During the February Revolution, the Russian empire enjoyed an unprecedented degree of unity. All classes, ethnicities, and national groups welcomed Nicholas II’s overthrow. Armenians, Chechens, Chukchi, Finns, Georgians, Kazakhs, Poles, and Uzbekhs celebrated the fall of the tsar alongside peasants, intellectuals, workers, managers, bankers, and even some landlords.
But this solidarity could not last.
A year later, Tsarist Russia had split and would continue to do so until, at its peak in 1919, at least twenty separate bodies claimed to control all or part of what was once a unified empire. The ensuing struggle included some of the most barbaric episodes of antisemitism seen in Europe up to that point and claimed ten million lives.
The polarization of the imperial population changed history, but while historians have paid considerable attention to its consequences — especially the rise of national self-determination and the Bolsheviks’ victory — they have largely ignored the underlying process.
Examining what happened to February’s unity helps us better understand the Russian Revolution and gives us new insights into the role of economics and social life in political radicalization.
A Cracking Facade
The support for the February Revolution was initially overwhelming, but this alliance quickly showed cracks. Left-wing politicians were divided over World War I, but they had little influence over the first Provisional Government. Indeed, the atmosphere in the revolutionary centers of Petrograd and Moscow, in the main cities and in the villages, was still largely patriotic.
Historians often overlook the degree to which the February Revolution included pro-war sentiment, at least insofar as Russians wanted to defend their imperial territories from German and allied attack. The war had lost much of its popularity, but no one was prepared to surrender. Citizens felt resigned to fight but rejected those deemed responsible for their nation’s predicament — especially the tsar, tsarina, and the imagined pro-German party at the head of court and government. At least at first, many revolutionaries overthrew Nicholas in order to re-energize the war effort, not to bring about imperial collapse.
Of course, peace protesters took to the streets in February alongside the hawks. But, as the brilliant diarist of the revolutionary city N. N. Sukhanov tells us, those carrying antiwar slogans were met with threats and often ejected from demonstrations. No one outside of the elite wanted the war, but ordinary citizens liked the prospect of German occupation even less. They hoped to end the war by any means except surrender, so they believed activists calling for peace belonged to the pro-German conspiracy.
Other crucial divisions quickly began to bubble up. All major parties accepted the need for a democratically elected Constituent Assembly, but that agreement did not solve the immediate problem of who should govern.
The Left recognized the newly formed soviets as key institutions. They did not, however, anticipate the dual power arrangement that would later emerge. Indeed, the provisional government seemed to represent the only conceivable structure. It was built on February’s national unity and promised to rule until constituent assembly elections took place. Only when Lenin returned did anyone air serious doubts about this path forward.
Meanwhile, the architects of Nicholas’s abdication — a group of liberal politicians from the Duma, senior army commanders and members of the elite — had no joint ideas about what was to follow the fall of Nicholas. Many, including Pavel Miliukov, wanted a new tsar in the form of Nicholas’s brother Michael. Popular resistance, however, abruptly disillusioned the monarchists. In one well-known incident, workers shouted Miliukov down after he advocated support for the new tsar.
A desire to prevent the spread of revolution, not promote it, united the elite. The utter destruction of this illusion plays an integral role in our story of polarization. The hope for national unity in the face of German invasion was soon exposed as naive and insubstantial.
While much of the population celebrated the February Revolution, they were embracing contradictory aspects. Property owners believed it would mark a renewed war effort and hoped a wave of chauvinism would drown the revolution. Army leaders expected a boost to morale, giving them more military victories in the coming year. Factory owners hoped it would quiet worker unrest, while workers thought their living conditions would finally improve. Peasants wanted to chasten — and ultimately overthrow — the landowners. These explosive disagreements began to emerge immediately.
The Tentative Government
The provisional government embodied the spirit of February. While others have examined its policies, I’m more interested in its evolution. Astonishingly, even one hundred years on, we do not have a definitive account of its doings.
