Part Three

RUSSIA IN REVOLUTION (FEBRUARY 1917-MARCH 1918)


VIII Glorious February

1 The Power of the Streets

It all began with bread. For several weeks the bakeries in Petrograd had been running out, especially in the workers' districts, and long bread queues were beginning to appear. The problem was not shortage of supplies. According to Balk, the city's governor, there was enough flour in the warehouses to feed the population for at least a week when what had started as a series of bread riots turned into a revolution. True, the shops were not full. This was the end of the war's third winter and there was a general feeling of austerity. Buns, pies, cakes and biscuits were no longer baked. 'The shops are not carrying such a full line of articles and provisions,' an Englishman wrote home on 13 February. 'Restaurants no longer have the big fine pastries, owing to the scarcity of sugar.' This, moreover, was the coldest winter Russia had experienced for several years. In Petrograd the average February temperature was fifteen degrees below zero. 'It's as cold here as in Lapland,' Gorky wrote to Ekaterina on the 4th. Arctic frosts and blizzards had brought the railways to a virtual standstill. Factories closed. Thousands of laid-off workers milled around the streets.1

It was this that turned the supply problem into a crisis. Because of the breakdown of the transport system, Petrograd was starved of regular supplies of flour and fuel. For want of the one or the other, bakeries were frequently forced to close. Women would queue all night for a loaf of bread, only to be told in the early hours of the morning that there would be none for sale that day. This constant interruption to the bread supply naturally gave rise to rumours in the queues. People said that 'speculators' and 'capitalists' — which in the xenophobic wartime atmosphere usually meant German or Jewish merchants — were deliberately forcing up the bread prices by withholding stocks. Many people blamed the government (wasn't it also full of Germans?). Even educated liberals were inclined to see the shortages as the evil doing of a treasonable government. On 19 February the Petrograd authorities announced that rationing would start from I March. Rumours spread that there would soon be no bread stocks at all and the unemployed would be left to starve. In the panic buying that followed the shelves were laid bare, scuffles broke out, and several bakeries had their windows smashed.2


On Thursday, 23 February, the temperature in Petrograd rose to a spring-like minus five degrees. People emerged from their winter hibernation to enjoy the sun and join in the hunt for food. Nevsky Prospekt was crowded with shoppers. The mild weather was set to continue until 3 March — by which time the tsarist regime would have collapsed. Not for the first time in Russian history the weather was to play a decisive role.

February 23rd was International Women's Day, an important date in the socialist calendar, and towards noon huge crowds of women began to march towards the city centre to protest for equal rights. Balk described the crowds as 'ladies from society, lots more peasant women, student girls and, compared with the earlier demonstrations, not many workers'. Photographs show the women were in good humour as they marched along the Nevsky Prospekt.

But in the afternoon the mood began to change. Women textile workers from the Vyborg district had come out on strike that morning in protest against the shortages of bread. Joined by their menfolk from the neighbouring metal works, they had marched towards the city centre, drawing in workers from other factories on the way, and in some cases forcing them out, with shouts of 'Bread!' and 'Down with the Tsar!' By the end of the afternoon, some 100,000 workers had come out on strike. There were clashes with the police as the workers tried to cross the Liteiny Bridge, linking the Vyborg side with the city centre. Most of the workers, having been forced back, dispersed and went home, some of them looting shops on the way. But several thousand crossed on the ice and marched towards the Nevsky Prospekt, where they joined the women with cries of 'Bread!' The thickest crowds were around the city Duma. Balk's Cossacks could not clear them and even showed an unwillingness to do so: they would ride up to the women, only to stop short and retreat. Later it emerged that most of the Cossacks were reserves without experience of dealing with crowds, and with horses that were new to the city streets. By some oversight they had not been supplied with their usual whips. It was to prove a fatal mistake by the authorities. For this show of weakness by the Cossacks emboldened the workers over the coming days.3

The following morning saw bright sunshine. Workers held factory meetings throughout the city and, urged on by socialist agitators, resolved to march again to the centre. Many armed themselves with knives, spanners, hammers and pieces of iron, partly to fight their way through the squadrons of Cossacks and police who had been brought in overnight to bar their way, and partly to help them loot the well-stocked food shops of the affluent downtown areas. The expedition had the feel of a hungry workers' army going off to war. 'Comrades,' urged one factory agitator, 'if we cannot get a loaf of bread for ourselves in a righteous way, then we must do everything: we must go ahead and solve our problem by force . . . Comrades, arm yourselves with everything possible — bolts, screws, rocks, and go out of the factory and start smashing the first shops you find.'

