Tag Archives: World War One

1917: The July Scandals

Eastern Front 1917

Russian soldiers held captive by the German military in Poland, July, 1917. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

By summer in 1917, the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet were stuck in gridlock in the capitol, and Russia continued to lose ground and soldiers’ lives in the Great War. Meanwhile, Bolshevik influence had grown in response to the stagnant leadership of Alexander Kerensky. On July 16, demonstrations against that stagnation began as striking workers and mutinying soldiers took to the streets of Petrograd (again), and Bolshevik involvement and scapegoating led to the arrest of Leon Trotsky and the exile of Vladimir Lenin (again). These protests, known as the July Days, were largely a response to the failed July Offensive, or the Kerensky Offensive, earlier that month, which was a setback for the Russian military (again).

The July Days are often called a turning point in the Russian Revolution, a moment when it became clear that the inertia of the Provisional Government meant bloodshed abroad and hunger at home. However, the July Days occurred amidst the political chaos of the summer of 1917, between the scandal of Kerensky’s rise to power and his decision to recommit to the War, the Bolshevik attempt to organize Soviets while maintaining party loyalty amid party in-fighting, and a coup in August against the Provisional Government known as the Kornilov Affair. The July Days were part of an ongoing political inertia that tended toward reinstating old forms of violence.

Trotsky, in his memoir, describes the events leading up to the July Days, writing that “a declaration that I had submitted concerning Kerensky’s preparation for an offensive at the front was read by the Bolshevik faction at the congress of the Soviets. We had pointed out that the offensive was an adventure that threatened the very existence of the army” (Trotsky).  The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war would be vindicated after the Kerensky Offensive proved unsuccessful. Between July 1 and July 19, several Russian military units initially made advances toward  the western Ukrainian city Lviv, but German and Austo-Hungarian forces gradually repelled them, prompting a retreat beyond the previous Russian line. By the end of the offensive, the Russians “fell back more than a hundred kilometers” (Storey 127).

The Kerensky Offensive damaged the military’s already waning morale, and was a political disaster for Kerensky, precipitating more mutiny and disorder in the army. Russian soldiers and citizens alike turned against Kerensky during the Offensive, sparking the days-long demonstrations in July. The Bolsheviks were hesitant to support the protests, but quickly endorsed them when they began. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets had made clear in their demands that they wanted “democratization of the army” and “the earliest conclusion of a general peace without annexation, indemnity, and on the basis of self-determination,” which became an increasingly popular set of demands after the Kerensky Offensive. Furthermore, Bolshevik membership rose “from 80,000 in April to 200,000” by August (Treadgold & Ellison 102), but in the wake of the July Days, other scandals damaged the Bolsheviks as well.

The demonstrations were unsuccessful, in part because Russian military units pulled from the front were sent to quell the protests, and fired upon violent demonstrators, resulting in civilian casualties in the hundreds (again). Around this time, the Provisional Government accused Lenin of being a German spy, and the accusation was based on fairly compelling evidence. In April, Lenin had arrived in Russia with several other politically exiled Russians on a sealed train from Switzerland. The trip was funded by the German government as a military tactic, hoping that Lenin’s revolutionary leadership and anti-war agenda would convince the post-Tsar government to withdraw. The Kerensky government announced it would investigate Lenin’s German funding, and the crowds turned. Loyalists raided the leftist magazine Pravda‘s headquarters, and Lenin went into hiding when “it was revealed that he was receiving financial support from the German government” (Keegan 339). In the raid on Pravda and other Bolshevik strongholds, authorities “attempted to arrest the leaders–but caught only Anatole Lunacharsky, the mildest of them, and Trotsky” (Treadgold & Ellison 101). The Bolsheviks now had damaged reputations and no leadership in the capital.

The Kerensky government was weakened by its failed military offensive, and Kerensky’s opposition was weakened by political scandals involving Lenin’s connection to an enemy regime. By August, the unstable Provisional Government would face a coup from within its own military led by General Lavr Kornilov, and Kerensky would have to free Bolshevik political prisoners, including Trotsky, in order to sustain his almost vanished good standing with the Petrograd Soviet. But in July, 1917, the situation in Petrograd seemed frustratingly repetitive, with a heavy-handed leader responding to protests with arrests and military force, and a bloody setback on the Eastern Front. Where Russia would find itself next was not the question. The real question was whether or not Russia would go anywhere at all.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

 

1917: War and Journalism

Pravda

Russian newspaper Pravda, March 16, 1917.

The First World War was a global catastrophe. Because it was fought between colonial empires, it drew conscripts from Africa, Australia, India, the Arab World, Canada, and other regions. Outside the European theater, the Japanese Empire and China were involved in the war as well. In April of 1917, the United States joined the war. The war had high stakes for all involved across Asia, Africa, and Europe, so when Russia’s revolutionary factions debated pulling out of the war, other nations paid close attention. For most Russians, there were numerous uncertainties in 1917. For most journalists abroad, the primary question was about the war.

The lines between reportage, editorializing, and propaganda have always been messy, I think. The act of recording an event requires certain conscious decisions: what to include, what to leave out, the order of facts and events, what descriptions are useful for the reader. This is also the problem of historiography. These lines are increasingly blurred today, but in 1917, when war affected nearly every aspect of life from food rations to bonds to the draft, the press played a pertinent, easily abused role in swaying wartime opinions.

France, Britain, and the United States wanted to know if they would have an ally in the War, whereas Germany and Austria-Hungary wanted to know if they could move more forces to the Western Front to deal with the soon-to-arrive U.S. army. At the heart of Russia’s pacifist movement were the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, whose motivation for pulling out stemmed from their opposition to the connection between capitalism, imperialism, and war. As Lenin insisted, imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. For British, American, and especially French soldiers, Russia’s withdrawal could become a death sentence. Newspapers recognized their readers’ interests and fears.

Many papers did not resort to “yellow journalism” in their editorializing, but were not above subjective writing. A New York Times article from September 5, 1917, by Harold Williams entitled “Extremists Sway Workman’s Council” is a prime example among many. Reporting on the Russian Provisional Government, Williams wrote that “The all-Russian executive proposed a resolution supporting the Government view of the necessity of the death penalty” (Williams).  According to Williams, The Menshevik politician Julius Martov “sat silent in a perpetual sneer. . . put his sneer into words, and with the help of Internationalists and Social Revolutionaries defeated” the pro-death penalty measure. He added that “The issue now is patriotism or internationalism.”

It was not uncommon for American newspapers at the time to refer to Mensheviks and Bolsheviks as “extremists” or “internationalists,” in contrast to Russian “patriots.” Pacifists and labor unions in general were seen as contrary to the war effort. Their demand for better wage and working conditions limited the production of weaponry and resources. Editorializing in 1917 was common, but strategically nuanced, in part because the Russian Revolution involved so many different players and interests.

Americans (who celebrate the day they declared independence from a tyrannical monarch) endorsed the sudden democratization in Russia and the end of the monarchy. The United States was quick to recognize the new, post-Tsar government. The New York Times reported on March 22 that America was “First to Recognize Freed Russia” and  The New York Tribune reported that the British politician David George Lloyd “believed the revolution in Russia was the greatest service the Russians had yet rendered to the Allied cause” (Tribune March 22, 1917). However, they could not endorse the striking workers and mutinying soldiers who were largely responsible for that democratization. Thus, Russia was influenced by “extremists” and “agitators” rather than citizens and soldiers.

The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, in a slightly different nationalist gesture, included a poetic description of the Russian monarchy’s complete history on March 17, 1917, titled “Story of the Tsars” in which the author declares that the “story of the Tsars is like a conglomeration of the wild catastrophes of Elizabethan tragedy.” This story appeared next to others about the “Irish Question,” so that Telegraph readers saw Irish rebellions and descriptions of monarchical tragedies in the same document.

