It’s Sunday, January 22nd, 1905.
A crowd of demonstrators march through the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia. Among them is a young steelworker. Like many other protestors here today, the young steelworker is on strike, peacefully marching against squalid working conditions, poor wages, and backbreaking long hours. For too long, Russia’s leader – Tsar Nicholas II – has sat idly by while his subjects suffered. Now, they’ve had enough. And they’re demanding change.
As the young steelworker, and his fellow demonstrators, round a corner and head towards Troitsky Bridge, they can see the Winter Palace looming in the distance. But as they get closer… Imperial guards on horseback appear, blocking their path.
The young steelworker watches as one of the guards lifts his gun into the air.
But the warning shot doesn’t compel the crowd to disperse. It sparks panic and confusion. Bodies begin surging forward, clamoring as they push toward the guards. To stave off their advance… the imperial guards open fire on the crowd. The young steelworker turns to flee, but the ensuing chaos overwhelms him. All around, bullets tear through flesh and sinew and echo off the surface of the frozen river.
The imperial guards gallop their horses into the crowd, driving them back with their bayonets. As the young steelworker tries to escape… he trips and falls to the ground. He scrambles to get up, but his hands can’t find grip in the icy slush.
He turns to find an imperial guard bearing down on him, his rifle raised. The young steelworker covers his face with trembling fingers and closes his eyes.
Around 200 peaceful protestors will be killed on “Bloody Sunday”, as this tragic incident will come to be known. When its organizer, an Orthodox priest named Father George Gapon, witnesses the violence, he remarks: “there is no God anymore. There is no Tsar.”
But despite the social and political unrest sparked by Bloody Sunday, the Tsar will remain in power for another twelve years. However, this protest sets Russia on a path of change. And before long, the streets of St Petersburg will fill once again with protestors, and Tsar Nicholas II will be driven from power, after a revolution that begins on March 8th, 1917.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 8th: The Start of the Russian Revolution.
Act One: Dissidence
It’s March 1897, eight years before “Bloody Sunday”.
A steam train rattles through the Siberian countryside in the far north of Russia. Through his carriage window, a young political dissident gazes out across the snowy waste, which stretches for miles in all directions.
This dissident was recently arrested for handing out socialist pamphlets around St. Petersburg, and for attempting to organize workers to rise up against Russia’s autocratic monarch, Tsar Nicholas II.
The dissident’s name is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias – Vladimir Lenin. Lenin will become the leading figure in the Russian Revolution of 1917. But in 1897, Lenin is just twenty-six years old and on his way into exile, where he will remain for the next twenty years.
Vladimir Lenin is one of many Russians who have become disaffected by the social and political realities of life under Tsarism. As Russia started to industrialize and modernize in the late 1800s, many began to see the unchallenged authority of a hereditary royal family as an outdated relic of a bygone era.
Technological advances in the second half of the 19th century spurred the growth of the urban working class in Russia. Many of these workers were subjected to exploitation by their employers. And soon, they realized to achieve their collective aims, fair wages, reasonable hours, they were stronger together, they formed trade unions and workers' councils, known as soviets.
Gradually, political consciousness started to spread among the working classes or the proletariat. New ideas such as Marxism and socialism were disseminated via pamphlets written by dissidents like Lenin and his comrades.
The government has worked hard to suppress this seditious activity. Lenin is by far not the only dissident sent into exile for his political activities. So while revolutionary political thought continues to simmer in their absence, the Tsarist regime maintains complete control.
But then, in 1905, the tense situation reaches a boiling point when metal workers clash with imperial guards in St. Petersburg. Over two hundred workers are killed on Bloody Sunday, and the tragic event sparks more protests across the country. In all, two million workers go on strike, bringing the nation’s industry to a standstill.
This civil disobedience even spreads to the military. In June 1905, sailors on board the naval battleship Potemkin mutiny against their aristocratic officers. After seizing control of the ship, the ringleader of the mutiny declares: “All of Russia is waiting to rise and throw off the chains of slavery!”
Faced with the possibility of being forced to surrender power, the Tsar agrees to pass a number of reforms, guaranteeing workers basic civil liberties. These reforms are published in a document called the October Manifesto. Up until now, the Tsar and his advisors have controlled Russia’s legislature. The October Manifesto makes a provision for the creation of an elected legislative body, the Duma.
The presence of the Duma will not only limit the Tsar’s autocracy; it will also provide the Russian people with representation in government. Satisfied, the striking workers return to the factories, while the Tsar returns to the Winter Palace, chastened… theoretically.