By mid-morning about 150,000 workers had taken to the streets. They made their way to the bridges connecting the industrial suburbs with the city's administrative centre. Some of them smashed windows, looted shops and overturned trams and carriages. At the Liteiny Bridge a crowd of 40,000 Vyborg workers overran a small brigade of Cossacks, who were clearly unprepared for them. 'But nobody told me there would be a revolution!', a policeman was heard to say as he saw the vast army of workers approach. On the Troitsky Bridge the workers fought their way past mounted police by throwing rocks and ice. The huge crowds converged on the Nevsky Prospekt. The mounted Cossacks were unable to disperse them: they would ride across the street and on to the pavements, forcing the demonstrators to run in all directions; but as soon as they stopped the crowds would reassemble and begin to approach the troops, offering them bread and calling out to them. By this stage, the crowds of workers had been swollen with students, shopkeepers, bank clerks, cabbies, children, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, who were either sympathizers or just spectators. Balk described the crowds on Nevsky Prospekt as 'consisting of the ordinary people'. There was a holiday mood on the streets, no doubt partly because of the fine weather. One witness compared it to 'an enormous circus'. Arthur Ransome, then the correspondent for the Daily News, described the feeling on that day as one of 'rather precarious excitement like a Bank Holiday with thunder in the air'. There was a huge rally on Znamenskaya Square. The equestrian statue of Alexander III, an awesome monument to the principles of autocracy, was conquered by the revolutionary orators. Few in the vast crowd could hear what they were saying, but this did not matter. The people knew what they wanted to hear, and the mere sight of this brave act of free speech — performed from the top of such a monument and in full view of the police — was enough to confirm it in their minds: a revolution was taking place. Later that evening, after the crowds had finally dispersed, the police found the word 'HIPPOPOTAMUS' — the popular nickname for the statue — engraved in large letters on its plinth.4

Emboldened by the absence of vigorous repressive measures, even larger crowds came out on to the streets the following day, Saturday 25 February, in what was virtually a general strike. All the city's major factories ceased to operate, as some 200,000 workers joined the demonstrations. Newspapers failed to appear. Trams and cabs were hard to find. Many shops and restaurants closed their doors. All sorts of people joined the ranks of marching workers heading into the centre of the city. Balk thought the movement 'bore the character of a people's uprising'. Compared to the previous two days, the demonstrations now had a more political flavour. Red flags and banners began to appear, and their slogans were calling not so much for 'Bread!' as for the overthrow of the autocracy. 'Down with the Tsar!' and 'Down with the War!' were now their main demands.

Once again there were clashes with police as the demonstrators tried to cross the bridges connecting the suburbs with the centre of the city. At the Liteiny Bridge the chief of police, Shalfeev, made a last desperate bid to halt the marchers by charging headlong into the crowd. The marchers parted to the sides and then closed ranks to surround Shalfeev, who tried to force his way out by lashing out on all sides with his whip. But the demonstrators dragged him off his horse. One of the workers beat him on the ground with a piece of wood, while another, taking Shalfeev's revolver, shot him in the heart. None of the Cossacks defending the bridge attempted to intervene.

Increasingly this became the pattern — violent clashes with the police combined with efforts to win over the soldiers — as the crowds took over the city centre. The police were 'theirs' — hated agents of the regime. The people called them 'pharaohs' (much as some today might call the police 'pigs') and they had no doubts that the police would fight to the end.* The soldiers, by contrast, were seen as 'ours' — peasants and workers in uniforms — and it was hoped that, if they were ordered to use force against the crowds, they would be as likely to come over to the people's side. Once it became clear that this was so — from the soldiers' hesitation to disperse the demonstrators, from the expressions on the soldiers' faces, and from the odd wink by a soldier to the crowd — the initiative passed to the people's side. It was a crucial psychological moment in the revolution.

The first symbolic battle of this war of nerves was fought out on the Nevsky Prospekt — and won decisively by the people — on the afternoon of the 25th. Part of the crowd was brought to a halt by a squadron of Cossacks blocking their way near the Kazan Cathedral. It was not far from the spot where, twelve years before, on Bloody Sunday 1905, the Horseguards had shot down a similar crowd. A young girl appeared from the ranks of the demonstrators and walked slowly towards the Cossacks. Everyone watched her in nervous silence: surely the Cossacks would not fire at her? From under her cloak the girl brought out a bouquet of red roses and held it out towards the officer. There was a pause. The bouquet was a symbol of both peace and revolution. And then, leaning down from his horse, the officer smiled and took the flowers. With as much relief as jubilation, the crowd burst into a thunderous 'Oorah!'5 From this moment the people started to speak of the 'comrade Cossacks', a term which at first sounded rather odd.

*It was rumoured that Protopopov had promised each policeman 500 roubles for every wound he received from the crowd.


