When Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne of the Russian Empire on March 15, 1917, it was not inevitable that Russia would become the first communist country in history the following October. On the contrary, the February Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the Tsar contained all the right ingredients for a Western-oriented liberal regime. The Revolution began when starving women in Petrograd protested breadlines on March 8—February 23 by the Julian calendar then in use in Russia, hence the name “February Revolution.” It gathered steam as latent left wing political groups encouraged underpaid workers and disenfranchised peasants. Soldiers returning from a depressing campaign in the Eastern front added their weapons to the equation. The rise of a genuine bottom-up movement against the arbitrary power of the Tsar drew comparisons to the French Revolution from the middle-class intelligentsia. Moderate bureaucrats and minor landholders, knowing how quickly the French Revolution devolved into senseless violence, joined the Russian Revolution as a bulwark against mob tyranny. For a fleeting moment in March 1917, a fairly diverse, spontaneous, and sincere revolution gave Russia a chance to join the Western liberal world.
The Proclamation of the Provisional Government was a plainly liberal document, though the Provisional Government never used the term “liberal,” preferring to call their agenda “European.” Composed initially of moderate professional ministers, a representative from the Holy Synod, and headed by Prince George Lvov—endogenous Russian dramatis personae—the first post-Tsarist provisional government declared the freedoms of speech and press, the freedom to organize labor unions and to strike, and the abolition of social, religious, and national discrimination as they prepared for the formation of a Constituent Assembly that would democratically determine the country’s future. Moreover, they declared their determination to pursue the ongoing First World War alongside their European allies.
Leon Trotsky was in New York during the February Revolution. Vladimir Lenin was in Germany. They both returned to Russia when the Tsar fell, and immediately began promoting the Petrograd Soviet as Russia’s “true” governing body. The Provisional Government reshuffled its ruling body to include the more moderate of the left-wing Social Democrats, who called themselves “Mensheviks” (minority), while the Soviet became increasingly populated by hardline communists like Lenin and Trotsky who called themselves “Bolsheviks” (majority). War-weariness and food shortage caused riots and unrest throughout the summer, as the Provisional Government clashed with the Petrograd Soviet over the right to rule.
In August, General Kornilov attempted a military coup, only to be stopped by the more organized Bolsheviks. They capitalized on this affair to stage their own coup against the Provisional Government before November’s scheduled elections. This, then, was the first Communist revolution in history—undertaken in the fear of losing in a scheduled, free election.
When did it all go wrong? Before he wrote Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov was a medic in the “White” armies fighting against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. His debut piece of prose, called “Future Prospects,” reveals the lost hope of the myriad Russian moderates who had once seen the February Revolution as Russia’s arrival in Europe. He writes,
“As long as the sinister figure of Trotsky leads his roving band of crazed, armed dupes, there can be no life—only a battle to the death.
We must fight.
And so, while over there the West resounds with the clatter of the machines of creation, our country resounds from end to end with the clatter of machine guns. […]
There, in the West, innumerable electric lights will glimmer. Pilots will pierce the conquered air. There they will build, research, print, study…
While we…We shall fight.”
Bulgakov’s prose invokes the prosperity and intellectual freedom of the West that had so inspired the February Revolution—and the “roving band of crazed, armed dupes” that shattered those liberal, European dreams.
The conflict between the Provisional Government and the Bolshevik Soviet in 1917 is emblematic of the conflict for Russia’s soul that is still being fought in 2017. The Provisional Government had a vision for a Russia that shared in the values, ideals, and alliances of Western and European society. They intended to stay in the war because France and England needed Russia—Russia needed Europe and Europe needed Russia. The Bolsheviks, however, wanted a Russia that would initiate and then perpetuate a world revolution, abhorring Europe. They created a Russia that would be an inherently destabilizing, antagonistic, and revisionist force for years to come.
There have been several moments in Russia’s long and largely despotic history when it seemed like Russia might open itself to liberal and Western modes of life and governance. In 1905, an embarrassing and costly defeat in the Russo-Japanese War catalyzed a revolution that produced the first-ever Russian constitution and elected assembly. In February 1917, discontent with the failings and cruelties of Tsarism burst forth in a revolution that promised liberalism and self-government. In August 1991, thousands of Muscovites opposed the tanks of reactionary communists hell-bent on continuing the embarrassing and costly socialist experiment of the preceding seventy years. Aleksandr Yakovlev, the intellectual father of Perestroika, articulated the sentiments of anti-communist Russians when he declared, “Enough! We cannot live like this any longer […] There has come an understanding that it is simply impossible to live as we lived before — intolerably, humiliatingly.” Indeed, Gorbachev’s most powerful appeal was to “our common European home,” which invoked not so much American-style democracy as the civility, liberalism, and shared history of the larger European community.
But Russia has not followed through on the promise of 1905, 1917, or 1991. Vladimir Putin believes in a Russia that is illiberal and revisionist, a destabilizing force in the Western world. The experiences of February 1917 and August 1991 show that many Russians do aspire to shake off their regressive government for the chance to live alongside their European neighbors. One hundred years after the February Revolution, we can all take heart in Russians like Vladimir Kara-Murza, a staunch opponent of the Putin regime who was poisoned this February within an inch of his life for the second time in as many years. He survived, again, and with him live his fighting words, “Russians are ready for democracy.”
 Boris Drayluk, ed., 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (London: Pushkin Press, 2016), 211.