February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution of 1917

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution of 1917


the second Russian revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of the autocracy and the creation of conditions for transition to the socialist stage of the revolution.

The February Revolution resulted from the same socioeconomic contradictions that had engendered the Revolution of 1905–07 in Russia. It was faced by fundamental problems in seeking to bring about a democratic transformation of Russia: the overthrow of the tsarist monarchy, the establishment of a democratic republic, the elimination of property ownership by landholders, and the abolishment of national oppression. In 1911, V. I. Lenin wrote: “Our bourgeois revolution has not been completed. The autocracy is trying to find new ways of solving the problems bequeathed by that revolution and imposed by the entire objective course of economic development; but it is unable to do so. ... Because the bourgeois-democratic tasks have been left unfulfilled, a revolutionary crisis is still inevitable” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 20, p. 307).

The further development of capitalism intensified socioeconomic contradictions, bringing even closer together the democratic and socialist tasks facing the proletariat. World War I (1914–18) accelerated the development of monopoly capital into state-monopoly capital and furthered the political organization of the bourgeoisie. The war exacerbated all of Russia’s social conflicts, hastened the onset of the new revolution, and brought about a political situation that made it possible for “the filthy and bloodstained cart of the Romanov monarchy [to] be overturned at one stroke” (ibid., vol. 31, p. 13).

On the eve of the revolution, three groups continued to function politically: the government, the liberal bourgeoisie, or opposition, and the revolutionary democrats. Their positions toward the beginning of 1917 were even more clearly defined than during the period between 1905 and 1907. Tsarism had utterly disintegrated. In the government camp the most shameless forces of reaction and obscurantism were surfacing and finding their fullest expression in Rasputinism. The former serf owners, the mainstay of the government camp, with the tsarist monarchy at their head, were ready to strike a bargain with the German monarchy so as not “to surrender” Russia to the liberal bourgeoisie. The main aim of the bourgeoisie as a class was the attainment of political power in the state, which it had “long been ruling . . . economically” (ibid., p. 18).

The bourgeois All-Russian Zemstvo and Municipal unions emerged early in the war, and in July 1915 the Main Committee of these unions (Zemgor) was established. The war industries committees were founded at this time, and the Central War Industries Committee was headed by the leader of the Octobrists, A. N. Guchkov. With P. N. Miliukov at their head, the principal members of the Constitutional Democratic Party (Cadets), the largest bourgeois party, formed the Progressive Bloc in the Fourth State Duma in August 1915. The bourgeoisie sought to take advantage of the defeats of tsarism in the war and, by intimidating tsarism with the growing revolutionary movement, to gain concessions and a share of power from the monarchy (see ibid., vol. 27, p. 28). The forces of reaction and of the indecisive liberal opposition were countered by the revolutionary camp headed by the proletariat, which was seeking to complete the democratic revolution. During the war the Russian proletariat on the whole proved to be “immune to chauvinism” (ibid., vol. 26, p. 331) and waged an increasingly vigorous revolutionary struggle against tsarism.

During the war the industrial proletariat was increasing, by early 1917 exceeding 3.6 million persons. The total number of workers was about 20 million. Owing to the reduction in the number of small commercial enterprises, the concentration of workers in large-scale production increased. The Russian proletariat, which had profited from the experiences of the Revolution of 1905–07 and had been educated by the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, was the leading force in the February Revolution. It headed the national movement against the war and tsarism and led the soldiers and peasants. The proletariat’s revolutionary courage and staunchness during the strikes inspired the masses and induced them to participate in open warfare with the tsarist authorities. The proletariat was headed by the Bolshevik Party with Lenin as its leader.

The imperialist war and the intensification of the contradictions of capitalism created favorable conditions for the victory of the bourgeois democratic revolution and its development into a socialist revolution. Of all the warring powers, Russia was most seriously affected economically. Early in 1917, Russia was faced by economic catastrophe. The progressive disintegration of the national economy, the threat of famine, and the military defeats all revealed the decay of the tsarist regime and intensified the revolutionary spirit of the masses. By early 1917 the revolutionary crisis that had begun in the autumn of 1915 affected every aspect of Russia’s economic, social, and political life and all classes and social levels of the population. A revived bourgeois opposition nurtured plans for a palace revolution that would replace Nicholas II by another monarch capable of compromising with the bourgeoisie and pursuing the imperialist war to a victorious conclusion. However, the bourgeois leaders spent more time discussing a palace revolution than preparing for one. Still, their oppositional tactics weakened the tsarist position and reflected the intensifying revolutionary crisis.

