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The February Revolution: A Reassessment from the Periphery

Dakota Irvin


As the centenary of Russia’s February Revolution approaches, there has been a tremendous surge in academic and popular activity and analysis, ruminating on the long and short term causes and results of the revolution which toppled over three hundred years of Romanov rule. Academic journals have issued special issues devoted to the revolutionary period,[1] while other organizations have taken to harnessing social media in creative ways to allow people to interact with historical individuals and characters as if they had their own Twitter accounts (there has even been a 1917 Tinder project, which I’ll leave at that).[2] All of this increased attention demonstrates that the February Revolution, and the Russian Revolution generally, still holds a place in the popular imagination of historical specialists and the general public, one that is only likely to grow more given the current political situation involving Russia, the United States, and the European Union.


Most scholarly and popular interpretations (although by no means all) of the February Revolution that have emerged present it as a popular, democratic uprising ushered in democracy for the first time in Russia, only to end in tragedy and civil war due to the dual pressures of the First World War and the radical political activism of the Bolsheviks and their supporters. This narrative had its origins in émigré accounts from participants, such as Pavel Miliukov, and was further refined by the contributions of Soviet historian Eduard Burdzhalov, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, and many others. For the Western (and particularly Anglosphere) imagination, probably no historian has had a larger impact in shaping this interpretation that Richard Pipes, who posited that February was a “genuine revolution” reflecting popular desires for freedom and participation in politics and governance, while the Bolshevik’s October seizure of power was an engineered coup executed by an armed and fanatical minority. In almost all cases, analysis and interpretation of the February Revolution is offered either implicitly or explicitly in comparison with the October Revolution, as a symbol of Russian liberalism and democracy’s lost opportunities.


While these historiographical arguments have stood the test of time and can hardly be fully challenged, on the eve of the anniversary of this monumental event, I propose a reassessment of the events of February Revolution through a different lens, one which emphasizes the practical, and at times, disastrous results of the fall of the Romanov dynasty. I cannot claim that this approach is entirely new, as I have been particularly influenced by the Russian historian Vladimir Buldakov’s Krasnaia Smuta (“Red Upheaval”).[3] In this pioneering work, Buldakov argues that February should not be seen through the liberal or socialist political perspectives, but rather as an orgy of upheaval, chaos, and a kind of mass psychosis fueled by the sacralization of violence and the delegitimization of the autocracy, both products of the First World War. Buldakov prefers the terms buntarstvo (loosely “rebelliousness”) and volneniia (“unrest”) to revolution, and points to the concept of a kind of communalism (obshchinnost’) as the ideological primary driver of the masses.


Departing from Buldakov’s arguments surrounding chaos, violence, and the destruction of traditional norms, I use the case of the February Revolution in the provincial (and peripheral) city of Ekaterinburg as a way to highlight the real consequences of the collapse of state power, municipal services, food distribution, policing, and public order. While the story of Ekaterinburg cannot, by its nature, be fully representative of the experience across the former empire, I hope it can help us reorient our understanding of these events and try to distance ourselves from romantic visions of Russian liberalism and democracy, which sometimes speak more to our own Western biases than the reality for ordinary Russians in the early spring of 1917.


Central Ekaterinburg, early 20th century.

In Ekaterinburg, as elsewhere across the country, the news of the events of the capital trickled in by late February, but it was not until around March 3 (Old Style) that newspapers began printing that Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated and that a “Provisional Government” had been formed in Petrograd. The press and the public reacted to this news joyously, and people poured into the streets before collecting at the New City Theater, the largest gathering point in town, to hold a raucous political rally (miting) and elect members to the Committee for Public Safety (KOB), an institution formed on instructions from the Provisional Government to establish order in the streets and ensure more chaos did not break out.[4] The mood of the crowd was jubilant and many were excited by the prospects of a new democratic Russia, although members of the City Duma, the most powerful political figures in the city, were worried by the unruliness of the crowd and its refusal to let them speak. It would ultimately be up to the Duma and the KOB to ensure public safety and order on the streets, something which they quickly realized would be no easy task.


New City Theater, 1914.

In the first weeks after the February Revolution, the Provisional Government dissolved the notorious Tsarist Politsiia (“Police”), which had long terrorized political activists and was thought by many to have fired on protestors in Petrograd during revolutionary demonstrations. While the abolition of the politsiia was no doubt a political act, it was impractical in the sense that there was no immediate replacement for vital services of policing and crime fighting. On March 5th, the Police Chief, Kliuchnikov, gave a speech to the City Duma where he warned that, as the members of the politsiia were being verbally and physically abused on the streets and abandoning their posts, “hooligans” were “raising their heads,” and that robberies and thefts were beginning to increase.[5] Although this plea was not enough to save his job (he was later arrested), at the same meeting the Mayor A.E. Obukhov acknowledged that, as a result of the revolution, “the scum of society have raised their heads, and have begun to show an evil, predatory will.”[6]The politsiia was to be replaced by a new Narodnaia Militsiia (“People’s Militia”), which would perform all of the former functions of the police, and their ranks would be totally cleansed of any former members of the tsarist security apparatus. However, the organization of the Militia did not proceed quickly, and even by the summer of 1917 there remained large numbers of open positions, given that pay was lower and there was a great shortage of experienced people willing to sign up. This contributed to a general rise in crime in the summer of 1917, with the newspapers daily reporting about thefts, robberies, murders, and vigilante justice (samosud), all of which never saw such frequent or detailed exposition in the press before the revolution. The Militia were also wholly unable to quell a massive riot by soldiers in April 1917, where members of the local garrison and soldiers from Siberia traveling to the front engaged in a drunken orgy of violence and destruction, which targeted symbols of the tsarist regime, such as statues and government offices.[7] By October 1917, the Duma lamented the “disorder that ruled the Militia” and noted that “the breakdown of the Militia is complete – they arrest each other, shoot their weapons, directly issue illegal orders,” and were frequently drunk. This led them to conclude that “the current composition of the People’s Militia is worse than the former Police.”[8]


