Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 270th installment in the series.
March 15-17, 1917: The End of the Romanov Dynasty
After mass strikes and a huge military mutiny in Petrograd turned into revolution on March 8-12, 1917, there was still a chance – however slim – that Tsar Nicholas II or some other Romanov might continue on the throne, reigning as the mostly symbolic figurehead of a constitutional monarchy. However a series of missteps and accidents over the next few days closed this door forever, ending the 300-year-old dynasty and leaving the long-suffering country to endure yet more upheavals, culminating in a brutal civil war and finally ruthless dictatorship.
Fittingly Nicholas II wasn’t even present in the capital for the last days of the monarchy, following his departure for military headquarters at Mogilev just before the revolution began. Here he received sketchy, conflicting reports of protests in Petrograd from officials including Interior Minister Protopopov, who downplayed their seriousness, leading him to believe it was just another economic strike, easily contained like its many predecessors. Even when news of the military mutiny arrived, Nicholas II at first planned to suppress it with loyal troops, and ordered several divisions to Petrograd in preparation for a counterattack on the mutineers.
However the tsar was totally out of touch with the fast-changing situation. On March 12, the chairman of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, sent an alarming telegram begging Nicholas II to allow him to officially reconvene the Duma (now meeting despite the tsar’s order dissolving it) and form a new cabinet empowering reformists, warning that this may be the last chance to save the monarchy:
The last bulwark of order has been removed. The Government is completely powerless to suppress disorder. The troops of the garrison are unreliable. The reserve battalions of the Guard regiments are caught up by the revolt. They kill their officers… Give orders immediately to summon a new government on the basis outlined to Your Majesty in my telegram of yesterday. Give orders to abrogate your Imperial decree and to convoke again the legislative chambers… In the name of all Russia I implore Your Majesty to fulfill these suggestions. The hour which will decide your fate and that of the motherland has struck. Tomorrow may be already too late.
But Nicholas II, still hoping to restore order on his terms, refused to make this concession to the Duma – a fatal mistake, as the events of the next 48 hours would reveal.
Fearing for their lives amid the continuing anarchy, the liberal reformist members of the Duma had no choice but to form a new Provisional Government on their own. Lacking the tsar’s stamp of approval, they decided to shore up their legitimacy by seeking popular support, which would also help calm the angry mobs and restore order.
They knew exactly where to go. While the Duma generally represented the factory owners, middle class professionals, landowners and aristocrats, the mantle of representative of the “people” – meaning industrial workers and soldiers – had already been claimed by the new Petrograd Soviet, or “council,” which was convened on March 12 by various socialist parties and the newly-liberated members of the Central Workers Group, imprisoned by Protopopov a month before (the tables had now turned, as Protopopov himself was now under arrest along with most of the other tsarist ministers).
The hastily organized Soviet, modeled on councils established during the previous Russian Revolution of 1905, was hardly a democratic organization. Rather than straightforward proportional representation by district, it was composed of delegates chosen by the two big interest groups, soldiers and workers, as well as numerous sub-groups (such as divisions and regiments or factories and workshops). Because there were so many more units claiming representation within the Petrograd garrison – all the way down to brigades and companies – the soldiers had far more delegates in the 3,000-strong Soviet than the workers, even though the workers made up most of the population of the city.
Even more undemocratically, the Soviet only represented the civilians and garrison troops of Petrograd, a small fraction of the Russian Empire’s entire population of around 170 million, and as noted its composition was limited to soldiers and workers, even though most of the empire’s population were rural peasants – meaning the majority of the Russian population had no representation at all. Finally, the executive committee of the Soviet, the “Ipsolkom,” wasn’t even chosen by the Soviet’s own members, but was drawn instead from the leadership of the main socialist parties, including the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Trudoviks, and Bolsheviks, who usually made decisions on their own, without even consulting the rest of the Soviet.
Despite all this, the liberal Duma members who formed the Provisional Government saw that the Soviet had the backing of the revolutionary mobs and was already proclaiming itself the voice of the people, making it the closest thing to a democratic body in Petrograd at the moment. Desperately casting about for a source of legitimacy after Nicholas II refused to provide it, the new Provisional Government turned to the Soviet, which agreed to endorse the government – with some important conditions (described below).
Now that the Provisional Government could base its legitimacy on popular support, it no longer needed the tsar. Belatedly realizing that the events in Petrograd were spinning out of control, Nicholas II decided to return to his residence outside Petrograd at Tsarskoe Selo in the early morning of March 14, but logistics intervened: the imperial train and its escort had to take a circuitous route to enable a train carrying loyal troops to go ahead of them to fight the mutineers in Petrograd – another seemingly minor detail with major consequences.
After embarking on its roundabout journey, the imperial train halted about 200 miles southeast of Petrograd because the way was blocked by troops who had gone over to the revolution. Backing up, the imperial entourage now proceeded west to the town of Pskov, headquarters of the northern section of the Eastern Front.
This accident had two unforeseen results. The first was that Nicholas II was separated from his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, who had helped stiffen his spine on previous occasions, encouraging him to take a hard line with dissidents in the Duma. The second was that he came under the influence of General Nikolai Ruzsky, pro-reform commander of the northern front, and also received a stream of discouraging telegrams from General Mikhail Alekseyev, second in command of the Russian Army after the tsar himself.
Still in Mogilev, Alekseyev was getting alarming reports from all over, including the news that the disorder had spread to Moscow, the other center of the Russian armament industry. Alekseyev warned the tsar that the continuation of the war effort, his primary concern, would be impossible if disorder spread: “A revolution in Russia – and this inevitable once disorders occur in the rear – will mean a disgraceful termination of the war, with all its inevitable consequences, so dire for Russia… It is impossible to ask the army calmly to wage war while a revolution is in progress in the rear.”
Shocked by the wavering attitude of his own top generals, late on March 14 Nicholas II reversed his earlier position and declared himself ready to compromise by allowing the Duma to form its own reform cabinet – but it was too late, as the Provisional Government had by now formed its alliance with the Petrograd Soviet, which it couldn’t abandon for fear of sparking more mob violence. Early on March 15 Rodzianko responded with a telegram to Ruzsky: “It is obvious that His Majesty and you do not realize what is going on here. One of the most terrible revolutions has broken out, which it will not be so easy to quell… I must inform you that what you propose is no longer adequate, and the dynastic question has been raised point blank.”
Alekseyev, now more alarmed than ever, ordered the transcript of Rodzianko’s telegrams with Ruzsky be shown to Tsar Nicholas II, and at 3 p.m. the tsar – who considered the defense of Russia his primary responsibility – agreed to abdicate in order to allow the war effort to continue. His abdication address, signed on March 15, made his reasons clear (below, the original text):
Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war. The destiny of Russia, the honour of our heroic army, the welfare of the people and the whole future of our dear fatherland demand that the war should be brought to a victorious conclusion whatever the cost… In these decisive days in the life of Russia, We thought it Our duty of conscience to facilitate for Our people the closest union possible and a consolidation of all national forces for the speedy attainment of victory. In agreement with the Imperial Duma We have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power.
Unable to bear the idea of going into exile without his son Alexei, he also abdicated on behalf of the tsarevich (something he technically had no right to do) and the line of succession passed to his own younger brother, the Grand Duke Michael, who tentatively agreed to accept the crown on March 16.
However on March 17 the members of the Provisional Government, now with the backing of the Soviet, warned Michael that any attempt to take the throne would probably lead to fresh violence. The Grand Duke responded that he would only accept the crown if he had the support of…