Russia – From War to Revolution

The Road to February

World War One was to temporarily cut across the growing insurrectionary mood in Russia but it was in turn to sow the seeds of revolution…

The first world war would have been greeted with some relief by the ruling elite. The opposition parties were gaining strength on the back of a growing wave of discontent. Workers had recovered from the repression that followed the 1905 insurrection. The numbers participating in political strikes had risen from 8000 in 1911 to 500,000 in 1913 and had doubled in the first half of 1914.[1] This movement was halted with the declaration of war in August 1914. Almost in a flash the psychology of the nation changed. There were “…….processions in the streets carrying the Tsar’s portrait……….Those first days of war! How full we were of enthusiasm, of the conviction that we were fighting in a just and holy cause…….”.[2] This general feeling of confident euphoria was not to last long.

Initially the Russian army had mixed fortune. They did well against the Austria-Hungarian empire and took Galica, though a failed attempt to drive into East Prussia left 20,000 dead. By the end of the year there was only ill fortune. As soon as the Russian army faced serious opposition all the weaknesses of the empire were shown in sharp relief. Problems began right from the call up of 15 million men, no thought was given to the stress this large removal of a section of the labour force would place on the economy. Labour shortages and bureaucratic ineptitude took their toll, causing dislocation of the economy. Products intended for the war were as likely to be left in railway yards as make it to the front, as General Gurko pointed out, “There is plenty of meat in Siberia but we cannot get it here because we need 300 locomotives which we have not. Our railways are functioning badly, all the railwaymen were sent to the front at the beginning of the war and there is no-one to repair the locomotives”.[3]

Russian Prisoners at Tannenberg
World War 1 Russian Prisoners at Tannenberg

Vietnam taught the United States in the 1960’s and early 70’s that there is nothing more demoralising than the sight of the dead and wounded coming home. Russia suffered this on a far greater scale, the misery was compounded by the treatment, or the lack of it, of the wounded. M.V Rodzianko, president of the state Duma, visited the Warsaw-Vienna Rail Station where he found “….there were about 18,000 men wounded…….There I saw a frightful scene. On the floor, without even a bedding of straw, in mud and slush, lay innumerable wounded, whose pitiful groans and cries filled the air. ‘For God’s sake, get them to attend to us. No one has looked after our wounds for 5 days…’ “.[4]

Very quickly, a poor economic infrastructure, shortages and indifferent leadership was expressed as humiliating military defeats with horrendous casualties. In just over a year the Tsar made himself Commander-in-Chief, he was no more successful than his Generals and only succeeded in linking himself directly to failure. Within Russia the picture was also grim.

Many of the soldiers in the Russian army were of peasant background, added to the hopeless position at the front was also the news of hardship faced by their families. Food shortages had become the norm, the richer peasants were hoarding surpluses rather than sell them for rapidly devaluing Roubles. This, combined with the collapse of the transport system resulted in constant food shortage in the cities. Small farms, low in efficiency and labour intensive, were left under worked due to the call up of the men, leaving families struggling in poverty to pay rents and mortgages. The workers in the cities were hardly faring much better:

“As early as December 1914 prices of manufactured goods had risen by 25% compared with 1913, while prices of consumer goods were up by 11%. In 1915 ………food prices rose by 122%. Wage increases lagged far behind the catastrophic rise in the cost of living. Between 1914 and 1916 the working man’s earnings rose on the average by 100%, while prices of foodstuffs and consumer goods increased by from 300% to 500%”.[5]

The human story behind these figures was succinctly put by a police department report,
“The impossibility of obtaining, even for cash, many foodstuffs and articles of prime necessity, the waste of time involved in spending hours waiting in lines in front of stores, the increasing morbidity due to inadequate diet and insanitary lodgings …………….., all these conditions have created such a situation that the mass of industrial workers are quite ready to let themselves go to the wildest excesses of a hunger riot”.[6]

More worrying for the state was “……..the weariness of war to be observed everywhere, and the longing for a swift peace, regardless of the conditions upon which it is concluded”[7]

In contrast to the deprivations suffered by workers and peasants, the bourgeois and the aristocracy revelled in a fantastic shower of wealth. The Land and City and Military-Industrial committees acted as a funnel for billions of Roubles from the state to industry and land owners. Speculation in stocks and shares reached similar proportions to that in the west in the mid 1980’s. Fabergé, the court jeweller, boasted that business had never been so good. In a scathing account, L. Trotsky raged that:

“The Grand Dukes were not among the last to enjoy this feast in times of plague. Nobody had any fear of spending too much. A continual shower of gold fell from above………aristocratic ladies spread their skirts high, everybody splashed about in the bloody mud – bankers, heads of commissariat……… All came running to grab and gobble, in fear lest the blessed rain should stop. And all rejected with indignation the shameful idea of a premature peace”.[8]

Two years into the war according to Protopopov, a member of the Progressive Bloc, “all reasonable people in Russia, among them probably all the leaders of the ‘People’s Freedom’ (Kadets), were convinced that Russia was unable to continue the war”.[9] Protopopov, with the almost certain knowledge of the Tsar, had in late 1916 held discussions in Stockholm with the German diplomat, Warburg, concerning the making of a separate peace.

With the increase of strikes that quickly became political in nature, coupled with reports of a growing revolutionary mood, the bourgeois and members of the aristocracy felt the ground shifting beneath them. Discussions in ruling circles centred around the idea of a palace coup. Though talk of forcing Nicholas II to abdicate came to nothing, Rasputin was murdered at the end of 1916. Incidentally 106 people were suspected of being involved in the plot! Unfortunately all this was too little too late. Workers had moved on from anti German pogroms in 1915 to open discussions of how to rid themselves of their rulers.

In just over 2 years, from gaily marching to war with shouts of ‘hurrah’ for the Tsar, the stage had been prepared for revolution…

Gary Hollands – October 1994


1. Russian Factory Inspectorate. Figures exclude agriculture, rail and mining.

2. Daughter of the British Ambassador 1914. ‘A’ level hand out 1994/5.

3. Memoirs of Duma President M.V Rodzianko quoting General Gurko.

4. Memoirs of M.V Rodzianko.

5. Alexander Grunt; Russia 1914-16, Russia at war. Page 676. ‘A’ level hand out 1994/5.

6. Extracts from a Police Department report October 1916 quoted by M.Florinsky (1961). ‘End of the Russian Empire’ pp 165-6.

7. Police Department report October 30 1916. Quoted by L.Trotsky ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ pp 23. 1980, Monad Press.

8. L.Trotsky ‘History of the Russian Revolution’. pp 25.

9. Protopopov Quoted by L.Trotsky ‘History of the Revolution’. pp 29.


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