But the Tsar has no intention of relinquishing power. He retains the ability to veto any reforms proposed by the Duma, and he dissolves the assembly whenever he disagrees with its ministers. Between 1905 and 1914, Tsar Nicholas dissolves the Duma four times.
The people are frustrated by the lack of meaningful change. In July 1914, civil disobedience returns when over 150,000 workers in St. Petersburg go on strike. Violent clashes with police break out in the streets. And these riots threaten to plunge the entire city into chaos. But this time, the protestors aren’t just asking for reform; they want the complete eradication of the monarchy.
It’s late July 1914.
For weeks, St. Petersburg has been paralyzed by violent riots, but today the atmosphere is more subdued. Thousands of people have gathered outside the Winter Palace to hear Tsar Nicholas II make an announcement. A ripple of nervous excitement passes through the crowd as the Russian monarch steps out onto the balcony.
He clears his throat and addresses his subjects.
He says, “Yesterday, Austria-Hungary declared war on our great ally, Serbia”. His voice trembles slightly as he continues, “As a result, we shall honor our alliance, and take up arms in Serbia’s aid.”
There’s a brief silence. Then the crowd erupts in an outpouring of patriotic fervor. People cheer and whistle, flags are waved, and proclamations of loyalty to the motherland rattle the windows of the Winter Palace.
Tsar Nicholas smiles and waves.
This display of devotion is exactly what he expected would come from this announcement that Russia has officially joined the first World War. He hopes that the past decade of social unrest, political agitation, and anti-imperial feeling will be swept away by a tide of wartime patriotism, and devotion to the monarchy. But he will soon discover that he is mistaken.
Act Two: Russia at War
It’s September 1915, just over a year since Russia joined WWI.
Inside Alexander Palace, the Tsar’s residence on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Tsar Nicholas II writes a letter to his cousin Nikolai, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army.
After Russia joined the war in 1914, the Tsar’s popularity rose among his subjects. Clamors for his abdication quietened, and ill-feeling was re-directed towards Russia’s enemies in the war – Germany and Austria-Hungary.
But soon, the patriotic fervor was overwhelmed by domestic turmoil. After mobilizing millions of troops, it quickly became apparent that Russia’s flailing economy and industrial sectors were unable to support the war effort. Thousands of Russian soldiers left for the front without critical equipment, without even ammunition, bedding, or boots. One-third of Russian infantrymen were not even issued a rifle.
Equipment shortages were compounded by poor leadership. Russia’s high command repeatedly failed to come up with an overarching campaign strategy, and by the time Tsar Nicholas writes this letter to his cousin, over 800,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in combat.
Unsurprisingly, these military disasters were seized upon by the Tsar’s opponents. Now with his back against the wall, Nicholas has made a radical decision, a last-ditch effort to salvage both his reputation and the war effort: he plans to take sole command of the Russian armed forces himself.
He signs and seals a letter, which outlines his decision to replace his cousin as commander-in-chief. The following day, Nicholas leaves St. Petersburg for the Russian Army Headquarters in the far west of the country.
The Tsar’s generals and advisors universally oppose this decision. Nicholas lacks military experience. He has never even seen an active battlefield. But above all, he is leaving the reins of government in the hands of his wife, the Empress Alexandra.
Many Russians dislike Alexandra, and the political elite deeply distrust her. She has a reputation for ignoring her husband’s advisors, and for encouraging the Tsar to tighten his grip on autocratic power. There is only one person whose advice Alexandra listens to, a charismatic holy man, named Grigori Rasputin.
Born into a peasant family, Rasputin rose to prominence in St. Petersburg for his alleged mystical healing powers. These powers were brought to the attention of the Tsar and Empress Alexandra. In 1905, Nicholas and Alexandra asked Rasputin to cure their son Alexei of hemophilia.
Rasputin was rushed to the ailing prince’s bedside and, over time, Alexei’s symptoms began to improve. As a result, Rasputin became a close confidant of the royal couple – and in particular, Alexandra.
Rumors spread that Rasputin and Alexandra’s relationship was more than mere friendship. With his filthy black beard, matted hair, and wide deranged eyes, Rasputin is an unlikely lady’s man. But he seems to possess an uncanny seductive charm, and that has helped him become a fixture within many circles of upper-class women.