The officers were finding it increasingly difficult to get their men to obey orders. Colonel Khodnev, a commander of the Finland Reserve Regiment, complained bitterly about the Cossacks. They were 'extremely slack and indecisive' and their 'inaction was particularly apparent when they formed an individual patrol or platoon under the command of a young sergeant or a junior lieutenant. More than once I heard them say: "This isn't 1905. We won't carry whips. We won't move against our own kind, against the people." True, there were some soldiers who were still prepared — usually on their own initiative or on the orders of a junior officer when scared or provoked — to take violent measures against the crowd. A platoon of dragoons opened fire near a row of shops at the Gostiny Dvor, killing three and wounding ten, while near the city Duma nine more demonstrators were shot dead. But a growing proportion of the soldiers were either refusing to obey orders to fire, or were deliberately shooting over the heads of the people in the street. Some were even joining them against the police. In one incident on Znamenskaya Square the Cossacks intervened to rescue the crowd when the mounted police, having been frustrated in their efforts to capture a red banner, threatened to charge the people down. The Cossacks, sabres drawn, rode into the crowd and began to attack the mounted police, who then galloped away pursued by the crowd throwing stones. Meanwhile the police commander lay dead on the ground, his body covered with wounds from the Cossacks' sabres and revolver shots.6

* * * Even at this point, on the evening of the 25th, the authorities could still have contained the situation, despite the growing self-assertion of the crowd. The important thing, as the Council of Ministers seemed to sense at its midnight meeting, was to hold back from open conflict with the crowd, which would merely pour fuel on the flames and run the risk of a mutiny among the soldiers in the garrison. There was still some reason to suppose — or at least to act upon the assumption — that the anger of the demonstrators was mainly focused on the shortages of bread and that once this problem had been solved they would become tired of protest and return to work. That had been the outcome of several bread riots in the recent past and, although this one was more ominous, there was no real reason yet to believe that it would end any differently. This was certainly the assumption of the socialist leaders in the capital. Nikolai Sukhanov, perhaps the revolution's most famous memoirist, thought that so far there had only been ' "disorders" — there was still no revolution'. Shliapnikov, the leading Bolshevik in the capital, scoffed at the idea that this was the start of a revolution. 'What revolution?' he asked a local meeting of the party leaders on the 25th. 'Give the workers a pound of bread and the movement will peter out.'7

But whatever chances there might have been of containing the disorders were destroyed that evening by the Tsar. Having been informed of the situation at his headquarters in Mogilev, he sent a cable to General Khabalov, Chief of the Petrograd Military District, ordering him to use military force to 'put down the disorders by tomorrow'.8 There could be no better illustration of the extent to which the Tsar had lost touch with reality. Nor could there be any better guarantee of a revolution. To be fair, Nicholas had been badly advised from the start. He had left the capital for Mogilev on 22 February, after being assured by Protopopov that he had nothing to worry about. Since then the police and Khabalov had played down the seriousness of the situation in their reports to Nicholas: it was embarrassing for them to have to admit that it might be getting out of their control. The Tsar thus had little real idea of the finely balanced nature of the situation, or of the risks involved in using force, when he sent his fatal order to Khabalov. But then it was his job to know — and the job of his advisers to inform him — what was going on in the capital. Only the Tsar could issue the final order to use force against the crowds, and once that order had been issued none of his advisers could challenge it. In other words, if the regime fell because of a breakdown in communications, then one can only say that it deserved to fall.

By Sunday morning, 26 February, the centre of Petrograd had been turned into a militarized camp. Soldiers' pickets and armed policemen stood at the major intersections and strategic buildings; mounted patrols rode through the streets; officers communicated by field telephone; machine-guns, set up in Palace Square, pointed down the Nevsky Prospekt; and in the side streets were military ambulances standing by. During the morning everything was quiet: it was Sunday and people slept in late. But around midday huge crowds of workers once again assembled in the suburbs and marched towards the city centre. As they converged on the Nevsky Prospekt, the police and soldiers fired upon them from several different points. At the junction of the Nevsky and Vladimir Prospekts the Semenovsky Regiment — which had put down the Moscow uprising in 1905 — shot dead several marchers. On the Nevsky, near the Gostiny Dvor, a training detachment of the Pavlovsky Regiment shot a round of blanks and then opened fire on the crowd. The people scattered behind buildings and into shops, re-emerging moments later to throw bricks and pieces of ice at the troops. Dozens of people were wounded or killed. The bloodiest incident took place on Znamenskaya Square, where more than fifty people were shot dead by a training detachment of the Volynsky Regiment. It was a terrible atrocity. An officer, who had been unable to get his young and obviously nervous soldiers to shoot at the demonstrators, grabbed a rifle from one of his men and began to fire wildly at the crowd. Among the dead bodies, which were later piled up around the 'Hippopotamus', were two soldiers from the regiment who had gone over to the side of the people.9


