The fall of Nicholas II is one of the great defining events of history and would have global consequences for the next seventy or more so years. It is often believed that the last Tsar, following an unsuccessful and sometimes bloody reign , was responsible for his own downfall by leading his country into a extended and ineffective war against a more powerful and better-equipped enemy in the form of the central powers Germany and Austria and Hungary.
Nicholas’s unfounded belief that this was a winnable war and his conviction that the majority of Russia stood by his side on the issue would lead his country into a period revolt not seen for a decade or possible ever and culminate in his abdication as Tsar, and the end of the monarchy in 1917.
However, while the end of the monarchy did indeed occur during war time was this merely a coincidence and was an absolute monarch who fought against limitations of his God given power doomed to eventually fall following the growth ever more politicised and organised urban working class or was, following the establishment of a reasonably successful Duma. Russia forging a path towards modern democracy which was upset during a bloody and drawn out war, the reasons for fighting which the majority of the soldiers didn’t understand.
In the years leading up to the First World War, Russia was in a period of transformation. Following an unsuccessful war with Japan , which ‘served to raise the level of political unrest in almost every layer of society and within every political grouping, pushing Russian political dialogue several degrees to the left, the result of which was strikes and demonstrations leading to ‘Bloody Sunday’ and the 1905 revolution, Russia was finally granted an elected assembly and constitution.
However, the Duma initially proved unsuccessful due to clauses which allowed the Tsar to dissolve the Duma as and when he saw fit and to broadcast new laws during the time between elections, and also later due to the prevalence of reactionaries which led to co-operation between the opposition. The Prime Minster, Stolypin , attempted reform seeing the necessity to strengthen Russia following Japan which meant distribution of land to the peasants which he thought would contribute to rebuilding and modernising the economy, the successful could make their living off the land while the rest would populate the factories.
The economy continued to grow but Russia was still far behind the other great powers as inefficient agriculture was a drag on the Russian economy . However Russia had developed a nascent consumer society and, although the workers were not seeing the rewards, profits were increasing leading to increased foreign investment. The problems created by the growth of an urban working class were the formation of unions and grievances regarding the living conditions in these new industrial hotbeds.
This led to the inevitable strikes which were a feature of pre-war Russia. The path to war began in June 1914. Gavrilo Princip a member of a secret Serbian terrorist group, dedicated to independence for the South Slav people from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, called the Black Hand organisation assassinated the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife in Sarajevo. This led to Austria declaring war on Serbia which in turn led to Russia, defender of the Slavs declaring war on Austria.
This effect, continued by balance of power politics and eventually led to war between France, Great Britain and Russia on one side and Germany, Austria, Hungary on the other. The first few months of the war saw a rise in patriotic feeling in Russia although, it must be noted, not amongst the peasant community who had no Slavic consciousness. However, this initial enthusiasm for a great war in defence of the Slavs soon cooled and a pessimism set in following the set backs known as the retreat of 1915 and the widespread shortages of food and military equipment.
Demonstrations in support of war were common but often these were seen to be demonstrations by people coerced by the police, such patriotic demonstrations as there were took place in the evening and night-time hours and were anything but natural The main two shortages during this period which caused the most problems for the government were the food shortages and the shell shortages. The shell shortage was the excuse used by the Russian army for more or less everything negative that happened in 1914-1915 while the divisions between the officers and the men once the patriotic euphoria had died down were ignored as causes for failure.
As Norman Stone says ‘constant talk of shell-shortage, and the blaming of everything upon it, concealed a much more important factor: the increasing crisis of authority in the Russian army. ‘ The shell crisis was however real. A retreat some 250 miles in places back into Russian territory forced by an aggressive enemy and a lack of artillery and men further dampened the spirits of the officers and their troops. The knowledge of this shortage caused Russian producers, most of the military equipment was at this time coming from foreign manufacturers, to demand a share of the production.
In order to achieve this certain organisations were established and lobbied on behalf of the original manufacturer. They were successful and this success was caused by the alliance between the generals and the industrialists in the Duma who were kicking up a considerable stink concerning conditions noted above producing an economic-military-political alliance of respectable Russia that foreshadowed the Provisional Government. However, many producers then failed to deliver after being given sizeable advances and those that did produced munitions which were way overpriced.
