On February 23, 1917, an unseasonably warm day, women at the Vyborg cotton mills in the Russian city of Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) marked the recently created International Women’s Day. The meeting became a mass walkout; as the women headed for the Neva River, other people—men and women—joined their ranks. By noon, about 50,000 protesters were participating in a spontaneous strike. The police boarded streetcars, expelling anyone with calloused hands, and blocked the bridges across the frozen river, but the workers walked across the ice. The next day, nearly 75,000 people were on strike.
Czar Nicholas II sent Cossack horsemen to put the rebellion down, but they simply cantered through the crowds without using their swords or whips; they had chosen not to fight the people. Workers flocked into Petrograd for a three-day general strike. Demonstrators in homemade helmets and padded jackets waved red banners demanding an end to Russia’s involvement in the world war. When police arrived, the Cossacks defended the protesters.
Revolutionary organizers were convinced that it was time to stop the strikes, believing that such action could never succeed without the support of the army. They were surprised by a mutiny in the elite Pavlovsky Regiment, whose cadets rebelled when they heard that their fellow soldiers had shot civilians. Mutiny in several other regiments ensued, with the mutineers killing their officers. By February 27, an estimated 25,000 garrison troops had defected. Workers, acting on their own, raided the armory and stormed the Kresty Prison, the courts, and the main artillery depot. The city was on fire. One English observer wrote: “As the streets cleared, little heaps, some very still, some writhing in agony, told of the toll of the machine guns.”
Protesters stormed the Tauride Palace, home of the Duma, the consolation-prize parliament formed after the 1905 revolution. Panicked liberal politicians formed a provisional committee, hoping to maintain order as the imperial administration dissolved. The revolutionaries set up the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Orthodox Marxists did not want this workers’ council to attempt to take power immediately and begin building full socialism; in their view, that would have meant skipping a stage in the revolutionary process, since parliamentary democracy—the “bourgeois phase”—had to precede communism. However, the Duma committee wasn’t eager to take responsibility for the increasingly volatile situation. Its members couldn’t decide on what they wanted, either, with some hoping for a social-democratic system and others a constitutional monarchy. By March 2, it was clear that the existing system was untenable. Nicholas II abdicated, passing the throne to his brother, who took fright and refused the next day. The provisional government and the workers’ council settled on an uneasy system of “dual power.”
As its members hadn’t been elected, the Duma committee had no claim to democratic authority, and it was clear that workers felt a greater allegiance to the Soviet. The people, most of whom had little understanding of the finer points of Marxism, wanted socialism, and quickly. From his exile in Zurich, Lenin expressed his disgust at the new arrangement. He sent a telegram to his Bolshevik comrades, declaring: “No trust in and no support for the provisional government. Kerensky especially suspect; arming the proletariat is the only guarantee…no rapprochement with other parties.” Lenin was virtually alone in his insistence that power pass into the hands of the workers immediately.