The February Revolution: The End of the Russian Monarchy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 19 December 2021

Skobelev Square during the February Revolution, painting by Aleksandr Gerasimov, 1917

The “February Revolution” is so-called because Russia at the time was on the Julian (Old Style (O.S.)) calendar. By the Gregorian (New Style (N.S.)) calendar, which Russia adopted in February 1918, these events take place in March 1917. And momentous events they were, leading to the abdication of the last Tsar, the end of a monarchy and an entire system of power and authority that dated back more than 350 years. For eight months in 1917, Russia struggled to extend the constitutionalist reforms that had begun under the Tsardom within a more liberal framework. The liberals never did gain the upper hand over the radicals, not even after the September 1917 de facto return to autocracy. In November 1917, a coup by the most extreme Leftist faction, the Bolsheviks, terminated the experiment, burying for seven decades even the aspirations in Russia for liberalism and democracy.


Tsar Alexander II [source]

The Russian Empire had undergone vast social, legal, and political reforms, most notably the abolition of serfdom in 1861, under Alexander II (r. 1855-81). The peasantry had welcomed these changes and been devoted to the “Tsar-Liberator”. The intelligentsia and the terrorist-revolutionaries they spawned had been infuriated; their ideology yearned for an apocalyptic calamity that would usher in a reign of universal justice for all humanity, and here was an Emperor making concrete improvements in the lives of actually existing human beings.[1] The revolutionaries revenged themselves by murdering the liberal Tsar, and his son, Alexander III (r. 1881-94), took the lesson, especially after a shocking wave of pogroms followed his father’s assassination: too much space had been opened for popular participation in politics and diffusing power away from the state was dangerous; a period of autocratic consolidation followed. Alexander III’s determination on stability applied in foreign policy, and a momentous decision was taken to align with Republican France to keep the peace of Europe.[2] This was the situation Nicholas II inherited in 1894.

Nicholas did not have the taste for power that his father did, nor did he have his father’s rough manner—the “peasant on the throne” some had called Alexander III, a source of some scorn abroad, but a considerable source of popularity, prestige, and authority domestically. Physically imposing, the people saw in Alexander III one of their own and the very model of an Emperor, stern with scheming courtiers, seditionist radicals, and threatening foreigners. Everyone who met Nicholas was struck by the mildness of his manner and his politeness. The tumultuousness of his grandfather’s reign and the relative tranquillity of his father’s impressed upon Nicholas the wisdom of autocracy, but that was secondary: Nicholas had been raised in a deep belief that the powers of his office were ordained of God. This had a paradoxical effect, however: rather than imbuing Nicholas with confidence that any decision he made must be correct, it made him take a hands-off approach; he would look for signs to indicate his need to act and trust that the hand of Providence would take care of the rest. In practice, this left great scope for high officials to pursue agendas of their own that Nicholas never checked as effectively as his father and the Emperor did not follow up orders to ensure the giant bureaucratic machinery of the Russian state was doing as it was told. Even so, for his first decade it seemed adherence to the mandate of Heaven was being rewarded. There was peace and plenty in the Empire, as a rapid program of industrialisation was undertaken.[3]

In February 1904, war broke out with Japan and by the middle of 1905, Russia had suffered a devastating defeat, notably in the naval the Battle of Tsushima. The repercussions domestically were profound: the terrorist-revolutionaries took the opportunity to go on the offensive, and for the next two years a series of horrendous atrocities by the radicals threw the country into turmoil. Seeking to pacify the situation, Nicholas set aside the convictions of a lifetime and proclaimed the October Manifesto in 1905, putting constitutional constraints on his office and opening a Duma (Parliament). It did no good. On the one hand, vast swathes of the populace were disgusted with this surrender of Royal prerogatives, and demagogues used the opportunity to incite attacks on Jews by claiming they were behind this “revolution” that had humbled the Emperor; with the state reeling to contain the terrorist disorders, it did not act as effectively as it might have to quell the pogroms.[4] On the other hand, the terrorists sensed weakness: over the next year, more than 3,500 government officials at all layers of the bureaucracy were killed and wounded in hundreds of attacks; by the time the storm abated at the end of 1907, more than 9,000 casualties had been inflicted, roughly evenly split between government officials and private citizens.[5]

Grigory Rasputin [source]

The damage to the prestige of the monarchy was compounded by its association with Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian peasant “holy man”, after 1908. While many of the stories of Rasputin’s debauchery and influence are mythical, the reality was bad enough. The stories themselves were damaging, embarrassing the monarchy and feeding political trends that strengthened the revolutionaries, and Rasputin did acquire real power after the onset of the First World War—decisive power by 1916—to hire and fire officials; he reliably had promoted mediocrities and misfits and some of them ended up in positions where their incompetence could do real harm.

The Great War is, of course, the most important context for the February Revolution. Russia was not responsible for the war and Nicholas had done everything in his power, right up to the last moments, to stop it. Germany and its Austrian ally were the principal warmongers, partly because the Germans calculated that within a few years Russia would have rebuilt after the Japanese war and, in tandem with the French-assisted industrialisation, it would mean the Russians were unbeatable. The war is the backdrop against which these events unfold, and it shapes the decisions of everyone involved, especially the senior military officials, who are the prime movers; they see disturbances behind the lines as a threat to the war effort, politically and logistically, and end up being convinced they must sacrifice their Emperor to restore calm. The war is such an all-pervasive fact that it can sometimes drop from view—and not just in the historiography. When the Tsar visited the Stavka in September 1914, he remarked, “It’s hard to believe a great war is being waged not far from this place”.[6] Amid the political knife-fighting that consumed those in power in Petrograd in 1917, some actors lost sight of the war—at least as a thing in itself, even if they remembered to use it as a political weapon.


On 5 March [20 February O.S.] 1917, rumours had spread in Russia that the government was about to introduce bread rationing, which provoked panic buying that stripped bakeries bare. And on 7 March, Nicholas II had left Petrograd to head to Mogilev, there to consult with General Mikhail Alekseyev, the Chief of Staff of the Stavka, who had just returned from a period of convalescence in the Crimea. The fact that the Emperor saw nothing amiss in leaving his capital at such a time, and that Interior Minister Alexander Protopopov—one of the beneficiaries of Rasputin’s intrigues—raised no objections when consulted in the evening of 6 March, demonstrated how far removed the senior leadership of the Imperial Government had become from the situation on the streets. Compounding the problem, the security of Petrograd was left to War Minister Mikhail Belyaev, a career official in the military bureaucracy appointed only a month earlier who was universally regarded as a “dead hand”, and General Sergey Khabalov was appointed commander-in-chief of the Petrograd Military District, a man who had spent his life working in military academies and was soon overwhelmed by events.[7]

There is a broader sense in which Protopopov, a member of the Octobrist Party and one of the leading lights of Russian liberalism, bears responsibility, within which the failure in February 1917 to properly prepare the military in the capital to meet a serious challenge to governmental authority is only a tactical miscalculation. The Okhranka, the political police, had been accurately reporting the situation in the Empire in the months leading up to this. The network of secret agents that covered the country had detected the widespread criticisms of the Imperial Government, particularly the Tsarina for mixing up her political role with Rasputin, and the well-trained Okhranka analysts in Saint Petersburg had prepared reports predicting popular upheaval that would threaten the Tsarist government itself. These reports, though, were first toned down by the Okhranka chief Alexander Vassilyev, another of the “Rasputin circle”, and then stripped of further content by Protopopov so that by the time information was reaching the Tsar it conformed to these officials’ theory that the threat came from a small number of liberals conspiring against the monarchy, while the masses of the population remained unshakeably loyal to the throne.[8]

In truth, most Russians were loyal to their Emperor—there was not a conception of sovereignty (except among the intelligentsia) that could be disembodied from the Tsar.[9] The problem was that the prestige of the institution had been so undermined—by an inability to suppress the terrorism problem, by the reforms after 1905, and the Rasputin fiasco—that when the crucial moment arrived there was an inability to mobilise popular support for the government.

