After Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 15 March 1917 (2 March of the Julian calendar), events unfolded quickly. The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies held its first session on 13 March. The Soviet agreed to the organisation of a Provisional Government composed of mostly «liberal» deputies from the moribund Imperial Duma, a gerrymandered legislative assembly set up after the first Revolution of 1905. Pavel N. Milyukov, a Kadet, was foreign minister; A. I. Guchkov, an Octobrist, was war minister and Prince G. E. Lvov, chairman of the union of zemtsvos, was prime minister. Milyukov and Guchkov represented the urban bourgeoisie in Moscow and Petrograd, and Lvov, the rural landed gentry and local elites. Not only did these gentlemen not represent the revolutionary masses, they feared them and thought only of how to stop the revolution from going any further. Their recurring koshmar was the French Revolution. Could it happen in Russia? The one so-called socialist in the first Provisional Government was the Trudovik A. F. Kerensky.
Kerensky was an ambitious man, and disregarded the Soviet decision against socialists serving in the new cabinet. If the Petrograd workers became too aggressive, Kerensky boasted to a colleague, he would not hesitate to establish a dictatorship. «I’ll arrest the agitators and crush any disorders». Kerensky is the St Just of the Russian Revolution, the French ambassador Maurice Paléologue reported to Paris at the end of March 1917, the man who would re-impose strict discipline in the army and send it back to the front. «He is the real head of the Provisional Government», Paléologue wrote in a subsequent report. In March 1917 Kerensky was already the great hope of Allied diplomats in the Russian capital.
Socialists from the Petrograd Soviet declined to become members of the new government because they did not want to damage their standing with the revolutionary masses by joining an essentially centre-right cabinet, which represented only the tsarist rural and urban elites. Nor did socialists feel confident enough to dispense with Duma liberal politicians and to govern directly through the Petrograd Soviet. So they made a compromise which essentially accorded «limited support» to the Provisional Government.
This was the beginning of the period of so-called «dual power». The Petrograd Soviet would not take power directly, but in effect would govern indirectly, acting as a sentinel of the revolutionary masses and «usurping» government authority, as western diplomats saw it. Dual power was a formula for chaos especially since the Provisional Government represented traditional tsarist elites, and the Soviets, the revolutionary masses. In fact, the Provisional Government had no popular base at all. Not even the Imperial Duma could buttress it, Ambassador Paléologue reported, for the Duma «had disappeared». The Petrograd Soviet is now «the parliament of all Russia». Hence, if there was «dual power» in Russia, it tilted heavily to the side of the new Soviets.
The two big issues in the spring of 1917 were peace and land redistribution. The Provisional Government was for a continuation of the war until victory and postponement of land redistribution until the election of a Constituent Assembly, which could mean postponement until the calendes grecques. The Petrograd Soviet, composed mostly of Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks, would support the war for the time being, but favoured a negotiated peace without annexations and without indemnities. They were also impatient for land reform. They could not be otherwise without losing the support of their revolutionary constituencies. These first Soviet deputies were woolly-minded «moderate» socialists who knew what they wanted but not how to get it.
At the outset of the revolution, the Bolsheviks were scattered to the four corners of globe. Among others, V. I. Lenin was in Switzerland, L. D. Trotsky and N. I. Bukharin were in New York City, and I. V. Stalin, Ya. M. Sverdlov and L. B. Kamenev, in Siberia in exile near the Arctic Circle. Bolshevik leaders at liberty in Petrograd and Moscow were few and far between. As soon as the tsar abdicated, the jails were opened, and exiled revolutionaries of whatever allegiance, wherever they were, hastened to make their way back to Russia. Stalin and others from Siberia were the first to arrive in Petrograd.
Trotsky booked passage home on a steamer from New York, but was arrested in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Held in a POW camp, he talked up revolution to German prisoners of war. «He is a man holding extremely strong views and of most powerful personality» observed one Canadian official: «his personality being such that after only a few days stay here he was by far the most popular man in the whole Camp with the German Prisoners of War, two-thirds of whom are Socialists». Canadian authorities therefore thought it best to get rid of him and sent Trotsky on his way.
Lenin was provided with a «sealed train» and safe passage to cross Germany to get back to Russia via Sweden. «Lanine (sic), the head of the Russian anarchist community in Zurich and thirty or so other Russian revolutionaries», reported the French ambassador in Berne, had left for home on 30 March/12 April. It did not take long for French diplomats to learn how to spell Lenin’s name. Ambassador Paléologue reported that he had returned on 3/16 April and that his first speech had been a failure, «totally alienating his audience». Some of Lenin’s colleagues thought he had become unbalanced, saying that February was only the beginning of the revolution and that the revolutionary masses could not stop halfway without taking power into their own hands. Conditional support for the Provisional Government was like shooting oneself in the foot. According to the French military attaché, Lenin treated the SRs and Mensheviks as «rotten» detritus of the revolutionary movement. No one could hurl invective as effectively as Lenin. But some of his colleagues threw it back at him, claiming he had lost his reason and become a «raving anarchist».
