Russia’s War, 1914 – February 1917

Leon Trotsky in 1918.

Leon Trotsky. The radical Marxist saw in the First World War the death throes of capitalist imperialism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Let Papa not plan war”, the mystical pilgrim Grigori Rasputin wrote in a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II in 1914. “For with war will come the end of Russia and yourselves, and you will lose to the last man.” On the other side of society, the sometimes-Menshevik orthodox Marxist Lev Davidovich Bronshtein – better known by his nom de guerre of Leon Trotsky – had a remarkably similar notion of how the coming European war would develop. “The present war”, he wrote in Zürich in 1914, “is at bottom a revolt of the forces of production against the political form of nation and state.” Trotsky, like Rasputin, saw in the war a destruction of the existing order (albeit, not just in Russia, but in all of Europe.) However, as war broke out in August 1914, these voices of pessimism were drowned out in a sea of support for the tsar and no small amount of optimism. Alexei Brusilov, arguably the greatest of all the generals of the First World War, was not alone when he wrote on 10 August of his “duty to my country and my tsar”, of “my love for the military”, of “excellent officers” and “very reliable troops” who were in good spirits, and that “there is no ground for nervousness or unease.” At last, Russia was to settle accounts with its oftentimes foe, the Austro-Hungarians. At last, Germany would also be dealt with. Russia would be led to war with God on its side, supported in this great undertaking by its formidable and faithful ally, the Republic of France, as well as the greatest maritime power in the world, Great Britain. Most of Russia was united behind the tsar in this endeavour; the parliament, known as the duma, voluntarily voted for its own suspension, arguing that its will was at one with the tsar, and therefore it was an irrelevant and divisive institution in a time of war. Within two and a half years, however, the tsar and his family had been deposed, the three hundred year old institution of the Romanov dynasty destroyed, replaced by a weak Provisional Government that would, within eight months, itself fall victim to revolution. In the interim, the Russian war effort that had begun so promisingly stumbled through multiple ignominies. What seemed to be Russia’s finest hour soon turned into a bloody nightmare that engulfed all aspects of the country, and would have enormous repercussions for the entire century.




In 1904 and 1905, Russia had been defeated on the battlefields of Manchuria and Korea by the Japanese. Since then, the country had learnt important lessons in the running of modern warfare. Under Prime Minister Peter Stolypin, and enjoying the continuing halo effects of the policies of Count Sergei Witte, Russia had begun the inexorable process of industrialisation. In St. Petersburg (which was renamed to Petrograd upon the outbreak of war, since Nicholas II feared that “St. Petersburg” sounded far too German), the Putilov Metal Works grew to become one of the largest factories in the world. Rearmament after the painful defeat became a watchword, and in the coming years Russian military expenditure grew at a phenomenal rate, outstripping (both proportionately and in absolute terms) even that of the Germans. Between 1908 and 1913, expenditure on munitions nearly doubled, and government contracts for fleet-building more than trebled. Russian manpower, too, suggested that any war involving Russia would place St. Petersburg at a serious advantage over any adversary. The peacetime standing army of 1.4 million men could be, in the event of a general mobilisation, augmented by every man between the ages of 21 and 43 who had previously served in the army; by 1914, this meant that the effective size of the Russian Army could be counted at close to 5 million – a vast number when the size of armies in the previous generation had generally been measured in the hundreds of thousands, rather than the millions. It was not for nothing that allies and enemies alike referred to the might of the tsar’s forces as the “Russian Steamroller”; the sentiment was that, once it gained enough momentum, the Russian Army would simply crush all before it by pure weight of numbers.


Old postcard, Russian Army, Cossacks, 1914.

Cossacks of the Russian Army. In spite of its fearsome reputation, the army hid crippling disadvantages that would come to a head early in the war. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The figures, however, are misleading. Firstly, while Russia benefitted from industrial rearmament policies, these policies did not (in general) lead to a net increase in Russian strength. Indeed, much of the expenditure was aimed at replacing the materiel (particularly ships) lost during the Russo-Japanese War. In spite of the Anglo-German Naval Arms Race that dominated much of the late 1900s and early 1910s, Russia’s naval budget actually dwarfed both Britain’s and Germany’s. As far as the army was concerned, much of the expenditure had gone into reinforcing fortresses in Russian Poland. These were relics of a bygone era; even so, the War Ministry funnelled more money into rearming forts than it did rearming the army itself. By 1914, the Russian Army had just over 3,000 heavy artillery pieces. Only 240 of them, though, were mobile, with the rest being installed in the obsolete fortresses. Even when field guns and howitzers were present, they were poorly supplied with ammunition. On the Western Front, the French and the Germans would soon suffer shell shortages, but they as a matter of course equipped their guns with between 2,000 and 3,000 shells apiece. The Russians could manage just 1,000. Russian arsenals also held more than four million rifles – probably enough for the initial mobilisation, presuming they could be effectively distributed, but hardly sufficient for a protracted war.