The food shortages in the capital were in significant part due to an unusual cold that had settled over northern Russia in the winter of 1916-17, producing snowdrifts that blocked train lines, making getting fuel to Petrograd difficult—there was plenty of flour, 9,000 tons in the warehouses, more than enough for several days’ supply of bread, but no resources to convert it into food. With bakeries and factories unable to function because of fuel shortages, tens of thousands of people were not at work. Then, at the worst possible moment, right as the Tsar left the capital, the temperature rose from around 0°C to around 8°C, meaning that people who had been cooped up for months could venture onto the streets. Combined with this release of pent-up energy—a dynamic similar to that which contributed to the rioting in the summer of 2020 after months of lockdown because of the coronavirus—these people were now hungry, thus irritable, and angry clashes with police ensued; at least one policeman who got separated from his comrades was lynched by a mob on 10 March. Even with all of this, however, the situation was one essentially of a bread riot.[10] It took hard work by the terrorist-revolutionaries to infuse these disturbances with a political colouring.

The first serious demonstration was organised by socialists on 8 March [23 February O.S.], International Women’s Day. This is the traditional date given for the onset of the “February Revolution”, but as will be explained below, this is not really correct.

The 8 March demonstration was large, especially after a group of workers went on strike—estimates run from 80,000 to 120,000—but they day passed reasonably peacefully. It was noticed on all sides that the Cossack troops in the capital had been reluctant to confront the demonstrators and the radicals quickly capitalised on this fact. A crowd twice as large, around 200,000 strong, was on the streets of Petrograd on 9 March and turned notably violent: attacking police, raiding food stores, burning public burnings. In the afternoon of 9 March, a high-level government meeting was convened, attended by Protopopov, most of the Municipal Duma, and the Cabinet, with the rather salient exception of the Prime Minister, Prince Nikolai Golitsyn, who was at spiritualist seance.[11]

Petrograd protests, March 1917. Sign reads, “Long live the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Representatives”

By 10 March, with no signs of serious repression from the government, the situation deteriorated even further: industry was basically paralysed across the city, swelling the crowds yet further, and the terrorist-revolutionaries had been able to steer this unruly mass—Red banners were everywhere and slogans directed against the political order itself had became common. Grenades were thrown at gendarmes and this was the day the unfortunate policeman was lynched, though he was far from the only one killed. It was at this point the Mensheviks in the Duma first floated the idea of creating a “Workers’ Soviet”.[12]

The Tsar cabled Khabalov on 10 March, ordering him to forcibly restore order by the next day, and Khabalov reluctantly agreed, posting two decrees—banning street gatherings and warning that lethal force would be used in case of defiance. Overnight 10-11 March saw the takeover of the workers’ quarters, especially Vyborg District, by mobs who destroyed police stations. On the information available to him, it was not unreasonable for the Tsar to believe a show of force would restore government control and by the end of 11 March—after several incidents of bloodshed killing several-dozen people, notably in Znamenskaya Square, around the statue of Alexander III, where protesters liked to gather—it seemed to have worked.[13]

During these first three days, key leaders of the intelligentsia in the Duma had seen a chance to further their own goals and acted in ways to further the mayhem, notably the leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), Pavel Milyukov; the Menshevik leader Nikolay Chkheidze; and Alexander Kerensky, at this point a member of the Trudoviks and soon to switch to the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs), whose Combat Organisation was responsible for many of the most high-profile terrorist attacks over the preceding two decades.[14] These actors found an ally in the ultra-Rightist Duma deputy, Vladimir Purishkevich, who had grown loud in his criticisms of the Imperial Government in November 1916, particularly of Rasputin, whose murder he had been involved in. Rounding out what seemed like a decisive blow for order, in the evening of 11 March, the Tsar transmitted an order through Golitsyn, telling the Chairman of the State Duma, the leader of the liberal Octobrist Party Mikhail Rodzianko, that the Assembly had been adjourned until April.[15]

As it transpired, this was the calm before the storm.


The Petrograd garrison mutinied on 12 March, first the Volynsky Regiment, then several others, including the decorated Preobrazhensky Regiment, a bulwark of the Tsardom since the time of Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725). These mutinous Regiments, having killed officers, now fanned out into the streets, attacking pro-government civilians who had set up barricades, killing policemen, and looting shops, restaurants, and private homes. Richard Pipes in The Russian Revolution remarks: “It was not really a military mutiny of the kind that broke out during the war in other armies … but a typical Russian bunt, with powerful anarchist overtones”.[16]

Throughout the rest of the day, mobs thickened with defecting conscripts rampaged: they incinerated the law courts, government ministries, and the headquarters of the Okhranka,[17] stormed police stations, pillaged further weaponry, massacred security officials, and turned loose common criminals to sow further disorder.[18] Within twenty-four hours, about half of the soldiers in the Petrograd garrison, mostly draftees from among the peasantry, had switched sides, and by 14 March the revolutionaries’-directed crowds had the entire contingent of 160,000 armed men among their number.[19] By the end of the day on 12 March, the Imperial Government controlled a half-dozen buildings in the capital and had a maximum of 2,000 troops in the city, most of them from the Izmailovsky Regiment, still willing to obey the authorities.

The chance to abort revolution had been and gone. The high officials left in charge in Petrograd had not acted to stop soldiers fraternising with the crowds in the days leading up to this and had then dropped the ball again at the last. In the hours preceding the first insurrectionary soldiers going onto the streets in the morning of 12 March, when signs of disobedience had already been seen on base, Belyaev had called for the execution of the ringleaders of sedition and been overruled by Khabalov, who favoured their arrest: “It was a fatal loss of nerve”.[20]

12 March [27 February O.S.], not 8 March [23 February O.S.], is the true beginning of what can be called a revolution. Often portrayed as a workers’ rising, the February Revolution was far more a military putsch in nature.


The Tsar received two cables from Rodzianko, one in the evening of 11 March and one on the morning of 12 March, saying that the capital was in anarchy and the fate of the dynasty was in the wind. Nicholas was sceptical and thought this “fat fellow” was exaggerating in order to extract political concessions for the Duma. After cables from Khabalov, the Empress, the Tsar’s younger brother Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, Prime Minister Golitsyn, Belyaev, and finally the Grand Marshall of the Court, Count Paul Benckendorff, Nicholas understood there was trouble, though still resisted the suggestion of Golitsyn and some others to let the Cabinet resign and be replaced with a government drawn from the Duma, headed either by Rodzianko or Prince Georgy Lvov,[21] the leader of the largest bloc in the Duma, the Progressive Party.[22]

Nikolai Ivanov

The Tsar appointed General Nikolai Ivanov to go to the capital with a contingent of eight-hundred troops and impose military rule, reinforced by reliable infantry and cavalry units to be dispatched from the North under General Yuri Danilov and the West. Ivanov departed from Mogilev at 13:00 on 13 March [28 February O.S.], two hours after his troops had boarded their trains headed for Tsarkskoe Selo, south of Petrograd, from where they were to proceed into the city.