After a period of relative calm early in the war (in the spring and summer of 1915), the economic and political struggle of the working class developed rapidly. As in 1905, its main weapon was the strike. From August to December 1914, according to official figures, there were 70 strikes; in 1915, 957; and in 1916, 1,416. The vanguard of the struggle was the Petrograd proletariat, 400,000 strong, whose members constituted 75 percent of the participants in political strikes by December 1916.

The proletariat’s revolutionary movement and antiwar struggle influenced other groups of working people and particularly the army, intensifying the soldiers’ opposition to the war. Fraternization began at the front, the number of desertions grew, and the soldiers increasingly refused to attack.

The peasant masses entered the struggle as well. In 1915 there were 177 peasant uprisings, and in 1916 there were 294. The working people of Russia’s national regions were drawn into the struggle. These events were combined with the breakdown of governmental power and with ministerial reshufflings. Over a period of 30 months there were four chairmen of the Council of Ministers, six ministers of internal affairs, four ministers of war, and four ministers of justice and agriculture.

Russia was undergoing a general crisis. The tsarist authorities tried in vain to avert a revolution by intensifying their repression of the workers and soldiers. The liberal bourgeoisie, fearful of the increasing threat of revolution, endeavored to preserve the monarchy; it asked only for certain concessions, such as a ministry of confidence, so as to avert a revolutionary outbreak through moderate reforms. In the words of Miliukov, the leader of the Cadets, the Progressive Bloc was to function as a “lifebelt for the drowning monarchy.” The tactics of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s), who adhered to social chauvinism, were aimed at propelling the bourgeoisie into power in any possible way.

The Bolshevik Party was the only party that prepared the masses of the people for decisive struggle with the autocracy under the most difficult war conditions. Late in 1915, Lenin, in defining the party’s immediate tasks, concluded that the social content of the impending revolution could be only a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry (see ibid., vol. 27, p. 49). During the war the Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin, launched a struggle against social chauvinism and centrism both in Russia and abroad. The Bolshevik Party advanced the slogan of transforming the imperialist war into a civil war and educated the masses in a spirit of proletarian internationalism that was in accordance with the revolutionary struggle against the war and tsarism. Beginning in the early days of the war, the legal scope of the Bolsheviks was sharply reduced and many illegal party organizations were suppressed. Amid the developing circumstances the party displayed exceptional staunchness and vitality, combining legal and illegal forms of struggle. It continued its revolutionary work among the masses, directed the strikes of the proletariat, won over the soldiers at large, and trained the political cadres of the revolution.

The party rapidly gathered its forces again after the police pogroms, and early in 1915 began restoring its organizations. Unlike the Mensheviks and SR’s, who were in a state of ideological and organizational disorder, the Bolsheviks succeeded in organizing themselves anew throughout Russia. On the eve of the February Revolution there were 154 party organizations and groups and approximately 24,000 members. In November 1916 in Petrograd the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee of the RSDLP resumed its activities with a new membership that included P. A. Zalutskii, V. M. Molotov, and A. G. Shliapnikov. The Russian Bureau maintained regular contact with the Foreign Bureau of the Central Committee, headed by Lenin and located in Switzerland. The Russian Bureau of the Central Committee relied mainly on the St. Petersburg Party Committee, whose members included N. F. Agadzhanova, S. I. Afanas’ev, V. N. Zalezhskii, F. A. Lemeshev, A. K. Skhorokhodov, N. G. Tolma-chev, I. D. Chugurin, V. V. Shmidt, and K. I. Shutko. Lenin viewed the activities of this bureau as a model of revolutionary work in wartime. The St. Petersburg Party Committee headed the largest party organization in Russia, with 2,000 members and an extensive network of factory cells; the number of cells increased from 49 to 84 between the spring of 1915 and the autumn of 1916.

The St. Petersburg Party Committee had a number of underground printing houses that regularly printed revolutionary leaflets. From late July 1914 to the beginning of March 1917, local party organizations distributed some 2 million leaflets. Guided by Leninist strategy and tactics, the Bolsheviks at meetings and workers’ gatherings and in leaflets called upon the masses to wage a decisive struggle against the autocracy. The Bolsheviks organized the growing revolutionary movement and consolidated the militant alliance between the workers and soldiers. Late in 1916 the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee requested the St. Petersburg Party Committee and the Moscow Oblast Bureau of the party to discuss the staging of revolutionary demonstrations and a general strike, in order to proceed from scattered strikes to a mass political struggle. Such a struggle would involve both workers and the army in the revolutionary movement and would lead to an armed uprising.