This shedding of blood — Russia's second Bloody Sunday — proved a critical turning point. From this moment on the demonstrators knew that they were involved in a life-or-death struggle against the regime. Paradoxically, now that the worst had happened and some of their comrades had been killed, they felt less afraid for their own lives.* As for the soldiers, they were now confronted with a choice between their moral duty to the people and their oath of allegiance to the Tsar. If they followed the former, a full-scale revolution would occur. But if they stuck to their oath of allegiance, then the regime might still manage to survive, as it had done in 1905—6.

After the shooting on the Nevsky Prospekt an angry crowd of demonstrators broke into the barracks of the Pavlovsky Regiment near the Mars Field and shouted at the soldiers that some of their trainees had been firing at the people. Visibly shaken by the news, the 4th Company of the Pavlovskys resolved to march to the Nevsky at once in order to stop the massacre. 'They are shooting at our mothers and our sisters!' was their rallying cry as they mutinied. About a hundred soldiers broke into the arsenal of the barracks and, taking thirty rifles, began to march towards the Nevsky. Almost immediately, they ran into a mounted police patrol on the bank of the Griboyedov Canal. They fired at them, killing one policeman, until they ran out of cartridges, whereupon they decided to return to barracks to bring out the rest of the men. But Khabalov's troops were waiting for them there and, upon the mutineers' arrival, disarmed them and confined them to barracks. Nineteen ringleaders were arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. They were to be its last prisoners — at least under the tsarist regime.10

But it was too late for repression by this stage. All the prisons in Russia could not have contained the revolutionaries on the streets. The training detachment of the Volynsky Regiment which had been involved in the shooting on Znamenskaya Square had, like their comrades in the Pavlovsky, returned to their barracks during the evening full of doubts and remorse about what they had done. One of the soldiers claimed to have recognized his own mother amongst the people they had killed. All these teenage conscripts were badly shaken by the massacre and it did not take much for their young sergeant, an Os'kin-type peasant called Sergei Kirpichnikov, to talk them into a protest of their own. 'I told them', Kirpichnikov recalled:

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!'

* People said the same thing in 1989 after the East German authorities had shot at the demonstrators in Leipzig. Crowds are afraid of the threat of bloodshed but emboldened after it occurs.                                                 


Having sworn their allegiance to Kirpichnikov, the soldiers were determined to defy their commanding officer when, once again, he ordered them to march against the demonstrators the following morning. At this stage the soldiers did not intend a full-scale mutiny, only a vocal and abusive protest against their officer for having ordered them to fire on the crowds, and a refusal to obey his commands. But when the officer found himself confronted by his angry men he made the fatal error of walking away — and then, even worse, of starting to run across the barracks yard. Sensing their power over him, the soldiers pointed their rifles towards him, and one of them shot him in the back. Suddenly the soldiers were mutineers. They scattered through the barracks, in panic as much as revolutionary fervour, calling on the other soldiers to join their mutiny. Relatively few from the Volynsky joined them but there were many more who were willing in the neighbouring barracks of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the Lithuanian Regiment and the 6th Engineer Battalion. Fights broke out between loyal and rebel soldiers. The victorious mutineers stormed the regimental arsenals, killed several of their officers and spilled in their thousands on to the streets, where they spread out in all directions, some moving towards the centre of the city, others crossing over to the Vyborg side in order to raise the Moscow Regiment and link up with the workers.11

In all these mutinies the decisive role was played by the junior officers, most of whom came from lower-class backgrounds or had democratic sympathies. Fedor Linde (1881—1917), a sergeant in the Finland Regiment, was typical in this respect. He played an unsung but crucial role in turning the tide of the February Revolution. Tall, blond and handsome, Linde was the son of a German chemist and a Polish peasant-woman who had grown up on a small farm near St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. There his mother ran a little inn which was popular with the capital's revolutionaries when they wanted to escape the gaze of the police. And it was by socializing with the hotel guests that the teenage Linde, who was by nature a romantic idealist, first became involved in the revolutionary underground. In 1899 he enrolled in the Mathematics Faculty of St Petersburg University, and immediately became a leading light in the student protest movement. During the 1905 Revolution Linde worked alongside the SDs in the capital, and organized the students in an 'academic legion' to spread propaganda to the working class. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Kresty jail, and then forced to go into exile in Europe, before being allowed to return to Russia under the amnesty of 1913 to celebrate the Romanov tercentenary.