For all this, though, the Russian campaign immediately began well. The Germans expected that the Russians would not be capable of full mobilisation for months, but the Russians were, in fact, ready to march westwards just three days after Germany’s own mobilisation plans were complete. Furthermore, since the German war plan – the notorious Schlieffen Plan – called for France to be beaten before the German forces could be turned towards the east, this meant that the fully-mobilised Russians were facing off in the northwest against only a token German defensive force in East Prussia. To the southwest, circumstances were even more favourable. Russia’s main foe in Galicia was Austria-Hungary, but Austria-Hungary was also concerned with the Serbian Army, even further south. Even better for the tsar, the Austro-Hungarians had been unable to put nearly as much funding into military armaments packages. While Russia’s rail network was rudimentary, in its western, European territories it enjoyed some semblance of a modern railway. By comparison, Austria-Hungary’s transport infrastructure was poor to non-existent. While Russia’s armament stores were worryingly poorly equipped, the Dual Monarchy suffered an even worse situation. Finally, the Austro-Hungarian war planning against Russia was predicated on the idea that the Germans – who had promised to support Vienna – would immediately leap into action against the Russians. It seems not to have occurred to Conrad von Hötzendorf and Kaiser Franz Josef that their German allies would concentrate their armies in the west, against France. Therefore, when Russia went to war, it did so faster than its strongest rival expected it to. It did so along a front defended in the north by only a small contingent of the German Army, and in the south by a ponderous, inefficient, numerically inferior Austro-Hungarian Army that was stretched between defending against the Russians and launching offensives into Serbia.


It was for these reasons that the Russians began with successful campaigns against the Austrians in Galicia. Led by Brusilov, the Eighth Army thundered through Austria-Hungary’s easternmost province, capturing Lemberg (Lviv) by early September. In the north, the twin Russian First and Second Armies under Generals Paul von Rennenkampf and Alexander Samsonov crossed into Germany well in advance of the timetable the Germans had anticipated, and the German commander in East Prussia, Maximilian von Prittwitz, was taken by surprise, throwing his army into retreat after the Russians dealt him minor defeats at Gumbinnen. Startled by the quick Russian mobilisation and advance, the German High Command replaced Prittwitz with Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff. These two commanders proceeded to plan a counterstroke against the Russians. In this, they were helped by two key circumstances. Firstly, Rennenkampf and Samsonov, beyond being fellow officers, were rivals and personal enemies, and neither was well disposed to providing assistance or support for the other. This caused severe planning difficulties for the Russians, since it was unclear whether, for example, Samsonov’s men were marching as a support column for Rennenkampf’s First Army, or vice-versa. Consequently, there was an extremely poor division of forces and tactics. This meant that, as the armies advanced, they were divided. This was exacerbated by the poor communications and, importantly, security of those communications; the Russian Army was almost entirely without field telephones, most often did not encode telegrams, and usually sent sensitive information via the nearest public telegraph station or post office. Not surprisingly, it was simple for the Germans to determine Russian plans well in advance.


English: Russian prisoners and guns captured a...

Russian prisoners after Tannenberg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What this meant in real terms was that the First and Second Armies were ripe for being lured into a trap. Though the Russians still outnumbered the Germans in the East, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were able to isolate both Samsonov and Rennenkampf, and at the Battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes launched crippling strikes against the disorganised commanders and their armies. At Tannenberg, the Russians lost approximately 40,000 men killed or wounded, and another 50,000 were taken prisoner, against approximately 10,000 German casualties. Samsonov, who became detached from his army and, along with his staff, lost their way in the forests around the battlefield, was so ashamed of the defeat, and apparently fearful of the tsar’s reaction when he returned to Petrograd to report, that he instead shot himself. Samsonov, perhaps, need not have despaired; a few days later, to the east and north, his rival, Rennenkampf, suffered an even greater defeat. By 13 September, the First Army had lost 125,000 men killed or wounded, with another 45,000 lost as prisoners, compared to German losses of some 40,000. The remainder of the Russian forces barely escaped an encircling action, and rapidly retreated back into Russia.


