The fate of Russia and its tsarist government was bound up in the tragedy of World War I. Like other European powers, Russia entered the conflict with a haughty overestimation of its own military capacity and a critical underestimation of how long and costly the war would be. More than two years of total war would place enormous strain on Russia’s underdeveloped infrastructure and social conditions, contributing directly to the collapse of the tsarist regime.
Like the other great European powers, Russia was drawn into World War I by a series of misjudgements and follies. Among them were imperial rivalry, poisonous nationalism, overconfidence in the military, placing too much trust in alliances and not enough in diplomacy.
Russia might have entered the war for similar reasons but she did not do so on an equal footing. Russia’s economy was still developing and reliant on foreign investment; her industrial sector was incapable of competing with the powerhouse German economy.
Three years of total war would exhaust the Russian economy and leave its people starving, freezing and miserable. In this soil, the February Revolution would germinate and grow.
Rising tensions in 1914
At the start of 1914, Tsar Nicholas II was busy enough dealing with pressing domestic concerns. Anti-government sentiment and unrest had been building since 1912 when tsarist troops gunned down hundreds of striking miners at Lena River.
By mid-1914, the number and intensity of industrial strikes were approaching 1905 levels. Fed up with low wages and dangerous conditions, workers at the remote Baku oil field walked out in June. When news of this reached St Petersburg, it triggered worker unrest there; the capital was hit by 118 strikes in June alone.
At the beginning of July 1914, around 12,000 workers from the Putilov steel plant – the same factory at the heart of the ‘Bloody Sunday‘ protests – marched in the capital, where they were fired on by tsarist soldiers. Two were killed and dozens injured. The government’s response was to deny the incident happened.
This culminated in the great general strike of July 1914, which paralysed more than four-fifths of St Petersburg’s industrial, manufacturing and commercial plants. One right-wing newspaper described the situation as revolutionary, saying “We live on a volcano”.
‘Nicky’ and ‘Willy’
Though tensions between Russia and Germany were long-standing, Nicholas II believed family ties precluded any chance of war between the two empires. Nicholas and the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, were cousins, while Wilhelm and Nicholas’ wife Alexandra were both grandchildren of Queen Victoria of England.
The relationship between the Tsar and the Kaiser was strained at first but in time they became friends, addressing each other in communications as ‘Nicky’ and ‘Willy’. Nicholas thought it highly unlikely that the Kaiser would declare war on the kingdom of a relative. What the Tsar did not count on was Wilhelm’s own duplicity, nor did he understand the forces of war that had been building in Europe for more than ten years.
The Bismarckian alliance system demanded nations support their allies if one was attacked. This placed Russia in a perilous position between Serbia – its Balkan ally with close ethnic and religious ties – and the hostile empires of Austria-Hungary and Germany.
When Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead in Sarajevo in June 1914, it triggered a wave of threats, ultimatums and troop mobilisations. By August, Serbia had been invaded by Austria-Hungary and Russia had declared war in response, prompting the German Kaiser to declare war on his Russian cousin.
The outbreak of World War I in early August 1914 revived Nicholas’ fortunes, at least temporarily. For a few weeks, the grievances of workers were doused by a rousing wave of patriotism. The Tsar, who weeks before had been jeered and despised, became the subject of nationalistic affection. As one observer put it, to hate the Germans was easy but to hate the tsar became an act of national betrayal.
Days after the Russian declaration of war, Nicholas II and Alexandra – who was herself of German birth, ironically – appeared on the balcony of the Winter Palace and were greeted by thousands of people on bended knees. When conscription orders were distributed in the capital, more than 95 per cent of conscripts reported willingly for duty.
The tsar too was changed by the events of August 1914. In the months prior, he had shown little interest in the affairs of state – but the outbreak of war and the revival of public affection reinvigorated Nicholas, who threw himself into his duties.
Russia’s underequipped army
The tsar’s renewed fortunes did not last long. Russia’s war effort began poorly and soon exposed critical problems in the army. The empire mobilised millions of troops quickly, indeed more quickly than their German enemies had expected – but many were not adequately prepared or supplied. Thousands of Russian infantrymen left for the front without critical equipment, including weapons, ammunition, boots or bedding.
Some historical accounts suggest as many as one-third of Russian soldiers were not issued with a rifle; their standing orders were to pick one up from a dead colleague when the opportunity arose. In late 1914, Russia’s general headquarters reported that 100,000 new rifles were needed each month – but Russian factories were capable of producing less than half this number (42,000 per month).
Soldiers were better armed with prayers and penitentials, Russian Orthodox bishops and priests working busily to bless those about to go into battle – but these were of less practical use.
This shortfall of equipment was compounded by poor leadership and a lack of awareness and battle strategy. This applied to the Tsar and his general staff down to their company-level officers.
