The Great War and the Russian Revolution

Aaron Holland, Dickson College, 2013


The following essay was written as part of the Revolutions in the Modern World unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2013. It was written in response to the following question: 'How did WW1 create the circumstances for revolution in 1917 Russia?'.


Although the pressures of social change and revolution had been building up in Russia for decades prior to the First World War, the war essentially created the right circumstances for a revolution to take place. There are three key reasons as to how the war did this: firstly, the war took Russia’s fast growing economy that was expanding the financial power of even the peasants, and destroyed it, utterly, leaving the country in a state of tremendous volatility. Secondly, the war removed one of the most important tools used by governments and rulers to maintain power, the allegiance of the military through the frequent and costly defeats and losses inflicted on the soldiers. Finally, the war caused immense social upheaval that affected every class of people, leaving most infuriated with the Tsar and subsequently seeking solutions to problems in other people and leaders. World War One is one of the most significant events in history, it destroyed three monarchies, changed the political attitudes of much of Europe and it created the circumstances for arguably the most significant revolution in history.

The economic states and phases Russia went through prior to and during the war were massive determinants in the question of whether a revolution could take place. More than four fifths of the pre-war population of Russia lived in villages and rural communities (Chamberlain, W.H., 1932: p. 242), meaning that the economic prosperity for the peasant class was an integral factor in maintaining the happiness of the masses. The Tsar and his government were doing this exceptionally well in the lead up to the war. Russia enjoyed a period of economic prosperity and equality in the period between the 1905 revolution and the outbreak of WWI, many peasants benefited greatly from this: “The extension of a class of well-to-do peasants, who profited by the dissolution of the communal system and the policy of Stolypin, was a sign of the rising standard of living.”(Habakkuk, Postan, 1966: p. 845) There were massive shifts in the distribution of land in this period, a promising sign of the growing economic equality within Russia. Chamberlain states that between 1906 and 1911, more that 18 million acres of land passed from the possession of the aristocracy to the peasant class (W.H Chamberlain, 1932: p. 62). By 1914, the nobility: “already owned less than a quarter of the amount of land possessed by the peasants; that the distribution was steadily altering in favour of the peasants;” (Chamberlain, W.H. 1932: p. 244). This massive shift in land linearly heading in favour of the peasants was accompanied by substantial rises in world wheat prices between 1906 and 1912 which: “improved the position of the peasants and developed their purchasing power” (Habakkuk, Postan, 1966: pg. 845). Additionally, national GDP was 61% higher in 1913 than its 1890 level (Broadberry, 2011: p. 20) and Russia’s per capita output levels were agriculturally on the same level as countries such as Germany and Austria-Hungary (Gregory, 2004: p. 159).

The war however, proved to be cataclysmic for the Russian economy. The key problem encountered by Russia was the issue of mobilisation and maintaining industrial output to fuel the war effort (J.M. Roberts, 1967: p. 270). The economy eventually imploded on itself and created a massive opportunity for revolution. Russia during the war called 15 and a half million men to fight, taking: “about half the younger able-bodied male peasants from the rural districts.” (Chamberlain, W.H. 1932: p. 223). The slaughter of Russian troops in the proceeding engagements meant that forming a workforce of sufficiently qualified men was impossible and industry could not keep up with military production demands (Habakkuk, Postan, 1966: p. 864). The War also constricted imports essential for Russia. Arthur Ransome, an eye witness of the collapse of the Russian economy states that: “her imports were so necessary to her economy that they may justly be considered as essential irrigation.” (Ransome, 1920, ch. 1) As important economic centres such as Poland were lost, Russians suffered harshly through lack of food and provisions and industrial strikes and disorganization eventually pushed them towards the Bread Riots and subsequently the February Revolution which toppled the Romanov autocracy of Tsar Nicholas II (Ransome, 1920: Ch. 1). In no way was Russia heading for a revolution due to economic problems before the outbreak of WWI, however, the War wrecked the economy which adversely affected the people, creating part of a set of circumstances that made a revolution easier to carry out and achieve.

