The First World War brought about many changes especially in Eastern Europe, with one of the fundamental changes being the collapse of the tsarist rule and its replacement by a Soviet state (Rauch, 1974). Basically, the war had a great impact in the region because it was a process that led to emergence of the independence of some territories of the regions into nations (Rauch, 1974). The First World War started in the year 1914, and countries like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia regarded the war as a conflict between the Germans and Russian imperialists until later when they realized the political significance of the Tsar’s western Allies (Rauch, 1974). In addition, the First World War undoubtedly resulted in enormous changes in Russia which was one of the most powerful unions.
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This paper will largely explore the contribution of the First World War to the subsequent revolution(s) that took place in Russia, analyzing whether the war was the main contributing factor, in addition to other factors that contributes to the revolution(s); and look at the various impacts of the First World War on the population of Russia.
Russian situation before the First World War
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the autocratic Russia was faced with numerous problems but the most pressing ones were socioeconomic. The Russian peasantry had for a long time been ignored, isolated and alienated; however, although the serfs had been emancipated four decades earlier, little effort had been put to change and improve the peasants’ conditions (Thackeray, 2007). At the time, Russia had a population of about 125 million, and from this more than 100 million were peasants scattered allover the Russian countryside. In addition, many of them remained tied to the commune which was “the ancient hidebound stifling institution” that the state had given powers at the time of the liberation with the major intention of maintaining authority over the newly freed serfs (Thackeray, 2007, p. 65).
The commune largely controlled the land that was being given to the liberated serfs while the commune elders made obligatory decisions for the peasants in the commune. The state on its part held the commune accountable for the taxes redemption payments and the recruits for the army, and as a result of these actions the commune elders were made to be careful when it came to innovation or permitting peasants to leave the commune. The government was much concerned about the threat of the communes; however, in attempt to ensure maximum docility, Tsar Alexander III in 1889 created the office of Zemskii nachalnik (land captain) and empowered it with extensive jurisdiction over the activities of the communes (Thackeray, 2007, p. 66).
The peasantry poor
Disparity continued in the society, for example, the peasantry remained a class a part from the mainstream of the educated Russian people, and in a bid to enhance this, the Legal forms and institutions reinforced the gap; however, the peasantry continued to experience starvation as with the case of the 1891-1892 (Thackeray, 2007). Upon liberation, the Russian population had almost doubled in size but due to increasing land values, the amount of acreage held by the peasantry had increased only in small amount. The result was increased demand for food but interestingly, the Russian was still practicing the middle age agricultural methods that were not production efficient. All these problems resulted into “a backward, destitute, segregated Russian peasantry sullenly eyeing neighboring gentry’ estates while trying to stay afloat in a sea of debt and high taxes and despised by the society, the peasants were a ticking time bomb waiting to explode” (Thackeray, 2007, p.67).
The concerns of the elite
Most Russian elite groups were heavily disturbed by the growing political and social volatility that was taking place in Russia and the escalating challenges to their own predominance. Generally, the larger society exhibited disunity but the elites were more concerned with how best they could defend their interests. Indeed, the misfortune of the Russo-Japan War in 1904-05 and the revolutionary unrest from the year 1905 strained the elites so much that they had to device new ways of reacting to the problem (Rendle, 2010, p. 15). They, as away of political survival, became more politicized in their outlook and enhanced an effective mobilization strategy that was aimed at defending their interests within the new political environment. In this case, the profound concern was the military defeats and the unrest that raised questions about the long-term viability of the Tsarism (Rendle, 2010, p. 15).
The year 1905 saw a society of politicized elites which led to organizations and mindsets that became significant in the subsequent years, for example, the government officers frowned on politics. However, the most irritating and upsetting thing to the elites was the trauma of the Russo-Japanese War, which led to considerable changes especially in Siberia and Manchuria which were close to the action. Many people, due to the humiliation of the defeat and subsequent hurt, blamed the government for incompetence where some officers decided to form unions in order to promote various reforms, for instances, the reforms on improving the rights of soldiers to liberal political demands and the opposition of the military personnel to restrain the internal unrest (Rendle, 2010, p. 16).
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Tsar regime and change
As a result of these developments, the Tsar regime accepted the establishment of a new national elected assembly that was to be known as Duma though many believed the regime undertaking these initiatives and changes was reacting too late. The Russian Assembly that was formed in 1901 became politically active, and largely supported the Tsar, with other new monarchist groups being formed such as the Russian Monarchist Party and the Union of Russian Men (Rendle, 2010, p. 16). At the same time, the agrarian turmoil was leading the prominent landowners from the badly affected Volga provinces to organize several congresses which culminated in a national congress in Moscow on 17-20 November 1905. Indeed, the congress outcome was the formation of the All-Russian Union of Landowners that was to help the large noble landowners defend private landownership (Rendle, 2010, p. 15-16).
Generally, the elites adopted and practiced the methods of post-1905 politics of organizations more speedily than new ideologies while any form of popular representation and constitution was viewed suspiciously as little understanding and envisioning of political rights existed; there was also a wide trend to equate reform with revolution and a reluctance to abandon traditional loyalties. In the larger society, autocracy was seen as the only possible way of maintaining the multinational Russian empire, and hence the “Tsar remained the basic object of loyalty and guidance.” (Rendle, 2010, p.17). During this time, Russia was changing and becoming modern but a few elites opposed the need to adapt in principle and in broader view, they were looking at creating a new status quo that would be able to protect their position which they saw to be vital to Russia’s continued stability (Rendle 2010).