The next year he was mobilized by the Finland Regiment, where his courageous leadership of the soldiers soon saw him promoted to sergeant. It was precisely this same quality which distinguished Linde in the mutiny of the February Days. In a letter to the SR Boris Sokolov, written in the spring of 1917, Linde recalled how he persuaded the 5,000 soldiers of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, in whose barracks near the Tauride Palace he was staying at the time, to join the mutiny:

I don't know what happened to me. I was lying on a couch in the barracks and reading a book by Haldane. I was so absorbed in it that I didn't hear shouts and roars coming from the street. A wild bullet broke the window near my couch . .. The Cossacks were firing on defenceless and unarmed crowds, striking people with their whips, crushing the fallen with their horses. And then I saw a young girl trying to evade the galloping horse of a Cossack officer. She was too slow. A severe blow on her head brought her down under the horse's feet. She screamed. It was her inhuman, penetrating scream that caused something in me to snap. I jumped to the table and cried out wildly: 'Friends! Friends! Long live the revolution! To arms! To arms! They are killing innocent people, our brothers and sisters!' Later they said there was something in my voice that made it impossible to resist my call. . . They followed me without realizing where or in the name of what cause they went. . . They all joined me in the attack against the Cossacks and police. We killed a few of them. The rest retreated. By night, the fight was over. The revolution had become a reality . . . And I, well, I returned that same night to my book by Haldane.12

* * * The mutiny of the Petrograd garrison turned the disorders of the previous four days into a full-scale revolution. The tsarist authorities were virtually deprived of military power in the capital. 'It had now become clear to me', Balk later wrote of the 27th, 'that we had lost all authority.' The spilling of the soldiers on to the streets, moreover, gave a military strength and organization to the revolutionary crowds. Instead of vague and aimless protest they focused on the capture of strategic targets and the armed struggle against the regime. Soldiers and workers fought together for the capture of the Arsenal, where they armed themselves with 40,000 rifles and 30,000 revolvers, followed by the major weapons factories, where at least another 100,000 guns fell into their hands. They occupied the Artillery Department, the telephone exchange and some (though not all) of the railway stations. They spread the mutiny to the remaining barracks (Linde himself led a guard of soldiers from the Preobrazhensky and Lithuanian Regiments to bring out his own Finland Regiment). Thanks to the soldiers and officers like Linde, the first signs of real organization — armed pickets on the bridges and major intersections, barricades, field-telephones and structures of command — began to appear on the streets. Many of the soldiers were also kept busy by the task of arresting — and sometimes beating up or even murdering — their commanding officers. This was a revolution in the ranks.13

But the main attention of the insurgents was now focused on the bloody street war against the police. There were hundreds of police snipers hidden on the flat roofs of the buildings, some of them armed with machine-guns, who were firing at the crowds below and at anyone who showed themselves in the windows opposite. Other police snipers had positioned themselves in the belfries of the churches, hoping that the people's respect for religion would prevent them from firing back. The snipers deliberately used smokeless ammunition so the people could not easily tell where the shooting had come from. Suddenly there would be a crack of gunfire, and the crowds would run for cover, leaving little heaps of wounded and dead bodies lying in the streets. Workers and soldiers 'would begin to shoot wildly' at the house from where they thought the firing had come, recalls Viktor Shklovsky, who led a group of fighters against the police, but this usually proved counter-productive. 'The dust rising from where our bullets hit the plaster was taken for return fire,' setting off more shooting and confusion. Many people were killed by 'our own bullets' bouncing off the buildings or by falling masonry.14

Even less effective were the motor-cars that went hurtling about the streets filled with soldiers waving red flags and shooting wildly into the air. Virtually every car and lorry had been requisitioned by the crowds, no matter to whom it might belong. Linde and his men commandeered a lorry, upon which they hung a banner with the words: 'The First Revolutionary Flying Squad'. The Grand Duke Gavril Konstantinovich even had his Rolls-Royce requisitioned. It was later seen cruising down the Nevsky Prospekt, with two soldiers lying on the front bonnet, several others riding on the sides, and two with a machine-gun mounted on the roof, although this proved to be of little use since the car was swerving too much for it to be held still and fired properly. Smaller cars, bristling with bayonets, presented an even stranger image. Gorky compared them to 'huge hedgehogs running amok'. Much of the fighting was done from these cars: this was the first revolution on wheels. The vehicles would speed through the streets, pull up alongside a building from which the police were thought to be firing, and start to shoot in the direction of the roof. But since the snipers could see and hear the vehicles coming — what with their horns sounding and their red flags waving — they had plenty of time to conceal themselves. In the end, the only way to defeat them was to climb up and fight them on the roofs. Many snipers were thrown off the roofs — to the cheers of the crowds below. As for the motor-cars, most of them were crashed, since their drivers had no idea how to drive and in any case they were usually drunk. The streets 'resounded' to the noise of car crashes, recalls Shklovsky. 'I don't know how many collisions I saw during those days. Later on the city was jammed with automobiles left by the wayside.'15

