Section Ten: Political authority, opposition and the state of Russia in wartime: the political, economic and social problems of wartime; opposition and the collapse of autocracy; the political developments of 1917

Part One: The First World War


Before 1914 it had been possible for the Tsars to contain the long term problems of the
Russian Empire, even though Russia underwent dramatic economic and social change in the decade after 1905. It was a period of rapid economic growth in Russia and some onlookers, particularly Germany, believed that Russia might develop into an unstoppable economic and military power. During the July Crisis of 1914 (see below) Tsar Nicholas II was warned by his generals that a war would unleash powerful revolutionary tensions in Russia and would result in catastrophe for his regime. In this section we will examine Nicholas’s reasons for going to war and the events of the July Crisis. We will also explore the effect of the war on the troops who fought it and the impact on Russians at home.

For a one page study overview of the period click here

Russian foreign policy before 1914

In the two decades before the coronation of Nicholas II, Russia’s relations with her neighbours Germany and Austria-Hungary underwent a dramatic change. Russia had been allied to both empires, a diplomatic system engineered by the German Chancellor Bismarck called the Dreikaiserbund (League of three emperors). He wanted to prevent either of the two major powers to Germany’s east allying with her old enemy in the West, France. The alliance contained a fundamental weakness, both Austria and Russia had conflicting interests in the South East of Europe in the Balkans. As the Muslim Ottoman Empire declined in power throughout the 19th Century the European part of the empire in the Balkans experienced nationalist revolutions and uprisings. In 1877 the Orthodox Christian people of Bulgaria rebelled against the Ottomans and the Sultan’s government responded with brutal violence and repression sparking outrage across Europe. The Russian autocracy took the opportunity to extend Russia’s power into the Balkans, having an excuse to make war against the Ottomans on the behalf of Bulgaria. The Russians defeated the Turks and forced them from Bulgaria, imposing a punitive peace settlement on the ailing empire. The Treaty of San Stefano in 1878 created a large Bulgarian state that would fall under effective Russian control, but this caused outrage from Austria and Britain. The Austrians did not want a major Russian satellite state in the Balkans, a region they wished to control and the British did not want Russia to have access to the Mediterranean Sea. Russian ships that could possibly block the Suez Canal and the route to India were a threat to Britain and the two powers threatened war. When Bismarck called an international conference in Berlin that year to defuse the tensions, he decided to back Austria, knowing he could not please both the Austrians and the Russians. Russia’s plans for a big Bulgarian state were
scaled back and a small Bulgaria emerged, which proved to be a major diplomatic humiliation for Russia. After this snub she drifted away from the alliance system, her diplomats vowing never to trust Germany again.

By 1892 Germany’s worst fears were realised as Russia concluded an alliance with
France. Tsar Nicholas II, not understanding the rules of the alliance with France his father he had committed Russia to, attempted some independent diplomacy in 1905. He signed a pact with Germany, in breach of Russia’s alliance with France at Bjorko in Finland after a secret meeting between himself and his cousin, the Kaiser of Germany. The Tsar’s government told him it was an invalid treaty as soon as they heard of it, as it broke the existing alliance with France. The failure of this initiative left the Tsar looking foolish, and it meant that the only other power Russia was able to ally with was Britain. Russia signed an entente (an agreement but not a full alliance) in 1908. This final agreement left Europe divided into two military camps, greatly heightening the tensions across the continent.

The July Crisis

The Russian people were ethnically slavic and the Tsar had to appear to his people to be
protecting the interests of other slavic peoples in Europe and other followers of the Orthodox faith. Most fellow slavs could be located in the Balkans, a region of South East Europe that had been part of the Ottoman Empire throughout the 19th Century. Nations like Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania had thrown off the yoke of Ottoman rule by the start of the 20th Century and in the case of Serbia, wanted to expand their territory at the expense of their neighbours. The Austrian Empire ruled Bosnia Herzegovina, part of the Balkans that the Serbs demanded. They had been granted this region in 1878 after the Congress of Berlin and Serbian Nationalists were prepared to risk war with the Austrians in order to gain control over it. The Serbs were given encouragement by Russia that they would be supported and defended in the event of an Austrian attack. On June 28th 1914 the heir to the throne of the Austro Hungarian Empire was assassinated along with his wife on a state visit to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. The killers were a terrorist group called the Black Hand Gang, closely related to the Serbian military. Austria accused Serbia of causing the murder and threatened war, demanding such extreme concessions (in effect a full take over of the Serbian government and police by Austria) that the Serbs could only refuse.

