February Revolution 1917 - Why was Nicholas II forced to abdicate?

Past Questions:

  • Compare and contrast the causes and nature of the two 1917 Russian Revolutions. (May 2010)

  • “The outbreak of war in 1914 postponed the downfall of Nicholas II but also contributed to his overthrow in the first 1917 Russian revolution.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (Specimen)

  • Analyse the causes of the 1917 February/March Russian Revolution. (May 2009)

  • Compare and contrast the causes and consequences of the 1905 and February/March 1917 Russian Revolutions. (Nov 2006)

  • Analyse the long term and short term causes of the 1917 February/March Russian Revolution. (May 2006)

  • Why did Nicholas II survive the 1905 revolution, but lose his throne in the February/ March 1917 revolution? (Nov 2005)

  • To what extent was the revolution of February/ March 1917, in Russia, due to the nature of Tsarism and the policies of Nicholas II (1894-1917)? (May 2005)


Key dates:
1891- Famine
1904- Defeat in Russo-Japanese war
1905- Bloody sunday and revolution
1917, February 23rd- International Women's Day + worker's revolt

Long term causes
The Russian People and Russification:
  • Large parts of the Empire added to Russia only in the 19th century- for example Causcaus 1864.
  • Russia therefore contained a vast amounts of different nationalities- Russians only half the population.
  • These nationalities had their own language, culture and traditions which made it very difficult to keep under one rule especially since the Tsar had little, if not none, contorl over these vast areas of the empire.
  • Many nationalities resented Russian control- especially the policy of Russification which was intensified by Alexander III and kept during Nicholas II's reign.
  • This policy aimed to suppress other nationalities and minorities than the Russian- use Russian language instead of their own and adapt to Russian customs. Key example in Poland where it became forbidden to teach Polish in schools.
  • National minorities saw this as discrimination and during the late 19th century, there was an increasing amount of uprisings and strikes for these minorities, seeking greater autonomy.

The social structure of Tsarist Russia:
  • Middle classes: Small number but growing number of merchants, bankers and industrialists as the industry developed. The professional clamiss (lawyers, doctors) was increasing and beginning to play a significant role in local governments- growing intellectual class who sought more participation in politics!
  • Peasants: Life difficult as most owned only small patches of land and working on the states of the nobility. Years of bad harvest there would be widespread starvation; in 1891 400,000 died. Most poor, illiterate and uneducated.
  • Land and agriculture: Methods were inefficient and backwards- still used wooden ploughs and very few animals and tools. Not enough land to go around, vast expansion of peasant population in the later half of the 19th century led to overcrowding and competition for land.
  • Urban workers and industry: Around 58% were litterate, twice the national average which meant that they could articulate their grievances and were receptive to revolutionary ideas. Wages were generally low and high number of deaths from accidents and work related health issues. The industry production was very low in the start of the 19th century but increased fast and by 1914, Russia was the fourth largest producer of iron, steel and coal.

Mid-term causes, 1914 - 1917
Modernization and its contradictions:

  • At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was stil a very backwards country and the Tsar wanted Russia to become a world power- Russia had to modernize.
  • Russia was poor, agriculture hopelessly inefficient and thousands of peasants starved when the harvest was poor.
  • There were often peasant unrest and uprisings which made the regime unstable and it was essential to modernize agriculture and industry to take the surplus of people from the land into the cities.
  • However, modernization meant a serious threat to the regime - it was difficukt to maintain Tsarist autocarcy as most modern industrial countries had democracies and parliaments in which the middle class was featured.
  • Social tensions were created when millions moved frmo land to cities and growing discontent among the workers led to instability.
  • The need for an educated workforce made people a larger challenge to the government the growth of the middle class created pressure for political change and more representative governments.
  • Difficult to modernize within the framework of autocracy!