Much of the crowds' destructive violence was directed against the institutions of the police regime. Armed crowds attacked police stations, setting fire to the buildings and making sure to destroy the police records. Sometimes the contents of the buildings were burned in bonfires on the streets. Gorky, who was charged with the seizure of the Police Headquarters on Kronversky Prospekt, arrived to find it vandalized and most of its records taken or destroyed. Court buildings were similarly targeted by the crowd. Gorky found a crowd of people watching the Palace of Justice go up in flames:

The roof had already fallen in, the fire crackled between the walls, and red and yellow wisps like wool were creeping out of the windows, throwing a sheaf of paper ashes into the black sky of the night. No one made any attempt to extinguish the fire ... A tall stooping man in a shaggy sheepskin hat was walking about like a sentinel. He stopped and asked in a dull voice: 'Well — it means that all justice is to be abolished, doesn't it? Punishments all done away with, is that it?' No one answered him.

Last but not least the crowd turned its destructive anger on the prisons, bashing down the gates, opening the cells, and, together with the released prisoners, vandalizing and sometimes burning down the buildings. The destruction of the prisons had a powerful symbolic significance for the revolutionary crowd: it was a sign that the old regime was dead, that the longed-for days of liberty — 'prisonless and crimeless' — were about to come.16

No prison was more symbolic than the Peter and Paul Fortress. The crowds were convinced that the fortress was still full of 'politicals', heroes of the revolutionary struggle languishing in its dark and dingy cells: that, after all, was the well-established myth of the revolutionaries' propaganda. There were also rumours that the fortress was being used as a military base by the tsarist military forces (Balk did propose this). On the 28th a huge and angry crowd threatened to storm this 'Russian Bastille'. They brought up lorries with heavy mounted guns ready to fire at its thick stone walls. The fortress commandant telephoned the Duma appealing for help, and Shulgin (for the Duma) and Skobelev (for the Soviet) were sent to negotiate with him. They returned to report that the prison was completely empty — apart from the nineteen mutinous soldiers of the Pavlovsky Regiment who had been imprisoned in it on the 26th — and proposed to calm the crowds by allowing them to send representatives to inspect its cells. But even this was not sufficient to convince the crowds that the fortress was 'for the revolution'. Some of the mutinous soldiers accused Shulgin of working for the counter-revolution. There was some fighting between them and the fortress guards. And then, finally, the red flag was raised above this bastion of the old regime.17

* * * The crowds displayed extraordinary levels of self-organization and solidarity during all these actions. 'The entire civil population felt itself to be in one camp against the enemy — the police and the military,' Sukhanov wrote. 'Strangers passing by conversed with each other, asking questions and talking about the news, about clashes with and the diversionary movements of the enemy.' The London Times was equally impressed. 'The astounding, and to the stranger unacquainted with the Russian character almost uncanny, orderliness and good nature of the crowds are perhaps the most striking feature of this great Russian Revolution.' People wore red armbands, or tied red ribbons in their buttonholes, to display their support for the revolution. Not to do so was to invite persecution as a 'counter-revolutionary'. Bonfires were lit throughout the city so that people could warm themselves during the long hours of street-fighting. Residents fed the revolutionaries from their kitchens, and allowed them to sleep — in so far as anyone slept — on their floors. Cafe and restaurant owners fed the soldiers and workers free of charge, or placed boxes outside for passers-by to contribute towards their meals. One cafe displayed the following sign:

FELLOW-CITIZENS! In honour of the great days of freedom, I bid you all welcome. Come inside, and eat and drink to your hearts' content.

Shopkeepers turned their shops into bases for the soldiers, and into shelters for the people when the police were firing in the streets. Cab-men declared that they would take 'only the leaders of the revolution'. Students and children ran about with errands — and veteran soldiers obeyed their commands. All sorts of people volunteered to help the doctors deal with the wounded. It was as if the people on the streets had suddenly become united by a vast network of invisible threads; and it was this that secured their victory.18

The tsarist authorities assumed that the crowds must have been organized by the socialist parties; but, although their rank and file were present in the crowds, the socialist leaders were quite unprepared to take on this role and, if anything, followed the people. The street generated its own leaders: students, workers and NCOs, like Linde or Kirpichnikov, whose names, for the most part, have remained hidden from the history books. During the first weeks after February their portraits were displayed in shop windows — often with the heading 'Heroes of the Revolution'. There was one of Kirpichnikov in the windows of the Avantso store.19 But then these people's leaders faded out of view and were forgotten.


