Russia before World War I

russia bloody sunday
A depiction of ‘Bloody Sunday’, the shooting of civilians in St Petersburg in 1905

When World War I erupted in August 1914, Russia was a major European power, if only because of its sheer size and population. Russia’s political system was archaic and fragile, however, and

The Russian enigma

At the turn of the 20th century, Russia was an enigma to most Europeans. They knew of its existence, marvelled at its size and feared its military power – but few ever travelled there and reliable information about it was scant.

From the outside, Russia looked and behaved like an imperial superpower. Its land holdings and natural resources were vast. Russia’s territory spanned 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 also enormous, around 128 million people in 1900. Russian military might was feared across much of Europe, largely because of the millions of men Russian leaders could call into service. The Russian empire boasted a peacetime standing army of 1.5 million men, the largest in Europe, and if could increase that fourfold or fivefold with reservists and conscripts were.

A developing economy

Economically and industrially, the Russian empire lagged well behind the rest of Europe. While the Industrial Revolution had a profound impact on nations like Britain, France and Germany, Russia’s economy remained almost entirely agrarian until the mid-1800s.

Defeat in the 1850s Crimean War and a change in government policy produced a swift transformation in Russia’s economy. French investors, attracted by government deals, cheap labour and tax breaks, eagerly pumped money into Russia to construct factories and new mines. Even with this injection of foreign capital, however, Russia still tailed its western European neighbours by a long stretch.

Industrialisation had also created a raft of new problems in Russia, including urban growth, social disruption, demands for workers’ rights and political agitation. Peasants who relocated to the cities to work in newly opened factories found themselves enduring long working days (often up to 15 hours) in appalling and unsafe conditions.

An archaic government

Russian Cossacks – soldiers loyal to the tsar

Politically, the Russian empire was beset with backward ideas and values, dysfunction and dissatisfaction. This made it a fertile ground for revolutionaries and anarchists.

While Russia’s economy had begun to modernise in the late 1800s, Russia’s political system still languished in the late Middle Ages. Russia’s monarch, the tsar, retained all political decision-making and all sovereign power. His power, it was believed, was ordained by God.

There was no constitution to define and limit the tsar’s authority; there was no elected parliament capable of exercising power. Ministers were appointed and sacked by the tsar and were accountable only to him.

A hierarchical society

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.

The industrialisation of the late 1800s had given rise to a new industrial working class. Though it comprised less than five per cent of the population, the industrial proletariat was a significant movement in major cities like St Petersburg and Moscow.

Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II

The Russian tsar at the outbreak of World War I – and the nation’s last tsar, as it turned out – was Nicholas II.

An intelligent but shy man, Nicholas came to the throne in 1894. He pledged to retain autocratic power, resisting calls for political reform – but he lacked the judgement, strength and decisiveness to rule in an autocratic fashion.

The Russo-Japanese War

Like his predecessors, Nicholas II placed great store on the strength of Russia’s military. He pushed for expansion, both in eastern Europe and in Russia’s Pacific region.

Russia’s territorial ambitions in modern-day Korea led to a war with Japan (1904-5), a conflict that Nicholas and his advisors thought would be 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 and its Baltic Fleet was decimated at the Battle of Tsushima. The empire’s shortage of industrial and rail infrastructure was also apparent.

The 1905 Revolution

The defeat of 1905 precipitated unrest thatbubbled 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.

A historian’s view:
“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

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.

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.

Title: “Russia before World War I”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 7, 2017
Date accessed: July 28, 2021
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