How significant was the impact of WW1 in causing the February 1917 revolution? On the 27th of February 1917, Nicholas II received a telegraph. Rodzianko, the President of the Duma, was trying to urge him into action, stating “any procrastination is fatal”, the situation was moving into “a state of anarchy” and “the government is paralysed”. The grave circumstances included a break-down in the transportation system and the supply of necessities, fuel and food. Sporadic firing plagued the streets. The next day, the Czar abdicated.
Thus the February revolution characterizes Russian history, as it provoked the Czarist demise. Several historians rely on the ‘optimist’ view alleging the October Manifesto had set Russia on the course of political modernisation and Russian agriculture and industry were also modernising meaning WWI was the spark that ignited the 1917 revolution. The ‘pessimist’ notion entails the theory that there were abundant contributory elements, and Czarism was doomed despite the October Manifesto and Stolypin’s agricultural reforms.
‘Optimists’ offer several reasons as to how WWI incited the Revolution. Strike actions and disillusionment spread with “absolute ruin everywhere” , and, according to an Okhrana report in January 1917, crucially just before the Revolution, an openly hostile attitude “towards the Government and protest with all the means at their disposal against the continuation of the war” had been established. This report illuminates difficult living conditions caused by war, with “the proletariat of the capital on the verge of despair”, and the “wildest excesses of a hunger riot” .
This account is relatively reliable, because conversant to Nicholas, publication was never intended. Presumably, their description is impartial; however, the consistency depends on their quality of work, as one assumes the Okhrana encompassed a decent perception of affairs. The Okhrana, albeit upholding their reputation of mercilessness, were repeatedly criticised for their patchy inefficiency. Nevertheless, documentary evidence reveals revolution was likely to be imminent due to insufferable conditions. Hyperinflation, fluctuating at 300%, 4 times what it had been in 1914, disruption of agriculture and the diversion of transport for military use led to famine, infuriating urban inertia as “Russia was not advanced enough to stand the strain of war” and the attempt “plunged her economy into chaos”. This suggests that WWI, whilst deteriorating living conditions, directly evoked the Revolution.
The mismanagement of the military during WWI furthermore inflamed the revolution. A Police report of October 1916, by which time Russia had suffered roughly two million war-victims, detailed “you must end the War if you do not know how to fight” , a war-cry of Petrograd Social Democrats, which is rather telling, as disillusioned citizens, shocked by the vast number of deaths and poor equipment, with some soldiers fighting barefoot, were no longer afraid to openly criticise the autocracy. By 1916 there was “no belief that the war will be successful” and “the movement”, in the words of Kadets, which commenced as “purely economic, has become political”. This source appears an accurate reflection, as the economic slump aggravated military conditions, founded aspirations to intervene in politics and surmount the Czar’s power, which arguable triggered the issues.
The defeats at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes encouraged Nicholas to take personal escort the army in the hope that his “brilliant tactics”, “marvellous manoeuvring” and “royal presence” would guide to triumph. Nicholas lacked real military training prior to his appointment as Czar and thus, suffered multiple defeats. This made him personally responsible and as the weeks passed, support for him vanished. The people, and importantly the soldiers, turned against the Czar, with the Petrograd garrison mutinying, accusing their authorities of “corruption, cowardice, drunkenness and even treason”.
This is stated by government officials and quoted by Florinsky who fought in the Czarist army. Although Florinsky was a Bolshevik, he may be prone to exaggerate. However, since the author had substantial contact with the military and the disillusionment, caused by the scrupulous winter of 1916, coupled with famine, and other accounts have survived, this seems a pretty accurate reflection of the situation.
This report seems moderately reliable, as the. Urban military command collapsed and the Czar lost effective control as troops joined the strikers. Significantly, the turmoil augmented which meant WWI had a large impact in causing the February Revolution of 1917. The role of the Czarina and Rasputin helped trigger the February 1917 Revolution. Whilst Nicholas was at war, the political vacuum was filled by the arbitrary dictatorship of Rasputin, who effectively served as an advisor and friend to the Czarina. She became dependent on him after he demonstrated his ability to heal her haemophiliac son.
The Czarina’s letter to Nicholas emphasised that her trust lies in “our Friend” , personal correspondence which advocates consistency, possibly trying to restore the Czar’s confidence. Rodzianko, the president of the Duma, warned the Czar that Rasputin’s presence in court “undermines confidence in the supreme power”, possibly inciting an “evil effect” on the future of the dynasty. This source is reliable, as Rasputin was ostracized through circulating rumours of love affairs between the Czarina and Rasputin. However, he was a political rival of Rodzianko, so may be prone to exaggerate. Even though there is no reliable evidence of an affair, they were subject of pornographic postcards that disseminated Petrograd in 1917, with accusations of “samaderzhavie”, ‘holding’, as he seemed to have a tight grasp on the Czarina. Rasputin was criticised for his hold on Russian politics, exemplified through his administering of government ministers.
The Czarina was also fallaciously accused of being a German spy with the proletariat declaring “first defeat the Germans here at home” before going to war. Such domestic chaos incited by WWI contributed to insecurity in the Russian government as emphasised by Dmitri Volkognov who suggested Russia’s “weakness at home led to the self-destruction of the autocracy on a wave of discontent”. Inevitably, one could argue that the impact of WWI was a major cause of the February 1917 revolution. On the other hand, the pessimist view presents an entirely different perspective. The eruption of discontent in February 1917 which generated such colossal change was prompted by a chain of circumstances predating WWI. A potential counterargument, to the aforementioned ideas could exclude WWI and rather implicate Nicholas’ incompetence as a Czar and his indecisiveness, as Rasputin remarked, “the Czar can change his mind from one minute to the next”.