Ivanov’s mission was aborted late on 14 March, however, because, as Richard Pipes explains, “the politicians had persuaded themselves—mistakenly, as events were to show—that only the Duma was capable of restoring order”, and the politicians “convinced the generals, who brought irresistible pressure to bear on Nicholas to give up power”. Once the troops were called off, the radicals pressed their advantage: the push for a Duma ministry faded; the demand now was for the departure of the Emperor. Pipes contends that the politicians were almost certainly mistaken: Ivanov’s “prospects do not seem to have been [so] hopeless … On [12 March], only Petrograd was in rebellion: save for some sympathy strikes in Moscow, the rest of the country was quiet”. Pipes goes on to note that Petrograd was “still primarily a garrison mutiny”, carried out by a “rabble incapable of offering resistance”—at one of the first meetings of the Petrograd Soviet on 13 March, the soldiers present had panicked and literally ran away, breaking through windows to escape, at the sound of gunfire—and, again, as events showed, “political concessions had the opposite effect of the one intended, transforming the Petrograd garrison mutiny into a national revolution”.[23]

Chance played an enormous part in the crucial events over the last two days of the Russian monarchy. Nicholas had decided to return to the capital, rather than have his wife and children brought to him in Mogilev, because the children had measles. To avoid conflicting with Ivanov’s mission, the Emperor took a circuitous route back to Petrograd, but ended up being diverted so that instead of being back in the capital with his wife, who would not have countenanced talk of giving up the throne, at 19:05 on 14 March [1 March O.S.], the Imperial train arrived at the Northern headquarters in Pskov, which was overseen by General Nikolai Ruzsky, the most politicised senior officer, who disliked Nicholas personally and disliked the institution of monarchy. Ruzsky sympathised entirely with the more radical wing of the Duma that wanted some form of republic, and from the moment the Tsar arrived in Pskov sought to pressure Nicholas—partly through control of the information flow—into making wide-reaching concessions to the Duma and then into abdicating.[24]


In Petrograd, events were overtaking the Tsar. The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies announced itself on 12 March. The initiative for the Soviet came from K.A. Gvozdev and B.O. Bogdanov, two Mensheviks freed earlier that morning, with Chkheidze as Chairman (he was replaced by Trotsky a few weeks before the Bolshevik coup), and Kerensky and Matvey Skobelev as his deputies. To the extent that there were “elections” to form the Petrograd Soviet, it was a haphazard plebiscite among the socialist intellectuals, mostly Mensheviks and SRs, who turned up at this first meeting. An Executive Committee (Ispolkom), initially of eight or nine members, was formed, which tried to keep its membership secret. Later, the Ispolkom was expanded and bureaucratised in such a way as to become in effect a coordination committee for the radical intellectuals at the head of each of the socialist parties—there were hardly any workers or soldiers involved—and, even more seriously, gave outsize influence to the Bolsheviks, which grew and grew until it became dominance in the summer of 1917.[25]

The Soviet started very much as it meant to go on—even before its Bolshevization—by arresting the Tsar’s ministers on 13 March, all members of the Imperial dynasty, surveilling the post and telegraphic communications in a systematised way the Tsardom had never even aspired to, and banning “Black Hundred” (i.e. non-socialist) publications, soon expanded to prohibit all newspapers that were not granted permission from the Soviet.[26]

On the same day as the Petrograd Soviet came into existence, the nucleus of the Provisional Government was formed by the Duma deputies, officially known as the “Provisional Committee of Duma Members for the Restoration of Order in the Capital and the Establishment of Relations with Individuals and Institutions”. This body was officially a “private” entity—created mostly out of the Progressive Bloc, with some socialists and no conservatives—because when the moment had come, when the populace and the army and the society looked, by instinct if nothing else, to the Duma to fill the void as the monarchy melted away, the deputies were paralysed. On the one hand, the Duma feared the street and sought to placate it; on the other, they were not just unwilling to defy their Emperor—there was certainly some cynical hedging, lest the Crown recover and come after insubordinates—but they did not know how to deal with events on their own. The Duma deputies were used to railing against Imperial ministers and occasionally having powers handed down to them; they had no conception of where to begin in seizing the reins and managing a seething mob.[27]

This attempt by the Provisional Government to split the difference—adhering to legalisms and yet doing enough to channel the crowds behind them rather than against them—took comical forms, notably the 12 March meeting to create the Provisional Committee not being held in the official room for the Duma at the Tauride Palace. By the time Rodzianko was told at 22:00 on 12 March that the Tsar would not accept the liquidation of the Cabinet and its replacement by a Duma ministry, the commandant of the Palace Guard at Tsarskoe Selo, Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich, a cousin of Nicholas, had pledged loyalty to the Provisional Government, as had a number of other police and gendarme units, in an attempt by officers to avoid being murdered by men in the lower ranks. What was done was done; the Provisional Government had to assume control, or there would have been a complete collapse into anarchy or a takeover by the radicals of the Soviet right then and there, or more likely the former succeeded by the latter.[28]

The Soviet—that is to say the radical intellectuals—voted on 14 March not to join the Provisional Government created by the Duma, absolving themselves of all responsibility for managing the revolutionary situation, while reserving the right to criticise and increasingly to direct the policy of the Provisional Government in the period between March and November 1917. This peculiar arrangement, known as “dyarchy”, was inherently unstable: the Provisional Government wanted to consolidate the situation, establish law-and-order, and protect the country from the Germans at the gates; the Soviet viewed the circumstances on 14 March as merely the first step on the road to a “true” socialist revolution.[29] The Provisional Government was marked by hesitancy and indecision, while the Soviet was resolute and clear of purpose. This dynamic was visible early.

The Soviet, composed on no legal authority whatever by mutineers, terrorists, and their self-appointed theoreticians, had no qualms about its right to dictate events. The Provisional Government, meanwhile, plunged into a debate about its legitimacy, which was surreal enough—the Fourth Duma, whatever its problems, had more right to speak for 170 million Russians—but it was even more bizarre that conservatives like Vasily Shulgin and Alexander Guchkov, who wanted to try one final time to get the Tsar to sign-off on the Provisional Government, were voted down by a majority that wanted to seek legitimacy from the Soviet! [30]

Part of this was sheer terror: the deputies not unreasonably believed the Soviet could better protect them from the mob. Some of it was the recurring problem for liberals of believing the Left extremists are essentially correct, even if there are quibbles about methodology.[31] Another factor was in its very nature as the Provisional Government: the leaders saw themselves as holding down the fort until a Constituent Assembly could be elected that would take on the big political issues, like land reform and the Nationalities Question. In practice, this meant the Provisional Government was deeply uncomfortable using even the power it actually did have and sought to push these matters off into the future. The problem was many of these issues could not wait: unless the Provisional Government solved them, they would never get to a Constituent Assembly.[32]

Alexander Kerensky [source]

Kerensky served as the placenta between the Provisional Government, where he was Justice Minister under Lvov until July 1917 and thereafter leader, and the Soviet.[33] However, Milyukov’s witty description of Kerensky as joining the SRs at this time so he could play “the part of revolutionary hostage in the bourgeoise camp”,[34] rather misses who was hostage to whom and why—though, in fairness, Kerensky, a disastrous judge of character and a man whose ambition ran well beyond his talents, seems to have been as confused on this point as many of the other liberals. Kerensky had slyly used his parliamentary immunity as a Duma member in 1915-16 to consort with terrorist-revolutionaries, hoping they could boost his career, and his attempt to straddle these horses once in the Provisional Government was ultimately his undoing.[35]

