Konstantin Pakhalyuk, Senior Specialist of the Research Division of the Russian Military-Historical Society
It can be said without exaggeration that the First World War ushered in the 20th century with the roar of guns and the collapse of four empires. Not only did it redraw the world’s political map, but also altered the social make-up of all the parties. While many European capitals commemorate their involvement in WWI, Russia sees an entirely different situation.
Today’s debate revolves around the following questions. Could Russia have avoided the war? Could it have refrained from participating in warfare? One should point out that Saint Petersburg was hardly the only player to make decisions. On August 1, war was indeed declared on Russia, not the other way around. From the economic perspective, a continuous flow of German manufactured goods severely dented Russia’s developing industry, with imports of German grain undercutting the position of landowners. The refusal to support Serbia during the July Crisis, which was tantamount to ceding the country to Austria-Hungary, would mean the loss of the Balkan region and international authority, as well as rolling back the Balkan policy. Furthermore, Germany’s defeat against France would undermine Russia’s power, thus delivering a devastating blow on its national security. In addition, the Triple Entente (an association between Great Britain, France, and Russia, the nucleus of the Allied Powers in World War I) had greater economic and political potential than Germany and Austria-Hungary. Looking at those events through a historical prism enables us to realize that Russia sided with real victors. Thus, going to war was not an ill-fated decision. Alas, it was rather the first step towards a crisis. Yet those moves which produced the shameful Treaty of Brest-Litovsk are of great importance.
The outbreak of the First World War saw a surge of patriotism among the people, especially patriotic demonstrations, the intelligentsia’s voluntary military service, the development of volunteer movements and even a large number of runaway children. Workers immediately stopped going on strikes, with many social groups and organizations literally competing to contribute to the future victory. Russia’s public opinion could not tolerate any view point other than the mainstream one boiling down to “war to the bitter end”. At that time, there was a lot of media coverage of popular patriotism and the people’s willingness to defend their country, with some individual anti-war slogans of August 1914 being just the exception to the rule. The key political forces were quick to rally behind the government.
It is noteworthy that WWI differed from previous armed conflicts. With 15.5 million people seeing service from 1914-1917, the mass mobilization led to the growing people’s army. Moreover, warfare emerged not just as a clash of military apparatuses but as a collision of social and political systems, whose viability or resilience would make the triumph possible.Virtually every family was affected by WWI as it had become part of everyday life.
The early months of WWI demonstrated that the Russian army, albeit semi-reformed, had become far stronger than it used to be during the Russo-Japanese War. However, the first evidence of problems that Russia would have to be confronted with in the future was apparent back in September 1914. For instance, there was a distinct lack of shells, with some military units following a “one gun, one shot” rule. The army was also forced to contend with poor military reserve training and local socialist propaganda disseminated by new reinforcement units.
The setbacks of 1915 had a major impact on Russia’s domestic arena. Against this background, the country faced re-surging economic and political strike activities, above all, in Petrograd and Moscow. Their overall level, however, was quite low in 1915. At the same time, high prices perceived as a product of pervasive profiteering fueled most discontent. Wheeler-dealers greatly capitalized on wartime hardship, which was met with exasperation. The general public were even more disgruntled over some ineffective officials, with people losing their faith in the Tsar’s real ability to see Russia through victory in the war. To top it all off, the retreat of 1915 was accompanied by the mass surrender. With little ammunition and artillery support, new recruits refused to fight for the motherland. People were ready to fight pro patria to the bitter end, but nobody wanted to sacrifice their lives in vain.
By late 1915 the army supply crisis was resolved. It was evidenced by the Brusilov Offensive which revived broad public patriotic sentiments. However, the offensive soon ran out of steam. Against that background, the Labor movement picked up momentum. The riots caused by high prices erupted ever more and more frequently around the country. Moreover, in some cities the army refused to shoot at the protesters. In October 1916 a reserve regiment supported the workers’ strike in Petrograd. The situation was getting out of control.
The war was no longer an acid test, it evolved into the tragedy. The army started voicing its discontent. The whole army rather than just high-ranking officers became increasingly critical of the government. Although the frontline troops stayed largely disciplined, the patriotic fervour withered, and they found little sense in sacrificing life. The end of 1916 saw the first units refuse to attack. People back home did not realize how heroic the efforts of hundreds of thousands of servicemen were. Despite everything, the soldiers gave their lives for their country, but the image of the hero never appeared. The tens of thousands of recruits were reluctant to engage in fight and to perform feats; they placed their own health and lives above the war and national interests. The longer the war lasted, the higher the death toll was, the more badly wounded and crippled people appeared on the streets. It undermined the morale of conscripts as criticism of the government and the commanders turned into mainstream, and hardly anyone believed in a quick and victorious outcome.
The unwillingness to endure the severity of wartime and a sense of injustice undermined tsarist Russia. The frontline troops accused those at the rear of misunderstanding their needs, deep in the heartland the broad public was angry with speculators and the nouveau riche, and they all blamed the tsarist power for the lack of real success. Everyone was eager to invest in a quick victory, however few were ready to make any considerable sacrifices, to say nothing of life.
The February 1917 coup was not masterminded beforehand. It was a natural outgrowth of some objective social processes. Rather, it was the power vacuum that triggered the revolution. The liberal circles were adding fuel to the fire as they hoped that by taking power they could restore law and order. However, the dreams and illusions of the anti-elite forces were shattered by the February Revolution. While for some the revolution was a way to topple an ineffective government, for others it was an expression of frustration and the first step towards global peace. Today, it is hardly worthwhile looking for anyone to scapegoat or to blame some plotters. Emperor Nicholas II expressed a very sober idea, saying that the sentiments in the two capitals did not reflect the opinion people across the country. The soothing effect was also produced by the fact that unlike it was the case during the first Russian revolution, this time the working class of Moscow and Petrograd took to the streets. From a political point of view, it was more important that in August 1914 all the elites rallied behind the monarch, but in February 1917 few of them were ready to support him.
The First World War proved to be a severe test for Russia. And it was not so much the army which lost it, but the entire society and political system. The War was the greatest tragedy, which we still cannot fully grasp. The tragedy was perceived by its contemporaries as a “betrayal”. Mutual accusations of the betrayal eroded national unity, with the broad masses guided by local rather than national interests. As a result, those who truly served their country and were ready to shed blood for the sake of the common victory were betrayed.