Rasputin, due to such proximity, was in a position to accurately judge the Czar, but may also have wanted to distance himself in the hope of repairing his own reputation. In fairness to Nicholas, he never expected to be Czar, inquiring “what is going to happen to me, to all of Russia?”. This quote is reliable, displaying his anxiety on suddenly attaining power. He lacked training in decision-making and statesmanship, and knew “nothing of the business of ruling” or “how to talk to ministers”. He had only been taught soldier-shipand his ignorance of governmental affairs, expressed volatility to his reign, essentially leading his subjects to lose adherence. Thus his unawareness about statesmanship and requirement of basic aptitude had a profound impact and the grounds for the 1917 revolution can be seen in the years predating WWI. The Czar surfaced “wholly out of touch with his people” , as remarked by Kerensky, principally because all his information came through people who were rather content to shield Nicholas II from the hardships of everyday life.
This source is reliable, as it consists of hindsight, during the Bolshevik regime; judgments were revised about the personal responsibility of Nicholas II. Kerensky was the socialist member of the third and forth Dumas and short term Prime Minister, his exact intention is unsure, but it is thought to be a description of a visit to Nicholas after his abdication, and thus should be impartial. However, Kerensky, opposed both the Bolshevik regime and the White Movement, and thus, he might have been trying to portray the Bolsheviks in a negative light, by making excuses for Nicholas’ actions. Evidence demonstrates the Czar found the daily autocratic work intolerable and preferred to spend time with his family.
He was Russian orthodox and his one allegiance was to God who selected and steered him. Nicholas projected to keep the hereditary autocracy intact to pass it on. Nicholas’ closed mentality can be seen in his notorious 1895 ‘senseless dreams’ speech, condemning inspirations of change, wanting to “uphold the principles of autocracy”. But by the early twentieth century, the trust in the individual rule emerged outdated, especially with the growth of industry and new classes. The demand for parliamentary democracy was surfacing amongst the middle class liberal intelligentsia. Despite encouragement to adopt revolutionary philosophies, Nicholas II dreaded standing up to and alienating the landed elite. Confidentially, he even bemoaned the profound inequity of his populace.
The 1905 October Manifesto illustrates the attempt for reform. The establishment of a Duma enabled freedom of speech and enhanced working conditions. However, this endeavour failed as there were four defenceless, unrepresentative Dumas between 1906 and 1917. Ultimately, the long term effect of the Czar’s oblivion of Russia’s dilemmas, as well as his fixation to pursue his father’s footsteps, lost him many key supporters, who felt unable to prop up such a regime. Accordingly, a fragile and vulnerable regime eventually provided the weight of numbers behind the escalating unrest. The ‘Pessimists’ argue, the outdated government was the major contributory factor in the February revolution.
The situation in Russia around the turn of the century in which Nicholas II found himself was complex. Russia was spiralling into chaos and the reactionary Plehve, the Minister of the Interior, is even remarked “we need a small victorious war to stem the tide of revolution”. The Russo-Japanese War was a disappointment and during a demonstration against the war, Czarist troops fired upon an unarmed crowd, an act leading to widespread strikes, riots and the famous mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin, all of which proved to be a “dress rehearsal” for the February 1917 revolution. In 1906, the country was plagued by revolutionary turmoil. Opposition to the autocracy was escalating and so were the attacks on police officials and bureaucrats.
Consequently, Stolypin pioneered a system that enabled the arrest and prompt trial of offenders. Approximately three thousand were executed between 1906 and 1909 and the scaffolds were referred to as “Stolypin’s necktie”. Industrial unrest persisted, of which a major example is the Lena Massacre of 1912, the shooting of striking goldfield labour by the army. The working conditions at the goldfields were exceptionally abysmal with fifteen hour shifts and traumatic accidents. This led to a strike of more than 6,000 people.
The Lena massacre “broke the ice of silence” and the number of strikes in Russia increased from 466 in 1911 to 1,918 in 1912 and by 1917 Russia was “on the eve of great events”. An embryonic sense of social-political consciousness among the lower orders was fed by democratic thoughts reaching Russia from the West, touted by political activists. Then, as faith in the revolutionary potential of the peasantry began to disappear, more intellectuals and industrial workers appeared to adopt Marxist theories.
Many supported the notion that society must first pass from the feudal through the capitalist phase of progress before the revolutionary proletariat could overthrow its “bourgeois” government to create a socialist workers state. Others were convinced that Witte’s industrialisation, which provoked social, economic and political change, would displace feudalism, eventually leading to the destruction of Czardom. Trade unions were established during the 1890’s, and Marxist groups induced confrontation and propaganda activities, all of which incited the strikes in the major industrial centres, eventually culminating in the February Revolution 1917.
In conclusion, the above has shown the two viewpoints regarding the ongoing debate amongst historians about the significance of WWI as a cause of the radical overthrow of Tsarism in 1917. WWI undoubtedly sealed the fate of Russia. However the nature of Czarism in general, which lacked dynamic leadership, and the strident rule of Nicholas II, as well as embryonic affinities inherent to the tsarist system, proved cataclysmic, causing severe civil and military unrest, which, ultimately culminated in the “inevitable Revolution”.
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