With Germany’s backing, Austria attacked Serbia on July 29th 1914 and Russia mobilised against Austria the following day. Nicholas II wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II to ask him not to support Austria, he wanted only to use Russia’s army to make war against Austria and not Germany. The Kaiser refused, stating that a war with Austria was a war with Germany. The Tsar’s generals had advised him not to become involved in war, that the consequences for the regime would be catastrophic but by the end of July it was too late, the Russian Army had begun to march.

Rasputin and the July Crisis

Throughout the July Crisis, the Tsar took advice from a Siberian peasant mystic called
Grigori Rasputin. He had become close to the Tsar’s family from 1905 in the aftermath of the revolution that year. Rasputin was highly intelligent but illiterate so the accounts of Rasputin’s life that historians have to work with mostly come from second hand sources; the people who came to know him and were deeply influenced by him. His story is one of immense hardship growing up in Siberia. He believed god spoke directly to him and he was known as a Starets (Holy Man), who wandered from village to village. He was part of an underground religious cult called the Khylist, who believed in ‘redemption through sin’, which meant that engaging in debauched ‘sins of the flesh’ and other hedonistic activities would bring them closer to a disapproving god (who would punish and then redeem the sinner). As such, he was an unlikely choice of company for the Tsar, but he was famed as a healer; it was believed that he possessed mystical powers that could cure illnesses and the Tsar’s son Alexei suffered from the hereditary illness of haemophilia (he was unable to form blood clots if he was injured). When Rasputin appeared to alleviate the illness he was trusted implicitly firstly by the Tsarina and then by the Tsar. Advisors in the Tsar’s inner circle attempted to warn him away from Rasputin, aware that the mystic was very damaging to the reputation of the royal family but they were unsuccessful, the Tsar was as determined and stubborn in his defence of the new family friend as he was in other matters.

Part Two: The events of the War 1914-16

The Early Battles

In 1914 the Tsarist army was one of the best equipped fighting forces in the world. Contrary to popular belief, the Tsar’s soldiers marched to war with more cannons, machine guns and aircraft than any other fighting force. In the decade after the humiliation of the Russo-Japanese War, Nicholas II had spent large sums on the military. The equipment was not matched, however, with an understanding of military tactics by the Tsar’s top generals. Basic practices such as digging trenches or encrypting messages were ignored and the Russian Army did not understand how to keep a large army on the move supplied and fed. Russia was allied with France and the Tsar promised an overly optimistic timetable of mobilisation against Austria and Germany, poor railways meant that Russia took longer than anticipated to have the large numbers of men ready to attack (though this was still quicker than the Germans had anticipated). When the Russian Army advanced into East Prussia, it dwarfed the German forces presented to stop it 3/1. However, because of poor communication between generals and an inability to coordinate forces, German generals encircled their enemies and inflicted a devastating defeat upon them. At the Battle of Tannenberg and the Battle of the Masurian Lakes the Russians lost 170,000 men killed, wounded or captured and 125,000 respectively. These disasters were not enough to defeat Russia or end the war, but they ended the belief that the war could be won quickly or without enormous costs. It also further shook the confidence in the Tsar’s ability to lead Russia, particularly among his generals. This made his next decision all the more damaging to the regime.

The Tsar takes command

The year 1915 brought further bad news for the Tsar, Russian dominated Poland was conquered by the German Army and the Polish capital Warsaw fell. Angry demonstrators took to the streets of Russia’s cities demanding the Tsar abdicate, that Rasputin be executed and the Tsarina (widely, though mistakenly believed to be a Russian spy) be imprisoned. The Tsar formed a new defence council to run the war which drew its members from the Duma and from his own ministers, but in September he decided to replace his cousin Grand Duke Nikolay as head of the Russian Army with himself. He believed that this would rally the Russian people behind him as a divine figurehead, providing them with the inspiration they needed to win the war. It was a short sighted error because whilst it meant that the Tsar could take the credit for any successes Russia might have, it also meant that he would take the blame for Russia’s failures. The war that Russia was fighting would not be decided by having a Tsar in charge, but by how well the troops were equipped and led and in both cases, by 1915 these were major weaknesses for Russia.

