Sequence of Bad Decisions or the Russian Revolution

Revolutions in Europe and low quality of life in Russia started revolutionary moods in Russian Empire. However, initially the need for change wasn’t as radical as it became on the verge of 1917. The wish of the masses wasn’t to overthrow the Czar, kill the royal family and ruin all the systems to create a communist society. They demanded basic rights and freedoms. The public discourse was all about constitutional monarchy. The Russian civil society was fascinated by the French Revolution’s achievements.

The Beginning of the End

Mikhail Zygar starts the story 1917 Russian Revolution from the 1880s and Alexander II. The Emperor was ready to go for reforms. Armenian by origin minister of internal affairs Mikhail Loris-Melikov writes a report outlining the plan for political reforms (later to be known as the “constitution of Loris-Melikov”) with the suggestion to transform the State Council into something more like a parliament. “Alexander II approves it, and in the morning of March 1 — an hour before his death — informs Loris-Melikov that four days later the document will be adopted by the Council of Ministers” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 18). “Narodnaya Volya” (Nation’s Will) terrorist organization killed Alexander II on March 1, 1881.

The reforms stop when Alexander III comes to power. Loris-Melikov leaves his office and disappears from Russian politics.

Indecisiveness, inability to confront the reality and uncompromising struggle from both sides (revolutionaries and the Czar) results in a big tragedy known as 1917 Russian Revolution.

Though the epicenter was Russia, mainly St. Petersburg and Moscow, the consequences affected not only the main territory of Russia but all the countries included in the Soviet Union because the terror, hunger and repressions didn’t pass them. Considering what happened next, we can surely say that this was the beginning of the end.

Return of Tsarigrad and the Fear for the Fall of the Third Rome

The red line dividing the people and the god-chosen Czar became bolder over time. Those who killed Alexander II were hanged and more severe repressions on revolutionary groups started. The reign of Alexander III was more or less calm. He was succeeded by Nikolai II in 1896. Other than the inevitable transformation of the Russian Empire to a constitutional monarchy, in the beginning of the 20th century the public discourse was also filled with extensive discussions or maybe more dreaming of “returning Tsarigrad” (Byzantine Constantinople, today Istanbul) to put an orthodox cross over Hagia Sophia. This discussion emerged when the army of Alexander II in 1878 during the Russo-Turkish war was just a few steps away from entering Constantinople (Зыгарь, 2021, с.76).

Russian Empire was considered to be the Third Rome because it was Christian. The first one was the Roman Empire, the second one was the Byzantine Empire (now mostly Turkey’s territory) and the third one was considered the Russian Empire. That is why putting an orthodox cross over Hagia Sophia was so symbolically important and that is also the reason why Russo-Turkish relations were never friendly. For example, Armenian classic Hovhannes Tumanyan in 1918 writes the following “Will not the collapse of this new third Rome find a painful echo in the hearts of its sons, and will not the great homeland find protection from its many regiments and will a new powerful movement emerge to defend Russia’s majesty, freedom and honor?” («Սովետական գրող», 1985)

The wish to return Tsarigrad was understandable. The generals upon the request of Nikolai II prepared a comprehensive plan for the attack on the Ottoman Empire and invasion of Istanbul. Though it gets approved the plan stays on paper and is never implemented. It didn’t disappear from Russia’s public discourse up to this day as the tensions between Russia, Turkey and its allies continue in many hot stops including Artsakh, Syria, Donetsk, Dombas, and Lugansk.

An American cartoon (“Let Us Have Peace”) hailing the peacemaking efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt, who mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, 1905.

Mistake by Mistake the Russian World Trembles

Leaving internal affairs unresolved Russia gets extensively involved in conflicts in Asia. Russia was China’s strategic partner. China and Japan were in war and Japan won. Russia intervened and insisted on returning part of what was invaded from China back. Japan obeyed. After the victory, Japan wanted to open up and start an economic relationship with Russia. The Japanese emperor wrote a letter to Nikolai II which remained unanswered for a year. Though the Russian press didn’t really pay attention to the letter, the Japanese press continuously wrote about it and the Japanese society was waiting for the answer from Nikolai II, but it never happened. There is no particular reason why he neglected the letter. It was more a signal of dilettantism. This became the reason for the beginning of the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. At the beginning Russians were excited about the war, but in the middle there was a major confusion as Russians didn’t quite understand what they were doing in Japan. Russia lost the war. Nikolai II was not much upset about the defeat.

There was an economic crisis after the war. It is only in 1907 that Russia manages to get out of the economic depression. The Russo-Japanese war, later Russian intervention in Chinese internal affairs as thanks to Empress Dowager Cixi a civil war started in China, and internal instabilities pushed Nikolai II to go for some reforms.

