World War One

[By Glynnis Stevenson]

To understand Russia’s role in the First World War, it is essential to understand where she stood in the Great Power hierarchy. Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France, the four continental powers were all relatively the same in terms of pre-eminence between 1815 and 1870. Great Britain’s dominance of the seas and industrial strength gave her a

position of pre-eminence. Germany’s unification and rapid industrialization in the 1870s unsettled the power hierarchy on the Continent. As Germany looked to expand its borders, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France looked to defend their territories and interests against their new rival. Russia’s position as a continental power made her feel the shifts in the power balance more acutely than Britain, an isolated island. The multi-ethnic Russian Empire was vast and surrounded by rivals on all sides. To further complicate matters, Russia had to contend with anti-Russian movements made up of minority groups in regions recently conquered. An invasion into the Ukraine and Western Russia would devastate the wealthiest region in the Russian Empire and affect the vast majority of her population. Russia also sought to defend her trade routes connected to the Black Sea, which were vital to the Empire’s economy.

In 1914, Russia had a population of 169 million and an area double the size of France and Great Britain combined (Gatrell, 3). Despite frantic industrialization leading up to 1914, Russian output was only 42 percent of German and French GDP, and Britain was even farther ahead (Gatrell, 3). Russia boasted growing iron and steel industries and its chemical and electrical engineering industries were coming along in 1914. Russian industry was sustained by foreign investment from Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. Factories in rural Russia were large so managers could offset the shortage of skilled labor with many hands making light work. While industries boomed, agricultural production lagged behind. By 1914, peasants controlled 47 percent of all land, both arable and forested, and farmed 90 percent of the arable land (Gatrell, 4). Within land communes, peasants would make land allotments periodically; a German critic mocked this process as a “device to ensure an equal right for everyone to die of starvation” (Gatrell, 4). Land reforms made between 1906 and 1910 encouraged daring peasants to leave their communes and attempt the expensive process of privatizing their lands. Western observers lauded the land reforms, but in reality they did little to lessen the strength of village communities.

To connect their far-flung resources and population, Russia finally developed a transportation system that suited its size. By 1914, 71,000 kilometers of railroads spanned the Empire (Gatrell, 5). While new tracks were laid, Russia’s trains lagged behind their Western counterparts. Many trains were over twenty years old, had no automatic brakes, and switching and signaling had to be performed by hand. To further complicate matters, many of the railway lines were single-track. Russia had many navigable rivers, but few could handle heavy traffic, and many were frozen for months at a time. War would severely hamper Russian trade; trade with Germany accounted for 47 percent of total foreign trade by value (Gatrell, 5).

It is necessary to understand Russia’s political system before delving into the details of Russian participation in the First World War. In pre-Revolutionary Russia, there were few mechanisms in place to extend the political process beyond a small circle of people. The State Duma, the recently developed elected parliamentary body, was despised by Tsar Nicholas II. Nicholas did not like having a mediating body between him and the Russian people; he naively believed that renewing the mystical connection between the tsar and his people could overcome the social issues that the revolution of 1905 had unleashed. Regardless, liberalization of Russia’s political system was developing slowly and hesitantly in the aftermath of the revolution. Unelected officials retained their positions and were only answerable to the tsar. The tsar alone made decisions of war and peace; he single-handedly decided Russia’s foreign policy. The Duma could vote on the defense budget and refused to grant the tsar funds for war, but the tsar could dissolve the Duma and acquire the funds anyway. Under the surface, disappointment with this corrupt decision-making process ran rampant. After the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War, differences of opinion concerning foreign policy erupted. Some wished to rectify Russian weakness compared to the Western powers, especially Germany. Others wanted to establish Russian predominance in the Far East. Centrist politicians believed the keystone of Russian foreign policy was the support of Slavic peoples in the Balkans and an alliance with France; pan-Slavic unity was key to stability. Germany posed a major problem; the Kaiser’s expansionist dreams were a direct threat to Russia’s desire to obtain Ottoman lands in the Near East.

