The February Revolution in Summary, Russia
By Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra
In the grip of an intense thirty-five-degree-below-zero cold, the people of Petrograd shivered and were hungry. Outside the bakeries, long lines of women stood for hours waiting for their daily ration of bread while the snow fell gently on their coats and shawls. Workers, whose factories had closed for lack of coal, milled in the streets, worried, grumbling and waiting for something to happen. In their stuffy, smoke-filled barracks, soldiers of the garrison gathered around stoves and listened from supper until dawn to the speeches and exhortations of revolutionary agitators. This was Petrograd in the first week of March 1917, ripening for revolution.
On Thursday, March 8, as Nicholas’s train was carrying him away from the capital back to the Army Headquarters, the silent, long-suffering breadlines suddenly erupted. Unwilling to wait any longer, people broke into the bakeries and helped themselves. On Saturday, March 10, most of the workers of Petrograd went on strike. Trains, trolley cars and cabs stopped running, and no newspapers appeared. Huge crowds surged through the streets, carrying, for the first time, red banners and shouting, “Down with the German woman (Empress Alexandra)! Down with Protopopov! Down with the war!” A sense of alarm began to speed through the city.
After just a few days, Petrograd had finally fallen. Everywhere in the city, the revolution was triumphant. Yet, Russia was immense and Petrograd only a tiny, artificial mound, scarcely Russian, in a corner of the Tsar’s empire. The two million people of Petrograd were only a fraction of the scores of millions of subjects; even in Petrograd, the revolutionary workers and soldiers were less than a quarter of the city’s population. A week had gone by since Nicholas had left for Headquarters and the first disorders had broken out. In that week, he had lost his capital, but still he kept his throne. How much longer could he keep it?
From Thursday, March 8, until Sunday, the 11th, Nicholas heard nothing which caused him serious alarm. He was told that the capital was afflicted with “street disorders.” Street disorders were not a matter to worry Nicholas: he had faced them innumerable times in the twenty-three years of his reign. On Monday, the 12th, the news was much worse. On the 15th of March, a form of abdication was finally produced. Faced with high demand and having little choice but to submit, Nicholas signed it, and the document was dated 3 P.M., March 15.
The throne had passed from father to son, as prescribed by law. His Imperial Majesty Tsar Alexei II, aged twelve, was the Autocrat of all the Russias. As Tsar, Nicholas knew his son was the rightful heir to the Russian throne; as a father, he could not bring himself to abandon his beloved child to strangers ignorant of all the ramifications of his disease. For the second time that fateful day, Nicholas was forced to a dramatic decision, a decision which would affect not only the fate of himself and his family, but the history of Russia. Three hundred and four years after a shy sixteen-year-old boy had reluctantly accepted the throne at the plea of the Russian nation, his descendant, also named Michael, Nicholas’s youngest brother, had given it back. This consequently left the country officially without a Tsar and the Romanov Dynasty swept away.
The morning of March 22, the day scheduled for the Tsar’s return to home, was cold and gray. Alexandra, both excited and worried that her hopes might be disappointed, went to wait with her children. Alexei, like his mother, in a state of nervous agitation, kept looking at his watch and counting aloud the minutes until his father arrived. Nicholas’s train arrived on schedule and pulled into the private siding at Tsarskoe Selo station. On the platform, the representatives of the Duma turned their prisoner over to the newly appointed palace commander.
At the gate of the Alexander Palace, about a hundred yards from the entrance hall, Nicholas faced another humiliation. The gates were locked when his car drove up. The sentry asked who was inside and telephoned an officer, who came out on the palace steps and again asked in a shout “Who is there?” The sentry bawled back, “Nicholas Romanov.” “Let him pass,” cried the officer. They entered the antechamber, which was filled with people, most of them soldiers crowding up to catch a glimpse of the Tsar. Some were smoking, others had not bothered to remove their caps. By habit, as he walked through the crowd, Nicholas touched the brim of his cap, returning salutes which had never been given. He shook hands with Benckendorff and left for the private apartments without saying a word.
Upstairs, just as the Empress heard the sound of the arriving automobile, the doors flew open and a servant, in a tone which ignored the events of recent days, boomed out: “His Majesty the Emperor!” With a cry, Alexandra sprang to her feet and ran to meet her husband. Alone, in the children’s room, they fell into each other’s arms. With tears in her eyes, Alexandra assured him that the husband and father was infinitely more precious to her than the tsar whose throne she had shared. Nicholas finally broke. Laying his head on his wife’s breast, he sobbed like a child.