On this day in 1917 (or February 23rd according to the Old Calendar), riots broke out in Petrograd, then-capital of Russia. As WWI wore on in the East, a series of spectacular military failures weakened Russian morale, damaged the economy and increased frustration with the Tsarist regime. In order to aid the war effort, the government introduced severe food rationing measures and by March of 1917, citizens took to the streets. Beginning with small numbers of unhappy soldiers known as the “bread rioters”, a much larger group from the International Women’s Day march joined in to protest government rationing. Soon, scores of Imperial troops joined the rioters and mass mutinies took place on the battlefront.
By March 16th, over 1,300 Russians had been killed – but Tsar Nicholas II had been forced to abdicate and a new provisional government took his place. Power was initially shared between the new, moderate leadership – which advocated for land distribution and an end to rationing – and the more radical members of the Petrograd Soviets (Soviet = workers’ council). While the provisional government sought a continuation of the war, the Soviet (which came to be dominated by the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin) promised “peace, land and bread.” Their message was extraordinarily popular, and support for the provisional government gradually eroded over the following months.
In October of 1917, a much more organized force of Red Guard Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace, thus ending the reign of the provisional government and plunging Russia into a long, bloody civil war. A combination of Tsarist incompetence and the brutality of WWI brought the end of one of the most significant “old” European powers and replaced it with one of history’s most powerful – and most murderous – superpowers, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).