The Russian Revolution week by week

26 February — 4 March 1917

A hundred years ago this year, Russia overthrew a monarchy and started off on a path that eventually led to 70 years of communism.

As publishers of books on Russian culture (www.fontanka.co.uk) we wanted to trace the events of this momentous year week by week, in personal testimony and memoir.


26 February 
Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
As I was returning from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs this morning, I met one of the leaders of the Cadet Party, Basil Maklakov. ‘We’re in the presence of a great political movement now,’ he said. ‘Everyone has finished with the present system. If the Emperor does not grant the country prompt and far-reaching reforms, the agitation will develop into riots. And there is only a step between riot and revolution.’ 
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


Letter from Nicholas to Alexandra in Tsarskoe Selo
This morning during service I felt an excruciating pain in the middle of my chest, wh. lasted for a quarter of an hour. I could hardly stand & my forehead was covered with beads of sweat. I cannot understand what it was, as I had no heart beating, but it came & left me at once, when I knelt before the Virgin’s image! … I hope Khabalov [military governor of Petrograd] will know how to stop those street rows quickly. Protopopov ought to give him clear & categorical instructions … God bless you, my Treasure, our children & her [Anna Vyrubova] ! I kiss you all tenderly. Ever your own Nicky.
(The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra: April 1914-March 1917, ed. Joseph T. Fuhrmann, London 1999)


Extract from a history of the revolution
Nicholas, who continued to receive soothing reports from Protopopov, had no idea how charged the situation in the capital had become. It seemed intolerable to him that while the troops at the front braved hardships and faced the prospect of death, civilians in the rear should be rioting … On Sunday morning, February 26, troops in combat gear occupied Petrograd and all seemed back to normal. But it only seemed so. For on that day an incident occurred that completely transformed the situation. 
(Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, London 1995)


Extract from a history of the revolution
In the early evening the ‘most sanguinary episode in the Revolution’ … had occurred at Znamensky Square, where a dense mass of people from the Nevsky had converged with another crowd coming up Ligovskaya, the major thoroughfare to the south of the square. ‘Local police leaders on horseback rode among the crowd ordering them home,’ recalled Dr Joseph Clare, pastor of the American Church, who witnessed the scene. ‘The people knew the soldiers were on their side and refused to move.’ Lined up in front of a hotel facing the square were men from the 1st and 2nd training detachments of the Volynsky Regiment. When their commander ordered them to disperse the crowd, the soldiers begged the crowds to move on, so they would not have to use their weapons, but the people refused to budge. Angrily the officer had one of the reluctant soldiers arrested for insubordination and again ordered his men to fire. ‘They shot in the air, and the officer got mad, making each individual fire into the mob.’ Finally he raised his own pistol and started firing into the crowd. Then ‘suddenly came the rat-tat-tat of a machine-gun. The people could hardly believe their ears, but there was no doubting the evidence of eyes as they saw people falling … [then] something extraordinary happened: the troop of Cossacks positioned in the square had turned and fired at the gunners on the house tops … the crowd scattered behind buildings and courtyards, from where some of them began firing at the military and police. Forty or so were killed and hundreds wounded.
(Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917, London 2016)


Sergei Kirpichnikov, young sergeant in the Volynsky Regiment
I told [my fellow conscripts] that it would be better to die with honour 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!’ 
(Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, London 1996)


Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
Everyone is extremely tense and nobody is under any illusion as to the success of the revolutionary movement. It seems more likely that the police and their bayonets will crush the mutiny. But in any case we can now speak about a mutiny as something that has already taken place. 
(Alexander Benois, Diary 1916–1918, Moscow 2006)


27 February
Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
The unforgettable 27th of February came … The popular revolution was going ahead at full steam, making hourly changes in the entire political situation, upsetting the ‘combinations’ of the liberals, generals, and plutocrats, and dragging along in its wake the Duma as the political centre of the bourgeoisie … What the Tsarist command did in those hours, what ‘measures’ it conceived of or put into practice for the struggle against the revolution, I neither know nor remember. Who cares anyhow? No one in Petersburg could have doubted any longer that the Tsarist authorities could not influence the course of events in any way. 
(The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record by N.N. Sukhanov, Oxford 1955)


Diary entry of Lev Tikhomirov, revolutionary and later conservative thinker
Surprising news has been received (from two different sources) from Petrograd. It seems the State Duma has been dissolved but the Duma hasn’t dispersed and a military mutiny has erupted in its defence. Three or four Guard regiments have seized the Arsenal and apparently the Peter and Paul Fortress too, and they’re guarding the Duma. Seems that Golitsyn has resigned, and Protopopov has rushed off to Tsarskoe Selo. Looks like some kind of committee has been formed under the chairmanship of Rodzianko. Terrifying news, if it is true. How will it end? I’m worried for our Kolya too. Who knows whether he’ll be dragged into putting down the mutiny or be forced to fight with the mutineers. Which is worse? One thing for sure, the situation is desperate … And how typical: on 22nd February the Tsar heads to the front, by the 24th ‘bread’ demonstrations are starting, and on the 27th we have a military pronunciamento [coup]. A clear conspiracy. But it would be good to know what it’s trying to achieve. What do they want to do? 
(L.A. Tikhomirov, Diary 1915–1917, Moscow 2008)