The Provisional Government and the Soviet met at midnight on 14-15 March, and in a session that lasted well into the early hours the program of the Soviet was largely accepted. The results were calamitous. The only things the Provisional Government managed to hold off on were the conduct of the war and agrarian reform. Of the eight points the Provisional Government accepted, by far the most damaging two were dissolving the police (theoretically to be replaced by militias with elected leaders, which did not exist) and creating local elected self-governments (using the Municipal Councils, which had never and could not bear the weight of administrative responsibility). The result was, as Pipes tersely summarises, an “anarchy that the new government liked to blame on the old regime but that was, in fact, largely of its own doing”. Barely less horrific was the blanket amnesty for “political prisoners”, flooding the capital and other key areas with radicals and terrorists that had been exiled either in Siberia or abroad, some of the worst of them financed by Russia’s enemies. And the ruling that seditious military units were allowed to keep their weapons and would not be sent to the front ensured that the Soviet could keep itself surrounded with tens of thousands of soldiers from the Petrograd garrison.[36]

The Soviet also in effect went around the Provisional Government on the question of the war, issuing the infamous Order Number One on 14 March—without any consultation, in contrast to the Provisional Government clearing its policies and even personnel with the Soviet—that called for inter alia elected committees in military units under the ultimate authority of the Petrograd Soviet, the right to spread political propaganda, and abolishing the use of military honorifics in addressing superiors, a calculated program to devastate the authority of the officer corps, spread radicalism and indiscipline in the army, and ultimately secure Russia’s defeat at the hands of her enemies as a door-opener to a total revolution.[37]

Pipes summarises:[38]

Thus, from the moment of its creation, Russia’s democratic government owed its legitimacy to and functioned at the sufferance of a body of radical intellectuals who, by seizing control of the Soviet executive, had arrogated to themselves the right to speak on behalf of “democracy”. Although this dependence was in some measure conditioned by the need to gain the Soviet’s help in calming the insurgent mobs, the liberals and conservatives who formed the first Provisional Government saw nothing wrong with the arrangement. It is they, after all, who requested from the Ispolkom a declaration in support of the government. They also had few objections to the terms on the basis of which the Ispolkom had consented to back them. According to Milyukov, apart from the two points that had been dropped or revised …, everything in the declaration drafted by the Ispolkom was not only fully acceptable to the Duma committee or allowed an acceptable interpretation but “flowed directly from the newly formed government’s personal views of its tasks”.

Throughout the period of the Provisional Government, Pipes continues, “The socialists who controlled [the Soviet] wanted the Provisional Government to serve as a lightning rod for popular discontent, while they manipulated affairs from behind the scenes: they wanted to rule without reigning.” And they got what they wanted: “in practice, the Soviet not only controlled the Provisional Government but legislated on its own”. In all areas—from the army and foreign policy to “more mundane matters, such as food supply and labour relations, transport and communications”—the “Ispolkom acted as the ultimate authority without bothering to coordinate with the government. The leaders of the Soviet made no secret of the fact that the Provisional Government existed only at their sufferance. … As Trotsky was later to boast, this gave the Bolsheviks the opportunity to seize power by demanding that the Soviet become de jure what it was de facto”.[39]


The Tsar had spent the hours after his arrival in Pskov in the evening of 14 March talking to Ruzsky. Asking for unvarnished advice and being told that a Duma government was the best way to go—to transition to a system where “the Sovereign reigns and the Government rules”—the Emperor found this incomprehensible: how could powers be handed to a bunch of people who could create devastation and then hand in their resignation and walk away from it all? The Sovereign was accountable to God and to Russia, and had to remain in place, come what may. Even Ruzsky, no friend of Nicholas or his office, remarked on the Emperor’s sincerity and lucidity; this was not a self-serving argument, but genuine conviction.[40]

The problem by this time was that the Tsardom had few friends to count on: the radicals wanted it overthrown; the military were worried that revolution in the rear would spread to the front; the Duma was fighting for its own life and shared with the Petrograd garrison and elements of the population in that city the worry that if Imperial authority was restored there would be retribution (whereas the downfall of the monarchy allowed them to cast their mutiny in the noble light of a revolution); and for the peasant masses, Nicholas’ inability to crush the terrorist movement and the political compromises via the October Manifesto, including the very creation of the Duma, surrendering powers of the autocracy, tarnished the office and weakened the traditional view of the Tsar as khoziain (master, proprietor, owner) of the Fatherland. Without that ancient certitude, there was only volia, literally “liberty”, with the connotation of “unbridled license”: it was chaos—and what could be taken during the chaos.[41]

When Nicholas received a telegram from Alekseyev at 23:30 on 14 March with a draft manifesto prepared by N.A. Basily, the chief of the diplomatic chancellery at headquarters, recommending the appointment of a Duma ministry, the Tsar was deeply affected and made two decisions that doomed the monarchy: (1) Ruzsky was told to contact Rodzianko and tell him a Duma-derived government would replace the Cabinet; and (2) Ivanov, currently leading troops to Petrograd to suppress the garrison mutiny that had broken out two days earlier, was to “undertake no action”.[42]

The Tsar retired to his sleeping carriage at 01:00 on 15 March, but he did not sleep through the night. Meanwhile, Ruzsky had communicated with Rodzianko between 3:30 and 7:30, and Rodzianko had claimed that the situation was now beyond forming a Duma government; the Tsar would have to abdicate in favour of his son, the twelve-year-old Tsarevitch Alexei, with his uncle, Grand Duke Mikhail, as Regent. Alekseyev saw the Ruzsky-Rodzianko transcript and cabled it to Pskov at 9:00 on 15 March, demanding it be shown to the Tsar immediately (“All etiquette must be set aside”), but the Tsar had just fallen asleep and was scheduled to meet in an hour anyway. The Tsar did meet with Ruzsky at 10:45.[43]

In the meantime, in the morning of 15 March, Alekseyev took a decision. Convinced by Rodzianko, and knowing that the Tsar was unresponsive to politicians but would do anything for the Army and the country it defended, Alekseyev cabled all commanders of the various fronts with the Ruzsky-Rodzianko transcript and his personal recommendation that Rodzianko’s advice be followed. “[I]t is too late” for “a ministry responsible to the representative chambers and entrusting the President of the State Duma [Rodzianko] with the formation of a new cabinet”, Alekseyev wrote in his telegram. This might have worked on 12 March, but now “one of the great revolutions is already in progress; the passions of the populace are difficult to curb; the troops are demoralised.” If the war is to be “continued to a victorious end” to “save Russia’s independence and the fate of the dynasty”—which “must be our first concern”—then the price was “major concessions”, namely Nicholas’ resignation and the assumption of the throne by Alexei under his uncle’s Regency, wrote Alekseyev. The telegram concluded with Alekseyev telling the commanders to send their own views on whether they agreed with this directly to Pskov, copying him in.[44]

Alekseyev’s action was momentous, and it was based primarily on the information Rodzianko had given to Ruzsky. Alekseyev soon came to doubt that Rodzianko had conveyed things accurately and to lament his role in securing the abdication. In the swirl of the upheaval, Rodzianko was not—and perhaps was genuinely unable to be—completely forthright about the political situation in Petrograd, and Ruzsky expressed no scepticism since what Rodzianko was saying led in the political direction he wanted to go. From Rodzianko’s messages, Alekseyev had understood that the Progressive Bloc of the Duma, with which Alekseyev sympathised, had the upper-hand in the capital and had the popular movement behind it, but was being threatened from the Left and required the Tsar’s abdication to maintain its ground. This was wrong in both directions: the Soviet was already dominant, especially over the street, as Rodzianko and the Duma well-knew—it is why they approached the Soviet to plead for terms that could secure their own safety, apart from anything else—and the removal of the Tsar gave more, not less, space to the radicals.[45]

