How important was the First World War to the collapse of the Tsarist regime?
By Daniel Harrington Candidate no: 5093
15a. How important was the First World War to the collapse of the Tsarist regime?
The First World War’s importance to the fall of the Tsar is unquestionable but there were many reason that lead up to the fall of the Tsar so how important was WW1 to the collapse of the Tsar?
The brief reasons why Russia even joined the war in the first place were that they believed they were the protectors of the Slav people and therefore ought to protect their freedom from the invading Austrians which then led to Germany declaring war on Russia.
There are different interpretations to this question one of them, Lionel Kochan who wrote “The Making of Modern Russia” in 1962, arguing that the First World War was of major importance in bringing about the fall of the Tsar, stating that workers had already turned against the Tsar, as chaos piled up on the streets of Petrograd. The wave of strikes that the war had caused was more down to a lack of food and supplies for the workers. But the army was important because in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese war, the following workers revolt was put down by the army who were loyal to the Tsar. The key difference in 1917 was the military were fighting the German threat so Russia could not spare the men needed to police the streets. Not only this, but the Tsar had made the mistake of making himself commander in chief of the Russian army, this lead to solders resenting the Tsar as a leader. Kochan also states that ‘the railway systems in the western provinces and Poland proved inadequate’ the railways were important during the last revolt as solders were transported from Vladivostok to Petrograd to protect the city and the Tsar.
Kochan believes the War had ‘utterly destroyed any confidence that still remained between the government and the people’ which shows that the war dented confidence in the Tsar according to Kochan but that confidence had already been lost in the Tsar prior to the war.
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Historian Richard Pipes writing in 1990 in his book the Russian Revolution argues that the circumstances left the Tsar little option but to abdicate, but Pipes does try to show the importance of the Tsar to the people, prior to the war, stating that “Russia without a Tsar in the people’s minds was a contradiction in terms; for them it was the person of the Tsar that defined and gave reality to the state”. According to Pipes the peasantry remained loyal but the idea of a redistribution of land tempted them to revolt, but from historical evidence the SR’s (socialist revolutionaries) had their strong hold within the peasantry. This was important when it came to the Bolsheviks taking power. However, Pipes view was that the peasantry was onside with the Tsar, is greatly flawed. Pipes claims that the Tsar had a choice he could have easily have refused to not give up the crown and make peace with Germany, though Pipes does state this would have been embarrassing for the Russian army. The Tsar according to Pipes gave up his crown to protect the front instead of calling troops back to save Petrograd. The Tsar had no real intention of resigning until his generals put forward the idea to him, because of the civil unrest in Petrograd, stating that if Nicholas remained Tsar then Russia would certainly lose the war.
The first world war according to both Pipes and Kochan is important in the fall of the Tsar, but Pipes talks about mutiny’s in the military being a key factor, which ties in with Kochan who talks about the army suffering with some solders having no weapons. Pipes who believed the Tsars abdication was some sort of patriotic gesture is in contradiction to Kochan, who believed that the people had lost their patience with the Tsar and it was time for him to go.
Melvin C. Wern and Taylor Stults take this argument in a completely different direction, writing in “The course of Russian History” 1994,stating that once the emperor had left to lead the army, it left the Tsarina Alexandra in charge, which was not the best person to lead Russia because of the Tsarina’s German nationality. This would not have made her popular with politicians or solders trying to fight Germany as a new figure head. The Tsarina’s approach to rule was autocratic, and the Tsarina had encouraged Tsar Nicholas to be more autocratic than he previously had been. ‘Smash them all’ she wrote when Duma leader questioned her administration. According to Wern & Stults by the time the Tsar had left to join the front the Duma was left with honest politicians but the Tsarina and Rasputin her ‘man of God’ would change that. This claim that there were honest politicians in the Duma is quite farfetched when they were guilty of being the Tsar’s yes men, only Goremykin could not be trusted according to Wern & Stults, but the Tsarina & Rasputin would bring in Boris Sturmer as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister also they would give away the position of Minister of the interior to Craven and the almost insane Protopopov. The government from this point on would let thing drift to a point where Rasputin would be murdered by the Duma leader Purishkevitch, Grand Duke Dmitri and Prince Felix Yusopov. General Krymov reported to the Duma leaders that the army would welcome a coup d’état after the murder of Rasputin, the Grand Duke Alexander wrote ‘it is the government which is preparing the revolution.
The First World War proved that the Tsar had lost his influence, even before the war began, but his enemy’s in politics were weak. Wern & Stults talk about the Tsarina and Rasputin’s effect on the abdication of the Tsar but say nothing about the Tsar himself. Rasputin was a mad man who warned the Tsar prior to his death that if he died the Tsarist system would fall.
In comparison with Richard Pipes & Lionel Kochan they speak about the people, but Wern & Stults paint a picture that the Tsarina is to blame alongside Rasputin but the workers as Pipes and Kochan state were already in revolt but this could explain why the peasantry lost support for the Tsar because of the Tsarina.
Wern & Stults don’t talk about the war having much affect, what they do say is that because of the Tsar’s involvement in the war, it allowed the Tsarina to take control even though this had been the Tsars wishes. The Tsarina mismanaged the situation in Russia, but would the Tsar if he had stayed have made any difference? The Tsar was more willing to allow people to challenge him in the Duma but the problem the Tsar had was, he had surrounded himself with yes men whilst the Duma when dealing with the Tsarina expressed their discontent for her.
Orlando Figes writing in 1996 talks about the demonstrations that occurred during February 1917 in what was virtually a general strike as 200,000 workers joined the demonstrators in Petrograd. The demonstrators were angry at a shortage of bread even the Bolshevik’s realised this protest meant nothing, but to the Tsar this protest was a threat. The Tsar would send a cable to General Khabalov ordering him to use military force against the strikers, the mutiny of the Petrograd Garrison made the situation worse. This protest was not organised by any revolutionary party, but the violence of the crowd turned into something more than just a protest. The consequence of this was a surge of violence against the police, sailors murdered naval officers, and according to official figures 1443 people were killed.
Figes in his interpretation is showing that the people had lost patience with the Tsar and that if someone like Lenin could organise these protests then he could cause a lot of problems for the Tsar along with the other interpretations he paints a picture of an autocratic leader who is out of touch with his own people and therefore had lost his right to rule. Though whether the provisional government or the Bolsheviks had the right to rule is an open question.
In comparison Figes states that the workers were for the cause of the Tsars abdication, mainly because they were poorly fed but the mutiny that occurred from the navy would also force the Tsar’s hand. But in comparison, Wren & Stults state that the royals had become suspicious of their own government, whilst Richard Pipes puts the Tsars abdication down to the growing discontent amongst the Generals within the Russian Army.
Kochan however believed that the government and the people didn’t understand each other and that through government action and the Tsars insistence on continuing the war food prices were driven up to an unaffordable level for most people and the ration’s that the people were given were not enough. Kochan also mentions that the Russian army were running out of ammunition which is embarrassing for a large empire like Russia’s.
In conclusion a number of different factors forced the Tsar to abdicate, the fact that the Tsarina allowed Rasputin a more than questionable figure a lot of political power; the fact that the workers even the army had turned against the Tsar; the fact that the Tsar had the power to hire and fire politicians unlike in Britain where a democratically elected government ruled with the support of the Royal family, at the end of the day it was the Tsar’s inability to adapt to a changing situation within Russia cost him his crown and later in 1917 his life and that of his family.