Part of this extraordinary crowd cohesion may be explained by geography. There was, for a start, a long-established spatial-cultural code of street demonstrations in the capital with a number of clear points of orientation for the crowd (e.g. the Kazan Cathedral and the Tauride Palace) which stretched back to the student demonstrations of 1899. Petrograd's industrial suburbs, moreover, were physically separated from the affluent governmental downtown by a series of canals and rivers. Marching into the centre thus became an expression of working-class solidarity and self-assertion, a means for the workers to claim the streets as 'theirs'. This may help to explain some of the carnival aspects of the revolutionary crowd: the celebratory vandalism and destruction of symbols of state power and authority, wealth and privilege; the acts of mockery and humiliation, of verbal abuse and threatening behaviour, often ending in wanton acts of violence, which the crowds performed, as if they were some sport, against the well dressed and the well-to-do; the self-assertive body language and dress of the soldiers (wearing their caps back to front, or tilted to one side, or wearing their coats and tunics unbuttoned, contrary to military regulations); women wearing men's clothes (soldiers' headgear, boots and breeches), as if by reversing the sexual codes of dress they were also overturning the social order; and the sexual acts, from kissing and fondling to full intercourse, which people openly performed on the streets in the euphoria of the February Days.20

And yet, contrary to Soviet myth, the crowds were far from solidly proletarian, although it is true that the workers took the lead and tended to do much of the street-fighting. Balk described the February Days as a general uprising of the people. Harold Williams of the Daily Chronicle thought the crowds on the 24th were 'mostly women and boys' with only a 'sprinkling of workmen'. Robert Wilton of The Times reported that on the 26th the fine weather had 'brought everybody out of doors' and that 'crowds of all ages and conditions' had made their way to the Nevsky Prospekt.21

Most of the people on the streets were not 'revolutionaries' at all but simply spectators or the in-between types who wavered between acting and spectating. They would cheer the mutinous soldiers as they sped past in their cars, or when a police sniper was thrown from the roofs. They would gather in small groups around the dead bodies and horses, which at this time were still something of a novelty (soon they would become accustomed to them and would walk past them with indifference). They would wear red ribbons, wave red flags and declare their sympathy for 'the revolution'. But they rarely took a part in the fighting themselves, and would usually scatter when the firing began. This is the psychology of the crowds', wrote one witness:

everything they see is both fascinating and terrifying. They stare, and they stare, and then suddenly — they run away. Look, here is a well-dressed gentleman, fat with short legs, standing on the corner. The crowd suddenly runs behind the building — and he follows them, running as fast as his little legs allow, his fat belly shaking, and he clearly out of breath. He runs a few yards, looks back at the scene again, and then runs on.

Many of these onlookers were young children. Little boys delighted in playing with the guns that were left lying in the streets. They made sport of throwing cartridges into the bonfires and watching them explode. Dozens of people were accidentally killed. Stinton Jones, an English journalist, witnessed the following scene:

One little boy of about twelve years of age had secured an automatic pistol and, together with a large number of soldiers, was warming himself at one of these fires. Suddenly he pulled the trigger and one of the soldiers fell dead. This so alarmed the boy, who had no idea of the mechanism of the deadly weapon he held, that he kept the trigger pulled back and the automatic pistol proceeded to empty itself. It contained seven bullets, and it was not until they were all discharged that the boy released his hold of the trigger. The result was that three soldiers were killed, and four seriously injured.22

From the 27th the nature of the crowds grew much darker. The soldier element dramatically increased, along with the level of violence, as a result of the mutiny. So did the criminal element, and the level of criminality, as a result of the opening of the jails. Both had the effect, as Jones put it:

of clearing the streets of the more serious-minded and nervous citizens. The mobs presented a strange, almost grotesque appearance. Soldiers, workmen, students, hooligans and freed criminals wandered aimlessly about in detached companies, all armed, but with a strange variety of weapons. Here would be a hooligan with an officer's sword fastened over his overcoat, a rifle in one hand and a revolver in the other; there a small boy with a large butcher's knife on his shoulder. Close by a workman would be seen awkwardly holding an officer's sword in one hand and a bayonet in the other. One man had two revolvers, another a rifle in one hand and a tramline cleaner in the other. A student with two rifles and a belt of machine-gun bullets round his waist was walking beside another with a bayonet tied to the end of a stick. A drunken soldier had only the barrel of a rifle remaining, the stock having been broken off in forcing an entry into some shop. A steady, quiet business man grasped a large rifle and a formidable belt of cartridges.


