Russian Revolts (1905-1917)

Between 1905 and 1917 there was great unrest in Russian which was directed at the autocracy, the Tsars, by the peasants. While the revolt in 1905 is a failure, the two 1917 revolts led to the rise of the Soviet Union and the assassination of the Emperor Nicholas II and his family.

The Moscow uprising, which was centered in Moscow’s Presnia district between December 7 and 17, 1905, was the culminating point of the Revolution of 1905. Thousands of proletariat workers joined in an armed insurrection against the Imperial Government for better socio-democratic conditions. The uprising ended in defeat for the Bolshevik revolutionaries and provoked a swift counter-revolution that lasted till 1907. Moscow’s Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries planned a revolt on December 5 and hastily called a general strike on December 7. During the first two days, the strike went on peacefully. On December 9, the situation changed. There were four soviets of workers’ deputies coordinating the uprising. The governor of Moscow, Vice Admiral Fyodor Dubasov, tried to arrest the ringleaders, which merely provoked a city-wide uprising. The revolt was based in Maxim Gorky’s apartment—bombs were made in the study and food for the revolutionaries in the kitchen. Gorky disliked the Bolsheviks’ dogmatic collectivism but saw them as an ally against the backward peasants and Tsar. The Joint Council of Volunteer Fighting Squads armed the workers with 800 stockpiled weapons. Barricades were made from whatever people laid their hands on, even overturned trams. 2,000 manned the barricades with 200 guns. The police tried to dismantle them to no avail. Workers were joined by students and even some bourgeois, angered at the violence of the government. About 150 representatives of Moscow’s worker squads gathered at Fidler’s technical school, where thousands of worker squads had received military training. Troops shelled Fidler from 10 pm to 3 am despite the besieged waving the white flag. Most workers were killed. On the following day, the SRs (Socialist Revolutionary Party) bombed the HQ of the Moscow Okhrana (secret police) at night. On December 11th, the Bolsheviks issued a handbook on street fighting. The military wing of the Moscow Committee of the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party sends out a pamphlet to its members during the uprising. On December 12th, six of the seven railway stations and many districts were in rebel hands. 50 officers were seized as they arrived by train. The troops and artillery were hemmed in the squares and Kremlin. By the following week, the situation became more violent with the head of the Moscow Okhrana was assassinated and Presnia (a district of Moscow) was shelled. On December 18th, General Min ordered the last assault: “Act without mercy. There will be no arrests.” Realizing its loss, on the 19th, the Moscow Committee of Social-Democratic Workers’ Party ordered its comrades back to work. The commander of Presnia’s fighting unit Litvin-Sedoy issued a last communiqué: “We are ending our struggle… We are alone in this world. All the people are looking at us — some with horror, others with deep sympathy. Blood, violence and death will follow in our footsteps. But it does not matter. The working class will win.”

The February Revolution was the first of two revolutions in Russia in 1917. It was centered on Petrograd (now known as St. Petersburg), the then Russian capital, on Women’s Day in March. The revolution was confined to the capital and lasted less than a week. It involved mass demonstrations and armed clashes with police and gendarmes, (the last loyal forces of the Russian monarchy). The first major protest of the February Revolution occurred on 7 March 1917 as workers of Putilov, (Russian machine-building manufacturing plant), announced a strike to demonstrate against the government. By 1917, the majority of Russians had lost faith in the Tsarist regime: Government corruption was unrestrained, and Tsar Nicholas II had frequently disregarded the Dumas (The State Duma or Imperial Duma was a legislative assembly in the late Russian Empire). Thousands of workers flooded the streets of Petrograd (modern St. Petersburg) to show their dissatisfaction.

