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

Monday, June 21, 2021

Prelude to Revolution: The Russian Army and the Tsar

Loyal Soldiers of the Tsar

By General Anton Denikin

In August, 1915, the Emperor, influenced by the entourage of the Empress and of Rasputin, decided to take the Supreme Command of the Army. Eight Cabinet Ministers and some politicians warned the Emperor against this dangerous step, but their pleadings were of no avail. The official motives they adduced were, on the one hand, the difficulty of combining the tasks of governing the country and commanding the Army, and, on the other, the risk of assuming responsibility for the Army at a time when it was suffering reverses and retreating. The real motive, however, was the fear lest the difficult position of the Army be further imperilled by the lack of knowledge and experience of the new Supreme C.-in-C., and that the German-Rasputin clique that surrounded him, having already brought about the paralysis of the Government and its conflict with the Duma, would bring about the collapse of the Army.

There was a rumour, which was afterwards confirmed, that the Emperor came to this decision partly because he feared the entourage of the Empress, and partly because of the popularity of the Grand Duke Nicholas, which was growing in spite of the reverses suffered by the Army.

On August 23rd, an order was issued to the Army and Navy. To the official text, the Emperor added a note in his own hand, a facsimile of which is reproduced overleaf:

This decision, in spite of its intrinsic importance, produced no strong impression upon the Army. The High Commanding Officers and the lower grades of Commissioned Officers were well aware that the Emperor’s personal part in the Supreme Command would be purely nominal, and the question in everyone’s mind was:

“Who will be the Chief of Staff?”

The appointment of General Alexeiev appeased the anxiety of the officers. The rank and file cared but little for the technical side of the Command. To them, the Czar had always been the ] Supreme Leader of the Army. One thing, however, somewhat perturbed them: the belief had gained ground among the people years before that the Emperor was unlucky.

Note added by the Emperor to Army and Navy order

With firm faith in the grace of God, and with unshaken assurance of final victory, let us fulfil our sacred duty of defending Russia till the end, and let us not bring shame to the Russian land.


The New Commander-in-Chief


In reality, it was General M. V. Alexeiev who took command of the armed forces of Russia. In the history of the Russian war and the Russian turmoil, General Alexeiev holds so prominent a place that his importance cannot be gauged in a few lines. A special historical study would be necessary in order to describe the career of a man whose military and political activities, which some have severely criticised and others extolled, never caused anyone to doubt that (in the words of an Army Order to the Volunteer Army) “his path of martyrdom was lighted by crystalline honesty and by a fervent love for his Mother Country—whether great or downtrodden.”

Alexeiev sometimes did not display sufficient firmness in enforc[Pg 35]ing his demands, but, in respect of the independence of the “Stavka” (G.H.Q.) from outside influences, he showed civic courage which the High Officials of the old régime, who clung to their offices, completely lacked.

One day, after an official dinner at Mohilev, the Empress took Alexeiev’s arm, and went for a walk in the garden with him. She mentioned Rasputin. In terms of deep emotion she tried to persuade the General that he was wrong in his attitude towards Rasputin, that “the old man is a wonderful saint,” that he was much calumniated, that he was deeply devoted to the Imperial family, and, last but not least, that his visit would bring luck to the “Stavka.”

Alexeiev answered dryly that, so far as he was concerned, the question had long since been settled. Should Rasputin appear at G.H.Q., he would immediately resign his post.

“Is this your last word?”

“Yes, certainly.”

The Empress cut the conversation short, and left without saying good-bye to the General, who afterwards admitted that the incident had an ill-effect upon the Emperor’s attitude towards him. Contrary to the established opinion, the relations between the Emperor and Alexeiev, outwardly perfect, were by no means intimate or friendly, or even particularly confidential. The Emperor loved no one except his son. Therein lies the tragedy of his life as a man and as a ruler.


Several times General Alexeiev, depressed by the growth of popular discontent with the regime and the Crown, endeavored to exceed the limits of a military report and to represent to the Emperor the state of affairs in its true light. He referred to Rasputin and to the question of a responsible Ministry. He invariably met with the impenetrable glance, so well-known to many, and the dry retort:

“I know.”

Not another word.

In matters of Army administration, the Emperor fully trusted Alexeiev, and listened attentively to the General’s long, and perhaps even too elaborate, reports. Attentively and patiently he listened, but these matters did not seem to appeal to him. There were differences of opinion in regard to minor matters, appointments to G.H.Q., new posts, etc.