However, journalists had a diversity of perspectives, such as the American journalist John Reed. A reporter for Metropolitan Magazine, Reed was an adamant pacifist. He reported on the Great War in 1914 before the U.S. entered, and wrote editorials for the self-consciously socialist newspaper The Masses opposing the war. He lost work in 1917 because of his views, and traveled to Russia that year before the October Revolution. He died of typhus in Russia in 1920, in the midst of the Russian Civil War.

The majority of international journalists, pacifists and hawks alike, approached the Russian Revolution from a largely military-driven perspective. But the Great War was more a catalyst of the Russian Revolution. The 1905 rebellions sparked economic reforms as well as increased persecution. Poverty and oppression under Nicholas II had been a decades-long assault on numerous Russians and subjugated populations in Russia’s surrounding territories, so political involvement had increased in Russia. War was a crucial issue in the summer of 1917, but so too, clearly, were issues like the death penalty, press freedom, freedom of political dissidents, and wealth disparity, issues that the Tsar ignored and the Bolsheviks, in many cases, mishandled after the disastrous Civil War of 1917-1921.

What is clear is that there emerged competing narratives about the Revolution as it unfolded. Later Tribune articles, more neutral in tone, attest to the chaotic day-to-day changes that took place in Petrograd in October and November after the Bolsheviks seized power and counter-revolutionary forces attempted to retake the capital. The lived crisis in Petrograd appeared as a serialized daily drama for readers across the world, most of whom only wanted to know if their sons, fathers, or brothers would make it home alive. The Revolution’s far-reaching consequences had the potential to affect military families abroad and all workers within, but by summer, nobody knew what would come next.

1917: The Peasants Go to Petrograd

Peasant

Peasant, Victor Vasnetsov, 1878.

Discussion of the Russian Revolution tends to focus on Petrograd and urban workers. Almost from the beginning of the February Revolution, the Soviets and Provisional Government directed most of their energy toward those striking in the capitol or the military.

Alexander Kerensky, a centrist leader between February and October, writes in his 1927 account of the Revolution, The Catastrophe, that no “mention of [the land] is to be found in the declaration of the Provisional Government made public on the day of its assumption  of office” and that it was not until April 2 that “the Provisional Government promulgated its agrarian reform, which was to give all the land into the hands of those who worked it” (Kerensky 121-122). He then quickly moves on to discuss industrial reforms.

Lenin and Trotsky were divided about the role Russian peasantry would play in a socialist revolution. Trotsky did not want to count on peasants to unite alongside workers. On the other hand, in his April Theses, Lenin contends that “the class-conscious proletariat can give its consent to a revolutionary war” only if “the power passes to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat” (Lenin). He also called for the nationalization of all land. It is important to note, however, that Lenin’s emphasis is on the power of the workers and peasants united, which suggests he did not see them as a unified class but as two separate categories. The distinction between worker and peasant was taken for granted in 1917, in part because of the peasantry’s history.

Donald Treadgold and Herbert Ellison note that in “1900, 80 to 90% of the Russian people were peasants” who had, since the medieval period, been subjugated to serfdom (20). Tsar Alexander II initiated sweeping economic and agrarian reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and that “at that time the Russian peasants were liberated either from private landlords, to whom about half of them had been in virtual personal bondage, or from the state, which controlled the other half” (20). Despite the 1861 emancipation, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Russian peasants remained tied by debt and poverty to communes and landowners, much like the development of the American South’s economy after slavery, which utilized debt peonage  and Jim Crow laws as another form of bondage.

The Russian government in the nineteenth century exerted bureaucratic organization over the post-serfdom peasantries across the empire. Specifically, three years after emancipation, peasants were organized into zemstvos. A zemstvo was “an elective body instituted in 34 provinces within European Russia in 1864, empowered with certain local administrative responsibilities and assigned limited taxing authority but were nevertheless still controlled largely by landed gentry (Miller 6).

In other words, after emancipation, Russian peasants were granted a means of local self-regulation, almost a kind of proto-Soviet, but because this means came from the top-down, it was more a way to appease peasants rather than give them any real power. Still “at the mercy not only of meteorological factors as they affected harvests, but also of the equally unpredictable predatory depredations of local officials” (130), Russian peasants lived 53 years under a new, more covertly oppressive system until 1917 when more radical reforms were possible. Nevertheless, because peasants had not participated in the February Revolution in a city whose leaders had a history of giving peasants one freedom in exchange for new forms of exploitation, there was a clear divide between workers, striking in Petrograd, and peasants, growing food for the war that never seemed to end.

A 1909 book entitled The Terror in Russia: An Appeal to the British Nation details the Tsardom’s ruthlessness, including the “drastic measures” taken as a response to “a famine in several provinces of European Russia” (Kropotkin 70). These measures allowed for “a wholesale flogging of the peasants, men and women alike. . . in order to obtain the arrears” of peasants who, because of the famine, were behind on debts owed to landowners (70-71). The famine itself is more important to note, because the response of the government outweighed any potential protection peasants’ zemstvos might have offered. By 1917, the situation had not changed, because the system had not changed.

Peasants grew restless in the countryside waiting for Petrograd’s dual power to enact real reforms, but many peasants participated in the smaller revolutionary acts of organization and asserting their collective authority. Just as workers’ Soviets emerged, many peasants’ Soviets formed as well. In May of 1917, the leftist-dominated All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies met in Petrograd to represent the interests of peasants, though in part the meeting reemphasized the sense of alienation that many politically minded peasants felt. Nothing constructive had come from the Tsar’s reforms, the Provisional Government was stalled except to continue the war effort, and the Bolsheviks, who promised land redistribution, had made little progress.

The vast majority of imperial Russia’s population was not entirely neglected by the Revolution, but because of a long history of poverty, rural isolation, and top-down oppression coupled with a Marxist investment in industrial workers over rural workers, peasants had a difficult time making their desires known, if those desires could actually be expressed in a uniform way. Peasants’ Soviets could only make so much noise in the ongoing political crisis that took place, almost daily, in the Russian capitol.


Kerensky, Alexander. The Catastrophe. D. Appleton and Company, 1927.

Kropotkin, Peter. The Terror in Russia. Methuen & Co., 1909.

Lenin, Vladimir. “April Theses,” in Pravda No. 26, April 7, 1917.

Miller, Burton Richard. Rural Unrest during the First Russian Revolution. CEU Press, 2013.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

1917: The Ides of March

Nicholas II and Alexei

Nicholas II and his son Alexei inspecting troops near Mogilev.

On March 15 in the Gregorian Calendar, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne.

Nicholas was returning to Petrograd by train from the Eastern Front. However, the train’s operators “in contact with the Duma Committee” in Petrograd “deliberately exaggerated the threat [of rebels at the train station] in order to keep Nicholas away” from the capitol under the control of the Petrograd Soviet, where he had lost almost all favor with his subjects. (Steinberg & Khrustalev 58). A General and two political leaders met Nicholas at Pskov, where Nicholas ordered the imperial train to reroute to, and encouraged him to abandon the throne at the station. Ultimately, the dissent of generals and military leaders pushed Nicholas to accept that he had been politically defeated.

Nicholas abdicated that night, naming his brother Grand Duke Michael as the next Tsar instead of his son Alexei, whom he deemed too sick. However, Michael decided not to accept the position. In his own statement of abdication on March 16, the Grand Duke wrote,

“. . . I have firmly resolved to assume supreme power only if that should be the will of our great people who will be required by popular vote, through their representatives in the Constitutional Assembly, to create a form of government and new fundamental laws for the Russian State. Therefore, in appealing to God’s blessing, I ask all citizens of the Russian Empire to obey the Provisional Government” (105).

He officially waited for the Duma to pass a resolution favoring him as Tsar, but they never allowed for a vote. Nicholas was infuriated, but he had already abdicated, and there was nothing he could do.

It is only a poetic coincidence that Nicholas abdicated on the Ides of March, or March 15. In 44 BCE, numerous conspirators in Rome assassinated Julius Caesar on March 15 in the midst of Rome’s political crises of the era, through which Rome mutated from a republic to an empire. The Roman historian Plutarch noted that a seer warned Caesar that he would be killed by this date. William Shakespeare made famous the Ides in his own dramatization when a soothsayer shouts to Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March!” to which Caesar responds, “He is a dreamer; let us leave him” (Shakespeare 1.2.100-110). But there is another connection between Caesar and Nicholas.

The word Tsar comes from the word Caesar, which eventually came to mean Emperor. Ivan IV (the Terrible one) was the first Russian Tsar, claiming the title in 1547. An earlier Ivan (Ivan III and presumably not as terrible) had married the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos. The Tsar, then, was a political-religious emperor of Roman-style prestige, with the demise of that prestige already embedded in the title’s narrative as early as Plutarch and sealed in popularity by Shakespeare. By claiming the title Tsar, Ivan IV created a lineage connecting Rome, Byzantium, Orthodox Christianity, Muscovy (Moscow), and Imperial Russia, a lineage that Nicholas II inherited.

But Nicholas was not assassinated on March 15. He merely stepped down from the throne, for what might have been a peaceful transition of government from autocrat to soviet, from empire to republic.

Following abdication, the Romanovs planned to flee to England, but were instead arrested and eventually assassinated, in their entirety, by communists in July of 1918. When Lenin learned about the assassinations, he had been drafting healthcare plans for the new regime. According to historian Wendy Slater, “Lenin showed no obvious reaction to the news. . . The answer, of course, is that Lenin had not wanted Nicholas’s death to happen in this manner. If the Tsar had to die in order for the Revolution to assume legitimacy as Russia’s new government, then his death ought to have been a public execution, following a public trial” (Slater 152-153). For the Bolsheviks, it would have been better politically to let all Russians determine the Tsar’s fate.

For Russia in 1917, March was a volatile turning point, but not a stopping point. The Revolution spun forward, taking monarchs and peasants and dissenters with it. March 15 was significant for the Revolution because a monarch willingly conceded defeat. At the time, there was no conspiracy to depose him, and the assassins would come later. Power, then, was seized quite fluidly by the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet, putting the burden of order entirely on the temporary leadership established by force in the capital.


Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar.

Slater, Wendy. The Many Deaths of Tsar Nicholas II. Routledge, 2007.

Steinberg, Mark, Vladimir M. Khrustalev. The Fall of the Romanovs. Yale University Press, 1995.

1917: The First Soviets

petrograd-soviet-1917

Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, 1917. Photograph by Viktor Bulla (1883-1938)

The Russian word Soviet means council or congress, a unified and organized body of persons, a congregation or polity. The first Soviet appeared in the Revolution of 1905 when urban workers organized. It diminished quickly soon after, and did not implement the socialist revolution that many early factions (Socialists, Marxists, Anarchists) had hoped for. It would take twelve years for Soviets to form again, in early 1917.

Lenin described the first Soviets as workers spontaneously developing class consciousness. In 1918, he called the Soviets the “direct organization of the working and exploited people themselves” (Lenin). He viewed them as self-organizing microstates, writing that “Soviets are the Russian form of the proletarian dictatorship [and should] be transformed into state organizations” rather than mere revolutionary organs (Lenin). From Lenin’s perspective, the Soviets could be utilized as more than workers’ organizations and instead be states.

But anything Lenin wrote about the 1917 Soviets should be taken with several pounds of salt. To begin with, Lenin and many other Bolshevik leaders were not involved in the Soviets’ formation because they were exiled from Russia at the time. Second, the Bolsheviks had a clear end in mind (a new state) whereas the early Soviets were motivated by economic relief rather than statehood.