Alekseyev concluded as soon as the next day that he had been misled by slanted information into using the prestige of his name and office for ends that he opposed. After talking with Rodzianko directly, Alekseyev—perceptively—concluded that the Duma’s Provisional Committee was divided and under “powerful pressure” from the Soviet. Alekseyev was annoyed at Rodzianko, whom he felt had given reports that “were not frank and sincere” and was angry at himself for believing them. “I will never forgive myself for having believed in the integrity of certain people, and acting on their advice … dispatched my telegram to the commanders in chief”, Alekseyev told General Alexander Lukomsky, his closest associate at the Stavka. All the same it was too late: “the withdrawal of a previously announced manifesto could lead to loss of confidence and low morale in fighting the external enemy”.[46]

By 14:50 on 15 March, the Tsar had been shown the cables from his commanders, who unanimously agreed with Alekseyev. By 15:05, the Tsar had written a telegram announcing his abdication in favour of his son and asked that a manifesto to that effect be prepared.[47]

The was a final twist to the tale. Shulgin and Guchkov, the monarchist Duma deputies, arrived in Pskov to meet the Tsar at 21:45, carrying their own version of an abdication manifesto to request what they could not know Nicholas had already conceded. When the deputies spoke to the Tsar, they found he had modified his decision: informed that he would be unlikely to be able to stay with his ill son to care for the boy, Nicholas had decided to abdicate for Alexei, too, and leave the Crown to Mikhail. The deputies asked if this was legal (it was not), but there was no lawyer present. After retiring to his quarters for twenty minutes, the Tsar emerged with telegrams of new instructions at 23:50—though they were signed 15:05 and addressed to Alekseyev, reiterating that Nicholas has surrendered his throne to save his country by allowing the Army to remain intact so it could overcome the German enemy, not under pressure from the politicians in the Duma.[48] (Had Nicholas been concerned for personal power, he would have cut a peace deal with the Germans—on whatever terms: they could hardly have been worse than Brest-Litovsk—and used the troops from the front to crush the rebellion in Petrograd.[49])

The scene aboard the Imperial Train during the abdication of Nicholas II, 15 March 1917. From left to right: Minister of the Court, Baron Woldemar Freedericksz; Northern Commander General Nikolai Ruzsky; Duma deputies Vasily Shulgin and Alexander Guchkov; the Emperor. [source]

The document of abdication notably refashioned Russia as a constitutional monarchy, leaving to the Duma to define the role of the Emperor in the new constitutional order. Nicholas then wrote out two further documents, timing them to 14:00 (i.e. before the abdication), recognising Georgy Lvov as Prime Minister—giving the Provisional Government the legitimacy it wanted—and re-appointing Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich as Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Army. The Provisional Government was thrown into a panic by Nicholas’ proposal and suppressed as far as they could news of his abdication. At 18:00 on 16 March, after speaking with the Provisional Government and being told by everybody except Milyukov and Guchkov that taking the Crown would lead to civil war, Mikhail signed a manifesto refusing the throne unless or until the Constituent Assembly offered it to him. On 17 March, both Nicholas’ and Mikhail’s abdication manifestoes were published, and thus ended three-hundred years of Romanov rule in Russia.[50]


Lenin arriving at Finland Station in Petrograd, April 1917

Sensing their opportunity, the Germans send the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, into Russia, a country he had barely been present in over the previous two decades. After Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd on 16 April 1917, it was hoped, as German Foreign Minister, Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, put it, that he would “exacerbate the differences between the moderate and extremist parties” and “shatter the stability of the Russian state”.[51] To this end, Germany arranged a large, steady flow of money to the Bolsheviks, amounting to about a billion dollars in present money.[52] All efforts to reconcile the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks immediately stopped and Lenin proclaimed his “April Theses” on 17 April, putting the Provisional Government on notice that he meant to destroy it and outlining his “revolutionary defeatism” approach to the war—which seemed crazy even to the Bolshevik leadership, but fulfilled German strategic designs to the letter. A German agent was able to report by the next day: “[Lenin] is working exactly as we wish”.[53]

Milyukov, acting as Russia’s Foreign Minister and speaking for a consensus of the Provisional Government, had handed a note to Britain and France on 18 April saying Russia would continue to uphold its role in the Entente and would not seek a separate peace with Germany. Despite a second clarification note being sent immediately that had been approved by the Soviet, when the note leaked two days later it was used by the Bolsheviks to create riots in Petrograd and beyond that pushed Milyukov out of the Provisional Government he had hoped to guide on a moderate path, and toppled his ally, War Minister Guchkov, too.

The Bolsheviks still had minimal popular purchase in April-May 1917, but Lenin had proof-of-concept for what would become the Bolshevik modus operandi. Lenin understood how easily crowds could be manipulated, especially if they were primed with the right ideas, and it was here—in spreading Bolshevik propaganda—that German money came in most useful.[54] The radical intelligentsia that now staffed the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet had given birth to the terrorist-revolutionaries that sought to destroy the Tsardom; they had no idea what to do when faced an enemy, the Bolsheviks, who used the language of “class warfare” quite literally, intending the annihilation of the “bourgeoisie” among which it counted them. Flush with German cash, Lenin could control his own men and pick off key members of the government and other socialist groups, while giving the Bolsheviks an essentially unlimited capacity with propaganda to stir up the populace and infiltrate the Army, demoralising it and spreading il-discipline.[55]

The first Bolshevik coup attempt in July 1917—the “July Days”, when crowds were incited onto the streets, carrying with rather well-produced placards that inter alia read, “The Germans are our brothers”—failed when Lenin lost his nerve at the last moment.[56] But the Bolsheviks were rescued by Kerensky. Rather than responding to the July putsch by riding the wave of patriotic feeling against what was seen—essentially correctly—as a German-sponsored coup attempt against Russia by forming a compact with constitutional conservatives, Kerensky chose to go after the Supreme Commander General Lavr Kornilov, administering the final blows to the Russian military and his own Provisional Government, opening the way for the successful Bolshevik coup in November 1917.

One of the main factors restraining even the radicals in the Soviet was the fear of civil war; this was an inducement to Lenin, who yearned for a war to raze everything Russia had built since the end of the Tatar Yoke, giving him tabula rasa. Lenin had no concern for Russia per se but saw it as a happy accident that the first link in the capitalist chain had broken in “his” country. For Lenin, Russia was merely a steppingstone in a program meant for the whole world. Thus, Lenin—drawing on Marx’s lesson from the Paris Commune—was determined to smash the state institutions and societal control mechanisms to plunge Russia into a domestic war where the Bolsheviks could force all those claiming the banner of “revolution” to fall in behind them; once Russia was Bolshevized it could be the cockpit for global revolution.[57] The Bolsheviks did not have to shed that much blood to seize power, since they had psychologically defeated the Provisional Government long before they shoved it into its grave,[58] but the coup and its aftermath—the brief fight put up by Kerensky and the Cossack legions under Pyotr Krasnov—showed that the terms of the struggle had been rewritten in Russia. Lenin had got his way: the time for politics had passed; Russia’s fate would be decided by force of arms.