Some 8,000 prisoners were liberated on the 27th, the vast majority of them common criminals. They had a vested interest — and took the lead — in the destruction of the police stations, along with their records, the Palace of Justice, the court buildings and the prisons. And they were to blame for much of the crime which took over the streets from this time. 'Tonight the city reverberates with the most terrifying noises: broken glass, screams, and gunshots,' wrote the Director of the Hermitage in the early hours of the 28th. Armed gangs looted shops and liquor stores. They broke into the houses of the well-to-do and robbed and raped their inhabitants. Well-dressed passers-by were mugged in the streets. Even wearing spectacles or a white starched collar was enough to mark one out as a burzhooi. A retired professor, who had been a Populist for nearly fifty years, came on to the streets on the evening of the 27th to celebrate the 'victory of the revolution' and immediately had his glasses smashed and his gold watch stolen by the very 'people' he had sought to liberate. This was clearly not the bloodless victory of liberty, equality and fraternity which the democratic intelligentsia had so long hoped for — and which they later mythologized as the 'Glorious February Revolution' — but more like a Russian peasant riot, 'senseless and merciless', as Pushkin had predicted, which sought to destroy all signs of privilege. The idea that the February Days were a 'bloodless revolution' — and that the violence of the crowd did not really take off until October — was a liberal myth. The democratic leaders of 1917 needed it to legitimize their own fragile power. In fact many more people were killed by the crowd in February than in the Bolsheviks' October coup. The February Revolution in Helsingfors and Kronstadt was especially violent, with hundreds of naval officers killed gruesomely by the sailors. According to the official figures of the Provisional Government, 1,443 people were killed or wounded in Petrograd alone. But a friend of Prince Lvov's told Claude Anet, the French journalist, that the true figure was up to 1,500 people killed and about 6,000 people wounded.23

Gorky took a dim view of all this violence and destruction. On the 28th Sukhanov found him in a gloomy mood:

For an hour by the clock he snarled and grumbled at the chaos, the disorder, the excesses, at the displays of political ignorance, at the girls driving around the city, God knows where, in God knows whose cars — and forecast that the movement would probably collapse in ruin worthy of our Asiatic savagery.

It seemed to Gorky that all this was just 'chaos' and not a 'revolution at all. The next day he wrote to Ekaterina:


Too many people are falsely according a revolutionary character to what in fact is no more than a lack of discipline and organization on the part of the crowd... There is much more here of an absurd than a heroic nature. Looting has started. What will happen? I don't know... Much blood will be spilled, much more than ever has been spilled before.24

These, of course, as Sukhanov noted, 'were the impressions of a man of letters', of a man who hated violence in all its forms. Many people today might be similarly inclined to condemn the 'needless killing' of the crowds. That certainly has been the recent trend among conservative historians of both the Russian and the French Revolutions.25 But one may prefer Sukhanov's view:

that the excesses, the man-in-the-street's stupidity, vulgarity, and cowardice, the muddles, the motor cars, the girls — all this was only what the revolution could not in any circumstances avoid, and without which nothing similar had ever happened anywhere.26

This is not to condone the violence but to understand it as the almost unavoidable reaction of a people angry and with much to avenge. It is to recognize that all social revolutions are bound by their nature to spill blood; and that to condemn them for doing so is tantamount to saying that any form of social protest which might end in violence is morally wrong. Of course there are distinctions that need to be made: the blood spilled by the people on the streets is different from the blood spilled by parties, movements, or armies, claiming to be acting in their name; and it must be analysed and judged in different ways.

The crowd violence of the February Days was not orchestrated by any revolutionary party or movement. It was by and large a spontaneous reaction to the bloody repressions of the 26th, and an expression of the people's long-felt hatred for the old regime. Symbols of the old state power were destroyed. Tsarist statues were smashed or beheaded. A movie camera filmed a group of laughing workers throwing the stone head of Alexander II into the air like a football. Police stations, court houses and prisons were attacked. The crowd exacted a violent revenge against the officials of the old regime. Policemen were hunted down, lynched and killed brutally. Sorokin watched a crowd of soldiers beating one policeman with the butts of their revolvers and kicking him in the head with their heels. Another was thrown on to the street from a fourth-floor window, and when his body thumped, lifeless, on to the ground, people rushed to stamp on it and beat it with sticks.

Once it became clear that any further resistance was doomed to failure, many of these policemen tried to give themselves up to the Tauride Palace, where the Duma and the Soviet were struggling to restore order, in the belief that it would be better to be imprisoned by the new government than to be the victim of this 'mob law' on the streets. Others tried to escape the capital, knowing that their chances of survival would be better in the provinces. Two burly policemen were discovered heading for the Finland Station dressed in women's clothes. Only their large size and awkward gait, and the heavy police boots under their skirts, betrayed their identity to the crowd.27

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