Changing of the Guard: World War 1 and the Soviet Revolutions

Boris Kustodiev: Freedom Loan (1917) – Image shows a Russian soldier standing over groups of protesters, signifying the primacy of the war over domestic issues.

It is undeniable that there were many contributing factors to the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917.  Social unrest and political impotence certainly were the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the Russian autocracy, however the catalyst for the Revolutions of 1917 was most-definitely the First World War. In order to understand the revolutions of 1917, one must look back to the revolution of 1905.  Nation-wide strikes, the upheaval and destruction of gentry property, and the organization of the peasantry threatened the very sovreignty of the Tsar.  Though the ‘October Manifesto’ produced by the tsarist government following the 1905 uprising effectively ended the revolution, it did not go far enough to please the more radical wings of the revolutionary movement.  Many of these more radical factions would not be satisfied until the Tsar abdicated, something that Nicholas II was not ready to do.  These factions did not go away however, and grew larger over time. One of the major facets of the October Manifesto was the creation of an elected lower house, called the Duma.  Though the house was a body representing the people, the Tsar reserved the right to dissolve the Duma at any point.  The Tsar could also enact laws in the time between the dissolution and election of a new Duma.  This under-representation of the common people, the status quo for much of Russian politics even today, continued to foster resentment within the ranks of Russian society. The mass-dissatisfaction with the monarchy and the government in general was exacerbated by the onset of the First World War in 1914.  The Manifesto had failed to provide social stability, and in this sense especially, the nation was not prepared for the war that was to come.  As Gregory Freeze puts it, “[i]t was a sign of weakness, then, not strength, that the Russian regime that went to war in the summer of 1914 had successfully resisted becoming a functioning constitutional monarchy” (267). Though the Russian state was not truly prepared for war of this magnitude, it would not have appeared so to someone on the ground at the time.  The Russian army was massive, over 1.4 million strong at the outset of the war (, and was still largely mobilized following the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.  This meant that the army mobilized reletively quickly.  Once the war was on, “Russia mobilized rapidly and intensively for a war everyone hoped would be brief, but which proved protracted and exhausting. The armed forces conscripted nearly seven million men in 1914 alone. More than eighteen million would serve during the course of the war” (1917 – Did the War Cause a Revolution?).  This illusion would not last for long, however. The first major blow to Russia was the Battle of Tannenberg in late August 1914.  Despite early gains while pushing into East Prussian territory and forcing the German army into retreat, the German forces, commanded by General Erich von Ludendorff, eventually pushed forward and broke through the Russian line, effectively splitting the Russian Army in half.  After dividing the Russian forces, “The German Army turned West and attacked the flank of the Russian Second Army. Within four days of fighting, bogged down in lakes and swamps, the Russian Second Army was defeated… A week later, General Hindenburg led the Eighth German Army, bolstered by reinforcements, to drive the Russian First Army completely out of Prussia” (  The Germans pursued the retreating Russian army, attacking wherever they could, and in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes the remaining Russians took heavy casualties.  By September 13th what remained of the Russian army had retreated to safety behind Russian borders.  The excursion into Prussia resulted in no territorial gain, costing the Russians nearly 300,000 men killed, wounded or captured (wikipedia).

Part of the Russian forces involved in the Battle of Tannenberg

The Russians fared much better in Austria-Hungary, capturing the region of Galicia by early September.  The Germans quickly sent reinforcements to aid their allies and began an offensive in mid-April of 1915.  The Russian forces were ill equipped to defend against the German offensive, “Problems of supply and logistics, especially where munitions were concerned, plagued the Russian army. Chronic shortages of firearms meant that soldiers often relied on the guns of their dead comrades. Ineptitude began at the very top of the Russian general staff” (Digital History Reader).  The German forces forced the Russians into retreat, “In the course of the ‘Great Retreat’ of 1915, Austro-German forces pushed the Russians out of eastern Poland at a cost of nearly one million Russian casualties and another million prisoners” (Digital History Reader). These losses were crushing to Russia in the army and at home.  Tsar Nicholas II had foolishly taken personal control of the armed forces, which made him liable to criticism following the early military fiascoes.  No one in Russian society was satisfied, “[f]or the propertied classes, the autocracy’s ineptitude in prosecuting the war fueled widespread disaffection and concern for the country’s future in the postwar world. In the lower levels of society, in the army, in cities, and in the countryside, tolerance of long-term deprivation, rationing, and a subsistence existence was running out” (Digital History Reader). Mass protest on the Russian home front hurt the war effort, and  following the February Revolution of 1917 and the abdication of Nicholas II in early March the Petrograd Soviet issued “Order no. 1″, which restructured the army into a more representative and equal fashion.  This order inspired dissension in the ranks.  As Lewis Siegelbaum writes, “The first few weeks of the revolution witnessed the desertion of between 100,000 and 150,000 soldiers, most of whom were peasants anxious to return to their villages to participate in what they expected would be a division of the land. There was also a substantial tide of arrests of officers, particularly senior commanders, and their replacement by more popular individuals.”  Before long the army was in shambles and defeat seemed more and more probable as time progressed. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 toppled what remained of the previous regime and the Bolshevik government then sought to validate itself by promising fulfilling its promises of bringing bread and peace to Russia.  By the end of 1917 the soviet government sought an immediate end to hostilities and signed the treaty of Brest Litovsk, an armistice which took effect in march of 1918 and formally took Russia out of the war.

Parties representing Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary at the signing of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk

  Were it not for the military woes of the Russian army, the autocracy may have been able to control the populace and retain its power.  The massive cost of war, both in resources and in soldiers, hampered the growth and productivity of the Russian homeland and put much of the lower-half of society in dire straits and a state of desperation.  A situation which nurtures radical and revolutionary ideas, ideas that manifested themselves both in February and October of 1917.  

Works Cited

Digital History Reader. 1917 – Did the War Cause a Revolution? n.d. (accessed September 13, 2014). Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. WW1 – Russia. n.d. (accessed September 13, 2014). Siegelbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. n.d. (accessed September 14, 2014). First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. n.d. (accessed September 14, 2014). —. The Battle of Tannenberg. n.d. (accessed September 13, 2014).