The fear of civil war and such a conflict weakening Russia’s resistance against Germany had stayed the Army’s hand earlier in 1917.[59] Now, at the end of 1917, Kornilov and Alekseyev found themselves confronting civil war and German advance anyway, and with many fewer instruments to hold back the tide: by failing to uphold order and authority when the turmoil was localised, the contagion had spread, and the Generals now had to war against chaos in far worse circumstances. Kornilov, the remnants of the Imperial Army’s officer corps and the loyal soldiers—dozens of them Jewish it is interesting to note in light of later events and historiography—plus a section of the Cossacks and the patriotic intellectuals and students formed the Volunteer Army (often known as “the Whites”) to resist the Communist takeover of their country.[60] The Volunteers were fighting for the Constituent Assembly that the Provisional Government was supposed to lead to. The Constituent Assembly had been elected in December 1917 in the largest democratic exercise in history and decisively repudiated the Bolsheviks, who violently disbanded it during its first meeting in January 1918.

In April 1918, after Kornilov had been killed, Lenin declared: “We can say with confidence that in the main the civil war is at an end.” But it was not the end. Kornilov had led the Volunteers—a mere 4,000 men—through 750 miles of snow and ice over eighty days in the Kuban, spending forty-four of those days in “fierce combat” with the Reds, and they had survived.[61]

The lack of serious Allied support to the Volunteers was strange,[62] given that Lenin was practicing what he preached when it came to world revolution: the Red risings in Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia in the spring and summer of 1919, while the Paris Peace Conference was still going on, removed all doubt about what the Bolsheviks intended, and in the summer of 1920 the Red Army directly marched on Warsaw. If Poland had fallen, it would have left Germany at the Bolsheviks’ mercy, and with German wealth and population that would have allowed the communization of the whole of Europe.[63] The Poles had checked the first round of armed export of Revolution; the next round would come after the Soviets had orchestrated a Second World War, and in the meantime the methods of spreading Communism were adapted.

The Bolsheviks had captured and looted the state institutions, so, without Allied support to balance this out, the Reds were always able to pay and equip a larger force than the resistance.[64] Still, the experience of Bolshevik rule—the Terror of the Cheka (secret police) and the theft of property—proved to be one of the most reliable resources the Volunteers could draw on, leading to the welcome of the “Whites” in territories they captured from the Reds by diverse populations all across Russia,[65] triggering numerous peasant uprisings, [66] mass defections of peasants from the Red Army,[67] and even brought sections of the socialists into the Volunteers’ camp. By the summer of 1919, the Volunteer Army stood at 100,000 men and was within two-hundred miles of Moscow, but its overstretched lines broke and by November 1919 it had been shattered.[68] Though victory was out of reach, the Volunteers fought on for another year, before being evacuated from Crimea. Isolated efforts at resistance would continue until June 1923.

What started with so much hope for constitutionalism in early 1917, including from the Army and those who led the Volunteers, had ended in a hecatomb that killed millions and a regime in Russia far worse than that which had fallen.[69] The Soviet experiment was the outgrowth of an intelligentsia and its terrorist-revolutionary movement that always put ideas of “humanity” above the needs or lives of actually existing humans, hence the entirely needless suffering inflicted by Communist ideology. This had already begun: Lenin’s economic policies produced a famine in 1921-22 that killed about five million people; it would have been more had America not stepped in with aid. The Bolshevik regime was far more interested in using the famine as a pretext for war with the Russian Orthodox Church.[70] The persecution of the faithful, the repression of the smallest dissent, collectivisation and its terror-famines, the GULAG—Lenin had begun it all, and over the next seven decades his successors would entrench and expand the system, in Russia and well beyond.



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[1] Tibor Szamuely (1974), The Russian Tradition, pp. 143-54, 247-49

[2] Michael Kalantar (2015), Russia Under Three Tsars, chapter two.

[3] Russia Under Three Tsars, chapter three.

[4] Charles Ruud and Sergei Stepanov (1999), Fontanka 16: The Tsar’s Secret Police, pp. 237-41.

[5] Anna Geifman (1993), Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917, pp. 20-1.

[6] Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016), The Romanovs: 1613-1918, p. 578.

[7] Richard Pipes (1990), The Russian Revolution, pp. 272-4.

[8] Fontanka 16, p. 314.

[9] The Russian Tradition, pp. 130-32.

[10] Alexander Shliapnikov, essentially the leading Bolshevik operative in Russia, with Vladimir Lenin, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin, and even Leon Trotsky (not yet a member of the Bolsheviks) in exile at that time, ridiculed the idea that what was underway was a revolution: “Give the workers a pound of bread and the movement will peter out.” (Perhaps because Shliapnikov had been in Russia throughout most of the period up to the revolution, he quickly broke ranks with the Bolshevik leadership that flowed back in over 1917, much of it on German dime, seeing conditions and needs as they were, rather than ideology said they should be. Shliapnikov’s dissent, tolerated but ineffective in Lenin’s time, cost him his life in Yezhovshchina.)

[11] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 274-75.

[12] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 275-76.

[13] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 276-77.

[14] Thou Shalt Kill, pp. 54-6.

[15] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 277-78.

[16] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 280-81.

[17] By the time the Department of Police was abolished on 17 March 1917, this was mere formalism: it had been destroyed on 12 March when its headquarters in Petrograd was stormed and its files burned, followed days later by a replica attack on the Moscow Okhranka. To this day it remains unclear if this was the work of revolutionaries or former agents covering their tracks.

The Provisional Government appointed an Extraordinary Investigating Commission, running throughout the entire eight months of its existence, intended to show high crimes by the Okhranka and senior government officials tasked with fighting the terrorist-revolutionaries. The Commission not only failed to find any crimes; it failed to even indict a single person, let alone try one. By the summer of 1917—after repeatedly changing its terms of reference in a politicised effort to redefine Imperial Government activities as crimes, action that was grossly illegal even on its own terms—the Commission gave up on legality altogether and became simply a public relations body, releasing intermittent statements to the press with ever-more lurid and outlandish stories about Okhranka conspiracy and provocation.

Many of those being held in prison had to be released as the Commission, despite its best efforts, cleared them of all wrongdoing; those who remained in prison did so only because Kerensky could not risk a backlash from the Soviet.

Those who remained in prison at the time of the Bolshevik coup were murdered during the “Red Terror”. Among others, former police official Alexei Khvostov, a Rasputin supporter-turned-enemy, was shot on 23 August 1918. Ivan Shcheglovitov, former Justice Minister (notoriously during the Beilis case) and the last chairman of the State Council, and Stepan Beletsky, the intriguer with Rasputin who had acquired the directorship of the police that way, were shot in Petrovsky Park on 5 September 1918. Alexander Protopopov was murdered by the Reds on 27 October 1918.

See: Fontanka 16, p 315-19; Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 322;

[18] Dimitry Lehovich (1974), White Against Red: The Life of General Anton Denikin, p. 69.

[19] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 277-78.

[20] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 280-81.

[21] Lvov was a Prince from the Rurikid line that founded the Tsardom under “Ivan the Terrible” (r. 1547-84), as opposed to the Romanovs who had ruled since 1613.

[22] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 282-83.

[23] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 283-85.

[24] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 285-86.

[25] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 289-95.

[26] White Against Red, p. 71; Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 324.

[27] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 286-88.

[28] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 288-89.

[29] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 296.

[30] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 296-97.

[31] The Russian Tradition, pp. 158-59.

[32] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 304.