The war industry

Even though the Russian Army had been large and well equipped by the outbreak of war in 1914, the effectiveness of the army soon broke down due to supply problems. Russia lacked:

  • An arms and munitions industry large and advanced enough to supply all of the army’s needs.
  • A railway system that could get troops and supplies to the front line quickly and efficiently. The Tsarist government, like many governments in 1914 expected the war to last for a maximum of six months. Even for this short period of time there was insufficient artillery shells for the army, fodder for horses and replacement boots for the men. In addition to this the decision by the Tsar to prioritise the army when it came to dividing up Russia’s food reserves caused significant food shortages in the countryside and in the towns and cities. Ironically, the railway system was so badly organised that often food taken from the peasants sat and rotted in warehouses, never reaching the soldiers who needed it. Despite good harvests, Russia experienced serious food problems in 1916 due to:
  • the collapse of the transport network
  • the fact that the government fixed grain prices artificially low
  • rising inflation ate into any profits the peasantry might make
    Not only did the peasants lose their grain, which was sold at artificially low prices, but they often lost their horses which were taken by the army to pull gun carriages. The youngest men in peasant villages were conscripted to fight, meaning that it became very difficult without young men and horses to bring in harvests, resulting in bumper harvests rotting in the fields.

  • Conditions at the front
    The cruelties of Russia’s class system were not contained just to the civilian sphere, on the front line Russian officers, normally of aristocratic bearing often treated their peasant soldiers with brutality or casual indifference. Many aristocratic generals knew nothing about how to fight a modern war and instead vied with one another for the Tsar’s favour at the Stavka (forward command) at Mogilev. They rarely visited the front line and instead enjoyed, along with the Tsar, a leisurely lifestyle of entertainments and long walks. Junior officers in the field often sacrificed men in suicidal attempts to attack Austrian and German positions, only to see the captured territory abandoned shortly afterwards. Ordinary soldiers were treated as little better than serfs, being forced to carry out menial tasks such as
    cleaning officers boots when they returned from battle. Unlike nearly every other combatant power in the war, the Russian Army initially did not dig trenches for its men to shelter in from artillery fire, instead it was thought by out of touch generals that soldiers would simply throw themselves to the ground when an enemy shell was fired. The poorly led Russian soldiers often showed remarkable bravery and were respected by their enemies, but often they had little or no idea why they were fighting. Most were Illiterate and only had a very loose sense of being Russian, as their sense of identity and loyalty was normally based around a village they had never travelled beyond. They had some idea about who the Tsar was but were often unsure about why Russia was fighting Germany and what the Germans wanted. Unsurprisingly, it was difficult to motivate men who had no understanding of
    the conflict and who simply wanted to be able to go home. It came down to the Zemstva of Russia to provide trenches, field hospitals, canteens and other essential services for the soldiers. The local government organisations stepped in to provide all the facilities that the Tsar’s government seemed incapable of offering. In doing so, many members of the Zemstva and their supporters began to believe that the local government organisations and the middle class that dominated them might actually do a better job of running Russia than the Tsar. They would be able to put this to the test in February 1917.

  • Changing fortunes 1916

  • By 1916 it seemed as if Russia has overcome many of her supply and strategy problems. A talented general, Aleksei Brusilov was given command of the South West front against Austria in March that year. Unlike his contemporaries he believed in coordinating infantry, artillery and air power in an organised attack. The major attack against Austria’s forces that he planned (known across the world as ‘The Brusilov Offensive’), was immensely successful and advanced 30 kilometres (a considerable distance by 1916 standards) across the Carpathian region, taking 400,000 Austrian prisoners. Brusilov’s successes, however, did not necessarily make him popular at the Stavka in Mogilev. Rival generals, jealous of his breakthrough undermined him in the eyes of the Tsar. Worse still, his offensive was not supported by rival general Evert who delayed in moving against the Austrians, which gave Germany’s quick thinking generals time to move troops to the front line to support Austria and bring the offensive to a stand still. Brusilov’s troops had high morale at the start of the battle and most of them respected their commander, who visited their trenches in person and was able to relate to them. The end of the offensive, which, whilst a Russian victory was a short lived one, led to a further slump
    in army morale. It proved to be the final great offensive before the February Revolution of 1917 (see the next section). The failure of the offensive, despite Brusilov’s skill and planning showed that the Russian Empire wasn’t capable of sustaining a successful campaign against the enemy, even if it had got off to a promising start.

  • Rasputin’s murder
    In Petrograd, with the Tsar away at the Stavka, the Tsarina Alexandra was left in charge of the government. The Duma and the Tsar’s ministers had even less power with the Tsar away than before. The Tsarina was advised by the mystic Grigori Rasputin, but as a consequence the monarchy fell into ever greater disrepute. Rumours, all of which were false, circulated around the city that the Tsarina was a German spy, that she and Rasputin were lovers, and that Rasputin had supernatural powers. The monk was unwittingly a valuable source of information for the Germans, who sent spies to follow him around the city’s drinking dens, where he would freely discuss military strategy while drunk. His influence over the deeply religious Tsarina grew and he was able to undermine any ministers who
    threatened his position by appealing to her to have them dismissed. He took an active role in devising military strategy, passing messages to the Tsar through Alexandra. Nicholas II, also a deeply religious man who believed in the inherent good of the peoples of peasant Russia, had absolute faith in Rasputin, whom he called ‘Our Friend’. The first major challenge to the Tsar’s authority came with the murder of Rasputin in December 1916, but it was not carried out by revolutionaries. Instead, the wealthiest aristocrat in Russia, Felix Yusupov and one of the Tsar’s own nephews Dmitri Romanov led a group of conspirators who murdered Rasputin with cyanide then shot him, dumping his body in the frozen River Neva. Historians have presented several theories as to why he was killed but the most compelling argument seems to be that patriotic nobles believed that he was causing Russia to lose the war and the damage he was doing to the royal family was dragging the
    country close to a revolution in which they would all be in great danger.

