Russia before World War I

russia before world war one
A depiction of ‘Bloody Sunday’, the massacre of protesting civilians in 1905

At the turn of the 20th century, Russia was a mystery to most Europeans. They knew of Russia’s existence, marvelled at its size and feared its military power – but few ever travelled there, so reliable information about it was scant. From the outside, Russia looked and behaved like an imperial superpower. Its territorial holdings were enormous, spanning around one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass, from Finland in the west to Siberia’s Pacific coastline in the east. The population of the Russian Empire was enormous, around 128 million people at the turn of the century. Russian military might was talked of across Europe, primarily because of the millions of men that Saint Petersburg could call into service. Imperial Russia boasted a peacetime standing army of 1.5 million men, the largest in Europe – and if could increase fourfold or fivefold if reservists and conscripts were called upon.

Russia’s external power, however, was more limited. Behind its closed borders, the empire of the tsars lagged well behind the rest of Europe. A fundamental reason for this was Russia’s under-developed economy, which was mostly agricultural – in fact until the mid-1800s it was almost entirely agrarian, with only minimal manufacturing or industry. Government incentives of the late 1800s instigated a sharp increase in industrial investment and manufacturing; French investors, attracted by government deals, cheap labour and tax breaks, had eagerly pumped money into Russia to construct factories and new mines. But even with this, Russia still tailed its western European neighbours by a long stretch. And industrialisation had also created new problems: urban growth, social disruption, demands for workers’ rights and political agitation. The peasants who relocated to the cities to work in the new factories found themselves enduring long working days (often up to 15 hours), in appalling and unsafe conditions.

russia before world war i
Russian Cossacks – soldiers loyal to the tsar

Politically, the Russian empire was beset with division and dissatisfaction, which made it a fertile ground for revolutionaries and anarchists. While Russia’s economy had belatedly begun to modernise, Russia’s political system still languished in the late Middle Ages. It was ruled by an autocratic tsar, who believed his throne to be ordained and protected by God; he retained and exercised all political decision-making and all sovereign power. There was no constitution to define and limit the tsar’s authority, and no elected parliament capable of exercising any power. Ministers were appointed and sacked by the tsar so were accountable only to him. Russia’s rigid social structure divided its citizens into 14 ranks: royals, aristocrats, land-owners, bureaucrats, military officers, soldiers and sailors, the industrial and agricultural working classes. More than four-fifths of Russia’s massive population were peasants: poor farmers working small holdings of land; they were uneducated, illiterate, unworldly, religious, superstitious and suspicious about change.

russia before world war one
Tsar Nicholas II

The Russian tsar at the outbreak of World War I was Nicholas II. An intelligent but shy man, he came to the throne in 1894, pledging to retain autocratic power and resisting calls for political reform. Like his predecessors, Nicholas placed great store on the strength of Russia’s military. He pushed for expansion, both in eastern Europe and in Russia’s Pacific region. Russian territorial ambitions in modern-day Korea instigated a war with Japan (1904-5) – a war Nicholas and his advisors thought straightforward and easily winnable. Instead, the Japanese inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Russians, the first time in centuries a major European power had been conquered by an Asian nation. Russia’s army and navy were exposed as poorly equipped and commanded; the empire’s shortage of infrastructure, particularly railway, was also apparent. The defeat of 1905 precipitated unrest which bubbled over into revolution. It was driven by liberal and left-wing groups, disgruntled industrial workers and others who sought political modernisation. Strikes crippled the country, while several of the tsar’s relatives and advisors were killed by political assassins. Nicholas clung to the throne by backing down, issuing a manifesto that promised liberal civil rights and a democratically elected Duma (parliament). But the following year (1906) he reneged on these promises: the Duma became a powerless ‘talking shop’, while radical political agitators were rounded up to be hanged, imprisoned or exiled.

“Objectively speaking, Russia’s entry into the war was the most improbable of all. Russia had the least to gain from continental conflict and the most to lose… For its part, the Russian public had very bitter memories of a recent bloody war, was increasingly antagonistic toward its government, and saw little good coming from a titanic clash with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Importantly, all of these reasons not to go to war were visible at the time and were clearly articulated prior to the declaration of hostilities.”
Holger Afflerbach, historian

Abroad, Russia’s chief interest was in eastern Europe, particularly the future of the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. St Petersburg hoped to take advantage of the Ottoman disintegration, to increase its influence and further its imperial ambitions in the region. Russia was also an ally, indeed something of a ‘protector’ of Serbia, whose people shared religious and ethnic links with Slavic Russians. The tsar’s diplomats and agents encouraged Serbian nationalism, providing secret support to groups which were agitating for Serbian autonomy. This put Russia at odds with the Austro-Hungarians, who had much to fear from a strong and expansionist Serbia.

russia before world war one
The Dogs of War, a British cartoon ridiculing Russia’s influence over Balkan nations

In contrast, Russo-German relations during the 1800s had been comparatively friendly. The German chancellor Bismarck had worked hard to nurture good relations with Russia, chiefly to avoid his country being jammed between two hostile powers. Russian military planners during the 1800s had anticipated a future war with Austria-Hungary rather than Germany. The ascension to the throne of Kaiser Wilhelm II did not seem as though it would upset this balance. After all, were not the new Kaiser and the new Russian tsar cousins, on the most friendly terms? This assessment did not take into account the private views of Wilhelm II. Lacking Bismarck’s foresight, the Kaiser had low regard for Russian political influence and military power – and no interest in keeping the Russians on side.

russia before world war one

1. Russia spanned one-sixth of the globe and was by far the largest nation of Europe, both in size and population.

2. Russia’s government and social structure retained medieval elements; absolute power rested with the tsar (monarch).

3. Despite a marked increase in industrial growth in the late 1800s, Russia’s economy lagged behind western Europe.

4. In 1904-5 Russia suffered a humiliating military defeat at the hands of Japan, which triggered a domestic revolution.

5. Russia’s relationship with Germany had been comparatively good, in part because the Russian tsar and German Kaiser were cousins – but this evolved during the first years of the 1900s.


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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Russia before World War I” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/russia/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].

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