On the Eve of the Russian Revolution, a Palace Coup Seemed Inevitable, But Where Would it Come From?

The elites were upset, but the working class was primed for insurrection

Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1917 (Alamy)
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“The revolutionary must penetrate everywhere, into all strata, upper and middle, into the merchant’s shop, into the church, into the manor house, into the bureaucratic, military, and literary worlds, into the Third Section [the Czar’s secret police], and even into the Winter Palace.” – Sergei Nechaev, Catechism of a Revolutionary

During the 300 years that the Romanov dynasty had held power in Russia, palace coups that replaced one monarch with a relative had been the most frequent means of effecting political change. In the 18th century, a series of czars leveraged military support to help them depose the reigning ruler; Catherine the Great, in perhaps the most famous palace coup,  overthrew her own husband, Peter III in 1762. Her son, Paul, was murdered by disaffected courtiers in 1801 after being dethroned with the knowledge, if not the complicity, of his son and successor, Alexander I.

So it was with that long, bloody history that January 1917 brought fears of yet another Romanov palace coup, with Nicholas II at the center of it all. The murder of Rasputin, the czar’s close advisor, by the hands of his nephew and cousin foretold of the political chaos to come. The conspirators hoped that Rasputin’s removal would result in Nicholas turning to relatives and other members of Russia’s political elite for advice.

Instead, it widened the gulf between Nicholas and his extended family. The czar was disgusted by the involvement of his relatives in the murder and exiled both from Saint Petersburg. On January 11 [December 29 in the calendar in use in Russia at the time], the Czar received a letter signed by 16 of his relatives imploring him to rescind his order sending Dmitri, his cousin, to the Persian front, where Russian troops were fighting the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Nicholas returned the letter with the handwritten note, “No one has the right to commit murder; I know that many are troubled by their conscience, and that Dimitri Pavlovich is not the only one implicated in this. I am surprised by your request.”

Other members of Nicholas’s family declined to comment on Rasputin’s murder but implored the czar to govern more effectively. The demands of Russia’s elite were conservative: the appointment of ministers who would have support from the Duma, the representative assembly granted by the czar in 1905, the czar to reside in the capital, Saint Petersburg, rather than military headquarters in Mogliev, where he had spent most of his time after assuming personal command of the Russian army in 1915, and the unpopular Empress Alexandra to be prevented from further influencing state business.

The czar’s unwillingness to engage on even these modest reforms led to widespread speculation of a coup. After a particularly frustrating audience with the czar, Nicholas’s cousin and brother-in-law wrote to his brother, a historian who also happened to be one of the signatories to the letter advocating clemency for Dmitri, “Either we sit back with folded arms and wait for the humiliation of Russia or we take heroic measures…people who love Russia find themselves at a crossroads and wonder how to act; for the first time in our lives, we have to ask how far we are bound by the oath given. In all it’s a nightmare, from which I see no escape.”

Prominent politicians and diplomats heard rumours of a planned “Rising of the Grand Dukes.” There was speculation that Nicholas would be replaced by one of his relatives as ruler or as regent for Nicholas and Alexandra’s 12-year-old hemophiliac son, Alexei.

It was unclear, however, which member of the Imperial family would be willing to lead a palace coup. Efforts to involve the Duma were unsuccessful. When the czar’s aunt declared over lunch with the chairman of the Duma that the Empress “must be annihilated,” he replied, “allow me to treat this conversation as if it had never taken place,” reminding her that his oath of allegiance obliged him to report the comments to the czar.

Russia’s allies in World War I, Great Britain and France, were alarmed by the political turmoil on the Eastern front. On January 13 [New Year’s Eve in the Russian Calendar], British ambassador George Buchanan met with Nicholas and encouraged him to appoint a prime minister who would have the support of the Duma and the nation as a whole. Nicholas replied, “Do you mean that I am to regain the confidence of my people or that they are to regain my confidence.” French ambassador Maurice Paleologue drew parallels to situation of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution. Both diplomats agreed that Nicholas seemed unaware of how precarious his authority had become.

The concerns of Russia’s elite, however, were dwarfed by the discontent brewing among the workers of  Saint Petersburg and Moscow, who wanted an immediate solution to bread and fuel shortages during the especially cold winter of 1916-1917. What would eventually grow into a full-blown working-class insurrection had its roots in the popular revolutionary movements that Nicholas II’s grandfather, Alexander II, had dealt with ever since he abolished serfdom in 1861. (He had consulted with a pre-Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln.)  For a generation of young workers and students, however, the reforms were considered too little, too late and calls for a violent revolution ensued.

These earliest populist movements were particularly influenced by well-known Russian authors. Sergei Nechaev’s 1869 manifesto, Catechism of a Revolutionary, caught the attention of generations of radicals with its call for total commitment to the cause of revolution and Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons, examined the differences between the older generation of reformers and a younger generation of revolutionaries.

For most Russians, the most prominent manifestation of these new ideas was the 1881 assassination of the czar when a bomb was thrown into his carriage by a member of the People’s Will revolutionary political organization. Nicholas II was 13 at the time as he stood by his grandfather’s deathbed. His father Alexander III’s subsequent  turn away from reform to a reactionary program of “Orthodoxy, Nationality and Autocracy” left a strong impact on his ideology. His father’s repression did not end revolutionary activity. Older revolutionaries from the People’s Will helped found the Socialist Revolutionary Party, from which the Bolsheviks emerged as the key faction in 1903.

The rise of these revolutionary movements took place amidst growing urbanization and industrialization in Russia. In 1905, two years later, more than 3,000 workers, frustrated by poor working conditions, marched to Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace calling for higher wages, safer factories and a shorter workday. Nicholas, who had been in power for a little over a decade, was not in residence, but his troops fired on the crowd, killing at least 132 people and wounding hundreds. The violence shattered the czar’s image as a protector of his people and led to months of unrest that continued until the Czar reluctantly agreed to establish the Duma.

“Bloody Sunday,” as the massacre was called, came to be a touch point for the cause of workers’ rights. In commemoration of the 12th anniversary of the event, as elite support for Nicholas II was shattering, 145,000 Russians took to the streets, no longer seeking for the czar to solve their problems. The striking displayed red flags and banners emblazoned with the words, “Down with the Romanovs.”

For their part, the Bolsheviks, who were not yet a major political power, were pessimistic about all this revolutionary fervor translating into real political change, let alone a workers’ revolution. That same January month, in a lecture to Swiss socialists in Zurich, a 46-year-old Vladimir Lenin stated, “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” His narrow commitment to “revolutionary defeatism” was not shared by all of his comrades.

Party leadership was deeply divided. There were less than 500 committed Bolsheviks in Russia at the beginning of 1917, including Joseph Stalin, who had been conscripted into the army in late 1916. Bolshevik networks often consisted of a handful of revolutionaries.

The exiled Bolsheviks, most notably Leon Trotsky, who arrived in New York City on January 13, 1917, were focused on an international socialist revolution. Those based in Russia, who had often spent years in Siberia, favored a narrower focus on Russian concerns. Lenin wrote at the time that the First World War was “a war between two big freebooters for world domination and plunder” and hoped for Russia’s withdrawal from the hostilities.  

It was clear by this time, 100 years ago, that the Russian empire had a cloudy and unclear future. There was unrest among the working class and discontent among the ruling elite. Within weeks, the popular rising known as the February Revolution would come, ultimately leading to the collapse of three centuries of Romanov rule in Russia. The decisive battles of the coming revolution would take place far sooner than Lenin expected. 

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