znamenskaya square

Revolution in Petrograd

Revolutionaries firing on Petrograd police headquarters.

March 12 1917, Petrograd–The demonstrations in Petrograd on International Women’s Day had grown over the following days.  The Czar, who was still at Stavka, decided that order needed to be restored by force, rather than any concessions, and on the 26th Petrograd was effectively under military occupation.  Despite this, people still converged on Nevsky Prospekt in the afternoon, and in multiple instances the poorly-trained troops fired on the crowds.  At Znamenskaya Square, over 50 people were killed.  While this dispersed some of the crowds, it emboldened others.  More importantly, it made the stakes incredibly clear to the soldiers in Petrograd; a restoration of order would require much more violence than had been seen on Sunday.

That night, soldiers in many of the regiments in the capital, most of whom were peasant recruits, debated what they should do the next day.  In the regiment that had been involved in the massacre at Znamenskaya recalled:

I told them that it would be better to die with honor than to obey any further orders to shoot at the crowds: “Our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and brides are begging for bread,” I said.  “Are we going to kill them?  Did you see the blood on the streets today?  I say we shouldn’t take up positions tomorrow.  I myself refuse to go.”  And, as one, the soldiers cried out: “We shall stay with you!”

In the wee hours of March 12, the soldiers of a different regiment, the Pavlovsky, voted to disobey any future orders to fire on civilians.  A revolt by one company the previous afternoon had been met with relative leniency, and the other men realized that imperial authority was crumbling.  They probably did not intend to start a general mutiny, but after a confrontation with their senior officers turned violent, they and several nearby regiments turned out into the streets and joined up with the workers.

Over the course of the day, half of the garrison of 160,000 men joined the mutiny, while most of the remainder remained in their barracks.  The soldiers and people fought against the police, seized government buildings, and opened prisons.  By nightfall, the mutineers were in control of all but a few buildings in the city.

The speed of the revolution took all observers by surprise, even self-proclaimed revolutionary politicians.  Scrambling to catch up to events, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries quickly formed a Petrograd Soviet in one of the wings of the Tauride Palace to organize the workers; they were soon joined by representatives of the other Socialist parties.  In the other wing of the palace, the Duma had been dissolved by the Czar the previous night, and remained paralyzed.  With the revolution in control of the streets, and the Soviet quickly setting themselves up as a possible authority, some members of the Duma formed a “Temporary Committee of Duma Members for the Restoration of Order in the Capital and the Establishment of Relations with Individuals and Institutions,” and then that evening proclaimed themselves to be the ultimate authority in Petrograd.

At Stavka, the Czar slowly learned the gravity of the situation in the capital.  All of his advisors, and even his wife, urged him to make immediate concessions, handing over most civilian authority to the Duma.  They thought this would prevent the spread of disorder, and would hopefully bring the soldiers back to the government’s side.  However, the Czar refused to give up his god-given authority, and believed the mutiny could still be crushed by force.  He brought General Ivanov out of effective retirement, and ordered him to proceed to Petrograd with reinforcements and restore order.

Today in 1916: Admiral Tirpitz Resigns
Today in 1915: German Counterattack at Neuve-Chapelle

Sources include: Jonathan Sanders, Russia 1917 [includes image credit]; Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy; Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution.