By Paul Goble
If one had been reading Russian newspapers in the first weeks of 1917, there would have been little indication that the country was on the brink of a revolutionary explosion; but if one had been listening to the rumors spread among people waiting in line for bread, one would have had no doubt that the Romanov dynasty was living through its last days.
Indeed, Svobodnaya press commentator Georgy Yans argues, these lines and the rumors spread along them were “’the social networks’ of that time” and “the catalyst of the February revolution,” an insight that says a great deal about Russia a century ago and perhaps even more about Russia and other countries today (svpressa.ru/post/article/166166/).
“Few supposed that the demand for bread would lead to revolution,” he writes. “The paradox consisted in the fact that an important component part of social protest which in the end led to the overthrow of Nicholas Romanov consisted of rumors” spread like wildfire as people waited in lines.
“’The social networks’ of that time were the unending lines. There was sufficient supply [of food] in Petrograd, but the authorities weren’t able to take into consideration the factor of rumors.” And they didn’t recognize that shortages were being created because people believed that there were shortages and were buying up more than they needed.
One Russian historian has written, Yans continues, that “the significance of rumors at that period was great also because” residents, as they came to rely on rumors rather than the news media, underwent” a definite kind of psychological change.” And that led them to behave differently than they had up to then.
Having become a crowd rather than a group of residents, the historian adds, the people of Petrograd began to manifest “a collective unconsciousness” and to engage in “mass pogroms” and thefts from stores, apartments and state institutions. And they were aided and abetted in this by criminals recently released from prison.
Very rapidly, “these processes began to take on an irreversible character and prompted Aleksandr Kerensky to ask the people of Petrograd “What are we? Free citizens or revolting slaves?” Were they citizens or slaves? Yans asks now a century later. It didn’t really matter because “de facto the Russian autocracy had ceased to exist.”
What remained was to give this de jure form.