Voline, The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 (1947)



War and Revolution

Like the governments of other countries, that of Tsar Nikolai 11 succeeded in arousing, at the beginning of the European war in 1914, the whole gamut of evil instincts, animal passions, and wicked sentiments such as nationalism and chauvinism.

In Russia, as in those other lands, millions of men were duped, hypnotised, disoriented, and compelled to rush to the battle front like a herd of cattle to a slaughter-house, while the real problems of the hour were forgotten. And the few early "successes" attained by the Tsarist troops further kindled "the great enthusiasm of the people".

Nevertheless a special note was blended in this artificial and directed concert, an idea deeply implanted in the spirit was hiding behind this "enthusiasm". Very well -- the Army and nearly all the civilians reasoned -- we will fight and win. But the Government would better not deceive itself. When the war is over, we will present our bill. In return for our devotion and sacrifices, we expect a complete change in the regime. We will regain our rights, our liberties. Things will be different after the war.

And the soldiers whispered: "When the war is over we will keep our guns, at all costs".

But soon enough the situation in Russia was altered. A series of defeats began, and with them the unrest, the disillusionment, the rage of the people returned.

The war cost dearly, frightfully, in money and especially in men. Millions of human lives were sacrificed, to no purpose and with no compensation. Once more the Romanov regime demonstrated its incompetence, its rottenness, its weakness. Moreover, certain defeats which cost hugely in victims were unexplained, mysterious, suspect. All over the country there was talk.-ntrt-pnly of flagrant incompetence, but of criminal negligence, venality/of the authorities, espionage in the supreme command, the German origin of the dynasty and of several leaders, and of high treason in the Imperial Court itself. Members of the royal family were almost openly accused of sympathy for the Germans, and even of having direct dealings with the enemy. With little secrecy, and with anger and hatred, the Tsarina was called "the Boche". Alarming and sinister rumours spread among the masses.

At first the Imperial Court was not much disturbed. Later several measures were taken -- tardily and awkwardly. Being purely formal, they were ineffective, satisfied no one, accomplished nothing.

In an attempt to restore the morale of the troops and the people, Nikolai II personally assumed supreme command of the fighting forces, at least nominally. He went to the front. But this gesture did not change anything in the general situation, which was getting worse each day, and against which the Tsar, absolutely incapable and inactive, was powerless. Everywhere there was disintegration,-both in the Army and in the country at large.

In despair, several plots were fomented in liberal circles and even in the immediate entourage of the Tsar. One design of the plotters was to make the ruler abdicate in favour of a more "up to date" and popular monarch, for instance the Tsar's uncle, Grand Duke Nikolai, "to save the war and the dynasty", the impending fall of which was expected by all concerned.

They began by wiping out the evil monk Rasputin. But the conspirators hesitated about what to do next, and delayed, not being able to reach an agreement among themselves.

Things were at this stage when, brutally, the explosion in February, 1917, occurred.

It was not so much the military developments, nor the rumours of treason in the Royal Court, nor even the incompetence and unpopularity of the Tsar that set off this sudden detonation.

What made the people desperate and brought on the crucial blow was the complete disorganization of economic life, and of existence itself, throughout the country. "The disorganization is such," Minister Krivochein admitted, speaking of the administration and all the services of the State, "that it is like a lunatic asylum." And it was in this field that the impotence of the Tsarist government and the disastrous results of its conduct compelled the masses to take decisive action.

All the warring nations were suffering great economic and financial difficulties at this stage of the European conflict, because of the necessity of feeding and supplying the other needs of the millions of men on the far-flung battle-fronts, and at the same time maintaining the normal life of those countries. Everywhere this double task caused tremendous strain. But everywhere else -- even in Germany, where the situation was especially difficult -- it was accomplished more or less successfully. Everywhere except in Russia, where nothing had been foreseen, nothing planned in advance, nothing organized.1

It must be added that the terrible effects of this total disintegration of power and the State would have manifested themselves even sooner, had it not been for the efforts of certain living forces in the empire, such as the Union of the Cities, the War Industries Committee, and others. Arising spontaneously, these organizations were able to provide to a considerable degree for the more pressing needs of the Army and the civilian populace.

The energetic and beneficial activity of these forces, as well as that of the zemstvos (provincial councils), the municipalities, et cetera, -- an activity which, we mast emphasize, was carried on in opposition to the laws and resistance of the bureaucracy -- also had a highly important moral effect. Every day, alike in the Army and in the country at large, one could clearly perceive, not only the total incompetence of Tsarism, but also the existence of elements perfectly capable of replacing it, and furthermore, the disgraceful way in which the dying Romanov regime, fearing those elements, impeded their action, thus pushing the whole nation toward catastrophe.