Almost as soon as hostilities erupted in the summer of 1914, Russia suffered humiliating defeats. From August to December 1914, German forces routed the Russian troops in East Prussia, allowing the Germans to march towards Warsaw. Following disastrous losses at Tannenberg, General Samsonov committed suicide and General Rennenkampf was accused of treason. Weak military leadership and poor communications and intelligence hampered the Russian forces from the beginning. By December 1914, tsarist forces had lost the industrial town of Lodz, allowing German troops to pour into Latvia and threaten the Russian capital.

While they suffered defeats at the hands of the Germans, the Russian forces had several early victories over the Habsburg army. Pushing through Galicia and Bukovina, the tsarist army captured Lvov a month after the war broke out. These military victories were celebrated at home with propaganda, but they were short-lived. On the north-western front, the new Russian commander, Mikhail Alekseev, insisted that his line could only repel the German forces if they were reinforced; he refused to weaken the forces facing the Germans by sending troops to the south-west. Disagreements over Alekseev’s policies allowed the Hapsburg forces to regroup and the German army used heavy artillery in the narrow strip of land between Tarnow and Gorlice. The Russian forces had nowhere near the firepower of the German army, and they soon ran out of artillery ammunition. Around 240,000 Russian troops were taken as prisoners of war (Gatrell, 19).

Russian forces were more successful against the Ottoman Empire, the “sick man” of Europe. When Turkish and German warships bombarded Odessa and Sevastopol in October of 1914, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Russian generals were hoping to commit a minimal amount of manpower to the Caucasian front, but a Turkish offensive in Eastern Anatolia in November required attention. The Anatolian campaign resulted in massive casualties for the Ottoman forces. In the summer of 1915, Russian forces pushed into Ottoman territory. While they amassed victories against the Ottoman Turks, Russia’s woes fighting the Germans continued. A series of brilliant maneuvers had allowed the Germans to take control of Poland, Lithuania, and much of Belorussia. Beginning in April 1915, the Russian forces suffered losses of one million dead and wounded in a space of five months, with a further one million taken as prisoners of war. By August, there were no Russian forces left in Poland, which had fallen to Germany and Austria-Hungary. Russia’s rapport with the Allies became strained. Many in the Russian army felt that they had tied up the German forces on the Eastern Front and allowed the Allies to gain an advantage on the Western Front. The feeling that Russia was carrying the bulk of the Allied burden was further strengthened in 1915, when it was perceived that the Western Allied powers were willing to send money but not troops to help Russia.

Russia’s military plight began looking up in 1916 when military strategy came under the jurisdiction of Aleksei Brusilov, commander of the Eighth Army. Under Brusilov, the army began to prepare for a secret offensive along the south-western front. Brusilov believed that faster deliveries of artillery ammunition and guns had improved morale among the troops. Though they lacked the large reserves of heavy artillery their opponents had, Brusilov did not see this as an impediment to Russian victory. The Brusilov offensive was wildly successful, resulting in either the capture or death of half of the Austrian forces on the Eastern Front. The Foreign Minister, Sergei Sazonov, boasted “we have won the war, although the fighting will continue for several more years” (Gatrell, 21). Unfortunately Sazonov was proven wrong. Other generals could not match Brusilov’s talent for strategy and seemingly unlimited optimism. Brusilov also failed to take advantage of his military momentum by crushing the Caarpathians and taking on Budapest and Vienna. Russian troops had to be diverted from Brusilov’s forces to help Romania,butthe Romanian campaign ended in disaster. In the early summer of 1917, the Western Allies called upon Russia to start a new offensive on the Eastern Front.