Demonstration 17 October 1905 by Ilya Repin (Russian Museum. St. Petersburg)

Kill the People and “forgive them their guilt”

Mass protests of workers led by famous clergyman Georgy Gapon started in January 1905. The number of protesters rose to 150 thousand. Feared from the rumors of the attack on Winter Palace, Nikolai II and his family move from the city to Tsarskoye Selo. “Starting that moment the main residence of Russian emperors, that was built by the daughter of Peter I Elizabeth, will never be the home for the royal family. The next ‘head of state’ residing in Winter Palace will become Aleksandr Kerensky, head of the Temporary Government” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 274).

Day by day, more workers joined the protests. On January 9, the army gets involved. The protests end in tragedy. Maxim Gorky “describes in detail the shootings at Troitsky Bridge and near Palace Square” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 281). According to some sources around 1200 people died and hundreds were injured (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 283). The main organizers and supporters of the protests Georgy Gapon, Rutenberg, Savva Morozov, Maxim Gorky and all the others were not really sorry for the losses. In fact, Maxim Gorky in the letter to his wife writes that “the killed do not bother [him] as the story is repainted in new colors only with blood” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 284). After these bloody events, a few workers loyal to the Czar are taken and brought to Tsarskoe Selo to meet Nikolai II. The czar comes into the room with a piece of paper and starts reading it. At the end of his speech he reads the following “I believe in the honest feelings of working people and in their unshakable devotion to Me, and therefore I forgive them their guilt” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 293).

A new organization gets established in Petersburg called “Soviet of workers’ deputies“ aimed at organizing the wave of yet chaotic protests. Leo Trotsky became the head of it because Gapon was not in the city since 1905 January 9 bloody events known as Bloody Sunday. The wave of protests after Bloody Sunday didn’t stop. Placed in Tsarskoe Selo, Nikolai II didn’t really control the country anymore. From time to time, he just gets to know the news. Wilhelm II, German Emperor who was also his third cousin (both were great-great-grandsons of Paul I of Russia), advises the Czar to “flee abroad and offers refuge. Apart from that he is ready to provide military help: German troops may enter Petersburg or any other region and immediately set an order there” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 355).

Institutionalization of the Future Revolution and October 17 Manifest

The establishment of the Soviet of workers’ deputies plays a key role in the 1917 revolution but it’s role in the 1905 revolution is minimal. The name of this new organization is the reason why the revolutionary new Russia took the name of Soviet Union (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 351). Everyone was protesting. The situation was getting tense and there was a need for a compromise.

Sergey Witte, the minister of finance, sees two solutions: bloodshed or reforms. He prefers the second option and prepares an extensive document with the suggestions for the political reforms. Nikolai II is indecisive. Czar’s uncle Great Duke Nikolai arrives to beg him to sign the manifest. He says “Either He will sign, or I will shoot myself in the forehead with this revolver” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 362). The results of these protests becomes the October 17 manifest where Nikolai II announces his decision to form a new elected body called Gosudarstvennaya Duma (State Council or State Duma) and guarantee civil rights, electoral rights as well as the freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and associations (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 363). This is a move towards the constitutional monarchy and when Nikolai II signs it, he starts crying for the loss of the part of his power (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 363). Witte becomes the first Chairman of the Russian Council of Ministers. He basically became the prime minister and was able to for a government.

Общий вид заседания Предпарламента. Доклад делает военный министр А.И. Верховский

Fake Reforms, Depression, Suicides and Mysticism

Nikolai II, though signed the manifest, didn’t really want to implement it. Witte formed a government and tried to implement all the promises given in the manifesto but failed and retired. The elections on State Duma happened, but there were some restrictions. Not everyone could get elected. There was property censure. The first and the coming two elected Dumas didn’t last long as the czar has the sovereign right to dissolve the Duma whenever he wished, and he freely used that right. Before every other election, the ministers changed the electoral code to make sure that more loyal people get elected. Everything was fake. Yesterday’s revolutionaries that hoped their struggle would bring positive change were disappointed. The level of suicides in the Russian Empire drastically rises. A new wave of repressions start. Revolutionaries start running abroad.

There was a depression in the royal family too. It was a stressful period for them too. For a long time Empress Alexandra couldn’t give a birth to a boy and was therefore affected much by mysticism. First it was French Dr. Philippe and then Rasputin who would give her and the whole Russian royal family hope through mystic holy powers. Dr. Philippe made the empress believe that she was pregnant and a boy would be born but nine months later, it turns out she wasn’t pregnant. It was a false pregnancy. After that Dr. Philippe returned to France. Empress Alexandra didn’t stop believing and keeping correspondence with him up until his death in 1905. Then Rasputin appeared. Now it was his turn to heal the wounds of the Russian royal family with his mystic holy powers and manipulate them as much as possible.

