Russian History


The Fatal Weakening of Tsarism

The onset of World War I exposed the weakness of Nicholas II's government. A show of national unity had accompanied Russia's entrance into the war, with defense of the Slavic Serbs the main battle cry. In the summer of 1914, the Duma and the zemstva expressed full support for the government's war effort. The initial conscription was well organized and peaceful, and the early phase of Russia's military buildup showed that the empire had learned lessons from the Russo-Japanese War. But military reversals and the government's incompetence soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets. In addition, inept Russian preparations for war and ineffective economic policies hurt the country financially, logistically, and militarily. Inflation became a serious problem. Because of inadequate matériel support for military operations, the War Industries Committee was formed to ensure that necessary supplies reached the front. But army officers quarreled with civilian leaders, seized administrative control of front areas, and refused to cooperate with the committee. The central government distrusted the independent war support activities that were organized by zemstva and cities. The Duma quarreled with the war bureaucracy of the government, and center and center-left deputies eventually formed the Progressive Bloc to create a genuinely constitutional government.

After Russian military reversals in 1915, Nicholas II went to the front to assume nominal leadership of the army, leaving behind his German-born wife, Alexandra, and Rasputin, a member of her entourage, who exercised influence on policy and ministerial appointments. Rasputin was a debauched faith healer who initially impressed Alexandra because he was able to stop the bleeding of the royal couple's hemophiliac son and heir presumptive. Although their true influence has been debated, Alexandra and Rasputin undoubtedly decreased the regime's prestige and credibility.

While the central government was hampered by court intrigue, the strain of the war began to cause popular unrest. In 1916 high food prices and fuel shortages caused strikes in some cities. Workers, who had won the right to representation in sections of the War Industries Committee, used those sections as organs of political opposition. The countryside also was becoming restive. Soldiers were increasingly insubordinate, particularly the newly recruited peasants who faced the prospect of being used as cannon fodder in the inept conduct of the war.

The situation continued to deteriorate. In an attempt to alleviate the morass at the tsar's court, a group of nobles murdered Rasputin in December 1916. But the death of the mysterious "healer" brought little change. Increasing conflict between the tsar and the Duma weakened both parts of the government and increased the impression of incompetence. In early 1917, deteriorating rail transport caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes. Authorities summoned troops to quell the disorders in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been called since 1914, to Russianize the Germanic name). In 1905 troops had fired on demonstrators and saved the monarchy, but in 1917 the troops turned their guns over to the angry crowds. Public support for the tsarist regime simply evaporated in 1917, ending three centuries of Romanov rule.

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Three excellent one-volume surveys of Russian history are Nicholas Riasanovsky's A History of Russia , David MacKenzie and Michael W. Curran's A History of Russia and the Soviet Union , and Robert Auty and Dmitry Obolensky's An Introduction to Russian History . The most useful thorough study of Russia before the nineteenth century is Vasily Kliuchevsky's five-volume collection, The Course of Russian History . Good translations exist, however, only for the third volume, The Seventeenth Century , and part of the fourth volume, Peter the Great . For the 1800-1917 period, two excellent comprehensive works are the second volume of Michael T. Florinsky's Russia: A History and Interpretation and Hugh Seton-Watson's The Russian Empire, 1801-1917 . The roots and nature of Russian autocracy are probed in Richard Pipes's controversial Russia under the Old Regime and Geroid Tanquary Robinson's Rural Russia under the Old Regime , and Franco Venturi describes the development of populist and socialist movements in Russia in Roots of Revolution . Barbara Jelavich's A Century of Russian Foreign Policy 1814-1914 studies the foreign relations of the last century of the autocracy. Jerome Blum treats social history in Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century . Cultural history is discussed in James H. Billington's The Icon and the Axe and in Marc Raeff's Russian Intellectual History . (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)