The February Revolution of 1917
Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart had a distinguished career as a diplomat, writer and director-general of Churchill's Political Warfare Executive during the Second World War. But as a young diplomat and Acting Consul-General in Moscow, he was caught up in a chain of events that included being head of Britain's first mission to the Bolshevik Government, subsequent involvement in a plot to overthrow them, and imprisonment in the Kremlin - worthy of a novel by Le Carre. At a time when Russia again faces crisis, it is highly topical to republish Lockhart's recollections - carried in the February 1957 issue of History Today - on The February Revolution of 1917.
March 10th of this year will be the fortieth anniversary of the almost forgotten Russian Revolution which, because the Tsarist calendar was thirteen days behind our own, is known historically as ‘The February Revolution'. The Soviet Government never mentions it. On the contrary, as the year 1957 will also include the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik October Revolution, the Communists are preparing an elaborate campaign to celebrate their own seizure of power, and will either ignore or merely deride the February Revolution.
Nevertheless, the February Revolution took place with the unanimous approval of nearly all sections of the Russian people. It was achieved almost without bloodshed. Within three days it had destroyed 300 years of Tsarism, and for a week or two it raised hopes throughout the world that Russia would slide smoothly and painlessly from despotism into democracy. These hopes were extravagant. War-time is a harsh climate for the birth and growth of a new democracy, especially when 70 per cent of its members are illiterate.
I was fortunate enough to be a privileged witness both of the events that led up to the February Revolution and of the Revolution itself. I had gone to Moscow as a Vice-consul in the early days of 1912. I had spent two and a half happy years of peace under Tsarism and by 1914 had acquired a knowledge of the language. From the summer of 1915 I was Acting Consul-General in Moscow until September 1917, and in 1918 I was head of the first Special Mission to the Bolshevik Government. I knew most of the leading personalities in the political, literary and artistic life of Moscow, and I had personal friends in the various Provisional Governments that took once during the short period between the democratic Revolution of February 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution of October of the same year.
How did the February Revolution occur? Why did it fail so ignominiously? Ever since the French Revolution there had been attempts to liberalism and modify the despotic nature of the Tsarist regime. The attempts themselves were extreme, took the form of terrorism and assassination, and were inspired and carried out by the aristocracy and by that peculiarly Russian class, the intelligentsia. Up to the assassination of the Emperor Alexander II on March 13th, 1881, the nobility or dvorianstvo contributed 51 per cent of all persons arrested for political crimes. After the nobles come officials, lawyers, professors, doctors and students. In Russia, I should explain, the dvorianstvo was a rank which could be obtained by promotion in the armed forces and in the Civil Service. It then became hereditary. In this manner Lenin's father became a high official of the Ministry of Education and was entered on his passport as a dvorianin, a title inherited by his son. On the other hand, Sophie Perovskaia, who organised the assassination of Alexander II, was by birth of noble blood. Bakunin, too, belonged to an ancient family, and Herzen, as his name (Herzenskind) implies, was the natural son of a rich noble and a German Jewess. Not until the 1890s did Russian Marxism begin to take root, and not until 1903 did the Russian Social-Democrats split into Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.
The defeat of Russia by Japan in 1904-05 provoked a bloody revolt which, although it failed, was regarded by Lenin as a dress-rehearsal and object lesson for the future. It taught the revolutionaries one lesson. There was no chance of a successful rising unless Russia was engaged in a foreign war. In times of peace the proletariat and the peasants were too weak. War and the mobilization of hordes of men put arms into the hands of the people.
Nevertheless, the Russians entered the war of 1914-18 on a wave of patriotic emotion. The leading revolutionaries were either in exile or in Siberia. The ban on alcohol ensured an orderly mobilization, and the troops, bronzed by the summer sun, looked formidable as they sang their martial songs and swung through the streets on their way to the railway stations. At first all went well. While in the West the French and the British were pushed back, the Russians raced forward in the East. All the Allies were delighted, and the Daily Mail wrote joyfully of 'the Russian steam-roller'. There were disasters against the Germans at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, but they were partly compensated by big advances in Galicia.