The breakdown of policing and the failure of the Militia to fill the void of the Imperial Police, which Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argued formed an essential conduit between state and society, was compounded by further breakdowns of “public order,” such as rapidly deteriorating sanitary conditions on the city’s streets and squares.[9] Ekaterinburg was a garrison town and a major nodal point for soldiers transiting from Siberia to the front, which meant that in addition to the 80,000 or so residents of the city, there were 35,000-40,000 soldiers (as well as thousands of horses) in early 1917.[10] This put an incredible strain on the city’s resources and ability to address practical concerns such as cleaning up the waste and garbage generated by the garrison, one that was exacerbated by the military and Provisional Government’s refusal to contribute anything financially. Thus, large amounts of human and animal waste began to pile up the main streets and public. While waste removal is probably not what people think of when they imagine the history of the Russian Revolution, practical municipal issues such as this had a tremendous impact on the lives of all residents in the city, and presented serious public health threats by contributing to the spread of epidemics. The Executive Committee of the KOB formed a special commission to deal with the growth of epidemics, and by late March 1917 were calling for immediate efforts to remove waste and clean the city, in connection with the possible spread of a typhus epidemic.[11] This came to fruition as early as mid-April 1917, when a typhus epidemic broke out in Ekaterinburg, beginning with soldiers from the garrison and eventually moving to the civilian population.[12]


Main Avenue, early 20th century.

Finally, it is not possible to speak about the breakdown of public order and municipal functions after the February Revolution without discussing the food crisis. Food Distribution (prodovol’stviia) was centralized during World War I, yet it remained an essentially local affair, with different provincial, county, and city administrations working directly with each other to distribute essential goods. For Ekaterinburg, bread was a primary concern, given that as an industrial center in the Urals, it did not have immediate access to a rural hinterland for grains. The local food distribution apparatus in the city was constantly being reorganized and reformed (largely due to changes in the Provisional Government’s laws on food distribution), and the City Duma, under huge budgetary strains and massively in debt, refused to allocate essential funding to buy food products.[13] This situation was compounded by massive food shortages, rising prices, and the inability to locate adequate sources of grain for the city’s millers. In addition to the potential for famine and starvation, city authorities were greatly concerned that these shortages would lead to unrest (volnenie) among the population, which would further add to the disorder and chaos engulfing the city.[14] In July 1917, a member of the City Duma warned that “there is no bread and the population is threatened by famine.”[15] By September 1917, a report from the Urals War-Industry Committee to Petrograd alerted the government that people in the city were “literally starving.”[16]


Thus, when assessing the February Revolution in the provinces, the converdation must not solely focus on concepts such as “dual power” (dvoevlastie), and instead should consider the idea of “absence of power” (bezvlastie). The Provisional Government, in addition to having its resources drained by the war effort, was under incredible strains to manage the sprawling former imperial state. In the provinces, lack of central funding and control contributed to the breakdown of public services and order, a challenge that local authorities were wholly unable and unprepared to tackle. The lack of effective policing, proper sanitary conditions, and adequate food distribution caused tremendous hardship for ordinary citizens, and furthered served to delegitimize Russia’s first “liberal” government. While the high politics and ideas of the February Revolution have long been used to highlight the potential for an alternative democratic and liberal path for Russia, the realities on the ground paint a much more complex and grim picture. While wishing to avoid teleological or deterministic arguments, it is not difficult to see that these conditions encouraged many to seek radical solutions and new forms of state governance that could provide more stability and safety.  


Dakota Irvin is a PhD Candidate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He is currently conducting dissertation research in Ekaterinburg, Russia for a dissertation focusing on the city during the Revolution and Civil War. He tweets from @ddirvin1

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[1] For example, see the most recent issue of Historical Research, entitled “The Centenary of the Russian Revolution: New Directions in Research,”http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/hisr.v90.247/issuetoc [2] See Mikhail Zygar’s excellent and innovative “1917 Project” (http://inrussia.com/project-1917) and RT’s “1917 Live” (https://www.rt.com/news/372353-russia-1917-revolution-news/). [3] V.P. Buldakov, Krasnaia Smuta: Priroda i posledstviia revoliutsionnogo nasiliia (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1997). [4] State Archive of Sverdlovsk Oblast’ (GASO), F. 62, D. 619, Op. 1, L. 44. [5] GASO, F. 62, D. 620, Op. 1, L. 175. [6] Ibid. [7] [7] GASO, F. R-1573, Op. 1, D. 4, L. 48-54. [8] GASO, F. 62, D. 620, Op. 1, L. 614. [9] Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, “The Formation of the Militia in the February Revolution: An Aspect of the Origins of Dual Power,” Slavic Review 32:2 (June 1973), 322. [10] GASO, F. 387, Op. 1, D. 8, L. 92-93. [11] GASO, F. R-1573, Op. 1, D. 22, L. 26. [12] GASO, F. R-1573, Op. 1, D. 22, L. 2-4. [13] GASO, F. 62, Op. 1, D. 620, L. 348-349. [14] GASO, F. 62, Op. 1, D. 620, L. 484. [15] GASO, F. 62, Op. 1, D. 620, L. 497. [16] Center for the Documentation of Social Organizations of Sverdlovsk Oblast, F. 41, Op. 2, D. 328, L. 13.


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