In 2017, the year of the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution, it is important to be reminded that Vladimir Lenin did not seize power from Tsar Nicholas II. The monarchy had already collapsed in February; with riots in the streets of Petrograd, the imperial capital, involving tens of thousands of angry civilians and defiant soldiers from the Petrograd garrison, the tsar, isolated and discredited, agreed to abdicate in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich. The tsar was hoping to save the monarchy and preserve the commitment of the Russian army to carry on the war against Germany. But the Grand Duke, a modest, self-effacing man with little ambition, renounced the throne, bringing an end to three hundred years of Romanov rule. Power shifted to the provisional government and the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers, an awkward sharing of political authority that, as history records, undermined the provisional government.
The Fall of Tsarism provides an unprecedented trove of new and vivid information about these heady events. Translated and edited by Semion Lyandres, a historian at Notre Dame, these interviews with ten leading figures in the provisional government underscore the turmoil that turned Russia upside down with unexpected speed. A team of researchers led by the Petrograd historian Mikhail Polievktov conducted the interviews in the late spring, between May 4 and June 7, of 1917. They are "the earliest known oral histories (interviews) of the February Revolution" with men who had played and, in some cases, would continue to play an outsize role in the unfolding events of 1917 (v). But with the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, Polievktov and his colleagues understood that their ambitious plan to organize a comprehensive collection of interviews and documents about the revolution could not succeed. Transcriptions of the interviews remained in the hands of Polievktov's family, and as they passed from one generation to another, they ended up in Tblisi, Georgia, where Lyandres was able to find them, verify their integrity, and bring them to light. It is right that he not only describes the process by which he gained access to the interviews but also introduces them with a fifty-page review of Polievktov's career, a suitable tribute to the historian whose devotion to independent historical inquiry could not find a place in a Bolshevik dystopia.
Some of the ten who were interviewed have been largely forgotten. Boris Engel'gardt had been a military officer and an elected member of the (Fourth) Duma, the legislative body that Nicholas II had been compelled to establish in the wake of the first revolution in 1905. Engel'gardt was an eyewitness to the turmoil in Petrograd; as members of the local garrison joined the crowds in the [End Page 427] streets, they often attacked their officers, who represented the harsh discipline of the now-reviled autocracy. Engel'gardt recalled "complaints from widows of murdered officers that their husbands were being dumped out of their caskets," a gruesome display of the mob's violence and the kind of terrifying detail that, without this interview, would otherwise have been lost to history (60). Petr Gerasimov witnessed similar events. The autocracy had always relied on Cossacks and police officials to suppress demonstrations. But that February, Gerasimov saw Cossacks using force to disperse policemen who were trying to control a crowd. As the dynasty collapsed, its agents of control could no longer be relied upon to intimidate the population.
The interviews with Mikhail Rodzianko, Matvei Skobelev, and most notably Aleksandr Kerenskii leave the most vivid impressions. Each played major roles throughout the dramas of 1917, but in preserving what they had to say when the ultimate outcome in October could not be foreseen, their interviews underscore the futile hopes unleashed by the tsar's abdication. Rodzianko had been president of the last two imperial Dumas. In February 1917, it was Rodzianko who "conducted negotiations with military leaders, demanded (and received) Nicholas's abdication, convinced Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich to renounce the throne, and sanctioned the formation of...