The year 1915 was crucial but the early months showed no signs of the painful calamities to come, and the British in St Petersburg were still optimistic. My diary for March 10th, 1915, has the following entry: 'Hugh Walpole came back. He had seen all the correspondents in Petrograd: Hamilton Fyfe, Willcox, etc. They all believe in a revolution in Germany and the establishment of a democracy'. By May the Russians were in retreat even in Galicia, and soon everyone knew the reason. The Russians were short of shells. In August Warsaw fell. The Western Allies had failed to break through the Dardanelles. In mid-September the Grand Duke Nicholas, who enjoyed the confidence of the patriots, was relieved of his post of Commander- in-chief and the Tsar himself assumed the supreme command.
The reactions of the public were overcast by pessimism, although they were in conformity with the Russian character. Unlike the British, the Russians are not calm observers of the golden mean. Like their climate they go to extremes. They are capable of an immense effort for a short time and then relapse into the torpor of hibernation. 'They may change from exalted optimism to the lowest pessimism in the course of an evening.
Rumour spreads wide and sinks deep in an illiterate country, and from 1915 onwards rumour was rife. Its favourite targets were Rasputin and the Empress, popularly referred to as ‘the German', the Emperor who, superstition said, would never win a war, the allegedly pro-German reactionaries in Petrograd, and even the British who, the pro- Germans whispered, would fight to the last drop of Russian blood - a taunt that was revived in the Second World War. In a broad sense the feeling in Petrograd was half-defeatist, healthier and more patriotic in Moscow, and best of all at the front. Ripe for defeatist and revolutionary propaganda were the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged reservists who were called to the colours and, for lack of officers to train them, were left more or less idle in or near the main cities. And to Petrograd and Moscow lack of transport brought scarcity of food and near-famine.
Throughout the country the Zemstvos and town councils began to forward petitions to the Duma and to the Government demanding a Ministry that enjoyed the confidence of the people. This practice increased until even the marechaux de noblesse were preparing similar resolutions and sending them to the Emperor. The Emperor, unfortunately, had all the defects of a weak man, being obstinate when he should have been yielding, and woefully weak when he should have been strong. He was particularly obstinate with regard to the Duma, which he several times dissolved, although it was patriotic and pro-war. He had, too, an unhappy knack of retaining aged and incompetent ministers and of dismissing all ministers who showed efficiency and readiness to take action.
By 1916 many people had lost hope of a Russian victory and had begun to predict a revolution after the war. I had never held any great belief in the ‘Russian steam-roller' and at an early stage in the war had begun to warn our own authorities of the risk of revolution during the war. The situation which I have described continued to deteriorate until the end of 1916 when, on December 30th, the Grand Duke Dmitri, Prince Felix Yusupov, and M. Purishkevitch, a staunch Right-Wing Conservative, murdered Rasputin. Although they were clumsy killers, their motive was lofty, for their deed was committed in the hope of saving the dynasty. Instead, it hastened the revolution.
Long before this stage I had been making regular visits to Petrograd to see the ambassador, Sir George Buchanan. In January 1917, I walked with him along the bank of the Neva for half an hour, just before his audience with the Emperor; for he had resolved to make the most delicate of interventions. He would, he said, talk of Russia's difficulties. He would say that he saw two Tsars: the far-seeing and noble-minded Tsar Nicholas who created the Hague Tribunal and the Tsar Nicholas of 1916 who seemed to be separating himself from his people. If this went well, he would go further and refer to the Duma and to a Ministry enjoying the people's confidence. The ambassador, gentle, upright and devoted to duty, looked tired and free. He knew the risk and said to me: ‘lf the Emperor receives me sitting down all will be well'.
