Russian Empire

Russian Empire, 1914-1917

Administration . Foreign Policy . Domestic Policy . The Economy . Demography . Culture

A.) Russia 1914-1917 : Administration

Czar 1896-1917 : Nicholas II. Prime Ministers : 1911-1914 Vladimir Kokovtsov, 1914-1917 Ivan Goremykin.

B.) Russia 1914-1917 : Foreign Policy; the War

In August 1914 Russia stood by her defensive alliance with Serbia, ordered general mobilization. When Germany in an ultimatum demanded Russia to cancel the general mobilization, Russia did not respond and thus was at war. France stood by her defensive alliance with Russia, and within a matter of hours Europe found itself at war; World War I had begun.
It has been the object of speculation why Russia entered on this path instead of seking a negotiated solution; after all it had been Russia which had initiated the Peace Conferences of Den Haag ("The Hague") 1899-1900 and 1907. Russia may have been aware of the respect the size of her army was given abroad (a mjor concern of Germany's general staff in 1914 was that at the rate Russia's army was growing, in 10 years the German army would no longer be capable of defeating it). The Russians were aware of the dissatisfaction of Slavic peoples living under Austrian rule; they could be turned into a Russian fifth column (Panslavist ideology). The main reason may have been of domestic nature : war with a foreign foe might rally the Russian people behind the government, distract from political strife.

The War . The Russian Empire had a population exceeding that of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary combined. The Russian General Staff therefore believed that an offensive stragegy had to be pursued, a strategy very welcome to Russia's French allies because it would at least partially relieve them from German pressure.
The offensive strategy lead to a number of successes, especially in (Austro-Hungarian) Galicia, the Bukovina, Slovakia, and later in (Ottoman) Eastern Anatolia. In part the success could be explained by a local population sympathetic to the Russians. Yet in the Battle of Tannenberg the Germans had stopped the Russian advance, and over time Russian offensives became less and less effective and more and more costly in terms of casualties. In 1914 alone, Russia lost 3 million men in dead, wounded and P.O.W.s.
When it came to artillery, the Russian army was hopelessly outgunned by the Germans. Worse, they lost many guns early in the war, and for the remainder they lacked artillery shells. They did even not have sufficient rifles to give one to every soldier, telling some they had to pick the rifle of a fallen comrade.
While attacks against the equally badly armed Austrians and Turks made sense, those against German positions were merely suicidal, only pinning the respective German forces down and preventing them being deployed elsewhere. The many Russian offensives - against these odds and with heaviest casualties - were often undertaken because the French and Italian allies asked for them.

B.) War Aims . In the beginning, war aims were badly defined. Old dreams of maritime glory were resumed - control over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, and Russian domination of the Baltic Sea, where East Prussia was to be annexed. Russian domination over the Baltic Sea was the topic of two secret agreements with the Entente Powers in 1915 and 1916.

The German/Austrian Front in 1914 . Germany had assumed that in the event of a two-front-war, 2/3 of it's soldiers had to be deployed on the western front and 1/3rd on the eastern front. However, Russia was well-prepared when the war broke out, occupying part of East Prussia and most of Galicia as well as the Bukovina by the end of the year. The Galician fortress of Przemysl, regarded as impregnable, fell within days.
The swiftness of Russia's advance forced the German OHL (High Command of the Army) to withdraw troops assigned to the offensive against France in the west and deploy them eastward. Here, the German Army, under the command of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, faced a Russian army of 160.000 in the Battle of Tannenberg (Aug. 26th-30th). The German line repulsed wave after wave of Russian attack and was able to encicle the larger part of the Russian army. 50.000 Russians fell, 90.000 were taken prisoner, General Alexander Samsonov, the Russian commander committed suicide. In the Battle of the Masurian Lakes (Sept. 6th-15th), the Russians were again defeated. The front was stabilized.

The Armenian Front in 1914 . Here it was Ottoman forces who initially penetrated into Russian Caucasus territory, occupying Kars and parts of Georgia.