No doubt was left in my mind as to the Emperor’s complete indifference in matters of high strategy after I read an important record—that of the deliberations of a Military Council held at G.H.Q. at the end of 1916, under the chairmanship of the Emperor. All the Commanders-in-Chief and the high officials of G.H.Q. were present, and the plans of the 1917 campaign and of a general advance were discussed.

Every word uttered at the conference was placed on record. One could not fail to be impressed by the dominating and guiding part played by General Gourko—Chief of the General Staff pro tem.—by the somewhat selfish designs of various Commanders-in-Chief, who were trying to adapt strategical axioms to the special interests of their fronts, and finally by the total indifference of the Supreme C.-in-C.

Relations similar to those just described continued between the Emperor and the Chief of Staff when General Gourko took charge of that office while Alexeiev, who had fallen seriously ill in the autumn of 1916, was undergoing a cure at Sevastopol, without, however, losing touch with G.H.Q., with which he communicated by direct wire.

Meanwhile, the struggle between the progressive block of the Duma and the Government (General Alexeiev and the majority of the Commanding Officers undoubtedly sympathized with the former) was gradually becoming more and more acute. The record of the sitting of the Duma of November 1st, 1916 (of which the publication was prohibited and an abridged version did not appear in the Press till the beginning of January, 1917), when Shulgin and Miliukov delivered their historical speeches, was circulated everywhere in the Army in the shape of typewritten leaflets. Feeling was already running so high that these leaflets were not concealed, but were read and provoked animated discussions in officers’ messes. A prominent Socialist, an active worker of the Union of Towns, who paid his first visit to the Army in 1916, said to me: “I am amazed at the freedom with which the worthlessness of the Government and the Court scandals are being discussed in regiments and messes in the presence of Commanding officers, at Army Headquarters, etc., and that in our country of arbitrary repression . . . at first it seemed to me that I was dealing with ‘agents provocateurs.’”

The Duma had been in close connection with the Officers’ Corps for a long time. Young officers unofficially partook in the work of the Commission of National Defence during the period of the reorganisation of the Army and revival of the Fleet after the Japanese War. Gutchkov had formed a circle, in which Savitch, Krupensky, Count Bobrinski and representatives of the officers, headed by General Gourko, were included. Apparently, General[Pg 37] Polivanov (who afterwards played such an important part in contributing to the disintegration of the Army, as Chairman of the “Polivanov Commission”) also belonged to the circle. There was no wish to “undermine the foundations,” but merely to push along the heavy, bureaucratic van, to give impetus to the work, and initiative to the offices of the inert Military Administration. According to Gutchkov, the circle worked quite openly, and the War Ministry at first even provided the members with materials. Subsequently, however, General Sukhomlinov’s attitude changed abruptly, the circle came under suspicion, and people began to call it “The Young Turks.”

The Commission of National Defence was, nevertheless, very well informed. General Lukomski, who was Chief of the Mobilisation Section, and later Assistant War Minister, told me that reports to the Commission had to be prepared extremely carefully, and that General Sukhomlinov, trivial and ignorant, produced a pitiful impression on the rare occasions on which he appeared before the Commission, and was subjected to a regular cross-examination.

In the course of his trial, Sukhomlinov himself recounted an episode which illustrates this state of affairs. One day, he arrived at a meeting of the Commission when two important military questions were to be discussed. He was stopped by Rodzianko,[3] who said to him:

“Get away, get away. You are to us as a red rag to a bull. As soon as you come, your requests are turned down.”

After the Galician retreat, the Duma succeeded at last in enforcing the participation of its members in the task of placing on a proper basis all orders for the Army, and the Unions of Zemstvos and Towns were permitted to create the “General Committee for provisioning the Army.”

The hard experience of the war resulted at last in the simple scheme of mobilising the Russian industries. No sooner did this undertaking escape from the deadening atmosphere of military offices than it advanced with giant strides. According to official data, in July, 1915, each Army received 33 parks of artillery instead of the requisite 50, whereas, in September, the figure rose to 78, owing to the fact that private factories had been brought into the scheme. I am in a position to state, not only on the strength of figures, but from personal experience, that, at the end of 1916, our Army, albeit falling short of the high standards of the Allied armies in respect of equipment, had sufficient stores of ammunition[Pg 38] and supplies wherewith to begin an extensive and carefully-planned operation along the entire front. These circumstances were duly appreciated in the Army, and confidence in the Duma and in social organisations was thereby increased. The conditions of internal policy, however, were not improving. In the beginning of 1917, out of the extremely tense atmosphere of political strife, there arose the idea of a new remedy:


Representatives of certain Duma and social circles visited Alexeiev, who was ill at Sevastopol. They told the General quite frankly that a revolution was brewing. They knew what the effect would be in the country, but they could not tell how the front would be impressed, and wanted advice.