The Emperor received him standing up. The ambassador did his best, but the conversation made no headway. The Emperor's attitude was the same as his retort to the petitions of the marechaux de noblesse, although he did not repeat it to the ambassador: ‘What is all this talk about the people's confidence? Let the people merit my confidence'. Alarmed by the course of events, France, Britain and Italy sent a large delegation of high-ranking politicians and generals to Petrograd to stiffen the Russian attitude. I was attached to Lord Milner, the head of the British delegation, for his visit to Moscow. I took him to see the Moscow leaders, who told him that, if concessions to public opinion were not made speedily, there would be a revolution within three weeds.
Lord Milner was impressed, but he told me that in Petrograd he and his colleagues had been assured by every high dignitary, both Russian and ambassadorial, that there would be no revolution until after the war. Inevitably, this opinion went into the British report - not written by Lord Milner. The ink on it was scarcely dry when the revolution began.
Most revolutions have their origin in defeat in war. The revolt of the Communards in Paris was the answer to Sedan and the failure of Napoleon III. The Russian revolution of 1905 began with the retreat of the Russian troops from Mukden. The February Revolution of 1917 sprang from a bread-riot caused by the breakdown of transport during the war. At first the riot seemed in no way different from similar riots that had taken place sporadically since 1915; but by now the Petrograd garrison, composed of disgruntled reservists, was thoroughly disaffected. In a few days the bread-riot became a series of strikes, and finally a monster manifestation. On Saturday, March 10th, the Duma intervened and demanded a government enjoying the confidence of the country. The Tsar, who was at headquarters at Moghilev, replied by dissolving the Duma which however, remained sitting. On Sunday, March 11th, the Revolution was in full swing. On Monday the troops came over to the side of the people, and by Tuesday all was over.
For a few days the February Revolution appeared to many people both inside and outside of Russia as the gentlest revolution of all time. It was unanimous in the sense that all Russians felt that the Tsar must go. It was almost bloodless in Petrograd; completely so in Moscow. It took place in one of the coldest spells that I can remember; but in Moscow at least the sun shone brilliantly on the blue and gold cupolas of the Kremlin so that they glistened like globes of fire. I spent the days of March 12th and 15th in the streets, and the good humour and enthusiasm of the crowd kept me warm. Making my way to the City Duma, I was quickly recognised, and there were cheers for Britain. On entering the City clambers, I found the Social-Revolutionaries and Social-Democrats in full force. My old friend, Michael Chelnokov, who was the Mayor, was still there, ‘fighting for his life,' as he said to me; but I felt that his days of office were numbered. Yet the crowd outside, pouring out great clouds of breath in the keen, frosty air, was in its gentlest mood. Utopia had come. The war would be won. With freedom all would be well.
It was not only the Russians who thought that a new era had dawned. Hugh Walpole, who saw Russia emotionally and imperfectly, wrote home lyrical descriptions of the perfect revolution. In his entrancing book, Background with Chorus, Mr Frank Swinnerton prints his reply to Walpole's letter and writes: ‘It (the Revolution) must have been exciting and inspiring, one would say - one of the splendid underlings of the war; and if it can be made to last, a beautiful new era for the world. It will be curious to find Russia leading the world in liberal ideas. Is that really possible?’ Leading British Liberals believed, or professed to believe, that it was possible. Lloyd George, then Prime Minister, sent a warm message of congratulation to the new Provisional Government which was announced almost simultaneously with the abdication of the Tsar. It was headed by Prince Lvov who, with Michael Chelnokov, had earned a high reputation during the war as head of Zemgor, the combined title of the Zemstvos and Cities' Union. Prince Lvov, an honest Liberal of the English type, was a good friend of mine, and I had other friends among the Moscow Ministers who were strongly represented in the new Government.
During March I attended in my official capacity a review of the Moscow troops on the Red Square. Thirty-three thousand troops took part in the march past. The discipline and the marching were impressive. A few days later the Socialists held a monster demonstration in Moscow, and again I had to admit that the behaviour of the crowd was exemplary. Nevertheless, as early as March 15th I had written in my diary: Still wintry weather and very cold. The first stage of the Revolution has been a wonderful success. I dread, however, the subsequent settling-down'. By March 23rd I had finished a long analysis of the Revolution for the ambassador and had taken a firm line: ‘It seems impossible', I wrote, ‘that the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat can pass of without bloodshed . . . The outlook for the war is not good'.
