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World War 1 and the Russian Revolution: Analytical Essay

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The First World War was central to the coming of the 1917 revolution in Russia because it put enormous strains on the population and dramatically increased popular discontent. It also undermined the discipline of the Russian army, thereby reducing the government’s ability to use force to suppress the increased discontent. – whether or not Russia would have avoided revolution had there been no war is difficult to determine, however, it is certainly true that, even if a revolution was probable, the war profoundly shaped the revolution that did occur. The Russian people were already fractious, dissatisfied, and eager for change. In 1905 their demands had taken the empire to the brink of revolution before tensions were eased with promises of reforms - promises which were never truly fulfilled. The Russian empire rested on ‘unstable pillars’, and as such they were unable to sustain involvement in the war. In source three, Hickey notes that the war kindled patriotic support at first, but after just six months this support became negligible given the economic costs and civilian suffering that it caused. This was very much the case because, at the time of Russia’s descent into war, they were emerging from a period of relative stability from 1908 to 1913 thanks to Stolypin’s agrarian reforms. The 1913 celebration of the Romanov dynasty’s tercentennial anniversary also played into the immense, yet brief, support for the Tsar as a wave of patriotism and hopes of a resurgence of former victory swept across the country.

Source three epitomizes perfectly just how unprepared and unequipped Russia and its military were for the war. In his letter, Nicholas II expressed his worries about ammunition shortages, which ‘stood in the way of an energetic advance’. Such shortages were present from the very outset of Russia’s involvement in the war; the first campaigns of 1914 revealed similar shortcomings in weaponry, where they suffered from a shortage of artillery shells and new weapons such as machine guns. These shortages were aggravated further by Russia’s weak and outdated industry, which made overcoming them an irreconcilable task. Observing the wider context surrounding source three, it becomes clear that the mentioned shortages are likely to have been augmented by the Gorlice–Tarnów offensive launched in May of 1915, which forced the Tsar’s armies into a headlong retreat. It also becomes evident that this source and the contained descriptions are well aligned with the ‘Great Retreat’ which took place in the months that followed. As a result, the precise weaknesses of the Russian army at this point are only emphasized, such that they were to endure a series of unending retreats in the summer months.

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These retreats dealt a crippling blow to the troops' morale and as a result rumors quickly spread among their ranks about treason at the court. Such conspiracy theories were granted credibility because of the German background of the Empress and other government figures. For many soldiers this was the vital psychological moment of the revolution - the moment when their loyalty to the monarchy ended; around a million men surrendered to the German and Austrian forces during the retreat. In a desperate attempt to restore morale and discipline the Tsar took over the Supreme Command. If the soldiers would not fight for 'Russia', then perhaps they would fight for him. It was the worst decision of his reign as Nicholas would now take all the blame for the reverses at the Front.

The most common view taken by historians seems to be that the Old Regime was fundamentally flawed, and so its collapse was inevitable notwithstanding the burdens of the First World War; though it can certainly be described as a catalyst for the collapse, war is by no means considered the prominent cause. S. A. Smith is a proponent of this view and has described the affliction of Imperial Russia as primarily a crisis of modernization’, suggesting that ‘the effect of industrialization, urbanization, internal migration, and the emergence of new social classes’ made the ‘erosion of the autocratic state’ inexorable. Smith goes further in his examination of the February Revolution, disregarding ‘military defeat’ and ‘war weariness’ as potential causes. Instead, he sees the revolution as a result of ‘the collapse of public support in the government’, and so adopts the ‘pessimistic’ view that the emergence of a Western-style democracy from the Romanovs was fanciful. Other revisionists have also taken a similar approach, with Hasegawa emphasizing the ‘structural weakness of the regime itself’ and describing the tsarist regime as ‘pregnant with irreconcilable internal contradictions that it had no capacity to resolve’. The revisionist view is often seen as having emerged from guilt felt as a result of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and so it is naturally skewed to be less hostile in its assessment of the Soviets and the October Revolution. In addition to this, during the year 1976-7 Smith studied for his doctorate in History at the state-controlled University of Moscow in the Soviet Union, which may have influenced his later works and his inclination towards revisionist ideas.

Pipes has been critical of the revisionist interpretation, claiming that it is merely a rehash of the Soviet view. He concedes that the collapse of tsardom was ‘not improbable’, but maintains that it was ‘certainly not inevitable’. Similarly to Smith, he cites ‘deep-seated cultural and political flaws’ as being preventative to the tsarist state ‘adjusting to the economic and cultural growth of the country’, however, he places much greater emphasis on World War One. He does not consider these ‘cultural and political flaws’ as being detrimental in isolation but instead states that they ‘proved fatal under the pressure generated by the war’. This ‘optimistic view’, espoused by liberals such as Pipes, is essentially suggesting that ‘peaceful modernization’ would have been possible in Russia had there been no war, and hence the war is seen as the determining factor behind the collapse. Pipes is generally regarded as having conservative inclinations and has been described as a radical conservative. This is perhaps no surprise given his position as a senior advisor on Soviet affairs in the Reagan Administration, which oversaw the anti-communist Reagan Doctrine and sought a ‘roll-back’ of communism. Pipes is also associated with the Committee on the Present Danger, which aimed to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This helps to explain his strongly anti-Soviet view that the Revolution was only advanced as a result of the war and was motivated by ‘political reasons, rather than economic or social ones’.

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