We find ourselves in St. Petersburg (known as Petrograd from 1914 to 1924 and as Leningrad from 1924 to 1991) in the winter of 1917. The First World War continues raging to the west. The years of war, 1914 to 1917, have been especially hard on Russia. Six mission Russians have been killed, wounded, or captured since the fighting began in 1914. Hundreds of thousands of others have been displaced by the hostilities. To the west, the German army has captured a huge swathe of one of Russia’s most fertile zones, the Ukraine. Russia’s agricultural sector is languishing. The industrial sector, like that of most other major powers, has been reoriented toward war manufacturing and away from producing goods to meet civilian needs. This meant an acute scarcity of goods at home, which meant drastic spikes in prices. Unlike Britain or France, countries relatively well situated to be provisioned from overseas, the Russians were basically cut off, to the west by Germany, and to the south by the Ottoman Empire. In short, Tsar Nicholas II had a potent set of hardships to deal with: food shortages, lack of manufactured goods and high prices, unfathomable losses of life on the front, his army’s gradual retreat, a growing sense of desperation in the cities of Moscow and Petrograd, unrest in the industrial centers in the Ural Mountains, and anger throughout the countryside. Russian peasants had always harbored a deep skepticism toward the army. They saw being drafted into military service as a punitive sentence (often a death sentence) rather than as a call to national service. Now, with so many dying, and so many more constantly being called up to the front, entering the army was even more despised than before. Throughout the industrial cities and the countryside dissent against the government began to grow. Unrest reached its way into the army and among the common soldiers. Few Russians remained loyal to Tsar Nicholas II and those who did were primarily members of Russia’s small middle class (though most of these people gravitated to the liberal Kadet Party) and the aristocratic elite. Even the upper military leadership was divided about whether to support or abandon the increasingly inept tsar.
The war constituted a direct challenge to Nicholas II, who had taken it upon himself to head up the military effort, going so far as to abandon his capital city, Petrograd, to lead the army at the front. Nicholas II, unfortunately for Russia’s military effort, was not an able military tactician and his presence at the front only compounded the image that the army’s loses were his loses. His credibility as the all-powerful ruler was being placed under considerable strain.