Believe me, Lenin was no anarchist. If the Petrograd Soviet supported the Provisional Government however cautiously, it would dig its own grave and halt the revolution in its tracks. Lenin was right and not the least bit mad, for this is exactly what people like Kerensky and Milyukov had in mind. He quickly shook the cobwebs out of the heads of his Bolshevik colleagues, winning majorities for his ideas in party conferences in April.
Russia was in chaos, and the common people responsible for the February Revolution, would not wait long for action on their agenda of land and peace
Lenin soon gained a wider audience amongst workers and soldiers in Petrograd. British diplomats often saw him or one of his colleagues addressing revolutionary crowds not far from the British embassy. Russia was in chaos, and the menu peuple, the common people responsible for the February Revolution, would not wait long for action on their agenda of land and peace. We have to support the Provisional Government, Paléologue wrote to Paris in early April, for otherwise, if it disappears, we face «a leap into the unknown». «The situation of the Provisional Government is critical», he wrote a day later. The French ambassador recognised that the Provisional Government could gain no popular support by standing against Land and Peace. In fact, the two issues were linked. Russian soldiers, who were mostly peasants, made it plain to anyone who would listen that they did not care a pin about the Provisional Government or any constituent assembly to decide the land question. They were determined to benefit from immediate redistribution of lands and did not want to be killed beforehand.
«The total number of desertions [from the army]», reported General Maurice Janin, head of the French Military Mission, «is enormous… I have calculated a number so high (more than one million) that I do not dare to guarantee it».
General Maurice Janin
The Provisional Government could never take the upper hand against the Petrograd Soviet in spite of Kerensky’s private boasting of a dictatorship. Whether it was Paléologue or General Janin, the message was the same. The Provisional Government had no authority. There were food shortages in Petrograd and disorders and fights in front of bakeries and food shops as people tried to obtain provisions. The army was mutinous. Officers have no authority, Paléologue reported, and are repeatedly humiliated and insulted. «The streets are full of soldiers looking for trouble… rifles slung over their shoulders». They commandeer tramways and trains, and no one can control them because the police have been «massacred, jailed or dispersed». Into this situation Lenin has now waded, reported Paléologue: he is encouraging the peasants to push for an immediate redistribution of the land. «No argument can be more persuasive in the eyes of a Russian soldier».
The Foreign Minister Milyukov did not see matters with the same lucidity as the French ambassador. Milyukov wanted to keep Russia in the war and send soldiers back to the front where they would be made to fight the Germans and to forget about the revolution. This was the Allied hope as well, at least in Allied capitals. With all the blood that had been spilled on the western front, there could be no question of a negotiated peace and the renunciation of «programmes of conquest». The French high command was planning a new spring offensive and directed General Janin to obtain Russian consent for an offensive in the east to distract the Germans. Clearly, the generals in Paris had no clue what was going on in Russia, in spite of Janin’s and Paléologue’s best efforts to enlighten them. As it turned out, the French offensive proved a catastrophe, prompting widespread mutinies in the French army and giving the French high command a strong taste of what their Russian counterparts were facing.
It was not for nothing that on 14/27 March the Petrograd Soviet issued a manifesto calling for an end to the war based on no annexations and no indemnities. For Milyukov and his «liberal» colleagues, the Soviet call for negotiations to end the war could not be left unchallenged, however weak the position of the Provisional Government. Milyukov issued a statement for the press saying that Russia would continue to fight for Ukrainian territories under Austro-Hungarian suzerainty and for Constantinople and the Straits of the Bosporus and Dardanelles.
It was not for nothing that on 14/27 March the Petrograd Soviet issued a manifesto calling for an end to the war based on no annexations and no indemnities
«No, Russia would not fight for conquest,» came the Petrograd Soviet’s reply. Nothing could have more incensed even the milquetoast socialists in the capital. During the «April Crisis» soldiers and workers went back into the streets. Even the Bolsheviks had to run to catch up with the revolutionary masses in Petrograd. The Soviet’s preoccupation with peace irritated Paléologue who suggested that the flagging Russians, should they exit the war, could cover the costs of an eventual Allied victory.
The Provisional Government backed down against the Petrograd Soviet, and Milyukov resigned in mid-May. Six SRs and Mensheviks entered the cabinet to try to give the Provisional Government a legitimacy it had heretofore lacked. In the end their presence in the government could not give it a democratic patina for Prince Lvov still headed the cabinet along with eight other so-called liberals. Kerensky, the potential dictator, became minister for war. It was the Petrograd Soviet and other Soviets across the country—tumultuous, boisterous democratic assemblies of soldiers, workers and peasants—who represented the long repressed democratic instincts of the Russian people. It was not the defunct Imperial Duma, or its liberal debris taking portfolios in the Provisional Government, which could do that, as events in Petrograd and elsewhere in Russia would soon demonstrate.