On Feb. 23, 1917 thousands of female Russian factory workers instigated a bread riot that soon turned into a massive demonstration throughout Petrograd (modern St. Petersburg). The protests, which began on International Women’s Day, soon attracted more than 100,000 demonstrators, who flooded the streets demanding the end of both Russia's years-long food shortages as well as the end of the country's participation in World War I. What began as a bread riot evolved into a revolution on Feb. 26, after Czar Nicholas II ordered his troops to fire into unarmed crowds of protesters. Only days later the military garrison in Petrograd joined the striking workers and arrested government ministers, forcing the Czar to abdicate. The so-called February Revolution was the first of two revolutions to occur in Russia in 1917.

What Led to Revolution?

War fatigue, economic hardship and the unpopular Czarist regime created the social unrest that ignited the February Revolution. Russia’s disastrous losses in the Russo-Japanese War had already erupted into general revolt during the revolution of 1905, which only diffused after the tsar agreed to institute a constitutional monarchy. Public discontent spiked once again after the czar led Russia into another expensive war: World War I. Food became scarce among workers, the income gap between the rich and poor skyrocketed, and the Russian army’s losses only worsened Czar Nicholas’ reputation for ineffective leadership.

Women and the February Revolution

Petrograd’s female textile workers instigated a strike on Feb. 23 in response to food shortages that had plagued Russia for more than three years. Others soon joined in and, by the end of the first day, 75,000 workers were in the streets. Within two days the event became a general strike, attracting 400,000 demonstrators – including students, educators and white-collar employees. According to the International Socialist Review, the women who led the initial protests reportedly attended a Bolshevik study group on the meaning of International Women’s Day the day before the strike.

Abdication of Tsar Nicholas II

On Feb. 26, Czar Nicholas turned what was initially a frenzied bread riot into a revolution after he ordered his troops to fire into crowds of unarmed protesters. The next day, military garrisons switched their allegiance to side with the protesters, seized arsenals of weapons and placed czarist government ministers under arrest. By March 2 the czar had abandoned the throne, ending the 300-year-old Romanov autocracy, and a provisional government was installed. The new government, fearing the czar could be reinstated with the support of counterrevolutionary forces, ordered the execution of Nicholas and his family in July 1917.

October Revolution

At the time of the February Revolution, the socialist Bolshevik Party was still a minority party in Russia. The Provisional Government put into place after Czar Nicholas’ abdication, however, became increasingly unpopular after it failed to immediately pull Russian forces out of World War I. The Bolsheviks began rallying in support of the workers councils – known as Soviets – that were created at the same time as the provisional government, arguing that those councils were more legitimate since its members were elected to their posts. By September, the Bolshevik’s seized control of the Petrograd Soviet, one of Russia’s largest workers councils, and obtained military backing. The Bolsheviks acted in the name of the Soviets on Oct. 25, 1917 when its army stormed the Winter Palace – the seat of government – and overthrew the provisional government. The event led to the creation of Russia’s one-party Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922, which ruled the country until 1991.