On Jan. 9 (22), 1917, the Bolsheviks’ appeal led to demonstrations and political strikes in several cities. The largest strike in wartime, involving some 145,000 workers, took place in Petrograd. This marked the transition to mass action in the streets and open political struggle against the autocracy. The government adopted extraordinary measures to avert a revolution. On Feb. 5 (18), 1917, the Petrograd Military District was detached from the Northern Front military command and made into an independent unit. It was commanded by General S. S. Khabalov, who was given wide authority to combat the growing revolutionary movement.

On February 14 (27) the Petrograd workers countered the Menshevik attempt to organize a peaceful march of workers to the State Duma with a new mass political strike under the slogans “Down with war!” and “Long live the republic!” On February 17 (March 2) a strike led by the Bolsheviks broke out in the Putilov Factory. Because of the lockout announced by the authorities, the strike evoked widespread solidarity among other workers. The workers’ strikes merged with popular protests against the war, the bread shortages, and the unprecedented rise in the cost of living. Women workers, desperate from hunger, began looting bread shops.

The revolutionary outbreak that inaugurated the February Revolution took place on February 23 (March 8). The Petrograd Bolsheviks took advantage of the commemoration of International Women’s Day to hold meetings and rallies protesting the war, the high prices, and the hardships of women workers. The meetings, particularly turbulent on the Vyborg side of the city, developed spontaneously into strikes and revolutionary demonstrations that roused the entire proletariat of Petrograd. From the workers’ suburbs, processions of demonstrators marched to the center of the city, broke through into Nevsky Prospect, and merged in a single revolutionary stream. On that day more than 128,000 workers went on strike.

The revolutionary initiative of the masses was taken up by the Bolsheviks, who provided the growing movement with organization and political consciousness. The Russian Bureau of the Central Committee and the St. Petersburg Party Committee ordered the party organizations to promote the growing revolutionary movement to the utmost. Late in the evening the leading members of the Petrograd Bolsheviks held a meeting in the Vyborg district. They decided that it was necessary to continue and expand the strike, organize new demonstrations, increase agitation among the soldiers, and take measures to arm the workers. The meeting recommended that two main slogans be used: one advocating the overthrow of the monarchy and the other urging that the imperialist war be ended. The meeting proposed that “all comrades should go to their enterprises in the morning but instead of beginning work should, after a brief meeting, bring as many workers as possible out to demonstrate.” In the days that followed, the Petrograd workers held brief meetings at their factories in the mornings and then, under Bolshevik leadership, went into the streets and mingled with the demonstrators. The Bolsheviks did not have sufficient manpower to take over the organization of this revolutionary current, but the movement was under the ideological influence of the Bolshevik Party, whose slogans became those of the insurgent workers and soldiers.

On February 24 (March 9), the workers of 224 enterprises were on strike in Petrograd, and the number of strikers had grown to 214,000. The next day a general political strike began, paralyzing the city’s economic life. On the evening of that day, General Khabalov was ordered by the tsar to suppress the disturbances in the capital immediately. Auxiliary units were called out, and on February 26 (March 11) bloody clashes with the police and troops took place in several districts of the city. On the same day a large workers’ demonstration on Znamenskaia Square was fired on. The police arrested many members of public organizations and political parties. On the night of February 26 the secretary of the St. Petersburg Party Committee of the RSDLP, A. K. Skorokhodov, was arrested, as were the committee members A. N. Vino-kurov and E. K. Eizenshmidt.

On the instructions of the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee, the Vyborg District Committee temporarily fulfilled the functions of the St. Petersburg Party Committee. The proletariat intensified its efforts to win over the masses of the soldiers. In the leaflet Brother Soldiers! the Bolsheviks called on the soldiers to support the workers and strengthen “the fraternal alliance between the army and the people.” On the evening of February 26 the fourth company of the reserve battalion of the Pavlovskoe Guards Regiment mutinied and opened fire on police who were firing on the workers. The army began to go over to the side of the revolution.