Later on, A.I. Guchkov, who was an industrialist, attacked the government for its incompetence specifically due to the failure to address the rising levels of the workers protests. Guchkov maintained that the party had the responsibility of protecting Russia from the growing reactionary tendencies of its own government and this posed more threat than the feared revolutionaries (Rendle 2010). In reaffirming his position, Guchkov stated that “the Duma must only support a government committed to the October Manifesto and to a broad programme of reforms; a progressive government, although not a parliamentary one” (Rendle, 2010, p.17). The position taken by Guchkov largely divided the party, with some supporting him while others holding contrary views to this position. Guchkov was further supported by an industrialist, P. P. Riabushinskii, who even tried to forge an alliance with the socialist parties with an intention of increasing the pressure for the political change.
The 1905 Revolution
The Russian revolution of 1905 appeared inevitable as the Russian society, in the eyes of many people, was divided in two groups that could not be brought together. Basically, one group agitated and supported the maintenance of the autocratic system of government while the other group was championing for the rule by the people. Of interest was the fact that even in both camps there was no assumed unity and the camps were much fragmented, for instance, Tsar Nicholas II who was the leader of the conservative forces leaned and favored the long-standing traditions and insisted that orders were to be obeyed as evidenced by his words “not merely from fear but according to the dictates of one’s conscience….[which are] ordained by God himself” (Ascher, 2004, p.1). Despite the orders, serious conflicts of interest continued to affect his supporters while at the same time, differences continued to be experienced over how to handle the growing popular discontent. The end result was the authorities’ “failure to pursue farsighted and consistent policies” (Ascher, 2004, p.1). The Tsar and his regime was determined to impose his will on the huge empire that had almost 129 million people through instituting an imperial bureaucracy which only served at the sovereign’s pleasure and whose reach extended to the lowest level of local affairs. In the larger state under the Tsar rule the principle of freedom of association was not recognized at all and only few laws had been enacted that intended to regulate public meetings or establishment of private societies (Ascher, 2004, p. 1).
The First World War
The First World War took place between the years 1914-18 with most powerful countries in Europe that were perennial rivals for power demonstrating this in various ways (Kelly, Shuter and Rees, 1998; Howard, 2007). The war had two groups, the “Triple Alliance comprising of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy and the Triple Entente comprising Britain, France and Russia;” indeed, without hesitating the “German ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, declared war on Russia and France” (Kelly, Shuter and Rees, 1998). The war turned to be a devastating one for Russia as the effects were to see Russia through a turbulent period between the years of 1914-1929 (Pahomov, Pahomov and Lupinin, 2008). The authors’ best words describe the impact of the war and the Russian situation when they say that, “When it entered World War I in 1914 along with the other major European powers, it was not only difficult bit inconceivable, to imagine that the result would have a world-wide effect for the rest of the century; put another way, it was impossible to see Stalin and Soviet totalitarianism on the horizon of 1914” (Pahomov, Pahomov and Lupinin, 2008).
The war, in double measures, affected Russia and the losses incurred at the front began to strain the support systems back in Russia. In addition, the Nation started experiencing problems as the domestic economy could not meet the needs even the basic ones such as supplying enough food for the people, with the Tsar Nicholas II government becoming increasingly inept (Pahomov, Pahomov and Lupinin, 2008). The result of this was street demonstrations, protesting, lack of food and many other problems. Indeed, the demonstrations became increasingly popular and were even joined by the troops and police, and in the process, the authorities of the Tsar Nicholas II government became overwhelmed leading to their collapse (Pahomov, Pahomov and Lupinin, 2008; Hill, 2007); moreover, the revolution of 1917 was inevitable as people had envisaged it (Wade, 2005).
The participation of the Russian in the World War I and the inability of the government to be fully committed to the war led to increased discontent among the people over the government which could not provide for its citizen and fund the war. Moreover, the German defeat of Russia was the last thing the Russian people were ready to accept as they blamed the government for its failures.
Impact of the World War I on Russia
The war resulted in many effects to the Russian society: first, many of the people who escaped death were forced to adjust to the practical and emotional consequences of disablement. Indeed, “the scars associated with capture, with ‘shell shock’ or involuntary displacement also took time to heal” (Davies, Harrison and Wheatcroft, 1994, p. 217). Secondly, the war together with the revolution had an effect on peoples’ minds especially those who participated in the war; moreover, their physical health deteriorated leading to overburdening of health services that were already strained. The shortage of food in the wider society became severe, fuel became scarce and the jobs were no more, leading to high rate of unemployment in the society. In addition, class distinctions ceased to have any meaning because all urban dwellers became ‘assimilated into the mass of trading townspeople’ who had to fiercely struggle to obtain food and other basic necessities (Pahomov, Pahomov and Lupinin, 2008, p.217). Further, the involuntary migration of the millions of vulnerable people was high and this led to the spread of infectious diseases, with the refugees and prisoners together with the combatants being the most affected (Pahomov, Pahomov and Lupinin, 2008, p. 217).
During the war, many young and energetic men were absorbed in the army. The resultant of this was the decline of economy since limited production took place, as the rural peasants were largely recruited into the army denying the landowners the required labour to work on their lands. Indeed, the net effect was reduction in yields and production (Pahomov, Pahomov and Lupinin, 2008).
Before the World War I, the Russian society had experienced revolution, which resulted from the growing discontent among the population due to autocratic rule. But of significance was the World War I that exposed the inept and unable leadership of Tsar Nicholas II, with people becoming fed up and tired, more so following the defeat of Russia in the war, thus pushing for change. Moreover, as the systems of government became ineffective a revolution was inevitable.
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