World War One is an important context for the 1917 Soviets. In February, Tsar Nicholas II left for the Eastern Front, abandoning citizens to concentrate on a failing war that had already killed thousands of Russians. Additionally, as Mark Steinberg points out, the emergence of a “sphere of civic activities situated in a social space beyond private life and not completely under the control of the state, made enormous differences in the lives of many Russians. . . Voluntary associations proliferated. They included literacy and temperance societies, business and professional associations, workers’ mutual assistance funds, private schools, and varied cultural circles” as well as trade unions and new political parties (38). Turn-of-the-century organizations legitimized new political ideologies, including anarchism and socialism, which, coupled with increased literacy and private discourse beneath the radar of the regime, contributed to Russians’ range of organizational possibilities.

By March 8 (in the Gregorian calendar), on International Women’s Day, working-class women joined protestors and marched through Petrograd. A police officer named Ilia Mitrofanovich Gordienko recalls in a memoir that women chanted “‘Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread to the workers'” and that “Clashes with the police took place near the City Duma and in other places, but these were only minor skirmishes. . . The same thing happened the next day” (Daly & Trofimov 36). The Petrograd Police Chief, Aleskandr Pavlovich Balk, noted that on March 10, “the factories functioned less intensively than on the previous days. Workers walked off the job in groups, holding rallies as they went” and that soldiers from the Pavlovskii Guard Regiment not only protested but fired upon officers attempting to disperse them (41).

On March 12, desperate and with little left to lose, workers stormed Tauride Palace, occupying it while protests continued in the streets. Inside the Palace, striking workers and mutinous soldiers created the Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, a new Petrograd Soviet, as documented by the socialist witness Nikolai Nikolaevich Himmer:

“There was no order even in the meeting itself. There was no permanent chairman. Chkheidze, who later performed the chairman’s duties almost permanently, didn’t do much work in the Ex. Com. during its first days. He was constantly being summoned–either to the Duma Committee or the Soviet sessions or, above all, ‘to the people,’ the constantly-changing crowd standing in front of Tauride Palace. . . If anyone had the means to [restore order to the city] it was the Soviet, which was beginning to acquire control over the masses of the workers and soldiers” (46).

He later critiqued the Soviet as too disparate to function as a government, stating that it was capable only of “moral functions” (48). The act of occupying Tauride Palace was the moment of class consciousness Lenin and other orthodox Marxists obsessed over, but after that moment, the desire for restoring order became a difficult task, resulting in the negotiated creation of a Provisional Government meant to restore order in the absence of the Tsar, who would abdicate on March 15.

The spontaneous, illegal occupation of public space was the revolutionary moment of crisis that Lenin and the Bolsheviks missed. It was the moment workers and soldiers united for the primal task of surviving a system that was rapidly killing them. Like Egyptians taking Tahrir Square in 2011, the Women’s March on Versailles in 1789, and the successful slave rebellion of the Haitian Revolution, the impromptu formation of a Soviet in Tauride Palace was a purely revolutionary moment, one of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones. It occurred before the state could monitor and contain it. It resulted in a new government that Bolshevik elites like Lenin would dissolve to implement a prescribed plan for utopia.

This is why Bey describes autonomous zones as temporary. Utopia, if achieved in a revolutionary context, is always temporary. Soviets coalesced spontaneously without a clear end, but most managed to redistribute food, water, and health to suffering workers and rebellious soldiers. Like the Reign of Terror in France, the gradual rule of elites in Haiti, and the authoritarianism of el-Sisi in Egypt, the eventual October Revolution (more of a Bolshevik coup) undid the revolutionary potential opened up by the Soviet in Tauride Palace and other Soviets that formed in factories and military units throughout Russia in the Spring of 1917.


Bey, Hakim. From TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, in Cultural Resistance Reader, ed. Stephen Duncombe, New York: Verso (2002), 113-118.

Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Lenin, Vladimir. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. 1918.

Steinberg, Mark. Voices of Revolution, 1917. Yale University Press, 2001.