Together, Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes were devastating reversals for the Russian war effort. It had begun promisingly, but superior German tactics and a woeful failure of frontline leadership on the part of Samsonov and Rennenkampf had ruined the advance into East Prussia. Moreover, while Brusilov and his fellow commanders in the southern sectors had made impressive gains against the Austro-Hungarians, their strength was soon whittled away, as troops in Galicia were shuttled northwards to bolster the smashed remnants of First and Second Army.


English: Russian Tzar Nicholas II visiting the...

Nicholas II visits the Putilov Works in Petrograd. In spite of being one of the largest factories in the world, the Putilov Works suffered the ignominy of being an arms factory that went bankrupt during the war. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These defeats also began a chain reaction in the supply lines of the Russian Army. We have previously noted that Russian supplies were barely adequate for the first mobilisation of the army. Now, with the losses incurred in East Prussia, men would have to be replaced through conscription. Yet this would begin placing a strain on industry, since the army would immediately have a deficit of equipment. As further losses were suffered, and as the army expanded in its necessary response to these crises, the supply situation began to lag further and further behind. In part, this was due to the general inefficiency of the Russian industrial economic sector. But economic mobilisation was also hampered by outright corruption. In Petrograd, the Putilov Works was awarded an enormous government contract for the production of artillery shells, worth in excess of 113 million rubles (approximately US$60 million at the 1914 exchange rate). This would have been reasonable, except for the fact that Putilov had neither the expertise nor the capacity to manufacture such a huge volume of shells. It appears as though much of the money was, in fact, embezzled by Putilov himself, in order to fund his increasingly lavish yet unsustainable lifestyle. As a result, by 1916 the factory was bankrupt, the Treasury had lost an enormous amount of money, and the Russian artillery continued to suffer a shortage of heavy munitions.


By the end of 1914, there was the added complication that Russia was fighting a war on no fewer than three fronts; in the north, Russian armies faced Hindenburg and Ludendorff, while in the southwest they contended with the Austro-Hungarian Army, and in the south the Ottoman Empire had also entered the war and, within a short time, had begun a disastrous offensive that nevertheless tied down Russian resources that were desperately needed elsewhere. Thus, the Eastern Front soon fell into a stalemate different in nature but similar in effect to that on the Western Front; using its weight of numbers, the Russian Army would often make impressive gains against the Austro-Hungarians, only to be pushed back when the better-equipped and better-trained German Army would march south to assist its weaker allies. In the south, the Russians generally held the advantage against the Ottomans, but lacked the killer punch necessary to decisively drive Turkish troops from Russian soil. For all the prewar promise, then, the Russian Steamroller had crunched its gears, and now sat idling, burning fuel while its supplies dwindled.


Alexandra Fyodorovna, tsarevitch Alexey and Ni...

The royal family visit Stavka at Mogilev. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was in this context that Tsar Nicholas II made yet another of his characteristic errors of judgement. In September 1915, stung by the loss of Warsaw and the 2.5 million casualties his armies had suffered since March, Nicholas dismissed his cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In his place, Nicholas named himself. No doubt, this was intended to be a rallying action, and Nicholas would have genuinely believed that his armies would have been buoyed to have their tsar as their direct commander. Perhaps this was initially the result. But Nicholas clearly did not understand the realities of the danger to which he had now exposed himself. As part of the peculiar arrangements put into place by Stavka (Supreme Military Headquarters) as early as 1905, the commander-in-chief of the army was responsible to no one but the person of the tsar himself. Indeed, in this role, Nikolai had avoided censure on the part of ministers and generals alike, in spite of the army’s failings, because of the protection afforded him by the statutes. In assuming the same position, however, the tsar projected a different image. He had adopted an army that seemed incapable of victory. Moreover, while Nikolai had at least had a responsibility to his tsar, the appointment of that tsar at the head of the army effectively meant that the high command had no higher obligation than to itself; this sat uncomfortably with those liberal and democratic members of the Octobrists and the Kadets, who had in 1914 divorced themselves of what little power they had to influence policy, arguing that this was the only patriotic recourse available in such a time of need. Unsurprisingly, with the tsar assuming sweeping, hitherto unheard-of powers, it was now the deputies of the Duma who recognised their mistake.