Memoir of Princess Paley
On the Monday, February 27th, the total absence of all newspapers made us fear the worst. At Tsarskoe we lacked nothing, but in St Petersburg there was a shortage of bread … My daughters telephoned from the capital that the firing was growing worse and worse, and that some of the regiments were beginning to join the rioters. Towards two o’clock there arrived from Petrograd a certain Ivanoff, a notary’s clerk, a young man of great intelligence, brave and ambitious … ‘All is not lost,’ he declared. ‘If the Emperor would but mount a white horse at the Narva Gate and make a triumphant return into the town, the situation would be saved. How can you remain quietly here?’ 
(Princess Paley, Memories of Russia, 1916–1919, London 1924)


Letter from Nicholas to Alexandra in Tsarskoe Selo
My own Treasure! 
Tender thanks for your dear letter. This will be my last one. How happy I am at the thought of meeting you in two days. I had much to do & therefore my letter is short. After the news of yesterday from town I saw many faces here with frightened expressions. 
(The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra: April 1914-March 1917, ed. Joseph T. Fuhrmann, London 1999)


28 February
Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
… a day which has been prolific in grave events and may perhaps have determined the future of Russia for a century to come. 
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


1 March
Letter from Aleksei Peshkov [Maxim Gorky] to his wife E.P. Peshkova, from Petrograd
The events taking place may appear grandiose, even moving at times, but their meaning is not so profound and sublime as everyone imagines. I am filled with skepticism, even though I am also moved to tears at the sight of soldiers marching to the State Duma to the sound of music. I don’t believe in a revolutionary army; I think that many people are mistaking an absence of organization and discipline for revolutionary activity. All the forces in Petersburg have gone over to the Duma, that’s true; so have the units coming from Oranienbaum, Pavlovsk and Tsarskoe. But the officers will, of course, side with Rodzianko and Miliukov up to a certain point, and only the wildest dreamer would expect the army to stand together with the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The police, ensconced in attics, spray the public and soldiers with machine-gun fire. Cars packed with soldiers and bearing red flags drive around the city in the search for policemen in disguise, and these are then placed under arrest. In some cases they are killed, but for the most part they are brought to the Duma, where about 200 policemen out of 35,000 have already been rounded up. There’s a great deal of absurdity — more than there is of the grandiose. Looting has begun. What will happen next? I don’t know But I see clearly that the Kadets and the Octobrists are turning the revolution into a military coup. Will they succeed? It seems they already have. We won’t turn back, but we won’t go very far ahead either — perhaps only a sparrow’s step. And of course a lot of blood, an unprecedented amount, will be shed. 
(Maksim Gorky: Selected Letters , Oxford 1997)


Diary entry of Nicholas II
At night we had to turn back from Malaia-Vichera as Liuban and Tosno turned out to be in the hands of the insurgents. Shame and dishonour! It isn’t possible to get to Tsarskoe, although all my thoughts and feelings are constantly there! How difficult it must be for poor Alix to have to go through all this alone! Help us, Lord! 
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)


2 March
Letter from Alexandra to Nicholas
We all kiss & kiss & bless you with without end. God will help & yr glory will come. This is at the climax of the bad, the horror before our allies!! & the enemies joy!! Can advise nothing, be only yr precious self. If you have to give into things, God will help you to get out of them. Ah, my suffering saint, I am one with you, inseparably one, old Wify. [P.S.] May this image I have blessed bring you my fervent blessings, strength, help. Wear [Rasputin’s] cross the whole time even if uncomfortable for my peace’s sake. 
(The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra: April 1914-March 1917, ed. Joseph T. Fuhrmann, London 1999)


Telegram from General Brusilov to Nicholas
…At the present time only one measure can save the situation and make it possible to go on fighting the external enemy, without which Russia will perish — that is to abdicate from the throne in favour of his Majesty the Heir Tsarevich under the regency of Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich. There is no other alternative. But it is essential to make haste, to quell the popular conflagration which has flared up and is gaining ever larger proportions, lest it entrain in its wake immeasurably catastrophic consequences. Such an act will save the dynasty in the person of the legitimate heir. 
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)


Diary entry of Nicholas II
Ruzsky came in the morning and recited his long telephone conversation with Rodzianko. According to him the situation in Petrograd is such that the ministry from the Duma is now powerless to do anything because they are in conflict with the Social Democrat party in the form of the workers’ committee. My abdication is necessary. Ruzsky relayed his conversation to General Headquarters, and Alexeev communicated it to all the commanders-in-chief. By 2.30 they had all sent their answers, the essence of which is that for the sake of Russia’s salvation and in order to maintain order at the front, this step has to be taken. I agreed. We received a draft of the manifesto from Headquarters. In the evening Guchkov and Shulgin arrived from Petrograd. I spoke with them and handed them the recopied manifesto, signed. At 1 o’clock in the morning I left Pskov with a heavy heart. All around only betrayal, cowardice and deceit! 
(Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Imperial Family of Tsarist Russia, London 1998)


Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
The Executive Committee of the Duma and the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Deputies have come to an agreement on the following points: 1. Abdication of the Emperor; 2. Accession of the Tsarevich; 3. The Grand Duke Mikhail (the Emperor’s brother) to be regent; 4. Formation of a responsible ministry; 5. Election of a constituent assembly by universal suffrage; 6. All races to be proclaimed equal before the law. The young deputy Kerensky, who has gained a reputation as an advocate in political trials, is coming out as one of the most active and strong-minded organisers of the new order. 
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


Diary entry of George V (King of England and cousin of Nicholas II)
[Grand Duke] Michael came and I told him all about the revolution in Petrograd, he was much upset, I fear Alicky [Alexandra] is the cause of it all and Nicky has been weak. Heard from Buchanan that the Duma had forced Nicky to sign his abdication and Misha had been appointed Regent, and after he has been 23 years Emperor, I am in despair. 
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)


Speech by Alexander Kerensky to the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies
Comrades, in joining the Provisional Government I remained what I was before — a republican (loud applause). In all my work I rely on the will of the people. I must have the powerful support of the people. Can I trust in you as in myself (rousing ovation, cries of ‘we trust in you, comrade’). I cannot live without the people, and as soon as you begin to doubt me, kill me (new wave of applause) … Comrades! Allow me to return to the Provisional Government and announce that I am joining its ranks with your agreement, as your representative (cries of ‘Long live Kerensky’). 
(A.F. Kerensky, Diary of a Politician, Moscow 2007)


3 March
Report in The Times
There has been a revolution in Russia. The Emperor Nicholas II has abdicated. His brother, the Grand Duke Michael, has been appointed Regent. The Parliamentary leaders, with the people and the Army at their back, have carried out a coup d’Etat. While the bulk of the Petrograd garrison held the city for the Parliamentary cause, M. Rodzianko, the President of the Duma, demanded of the Tsar a new Government. Failing to receive satisfaction, M. Rodzianko placed himself at the head of a Provisional Government of 12 members. The new Government has dispersed the old Ministry, and has arrested many of its leading members … In Petrograd order is now being rapidly restored after considerable street fighting on Sunday and Monday. There is every indication that the revolution has completely succeeded.
(The Times, ‘Revolution in Russia’)


Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
Nicholas II abdicated yesterday, shortly before midnight. When the emissaries of the Duma … arrived at Pskov about nine o’clock in the evening [they said]…: ‘Nothing but the abdication of Your Majesty in favour of your son can still save the Russian Fatherland and preserve the dynasty.’ The Emperor replied very quickly, as if referring to some perfectly commonplace matter: ‘I decided to abdicate yesterday. But I cannot be separated from my son; that is more than I could bear; his health is too delicate … I shall therefore abdicate in favour of my brother, Michael Alexandrovitch’. … The Emperor then went into his study with the Minister of the Court; he came out ten minutes later with the act of abdication signed. 
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


Diary entry of Nicholas II
It appears that Misha has abdicated. His manifesto concludes with a call for elections for a Constituent Assembly within six months. God knows who advised him to sign such a vile document! In Petrograd the disturbances have stopped — long may it remain that way. 
(Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Imperial Family of Tsarist Russia, London 1998)


4 March 2017
In much that’s been written about the centenary over the past few weeks, the first — February — revolution that led to the overthrow of the monarchy has been described as the ‘forgotten revolution’. This was perhaps inevitable, given that the ‘Great October Revolution’ a few months later brought the Bolsheviks to power and it was they and their communist successors who essentially wrote the script for the next eighty or so years.

For Lenin and co, this was only the beginning, but by any measure it was an astonishing event. Britain’s Brexit vote and America’s election of its first citizen-president that fill today’s column inches are painted in vivid colours, but a coup that ended several centuries of autocratic government by monarchy and replaced it initially with rule by parliament was more significant by far.

And yet, reading the diary of Nicholas or his letters to his ‘wify’ over these transition days, one would think that he was being asked to relinquish a rather tiresome desk job, one that he had clung to more out of habit than aptitude (which is perhaps not far from the truth). David Reynolds, writing in the New Statesman about a new book by Robert Service, The Last of the Tsars, talks of ‘the tsar’s limp surrender of the throne’ and gives these possible explanations:

‘Emotional exhaustion; pressure from the army command; concern for his haemophiliac son; the impossibility of squaring a constitutional monarchy with his coronation oath.’ From some of the first-hand testimony quoted above, it’s hard to disagree with his conclusion, that ‘it still seems astonishing that this proud scion of the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia for three centuries, signed away his throne on a provincial railway station with blank calm — as if, to quote one aide, “he were turning over command of a cavalry squadron”.’