A revolution forsaken? Why Russia is ignoring its first flirtation with liberalism

Before the October Revolution in which the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, there was the February Revolution that toppled the czar and installed a pro-West liberal government. But a century later, that government is a footnote.

Postcards featuring Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin are on display in 2014 at a souvenir shop in St. Petersburg, Russia.But items about the February Revolution, which marks its centenary this year, are hard to find.

The historical core of this city, with its golden spires, onion domes, and rambling czarist palaces, has been marvelously preserved by successive regimes. At this time of year, the Neva River is frozen solid, the sky is leaden, there’s a biting wind off the Baltic Sea, and the city’s stunning but eclectic array of architectural gems seems sharpened by frost.

It’s almost easy to picture the huge crowds of hungry women, striking workers, and mutinous soldiers who surged exactly a century ago through these streets demanding peace and bread. By paralyzing the Russian Empire’s capital city, then named Petrograd, they unexpectedly brought the mighty 300-year-old Romanov Dynasty tumbling down.

Most Russians are aware that their country experienced two revolutions during that fateful year of 1917. But, aside from historians and a few political activists, few appear interested in commemorating or even discussing the February Revolution that briefly brought to power a mix of pro-Western liberals and democrats. For the first time in Russian history, they declared freedom of speech, the press, and public assembly, and pledged to transform Russia into a “normal” European country.

But the liberal-dominated Provisional Government was rapidly overwhelmed and swept away by leftist radicals using the very political freedoms the liberals had enacted. That was followed by a savage civil war, famine that killed millions, and 70 years of a new kind of autocracy in the form of the Soviet Union.

Russian public indifference to a centenary that would in almost any other country be considered an occasion for official celebration may be understandable. “There’s a bit of interest in the February Revolution now that the anniversary is upon us, but not very much,” says Lev Lurye, a specialist in local history. “This is a story with a very bad ending, and nobody likes that.”

But there may be deeper reasons why many people seem reluctant to confront the February Revolution or analyze its profound failure. It’s too close to home. There are obvious parallels with the events surrounding the collapse of the USSR seven decades later, which remain sharply controversial to this day.

A window slammed shut

Many Americans have a glancing familiarity with the revolutionary pageant that unfolded in St. Petersburg a century ago – perhaps gleaned from Hollywood movies like “Nicholas and Alexandra” and “Doctor Zhivago.” But like Russians, their view of the democratic window that opened in the freezing February of 1917 may be colored by the seeming inevitability of the Bolshevik Revolution that slammed it shut in October.

Yet no one saw the second revolution coming. With the collapse of czarism, the field was wide open, and the possibilities seemed vast. Indeed, in early January of that very year, the future founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, who was enduring his 10th year of bitter exile in Switzerland, wrote in a despairing letter to a friend that “we will not see the revolution in our lifetime.”

Three years of World War I, in which Russia was allied with Britain and France against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, had killed millions of Russians and put intolerable strains on the country’s backward economy. Czar Nicholas II, more of a family man than a national leader, appeared indecisive and out of touch, and even members of his own family were plotting against him.

The crunch came in late February (according to the calendar that Russia used at the time; it’s about two weeks behind the Western calendar used today). Visiting troops at the front, Nicholas II was informed about the bread riots and collapse of order in St. Petersburg. At a remote train station, the czar was persuaded by leaders of the Russian legislature, or Duma, to sign his abdication, and the Provisional Government, composed mainly of liberals and center-leftists, was formed in the capital.

“Liberals picked up power because they were the biggest group in the State Duma and best positioned to assume government,” says Yevgeny Sizyonov, another specialist in local history. “They declared that a constitutional assembly would be elected to write a constitution and create a new, democratic state. They had a lot of popular support at first.”

Liberal reform had the support of educated middle- and upper-class people in St. Petersburg and other big Russian cities, and it might have worked if there had been enough time, says Sergei Spiridonov, a historian at the Museum of Political History in Russia. Mr. Spiridonov is the creator of the museum’s one-room exhibit about the February Revolution, which is one of very few official nods of recognition of the event.

“It was a crossroads where Russia might have taken the path to European democracy,” he says. But, he adds, the Provisional Government would have had to crush the Bolsheviks and other left-wing forces.

But it insisted on continuing the war; loyalty to the Western allies was a core principle for the liberals. Apart from announcing basic freedoms, they put off fundamental reforms until after the constitutional assembly had met and decided on a new charter of laws.

Meanwhile, peasants were seizing land from the aristocracy, soldiers were shooting their officers and deserting, and workers were taking control of factories. The socialist-led Petrograd Soviet – an assembly of “workers and soldiers’ deputies” that paralleled the Provisional Government – approved of these actions, while the liberals seemed to dither.

Lenin arrived in April with other Russian revolutionaries on a train arranged by the German High Command, who hoped that a Lenin victory would take Russia out of the war. The Germans’ hope was fulfilled by the October seizure of power by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. “If only there were no Bolsheviks,” says Spiridonov. “They were ruthless, wanted power at any price, and would do anything to keep it.”

