Rethinking Russia's February Revolution: Anonymous Spontaneity or Socialist Agency?

Michael Melancon


Six decades ago William Chamberlin wrote that “the collapse of the Romanov autocracy . . . was one of the most leaderless, spontaneous, anonymous revolutions of all times. . . . No one . .. realized that the strikes and bread riots . . . would culminate in the mutiny of the garrison and the overthrow of the government.” The kernel of truth in this description, that no one knew for sure that the strikes of 23 February marked the beginning of the end of tsarism, has ever since mesmerized historiography of the revolution, leading to grave misapprehensions of what occurred and why. My 1990 study of the revolutionary movement during World War I and in the February Revolution painted an alternative picture in which socialist agency looms large in the onset and carrying out of tsarism’s overthrow. New evidence about the February Revolution further strengthens my original arguments. This study’s twofold purpose is to orient readers in the complicated events that preceded and accompanied the fall of the old regime and, with the use of new archival materials and analysis, renew the case for reinterpreting Russia’s February Revolution.

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