[33] Kerensky formally resigned as one of the deputy leaders of Ispolkom, but stayed on as a member, albeit while ceasing to attend meetings over time. Kerensky had staged a theatrical public display that forced the Soviet into accepting him violating the Ispolkom resolution against members serving in the Provisional Government; they never did forgive him for it. Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 302.

[34] White Against Red, p. 70.

[35] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 302.

[36] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 297-99.

[37] White Against Red, pp. 75-6.

[38] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 299.

[39] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 323-24.

[40] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 310.

[41] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 308.

[42] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 307-10.

[43] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 311-12.

[44] White Against Red, pp. 71-2.

[45] White Against Red, pp. 72-3.

[46] White Against Red, p. 74.

[47] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 311-12.

[48] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 313-15.

[49] “All the evidence indicates that Nicholas abdicated from patriotic motives: the wish to spare Russia a humiliating defeat and to save her armed forces from disintegration. … No less significant is the fact that Nicholas carried on talks about his abdication, not with the Duma and its Provisional Government, but with General Alekseev, as if to emphasize that he was abdicating to the armed forces and at their request. If Nicholas’s foremost concern had been with preserving his throne he would have quickly made peace with Germany and used front-line troops to crush the rebellion in Petrograd and Moscow. He chose instead, to give up the crown to save the front. Although Nicholas showed no emotion throughout this ordeal, abdication was for him an immense sacrifice: not because he craved either the substance of power or its trappings—the one he thought a heavy burden, the other a tedious imposition—but because he felt that by this action he was betraying his oath to God and country.” Pipes, The Russian Revolution, p. 313.

[50] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 314-20.

[51] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 389-90.

[52] Sean McMeekin (2017), The Russian Revolution: A New History, chapter eight.

[53] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 391-94.

[54] As Brockdorff-Rantzau’s successor at the German Foreign Ministry, Richard von Kuhlmann, summarised in a cable a month after the Bolshevik coup: “The disruption of the Entente … was the purpose of the subversive activity we caused to be carried out in Russia behind the front—in the first place promotion of [ethno-nationalist] separatist tendencies [like Ukraine] and support of the Bolsheviks. It was not until the Bolsheviks had received from us a steady flow of funds through various channels and under different labels that they were able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party.” Wire transfers through front companies in Scandinavia were one method of German money getting to the Bolsheviks; another was smuggling into Russia forged ten-ruble notes (approximately $500 each in present money) that could be used to rent crowds. Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 410-12.

[55] McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, chapter eight.

[56] McMeekin, The Russian Revolution, chapter eight.

[57] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 394-99.

[58] The Bolsheviks had emasculated the Provisional Government by openly stripping away its claimed powers to be exercised by the Soviet and discredited it through a relentless campaign of German-funded propaganda that stirred “the people” to street agitation; if the Provisional Government defended itself, it only proved the accusation that it was “anti-democratic”. Pipes, The Russian Revolution, pp. 398-99.

[59] The fear of civil war meant Alekseyev and the Stavka, having no illusions about the old regime and no desire to bring it back, failed to act in the spring of 1917 to crush the Petrograd Soviet when there was still discipline in the army. It was the same fear months later, after Kerensky’s provocation against Kornilov, when the General tried to press on with disbanding the Soviet, that meant he found no supporters: there was no prearranged conspiracy, and as soon as it became public that the Provisional Government opposed the operation, even the man leading the expedition in Petrograd turned himself over to Kerensky. And this dynamic operated well-beyond the Army leadership. Assisted by the apparent legality of the abdication—with all institutions and prominent figures calling on Russians to submit to the Provisional Government—the fear of civil war is what ensured, in Denikin’s words, “that the army did not create its own Vendée”, referring to the popular Catholic-Royalist uprising in 1793 that was suppressed with unmerciful terror by the French Revolution. White Against Red, pp. 74-7.

[60] The Volunteer Army—Dobrovolcheskaya Armiya or “Dobrarmiya” for short—never called itself “the Whites”; that name was imposed by the Communists in reference to the colours of the restored Bourbon monarchy, intended to cast the Volunteers as a movement of monarchists intent on restoring the Tsardom, which it was not.

[61] White Against Red, p. 198.

[62] The Allied intervention in Russia in 1918-19 is probably the most written about and mythologised aspect of the Russian Civil War. The reality is that Allied troops were on Russian territory for about eighteen months, in small numbers, without any clear strategic intention to bring down the Bolsheviks for most of that period, doing no serious fighting even after that mission had been nominally adopted, and coordinating very little among themselves or with the various anti-Bolshevik forces in the country.

The Allies began landings at the peripheral Russian ports—Murmansk, Archangel, Vladivostok—with tiny numbers of troops (a few hundred) after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, to try to contain the Central Powers, who occupied huge swathes of the former Russian Empire with vast numbers of troops. The Allied intervention was only anti-Bolshevik by implication because the Bolshevik claim of “neutrality” was a sham; they were aligned with the Germans. The Allied intervention briefly escalated in numbers after the November 1918 armistice, with the French in Ukraine and the British in the Caucasus, mostly to try to contain the chaos after German, Austrian, and Turkish troops withdrew.

The problem for the “Whites” was that—with notable exceptions like Winston Churchill—the Allied interest was never in anti-Bolshevism per se and with the end of the Great War, the Allied interest in Russia as a whole faded: they did not need the Eastern Front re-opened and other diplomatic goals (the Paris Peace Conference and setting up the League of Nations to stabilise Central Europe) took priority, plus nobody had the political will—or the money—for a large-scale war in Russia.

In April 1919, the French essentially abandoned Ukraine, without consulting their nominal “White” allies and indeed impeding the “Whites” taking over their ceded territories in Odessa. The British gave up Northern Russia in March 1919, cut off supplies to the “Whites” in the summer, and withdrew the remaining troops from the Black Sea and Siberia by 1 November 1919.

The American troops, arriving in September 1918, were too small in number, dependent on British logistics in the North and Siberia, to make much difference, and Japanese troops were in the Far East, well away from the Bolshevik heartlands.

The Czechoslovak Legion taking up arms against the Bolsheviks—the strangest story in the whole civil war—was not, despite Lenin’s beliefs, part of a well-mediated Allied plan. The Czechs were trying to leave the country when they revolted against the Bolsheviks in central Siberia in May 1918, and the main reason was Bolshevik actions towards the Czechs. The Czechs then stayed on to assist the anti-Bolshevik Russians, especially the SRs with whom they most closely identified, for reasons equally internal to themselves. The Allied interest in the Czechs was late in coming and coordination was, again, haphazard and ineffective.

The “Whites” in South Russia under General Anton Denikin fought mostly alone and ultimately in tension with the French. The British support for Admiral Alexander Kolchak in the east was extremely spotty, with weapons supplies being irregular and meagre and ended by the early summer of 1919.

The Allied assistance to the “Whites” for the few months after the armistice was basically a low-cost testing of the waters; it did not harm Allied interests to give some aid to the “Whites” and it might result in something positive, but there was no willingness to put any real “skin in the game” or take any risks to help the anti-Bolshevik forces. There was a belief among some Allies that the Bolsheviks were solely German puppets, who would collapse now the Germans were out, and, when that proved not to be so, the French in particular were content to retreat to a cordon sanitaire approach to containing Bolshevism.