For the population in general, the arcane legal details of this assumption of command bore little consideration. What did incense workers and peasants, however, were the restrictions placed on them by the authoritarian Stavka. Russia was divided into administrative military “districts”, and in each district the army could requisition produce and supplies from the local population. In theory, the district command was expected to reimburse the farms, factories and so on from whence these supplies came. In reality, the army’s requisitioning was more like plunder. Within the first weeks of the war, for instance, more than one million rubles of property had been requisitioned from locals along the northwestern front, without any form of payment being made in return. Several million rubles worth of equipment and foodstuffs were looted from Baltic port trading houses, again without any attempt at remuneration. In the meantime, the Russian civil commercial sector all but collapsed under the increasing demands of the army. It was to be expected, for example, that the army would have priority for the provision of foodstuffs. But in order for this to be achieved, the army also requisitioned most of the rolling stock of the already stretched Russian railways, as well as the vast number of skilled rail workers. The end result was sheer carnage. Grain, bread, and other products would be secured from the countryside, and transported by train to the cities, where the transportation backlog was so huge they would often sit in sidings until they rotted. What little was unspoiled would be sent on to the front. This created shortages in all consumer and food goods in the cities – most notably Petrograd, but also the provincial capitals, such as Moscow, Kiev, and Helsinki. Requisition programs were therefore viewed with extreme disfavour by the general population; the army was keeping most of everything to feed and equip itself, wasting much of the remainder, and what little was left afterwards was more often than not pinched by the army in yet more requisitioning drives anyway, without adequate compensation.


English: Elizaveta Fedorovna, wife of Sergey A...

The Tsarina Alexandra was put in charge of affairs of state. Utterly devoted to her husband, children, and friends, Alexandra was wholly unsuited for governance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fact that the tsar was now personally responsible for Stavka, and therefore responsible for the supply organisation that was proving so detrimental to the ordinary Russian, certainly could not help his image among his subjects, since he was now intricately connected with an institution that was a source of much of their discontent. Further fuel for discontent, however, came from the opposite problem. Since Nicholas would now be more heavily involved in military affairs, he would be basing himself at Stavka at Mogilev, some 800 kilometres south of the capital. Naturally, this would preclude him from the ordinary affairs of state, which he left in the hands of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. Nicholas was convinced of the profound intellect and astuteness of his wife, but his devotion to and love for her proved disastrous in the long term. Alexandra had neither the experience nor the political acumen necessary to govern any country, let alone one as vast and complex as Russia in the middle of a world war. As a result, she relied upon the advice of the mystic Rasputin, who himself had become unpopular among circles of the public and nobility. Moreover, Rasputin’s tendency to manipulate circumstances to benefit his own cronies gelled with Alexandra’s penchant for holding grudges and rewarding those with whom she felt some sort of personal affinity. As a result, minister after minister was appointed, dismissed, and replaced, as they fell in and out of personal favour with the tsarina. Beginning with the departure of the tsar to Mogilev, and ending only with the eventual downfall of the Romanov dynasty, Alexandra’s brand of “ministerial leapfrog” resulted in no fewer than four prime ministers, four agricultural ministers, five ministers of the interior, and three foreign ministers, ministers of war, and transport ministers. None of this, of course, helped resolve the increasingly desperate situation wrought by both requisitions and army supply apparatus mismanagement; in fact, even if Alexandra had appointed competent functionaries based on ability, they still could not have resolved these problems, since the supply organisation, falling under Stavka’s purview, was in fact outside the competence even of the minister of war. Nevertheless, the Russian citizenry, aware of the turmoil in government and keenly feeling the pangs of hunger and the difficulties of shortages, logically connected the two. Increasingly, it was felt that the woes on the home front were the responsibility of Alexandra and, as the anti-tsarina propaganda began to become more and more hysterical, of her presumed lover, Rasputin. And then, of course, there was the matter of Alexandra’s lineage. To Russians who were beginning to starve while their armies performed so poorly on the front lines, it was noteworthy that the woman presiding over this farce was not Russian by birth but was, in fact, German – and thus of the very same nationality as those whom Russia was fighting. It was easy for those who were suffering to link Russia’s suffering to Alexandra’s bloodline. The tsarina had become the “German whore”, a spy who was deliberately undermining the Russian war effort, and her husband, the tsar, was either blind to her manipulation (which was bad enough), or was, perhaps, himself a traitor. When, on 1 November 1916, Pavel Miliukov stood in the Duma, which had reconvened a year earlier, and raised the issue, he was tapping into a growing vein of popular discontent. Standing before his political colleagues and opponents, Miliukov rattled off failing after failing of the current government, from dismissals to supply issues to the wretched conditions in the capital. At the end of each point, he challenged his audience: “Is this stupidity or is it treason?” To a large number of those assembled, the answer was the latter, but Miliukov insisted that it did not matter which trait was being displayed by the tsar, his wife, and their advisors; the end result – the ruin of Russia – would be the same.