The president of the Duma, M. V. Rodzianko, telegraphed the tsar: “Situation serious. Anarchy in capital. Government paralyzed.” Although a revolution had in fact begun, the bourgeoisie continued to bargain with the tsar and endeavored to make him consent to a ministry of confidence. But the tsar ordered a suspension of the Duma as of Feb. 26, 1917.

On February 27 (March 12) the general political strike developed into an armed uprising, and the workers joined forces with the soldiers. First to revolt were the soldiers of the training detachment of the Volyn’ Regiment. They were followed by the soldiers of the Preobrazhenskii and Lithuanian regiments. On the morning of February 27 more than 10,000 soldiers joined the uprising. By the afternoon their numbers had increased to 25,000, and by the evening, to 67,000. By the evening of the following day the insurgent soldiers numbered 127,000. The soldiers of the Petrograd garrison joined the revolution, and by the evening of February 27 the armed workers and the soldiers were in control of most of Petrograd. They controlled the bridges, the railroad stations, the main arsenal, the telegraph office, the central post office, and the most important government offices. Police stations were destroyed, prisons seized, and political prisoners released. The arrest of the tsarist ministers began.

General Khabalov tried to entrench himself with a small number of troops in the Admiralty, but on February 28 (March 13) he was compelled to surrender. The last tsarist strongholds—the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Winter Palace—fell. The tsar’s attempts to organize a punitive expedition headed by General N. I. Ivanov failed. The ministers of the last tsarist government were arrested and were soon imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. The revolution had triumphed in the capital.

On February 27 the Bolsheviks issued the Manifesto of the Central Committee of the RSDLP. It called for the formation of a provisional revolutionary government, the establishment of a democratic republic, the introduction of an eight-hour workday, the confiscation of landowners’ holdings, and the immediate termination of the imperialist war. During the revolutionary events the Petrograd proletariat established soviets of workers’ deputies. In the Petrograd factories and other enterprises, elections to the soviets began on February 24–25. “In February 1917,” wrote Lenin, “the masses had created the soviets even before any party had managed to proclaim this slogan. It was the great creative spirit of the people, which had passed through the bitter experience of 1905 and had been made wise by it, that gave rise to this form of proletarian power” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 36, p. 6).

The Bolsheviks endeavored to head the movement for the establishment of soviets. On February 27 the Vyborg District Committee set up a group to organize elections to the soviets of workers’ deputies. The group issued the following proclamation to the soldiers and workers: “The longed-for hour has arrived. The people are taking power into their own hands. . . . First of all, elect deputies and let them establish contact among one another. Establish a soviet of deputies under the army’s protection” (Revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie v Rossii posle sverzheniia samoder-zhaviia: Dokumenty i materialy, 1957, p. 5).

On the evening of February 27 the first meeting of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was held at the Tauride Palace. Fulfilling the will of the revolutionary populace, the soviet with its first statements gave clear evidence that it was the militant organ of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, as the “workers’ government” (see Lenin, ibid., vol. 31, p. 18), although this government was as yet unofficial and undeveloped. The soviet had the unconditional support of the rebelling workers and soldiers, and the real power lay in its hands. It formed a workers’ militia and district organs of the people’s power and issued Order No. 1, which consolidated the revolutionary victories of the soldiers. However, the Soviet’s revolutionary activities were hampered by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries.

The revolution led to political activity among numerous members of the petite bourgeoisie. This increased the scope of the revolution, but it also extended petit bourgeois attitudes and illusions. The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, who headed the surge of petit bourgeois activity, were able to control the soviet and bring it into agreement with and submission to the liberal bourgeoisie. On the night of February 28 the formation of the Provisional Committee of the State Duma was officially announced. The committee attempted to seize power, halt the revolution, and save the monarchy. On March 2 (15) the committee sent its representatives, A. I. Guchkov and V. V. Shul’gin, to the tsar’s headquarters. After consultation, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on March 1 both in his own name and in the name of his young son, Aleksei, in favor of the tsar’s younger brother, Mikhail Aleksandrovich. However, on March 3 (16), Mikhail Alek-sandrovich also renounced the throne.

On March 2 (14) the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, despite the Bolsheviks’ protest, resolved to grant the Provisional Committee the right to form a government. On March 2 a plenary meeting of the soviet approved this decision. That same day the bourgeois Provisional Government was formed, headed by Prince G. E. L’vov. A dual power was formed, marking a transitional phase in the revolution, “when it [had] gone farther than the ordinary bourgeois democratic revolution, but [had] not yet reached a ’pure’ dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” (ibid., p. 155).