  • The winter of 1916
    The Russian winter of 1916/17 was an exceptionally long and cold one, even by Russian standards. Food shortages caused by the war and inflation left shops empty and market stalls bare. Fuel was also in short supply and there was insufficient man power in the cities to shovel the snow. Many diarists wrote of a sense of impending dread, that something terrible was about to happen, but few of them actually foresaw the collapse of the regime. Revolutionaries in exile across Europe had little idea that within months the Tsar would be swept away, but ordinary Russians could see that the government was not functioning. The autocratic head of state was away at the front, his government was full of incompetent ministers, hand picked by the Tsarina and Rasputin. The food and transport systems had broken down and only state repression appeared to be keeping dissent in check. The bitterly cold weather kept many Russians off the streets but a thaw in the spring would change this.
  • The February Revolution
  • Overview
  • The February Revolution that swept the Tsar from power was not so much a revolt frombelow or by an organised party as it was simply the collapse of the Tsarist state. The revolution was initially contained to Petrograd where it began, but quickly royal authority across Russia dissolved. Emerging from the chaos were two separate organisations, both attempting to rule an almost ungovernable country that was still at war with Germany; the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet.
  • The Revolution in Petrograd
  • On February 22nd the wives of steel workers at Petrograd’s Putilov Steel Works reacted in anger and dismay after they queued for hours for bread, only to find that there was none in the shops to buy. Bread and other staples were already heavily rationed. Their husbands worked at a steel plant that had a long history of radicalism, as its philanthropic founder, Nikolai Putilov had encouraged literacy and political education amongst the workers. It was the largest employer in the city due to the massive increase in demand for steel that the war had created. This gave the steel workers considerable power. The workers went out on strike in protest against the shortages, but at this stage it was a display of dissatisfaction with the shortages, not a demand that the Tsar step down. The following day was international women’s day (March 8th in the Gregorian (new style) calendar, February 23rd in the Julian (old style) calendar. Warmer weather led to a thaw in the bitterly cold snow and thousands of women joined the striking men on the city’s streets to demand better food rations.
  • The Tsar’s fatal error
  • What followed next was an example of the government’s poor judgement and bad luck. It was announced that the flour ration per person would be reduced and the rumour that the food had completely run out spread through the crowd. Rioters crossed into the city’s wealthier districts and smashed shop windows to grab loaves and pastries. On the 23rd some 50,000 protesters took to the streets but the following day the number had reached 200,000. The crowds grew as Petrograd’s citizens joined in an almost carnival like atmosphere, but as they did the political mood was beginning to change. Banners demanding the removal of the Tsar were widespread throughout the crowds and by the 25th the protests had become an unofficial general strike with nearly every business across the city closing its doors. Protesters were emboldened by the fact that there had been no military crack down on the crowds, but the lack of repression had been a deliberate policy. The Tsar’s Council of Ministers was well aware that the situation could be contained if the troops did not react. The Tsar, at the front in Mogilev only had information from his wife and Rasputin to guide his decisions. Disastrously, he ordered a military crack down on the protests on February 26th. The centre of Petrograd filled with soldiers, barricades and machine gun posts and two regiments, the Pavlovsky and Volynsky fired on protesters killing dozens. This brought the crisis to a head and the protesters realised that they were now fighting against the regime for their very lives. Most of the troops who fired on the crowds were young and inexperienced and horrified by what had happened. They faced a dilemma, would the carry out their oath to the Tsar or be loyal to the people?
  • Mutiny
  • Troops across the city debated what to do and by the morning of the 27th the vast majority had decided to join the crowds. Commanding officers ordered them to carry out their duties but they were either ignored, chased away or in several cases murdered. When the Pavlovsky, Volynsky, Preobaszhensky and Lithuanian regiments joined the crowds, they brought with them thousands of rifles from the city’s arsenals and millions of rounds of ammunition. This mutiny robbed the Tsar of any military power in Petrograd and turned the protests into a revolution and more importantly, into one with every chance of success. By the evening of the 27th it was clear that the Tsar’s general in Petrograd, Khabalov, had completely lost control of the city. The Tsar’s prime minister, Mikhail Rodzianko repeatedly sent telegrams to him over the five days of protests urging him to return to the city to take command. Rodzianko told him that it was fatal to delay returning and that each day the Tsar came closer to being deposed. Nicholas did not know what to do, but in part his decision not to return was a show of stubbornness. He did not believe he was answerable to the people. The Tsarina Alexandra continued to tell her husband that there was nothing to panic about, and that the trouble makers would soon disperse.
  • Abdication
  • Partly on the advice of the Tsarina, he had prorogued the Duma, indefinitely suspending the very ministers who might have saved his regime. Crowds threatened to storm the Peter and Paul Fortress in Petrograd on the 28th. It was a symbol of Tsarist oppression and had imprisoned generations of opponents of the regime. By March 1st the Tsar’s generals had concluded that they stood little chance of winning back the city through force of arms. They realised that the troops they would use to take back the city could not be trusted not to mutiny and join the revolution. When they realised that the Duma leaders had not dispersed as ordered but had organised a committee to maintain public order they knew there was a potential government in the capital they could work with. The generals were worried that socialist revolutionaries would try to take power, but with that worry seemingly gone, they cancelled the planned mission to save the Tsar’s regime. The following day the Tsar’s generals collectively advised him to abdicate. He preferred to give up the throne than compromise with a new government and become a constitutional monarch. When he signed his abdication, he stipulated that his ill son the Tsareivich Alexei would not take the throne. The only other option was the Tsar’s brother, who had no desire to take on Nicholas’s problems. With his refusal to consider becoming Tsar, the Romanov dynasty came to an end.
  • The Revolution in the countryside
  • The revolution was not contained to Petrograd, it spread into the countryside but it manifested itself in a distinctly different way. Anger and resentment towards the landowners had been building for decades since the perceived failures of emancipation. In the two decades before the revolution many nobles in the countryside perceived a change in attitudes by the peasants. They appeared far less deferential and were sometimes insolent, rude and even threatening. The peasants adopted an ethos of ‘voila’, which roughly translated as a desire to be free from any kind of control. Younger peasants did not see the landowners, the government or any authority, including the village obschina as having any right to control them. Some landowners looked on this development with fear, worrying what might happen if the Tsar’s ability to police the countryside broke down. In 1917 they found out what would happen, as the peasants, hearing that the Tsar’s government had fallen seized the opportunity this presented. They were anxious for revenge against the landowners, but more importantly, they were hungry for land.
  • Anarchy
  • During and immediately after the February Revolution the Russian countryside exploded into violence. Noble families on country estates realised that there was no functioning government to protect them and the rural police (hated by the peasants), slipped away, fearful of what might become of them. Manor houses were burned down and landowners fled, with many escaping to cities such as Moscow and Petrograd. The writer Maxim Gorky, believed that instead of being freed by the revolution, Russia was sliding into a new age of barbarity. Some peasants with a sense of loyalty towards the landowners warned them that peasants on their estates were planning to attack them and they were able to make their escapes. Other landowners, understanding that the revolution had changed everything, decided to offer their land to the peasants voluntarily. When manor houses were attacked it was more common for the contents to be destroyed in anger than stolen. This suggests that the peasants did not see themselves as thieves, the land they took was simply what they believed they were entitled to. Often when they did take property from manor houses, they were practical tools and items such as boots or hunting rifles. The peasants had little interest in the finery of the nobles.
  • Land
  • The most important question in peasant Russia was how the land would be divided after the revolution. After the peasants had seized thousands of acres of land, they hoped that a government would come to power that would allow them to keep the land they had taken. Any new government would face considerable difficulties in dealing with the peasants and trying to bring the countryside back under control. It was essential to do this because Russia needed to be fed, wartime inflation had made paper money worthless and the Russian peasants were less and less inclined to take their food to market. Instead they hoarded it, bartered it or consumed it themselves, knowing that the money they received for their produce would have little purchasing power. Russia had not ended the war with Germany and the army needed to be fed, but the sons of peasants serving on the front line became increasingly anxious to return home as they heard rumours that land was available in their home villages.
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