Two factors, imperfectly understood in the first enthusiasm, had sapped the vitality of the ‘perfect Revolution' at its birth. The Duma, afraid of revolution during the war, had been too slow in taking action. While it was passing resolutions, the people, aided by the revolt of the Petrograd and Moscow garrisons, were destroying the old regime. The revolution was made in the street, and the street had set up a rival government in the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. In Petrograd the Soviet installed itself in the very chamber in which the Duma had sat. From the first, therefore, a dual power existed which also created a division of the people into bourjui, ‘bourgeois', and 'the people'.
In the early stages this dual power, weak and sterile as it was, did not appear so dangerous for the Social-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were in a vast majority in the Soviet and the Bolsheviks were not only few in number but lacked their leaders and had no following in the country. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, the new Government, under pressure from the Soviet, went from extreme reaction to the extremity of liberty. All the freedoms were released at once. Every street corner became a would-be orator's rostrum. With the censorship lifted, newspapers appeared like mushrooms and printed what they liked. Every illiterate peasants or worker became an incipient politician. The ministries were besieged by petitioners and place-seekers. Interminable speeches took the place of action.
Worse still, even the lowest gaolbirds were released from the prisons, and the Bolshevik political exiles, as soon as they were freed, began to denounce the socialist-patriots as traitors and to demand peace. Yet many of these political exiles were welcomed back almost as heroes. Even before Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin had found their way home, Bolshevik newspapers had appeared in both Petrograd and Moscow and, demanding the immediate cessation of hostilities, reviled Britain and France.
Meanwhile, there was only one Socialist Minister in the first Provisional Government, and this was Alexander Kerensky, who was not only Minister of Justice but also the liaison Minister between the Government and the Soviet. I was the first British official to meet him and to interpret for him at his first interview with the ambassador. Later, when he was being hunted by the Bolsheviks, I helped him to escape from Russia; and a friendship, begun in 1917, has been maintained ever since by correspondence and by meetings in London and New York. A lawyer by profession, he had made a reputation for himself as a fearless defender of Russians arrested for political crimes. Lenin and he were born in Simbirsk. Their families were on friendly relations, and Kerensky's father became the executor of the will of Lenin's father and was responsible for sending Lenin to the university.
After Viviani, Kerensky was the most moving orator that I have heard. For a few feverish weeds he was regarded by the vast majority of his countrymen as the man of destiny. This is not the place in which to recount the gradual paralysis and final extinction of the various Provisional Governments from March 15th to November 7th, 1917. The fate of the Government was determined by the rising tide of socialism and by the attitude of the people towards the war. The first Provisional Government, which lasted from March 15th to May 15th, contained Ministers like Miliukov and Guchkov, who not only honoured the war treaties with France and Great Britain but also wished to acquire the promised Russian rewards, such as the prize of Constantinople. They also had scruples regarding the confiscation of all land in favour of the peasantry. They were in favour of preparing a proper scheme for peasantry proprietorship. On the other hand, even those Socialists who accepted the necessity of a defensive war wanted a peace ‘without annexations and contributions' (reparations). The Bolshevik slogans were much simpler: 'the land by seizure and peace by your own legs'. The strength of the appeal to an ignorant and war-weary people was cumulative, as, urged by the Allies, the Provisional Government did their best to keep Russia in the war.
