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“Freedom! Freedom!”: 100 years since the fall of the Tsar

As midnight approached on 15 March 1917 (2 March on the Russian calendar), Tsar Nicholas II signed his manifesto of abdication, ending centuries of autocratic monarchical rule in Russia. Nicholas accepted the situation with his typical mixture of resignation and faith: “The Lord God saw fit to send down upon Russia a new harsh ordeal…During these decisive days for the life of Russia, We considered it a duty of conscience to facilitate Our people’s close unity…In agreement with the State Duma, We consider it to be for the good to abdicate from the Throne of the Russian State… May the Lord God help Russia.”

When the news broke, masses of people took to the streets to rejoice. The mood had more than a tinge of religious fervor. A newspaper reporter tried to capture this mood:

The dazzling sun appeared. Foul mists were dispersed. Great Russia stirred! The long-suffering people arose. The nightmare yoke fell. Freedom and happiness—forward. “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” People look about and gather in large crowds, share impressions of the new and the unexpected. Many embrace, kiss, congratulate one another, and throw themselves greedily at the distributed proclamations. They read loudly, abruptly, agitatedly. From mouth to mouth passes the long-awaited joyous news: “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” Tears glisten in the eyes of many. Uncontainable, wild joy.

— The Daily Kopeck Gazette, 6/19 March 1917.

The revolution seemed to be, others wrote, a “miracle,” “resurrection,” “salvation.” These first days of freedom reminded many of “Easter,” the most sacred and joyous holiday. And when actual Easter came in April, people associated this festival of resurrection and promised redemption with Russia’s revolution.

Everyone was talking about “freedom.” It seemed, as the liberal feminist Maria Pokrovskaia wrote on the day after the abdication, that “Russia has suddenly turned a new page in her history and inscribed on it: Freedom!” Looking back across a hundred years, we know that this page, as it were, would be torn out of the book of Russian history or at least overwritten. But a deeper and more revealing storyespecially as the world (though Russia least of all) marks this centenary with various projects of remembranceis less the history of failure and disappointment, though real and important to remember, than the history of how people imagined possibility at that moment, including how they experienced, understood, and embraced this vague and protean word “freedom.”

Photograph of Tsar Nicholas II after his abdication, March 1917. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of Tsar Nicholas II after his abdication, March 1917. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For many, it was enough that the Tsar was gone and the new government had declared freedom of the press, speech, assembly, and religion. Vladimir Lenin himself, on returning from exile in April, concluded that Russia was now “the freest of all the belligerent countries in the world.” But many insisted that this negative freedomfreedom from constraints, broken shackles (another common metaphor in the revolution)was not enough.

First, there was the dark face of liberty: crime and violence unleashed by the collapse of the institutions of police, courts, and prisons but also by the atmosphere of unbridled license, by the widespread attitude of grab what you can while it lasts. Elites on both the left and the right warned that liberty unrestrained by reason or morality was not true freedom but its enemy. At best, this was the confused thinking of “mutinous slaves.” Real freedom, they countered, was inseparable from order, morality, and respect for others.

But there was also, voiced and practiced from below, a positive definition of freedom as active and transforming. In the language of the time, freedom must bring “happiness” and “a new life.” Freedom is incompatible, they declared (and acted on their declarations), with the inequality that kept people hungry and poor and thus unable to enjoy the fruits of liberty. A non-Bolshevik socialist reported how freedom was defined at a mass meeting he attended in May: people who had “only recently been slaves” were dreaming of a world without rich and poor, without human suffering, and without warnaive dreams, in his view, mixed with desires for “harsh and merciless vengeance” against those who stood in the way of these dreams.

Liberal political philosophers would later warn that it was wrong and dangerous to confuse “liberty with her sisters, equality, and fraternity,” to conflate freedom to pursue happiness with freedom that promotes happiness itself by transforming society. But most lower-class Russians would ask what sort of freedom could there be without prosperity for all, peace for all, happiness for all? If they were making a definitional mistake, this mattered little compared to the truth they found in this positive notion of freedom as richer than negative liberty.

A half-century later, the philosopher Hannah Arendt described freedom as a miraculous “new beginning,” as an “infinite improbability” breaking into a world where “the scales are weighted in favor of disaster.” And yet, she insisted, such improbable miracles are real facts throughout history, nurtured by our very nature and experience as human beings. The “unforeseeable and unpredictable” is not the impossible.

The world a century ago was surely tilted into disasternot only the devastating World War but a long history of popular deprivation and lack of freedom. The events in Russia in early March were embraced as a miraculous “new beginning.” Yes, we know the history that followed. But it would be arrogant to claim we know that this was the only possible outcome. History is not only a story of disappointed hopes (though that is surely a major theme), but also a story of the unexpected and even the infinitely improbable becoming real.