On 8 March, Putilov protesters were joined in uprising by those celebrating International Woman’s Day and protesting against the government’s implemented food rationing. As the Russian government began rationing flour and bread, rumors of food shortages circulated and bread riots erupted across the city of Petrograd. Women, in particular, were passionate in showing their dissatisfaction with the implemented rationing system, and the female workers marched to nearby factories to recruit over 50,000 workers for strike. Both men and women flooded the streets of Petrograd with red flags and banners which read “Down with the Autocracy!”. By the following day, nearly 200,000 protesters filled the streets, demanding the replacement of the Tsar with a more progressive political leader. The protesting mob called for the war to end and for the Russian monarchy to be overthrown. By 10 March, nearly all industrial enterprises in Petrograd were shut down by the uprising. On this day the Tsar decided to take action by wiring garrison commander General Khabalov to disperse the crowds with rifle fire. At least 180,000 troops were available in the capital, but most were either partially trained recruits or older working-class reservists from the Petrograd area recalled for duty. The reserve battalions of the Imperial Guard, which made up the bulk of the Petrograd garrison, had a serious shortage of officers and the morale and discipline of these units was low. Rumors spread that police had been armed with machine guns and placed in the upper stories of buildings throughout the city. While apparently unfounded, these reports resulted in attacks on individual policemen throughout the city. Then, on 11 March, the Tsar ordered the army to suppress the rioting by force, but troops mutinied and joined the protesters. On the morning of 12 March, mutinous soldiers of the fourth company of the Pavlovski replacement regiment refused to fall in on parade when commanded, shot two officers, and joined the protesters on the streets. Other regiments quickly joined in the mutiny, resulting in the hunting down of police and the gathering of 40,000 rifles which were dispersed among the workers. By nightfall, General Khabalov and his forces faced a capital controlled by revolutionaries. The protesters of Petrograd burned down government buildings, seized the arsenal, and released prisoners into the city. Army officers retreated into hiding and many took refuge in the Admiralty building of Petrograd. In all, over 1,300 people were killed in the protests of March 1917. The Tsar had returned to his frontline base at Stavka on 7 March. After violence erupted, however, Mikhail Rodzianko, Chairman of the Duma, sent the Tsar a report of the chaos in a telegram, Nicholas’ response on 12 March, perhaps based on the Empress’ earlier letter to him that the concern about Petrograd was an over-reaction, was one of irritation that “again, this fat Rodzianko has written me lots of nonsense, to which I shall not even deign to reply

Meanwhile, events unfolded in Petrograd. The bulk of the garrison mutinied, starting with the Volynsky Life Guards regiment. Even the Cossack units that the government had come to use for crowd control showed signs that they supported the people. Although few actively joined the rioting, many officers were either shot or went into hiding; the ability of the garrison to hold back the protests was all but nullified, symbols of the Tsarist regime were rapidly torn down around the city and governmental authority in the capital collapsed — not helped by the fact that Nicholas had prorogued the Duma that morning, leaving it with no legal authority to act. The response of the Duma, urged on by the liberal bloc, was to establish a Temporary Committee to restore law and order; meanwhile, the socialist parties re-established the Petrograd Soviet, first created during the 1905 revolution, to represent workers and soldiers. The remaining loyal units switched allegiance the next day. The Bolsheviks created a revolutionary military committee within the Petrograd soviet, led by the soviet’s president, Trotsky. The committee included armed workers, sailors and soldiers, and assured the support or neutrality of the capitol’s garrison. The committee methodically planned to seize strategic locations through the city, almost without concealing their preparations: The Provisional Government’s president Kerensky was himself aware of them, and some details, leaked by Kamenev and Zinoviev, were published in newspapers. On 7 November 1917, Bolsheviks led their forces in the uprising in Petrograd against the Kerensky Provisional Government. The event coincided with the arrival of a flotilla (a fleet of boats) of pro-Bolshevik marines, primarily five destroyers and their crew, into the St. Petersburg harbor. At Kronstadt, sailors also announced their allegiance to the Bolshevik insurrection. In the early morning, the military-revolutionary committee planned the last of the locations to be assaulted or seized from its heavily guarded and picketed center in Smolny palace. The Red Guards (Red Guards were paramilitary volunteer formations consisting mainly of factory workers and peasants) systematically captured major government facilities, key communication, installations and vantage points with little opposition. The Petrograd Garrison and most of the city’s military units joined the insurrection against the Provisional Government. Kerensky and the provisional government were virtually helpless to offer significant resistance. Railways and rail stations had been controlled by Soviet workers and soldiers for days, making rail travel to and from Petrograd, for Provisional Government officials, impossible. The Provisional Government was also unable to locate any serviceable vehicles. On the morning of the insurrection, Kerensky desperately searched for a means of reaching military forces he hoped would be friendly to the Provisional government outside the city, and ultimately borrowed a Renault car from the American Embassy, which he drove from the Winter Palace alongside a Pierce Arrow. Kerensky was able to evade the pickets going up around the palace and drive to meet oncoming soldiers. As Kerensky left Petrograd, Lenin penned a proclamation “To the Citizens of Russia” stating that the Provisional Government had been overthrown by the Military Revolutionary Committee. The proclamation was sent via telegram all throughout Russia, even as the pro-Soviet soldiers were seizing important control centers throughout the city.