On May 15th Miliukov and Guchkov had to go, and Kerensky became Minister of War. At the end of June he ordered an offensive on the south-west front where the Austrian enemy was weakest. At first it had a great success, and for a few days Moscow, at least, recovered its patriotism. Soon, however, German reinforcements threw the Russians back in confusion. It was the beginning of the end. In July the Bolsheviks attempted a coup de force in Petrograd. It failed completely, and orders were issued for the arrest of Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. But the trouble-makers had fled to Finland or were in hiding. On July 20th Prince Lvov resigned, and Kerensky became Prime Minister. His power, nevertheless, had already waned. I heard him speak in Moscow in June before the offensive, and he had moved his audience as no actor, no singer, no dancer has ever done. In the box next to me was General Wogak, a reactionary who had been Tsarist military attache in London, and he wept like a child. I heard Kerensky speak again in late August. His magic was still there, but it no longer charmed. The bourgeoisie was divided. One section hoped the Bolsheviks would take power, because manifestly they could not last two months. Another section was already thinking how fine it would be if the Germans were to advance to Moscow and Petrograd and restore order. More and more of the people wanted peace at any price.
In September came the crowning folly which was to open wide the gages to Bolshevism. I refer, of course, to General Kornilov's attempted coup d'etat. Brave as the bravest, but devoid of any political sense, he failed disastrously, partly through his own hesitations, but mainly because his own men went over to the people. By his own failure he destroyed Kerensky. The Bolsheviks won the majority in both the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, and on November 7th they easily took over power. The only people to provide any real resistance to the Bolshevik coup were the young military cadets of Moscow.
It remains for me to try to explain why the ‘unanimous Revolution' so quickly collapsed. I have already indicated several reasons. Today in retrospect I must put first the supreme difficulty of setting up a democracy by revolution and of maintaining it during a war in which Russia had borne the hardest privations and the heaviest losses. Moreover, the people's desire for peace was magnified by the stupendous failure of Tsarism in conducting the war. No Western people would have endured so long the mishandling of foodstuffs, the lack of weapons and ammunition, the complete breakdown of transport, and the mobilization of unwanted and unemployable troops.
In my Memoirs of a British Agent I wrote: ‘There was only one way to save Russia from going Bolshevik. That was to allow her to make peace. It was because he could not make peace that Kerensky went under'. I stand by this statement even more firmly today. It would of course have been a miracle if France and Great Britain had allowed Prince Lvov or Kerensky to make a separate peace with the Germans, even on terms that might not have been wholly disadvantageous to the Western Allies. But the Allies cannot be wholly acquitted from blame. In 1917 the Russian armies were still holding a large number of German divisions on the Russian front. It was undoubtedly a mistake for the Allies to exert so much pressure on the provisional government and to urge it to start a hopeless offensive. It was worse than a mistake for them to encourage Gernal Kornilov in his attempt to seize power. Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador, was not at fault. Indeed, he is fully exonerated by Kerensky. But both the French ambassador and the French military missions were hot supporters of the Kornilov adventure; and it is no secret that our own military representatives hoped much from it. To prove that this is not a solitary or personal opinion I quote a paragraph from the excellent book on the Revolution by the late Ferdinand Grenard, the French Consul-General in Moscow and an outstanding authority on Russia:
The Allies were blinded in their desire to prolong the military collaboration at all costs. They failed entirely to see what was possible at the moment and what was not. They were simply playing into Lenin's hands, estranging Kerensky, the President of the Provisional Government, from the people.
I agreed then with this verdict, and I agree with it now. Nevertheless, the Russian aristocracy and bourgeoisie must bear the main blame. The change from reaction to complete freedom was too sudden, and the unanimity of the first few days was split into countless divisions. Most foolish of all was the belief, strong both in the aristocracy and in the bourgeoisie, that the Bolsheviks could not last for more than a few weeds, and that therefore they should be encouraged to oust Kerensky. There is, too, the failure of Kerensky to arrest Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolsheviks and traitors. It is difficult today to defend this weakness, but psychologically it was inevitable that, after the change from Tsarism to all the freedoms, leaders should arise who did not shoot or arrest their enemies. Incidentally, we British allowed Trotsky to come back to Russia and, before doing so, took his finger-prints while he struggled violently on the deck of the steamer.