Reasons for the turn of events

Some describe the Provisional Government’s failure to act decisively as incompetence. But others argue that it was a matter of fundamental conviction for the moderates who made up the new government.

“As liberals, they believed they were a temporary government, and didn’t want to give in to revolutionary impulses,” says Nikolai Smirnov, director of the official Institute of History in St. Petersburg. “They thought they had time and were very concerned that any major reforms should be enacted by the constitutional assembly, so they would have proper legal underpinnings. They hoped to create the institutions of democracy, which would then resolve the main issues like peace, land reform, and workers’ rights. But in a time of revolution, it’s fatal to fall behind events.”

The lesson, argues Vitaly Milonov, an ultraconservative member of the State Duma, is that liberals naively believe that the antidote to autocracy is democracy and political freedom, but Russians – who have lived under authoritarian governance for 1,000 years – do not want that. Mr. Milonov, one of the few prominent Russians who thinks the date of the February Revolution should be given official recognition, says he has introduced a private bill into the Duma to have it declared “a day of national tragedy.”

“Every liberal revolution ends in a totalitarian way. The February Revolution brought only incomprehensible chaos that the Russian people could not bear. They may have suffered from the czar, but they suffered more from the lack of a czar,” he says.

“It was a moral and spiritual tragedy, one of the worst times in Russian history. The Bolsheviks, who had their own strong set of values, brought that period to an end in October – with a lot of public support.”

Drawing parallels

It is hard not to see parallels between the February Revolution and Russia’s more recent collapse of empire and subsequent flirtation with pro-Western liberalism: the fall of the USSR.

In that case, a liberalizing Communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced basic freedoms and legislative elections in hopes of strengthening and legitimizing the Soviet system. Instead, he empowered its enemies, and state power rapidly ebbed away. Mr. Gorbachev resigned in late 1991 and the government collapsed with a whimper, much as had happened with the czar’s abdication.

As before, pro-Western liberals were the first to pick up power amid the ruins of the great state, but they did not last very long. And, again, a situation of dual power developed, this time between President Boris Yeltsin and his conservative-dominated parliament. That was settled during two days of bloody fighting in downtown Moscow in October 1993.

Many people believe it was Vladimir Putin who restored autocratic rule in Russia. But it was actually Mr. Yeltsin – at first a champion of liberal reforms – who used his victory over parliament to write a new, authoritarian constitution and create an oligarch-dominated economy.

That paved the way for President Putin, who has installed a fresh version of Russian autocracy, with a largely ornamental parliament and a state agenda that is shaped without much public input. Nevertheless, historians say, outcomes the second time around were much happier: There was no civil war, and Russia did not descend into totalitarianism. Russia today has traditional top-down, one-man rule, but it also has personal freedoms, a consumer economy, and at least a formal – though tamed – multiparty parliamentary system.

“We live today in the softest variant of the traditional Russian state,” says Daniil Kotsyubinsky, a historian and author of several books about St. Petersburg’s past, “and we can probably thank the memory of those terrible events a century ago for ensuring that everyone was careful not to repeat them after the Soviet Union collapsed.”

How historians see it

Some historians argue that the cycles of Russian history are inescapable. There is a lot of evidence, even from the past century, that the collapse of a great autocratic Russian state results in chaos and confusion, which is inevitably followed by a restoration of autocratic rule.

Many conservatives claim that Russia is a separate civilization, more collectively minded than the West, and that this is the form of government the people naturally prefer. They point to the overwhelming public approval of Putin, who has created a system that looks a lot like czarism without the dynasty, to buttress that claim.

Yet others point out that Russia has changed, and hence revolution is not the only alternative to tough authoritarianism.

“In 1917, we had 85 percent of the population living as illiterate peasants in the countryside. By 1991, the urban population was 85 percent, and they were educated people with a very different mind-set,” says Mr. Lurye, one of the local historians. “However things may look, Russia is richer and more liberal than at any time in its past. Today there is no 1917 on the horizon, and the chances for gradual, evolutionary change look good.”

Historical memory plays a role as well. Despite the passage of a century, the horrors of civil war, famine, and Communist excesses remain ingrained in the public mind.

“The majority of Russians will pay a big price to avoid revolution; they crave stability above all,” says Boris Kolonitsky, a historian at the European University at St. Petersburg. “We have overfulfilled our quota of revolutions. This feeling is a huge source of support for the present regime.”

Mr. Smirnov, director of the official History Institute, says the fear of chaos and civil war was palpable among Russia’s educated classes amid the Soviet collapse. But so, he insists, was wisdom. That was displayed by Gorbachev, who resigned and let the USSR fade away peacefully, and also by Yeltsin, who reconciled with his parliamentary opponents after defeating them.

“The past has definitely made Russians wiser,” he says. “We went through those terrible events after 1917, and 70 years of Soviet life, and they have amply demonstrated to us that to destroy is always easier than to build. We didn’t repeat the worst aspects of that history after the Soviet Union fell apart because we had learned those lessons, and we knew better.”

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