The Uses of History, 23 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 5 – 1914-1917

(Tsar Nicholas II of Russia on the eve of WWI – Photo credit Wikipedia)

Whether or not there was a revolutionary situation in Russia on the eve of the First World War is a matter of debate. But no one doubts that the Russian Revolution was a product of that war in many ways. Military defeats turned society against the ‘German’ court and government, accused of treason and incompetence, so that it was seen as a patriotic act to remove them for the sake of national salvation.

Orlando Piges, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, a History. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), p.54.

So far in this series, we have looked in some detail at some modern revolutions and their interrelationships, beginning with the American Revolution, then the French Revolutions (for there have been several), and now the Russian Revolution. The tendency of historical scholarship to treat these seminal events more or less in isolation is understandable. The object of the professional historian is to analyze an event, or a closely related series of events, as a single phenomenon in order to keep the subject as a reasonably limited project with a specific focus. The typical analysis begins with deciphering the event’s causes and catalysts, studying the principal persons and events who contributed to its origins. It may then continue into studying the course of events and why things happened the way they did. The final step, should the historian-analyst wish to go so far, is to describe outcomes and their consequences. A monogram may be dedicated to one specific part of this hypothetical treatment of a subject.

In this series, we have been following a more “macro-history” process of relating a number of major historical phenomena together in order to gain a broader picture and, hopefully, create a more generally applicable understanding of how we have come to be where we find ourselves in the 21st Century. Our focus has been mainly on Western Civilization, but has also related this to the global picture when appropriate.

We have now arrived at the enormous, shattering socio-economic-political, cultural, and spiritual cataclysm of World War One and its ensuing tremendous consequences. Russia’s history was as much affected as any other nation’s, and much more in many respects, not the least of which was the end of Imperial Tsarism.

As our opening quote suggests, perhaps by 1914 a revolution of some sort in the Russian Empire had become inevitable. It is certain that Russian society had reached a crisis in which its future direction must change if it was to survive in some way. Consider this statement from a major Russian culture-influencer in 1905, on the heals of the failed revolution of that year, given by Sergei Diaghilev as a toast to Russian high society at a banquet in his honour:

“We are witnesses of the greatest moment of summing-up in history, in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away.”

(quoted in Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies. Random House, 2020, pp. 47-8)

Diaghilev assuredly had no idea how true his prophecy was, or in what form it would come true, but his statement, made to the richest and most powerful sophisticates of Russia in that age, is symptomatic of the deep structural and moral rot that had infected the whole Tsarist-aristocratic system. Although very largely in agreement with him, the Russian oligarchs of that dead gilded age, like those of any pre-revolutionary age, had no desire or will to surrender their privileges and upset their decadent comfort and self-indulgence. Much of the rot was spiritual, for the educated classes had very largely abandoned Orthodox Christianity, and Christianity itself, and reveled in their new freedom to flaunt their sexual liberation and ability to defy traditions and customs. Even the Tsar’s family was infected, or about to be, as we saw last episode in the account of the coming into the Tsarina’s intimate circle of the wicked, mad, debauched monk Grigori Rasputin.

It is true that in the twenty years preceding the outbreak of WWI, and especially following the humiliation of the defeat at the hands of Japan in 1904-5, some segments of Russia’s economy had boomed, and industrial development and a degree of modernization in large cities and transportation had taken place. But Russia lagged far behind the pace of expansion and economic and technological development in its Great-Power peer nations, save perhaps Austria-Hungary. Under another extreme trial by war with its European rivals, how Russia would fare was a much debated question. Her sheer size and manpower resources were unmatched, but how much could that compensate for the great industrial, financial, infrastructural, and technological lead of Germany? Lower-echelon government administration had improved, but the upper levels were still rife with nepotism and oligarchic sycophantism. (As we have lately been witnessing, this situation has scarcely changed at all in the intervening century from that time to this.)

Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary on July 28, 1914, in response to Austria’s aggression against Russia’s Balkan protégé, Serbia. Austria’s attack on Serbia was Austria’s response the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian terrorist in Sarajevo, Bosnia, then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As we have seen in more recent history (9-11), international terrorism can spark enormous international consequences. In this case, those consequences were the most enormous in recorded history. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914 as an answer to Russia’s declaration of war on Austria, Germany’s ally. On August 3, Germany invaded Belgium as a prelude to invading France, which Germany also declared war on on August 3, with the justification that France, as Russia’s sworn ally, was about to declare war on Germany in any case. To complete the embroilment of all the Great Powers, Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4 in response to Germany’s refusal to immediately vacate Belgium and not invade it again. Britain had had an informal alliance with France since 1904, and it now became formal.

If the war had been short, as was first predicted, the Tsarist regime might yet have survived and found a way to avoid a massive internal meltdown. However, the pundits and experts, with one or two exceptions, such as Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty (civilian Minister in charge of the Royal [British] Navy), all declared that because of the tremendous destructiveness of modern warfare and the economic interdependency of the world’s empires and nations, any major war must be of short duration. Six months, or a year at most, was the usual prognostication. One is reminded of similar “expert” opinions offered in the 1780s about the likelihood of the early collapse of the newly founded USA, or in the 1790s about the stability and durability of Revolutionary France and its capacity to rule and to wage long-term war.

We will not recap all the military movements of two-and-a-half years on the Eastern Front before Russia “hit the wall” in its ability to carry on what was, by then, a losing struggle with the German Empire and its ally, Austria-Hungary, aided and abetted by Ottoman Turkey, which joined the Central Powers in October 1914. Suffice it to say that all the shortcomings and failures to reform the administration and the infrastructure of the Empire, along with the rampant nepotism and self-absorption of the aristocracy in its management of affairs at the highest level, came home to roost. Massive territorial losses, dreadful casualties, abominable failures of supply that left the armies woefully short of everything essential, accumulated to sap morale in the army and navy, and leave the civilian population in desperate straits. Even then, the Tsar was virtually deaf to appeals to take drastic action and enable capable men to take charge of every aspect of the national war effort. This would include removing all the deadwood appointees who were stifling every slight movement to ameliorate conditions both in the army at the front and in civilian life at home. Chief among these impediments was the stranglehold of Rasputin and his sybaritic coterie on the Tsarina and, through her, the Tsar himself.

In December 1916, with Christmas approaching, a group of patriotic young aristocratic army officers decided that they would take things into their own hands. They invited Rasputin to a party in St. Petersburg and, failing to poison him despite administering enough arsenic to kill several elephants, finally shot him in the head and shoved him under the ice of the Neva River. It was their hope that this would empower the higher-ups to finally force the Tsar’s hand.

Sadly, it was too little too late. Things had gone too far, and, in the midst of a terrible winter in which troops at the front were refusing to fight, starving and deserting in droves, and civilians in the cities taking to the streets and rioting, the Tsar’s government collapsed in February (March in the old Russian calendar).


Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

One thought on “The Uses of History, 23 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 5 – 1914-1917

  1. Thanks, Vince. Such a tragic story.



    Sent from my iPad


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