The Significant Role of World War I in the fall of the Russian Autocracy
There are many causes that can be contributed to the fall of the Russian autocracy and the end of the three hundred year-long reign of the Romanov dynasty. In fact, Russia’s history is so complicated and confusing, that a timeline is often necessary in order to keep events straight. Many events and issues in Russia’s history during the fall of the Romanov rule occurred around the same time. The Great War was significant as it incited numerous issues to fester and explode in a short time frame when the people had enough of Russia’s autocracy.
When much of Europe entered into the mess that was known as the Great War in 1914, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia decided that it was necessary for Russia to do the same. The blog post, “The Army’s Revolution,” describes how this act was controversial as Russia had suffered a humiliating military defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War. The post “Never Underestimate Your Enemies,” offers additional insight about the Russo-Japanese War noting that by the end of the war in 1905, Russia’s failure showed that they “were not prepared for a war with Japan and that the Japanese could not match European powers in battle.” Therefore, the rise of World War I just nine short years later after the devastating Russo-Japanese War reveals Nicholas’ hasty decision and poor leadership as he led his still backwards country into a 20th century war. Nicholas’ proved to be an extremely questionable leader, not just for leading his country in a heavy war so soon after a devastating loss, but also for making his decision in a time when he knew that the majority of the country was already unhappy and had been for a significant period of time. In 1905, the same year the Russo-Japanese War ended, a revolution had broken out in Russia that resulted in the October Manifesto. The October Manifesto was a document that promised measures to the people, such as the creation of a Duma that would work as a legislature, among other promises. However, Nicholas II had second thoughts and seemed to have regretted the promises he made. When the Fundamental Law that came out the next spring explained how the measures were going to be achieved, it was revealed that the document did not give the promises that the people wanted and were expecting. For example, the Duma’s authority was undermined and politics were still able to continue through the tsar even if the Duma was not in session or if it had been disbanded. In Russia: A History, Freeze wrote that it “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” (Freeze, 267). The failure of the tsar to make good on his promises set the stage for an unstable government and a resentful majority. The Tsar’s action in entering The Great War, with an unstable government and after a loss in 1905 that revealed the army’s weaknesses, was rash and it appears that he gave little consideration as to what was right for his country.
In 1914, Russia delved into the war without fully understanding or thinking about what the ramifications could be. Russia believed that the war was going to be quick and that all the boys would be home in a short period of time. In “Endgame: Shifting Loyalties,” the blog post describes the notion that the “Russians, like those throughout Europe, waved their national banner on the eve of the first World War, eager to fight and win a quick victory for the glory of the motherland.” This notion would not last long however, and Russian enthusiasm would fade as “Endgame: Shifting Loyalties” accurately noted that they were not financially capable or prepared to participate in the war. Despite early support of the war in the country, Russia soon found themselves struggling to survive at the front. Russia lost around 500,000 men before the tsar decided to go to the front lines himself, as noted by the blog post, “When the Tsar is away, the Monk will play.” The post titled, “The Army’s Revolution,” details that Nicholas II’s decision to lead as a commander and take control of the army personally came after he received widespread criticism for the war, but doing so “linked the Tsar more so than before with military defeat and suffering” as the military continued to falter. A poster from the time period displaying Nicholas as a knight leading his troops to a glorious conquest reveals the high risk he was taking in associating his image with the war. Linking his image with the harsh and brutal war would aid in causing Nicholas to fall from power. Nicholas’s decision to go to the front not only did little for the army in the war, but his action also hurt those at home as well. As the blog post, “When the Tsar is away, the Monk will play,” stated, Nicholas unwisely left behind his German wife who was heavily influenced by Rasputin, much to the dismay of the Duma, nobility, and others. The tsar’s only male heir was inflicted with hemophilia and Rasputin was the only one who was supposedly able to cure him. “When the Tsar is away, the Monk will play,” continues the observation of Rasputin’s part in the fall of the regime by noting that since “Alexei’s illness was kept from the public, rumors that Rasputin was sleeping with the Tsaritsa had made their way to the general public and the monarchy was seen as a joke without credibility.” While he was not solely responsible for the collapse of the dynasty, Rasputin at least aided in causing many in the Russian population to continue questioning the regime. All in all, World War I proved a struggle for the army and when Nicholas took control of the troops, the tsar was another step closer to witnessing the fall of his dynasty.