1917: Tsar Nicholas II, Celebrity Autocrat

nicholas-ii-huntingNicholas II was crowned Tsar at the age of twenty-six in 1894, following the sudden death of Tsar Alexander III. Nicholas inherited a relatively stable regime that he was determined to sustain without change. He grew up believing he had been born simply to preserve the institution of God-granted Russian royalty, to maintain the status quo. Alexander, thinking he would live longer, had not trained Nicholas in diplomacy or politics. Living like a king was all Nicholas knew how to do.

His central policy was autocracy. Nicholas rigidly adhered to a particular image of Russia as ordered beneath and for him, and attacked anything that contradicted his sense of that order. He placed himself in the public eye regularly, but only filtered through artificial expressions of his status. This was clear in the 1913 Romanov Tercentenary, a national celebration of the Romanov dynasty. Virginia Rounding points out that “as many as one and a half million commemorative rubles were issued on the occasion of the tercentenary,” and that Nicholas appeared on numerous stamps and in over a hundred film reels (9-10). The monarchy also granted permission “for the production of scarves bearing a portrait of the Tsar, but only with the proviso that the scarves should not be of the right size to be used as handkerchiefs” (10), because Nicholas did not want anybody blowing their noses on images of him. He viewed himself in religious terms, and treated even petty disrespect as sacrilege.

The Romanov Tercentenary was an elaborate publicity stunt scheduled after numerous disasters under Nicholas’s rein. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 ended with an absolute Japanese victory, and was considered an unprecedented humiliation for Imperial Russia. In 1905, Russia’s political and economic problems proved that Nicholas II was not the carefree celebrity he wanted the world to believe he was. That year, strikes and protests formed in the capital amid widespread unrest. Nicholas responded to protestors by ordering police to fire on them on January 22, 1905, now known as Bloody Sunday. The Revolution of 1905 put enough pressure on the Tsar to allow for modest state reforms, including the formation of the Duma as a legislative body and the Russian Constitution of 1906. Nevertheless, Nicholas continued to rule as an authoritarian, dissolving the first Duma and manipulating the second. Entering he Great War in 1914 was just one more disastrous move.

The elaborate publicity displays were what Nicholas wanted the world to see of his empire. Instead, he met countless challenges to his authority, to which he responded with oppression or dismissal, sometimes removing ministers who disagreed with him and distrusting many others. By September of 1915, he had taken complete control of the military, leaving the capitol for the front. By 1916, unrest among soldiers had grown such that in April, “orders were issued forbidding free and open exchange between enlisted men and aid workers unless specifically allowed by the military leaders”  (Sanborn 170).

Nicholas was untrained for leadership and unwilling to admit his shortcomings. He took more interest in sports and his family than in political reforms, which he viewed as a threat to his sovereign, divine authority. He had been raised to live as a ruler, but not to rule, and he began ruling at a time when many Russians grew tired of aristocrats flaunting their inherited God-given wealth and silencing anyone who pointed out the problems in the system. When he abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917, Imperial Russia was a lost cause. With his extravagance and sweeping political abuses and abrasive leadership, Nicholas II exhausted Russian statehood to the breaking point.


Rounding, Virgina. Alix and Nicky, St, Martin’s Press, 2011.

Sanborn, Joshua. Imperial Apocalypse, Oxford University Press, 2014.

 

1917: Rasputin and the Great War

anna_theodora_krarup_portrait_of_rasputin_1916

Portrait of Rasputin by Anna Theodora Karup, December 1916.

“Dear friend, I will say again a menacing cloud is over Russia lots of sorrow and grief it is dark and there is no lightning to be seen. A sea of tears immeasurable and as to blood? What can I say? There are no words the horror of it is indescribable. . . they will conquer Germany and what about Russia? If one thinks verily there has not been a greater sufferer since the beginning of time she is all drowned in blood. Terrible is the destruction and without end the grief.” -Grigorii Rasputin, in a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, summer, 1914

In late December in 1916, the Russian mystic Grigorii Rasputin was assassinated, two and a half years into the Great War, two and a half months before the Russian Revolution took shape. Aristocrats in the Empire, notably Prince Felix Yusupov, who had grown to hate the holy man invited him to dinner in Moika Palace in Petrograd, now Saint Petersburg. For years, the Tsar had placed Rasputin closer to his family, or Rasputin inserted himself into the family by influence. In 1907, the Romanovs invited Rasputin to visit the royal family and heal Alexei, heir to the throne and ill with inherited hemophilia. Regardless of who pulled whose strings, he became a strange, alien force in the regime’s inner circles, a peasant-turned-occultist who joined the royal family.