Every day the Army and the Russian people saw with their own eyes that it was these free anions and committees which, on their own initiative and with sublime devotion, assured production, organized transport, supervised supplies, and guaranteed arrival and distribution of rations and munitions. And every day, too, the Army and the people saw the government oppose this indispensable activity and hold it back, with no concern for the interests of the country.

This final moral preparation of the Army and the populace for the downfall of Tsarism and its replacement by other elements was exceedingly important. It completed the pre-revolutionary process. It gave the last touch to the preparatory work.

In January, 1917, the situation had become untenable. The economic chaos, the poverty of the workers, and the social disorganization of Russia were so acute that the inhabitants of several targe cities -- notably Petrograd -- began to lack not only fuel, clothing, meat, butter, and sugar, but even bread.

February saw worse conditions. Despite the efforts of the Duma, the zemstvos (provincial councils), the municipalities, the unions, and the committees, not only was the urban population doomed to famine, but the supplying of the Army became entirely defective. And at the same time a complete military debacle was reached.

By the end of February, it was absolutely impossible for the country, both materially and morally, to continue the war. And it was impossible for the industrial workers in the cities to procure supplies [to keep the factories going].

But Tsarism did not want to know anything about these realities. It persisted blindly now in running the old machine completely off its tracks. And it fell back, as usual, on repression, violence against those who were active, and the militants of the political parties.

It was the inability of the people to continue the war and endure conditions of famine, on the one hand, and the blind obstinacy of Tsarism, on the other, that brought about the Revolution, two and a half years after "the great enthusiasm".

On February 24 (Russian old style) disturbances began in Petrograd. Primarily provoked by the lack of provisions, they did not seem likely to become serious. But next day events took a sudden turn. The workers in the capital, feeling that the Russian people generally were in solidarity with them, extremely agitated for weeks, starving, and not even receiving any more bread, thronged the streets, demonstrated fiercely, and flatly refused to disperse.

Yet on this first day the demonstrations were cautious and inoffensive. In close-packed masses the workers, with their wives and children, shouted: "Bread! Bread! We have nothing to eat. Either give us bread or shoot us! Our children are dying of hunger. Bread! Bread!"

Besides the police, the Government sent detachments of mounted troops, Cossacks, against the demonstrators. But there were few troops then in Petrograd -- except unreliable reservists. So the workers were not at all frightened. They bared their breasts to the soldiers, held up their children, and cried: "Kill us all if you dare! Better to be shot than to starve to death!"

Finally -- and this was the key point of the episode -- nearly all of the soldiers, smiling, walked warily towards the crowd, without using their weapons, and ignoring the orders of their officers. And many of the latter were not particularly insistent. In some places the soldiers fraternized with the workers, going so far as to give them their rifles, getting off their horses, and mingling with the throng. Naturally this attitude of the troops encouraged the protesting workers.

Here and there, however, the police and the Cossacks did charge groups of demonstrators carrying red flags, and several of them were killed or wounded.

In the barracks of Petrograd and the suburbs of the capital, the garrison regiments still held back from taking the side of the Revolution. And the government held back from sending them to combat it.

But the morning of February 26 brought a notable new happening. By decree, the Government ordered the Duma dissolved.

This was a sort of signal that everybody seemed to have been waiting for before beginning decisive action. The news, known everywhere in the capital almost instantaneously, spurred on events. From that moment, the demonstrations took on the character of a strictly revolutionary movement.                 \^

Shouts of "Down with Tsarism!", "Down with the War!", and "Long live the Revolution!" rang from the milling crowd, whose attitude steadily became more determined and menacing. All over the city the demonstrators resolutely attacked the police. Several public buildings were burned, including the Court House. The streets bristled with barricades. Soon many red flags appeared. The soldiers still maintained a benevolent neutrality, but more and more frequently they mingled with the throng. The Government could depend on its troops less and less.

Now it hurled the whole police force of the city against the rebels. The police quickly formed detachments for mass attack. They installed machine-guns on the roofs of various houses and even in some churches, and occupied all strategic points. Then they began a general offensive against the rising masses.

During that whole day of February 26 the fighting was hot In many instances the police were dislodged, policemen were killed, and their machine-guns silenced. But elsewhere they resisted fiercely.

Tsar Nikolai II, who was at the war-front, was warned by telegram of the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile the Duma decided to continue sitting and not yield to the order to dissolve.


1 The reader should not be surprised it this weakness. He must realize that in Russia then the bourgeoisie -- weak, disorganized, and wholly dependent on the State -- had no initiative, ro real strength, and could play no organizing role in the national ecoiomy; that the industrial workers and the peasants -- serfs, with no voice aor rights -- were less than nothing in the empire's economic life and cared nothing for the Tsarist State; and that thus the whole mechanism, political, ecorioTni^ and social, was in the hands of Tsarist functionaries. Once the war Ma disrupted this class and upset its obsolete machinery, :verything wefft to pieces.