On the outbreak of war, the Russian military appeared to have no grand vision or overarching strategy for defeating Germany and Austria-Hungary. This was observed by General Aleksei Brusilov, commander of the Eighth Army:
“Right from the beginning of hostilities I have never been able to find out anything about our general plan of campaign. [Years before] I was acquainted with the general plan in event of war with Germany and Austro-Hungary. It was strictly defensive and in my opinion ill-conceived from many points of view, but it was not put into execution because the circumstances forced us into an offensive campaign for which we had no preparations. What was this new plan? It was a dead secret to me. It is quite possible that no new plan was ever established at all, and that we followed the policy determined by our needs at any given moment.”
Disaster at Tannenberg
The army launched an invasion of German East Prussia in the first month of the war. It was quickly defeated at the Battle of Tannenberg (August 1914).
The Tannenberg campaign was riddled with tactical blunders. Russian officers sent out battle plans uncoded over the radio, thinking the Germans would not hear them, while the Russian generals leading the offensive (Samsonov and von Rennekampf) despised each other and refused to communicate. The Russian army suffered 30,000 casualties at Tannenberg while another 100,000 soldiers were taken as prisoners.
A week later, the Russians suffered even heavier losses (170,000 casualties) at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes, forcing them to retreat from German territory. Russian offensives against the weaker Austro-Hungarians were more successful, allowing them to push across the Carpathians and into Galicia – however the arrival of German reinforcements in May 1915 again forced the Russians to retreat.
By the autumn of 1915, an estimated 800,000 Russian soldiers had died, yet the Russian army had failed to gain any significant territory. Public morale and support for the war were dwindling. Russians became more receptive to anti-war rhetoric and propaganda, much of it disseminated by the growing Bolshevik movement.
The Tsar takes command
In September 1915, the Russians were forced to order a massive retreat from Galicia and Poland. The outraged tsar made a telling error, removing his army commander-in-chief, Nicholas Nicholaevich, and taking command of the army himself.
The Tsar’s generals and several of his civilian advisors opposed this move. They reminded Nicholas that his military experience was limited to cavalry training. He had no practical involvement in strategic warfare and commanding armed forces in combat. Nicholas, bolstered by encouragement from his wife, ignored this advice and proceeded to the front.
The Tsar’s decision to take command of the military had little impact on strategy: he rarely intervened or countermanded the decisions of his battlefield generals. What it did do was to link the tsar with his generals, associating him personally with every military failure. It also abandoned Russia at a time of domestic crisis, the reins of government left with Nicholas’ ministers but the whip left in the hands of his wife.
The economic impact of war
Two years of war also had a telling impact on Russia’s domestic economy. The conscription of millions of men produced a labour shortage on peasant landholdings and a resultant decline in food production. Large numbers of peasants were also moved to the industrial sector, which generated a slight rise in production but nowhere near enough to meet Russia’s war needs.
World War I placed Russia’s already inadequate transportation system under more strain, as engines, carriages and personnel were redeployed to move soldiers and equipment to and from theatres of war. This heavy use of Russia’s poorly maintained railway infrastructure caused it to deteriorate and fail. By mid-1916, an estimated 30 per cent of Russia’s railway stock was unusable.
The breakdown of Russia’s transportation and freight network, coupled with falling agricultural production, had a significant effect on food shipments across the country. This was felt most keenly in the cities, which relied on these incoming shipments. Petrograd, for example, needed in excess of 12,000 railway wagons of food each month. In January 1917, it received just 6,556 wagons.
Short of reserves to fund the war effort, the government resorted to printing excess paper currency, which in turn led to inflation. By late 1916, currency printing and spiralling food prices had pushed inflation to almost 400 per cent.
A historian’s view:
“When ordinary people in countries other than Russia protested [during World War I], they usually had shortages in their sights that could be attributed to the war. Only rarely did they question the entire social and political edifice, and these voices were hurriedly suppressed or silenced by reformist measures. In 1917, Russian workers and peasants objected to the war – but in their minds, it became a means of challenging privilege, property and state legitimacy… In Russia, the only business was a return to the issues left unfinished in 1905, but on a far more ambitious and terrifying scale.”
1. Russia entered World War I in August 1914, drawn into the conflict by the alliance system and its promises of support to Serbia, its Balkan ally.
2. War patriotism helped douse anti-government sentiment, which had been building steadily in months beforehand, peaking with a general strike in July 1914.
3. Russia’s first military forays were disastrous. Its soldiers were poorly equipped, many lacking rifles, and its generals and officers were barely competent.
4. In September 1915, the tsar took command of the army despite his lack of combat experience. This move associated him with future defeats and losses.
5. By mid-1916, two years of war had decimated the Russian economy. It triggered downturns in agrarian production, triggered problems in the transportation network, fuelled currency inflation and created critical food and fuel shortages in the cities.