Initially, the government consisted of liberals who believed they should guide the country toward democracy, but this promise presented a fatal dilemma. If they established a democratic system, voters would likely abandon them for the Left. Since the first moments of the revolution, the majority, maybe around 80 percent, supported left-wing parties like the Socialist Revolutionaries and the social democrats.
The provisional government liberals, from the Constitutional Democratic and Octobrist parties to their nationalist allies, knew they faced annihilation if national elections were held. The Left knew this, too, and it made them more suspicious that their coalition partners would not fulfill their promises. Nonetheless, the unity of all anti-tsarist forces briefly held up.
The first significant breach in that unity came when Lenin returned from exile and proclaimed “no support for the provisional government.” While he was far from calling for an immediate overthrow, he was taking the next logical revolutionary step.
As he understood it, unity with the bourgeoisie was useful in the struggle against tsarism, but once the tsar went, the bourgeoisie became the people’s main enemy. Radical revolutionary forces should not become entangled with them. Reformist socialism, Lenin believed, allowed leftists to hand the proletariat over to the tender mercies of capitalism.
As ideological polarization of the political elite began to develop slowly — but with ever-increasing velocity — the parallel process among the masses pushed the revolution forward.
We should note, however, that polarization — an underestimated consequence of the late abolition of serfdom — had long been the norm in Russian society. After all, little could bridge the gulf between landowner and serf. Though Russian society and its economy were evolving in the late nineteenth century, a wide gap still separated ordinary people from the elite.
This traditional polarization persisted throughout the revolution in one crucial area: the military. As many studies have noted, the army was strictly divided, and officers enforced this hierarchy with harsh discipline.
Conscription had eased this somewhat as drafted intellectuals and middle-class officers sympathized with the lower ranks. In this they opposed many of their colleagues, who believed they had to beat soldiers into submission or, as Kornilov proposed, execute them for lack of discipline.
Not even February could deliver unity to the military. While the nation celebrated, soldiers enacted violent reprisals against their harshest commanders. From the beginning, soldiers and sailors played crucial roles in the revolution. Their experience began with a polarization that only widened. In this, they were one step ahead of rural and urban workers, who would soon be polarized by escalating violence, declining living standards, and the elite’s clumsy attempts to contain the revolutionary impulse.
The Fight for Control
The Russian masses’ extraordinary power, ingenuity, strategic instinct, and persistence throughout 1917 remain unparalleled in history. It is one aspect of the revolution that we can celebrate unconditionally. In villages, factories, battleships, and barracks, extraordinary local political battles reached a boiling point.
The most striking examples come from the peasantry. By and large, educated society and the modernizing elites believed peasants were a drag on progress. They depicted the rural masses as timorous, deferential, and cunning, narrow, avaricious, and fools for tradition, religion, and superstition.
Right-wing intellectuals and activists, including Nicholas II himself, idealized these same qualities, believing peasants constituted a bulwark of traditional values against the ambitions of radicals. Many on the Left shared this view and saw rural workers as ignorant conservatives intent only on securing their own small farms.
Marx famously depicted peasants as “the class that represents barbarism within civilization.” He developed more sophisticated views in his later years, but the Left was most familiar with his earlier writings. Trotsky and Gorky shared his viewpoint and hated the peasantry.
Liberals and others also distrusted them, calling peasants temnye liudi — the dark masses.
Throughout 1917, however, these supposedly backward people surprised their supporters in the intelligentsia with their clever revolutionary activity. While each region and village had its own nuances, the main structures of this largely self-generated politics shared many characteristics.
First, the peasants banded together to form village committees. They also called these organizations peasant committees, although trusted non-peasants were sometimes allowed to take part: teachers, priests, and even landowners found themselves participating in committee activities. The rural workers quickly excluded anyone from those groups who tried to dominate the organization.
Once the peasants realized that they would not face immediate suppression, their committees began to engage in escalating actions. They illegally gathered firewood — a traditional irritant to landowners — and began encroaching on pastures and planting seeds on privately owned land. They demanded higher wages and lower rents.