WWI propaganda poster in Russian

WWI Euphoria, Pogroms, Massacres

Weirdly enough the end of the era of depression started when Nikolai II decided to get involved in WWI. There was euphoria. Press and people would claim that it is Patriotic War for all Russians to protect the great homeland. Later, Lenin in the Soviet history books would claim that it was an imperialist war. The major part of the opposition truly believed that during wartime everyone should stand for the great homeland and the division between us and them (monarchists and revolutionaries) should temporarily vanish. Vladimir Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, hates that. He believes that war must stop, the army must enter cities and villages and a civil war must start.

The Russian media is all about national unitedness, pride and euphoria. Germans living in Russian Empire feel threatened. Many seek ways to change their surnames. The media all day round would write about the atrocities of the Germans and that this war was about the victory of the “civilized world” in the face of the Russian Empire and the uncivilized world in the face of Germany and its allies (Ottoman Empire Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria). German pogroms were inevitable, and they happened.

1915 is a year of failure. Because of corruption, it turned out that the Russian Army wasn’t really well-prepared for the war.

War was covered all over the media. The public discourse was all about the war. A massive massacre remained out of attention. An upheaval happened in Central Asia (current territories of Kazakhstan, Kirgisia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan). The prime minister appointed by the suggestion of Rasputin Boris Vladimirovich Stürme orders all the men from 19–43 to be conscripted. For the people living there the absence of men meant hunger. They started protesting. The first wave of protests was better known as “Babya Zabastobka” (women’s protests). “In fact, a civil war begins: the Kazakhs and Kirghiz slaughter the Russians, the Russians destroy the Kirghiz and Kazakhs” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 640). 60,000 people were dead. When Kerensky, future head of the Temporary Government, arrived there, he said “It will be very difficult for us to speak now “about Turkish atrocities in Armenia; It will be very difficult for us to talk “about German atrocities in Belgium” when what happened in the mountains of Semirechye, perhaps, the world has ever witnessed” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 641).

1916 is not much better. The level of production of weaponry in Russian Empire is increased but the situation changed. Everyone is looking for a treater. For some it is the Empress Alexandra because of her German origins, for the others these are masons in the government, the others think it is all the fault of Jews, for some prime minister Boris Stürme is the one to blame because he is German by origin and therefore a spy and most of the people think it is all the fault of Rasputin (the one who ‘actually’ rules over Russia). Conspiracies are everywhere. In some conspiracies even the royal family believes in. In a period of half-truths and half-lies, media full of all kinds of rumors, does the truth really matter?

It was so bad, that influenced by nasty and mostly incorrect rumors, the royal couple’s closest relatives were very suspicious about Rasputin and his role around the royal family. Husband of the Czar’s only niece, Irina, prince Felix Yussupov, invited Rasputin to his house, poisoned and killed him on December 30, 1916. The Russian royal family welcomed 1917 in full isolation. They could have never imagined that something worse than losing their ‘dearest friend’ might happen.

The investigation of the death of Rasputin starts but it is nearly impossible to arrest royal family members. Also, people have empathy towards the assassins of Rasputin. Monarchy is weaker than ever. “Even the most loyal monarchists speak and write about the imminent end of the regime” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 674).

Юнкера в Зимнем дворце. Фотография октября 1917 г. РГАКФД

Czar is Tired and Overwhelmed

The situation intensified in Petrograd. Nikolai II was already tired of everything, especially of the bad news. On February 22, 1917, he left for Stavka. “He just couldn’t stand the atmosphere in the Tsarskoe Selo and decided to run away” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 675). Empress Alexandra and the family stay at Tsarskoe Selo. Already on February 23, around 70.000 people were protesting because there was no bread. “On February 25, the police opened fire, several were killed (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 675). More people join the protests on weekdays and there are even more dead bodies. Meantime, the Empress was paying a visit to the grave of Rasputin.