Rasputin was an independent religious leader claiming metaphysical power and an extensive knowledge of the Bible, but he ignored the moral norms of Christianity through his abuse of alcohol and frequent sexual affairs. He was not a priest, but served the role of priest to a family that was just as much a facade as he was. He may have been a sophist or a lunatic, serving an incompetent autocrat to preserve the Romanov lineage, however doomed it was.

He could also be seen as a Shakespearean fool, the peasant-turned-entertainer who speaks candid truths to the audience and characters. Rasputin was a pacifist opposed to the Great War, though his graphic prophecy was not enough to prevent Russia from entering the conflict. His description of the war, noted above, was apocalyptic, and predicted the horror Russia would suffer as a result. Here, then, was a man willing to help the Tsar despite knowing the violence he could allow.

Russia lost approximately 1,997,500 soldiers in the First World War, with France trailing behind at 1,400,000, colonies and all. The brutal winters of the war years devastated armies and limited supplies for the Russian population. Military historian John Keegan points out that the “nature of these titanic battles on the Eastern Front is difficult to represent at a human or individual level. The Russian army, 80 per cent peasant when a majority of Russian peasants were still illiterate, left no literature to compare with that of the Western Front” (161). The majority of those who survived the Eastern Front, in other words, could not record their experiences.

However, a few written texts are telling. A Russian nurse named Lydia Zakharova, for instance, described a trench on the Eastern Front one winter as a “city of the dead, its inhabitants frozen in the most unlikely positions, as if a raging, deadly hurricane had just swept past them” (Storey 116). She adds, almost numbly, that “there is a limit, by the way, beyond which the human mind can perceive no more horrors, as a saturated sponge can soak up no more water” (117). Rasputin did not live to see the totality of the violence he predicted in 1914, but millions of Russian peasants experienced it.

Tsar Nicholas II shares much of the blame for the failures of the Great War. In 1914, he took personal control of the military, deeming himself a kind of commander-in-chief. Like many European leaders, Nicholas naively thought the war would end by Christmas of 1914. Instead it continued year after year after year.

Finally, in early 1917, starved of food and hope, bled of its population, and openly mocked by the Tsar’s aggressive displays of wealth and indifference, Russians began to protest. The Russian Revolution began only as a series of strikes. People were hungry; they couldn’t work anymore; they stopped until they got food. The Tsar, whose brutality was clear in 1905 when he ordered police to shoot protestors in Russia’s Bloody Sunday, ordered soldiers to fire into the crowds of strikers.

However, those who were meant to guard Petrograd consisted of wounded veterans or very young recruits. Healthy, loyal, and experienced soldiers were stationed on the Eastern Front, and those left behind revolted too and chose to protect the protestors. First, the holy fool protested, then soon after the workers, soldiers, guards, and even a few aristocrats realized that 1917 was an apocalypse year for Imperial Russia.

Rasputin’s place in regime seems like an ill-fitting cog in a machine, but that might be a limited perspective because almost nobody in the regime was fit for rule. The Tsar was incompetent and disinterested, his children were sick with inherited hemophilia, his ministers were torn between the possibility of a democratic Russia or the Tsar’s brutal autocracy. The monarchy was a network of ill-fitting parts. Rasputin, for all his mysteries, might have had the last good idea for Russia’s future: don’t go to war, it will be the end. Instead, Nicholas ignored the dissenting fool and plunged Russia into the sea of tears immeasurable Rasputin predicted.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.