World War I saw the collapse of empires, and among those that were to collapse was the Russian empire of Tsar Nicholas II. When Nicholas declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in July 1914, he was the absolute ruler of a kingdom of nearly 150 million people that stretched from central Europe to the Pacific and from the edge of Afghanistan to the Arctic.
Less than three years later, in March 1917, after soldiers from Petrograd joined the strikers in protest against Nicholas’ regime, the Tsar was forced to abdicate. The following July, he and his family were herded into a cellar by Bolshevik revolutionaries and shot and stabbed to death, ending the three-century rule of the Romanov dynasty. Soon, amid the ruins of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union became a world power.
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The question of whether World War I changed the game that brought about the Russian Revolution or only accelerated the inevitable collapse of an antiquated monarchy, unsuitable for competition in the modern world, is a question that historians continue to debate.
“Russia was more unstable and had more serious internal dilemmas than many other great powers, and therefore the extent to which the shock of war resulted in chaos was all the more intense,” says Steven Miner, professor of history at Ohio University specializing in Russia, Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. “Collapse without war was possible, but in my opinion not certain. The involvement in the cataclysm of war made it almost inevitable.
World War I exposes Russia’s weaknesses
Before the war, Russia stood at a crucial crossroads. Some argue that Russia was slowly evolving towards more modern political and social institutions, that it had a vibrant culture, a highly educated elite, that it had survived the upheaval of the 1905 revolution, and that it had the economy to the fastest growing in the world. before 1914, ”says Miner. But as he notes, the Tsarist regime faced many threats to stability, from dire urban working conditions to labor disputes that the Tsar’s soldiers attempted to quell by slaughtering gold miners in Siberia in 1912. To make matters worse, Nicholas II was beginning to roll back the limited democratic reforms he had agreed to in 1905.
The antiquated determination of the Tsarist regime to cling to power hampered modernization efforts, as a result, “the Russian Empire lagged behind the rest of Europe in terms of economic and industrial might,” says Lynne Hartnett, associate professor of history at Villanova University and an expert on the Russian Revolution.
This left Russia vulnerable in a war, as its factories simply could not produce enough weapons and ammunition to equip the Tsar’s 1.4 million-strong army. At the start of the war, the Russians had 800,000 uniformed men who didn’t even have rifles to train in, and those who did often had to make do with obsolete weapons that were nearly 40 years old, according to Jamie H. Cockfield’s. 1999 book, With snow on their boots. Some soldiers had to go into combat unarmed, until they could take a rifle from another soldier who had been killed or wounded. And Russia’s bullet production was initially only 13,000 bullets per day, so every shot had to count.
Russian army loses confidence in monarch
To compound the lack of preparation for war, Nicholas II also led the Russian army, a post he lacked the necessary training or experience.
“He thought he was a military strategist, but he wasn’t,” says Mayhill Fowler, professor of Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia studies at Stetson University. As she notes, Nicholas ignored a pre-war memorandum from one of his advisers, warning that if Germany is defeated, “social revolution in its most extreme form is inevitable.”
It also didn’t help that when Nicholas left Petrograd to join the troops, he left behind his German wife, Tsarina Alexandra, whose blunt demeanor and disgust for Russian culture made her unpopular with of the Russian population.
The war quickly turned into disaster, with Russia suffering a brutal defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg just weeks after the start of the war. Some 30,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded and nearly 100,000 were taken prisoner by the Germans.
“Things haven’t improved over the months,” says Hartnett. “By the end of the year, the Russian Empire had lost over a million men.” Russia’s ammunition was practically depleted and the country’s infrastructure was not equipped to effectively resupply troops.
Although the peasant soldiers suffered the most losses, “for the stability of the regime, the most serious losses were among the officers,” says Miner. Their loss weakened the army so much, he notes, “that when the pressure came on in 1917, the army was not a reliable defender of the monarchy.”
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Retreat of the Russians
In the spring of 1915, Russian troops had to retreat before a combined German-Austrian attack. “Besides the horrific large number of Russian soldiers killed and wounded, this great retreat led to massive numbers of refugees,” Hartnett notes. These hordes of desperate people were pouring into Russian cities already struggling under the burden of the war effort.
