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Russia's Year of Revolutions

Pro-democracy forces toppled Russia's last Czar, but within months he had been replaced by a Soviet dictatorship and police state

By Michael Wines

Nicholas II, the Czar of imperial Russia, was commanding his troops in the World War I struggle against Germany when the message arrived from Petrograd: "The situation is grave. Anarchy reigns in the capital."

It was March 2, 1917, and Nicholas rushed back to Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). But at the Navy's headquarters, his last loyal troops had already surrendered to pro-democracy forces representing both Russia's poor and its intellectual elite. The imperial tricolor had been yanked down, and the flag of the revolutionaries rose in its place.

Nicholas saw the handwriting on the wall. He abdicated—and a long legacy of unchallenged rule and unimaginable riches came to an end.

The promised democracy, however, proved to be short-lived. Within months, Communists took over and established a dictatorship that would swallow half of Europe and threaten democracy and the West for most of the 20th century.

Why 1917 Matters

The Soviet Union itself collapsed in a new democratic revolution in 1991. Communism, once a grave threat, is now a discredited ideology. So why should anyone care about the events of 1917?

For one thing, because history often repeats itself. Russia had a chance at freedom in 1917 and it slipped away. Could that happen again today in the Russia of Vladimir Putin?

Nor is Russia the only place where 1917's lessons might apply. The world has other new, foundering democracies, like Iraq, where some of the same stresses that tore Russia apart nine decades ago are evident today.

Back in 1917, the Czar's fall was greeted with great excitement. "London Overjoyed at News," said a New York Times headline. Russia "had joined the democracies of the world," the article stated. But it also noted anxiety among some foreign diplomats in London that "troublesome developments may occur."

Kings on the Run

During the hundreds of years of czarist rule, Russia was mainly a feudal society: Millions of peasants tilled soil owned by a small landed class that was loyal to the Czar. But by the mid-1800s, the days of absolute rulers were numbered: Democratic revolutions against monarchs swept through Germany and much of the rest of Europe in 1848, and although the revolts failed, they planted the seeds of a movement that would later replace, or at least reduce the power of, kings with parliaments and prime ministers.

Sensing the winds of change abroad and rising discontent at home, some Czars tried reforms. Alexander II—Nicholas's grandfather—abolished serfdom in 1861 and gave farms to some of the 52 million peasants he had freed.

"I'd rather liberate them from the top," he said, "than have them liberate themselves from the bottom." But as the Industrial Revolution, which had been transforming Europe for most of the 19th century, came to Russia, the peasants migrated to cities for factory work—and began to agitate for changes in their brutal living and working conditions.

A Radical Returns

The immediate trigger to revolution was World War I, which began in 1914. Nicholas cast Russia into the war against Germany, as an ally with the U.S., Britain, and France, but his ill-prepared army of peasant soldiers suffered huge losses, and the war's economic strains caused starvation at home.

Discontent among the people and the military came to a head in March 1917. A provisional government seized power after the Czar's abdication, and in July, Russia's legislature, the Duma, chose Alexander Kerensky, an eloquent but weak Socialist, as the nation's Prime Minister. Kerensky ended press censorship and political repression—allowing dozens of radicals living in exile to return to Russia. One of them was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his nickname: Lenin.

Lenin was a brilliant politician. His slogan, "peace, bread, land," promised Russia's hungry, war-weary peasants everything they wanted. His followers, the Bolsheviks, infiltrated workers' councils (called Soviets) that shared power with the Duma, and slowly gained power in the cities.

Still, it was Kerensky's clumsy rule that allowed Lenin to seize power. Ignoring popular opinion, Kerensky kept Russia in the war against Germany, hoping Russia would be rewarded with land and aid promised by its allies.

Lessons for Today

By October, Kerensky's support was so weak that Lenin was able to capture Petrograd with a handful of troops. On November 6, Kerensky fled the Winter Palace disguised as either a Red Cross nurse or a sailor. And the Soviet Union was born.

What lessons do historians take from all this? One is that overthrowing authoritarian rulers is often easier than building a free nation from the ruins they leave behind—and those in charge must show results quickly, before people turn against them in frustration.

"It's a pattern you see in lots of places where there's a state collapse," says Michael McFaul, a Stanford University political scientist. "You have this interim period where the moderates are in charge. But they don't have the capability, and things start moving too fast.

"You have the absence of a state. And that's always a ripe time for radicals and extremists who say, 'These middle-of-the-roaders just won't do.' "

Another lesson is that it's hard to bring democracy to people who have never known freedom. Democracy is an act of faith—faith that everyone will follow a common law; faith in the majority's willingness to be fair to all, respecting minority rights. That faith does not come easily for people who have spent centuries in fear of all-powerful rulers.

In 1917, certainly, the Russian people had no knowledge of democracy, and no patience with a government that promised, but could not deliver, a better life.

In 1991, when they ousted their Communist rulers, Russians were better informed and more patient. But the first 10 years of freedom were chaotic, marked by economic collapse, poverty, and rampant corruption.

'Managed Democracy'

When Putin took power at the end of 1999, many people welcomed a ruler who promised to restore some order to their lives, even if it meant less freedom—just as Russians seemed to accept, at least at first, a Communist dictatorship after the collapse of the Kerensky government. But Putin has silenced much of the press and many of his critics, all but wiping out any opposition.

Putin is no Lenin. He still insists Russia is a democracy—just a "managed democracy," in his words. But some Russians haven't given up on the real thing.

"It's also a transitional period, to an unmanaged democracy," says Oleg Rzheshevsky, a historian in Moscow.

"It's impossible to just move from one stage to another without taking with you some parts, some essence, of the previous period. That's why elements of authoritarian rule exist."