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The Influence of the Great War on the Collapse of the Tsarist System

A paper I wrote for my Soviet history course working towards my BA.
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  20 th  Century Russia February 8, 2011 Jeff Tabor The Influence of the Great War on the Collapse of the Tsarist System Introduction The people of Tsarist Russia suffered egregiously during World War I. Trapped into defending Serbia from Austria- Hungary, Russia’s predicament seemingly went from bad to worse over the course of 1914 to 1917. Despite having vast natural resources and a tremendous  population, the Russian Bear ended up bowing to the pressure of the bellicose Teutons to the West. During the course of the war one glaring fact fueled discontent and ultimately violent revolution: The government of Tsar Nicholas II had utterly failed to provide for the safety and security of the people. Like a tall pine that appears sound in a calm wind, the storm of war  proved the regime was rotten to the core and toppled it. A Comedy of Errors Despite having a treaty to come to the aid of Serbia in time of attack, the Tsar’s government acted with extreme apathy shortly after the assassinatio n of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. A Serb had fired the fateful bullet, and seemingly without a care in the world, the Tsar’s diplomats went on holiday. 1  When they had returned all proved far from well. Austria issued a terse ultimatum while Serbia refused to back down. About this time the Russian government began to entertain the notion that perhaps a war might start. 1 Michael W. Curran and David MacKenzie.  AHistory of Russia, the Soviet Union, and Beyond, 6 th  Edition. (   Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002), 399.  Thus the Tsar ordered a partial mobilization, so as not to upset the Austrians too much.  Never mind that Austria had begun to shell Serbia already. His military advised him that they couldn’t implement a partial mobilization as they had never planned for one before. Amazingly, that particular contingency had never crossed their minds. Consequently full mobilization was finally ordered after a waste of precious time. 2  This would prove only the beginning of a long  parade of military incompetency. In Unity there is Weakness Despite having treaties recognizing the threat of the Germans and Austrians in Europe, Russia’s military had never developed a grand strategy that would have allowed a smooth transition from peace to war. Not only that, but Russia’s erstwhile allies pressured that no member of the Entente could negotiate a separate peace in time of war. This supranational concession would later prove costly. At first the Russian people dropped their domestic squabbles and united in order to defeat the Germanic oppressors of the Serbs . This unfortunately did not last long. A split in the army’s officer corps between the professional and aristocratic elements would prove particularly  poisonous to success. 3  Another short sighted practice damaged military effectiveness: The  promotion of officers based on time in grade rather than talent. 4  This policy kept company officers who had ability from promoting. This kept them in the field and ran them through the meat grinder of combat often with tragic loss. 5  The damage caused by the rivalries among Russia’s generals became highlighted by the disastrous defeat of two Russian armies at the hands 2  Ibid, 400. 3  Ibid, 401. 4  Ibid,402. 5  Ibid.  of the Germans near Tannenburg. Poor maps and inadequate intelligence also wreaked havoc on the Russian’s efforts. Three hundred thousand of the Tsar’s troops were killed or captured due to this gross incompetence. 6  These defeats broke down cooperation between officers and enlisted  breeding mistrust and ultimately miring down the tempo of combat operations. Another grave  problem faced the Russian army. Conscription had almost tripled the enlisted ranks to around six and a half million. However, there was no corresponding increase in the number of officers leading these men. This oversight would prove extremely damaging in the time to come. 7   Poor Economic Planning Russia’s industrial base proved equally unprepared, as it had not modernized for efficient  production of war materiel. 8  Consequently, rank and file troops were poorly supplied. Bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of cohesive long range planning caused the war effort tremendous difficulties. The factories lagged terribly in the production of the essentials of warfare: rifles and ammunition. 9  To combat drunkenness the government initiated an ill timed program of prohibition of alcohol. Peasants distilled their own and the state predictably lost vast amounts of tax revenue. 10   Estimates are that the Tsar’s coffers lost twenty five percent of its potential intake. The low grain prices also promoted hoarding by speculators. The economy’s weakest link was transportation. Russia’s railroads proved completely inadequate for the demands of modern war. No spare parts were available for maintenance so 6  Ibid. 7  Ibid. 8  Ibid, 401. 9  Ibid, 402. 10  Ibid,405.  much was in disrepair. Consequently Northern provinces were not receiving shipments of food due to both hoarding and lack of transportation, 11  and the front was receiving only half of the grain it needed. 12  Shortages of food and ammunition led to poor troop morale and consequently many desertions. By 1915, Russia bore the brunt of the onslaught of the Central Powers. 13   Suffering Civilians In the face of German advances, the Tsar’s government enacted a foolish scorched earth  policy. While ostensibly meant to slow the Germans, it actually created tremendous hardship for the civilians caught in its path. 14   Clearly the Tsar’s inefficient bureaucracy, his ministers in charge of infrastructure and finance lacked anything resembling competence. The autocracy  proved as much of a threat to Russian noncombatants as the enemy. 15  Constant shortages and hardship were taking their toll. The People Step In  Duma deputies,  zemstva and other civic and industrial leaders took on an unofficial role to improve the production of military equipment and ammunition. 16  By 1915, the Duma was exerting considerable control over the governing of the nation. By 1916 Duma members accused the Tsarina of conspiring with Germany. 17  Thus there was a clear sense by many that Russia could be governed far better by the people than by the Romanovs. In the time leading up to 1917 the various political groups in the country began to organize, including the Bolsheviks. Lenin 11  Ibid. 12  Ibid, 403. 13  Ibid, 402. 14  Ibid. 15 Ibid, 403. 16  Ibid. 17 Ibid, 407.
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