“Store shelves have been emptied of their products and inflation has skyrocketed,” says Hartnett. “With increasing casualties on the front lines and increasing hunger and desperation in the country, the Russian government has felt the pressure.”
But Nicholas II somehow didn’t understand just how bad the situation he was. As Hartnett notes, he clung to the belief that he and the Russian people had an unshakeable mystical bond.
As the Tsar saw it, “his family had been in power for 300 years and he was appointed by God,” says Fowler. His oblivion is evident in the letters he wrote to his wife, in which he mentions news of protests against his regime with mundane family matters. “He’s just not aware that his empire is in trouble,” Fowler says.
Nets lead to rebellion
During the war, Russia still produced enough food during the war to feed its people, but despite this, the Russians were still hungry. “The problem was not production,” notes Miner, “but rather distribution and transportation, which led to periodic shortages.” The ineffectiveness of the Tsarist state began to drain political support.
The Duma, Russia’s elected legislature, could do little about Nicholas’ mismanagement of the country, as he had the power to dissolve it if the members dared to disagree with him. Even so, “prominent members have questioned aloud whether the recent decisions taken by the Tsar’s government were the result of stupidity or of betrayal,” says Hartnett.
At the beginning of 1917 Russia was in the throes of a crisis so severe that Nicholas could no longer ignore it.
“Bread lines have developed in many cities and especially in the capital of Petrograd,” says Hartnett. At the massive Putilov factory in Petrograd, workers went on strike in early March, demanding higher wages to offset the high price of food. Rather than respond to workers’ demands, he said, letter carriers responded with a lockout, prompting thousands of workers to continue the strike.
Days later, on International Women’s Day, tens of thousands marched through the streets of Petrograd, striking workers joining mothers demanding food for their children.
“This led to the beginning of the end of the Romanov autocracy,” says Harnett. Three days after the protests began, Tsar officials ordered the military and politics to break up the protests – using all means. The violence that followed, Harnett says, claimed the lives of nearly 100 people. And the next day, soldiers joined the demonstrators.
The army had had enough. Tsar Nicholas’ generals convinced him to resign. Three days later, Nicholas II abdicated in favor of his brother Michael, who refused the crown. The reign of the Romanovs was over.
READ MORE: Why Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanovs were murdered
The Germans organize the return of Vladimir Lenin
The war had led Nicholas to lose his grip on power, but the February Revolution (which goes by that name because under the old Russian calendar its events occurred in February) was just the beginning. The Tsarist regime was replaced by the Provisional Government, made up of moderate Duma deputies, socialists and liberals who bickered with each other as they tried to regain control of Russia. The new government attempted to continue the war and honor the alliances made by the monarchy, while seeking an exit strategy.
The Germans, eager to get Russia out of the war so that it can concentrate on the fight against France and Great Britain, decide to destabilize the provisional government. They organized the return of Vladimir Lenin, a communist revolutionary who led the Bolshevik Party, from European exile to Russia on a secret and sealed train. When he arrived, his slogan was “Peace, land, bread”, a call to war-weary Russians.
“The war also helped give Lenin a platform for his October coup,” says Fowler.
Alexander Kerensky, the last head of the provisional government, did not help his side by leading what turned out to be a disastrous offensive against the Germans and Austrians in July 1917. “The losses soared, as did the desertions, aided by regular Bolshevik propaganda. among military units, ”says Hartnett.
When Kerensky attempted to send pro-Bolshevik units to the front, soldiers took to the streets in an uprising against the Provisional Government, known as the July Days. If this insurrection failed, Kerensky and the Provisional Government were doomed. In November 1917, the Bolsheviks took power.
The following March, Russia’s new Bolshevik government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria, relinquishing a million square kilometers of territory to appease the Germans.
World War I, the conflict that ended the Tsarist regime, was over for Russia, but there would still be no peace. Civil war broke out later that year between the Bolsheviks and opponents of the regime. Ultimately, the Bolsheviks prevailed, and in 1922 a treaty was signed to establish the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.