It is a recognised and extremely significant fact that the allegiance of the military can easily dictate the outcome of a revolution. Military failure has an extremely demoralising effect on soldiers, which much of the time leads them to question and doubt their leaders and government. The Russian military was not prepared for a war, meaning that they were most likely going to suffer defeats: “From the very beginning of hostilities the inferiority of the Russian military machine to the German in everything but sheer numbers was evident. Russia entered the World War, as it had entered every war in its history, very badly prepared.” (Chamberlain, W.H., 1935: p. 64) Additionally, there was absolutely no incentive for the Russian soldier to fight: “The patriotic enthusiasm, which was certainly widespread at the outbreak of hostilities, might have lasted longer had there been any war aims which appealed greatly to the Russian peasant-soldier. There were not.” (Knapton, Derry, 1967: p. 42) Russia suffered casualties in such high volume and scale never before seen in war. In total, approximately 9.34 million Russian soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing by the end of the war (Rusky, 1999: table 56). This wholesale massacre of Russian soldiers tested their resolve, patience and loyalty. By 1917, many of the soldiers openly mutinied against the Tsar and Provisional Government (After Nicholas abdicated). General Sir Alfred Knox, a British general travelling with Russian forces in 1917 wrote of how bad the state of affairs had become: “Units have been turned into political debating societies; the infantry refuses to allow the guns to shoot at the enemy; parleying in betrayal of the allies and of the best interests of Russia takes place daily with the enemy, who laughs at the credulity of the Russian peasant soldier”. (Knox, 1921: p. 617) The insistence of the Tsar and Provisional Government to continue the war seemed to have broken the Russian tolerance of the old regime. In a letter intercepted by police, an unidentified soldier writes of his frustration with the government: “We have endured enough hunger and cold. Now our wives, mothers, fathers, and children are suffering from hunger. Assure them that our weapons will be used against our government and against all the Russian bourgeois, who drink our blood and have been basking in the sun like snakes.” (Hickey, 2011: p. 59) In August 1917, General Lavr Kornilov led an attempted coup d’état against Kerensky’s Provisional Government but failed, however it shows that the loyalty of the soldiers was divided and the order of the military was chaotic. The abdication of the Tsar, the political discussion of peace and the return of many exiled figures such as Lenin gave hope to the common soldier of peace, and many defected away from the cause of the war (Chamberlain, W.H., 1935: p. 226). Lenin and the Bolsheviks knew that the allegiance of the military was a decisive factor in a revolution thus it is no surprise they paid a lot of attention to the soldiers through the promise of peace (Chamberlain, W.H., 1935: p. 235). The war created the perfect military circumstances for a revolution. Millions of casualties, overburdened soldiers and demoralising defeats that led them to grow dissatisfied with the regime. It is very questionable as to whether the Bolshevik’s would have been able to gain the allegiance of the military as they did if Russia were not involved in a war and the autocracy was still alive.

The First World War sparked immense social upheaval on the home front, creating and building tension and contempt towards the Tsar and the Provisional Government. Contrary to popular belief, political activism directly from the people was not as prevalent in the years leading up to the war: “In 1905 there were 1,424,328 participants in political and 1,438,841 participants in economic strikes; the corresponding figures in 1910 were 3,777 and 42,846.” (Chamberlain, W.H., 1935: p. 63) This massive decrease in unrest shows that public sentiment towards the Tsar was improving and that quality of life may have been improving also as the people felt less inclined to strike. The war however, revealed the frustrations and resentment the people had towards Tsar and Provisional Government. People grew increasingly worried about the internal political state of affairs in Russia, particularly the influence of Grigory Rasputin on the Tsarina and rumours of pro-German agendas. Rumours circulated quickly around the urban middle class workers: “the sense of hopelessness and bitterness in the country grew day by day. The middleclass intellectual or employee caught up and repeated rumours about pro-German influences at the Court and about the sinister doings of Rasputin.” (Chamberlain, W.H., 1935: p. 67) As dissent among the people spread, the number of soviets grew as well. By August 1917, there were over 600 soviets which represented 23 million electors (Derry, Knapton, 1967: p. 44). In the months leading up to October, it was clear that the Provisional Government had completely lost the support of the people, mainly due to their insistence to continue a war that was draining the country economically, socially and spiritually. Not only were there internal social forces at work in Russia propagating revolution, but external ones as well. The war provided Vladimir Lenin, who provided much of the revolutionary genius needed, the opportunity to return from exile through the political and military motives of Germany, who arranged to have him sent back (Kreis, 2000). Lenin was successfully able to organise the Bolsheviks and was to unify them through addresses such as his April Theses, where among many things he called for an end of Russia’s involvement in an ‘imperialist war’, the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the power of the revolution to pass into the hands of the proletariat (Cozens, 2007). The social organism of Russia had finally collapsed because of the war, and in November 1917, the Bolsheviks finally took power. The war created the circumstances for a revolution socially because it essentially gave the Bolsheviks the opportunity to take advantage of the social upheaval by providing a stark contrast to the Provisional Government. It gave them the chance to take advantage of the emotional climate of Russia and accentuate the immediate needs of the peasants: peace, land and food.

The First World War was a war that radically changed the economies, militaries and social constructs of nearly all countries that took part in it. Before the outbreak of the war, the economy of Russia was heading towards a more equal fiscal balance between classes, with the weight of land ownership steadily heading in favour of the poorer people of Russia. The war wrecked this progress and turned the economy into a dysfunctional and backwards operation thus creating a major circumstance for revolution to take place. The war obliterated a military that was not ready to fight on such a scale as the war presented and turned the obedience, allegiance and political agendas of the soldiers away from any leader who insisted on continuing what they saw as a slaughter (i.e. Tsar Nicholas and Kerensky’s Provisional Government). Finally, the war produced an explosion of social mayhem which resulted in the abolishment of the 300 year old Romanov dynasty, the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the creation of the Soviet Union. The war through events as a result of it, turned public sentiment away from the Tsar and later the Provisional Government thus creating a key circumstance for revolution. Although there are countless events, people and conditions that created the circumstances for revolution in 1917 Russia, the First World War was the crucially definitive event that created these circumstances.


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