English: World War I Russian infantry. Русский...

Russian infantry. The Brusilov Offensive of 1916 was initially a resounding success for Russia, but the reliance on General Evert’s cooperation proved to be General Brusilov’s undoing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Miliukov’s firebrand denouncement of the authority of the monarchy came at a precipitous moment. The tsar’s direct command of Stavka had changed nothing. Nicholas lacked any military experience of any sort, and his correspondence between he and his wife indicate his remarkable lack of engagement in the role. Between telegrams and letters, both the tsar and the tsarina averaged two exchanges per day, with few of them pertaining to matters of state. At the beginning of October, Nicholas also had his son Alexei accompany him to Stavka, with the idea that the trip might bolster morale for the troops. In letters throughout the month, he discloses the trip as more of a “boy’s own adventure” than anything of benefit; Alexei, he writes to Alexandra with some mirth, “sometimes becomes inordinately gay and noisy” during staff meetings with senior officers, which was unlikely to receive the smiles he ascribes to those officers in attendance. On 31 October, Nicholas reported to Alexandra that he had arrived at Vitebsk to review a division that “arrived here a month ago [numbering] only 980 men”, when its usual complement was some 15,000. This, he juxtaposes bizarrely with the notation that, when he and Alexei returned to Mogilev that night, they “spent the night in our cosy train”, before Alexei went to play in the garden around Stavka the next morning. Such banality, and seemingly callous dismissal of the awful plight of units of his own army in favour of the brief happiness of his son, suggest to us that the tsar was well out of his depth in command of the entire war effort. On 4 September 1916, for instance, the tsar mused that he might take a leisurely motoring trip through the woods near Mogilev, while at the same time noting the artillery fire nearby. Here was a man ill-suited for the rigours of war. More to the point, he was also given to the same favouritism as his beloved wife. In March 1916, for instance, he followed the advice of his family friends General Alexei Evert and General Alexei Kuropatkin to launch an offensive against German positions near Lake Naroch. The aim was to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, on the Western Front, by conducting a large offensive in the east that would compel the Germans to remove forces from France and bolster their defences. In the event, the Lake Naroch campaign was a complete disaster. The German Tenth Army, severely outnumbered but possessing excellent defences, repulsed the attacking Russians, inflicting approximately 100,000 casualties for just 20,000 of their own. In June, Nicholas approved an ambitious plan by Alexei Brusilov – until now, still the most successful Russian general – to launch a general offensive against Austro-Hungarian lines, flood into Galicia, and recapture Lviv. Brusilov’s plan was a splendid one, but it relied on the concerted assistance of other front commanders – notably Evert – who did not approve of the radical tactics Brusilov wished to employ. Consequently, though Brusilov immediately enjoyed great success and flung the Austrians into a haphazard retreat, Evert’s simultaneous attack on the Germans to the north – which would have precluded the German Army from rushing to the assistance of its Austro-Hungarian allies, as it had done on every other occasion – never materialised, and Brusilov was fought to a standstill in September. According to one German observer, “the Russian attack was checked just at the right moment”, since German and Austrian resources had been stretched much too thinly to halt further incursions. The significance of Evert’s refusal to march, then, cannot be overstated, yet it was precisely this refusal, and the unwillingness of Stavka to compel Evert to march, that secured the fate of arguably the best offensive of the war.


