How did it come to this?

By the beginning of 1917 the Russian Empire had been a participant of World War I for three years. While the same could be said of the British Empire and of France, those countries hadn’t suffered the brutality of war like Russia. One of Tsar Nicholas II’s ministers warned him when war began in August of 1914: “We’re an 18th century country fighting a 20th century war”. This ominous truth became bitterly prescient on 2 May, 1915, when Germany launched a devastating offensive against the Russian front. By the end of that year Germany had driven the Russians completely out of Poland, which had been occupied by Russia since 1815. When the Russians launched a counteroffensive in the spring of 1916, the Germans easily checked it. By the end of 1916 the Russians had lost over 4 million men due to death, capture, wounds or disease.

In addition to the horrific losses sustained in combat, the Russians were also dealing with horrendous privation on the home front. Germany easily blockaded the Baltic Sea ports when the war began. In the fall of 1914 the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Since the Ottoman Empire controlled access to the Bosporus and Dardanelles, this meant that access to Russia via the Med and the Black seas was cut off. Prior to the war Russia’s meager industrial plant had been sustained by importing cheap British coal via the Baltic or Med. With those routes closed off, neither the British or the French could supply Russia with fuel or more importantly food. By fielding an 8 million man army, Russia’s Ukraine breadbasket had to feed the army first. A lack of fuel and food steadily grew worse for the civilians, especially those in the cities, like the capital Petrograd.

What started the end of the dynasty?

In Petrograd on 8 March, 1917, women who had been standing in subzero temperatures waiting for their ration of bread suddenly erupted in a riot. Smashing glass and stealing what few loaves of bread were available, the women sparked riots all over the capital city. As the civil unrest spread, Cossacks and other army units were summoned by the Ministry of the Interior to respond, but unlike previous riots and revolts that had marked the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, this time the Cossacks and army units refused to fire on the crowds. Three years of war and suffering had made even the most hardened veterans realize that firing on women who were seeking bread was simply immoral. The army units began to fraternize with the rioters, reassuring them over and over “don’t worry, we won’t shoot you.” By 12 March mutinies among most army units resulted in the murder of the commanding officers and units refusing the command of the military governor of Petrograd to quell the riots.

Where was the Tsar?

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Tsar Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II was at Russian Army headquarters, hundreds of miles west of Petrograd. After the overwhelming German offensive of 1915, Nicholas had dismissed Grand Duke Nicholas as commander of the army. The Tsar then took personal command, leaving the running of the country’s day to day domestic affairs to his wife, Tsarina Alexandra. Tsar Nicholas II ignored all the warnings from his ministers about the shortages of food and fuel throughout 1916. He even dismissed a warning from the mystic Rasputin, who had absolute control over the Tsarina, due to Rasputin’s amazing ability to stem the bleeding episodes of the Tsarevich Alexei, a hemophiliac. As the riots broke out and Nicholas received reports that his beloved Cossacks and other army units were refusing to fire on the crowds, he ordered units to be dispatched from other parts of his empire. Unfortunately for the Tsar, the army had deduced that he was no longer in control of the country. This deduction was confirmed on 12 March, when the Duma, Russia’s parliament, which had been created after the rebellion of 1905, declared that the Tsar was no longer head of state. The Duma further ordered all army units to swear allegiance to the the legislative body, not the Tsar.

How did the Romanov Dynasty End?

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Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarevich Alexei

On 11 March the Tsar ordered Duma dissolved, but the mutinies by the army on 12 March made his order moot. By 14 March nearly every general and admiral in Russia either telegraphed or phoned the Tsar, urging him to abdicate to avoid a civil war. On the morning of 15 March, Nicholas, who truly loved the army and its generals more than anything outside of his family, decided that it would be best if he abdicated the throne. His abdication would have made his 13 year old son Alexei, the Tsarevich, the new Tsar. But Nicholas knew that with his abdication, his son, who was a hemophiliac, would be left in Russia while he and his wife would have to leave the country. Fearing for his son’s health, Nicholas amended the abdication document to also include his son. This left the throne to his brother Michael. Although Michael had served bravely in combat during the war, he correctly realized that no member of the Romanov dynasty would be a welcome ruler of Russia in this time of dramatic upheaval, so he wisely declined to take the throne. His decision ended the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia since 1913.