Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Ides of March 1917

In an era accustomed to shocking news, it was still... shocking.

A hundred years ago the world was globally linked, and -- thanks to the telegraph -- news circulated rapidly as a rule. Nevertheless there were exceptions. A landscape broken up by nearly three years of war had more than its share of downed telegraph wires. And reporters still had to rely on ground transport to file their stories.

Sometimes news was delayed.

Thus it happened that the ominous transformation that occurred suddenly in Russia on March 15, 1917 (Gregorian Calendar) didn't reach English language newspapers until the evening of March 16 and the morning of March 17. Anglo-Americans were aware of the protests in St Petersburg in recent days, so it was not surprising that news was difficult to come by in this week.

When the dispatches finally did come through, however, they were more than anyone expected. What had happened was nothing less than the beginning of the end of a world.

The "Tsar," the Emperor, the Autocrat of "All the Russias" had been overthrown. It was a Revolution. It was the end of Europe's oldest reigning dynasty and the fall of a thousand year old monarchy. It launched a vast nation into a crisis of identity that would have enormous repercussions for the history of the twentieth century.

The abdication of Nicholas II to what was perceived to be a "democratic assembly" seemed like an optimistic development to English parliamentarians and American republicans in 1917. In fact, the assembly was deeply unstable and already in the process of collapsing internally. A huge hole was opening up in Russia's political life, and power would soon be up for grabs for whoever was clever enough, opportunistic enough, and ruthless enough to take hold of it.

None of this was apparent, nor did it seem too important, to English and American readers during the third week of March 1917, however. Russia was England's ally in the war, and Russian spokesmen assured the English that the Duma remained committed to the war effort. That's what mattered to the English (and the Americans, who were weeks away from joining the war themselves).

Not only was the Great War nowhere closer to ending. It was, in a certain sense, just getting under way. The desperate conflict between nations and peoples that would dominate the history of the twentieth century was beginning to take shape.