The victory of the Petrograd proletariat was of decisive significance. “The revolution,” said Lenin, “has been carried out by the Petrograd workers. . . . Petrograd has awakened Russia” (ibid., p. 458). First to support Petrograd was Moscow. On February 26 the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee sent a letter to the Moscow organization concerning the events in the capital. On the evening of February 27 there was a meeting of the Moscow Oblast Bureau of the Central Committee and of the Moscow Committee of Bolsheviks. A decision was made at the meeting to summon the workers to stage a general strike and demonstrations and to hold elections to a soviet.

February 28 was the first day of revolution in Moscow. On the night of March 1 the uprising was joined by the First Reserve Artillery Brigade and then by other military units. Workers’ detachments that formed in factories seized firearms and, aided by soldiers, by the evening of March 1 had occupied the key points—the Kremlin, the Arsenal, the railroad stations, the bridges, and the State Bank—and had arrested the gradonachal’nik (chief administrator of the city and its surrounding area) and the governor. On February 28 elections to the soviet began, and on March 1 the first meeting of the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was held.

On the night of March 1 a revolt broke out in Kronstadt, and on March 2 there were uprisings of sailors, soldiers, and workers in Helsingfors, the base of the Baltic Fleet. During the month of March the revolution spread victoriously throughout Russia. The democratization of the army proceeded, and soldiers’ committees were formed at the front and among the rear units. The revolution extended to Russia’s outlying national areas.

The victory of the February Revolution made Russia the freest of the warring powers and enabled the masses to make wide use of their political rights. The Bolshevik Party, which had emerged from underground, launched extensive political activity among the masses, helping them to liberate themselves from petit bourgeois illusions and to adopt a socialist revolutionary outlook. On March 5 (18), Pravda resumed publication. Trade unions were established on a mass scale, workers’ militia detachments were organized, and factory committees were formed and became the foundation for the workers’ control of production.

Throughout Russia the workers and peasants formed organs of the people’s power. The month of March witnessed the establishment of 600 soviets of workers’ deputies, workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, soldiers’ deputies, and peasants’ deputies. This development was of decisive importance for the revolutionary organization of the masses, the further expansion of the revolution, and the transfer of state power to the working class.

The further development of the revolution was a prerequisite for the resolution of Russia’s internal and international problems and of issues that had been formulated but not resolved by the February Revolution. The bourgeois Provisional Government was not able to give the people peace, land, or true freedom. The bourgeoisie, aided by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, sought to contain the revolution and confine it within the bounds of the bourgeois system. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, appealed for the continuation of the revolution, for socialism, and for the transfer of all power to the proletariat and the poorest peasants. Lenin wrote: “It is impossible in 20th-century Russia, which has won a republic and democracy in a revolutionary way, to go forward without advancing toward socialism” (ibid., vol. 34, p. 192). In his “Letters From Afar,” written in March, Lenin charted a course of transition to a socialist revolution that was later fully elucidated in his “April Theses.”

Despite the peculiarities of the February Revolution of 1917, it was a unique historical phenomenon that confirmed the correctness of Lenin’s strategy and his tactical slogans based on his expectation of a victorious bourgeois democratic revolution followed by a transition to a socialist revolution. “The motive forces of the revolution were defined by us quite correctly,” Lenin noted in April 1917. “Events have justified our old Bolshevik premises” (ibid, vol. 31, p. 239). The revolution gave a strong impetus to the antiwar, revolutionary democratic movement throughout the world. The blow struck against tsarism by the workers and peasants of Russia was also an assault against the worldwide capitalist system. By abolishing the tsarist monarchy and creating the soviets of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies, the February Revolution created the necessary sociopolitical prerequisites for transition to the new socialist stage of the revolution.


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Lenin V. I. “Neskol’ko tezisov.” Ibid., vol. 27.
Lenin, V. I. “Porazhenie Rossii i revoliutsionnyi krizis.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “O dvukh liniiakh revoliutsii.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Piz’ma iz daleka.” Ibid., vol. 31.
Lenin, V. I. “O dvoevlastii.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Tovarishcham, tomiashchimsia v plenu.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Revoliutsiia v Rossii i zadachi rabochikh vsekh stran.” Ibid.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.