Skip to main content

The February Revolution

The February or Menshevik Revolution took place between 8-12 March 1917 (23-27 February 1917 according to the Russian calender of the time). The first days of the revolution saw a growing wave of strikes and mass street protests in the Russian capital Petrograd (now St Petersburg) against the deprivations of the First World War and the rule of the autocratic government. Disobeying the orders of the Tsar to shoot the demonstrators, large sections of the army stationed in Petrograd mutinied and joined the protests. By 12 March the capital was in control of the revolutionaries and on 15 March Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate.

Petrograd, July 1917

After the Tsar's abdication two organisations shared administrative control of Russia - the Provisional Government, headed first by the Liberal Prince Georgy Lvov and later by the Socialist Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, and the socialist Petrograd Soviet (or workers' council). As news of the revolution spread, many political exiles returned to Russia, including Vladimir Lenin (from Switzerland), Leon Trotsky (from the United States), and the veteran anarchist Peter Kropotkin (from Britain). The initial optimism of the revolution soon disappeared as the Russian public was faced with food shortages, a continuing war, mass unemployment, a greatly increased cost of living, and a weak and divided government. Popular discontent against the Provisional Government came to a head in July 1917, when peaceful mass demonstrations were seen again on the streets of Petrograd - the authorities, supported by the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, responded with force, killing hundreds and ordering the arrest and imprisonment of leading Bolsheviks and other political opponents. Opposition to the Provisional Government continued to grow, with an attempted military coup by General Kornilov in August 1917 (which led to the release of the Bolsheviks from prison to help counter the threat), and its final overthrow by an armed uprising on 7 November 1917 (25 October 1917 according to the Russian calendar of the time) - the October or Bolshevik Revolution.

Many of the documents that we have digitised reflect the initial response of euphoria to the revolution amongst most of the political left in Britain. Russia had been seen as symbol of tyranny - a country which violently suppressed even relatively moderate political opposition. At a time when civil liberties in Britain were being eroded by the wartime Defence of the Realm Act, the revolution in Russia was hailed as a step forward towards liberty. Some British socialists also compared the events of March 1917 in Petrograd with the Easter Rising in Dublin a year earlier - paying tribute to James Connolly, the Irish socialist who had been executed for his leading role in the armed insurrection.

'Russia Free', the Royal Albert Hall rally, London, 31 March 1917

A fortnight after the abdication of the Tsar, a packed meeting at the Royal Albert Hall heard speeches from leading left-wing figures hailing 'Russia Free!'. According to the organisers of the meeting "five thousand people were turned disappointed from the doors" and, more than three years into the First World War, "the whole tone of the meeting was overwhelmingly pacifist and internationalist". The following resolution was passed: "This Meeting sends joyful congratulations to the Democrats of Russia, and calls upon the Governments of Great Britain and of every country, neutral and belligerent alike, to follow the Russian example by establishing Industrial Freedom, Freedom of Speech and the Press, the Abolition of Social, Religious and National inequalities, an immediate Amnesty for Political and Religious offences, and Universal Suffrage".

Speakers: George Lansbury (Chairman), Labour politician and pacifist; Henry Woodd Nevinson, journalist and socialist; Israel Zangwill, author; Robert Williams, trade union leader; Robert Smillie, trade union leader; Maude Royden, suffragist; Commander Josiah Wedgwood, Liberal Member of Parliament; Albert Bellamy, trade union leader; Arthur Lynch, MP for the Irish Parliamentary Party; William Crawford Anderson, Labour MP.

Digitised sources:
  • 'Russia Free', authorised report of the speeches (2nd edition), 1917
  • Programme of the rally, including text of the resolution and words of the songs to be sung, 1917
  • 'The Contagion of Revolution', short report on the rally included in The Postal and Telegraph Record, 19 April 1917, written by Walter Baker, a member of the Executive Committee of the Postal and Telegraph Clerks' Association and a future Labour Party Member of Parliament.

'To follow Russia', the Leeds Convention, 3 June 1917

The Leeds Convention, held at the Albert Hall, Leeds, on 3 June, was organised by the United Socialist Council, a body which contained representives of the British Socialist Party, the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society, and was attended by 1,150 delegates from various political organisations, trades unions and pressure groups. The event was claimed to be a "Democratic Conference to establish Democracy in Great Britain", and four resolutions were passed - 1. hailing the Russian Revolution; 2. on foreign policy and war aims, calling for a negotiated end to the war; 3. on civil liberties, including calls for equal political rights, freedom of speech, and release of political and religious prisoners (including conscientious objectors); 4. to form Workmen's and Soldiers' Councils in Britain "for initiating and co-ordinating working-class activity". The call for a negotiated peace proved the most controversial resolution, with some speakers (particularly from the trade unions) objecting to what they argued would be a capitulation to Germany. The National Sailors' and Firemen's Union (represented at the convention by Edward Tupper) would later prevent British representatives from sailing to the planned peace conference in Stockholm and on 28 July 1917 a Workers' and Soldiers' Council meeting at the Brotherhood Church in North London was broken up by a large and violent mob singing 'Rule Britannia'.

Speakers / contributors to the debate: Robert Smillie (Chairman), trade union leader; James Ramsay Macdonald, Labour Party politician; Dora Montefiore, socialist and suffragist; Philip Snowden, Labour Party politician; Edwin Charles Fairchild, socialist; William X. O'Brien, Irish socialist; Charles Roden Buxton, radical liberal / socialist; Edward Tupper, trade union leader; Ernest Bevin, trade union leader; Tom Mann, trade union leader; Charles George Ammon, trade union leader; Charlotte Despard, socialist and suffragist; Frederick William Pethick Lawrence, socialist; Bertrand Russell, socialist and philosopher; William Crawford Anderson, Labour MP; Robert Williams, trade union leader; Ethel Snowden, socialist; Sylvia Pankhurst, socialist and suffragist; Fred Shaw, socialist; R.C. (Richard Collingham) Wallhead, socialist; J. Sanders, trade unionist; Joe Toole, socialist; William Gallacher, Chairman of the Clyde Workers' Committee; Noah Ablett, trade unionist.

Digitised sources:

Additional documents on the period following the February Revolution are available through our digital collection on the Russian Revolution and Britain, 1917-1928.