In the autumn and winter of 1916, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia faced a series of problems, most of which he was aware of, but like most autocrats, did not believe his advisors or thought they were exaggerating. In late 1915, the Tsar took control of the army and moved to Mogilev (in modern day Belarus) where he established his Imperial headquarters. He left the day to day administration of the Russian Empire to his wife the Tsarina Alexandra. Alexandra was despised by her Russian subjects, because she was German and increasingly under the influence of her most hated advisor, Grigori Rasputin, who seemed to be the only one who could comfort the sickly heir to the Imperial throne, Alexei. The Russian government was so inept in this period that most ministers changed hands three and four times, resulting in a complete abdication by the government of its responsibilities. In any case she didn’t have (or didn’t want) the power to make the sweeping changes demanded by the Duma (the powerless Russian parliament), and in several instances, Nicholas disbanded the Duma when it got too close to taking the situation into their own hands, only to reform it when he needed their support.
Additionally, Russia’s domestic situation during the First World War was grim from the beginning. The Ottoman entry into the war in 1914 cut off the last trade routes for exports from the greatly expanding Russian economy that was finally moving to a modern industrial economy after the long and painful transition post freeing the serfs in the 1860s. Inflation soared and soon the farmers supplying the cities with food began to have their shipments confiscated, so they in turn hoarded their crops and moved to subsistence farming. By March 1917, food protests began to spring up in Petrograd (the former “St. Petersburg” sounded too German). On 8 March (23 February in the old Julian calendar, which the Russians still used. You would have thought they would have learned after showing up late to the 1908 Olympics), thousands of women in Petrograd, many widows of the six million Russian dead so far in the war, took to the streets because of the shortage of bread and necessary household goods, and the impending rationing. In the afternoon hundreds went to get their husbands working in the Putilov factory that made rolling stock and artillery for the Tsar. By the end of the day 50,000 were protesting in the streets.
The next day, the crowds swelled to 150,000 and 250,000. The Tsarist police and Petrograd garrison could not stop them, despite frequent clashes throughout the day. From Mogilev, Tsar Nicholas II ordered the commander of the garrison to fire on the protesters, but most units refused. By 11 March the tone of the protests was no longer about food, but about the removal of the Tsar and his autocratic government, especially after it was found that the Tsar ordered the troops to fire on the people. Unfortunately the Duma, which was on recess (for lack of a better word) and could not return to their duties without permission of the Tsar, refused to take a leadership position in what was now clearly a revolution.
On the 12th, the garrison mutinied, including the Cossack units that the Tsar relied on for times such as these, and their officers were shot. The rioters and revolutionaries killed anyone that “looked wealthy”, and most of the city was looted. Tens of thousands of rifles fell into their possession. Any symbol of the Tsar’s authority was burned to the ground. The Duma decided to take action, but not before the worker’s councils, or “soviets” coalesced into the Petrograd Soviet, which took control of the revolutionaries. The Duma formed the Provisional Committee to restore law and order in the city, and on the 13th declared itself the ruling body of Russia. The Tsar attempted to return after being reluctantly convinced of the situation’s severity but never made it, as the revolutionaries controlled the railroads.
On the 14th, Nicholas II, coming to terms with inevitable, abdicated the throne. He tried to leave it, not to his young son, but to his brother Michael. The Grand Duke Michael declined. The Russian Provisional Government would be the legitimate governing body of Russia, but they would have to share power with the Petrograd Soviet, which controlled most of the armed revolutionaries in the city. The rest of the country soon followed suit.
The Petrograd Soviet made immediate demands on the Provincial Government to include elections for a proper governing body (ironically the soviets were elected but the Provisional government was not). The Provisional government was very reform minded and laid the groundwork for a new Russian government, but in its weakness left the mutinous units and workers’ militias of the Petrograd Soviets armed, which was not conducive to their rule.
In late March, the Provinional Govt decreed the release of all political prisoners, including those Bolsheviks whom had been in exile in Siberia (Stalin), New York (Trotsky) or Switzerland (Lenin). Additionally, the Russian Provisional Government still wanted to pursue the war with Germany, so Germany decided to hasten the return of these far Left radicals back to Russia, in order to sow chaos in their advesary’s home front. (They succeeded). Soon thereafter, the leader of the Russian Social Democratic Party, Vladimir Lenin, was allowed to leave Switzerland via Germany for Russia. In a speech to Parliament in 1919, Winston Churchill said of the transit,
“Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city, and it worked with amazing accuracy.”
Vladimir Lenin would arrive in Petrograd on 3 April 1917.
The “Dual Power” between the Russian Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet would last until Oktober.