a new government, proclaiming themselves a Temporary Committee on the same day and demanding the Tsar’s abdication.  In a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy as an institution, the Army’s supreme command, Stavka, supported the demand.

Nicholas II duly abdicated on 15 March, and later that day the Duma announced formation of a ‘Provisional Government’.  The new government’s nominal leader, Prince Lvov, was an experienced imperial politician with a history of representing landed interests, and was chosen in an attempt to unite urban and rural elements behind the Duma.  Inasmuch as this represented any kind of revolutionary plan, it was rapidly overwhelmed by events.

Stavka, reduced to grasping at anything that might calm the troops, announced its acceptance of the new regime, and on 16 March the monarchy disappeared when the ex-Tsar’s brother, Grand Duke Michael, refused to accept the crown.  In terms of conventional politics, the Provisional Government now had the field to itself – but conventions were being overwhelmed by street politics.

Workers’ groups, socialists and unions in Petrograd had been forming into elected councils, or ‘soviets’, which had in turn elected representatives to a high council, the Petrograd Soviet.  The only organisation able to influence or exert any strategic control over the city’s rebel masses, the Soviet promoted socialist revolution and its ambitions had little or nothing in common with the Provisional Government’s broadly liberal agenda for a parliamentary democracy.  Forced to appease the Soviet as the only means of remaining in even nominal control, the Provisional Government was being dragged to the left from the moment of its creation, and effective leadership quickly passed to its only socialist member, justice minister Kerenski.

Workers’ revolution always sounds like a good idea…

For the next few months the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government functioned as an uneasy, volatile and patently unsustainable dual regime.  A series of coalition cabinets formed by Kerenski – a politician whose struggles deserve more attention than they get from posterity – could do nothing to slow the Soviet’s accelerating radicalism, and neither body exerted any real control over the countryside beyond Petrograd and Moscow.  Meanwhile, under intense pressure from the western Allies, this unstable, fragile new Russia was still attempting to fight the biggest war in human history.

A worried man… Alexander Kerenski.

I’ll get back to post-imperial Russia and the Provisional Government as their tragedy plays out during 1917, but for the moment let’s just tip a hat to Revolution itself.

For all the chaos surrounding its eruption, the contradictions built into its progress and its belittlement by posterity, the February Revolution as an event did change the world.  It provided a huge and much needed shot in the arm for international socialism, which had been crushed by the events of August 1914 but now began reorganising to promote peace and post-War revolution.  It also acted as a magnet for individual activists, not all of them Russians, exiled from their homelands and ready to toss their metaphorical matches into the powder keg.  At the same time, the Provisional Government’s liberal credentials freed the United States to enter a wartime alliance without condoning despotism, and a wave of sympathy for the Russian people among the western Allies breathed new life into liberal visions of a ‘peace without annexations’, visions that were destined to exert a powerful influence over the immediate post-War world.

So there’s no real excuse for treating the February Revolution as a footnote, let alone for allowing its opening phase to disappear from popular history, particularly since its other great contribution to the future was setting a modern precedent for violent regime change driven by popular protest.   I’ll leave you to decide if that counts as an achievement.

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