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In March of 1917 (February by the Russian calendar), workers started to go on strike in protest of the dreadful labor conditions in the factories. In the background, there was widespread popular dissatisfaction and outright anger with Russia’s role and performance in the First World War. Day by day these strikes grew, until by the middle of the month over 150,000 workers were out on the streets in protest. These were not planned protests and no specific political faction led them. At the time, the future leaders of the Soviet government were still far from the capital. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was in Switzerland; Leon Trotsky was in Moscow. Even the sitting tsar, Nicholas II, was out of Petrogard overseeing the war effort from the front.
As the situation in the capital grew tense, one question remained: how would the regiment of soldiers charged with protecting the city react when Nicholas II called on them to put down the popular revolt? Would they crush it, as the army had mercilessly done in 1905? The answer was no. The members of the Petrograd regiment refused to open fire on their fellow citizens. No force remained in the capital to challenge the people’s demands for political change. The authority of the tsar was undermined, the imperial government was overthrown, and a new legislative government formed to fill the political void.
The result of the March turmoil was the formation of what came to be called the Provisional Government. It was provisional because it was meant to govern only until a nationwide election could be organized. Nobody knew when this would be. In truth, the Provisional Government faced daunting challenges. The Russian Empire was, obviously, an empire, which meant that its borders had expanded well beyond the traditional home of Russians to incorporate many other peoples, like Ukrainians, White Russians, Caucasians, peoples from the Baltic states, Poles, and Jews. Some of these peoples, most notably the Ukrainians, took advantage of the breakdown of central power to declare independence. The empire, in other words, started to come apart at its seams. Consensus within Russia was not much greater than between Russia and its far-flung provinces. Workers, peasants, liberal members of the gentry, and military officers had different ideas about how to govern and what to do. Russia had never known democracy, and it had never before elected a truly representative assembly. A Romanov had sat in the royal palace in St. Petersburg for over two hundred years. One thing was clear to all observers in March 1917: the workers who took to the streets needed to be mollified. It was also clear that if the breakdown in social order were to be stopped, the peasants in the countryside would also have to be appeased. In the end, two institutions developed side by side. One was, as mentioned, the Provisional Government, which came to be dominated by a confederation of moderate liberals from the Kadet Party and some socialists and populists who sought to work within the government’s structures. It is symbolic that a member of the gentry, Prince Lvov, though progressive in his beliefs, became the first head of the Provisional Government. The other institution that shared power with the Provisional Government was the workers’ councils, or, as they were known in the Russian language, the soviets. From the beginning of the revolutionary phase, therefore, the Provisional Government faced two threats to its existence. 1) It faced a threat from counter-revolutionaries, primarily generals on the front, who could potentially march on Petrograd with a large force. 2) It faced the threat of even more radical revolutionaries, like the peasants’ party, called the Social Revolutionaries (SRs), or the Marxist parties, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, that controlled the soviets.