In the morning of February 27, Kerensky gets a call and gets to know that Nikolai II dissolved Duma. Chaos took over the streets in Petrograd but everything was fine in Stavka where Czar ran away for calmness. Protesters started a haunt on the ministers and the ministers wrote the Czar asking him to fire all of them. Later, ministers would ask Kerensky to arrest them because it was the only guarantee of their life. Soldiers and militia stop obeying their officers and join the protests. “By the evening, almost the entire Russian capital was destroyed. Police stations and courts were burned, many administrative buildings were seized. The Tauride Palace becomes the epicenter of the revolution — from time to time waves of protesters would com in to run further” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 686). Vendetta is the atmosphere on the streets. Protesters are looking for those who suppressed them for all of these years to kill them. Even worse happens. For example, “the crowd rushes into the policeman’s apartment and, failing to find him at home, brutally kills his wife and two small children” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 686).

Czar is unaware of everything and doesn’t really wish to be informed. In Duma, Temporary committee was created. Later, they proclaim themselves the Temporary Government. First head of the Temporary Government becomes Prince Lvov and he is succeeded by Aleksander Kerensky. They force Czar to step down. Paradoxically, stepping down is not a big deal for Nikolai (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 711). After stepping down, Czar or already citizen Romanov faces huge difficulties to reach his family at Tsarskoe Selo. On February 28, Tsarskoe Selo was in fear.

The justification of why the generals turned their face from Czar is the following. At the end of 1916 General Brusilov said “If I am asked to choose between the Emperor and Russia” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 701).

The February Revolution already happened. Temporary Government was formed but it lacked legitimacy. Elections must have been organized but before the constitutional council formed from different parts of the empire must decide what kind of a country will the empire become. The Temporary Government is more keen on having a Federal Republic of Russia.

Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin)

Late From the Revolution but Let’s “arrange the end of the world”

The power belongs to Petrosovet controlled by Irakli Tsereteli because Trosky wasn’t in Russia and the Temporary Government. Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky come more than a month after the revolution.

In one of his speeches in Pertosovet “[Lenin] proposes to arrange the end of the world: to end a war, even a defensive one, to destroy the state, including the army (replacing it with “armed masses”), officials, police, banks; overthrow the Temporary government, transfer power to the Soviets” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 764). Everyone laughed at him and he left.

Country is in ruins. The Temporary Government lacks legitimacy and is weak to control the masses. Protests continue. People like Lenin start agitating for peace and blame the Temporary government in everything possible thus weakening it.

Lenin prepares a revolt. It is scheduled to happen from August 28 to September 2 (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 818). There is no other way but to establish dictatorship. Head of Temporary Government, Price Lvov is a democratic person and cannot kill and suppress people. It is just against his values. He retires. Kerensky takes the power and forms a new government (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 818). They reside in the Winter Palace.

On August 28, August putsch happens. Most of the army disobeys the Temporary Government. The god-like authority of Kerensky falls. During the most tense moment, Kerensky leaves to go to Stavka and negotiate with loyal generals and find support to later bring the army and protect the Winter Palace. The panic, especially after Kerensky left, rose too high, among the ministers. Probably it was the moment when they lost the power. No army came to protect them and Kerensky never returned.

Dilettantism as a Cornerstone of Statehood

Bolsheviks take the power. Lenin says that “any worker can become a minister by learning for a few days. No special abilities are required here. You don’t even need to fully understand the mechanism of the state machine. This function will be performed by specialists who will have to work for us. We will print new banknotes on printing machines, on those that also print newspapers, — says Lenin, in a few days we will have millions of new banknotes” (Зыгарь, 2021, с. 836).

This is the level of dilettantism that Soviet Union is built upon. Not only the standard of life is even lower than during the czarist regime, but people are repressed and nothing that Lenin promised (for example to give the lands to the common people) is ever implemented.

Journalist and writer Mikhail Zygar and his book “Empire must die”

“We are sick with our history”

In the last page of the book “Empire Must Die” Mikhail Zygar claims that the 1917 revolution that resulted in civil war, terror, hunger and epidemics and took the lives of 10 million (more than Russian losses in WWI) is a big trauma for Russians.

The traumatic experience still affects the Russian society and from time to time the middle class starts thinking about immigration keeping in mind that at some point there is a chance that things might get way worse. These people are afraid it might be too late later as it was around a hundred years ago.

“All by itself Russian history is a disease that makes itself visible at every other step. We are sick with our history. I don’t want to die of this disease.”


«Սովետական գրող» հրատարակչություն(1985), Հովհաննես Թումանյան, Ընտիր երկեր հատոր երկրորդ։

Михаин Зыгарь (2021).,Империя должна умереть. Альпина Паблишер, ISBN 978–5–9614–6712–3



Concentrating on Armenia, I share my thoughts about the topics of my interest (e.g., literature, history, culture, international relations, crypto…).

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Margarita Dadyan

Concentrating on Armenia, I share my thoughts about the topics of my interest (e.g., literature, history, culture, international relations, crypto…).