The First World War:
  • The majority of historians acknowledge that the First World War played a major role in bringing about the February Revolution.
  • Military failures: There were heavy defeats and huge number of Russians were killed in 1914 and 1915- led to anger about the way the Tsar and the government were conducting war. In September 1917 the Tsar went to the front to take personal charge; he was from then on held personally responsible for the defeats!
  • Difficult living conditions: The war caused acute distress in the cities, especially Petrograd and Moscow. The war meants that food, goods and raw materials were in short supply and hundreds of factories closed and thousands of workers put out of work. Led to inflation and lack of fuel meant that most were cold as well as hungry- urban workers became were hostile towards the Trsarist government. In the countryside, peasants became increasingly angry about the conscription of all young men who seldom returned from the Front.
  • Role of the Tsarina and Rasputin: The Tsar made a huge mistake in leaving his wife and the monk Rasputin in charge of the government while he was at the Front. Ministers were changed frequently in favour of friends or people who performed poorly and as a result, the situation in the cities detoriated quickly with food and fuel in short supply. They became totally discredited and were ridiculed by cartoon etc. The Tsar was also blamed for putting them in charge and the higher intelligensia of the society and army generals became disenchanted with the tsar's leadership and no longer supported him- by beginning of 1917, very few people were prepared to defend him.
  • Failure to make political reforms: During the war, the Tsar had the chance to make some concessions which could have saved his rule- for example a constitutional monarchy which would have taken away the pressure from the Tsar personally. The Duma was fully behind the Tsar in fighting the war. The "Progressive Bloc" emerged who suggested that the tsar establish a "government of public confidence" (letting them rule the country) but the tsar rejected their approach and any other concessions.

Short-term causes, 1917:
Impact of the war!- support for the Tsar by the end of 1916 was practically inexistent. the generals told the Tsar that they would no longer support him! (key contrast to revolution in 1905).

International Women's Day:
  • Frustrations from the workers after the cold and harsh winter of 1916 exploded in the streets of the main cities.
  • Shortages of food, fuel and other materials- caused by the war- had driven up the prices and strikes and riots had caused hihg levels of tension in the capital, Petrograd.
  • When news of bread rationing hit the streets towards the end of February 1917, the queues and scuffles over the remaining bread stocks turned into riots.
  • 23rd of February- International Women's Day- the discontent became more focused and women took the lead in politicising a march through Petrograd.
  • By the afternoon, women had persuaded the men from factories to join them and the protest started to gather momentum.
  • Over the next three days, the demonstrations grew and the demands for bread were accompanied by demands for the end of the war and an end to the Tsar!

The mutiny of the soldiers:
  • By 25th and 26th of February, the soldiers joined the demonstrations and most of them were desperate not to be sent to the front line where the Russian army were facing huge losses.
  • As the Tsar heard of the trouble in Petrograd, he ordered troops to put down the disorder- on Sundat 26th of Febrary some regiments opened fire on the crowds.
  • The crowds became more hostile and one by one, the regiments moved over to the side of the people and as Orlando Figes states; "The mutiny of the Petrograd garrison turned the disorders of the last four days into a full-scale revolution".
  • The main struggle took place between the soldiers and police and the revolution had officially begun!

Nature of the revolution (i.e. how planned and organised was it? Who made up the bulk of those carrying out the revolution? Popular?)
Planned and organised:
  • There seemed to be no general organisation of the events as no political party was in charge- all main leaders of the revolutionary parties were abroad or on exile.
  • However, socialist cells, particularly from the Bolshevik revolutionary party were active in spreading the protest and getting workers out on the streets with their red plags and banners.

Effects of revolution?
  • After the mutiny of the soldiers and the full-scale outbreak of the revolution, most people looked to the duma, the Russian parliament, to control the situation.
  • However, the socialists were already forming their own organisation to represent the interest of the workers- the Soviet!
  • When the Tsar realised that the situation in petrograd had gone out of control, he had ordered troops to march to the capital to restore order. He had also suspended the Duma however the Duma members remained in the Tauride Palace and meanwhile people milled outside demanding that the Duma take control over the situation- on 2nd of March the tsar abdicated for himself and his son in favor of his brother Michael; but Michael realising that the people would not want another autocratic government, refused and the Romanov dynasty came to a swift end!
  • The Duma started forming a new government- the Provisional Government.