At the very least, the Russian revolution was one of those moments in human history, when people, in the face of darkness and disaster, embrace the possibility of what might be, if for no other reason than it must be. Who are we, knowing only what turned out, to say that their dreams of freedom and a new life were in vain?

Featured image credit: A demonstration of workers from the Putilov plant in Petrograd (modern day St. Petersburg), Russia, during the February Revolution. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Greg Gauthier

    “…ending centuries of autocratic monarchical rule in Russia…” – and by October, it was replaced by 80 years of autocratic communist rule, after which, it was replaced by a new autocratic plutarchical rule.

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…

  2. Eric H. Roth

    Or meet a far worse boss!

  3. Gregory Tzanetos

    The theme reflects my interest in the exploration of a suggestion, in the area of liberalism, concerning the mind and the transcendent sense of freedom.
    Here, it is suggested that the sense of freedom reflects pre-established relation of the subject with the object of being, as the subject grasps this relation in its space which is defined by the conscience.
    Further, we may consider that the sense of freedom could not be conceivable beyond the knowledge of self, showing the relation of the subject with an object in the state of freedom in self, as being; namely the reality of freedom could not be conceivable by the individual, beyond a pre-existed knowledge of its subject corresponding to an ”end” of freedom in self, as this relation is reflected on the conscience of a person.
    Although freedom is expressed by the subject, it is referred always to a notional object of itself in state of freedom associating the subject with the state of a real thing of self in the existence of human, namely in an intellectual nature of morality associated with the nature of being.
    As result, freedom corresponds to the concept of causality associating the space of the subject as conscience with the physical state in human being , which corresponds to the cause of its own object of self in freedom; this relation is reflected on the conscience of being, as motive.
    Therefore, we can say that freedom could not gain any sense of reality, in order to be transferred to logic, without the motive of a preexisted transcendent knowledge of the subject corresponding to the cause of its own conscience, projecting the sense of an end – as an object of self in freedom – on the spectrum of logic; and that knowledge of the subject, corresponding to an end in freedom, is reflected on the conscience of the individual, providing the sense of the self, in freedom, to the physical state of human.
    Then freedom is recognized by a person, as real state of itself, as such knowledge is transferred by the mind revealing the motive of the subject corresponding to an end of self in state of freedom; since the mind transfers the transcendent knowledge of the relation of the subject with an object of self in state of freedom, as the embedded identity of an end, which the subject projects on the physical state of a person expressing will independent from any other external cause.
    Thus, the will derives its motive from preexisted knowledge of the relation of the subject with a nature of thing in freedom, and that relation establishes the identity of the subject as an end in freedom before logic; otherwise the person could never grasp its state in freedom by logic and only by direct sense of the body, as a desire of a simple nature deprived of any knowledge of the identity of the subject with its relation to an intellectual nature of an end in state of freedom by its self – namely without the knowledge of the state of freedom in self, which the subject grasps in the space of conscience – ; and, therefore, the sense of this state is transferred to the brain, by the mind, projecting the motive of freedom, which the subject conceives corresponding to its own cause as an end in freedom by its self, in order to control the physical object of body in the state of freedom, by the use of logic.
    We can see then how a person expresses the state of its own freedom, motivated by the cause of its self expressing undeniable reason corresponding to its own relation as subject related to the nature of an end in freedom, in order to preserve it in the state of freedom as human being. Thus we can understand that the purpose of a person, attaining its own state in the physical object of a body in freedom, is initially derived from the conscience providing the motive and it is transferred by the mind to logic, reflecting the transcendent knowledge corresponding to the state of a physical object of being in freedom.
    Therefore, what provokes the reason of freedom in the human’s experience is by a source embedded in self, establishing the relation of the subject with the object of a nature, as end of self, in state of freedom, revealing an embedded identity in self, and by the sense of which the person recognizes its own existence in the state of freedom as experience in physical object of human being; while the transcendent knowledge of that state is reflected on the space of the subject, as space of conscience, and it is transferred by the mind to logic developing the reason which a person conceives in its own state of freedom.
    Concluding we can say that, if the question was what we had as purpose in Humanity and that question was associated with what we guard in the experience of human being, then the answer would be given not only by the brain, but it would be derived from our soul, and that answer would be motivated by our conscience as human beings, expressing the reason of our own freedom, as ends of ourselves in the state of freedom.
    Thank you for reading this. A more extensive argumentation, concerning the mind and the sense of freedom, will be released in continuance to this one.

  4. Victor Lukanga

    A brilliant section for the thinking world.

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