In the grand scheme, the Allied intervention might well have done the anti-Bolshevik cause more harm than good: the “Whites” had to bear the political price of the Bolsheviks portraying them as instruments of foreign “imperialism”, without the recompense of concrete support from these imperialists. On the contrary, since the Allied support was a cheap wager on something they valued little, resources to the “Whites” were only forthcoming so long as the project seemed to be going well, pushing the “Whites” to reckless offensives so they could show “progress”, rather than sound military advances that consolidated territory and established defensible lines over time. This dynamic ultimately shattered both Denikin’s and Kolchak’s forces by November 1919, when all Allied forces were removed from Russia.

The truth is that the Central Powers intervention in Russia in 1918 was far more impactful on the outcome of the civil war: it was on a scale that cannot be compared with the Allied presence in Russia, occupying vast stretches of European Russia, and by the German decision not to smother the Bolshevik regime when it easily could have, it freed Lenin up to move the troops that had been guarding the front for use against the “Whites” during the crucial months in the summer of 1918.

See: Evan Mawdsley (1987), The Russian Civil War, pp. 63-75, 177-79, 196-98, 215-21.

[63] Anne Applebaum (2012), Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, chapter two.

[64] Immediately after the Bolshevik coup, the new regime looted the State Bank in Petrograd by sending an armed gang led by “Finance Commissar” Vyacheslav Menzhinsky—the first head of the OGPU (1926-34) after the Cheka’s founder, “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky died—in what was essentially a “hold up”. This was a dramatic example—the funds acquired were of existential importance to the new regime—but throughout its life, the Soviet regime would return to the tactics it had used as an underground terrorist opposition for use as methods of rule (Thou Shalt Kill, pp. 255-56). And when the Soviet regime began expanding into the Baltics, parts of Romania, and elsewhere under the pact it made with Hitler, it replicated the model of 1917 (Sean McMeekin (2021), Stalin’s War, pp. 169-70).

[65] It is notable, in light of later horrors, that initially Jews in Ukraine often welcomed the “Whites” “with bread and salt as the bearers of order and liberators from the Bolshevik lawlessness”. Oleg Budnitskii, 2001, ‘Jews, Pogroms, and the White Movement: A Historiographical Critique’, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History.

[66] Alexey Kaledin, one of the triumvirate at the foundation of the Volunteer Army, had killed himself in February 1918 when his beloved Cossacks had refused to rise against the Bolsheviks and instead forced the Volunteers to leave Rostov on the “Ice March”; months later, after experiencing Chekist rule, the Cossacks rebelled and aligned with the Volunteers.

In August 1918, Lenin reacted to a peasant uprising in the Penza area of the Volga by issuing his infamous “Hanging Order”, calling for it to be “pitilessly suppressed” by hanging one-hundred peasants in public—“make sure that the hanging takes place in full view of the people … Do it in such a fashion that for hundreds of kilometres around the people might see [and] tremble”—and stealing grain from the locals.

In March 1919, a massive rebellion by the Cossack peasantry around Vyoshenskaya in the Upper Don forced the diversion of thousands of Soviet troops from Ukraine.

The peasant resistance to Bolshevism outlasted the “White” cause. In March 1921, when the Bolsheviks met at the Tenth Congress, best known for outlawing “factions” (i.e. dissent from Lenin) even within the Party and the adoption of the New Economic Policy, it took place against the backdrop of a massive peasant revolt in Tambov that had begun the previous summer and would take several more months to suppress. More shocking for the Bolsheviks in March 1921 was the mutiny among the sailors at Kronstadt, their most loyal supporters. The shock of Kronstadt in particular had the Bolsheviks sign the Riga Treaty, properly ending the war with Poland; many Bolshevik leaders had hoped to leave the ambiguity in place so they could try again at armed export of the Revolution when conditions were more favourable.

[67] The Russian Civil War, p. 235.

[68] The Russian Civil War, pp. 269-324.

[69] General Anton Denikin, the Volunteers’ leader from the autumn of 1918 after Kornilov and Alekseyev were dead, no monarchist, had been deeply sympathetic to the course of events in March 1917, writing to his wife in the days after the Tsar’s abdication that the “dark forces” who in “their madness” had tried to “turn back the clock” had “only hastened the inevitable outcome” and he hoped now that his “country will achieve a form of government worthy of a great people”. For Denikin, the ideal seemed to be a British-style constitutional monarchy, though he was not dogmatic about this and to the very last served the Provisional Government sincerely, hoping it could move Russia forward “by evolutionary and not revolutionary means”. Still, Denikin could see even at this stage the danger that “the scum hiding behind the banners of the liberation movement” would take the country into a new crisis, rather than delivering it from the old one. As Denikin watched the Soviet monopolising power and the Provisional Government abetting the spread of mayhem by abolishing the old administrative machinery, letting radicals and their utopian fantasies fill the void, he gradually came to conclude that the “February Revolution” had “called forth from the abyss all the spirits of evil”. White Against Red, pp. 68, 77-8.

[70] Lenin requisitioning grain—essentially nationalising the food supply—is what caused the 1921-22 famine that hit the Volga and the Ural River regions hardest (the episode is sometimes called the Povolzhye Famine. Povolzhye literally means “along the Volga”.) The Bolsheviks had prevented the Orthodox Church from doing the famine-relief work it usually did at such times, despite repeated complaints from Patriarch Tikhon about this, and then started a public campaign accusing the Church of hoarding wealth while Russians went hungry.

On 23 February 1922, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) issued a public decree “On the Seizure of Church Valuables”, instructing local soviets to expropriate church (and synagogue) valuables in the name of financing famine-relief. A month later, on 19 March, Lenin issued a top-secret memo that in his usual frank and bloodthirsty way laid out the Bolshevik conspiracy against the Church, “I think that here our enemy is committing an enormous strategic mistake in trying to drag us into a decisive battle [i.e. by resisting the theft of Church property] at a time when it is particularly hopeless and particularly disadvantageous for him. … It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy, not stopping [short of] crushing any resistance. We must … in the most decisive and rapid manner … secure for ourselves a fund of several hundred million gold rubles … [N]o other moment except that of desperate hunger will give us a mood among the broad peasant masses that will guarantee us the sympathy of these masses or at least their neutrality. Richard Pipes (1996), The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive, pp. 152-53.

The reality was that the Church did not have as much wealth as the Bolsheviks claimed, and Tikhon had already made an offer in writing to give up everything of “only a material value” to alleviate the suffering of Russians; the only things he had drawn a line at were those “church treasures that have come down to us from time immemorial” that were of religious significance and needed to be preserved for future believers. More than that, though, the wealth robbed from the churches was never used by the Bolsheviks for famine relief: the American Relief Association took care of that, and it was only limited by the ability of Russian ports and roads to cope with the distribution of goods. The entire church valuables provocation was part of the anti-religious campaign, the most enduring policy of the Soviet Union, and in this first year it saw nearly 8,000 priests and nuns murdered, with thousands more clergy imprisoned in the GULAG concentration camps, often after show trials. Roland Elliott Brown (2019), Godless Utopia: Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda, pp. 62-6.

One of the ways Lenin justified this program was referring to the Church officials resisting confiscation as members of the “Black Hundreds”, intending to associate the Church with the ultra-nationalist, monarchist, and antisemitic Fighting Squads that emerged after 1905. It was a slur, but since the term was also used by the Bolsheviks to describe the Volunteer Army, it was meant to depict the Church as a security threat, as well as an ideological one. The accusation that the Church was engaged in violent activity or “counter-revolution” in any form was especially unfair: Tikhon had specifically refused to bless the “Whites”, despite their directly begging him. Godless Utopia, p. 52.

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