When the Cossack cavalry refused to shoot protesting women workers in Petrograd on 23 February 1917 it was a sign of doom for Tsar Nicholas II.
The women were amazed when the soldiers heeded their call and refused their officers’ demands.
It flowed from pent-up fury at the war. The First World War was in its third year—and over two million Russian troops were dead.
Starvation was rife while the rich led opulent lifestyles.
The women’s protest triggered strikes and demonstrations that brought the city to a standstill. Within days mutiny had engulfed the troops garrisoning it.
The revolutionary Leon Trotsky described another mutinous incident when 2,000 striking engineering workers were confronted by Cossacks who “charged repeatedly but without ferocity”.
He said, “The mass of demonstrators parted to let them through and closed up again. There was no fear in the crowd.
“The Cossacks smiled and winked and their promise not to shoot was passed from mouth to mouth.”
Officers ordered the soldiers to stop workers getting to the city centre.
But Trotsky described how “the Cossacks did not hinder the workers from ‘diving’ under their horses”.
Trotsky said the revolution “made its first steps towards victory under the belly of a Cossack’s horse. A remarkable incident!”
Over the following days the demonstrations grew.
The Tsar’s military governor of Petrograd issued an order to fire on any demonstrators refusing to disperse.
Some army regiments refused to fire and mutiny spread.
The Volhynsky regiment was the first to rebel. Sickened by the shoot-to-kill order, one group turned against their officers and marched with the workers. Other regiments followed.
The key moment came when the Preobrazhensky regiment sided with the revolt and shot their officers when they physically tried to stop them.
Within a day virtually the entire city workforce was on strike and mutinies swept through the remaining barracks. Moscow and other Russian cities mirrored this pattern.
There were organised raids on government armouries.
Rifles and ammunition were seized to arm what was fast becoming an anti-government revolt.
Armed mutinous soldiers and sailors freed the Tsar’s political prisoners from jails.
Trainloads of troops sent from the front to restore order went over to the revolution on arrival.
On 27 February 70,000 troops marched with 400,000 strikers chanting, “Down with the autocracy! Down with the war!” The Tsar’s ministers were arrested the next day.
The soldiers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet—or workers’ council—formed on 1 March and the last remaining troops loyal to the Tsar surrendered.
On 2 March Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. His brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, succeeded him—and lasted a day.
In the following weeks Soviets, workers’ councils, sprung up everywhere to represent workers and soldiers.
Leading Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin insisted the war was an imperialist conflict.
He argued that the key task was to agitate for the working class to end the war through revolution and the overthrow of Tsarism.
This “revolutionary defeatism” urged workers in every country to fight their own governments, whatever the military consequences.
Bolshevik soldier agitators were instrumental in splitting the Tsarist army on class lines. They helped give rank and file soldiers confidence.
The soldiers’ mutiny meant troops risked imprisonment or death. It was only possible because there was a determined movement strong enough to prevent the generals restoring order.