The tides of war had deep consequences for the civilians on the home front and the Tsar alike. Military losses only strengthened critics of the tsar, because they could blame him for the enemy taking Russian prisoners of war and for the losses of Russian territory. For more than national honor was at stake. Displacement of civilians brought defeat into the heartland of rural Russia. Unfortunately for the tsar, the pamphlets and sermons and films used to garner public support for the war actually made the public more disgruntled with the tsar’s war. Propaganda allowed the Russian people to reflect on whether or not the loss of life at the front was worth it at all. Merchants and industrialists enjoyed the economic rewards of war-time production. Military generals began to question whether or not the tsar should be allowed to have absolute military authority; they believed professionalism rather than dynastic duty could better serve the needs of the state. The tsar’s support eroded as patriots looked to other sources of power that could save Russia from further international humiliation. Tsar Nicholas II did not want to mobilize the entire nation to help in the war-time economy for fear that a newly educated society would want to be involved in the political process. The Special Council for State Defense (OSO) expected that it would be named as the supreme decision-making body. Brusilov’s victories in 1916 bought the tsar some time, but other generals, led by Alekseev, tired of the tsar’s lack of support for the troops.

Patriotism caused even more trouble on the home front. Economic nationalism fueled attacks against entire ethnic groups and their property. A campaign against ethnic Germans, in which Latvians were often mistaken for Germans, was unleashed. This campaign was fueled at its core by anger over German land ownership and ownership of industrial and financial assets. The government deported German farmers from land their families had owned for generations, and violence against German residents in villages and towns was common. Random hostilities soon became legal loss of property and deportation. Targeted “subversive elements”(Gatrell, 192) learned quickly that their ethnicity made them vulnerable. Imperial Russia no longer offered the possibility of assimilation. In 1916, the Kazakhs rose up against the tsar and showed Russia the price of imperial administration. The needs of Russia’s wartime economy clashed with Kazakh indigenous culture. At stake was control of Turkestan’s vast natural resources.

By 1917, the issues of democracy and control had come to a boiling point. Civil and military unrest led to the February Revolution and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. The Provisional Government shifted the language of war from that which spoke of saving Russia from the German enemy to that which proclaimed that Russia needed to be saved from class enemies. The war heightened existing social conflicts and created new ones. A new war had been declared on those with property and the state. After the October Revolution of the same year, Lenin ordered the Decree on Peace, which neither brought peace nor did it help Russia to rebuild after a devastating war. The Bolsheviks had many proposals but no concrete plans to restart the economy or to pick of the pieces of a political system in shambles. Outside of cities, the Party had few supporters. The collapse in industrial production angered workers, which harmed the regime’s reputation as one founded on the principles of proletarian strength and unity. In response to the shaky political climate, Lenin made peace with Germany through the unbalanced Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

The Russian decision to back out of the First World War utterly changed the rapport between Russia and the Allies. Wartime treaties concerning economic help were quickly revoked and economic ties, such as trade routes and capital movements, were strained. The Allies were not ready to accept the new Bolshevik regime that had sued for peace with Germany. Revolution came at a cost. The Bolsheviks came to power in a time of bloody upheaval. They had to turn Russia’s losses around and find jobs for soldiers returning from the front. But the war had other dimensions that could be used for revolutionary purposes. War promoted close economic regulation, which fit well with Bolshevik economic goals. The growing technical intelligentsia could also help the Bolsheviks develop their economic and social plans. In its most extreme form, the war kept a vision of government intervention alive. From 1917 to 1918, the Bolsheviks justified land expropriation in terms of class rather than ethnicity. All social conflicts were resolved in favor of the lower classes. Large numbers of the land-owning elite were sent into exile.

The Bolsheviks owed their victory to the upheavals of the First World War, though they did not acknowledge this. They did not commemorate the Great War in any way or encourage people to reflect upon it. Memories of friendships made in the trenches were not extolled under the new regime. The Bolsheviks shifted their focus to revolutionary state-building.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Peter Gatrell, Russia’s First World War: A Social And Economic History (Pearson Education Limited, 2005).
  • D.C.B Lieven, Russia and the Origins of the First World War (St. Martin’s Press, 1983).


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