From Tsar to U.S.S.R.: Russia's Chaotic Year of Revolution

In January 1917, Tsar Nicholas II ruled Russia while Bolshevik Vladmir Lenin lived in exile. By October, revolution had reversed their roles, leaving the former tsar a prisoner and Lenin holding all the power.

Its events paved the way for the Soviet Union. It dominated the politics of the 20th century, and it has left an indelible mark on the contemporary world. But when Russia’s year of revolution began in the bitterly cold February of 1917, many revolutionaries did not, at first, pay much attention.

The first sign that something big was happening was on International Women’s Day—February 23, 1917, in the old Russian calendar. Crowds of female factory workers gathered in the center of Petrograd, the Russian capital (formerly known as St. Petersburg). Even as disaffected and hungry workers, male and female, joined in the protests, some revolutionaries remained skeptical. Aleksandr Shlyapnikov was a leading figure of the Bolshevik movement, whose leader, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, had been living outside Russia for long periods of time since 1900. Shlyapnikov observed on February 25: “Give the workers a pound of bread and the movement will peter out.”

Despite initial doubts that the growing February protests would amount to much, many observers at the time—including Lenin’s Bolsheviks, Russian liberals, and foreign diplomats—were nevertheless certain that a revolution was only a matter of time.

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