World War I threw the Russian state into a great deal of turmoil that included hunger as well. World War I established the war as a priority in Russia, and those who were not serving in the war suffered from hunger. The blog post, “Furious for Food,” notes that “World War I drained Russia of its resources including food, and . . . men had to join the army and food supplies were given to the soldiers as a priority over the common folk.” There was little food available for those in the countryside and those who were not serving. The forces that made up the war were mainly peasants who worked the land the food came from. When these men were taken out of the equation in producing food, there was a decline in food products and the little there was available, was reserved for the army. Therefore, those who were suffering from hunger grew restless and resentful of the war and the autocracy, which was forcing the country to stay in the war. A photograph of a long bread line reveals how severely desperate people were for the basic necessities of life. People became desperate enough to instill a black market for food so they could get the bare necessities to allow them to live. The blog post, “War Means No Food, No Food Means War” discusses how individuals formed a black market where bagmen, individuals working privately or for an organization, traveled to bring people food. The government saw this activity as a threat and attempted to stop it. One furious and hungry individual lashed out at the government by stating, “I never would have come two thousand versts if the land committees had given us what we need … We are hungry … You have no idea how we suffer. Famine is no respecter of paper laws … give us bread!” The blog post, “Changing of the Guard: World War I and the Soviet Revolutions,” accurately states how the war caused a “situation which nurtures radical and revolutionary ideas, ideas that manifested themselves both in February and October of 1917.” This reveals the turmoil and suffering of much of the Russian population. The disruption of World War I caused people to cast blame on the autocracy for their struggle in life.
By 1917, most of the population was fed up with the war. By February 23, 1917, women lashed out at the government by gaining a force of people to participate in a riot around the capital city to express their rage due to the high bread prices and food shortages as noted by the post, “Furious for Food.” Troops were ordered to subdue the protest, but many soldiers were those who had been on the front and they were unhappy with the government as well, so many actually joined the protestors. On March 1, the Soviet Order No. 1 document that restructured the military, among other changes, made new alterations to the military such as the separation of duty and private life and the abolishment of officers addressing soldiers in an derogatory way. The passage of Order No. 1 reveals the discontent that ran rampant among the soldiers in the army, so there was a need for restructuring. Thus, the frustration at the front and food shortages at home due to World War I led to the riots and protests against the autocracy as society had enough with the regime.
Shortly after the February riots, caused by Russian involvement in the Great War, the future of the Russian government was changed forever. Days after the riots broke out due to the lack of food and bread prices and a day after the Soviet Order No. 1 was passed, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne on March 2, 1917. In Nicholas’ Decree of Abdication, he stated how he believed that winning the war was essential for the country’s future as he noted that “the destiny of Russia, the honour of our heroic army, the welfare of the people and the whole future of our dear fatherland demand that the war should be brought to a victorious conclusion whatever the cost.” Despite what Nicholas II believed, Russia’s entrance into World War I changed the makeup of the country as it led to the fall of the regime and Russian autocracy.
“Activities of the Bagmen. January 1918.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Accessed September 28, 2014. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1917bagmen1&SubjectID=1917food&Year=1917.
“Evidence 19: Photograph of a Bread Line.” Digital History Reader. Accessed September 28, 2014. http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod03_1917/index.html.
“Evidence 22: Soviet Order No. 1, March 1/14, 1917.” Digital History Reader. Accessed September 28, 2014. http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod03_1917/index.html.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
“Manifesto of 17 October 1905.” Russian History 1905-1930. Accessed September 28, 2014. http://community.dur.ac.uk/a.k.harrington/octmanif.html.
“Nikolai II, Abdication Manifesto. March 2, 1917.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Accessed September 28, 2014. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1917abdication1&SubjectID=1917february&Year=1917.
Poster of Tsar Nicholas II Image retrieved from: http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod03_1917/evidence_detail_15.html.
“The Russian Fundamental Law of 23 April 1906.” Russian History 1905-1930. Accessed September 28, 2014. http://community.dur.ac.uk/a.k.harrington/Russhist.HTML.