The insurrection was mostly bloodless, with a final assault being launched against the Winter Palace, poorly defended by 3,000 cadets, officers, cossacks (members of democratic, self-governing, semi-military communities) and female soldiers. The assault was delayed throughout the day, both because functioning artillery could not be found, and because the Bolsheviks feared violence when the insurrection had so far been peaceful. At 6:15 p.m., a large group of artillery cadets abandoned the palace, taking their artillery with them; at 8:00 p.m., 200 cossacks also left the palace and returned to their barracks. While the cabinet of the provisional government within the palace debated what action to take, the Bolsheviks issued an ultimatum to surrender. Workers and soldiers occupied the last of the telegraph stations, cutting off the cabinet’s communications with loyal military forces outside the city. As the night progressed, crowds of insurgents surrounded the palace, and many infiltrated it. At 9:45 p.m., the cruiser Aurora fired a blank shot from the harbor. By 2:00 a.m. on 8 November 1917 Bolshevik forces entered the palace, and after sporadic gunfire throughout the building, the cabinet of the provisional government surrendered. Around midnight, Yakov Yurovsky, the commandant of The House of Special Purpose, ordered the Romanovs’ physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, to awaken the sleeping family and ask them to put on their clothes, under the pretext that the family would be moved to a safe location due to impending chaos in Yekaterinburg. The Romanovs were then ordered into a basement room. The prisoners were told to wait in the cellar room while the truck that would transport them was being brought to the House. A few minutes later, an execution squad of secret police was brought in. The Empress and Grand Duchess Olga, according to a guard’s reminiscence, had tried to cross themselves, but failed amid the shooting. Yurovsky reportedly raised his gun at Nicholas’s torso and fired; Nicholas fell dead. Yurovsky then shot Alexei (Nicolas’ oldest son). The other executioners then began shooting chaotically until all the intended victims had fallen. Several more shots were fired and the doors opened to scatter the smoke. There were some survivors, so Peter Ermakov (a Russian Bolshevik) stabbed them with bayonets because the shots could be heard outside. The last to die were Tatiana, Anastasia, and Maria, (the three youngest of Nicolas’ daughters) who were carrying a few pounds of diamonds sewn into their clothing, which had given them a degree of protection from the firing. However, they were speared with bayonets as well. Olga sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Maria and Anastasia were said to have crouched up against a wall covering their heads in terror until they were shot down. Yurovsky himself killed Tatiana and Alexei. Tatiana died from a single bullet through the back of her head. Alexei received two bullets to the head, right behind the ear after the executioners realized he had not been killed by the first shot. Anna Demidova, Alexandra’s maid, survived the initial onslaught but was quickly stabbed to death against the back wall while trying to defend herself with a small pillow which she had carried that was filled with precious gems and jewels. The bodies of the Romanovs and their servants were transported to a mineshaft in the Koptyaki forest. They were stripped of their clothing and valuables, the former piled up and burned while Yurovsky took inventory of their jewellery. They were then lowered into a shallow pit and sprinkled with sulphuric acid. Yurovsky unsuccessfully tried to collapse the mine with hand grenades, after which his men covered it with loose earth and branches. They returned to the mineshaft on 18 July and hauled the bodies out for reburial at another location after the pit was deemed too shallow. During transportation to the deeper copper mines west of Ekaterinburg on 19 July, the Fiat truck carrying the bodies got stuck in a dip in the road near Porosenkov Log. At this point, Yurovsky decided to bury them under the road where the truck had stalled. His men dumped the bodies in a grave that was barely two feet deep. They were again doused in sulphuric acid, their faces smashed with rifle butts and finally covered with quicklime.

Yurovsky separated the Tsarevich Alexei and one of his sisters, either Maria or Anastasia, to be buried about 50 feet away, in an attempt to confuse anyone who might discover the mass grave with only nine bodies. Alexei and his sister were partially burned, pounded to fragments with shovels and tossed into a smaller grave.

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