None of this inspired confidence in the continued leadership of the Romanovs. Legally, Nicholas, as commander-in-chief, was not responsible for the failures of Russia’s campaigns, but in a popular sense he had tied his name and person to the fortunes of the army. Whenever the army failed, Nicholas’ star fell further in the public eye. Coupled with the disastrous policies on the home front, initiated by the “German whore”, Alexandra, these failures were nearly more than the population could stand. The revelation that Boris Stürmer, Nicholas and Alexandra’s prime minister, had been engaging in secret peace talks with the Germans, only exacerbated the problem; it was Stürmer’s actions that led to Miliukov’s famous “stupidity or treason” speech. Moreover, the influence of Rasputin on the empress – especially due to his outspoken criticism of the war – concerned political actors both in Russia and abroad. In November 1916, the right-wing agitator Vladimir Purishkevich, usually an impassioned proponent of the monarchy, accused the government of being “puppets whose strings have been taken firmly in hand by Rasputin and the Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna.” Clearly, even the most staunch supporters of tsarism were beginning to turn against the monarchy. As a result of this, an extraordinary affair of high intrigue was about to take place in the capital.


Grigorij Rasputin

Grigori Rasputin, the wandering mystic who became integral to the interior workings of the Romanovs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the official account, on the night of 29 December 1916 Grigori Rasputin was invited to dinner at the palace of Prince Felix Yusupov. Yusupov, a junior member of the nobility, later testified that he had arranged for the cake to be poisoned with a large dose of cyanide, and Rasputin had been left eating a large amount, but when Yusupov and his co-conspirators returned, they found the wandering mystic unaffected. Terrified, they beat and stabbed him until, believing him to be dead, they again left the room. Yusupov returned for his coat, only to be attacked by a bloody and bruised but vengeful Rasputin, whereupon Yusupov’s assailant was shot four times. The body was taken to the frozen-over Neva, and thrown in. Recovered two days later, Rasputin appeared to have died from drowning.


English: Picture of the murdered Rasputin. Čes...

Rasputin’s body, after its recovery from the Neva. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are, however, many reasons to doubt this version of events (besides the simply incredible circumstances). Yusupov changed his testimony on more than one occasion. According to the official autopsy, no trace of poison was discovered in Rasputin’s system. It is not uncommon for water to be discovered in the lungs of someone thrown into a body of water, even if that person was dead at the time. Also, more recent evidence suggests that the third of the four shots that riddled Rasputin’s body – to his head – would have been immediately fatal. Moreover, the fact that the damage inflicted by this bullet was unjacketed suggests that it was fired from a Webley revolver – only issued to British officers – since it was exceedingly rare for weapons from other countries (especially Russia) to use unjacketed rounds. It is known that the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) had two station agents in Petrograd, and that they had taken a very dim view of what they saw as Rasputin’s anti-British defeatism. It is also known that SIS had ties to Prince Yusupov. Finally, the night of Rasputin’s murder, a cable was sent to London from the British Embassy in Petrograd, referring to the fact that “our objective has been achieved.”


Thus, a not unreasonable amount of circumstantial evidence exists to suggest that Rasputin was the victim of assassination, engineered by British Intelligence. If so, it is the first instance of the head of the Foreign Section of SIS, Sir Mansfield Cumming (known as ‘C’), ordering the assassination of a foreign dignitary (if indeed we can call Rasputin that). It would not be the last, though; in the Second World War, C would also order the death of the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich.


