The impact of the First World War on Russia
The impact of the First World War on Russia was immense. In the early stages of the war the Russian army suffered huge losses at Tannenburg and at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. These losses resulted in unrest in the army and led to questions being asked about the way in which the military was run. As a result of ongoing military blunders, Tsar Nicholas II decided to take charge of the army himself. Whilst his presence at the frontlines may have acted as a boost to troops in the short term, it created a huge problem in the medium term. Firstly, as commander in chief of the army he would have to shoulder the blame for any defeats himself. Secondly, as head of an autocratic state he was required to make governmental decisions. How could be do this when government was in St Petersburg, and he was several days journey away at the front? In his absence many rumours about the Tsarina and the Holy man Rasputin spread. The Tsarina was a German princess and she was an easy target for those who were disgruntled. Rasputin was a strange figure. He was a Holy Man who had become very close to the Imperial family. He had a calming influence over the Tsarina and was widely believed to have mystical powers that would help the ill Tsarevich in his fight against illness. With the Tsar away though, Rasputin’s excesses became a major focus of attention and his influence on the Imperial Family was viewed with suspicion by many. In 1916, supporters of the Tsar murdered Rasputin.
Image – A Russian cartoon illustrating the popular view of the time that Rasputin dominated the Tsar and Tsarina.
The political consequences of Nicholas’ decision to lead the army were huge. However, war affected Russia in other ways, which also had a damaging impact on the Tsar. As more and more men went to war, the work of factories and farms became a matter of some concern. Russian industry and agriculture struggled to cope with the war economy. Food shortages in the cities were heightened by the war – the limited railway system was focused on transportation of men and arms to the front, rather than food to the cities. Riots broke out as a result of starvation, workers in the cities complained about the situation they found themselves in and, as the number of dead continued to rise, the level of discontent grew.
Image – Russian’s queuing for food, 1917.
Accompanying cation for this image:
“Tobacco, like bread and other necessities, was secured by ticket. This offered a profitable field of speculation for the soldiers.” (From Orrin Sage Wightman, The Diary of an American Physician in the Russian Revolution, 1917″
The war also provided existing revolutionary groups with an opportunity. With the army and police concentrating on the war effort, and the people feeling the strains caused by war, they were able to find more and more disgruntled peasants and workers who would agree with and join their cause. In St Petersburg the workers formed committees, soldiers and sailors mutinied and riots due to the food shortages were commonplace.
A combination of all of the above led to unbearable strain being put on the system of government. Nicholas II was unable to deal with all of the issues at the same time. His insistence on Autocratic rule and the limited powers of his Ministers meant that decisions were simply not made on ‘big’ issues and that many small areas of government were overlooked as the burden increased. Ultimately the system, and the Tsar’s reluctance to change it, led to the February Revolution. In February 1917 the Tsar’s position was untenable. Many within the Duma wanted changes and wanted representation of the people in order to try and alleviate the problems Russia was faced with. The Tsar was forced out, he was forced to abdicate in favour and power and the means of government were now in the hands of the Duma.