Alexeiev strongly insisted that violent changes during the war were inadmissible, that they would constitute a deadly menace to the front, which, according to his pessimistic view, “was already by no means steady,” and pleaded against any irretrievable steps for the sake of preserving the Army. The delegates departed, promising to take the necessary measures in order to avert the contemplated revolution. I do not know upon what information General Alexeiev based his subsequent statement to the effect that the same delegates afterwards visited Generals Brussilov and Ruzsky, and after these generals had expressed an opposite view to his, altered their previous decision; but the preparations for the revolution continued.

It is as yet difficult to elucidate all the details of these negotiations. Those who conducted them are silent; there are no records; the whole matter was shrouded in secrecy, and did not reach the bulk of the army. Certain facts, however, have been ascertained.

Denekin Before the Revolustion

Several people approached the Emperor, and warned him of the impending danger to the country and the dynasty—Alexeiev, Gourko, the Archbishop Shavelski, Purishkevitch (a reactionary member of the Duma), the Grand Dukes Nicholas Mikhailovitch and Alexander Mikhailovitch, and the Dowager Empress. After Rodzianko’s visit to the Army in the autumn of 1916, copies of his letter to the Emperor gained circulation in the Army. In that letter the President of the Duma warned the Emperor of the grave peril to the throne and the dynasty caused by the disastrous activities of the Empress Alexandra in the sphere of internal policy. On November 1st, the Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovitch read a letter to the Emperor, in which he pointed out the impossible manner, known to all classes of society, in which Ministers were appointed, through the medium of the appalling people who surrounded the Empress. The Grand Duke proceeded:

“... If you could succeed in removing this perpetual interference, the renascence of Russia would begin at once, and you would recover the confidence of the vast majority of your subjects which is now lost. When the time is ripe—and it is at hand—you can yourself grant from the throne the desired responsibility (of the Government) to yourself and the legislature. This will come about naturally, easily, without any pressure from without, and not in the same way as with the memorable act of October 17th, 1905 I hesitated for a long time to tell you the truth, but made up my mind when your mother and your sisters persuaded me to do so. You are on the eve of new disturbances, and, if I may say so, new attempts. Believe me, if I so strongly emphasize the necessity for your liberation from the existing fetters, I am doing so not for personal motives, but only in the hope of saving you, your throne, and our beloved country from irretrievable consequences of the gravest nature.”

All these representations were of no avail.

Several members of the right and of the liberal wing of the Duma and of the progressive bloc, members of the Imperial family, and officers, joined the circle. One of the Grand Dukes was to make a last appeal to the Emperor before active measures were undertaken. In the event of failure, the Imperial train was to be stopped by an armed force on its way from G.H.Q. to Petrograd. The Emperor was to be advised to abdicate, and, in the event of his refusal, he was to be removed by force. The rightful heir, the Czarevitch Alexis, was to be proclaimed Emperor, and the Grand Duke Michael, Regent.

At the same time, a large group of the progressive bloc of the Duma, of representatives of Zemstvos and towns—well versed in the activities of the circle—held several meetings, at which the question was discussed of “the part the Duma was to play after the coup d’état.” The new Ministry was then outlined, and of the two suggested candidates for the Premiership, Rodzianko and Prince Lvov, the latter was chosen.

Fate, however, decreed otherwise.

Before the contemplated coup d’état took place, there began, in the words of Albert Thomas, “the brightest, the most festive, the most bloodless Russian Revolution.”

Source: The Russian Turmoil, by Anton Ivanovich Denikin

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating to see Denikin's take on events.
    I do wonder to what extent he saw Alexandra as a Russian mole ("German-Rasputin clique").

    This passage, if true, shows just how far things had decayed for the empire:
    "A prominent Socialist, an active worker of the Union of Towns, who paid his first visit to the Army in 1916, said to me: “I am amazed at the freedom with which the worthlessness of the Government and the Court scandals are being discussed in regiments and messes in the presence of Commanding officers, at Army Headquarters, etc.""