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 story—especially as the world (though Russia least of all) marks this centenary with various projects of remembrance—is 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.”
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 freedom—freedom 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 war—naive 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 disaster—not 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.