But to most of the general public, Rasputin is a despised figure, emblematic of the corruption and excess of the ruling elite. When the war broke out, food shortages led to famine and mass starvation, while Rasputin lived in luxury behind the palace walls. Now in 1915, as the Tsar leaves for the front lines, Rasputin’s influence only increases; as does the public’s disdain for the man they see as a parasite on the heart of government, and a shadowy puppet master secretly controlling the Empire.
And within a few months, by 1916, approximately two million Russian soldiers have been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Famine and disease are sweeping the country. One theory emerges that Rasputin is a German spy, deliberately sabotaging the Russian war effort from within – a theory emboldened by the fact that Alexandra is of German birth.
Politicians urge Nicholas to dismiss Rasputin, but the monarch refuses to act. Eventually, fearing that popular discord will boil over into revolution, a group of noblemen takes matters into their own hands.
On December 29th, 1916, an aristocrat named Felix Yussupov invites Rasputin to his home to meet Yussupov’s beautiful wife, Irina. The womanizing holy man can’t resist such an invitation. So he hurries through the snowy streets of St. Petersburg to Yussupov’s townhouse.
But when he walks inside, Irina isn’t there waiting for him. Instead, Rasputin is met by Yussupov and his co-conspirators who greet Rasputin with cakes and wine laced with cyanide. When the poison fails to kill him, they shoot him several times in the chest. According to Yussupov’s memoir, even this doesn’t finish him off. Yussupov writes: “This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil.” Eventually, they manage to kill Rasputin. And his disfigured body is found the following day, floating face-down in a river.
Yussupov hoped that killing Rasputin would revive the monarchy’s popularity and thus protect the nobility. But the killing has the opposite effect. Many Russians see the assassination as yet another example of the elite’s self-serving corruption. But the murder of Rasputin is just the beginning of the discontent. Soon, widespread famine and growing dissatisfaction with the Tsar’s leadership sets the stage for another uprising. And in the end, a group of women will come together and light the fuse that sparks a revolution.
Act Three: Down With the Tsar!
It’s March 8th, 1917.
A throng of demonstrators march through the streets of St. Petersburg. Protests have become a common sight in the city, but this crowd is unique: they’re largely women. Today is International Women’s Day, and a celebration of the occasion has turned into a protest over bread.
The demonstrators shout, “Down with high prices! Bread for workers!”
Most of these women are employees of a nearby textile factory. They’ve taken to the streets amid an escalating situation in Russia: an ongoing economic crisis resulting in widespread famine and the loss of faith in Tsar Nicholas II, who continues to wage a disastrous and costly war even as his people starve.
So it's no wonder that these textile workers' slogans change from "Down with high prices" to “Down with hunger! Down with the Tsar!” Soon, male workers from factories around St. Petersburg flock to join their female comrades. By the late afternoon, over 100,000 demonstrators pack the streets.
Nicholas is away tending to the war. Alexandra writes to him, dismissing the strikes as “a hooligan movement… boys and girls running about and screaming that they have no bread…” She reassures him that “this will all pass.”
But it doesn’t. The strike continues, and it grows in strength and size. On March 11th, Tsar Nicholas sends an order from military headquarters to deploy reserve troops stationed in St. Petersburg to stop the demonstration. But when the soldiers and the protestors meet in the streets, the soldiers don’t fire on the crowd. This time, they lay down their bayonets and join the strike.
On March 13th, Nicholas boards a train bound for St. Petersburg determined to restore order. But Revolutionaries have taken over the city’s main train station. His train is forced to turn around, transporting the enraged Tsar to a nearby military garrison. Having lost the support of his army, the government, and the people, Nicholas is under tremendous pressure to surrender the crown. But for a time, he remains defiant. Until eventually, his own advisors turn on him and urge him to listen to reason. One of his most trusted generals tells him that “the only way to save the [country]... is to abdicate.”
So on March 15th, while revolution rages in the streets of St. Petersburg, Tsar Nicholas II relinquishes his throne, bringing Russia’s 300-year imperial dynasty to an end.
The events that shook Russia in March 1917 will come to be known as the “February Revolution'', owing to Russia’s use of the Julian Calendar. In its aftermath, the monarchy will be replaced by a provisional government. But this fleeting administration will be overthrown itself in October 1917 by another revolution, this one led by Vladimir Lenin, who recently returned from exile. After years of violence and turmoil, Russia will become the world’s first communist nation and will be renamed the Soviet Union – the culmination of a period of upheaval that began in St. Petersburg on March 8th, 1917.
Next on History Daily. March 9th, 1954. On his television show, See It Now, journalist Edward R. Murrow attacks Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, hastening the end of America’s “Second Red Scare.”
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.