Courtesy Reuters

The Russian Revolution - Fifty Years After


IN March 1917, in the third year of the Great War, the political system that had prevailed in Russia for several centuries-namely the Tsarist autocracy-suddenly collapsed. Signs of its disintegration had been mounting ominously for a year or two; the likelihood of its early demise had been widely sensed; yet no one expected it to come just at that moment. For a century in the past, its overthrow had been the dream of liberal and radical oppositionists, some of whom had schemed, worked, even suffered martyrdom, to bring it about. Yet its collapse, when it came, was not the immediate result of any such efforts. It fell because the strains of conducting a prolonged major war, superimposed on more basic weaknesses and problems of adjustment, were simply too much for it.

The trouble began when irregularities in the food supply led to street disorders in the capital city. Compared to ones that had occurred in the past, these disorders were not of an unusual or particularly dangerous nature. Nevertheless, the régime proved incapable of controlling them and restoring order. The war had taken its toll of the best units of the old army, with their relatively high morale and good discipline. The garrisons in the neighborhood of the capital, to which appeal had to be taken in the effort to restore order, were now manned by raw and semi-demoralized recruits. They refused their collaboration, disobeyed orders, fraternized with the unruly crowds and declined to support the police. In this development, the hollowness of the authority of the régime was at once revealed. It suddenly became apparent to everyone that "the king was naked"- naked, in this instance, of effective support from any quarter. In the short space of a few days, the monarchy, lacking effective defenders, fell of its own weight.

Even today, a half-century later, it is difficult to assess the meaning of this collapse. Was the Tsarist autocracy so largely an anachronism, were

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