The German/Austrian Front in 1915-1916 . In 1915, the central powers launched an offensive, liberating most of the areas occupied by Russia in 1914 as well as occupying most of Congress Poland, Lithuania proper and Courland. In August 1916 Romania declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Russia took the initiative again by launching the 1st Brussilov Offensive (June-Dec. 1916) which resulted in heavy losses and small gains (Russia, aided by Romania's entry into the war, managed to reoccupy the Bukovina). Things came to a halt in the severe winter months.

The Armenian Front in 1915-1916 . In the course of 1915 the Russian army expelled the Ottoman forces from (Russian) Georgia and pushed into Ottoman territory. Until August 1916 they advanced, occupying vast areas including Erzurum and Van. Then the Ottoman forces again took the offensive.

C.) Russia 1914-1917 : Domestic Policies

The Russian government continued to believe in Autocracy, keen not to permit the Duma, even in its present, engineered, rather conservative composition, or any other political group to participate in the administration of the country. For instance, War Industry Committees, formed by representatives of industry, zemstvo, the cities and workers' organizations with the purpose of improving the supply situation at the front, were forbidden.
At the beginning of the war there was patriotic enthusiasm (in Russia proper; many ethnic minorities, such as the Finns, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians etc. had been alienated by a policy of Russification) in Russia like in other belligerent countries. However, those who voluntarily offered their cooperation often were rebuked, and enthusiasm quickly cooled down.
St. Petersburg was renamed into Petrograd; the earlier spelling sounded too German.

D.) Russia 1914-1917 : the Economy

Russia undertook a number of steps to assure that its population would receive an adequate supply of food and consumer goods, which became increasingly scarce as the industry focussed on war articles and imports decreased because of Russia's isolated location. The production of Vodka was forbidden in order to save potatos.
Well into the war, Food Rationing was introduced and a Price Fixing policy adopted. Ration coupons were of little help, if, as frequently the case, food store shelves were empty. Agricultural production decreased for a number of reasons - many farmhands had been conscripted into the army, even many horses from the villages had been confiscated by the military forces. The fixed prices made it unattractive for farmers to grow grain. Of the potato harvest some was used to clandestinely produce vodka. When large regions in the west were occupied by the enemy, the population was evacuated into Russia's hinterland - and had thus also to be fed, proving an additional burden on the faltering economy.
At the outbreak of the war the government had called for an interruption of labour conflicts until the end of the war. This call was welcomed, but in 1915 the situation, both of morale and supplies, had deteriorated so much that strikes and demonstrations were resumed. It was a demonstration of women demanding bread in February 1917 in Petrograd that started the chain of events which lead to the February Revolution.
The war cost the Russian Empire c.1,700,000 dead, 4,950,000 wounded, 2,500,000 M.i.A. (total losses 9,150,000 out of a population of 158,000,000) and c. 40,000,000,000 roubles (for comparison : Russia's state revenue in 1913 amounted to 3,417,000,000 roubles). The war had been financed by both foreign and domestic credits as well as by printing additional money.

The Battle of Tannenberg, from Spartacus Schoolnet
Russia at War, 1914-1916, from Library of Congress, Country Studies (scroll down)
DOCUMENTS Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : Russians surrendering in the Battle of Tannenberg, 1914
Emily Greene Balch, "Peace Delegates in Scandinavia and Russia," The Survey , 34 (September 4, 1915), pp. 506-08, posted by Women and Social Movements in the United States 1820-1940 at Binghamton
Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : Czar Nicholas II., early in 1917
Sir John Hanbury, Fiary in Russia 1914-1917, from Alexander Palace
Pierre Gilliard, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court, from Alexander Palace
Russian casualties in World War I, from World War I Factbook
Images from AustroDir 2000 : Russian P.O.W.s in Hallein, Austria, between 1915 and 1918
La Grande Guerre 1914-1918 a travers les Revues d'Epoque, posted by
Olivier, in French; click "Les Revues Russes"
REFERENCE Irene Neander, Grundzüge der Russischen Geschichte (an Outline of Russian History), Darmstadt 1970, in German

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on March 24th 2008

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