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

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Why Russia Failed in the Great War: A Russian Interpretation

The First World War, which began 100 years ago, really did decide the fate of the world. However, as ironic as it may sound, the war’s results show that “military history” made only a very minimal contribution to the changes in fate, and sometimes it was only a necessary tragic backdrop to the metamorphoses taking place. Under Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, which was drawn up on the basis of a two-front war, Germany, in joining the war, was to secure victory in two stages. First, in unmanning the Eastern Front, Germany would attack through Belgium to defeat France, after which it would throw all its forces against Russia. In this way, the German command planned to end the war victoriously before autumn by completely defeating the enemy both in the west and east.

Russian Field Cemetery

As we know, for a number of reasons, the Germans were unable to carry through with this plan. The French Army was thrown back to the walls of Paris, although it did escape encirclement and defeat. Subsequent attacks in the east also ended with only tactical success for the Germans. Nevertheless, for France in 1914 and for Russia in 1915 the Germans delivered very sensitive and painful blows on vast territories, including the important industrial areas, where the armies suffered considerable human and material losses.

Militarily, the magnitude of the defeat for France and Russia was quite comparable. The results were quite disparate, however. France continued to fight until 1918 and brought the war to a victorious end. In Russia, however, the unsuccessful campaign of 1915 created a chain of events that eventually led to the collapse of Russian statehood and plunged the country into several years of chaotic and fratricidal war.

Why did the First World War bring such disastrous consequences for Russia in particular? Why wasn’t it able to achieve the same that France did? There is, of course, no single answer to this question, and there cannot be one insofar as events of this magnitude cannot be reduced to one or even several reasons. Therefore, we will name just those which, in our opinion, are the most important.

Often the main cause of the catastrophe is attributed to Russia’s unpreparedness as a country for a war of such magnitude. Entering the war, the country did not have sufficient war reserves, and its military industry was weak and dependent on foreign capital. Furthermore, its railway network definitely did not conform to the requirements of wartime. Funds allotted for defense went largely unspent by the military. All of this backfired less than one year after the outbreak of hostilities. Despite the boasting by War Minister Sukhomlinov before the war that the Russian Army was “prepared to the last button on the last soldier,” the front was without shells already in 1915. By that time chaos was reigning on the country's railways. As a result, the Russian Army was forced to retreat, causing enormous losses.

We should not forget, however, that after the removal of Sukhomlinov the dearth of ammunition was overcome due to the joint efforts of the government and the military and industrial committees. Already by 1916 the army was able to fight without having to economize on ammunition. The primary cause of the disaster that struck the country, therefore, should not be attributed to mistakes made by the military.

If we are going to talk about France, then we should first of all remember that it went to war in pursuit of a clear and specific goal — to take revenge for the defeat at Sedan and to secure the return of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been lost as a result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. This objective was very clear and understandable to every French soldier. And what was the Russian Army fighting for? For Serbia, which most soldiers had never heard of? For the no less abstract “Straits"? As we wrote earlier, in the Russo-Japanese War, the army, which had no clue why it was fighting, was able to last for a year. Russia’s participation lasted three times longer in the First World War, and the war itself demanded a much greater effort.

In addition, the First World War was a war not only of armies but also of people – to win in the exhausting confrontation required the unity of all forces, both in the front and the rear. The French understood this and therefore a national unity government was formed in the first weeks of the war. A similar decision was made in England, where Prime Minister Asquith formed a government that included liberals and conservatives. In Russia, on the contrary, unity could not be achieved. At the beginning of the war, however, all the parties in the Duma expressed their full support for the government and the deputies sent unanimous cries to the tsar: “Lead us, Prince!” After the unsuccessful campaign in 1915, this unity began to crack, and a proposal by several ministers to make several concessions for the sake of cooperation with the progressive opposition bloc was turned back by the tsar. As a result, the country again saw conflict between the government and the Duma opposition. Against the backdrop of military setbacks and economic difficulties, the public’s sympathies were more often inclined to the latter.

Tsar Nicholas in Command at Army Headquarters

As for the government — in order to succeed in the difficult war years it needed competent and popular leaders who could lead the country. Tsar Nicholas himself clearly did not have these qualities (in fact, he had a strong reputation as a failed tsar). Among those who were subordinate such qualities were also lacking. Worse yet, Russia entered the war with the deeply conservative and elderly prime minister Goremykin, who himself said that his appointment reminded him of an “old raccoon coat that has long been placed in the trunk and filled with camphor balls.” He was genuinely perplexed when he was suddenly needed again. Replacing him was Boris Stürme, who even the monarchist Shulgin referred to as a “miserable, paltry man.” The situation with the ministers was no better, and this included the war ministers. For example, the last one, Belaev, was remembered by Korenev, an investigator on the extraordinary commission of inquiry, as “weak...with a fearful gait, all shrunken, confused...jumps at every issue. Grabbed by the arm and whispered, 'Thank you, I would have just as soon resigned and gotten a pension...just to have a pension.’”

However, even the worst of the ministers could not tarnish the authorities more than Rasputin, with whom the tsar was extremely unwilling to part. The extent to which Rasputin influenced the appointment of ministers can be debated forever, as well as whether there was an intimate relationship with the empress, among other things. One thing is certain, though — his closeness to the throne discredited Nicholas even in the eyes of the regime’s most loyal supporters, not to mention in the eyes of the broad masses. As Shulgin remembered, even in the movie theaters they had to ban the showing of the documentary on Nicholas’s visit to the front.

Thus, the natural military and economic difficulties were superimposed on the domestic political crisis, the lack of national unity, the unpopular and incompetent leadership and the lack of a solid understanding among the soldiers as to why they had to climb before enemy machine guns and rot in the trenches while their loved ones suffered deprivations at home. In this situation, a miracle would have been needed to halt the collapse of the state.

Miracles, as we know from history, happen all too rarely.

Evgeny Levin, Mir Foundation, 2013


  1. The leadership was too small, rich and separate from the vast masses of Russia. And the masses were too diverse and brutalized by the Tsar and his forces and poor to care about supporting such a regime. They were looking for something else and listened to the Bolsheviks, who offered a change. It was a time for revolution and the opportunity presented itself as Russia faltered at the front...

  2. The Bolsheviks would have succeeded regardless of the war. The war was just a useful convenience.

    1. More like acceleration. Not sure if Bolseviks or other less extreme party will prevail