This saw a massive increase in profits in industry which caused investment but failed to trickle down to the workers pay packet. The role of women increased during the war years as they filled the posts their men left as they went to war. As events show women were no less shy of protest than their husbands. In October 1915 violent protests, made up mainly of women occurred in the town of Bogorodsk and were broken up by armed Cossack forces who fired into the crowd. However, two years later the public mood had not changed but the response of the soldiers’ had.
The refused to fire on the crowds, which now included many male workers and intellectuals, at the International Women’s’ Day parade in Petrograd thus demonstrating vividly where their hearts lay and it is of no small significance that Nicholas abdicated the next month. The demonstrations here were caused by another shortage foodstuffs and goods. A factor in the demonstrations here is that many of the working classes suspected often correctly that banks and other organisations were speculating on the price of these good causing the prices to rocket.
Their anger was aimed not only at these speculators but also at the government for failing to do anything about the situation. The people wanted rewards for their efforts and sacrifices and so far they were receiving nothing. All the workers could see was the gap between the haves and have-nots deepening. As stated earlier the political regime in Russia had changed with an elected parliament being established which had powers to pass legislation. While the first two Dumas failed, or were made to fail, as they were perceived to be too radical the third lasted its full term and the fourth nearly made the full term.
A balance had been struck between change and stability. The third and fourth Dumas helped to push the economic development of Russia forward. Russia was proceeding along lines of Western industrial development and without a war to put the economies in confusion a peaceful transition from autocratic agricultural society to modern constitutional democracy would have been possible. It was factors such as the war and general political unrest caused by poor management that made revolution probable. The head of state in Russia depended upon the army to enforce his will.
It was the army to whom the Tsar turned in 1905 during Bloody Sunday to suppress the people and it was the army who were used during the domestic wartime riots. However as the army became more politically aware and the war began to go badly, opposition began to form in the ranks. Incidents such as the Russian inability to break through the German lines were put down to German spies operating in the Russian army and when the Tsar took control of the army there were suspicions as to who was running the country, the Tsar, his wife or Rasputin.
When the Tsar abdicated in 1917 and his brother refused to take the throne following mass demonstrations in Petrograd the soldiers at the front were terribly confused and turned against their officers as they perceived that they were holding information back from them. This was worsened by an order coming from Trotsky’s Petrograd Soviet called Order no. 1 which called for a democratisation of the army. Following complaints from the officers at the front about desertions, lynching of unpopular officers and disorder they attempted to amend this by issuing Order no.
2 which held severe penalties for deserters and troublemakers. The causes for the collapse of the monarchy in Russia are numerous and it is difficult to pinpoint just one cause, such as the war, as a reason for the end of monarchy in the empire. However, if one examines society, politics, economy and the military individually rather than taking the whole revolution as one movement from one area there are pointers towards the war interrupting an otherwise natural process of transformation from autocratic dictatorship to constitutional monarchy.
Firstly, in society while there was discontent from the working masses it must be noted that following 1905 until 1910 incidences of strikes were falling to minor levels and following 1910 while unrest did grow this can be seen as growing with the population of these new industrial cities whose workers often looked to the peasant way of doing things to solve their grievances.
In the political sphere things were beginning to settle following the creation of the third Duma which, while it was right wing and reactionary, did push for peasant rights and further democratic power. The economy which was still recovering from Crimea was further damaged by the Japanese conflict but had the ability to recover and develop with foreign investment which would be forthcoming due to Russia’s massive labour force and raw materials.
The army was beginning to take more and more of its officers from the non-noble classes and as a result was beginning to resemble a more western model rather than the noble sanctuary it had been fourty years earlier. The war threw all these progressions into turmoil as an under prepared empire took on a highly professional adversary. It is impossible to know whether given ten more years of peace Russia would have developed into a democracy organically but it is doubtful whether revolution would have come so easily as it did during the hurricane of events of 1917.