Whatever the truth of Rasputin’s death, the salient point is that it did not, in fact, achieve anything except to throw the leadership of Russia further into chaos. Yusupov claimed to have acted to save the monarchy from Rasputin’s influence; the British, if indeed they were responsible, would claim likewise. Yet all it demonstrated was that not even the favourite of the tsar and the tsarina was safe, and that the royal family was under siege from its own client nobility or its own allies. Moreover, in spite of the removal of the supposedly malign influence of the “Mad Monk”, Russia’s circumstances only worsened. Food and fuel shortages exacerbated the misery of a particularly cold winter. Workers who protested their atrocious working and living conditions were subject to brutal military justice. The Russian Army continued to suffer appalling casualties at the front for no discernible gain. All the while, the tsar continued to live in comfort at Stavka on his “cosy train.” This state of affairs could not continue. After suffering most of the winter, on 22 February 1917 the workers of the Putilov Works commenced a strike, protesting the lack of food, rising costs, and inadequate wages. The protestors were met with ranks of soldiers; though there was no bloodshed, the striking workers were fired from their jobs, further adding to the tensions, since without work the men had no wages at all. Alarmed by the protest, the chairman of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, sent an urgent telegram to the tsar, warning him that precipitous action had to be taken immediately to avoid outright rebellion. “There must be no delay”, he counselled his emperor. “Any procrastination is tantamount to death.” Yet procrastinate Nicholas did. Mollified by a letter from Alexandra that assured him that Rodzianko was overreacting, and that the situation was under control, Nicholas chose to ignore the chairman, writing to Alexandra that “that fathead Rodzianko has written to me some nonsense, to which I shall not even reply.” In the meantime, the day after the Putilov strikes, Petrograd women took to the streets. Here was a unique convergence of factors. It was International Women’s Day, so demonstrations were already planned. Bread shortages had recently begun to bite more than usual. Many of the women were wives of dismissed Putilov workers, and saw the demonstration as a means of showing their solidarity with their husbands. Crucially, 23 February was also a beautiful day, not as cold as most of the days so far in 1917, still, and sunny. The combination of all these factors encouraged a large turnout of several tens of thousands of women. Moreover, as they marched, the women encouraged workers in factories and workshops that they passed to also join their protests. In all, more than 50,000 workers left their work and began their own demonstrations. By 25 February, their ranks had swollen further, to include students, intellectuals, petit bourgeois shopowners, socialists, and others, and the emphasis had changed; now, the chants were not positive, in support of the Putilov workers, but damning. “Down with the German woman! Down with the war!” Finally, after years of simmering tensions, the Russian population threatened to boil over into outright rebellion.


State museum of political history of Russia

International Women’s Day rallies in support of the Putilov workers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this juncture, the tsar finally, belatedly, recognised the danger of the situation. His initial response was the same as the response the government had used to respond to the 1905 revolutions: military force. On this occasion, however, Nicholas had badly misjudged the mood of his troops. Nominally, Nicholas had nearly 150,000 troops in Petrograd. However, only a minority – no more than 15,000 – were considered reliable. Most of the soldiers in Petrograd were untrained conscripts who had been called up from the same countryside that had been virtually sacked by Stavka’s requisition policies. More to the point, most were billeted with the same worker families who were protesting. Even the Cossacks, upon whom generations of Romanovs had been able to rely, showed signs of disobedience. Ordered to attack the rioting crowds, then, most regiments chose to disobey orders. Many turned on their officers, while some – but not most – actively joined the revolt.


In a last-ditch effort to restore order, Nicholas tried to do precisely what Rodzianko had counselled days earlier. He boarded his train in Mogilev, and set off for Petrograd. By this time, however, the rail networks into the capital had been commandeered by revolutionaries. The royal train was diverted to an isolated siding, where Nicholas was confronted by a deposition of officers. Their report was clear: the capital had fallen. Nicholas’ reign could not continue. His only option was to abdicate. That done, the tsar and his son were arrested, and returned to the Romanovs’ winter retreat at Tsarskoye Selo, where they joined the rest of the family in protective custody.


English: Russian politician Prince Lvov, head ...

Georgi Lvov became the head of the Provisional Government in February 1917. However, he would have as much luck leading the country as Nicholas II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fall of the Romanovs was sudden and spontaneous, but it was the product of years of disappointment and disaster. Yet, in the heady afterglow of this February Revolution, the autocracy’s replacement – the so-called Provisional Government, made up of leading Duma deputies across the liberal-democratic and socialist spectrum – was to discover that the problems of the late tsarist era were not so easily resolved. Under Prince Georgi Yevgenievich Lvov, a capable, intelligent, and considerate leader, the Provisional Government opted to continue the war, confident that it could avoid the same pitfalls that had beset the tsarist armies. Too late, it would discover that Russia was already too weak, too beset by systemic failures, to achieve this. In general, the Russian Army performed well as long as it was ranged against the weaker of the Central Powers – either Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire. It also possessed perhaps the best commander of the war in Alexei Brusilov. However, cooperation between commanders was woeful, and this was exploited with ruthless effect by the Germans. The Provisional Government had no answer to these issues, which continued to plague the army even after Nicholas had been deposed as its commander-in-chief. Ultimately, the Provisional Government too would fall victim to crippling failures, and by October 1917 it would be swept away. But, at the end of February 1917, the first phase of Russia’s First World War was at its ignominious end.



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Filed under First World War (1914-1918)

One response to “Russia’s War, 1914 – February 1917

  1. Pingback: The Mome Raths | Stories in 5 Minutes

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