They recognized that, although they desperately wanted land redistribution, the time for a “Black Repartition” had not yet arrived. But as the months went by and no retaliation came, their actions became bolder.
We can divide the time between the February and October Revolutions into three periods. The initial phase, which ran from Nicholas’s abdication through summer, saw widening radicalization. Following the armed repression of the July Days, reactionary and right-wing elements in the government attempted to roll back the people’s gains. Ironically, like the February Revolution itself, the affair launched a period of renewed radicalization.
Before July, peasants believed their victories would continue until they won land redistribution. After July, however, they realized that their opponents were trying to prevent precisely that. This led the peasants — and the workers — into a period of defensive radicalization during which they deepened the revolution in order to preserve it.
For peasants, this meant seizing land and deploying violence against the more intransigent and hostile landowners. The escalation of peasant activity from forming a committee to violently repossessing the land illustrates how polarization took active form. It also highlights the fact that attempts to stop the revolution only made the process stronger.
Worker activity followed a similar pattern. In early March, the urban working class won long-fought battles: they shortened the workweek and earned higher wages. But, like their rural comrades, urban workers’ radical actions escalated and their polarization grew as it became clear that the government wanted to take away these rights. By the end of summer and early autumn, their demands had moved well beyond wage claims. They wanted control, and factory takeovers became increasingly common.
Thanks to extensive work by a few historians, we have a very good understanding of how this happened. The main driver of radicalization was inflation rather than politics. The wage increases of March were soon wiped out and the pressure of war production, especially in Petrograd, nullified the limitation on hours. Workers and their families soon found themselves as badly off as ever.
This situation stimulated militancy, which in turn generated employer resistance, with employers shutting down factories in retaliation. Some factory owners admitted that lockouts were intended to discipline the workforce into submission; at other times, bosses claimed that they lacked fuel or raw materials to maintain production.
The workers’ response surprised their managers and possibly even themselves. Instead of giving up, they moved in and began managing their own workplaces. A class struggle over factory ownership developed. Unemployment drove this polarization. A factory closure meant that workers and their families — who survived week to week on meager wages and had no savings or strike funds to fall back on — would face impoverishment.
As rural and urban workers developed more radical positions, the government struggled to maintain its legitimacy.
The major events leading up to October in both town and country shared one more crucial aspect. As the provisional government sucked in more so-called moderate socialists, their voters turned against them.
This fulfilled Lenin’s April prediction. He had argued that the government was essentially a bourgeois, capitalist, and imperialist entity. As such, Lenin warned, it should not be supported. Its fatal last weeks bore out these predicted problems.
The peasants’ demand for land had escalated, but the government — with a majority of socialist ministers and a high proportion of supposedly peasant-oriented Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) — ignored or actively opposed the land seizures in the name of national unity. Many of the provincial governors ordering repressive measures belonged to the SRs. This disillusioned the peasants, and the party split between moderate members and a left wing that eventually joined the Bolsheviks in wholeheartedly supporting the land seizures.
Something similar was unfolding in the factories. Menshevik and SR ministers were overseeing the repression of strikes and takeovers. As a result, workers turned toward the Bolsheviks. Moderate socialists had failed to extricate themselves from the provisional government’s trap by supporting an administration whose capitalist interests directly opposed those of their constituents.
History tells us that revolutionary action can develop from economic and social drivers as much as from political ones. For the ordinary Russian people in fields and factories, hardship was a radicalizing force. Further, the peasants’ supposedly non-revolutionary nature and their allegedly fatal localism could be overcome, given the right circumstances. The state could handle one or even a few villages in rebellion, but tens of thousands rising up simultaneously overpowered the government. These developments created a wave of unrest that politicians had to try to ride.
As it became apparent that Lenin and his supporters were the only party prepared to fight alongside workers and peasants, the mass movement propelled them into power. The Russian Revolution truly was a movement from below, in which leaders and intellectuals had to keep up with the people’s aspirations.