Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Great Retreat of 1915 and the Fall of the Russian Empire

Joshua Sanborn, professor of history at Lafayette College, believes that the decisive blow leading to the collapse of the Russian Empire came with the outbreak of World War I, well before the Bolshevik Revolution. Speaking at a Kennan Institute talk, Sanborn described the effects of war on the multicultural border region in which the fighting was taking place, an area that from the beginning of the war had come under martial law.

Russian Soldiers on the Retreat

Sanborn highlighted 1915 as the key year when Russian society began to come apart. The war displaced millions of people, and this explosion in the number of refugees led to a great deal of chaos, according to Sanborn. In addition, millions of soldiers entered this border region and had to be absorbed by local society. A large-scale program of ethnic cleansing took place in the region, most often targeting Jews, but also affecting ethnic Germans. A growing paranoia over espionage contributed to this ethnic cleansing and led to an increasingly hostile and threatening atmosphere that broke down social relations within society.

Economic disintegration was another key factor in the collapse. Prior to the war, the border regions of the Russian Empire had been economically vibrant, benefiting greatly from international trade. With the arrival of the military in 1914, trade gave way to requisitioning. A change also took place in sexual relations, with an increase in interaction between soldiers and the local population, in addition to a rise in prostitution and rape.

Scorched Earth by Russian Troops in Galicia 

Sanborn said that what really caused the full collapse of society was the Great Retreat in 1915, during which the army instituted a scorched earth policy and soldiers were asked to burn the towns and villages in which they had been living. This transformed what had been a war zone crisis into an empire-wide crisis. 

A low-level civil war developed, as decommissioned veterans and deserters returned home with their weapons and began organizing small bands of marauders. These veterans, according to Sanborn, became important supporters of the Bolsheviks as the anarchic fighting spread from the towns and villages to the major cities in 1917. 

Source: 2003 Talk at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson International Center


  1. Interesting thesis. But probably accurate. Coupled with a logistically system that was already strained scorched earth the traditional Russian tactic that contributed to the failure of Napoleon's Grand Army caused widespread hardship throughout the Empire and laid the foundations for the Bolsheviks

  2. Is the full text of that talk available?

  3. Robert K. Massie describes how vibrant the Russian arts scene and economy were in 1913-1914 in his great biography Nicholas and Alexandra. Even Stolyopin was able to get some needed political reforms before his unfortunate death.