Prof Rempel lecture: War and Revolution

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War and Revolution

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Russia was a Great Power set into the crosscurrents of European and global power politics. No Russian government, regardless of its ideology or class basis, could have abdicated from that role. Even had it wanted to, it could never have played the part of Sweden, Switzerland, or Belgium, for in eastern Europe the balance of power has never permitted withdrawal into neutrality. Given the political ambitions of Germany and Austria-Hungary, or of Poles, Ukrainians, and other border nationalities within the Empire, the price of passivity in foreign relations was, as events were soon to prove, dissolution, foreign domination, and possible annihilation. Moreover, a power. vacuum in eastern Europe and northern Eurasia was not only murderous for Russia but also highly dangerous for the political stability of the entire world. Under any circumstances, war was an inescapable contingency for the peoples of the Empire and their government.

The comparatively modest objectives of Russian foreign policy on the eve of World War I were voiced mostly in the inner circles of the government and shared by only a small segment of the public. The opposition generally denounced the government's foreign policy. yet whether they admitted it or not, all politically conscious elements among the public paid close attention to the role which their country played in world affairs. In regard to the Balkans, the liberal opposition indeed shared the goals of the foreign ministry, and the Triple Entente uniting England, France, and Russia as a counterweight to German power was a popular cause among the run of educated Russians.

At the center of Russian foreign policy stood, of course, Russia's relationship with Europe. What a tangle of contradictory interests and necessities it was! In the realm of economics and finance, the government had to consider the fact that central Europe--above all, Germany--was its chief market as well as its chief supplier of manufactured goods and commercial and industrial know-how. The Russo-German trade agreement was for that reason a most crucial factor in Russia's economic growth. France and Belgium, on the other hand, furnished the bulk of Russia's foreign capital needed for the same purpose. Russia's economic dependence on both these partners, needless to say, carried over into diplomacy as well.

Here, too, painful contradictions prevailed. Dynastic interest tied Russia to Germany and Austria-Hungary. The monarchs of eastern and central Europe were dimly aware that they had to stand together if they did not want to fall separately. The dictates of the European balance of power, on the other hand, tied Russia ever more firmly to the western democracies, a fact which cheered the revolutionaries but dismayed the conservatives.

In this maze of incompatible necessities the calculations of the balance of power finally prevailed. Russia could not advantageously have stayed out of the coming conflict over the emergence of German hegemony' Any advance of German power meant a threat not only to Russia's Balkan position, but, considering Germany's economic and territorial appetite, to its territorial integrity as well. Russia, therefore, had to take sides, regardless of its economic and dynastic interests.

Yet what frightful apprehensions the coming of war evoked! In February, 1914, P. N. Durnovo, a high-ranking official of unimpeachably conservative views, wrote an alarming memorandum outlining the consequences of armed conflict with Germany. He called attention to the ''embryonic condition'' of Russian industry, to the country's ''far too great dependence on foreign industry'' (mostly German), to its "technical backwardness,'" and its insufficient network of strategic railroads.'' War, Durnovo prophesied, would bring defeat as in 1905, and defeat in turn would bring revolution by the infuriated masses that would sweep all before them.

The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen. Witte also spoke out, warning that Russia was less prepared for the war than in 1904. These realists knew that, however impressive the industrial advance of the previous years had been, it had not in the least remedied the basic discrepancy between Russia's resources and its power status.

Yet one may equally wonder what the consequences would have been if, after the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in July, l9l4, the Tsar had not stood by his moral commitment to the Serbian government which the Hapsburg government, with Germany's full support, now meant to crush. Abandoning a promise of long standing--and one enjoying considerable public approval--would have produced a first-rate diplomatic defeat for Russia and its allies as well. It might very well have escalated the current domestic agitation, already at fever pitch, into another domestic explosion.

It is thus hardly an exaggeration to say that the Imperial government faced a fatal dilemma in late July, 1914. If it chose war, it would inevitably bring about a revolution as a result of the foreseeable defeats. If, on the other hand, it chose peace, the diplomatic defeat might easily provoke revolution immediately. surely, the domestic crisis in Russia at the eve of the fighting was worse than in any other major power in Europe.

The course of the war that broke out on August l, 1914, bore out the foreboding of the realists. No belligerent, to be sure, was ready for the much-prepared clash of arms' The need for adjusting state and society to he exorbitant demands of the front was a grueling test for the body politic of all participants, but particularly so for a deeply divided Russia. Russia also faced an additional handicap, being cut off by the blockade from its allies and from "Europe'' in general.

Thus began, at a time of supreme danger, a period of deepening isolation (and isolationism) which has lasted, in essence, to the present day. The pressure of European power politics remained in its acutest form, but the uncontrolled western cultural influx which for so long had given Russia its sense of direction now ceased. Henceforth Russia became more Russian than it had been for centuries. The withdrawal from .Europe'' had the immediate effect of reducing the country's ability to cope with the current emergency. In the long run, however, it forced the Russian people to solve their crises out of their own fund of ingenuity and temperament. For better or worse, the outbreak of the war ushered in a new phase of Russian history'

It was Russia's misfortune to join battle with the most powerful country of Europe. The German onslaught took a double form, a military and a political one. At the outset armed force stood in the foreground, as the German armies rolled back their adversaries in an almost constant advance. Within a year Russia lost Poland, in another year the Baltic coast up to Riga. By the end of l9l7, the German armies were held in check only by the fact that Germany had to wage war on other fronts as well. The early retreats of the Russian armies also caused a disastrous breakdown of civil administration behind the front, aggravating the mounting internal difficulties.

The second onslaught, which became more effective as the war continued, was aimed at the unity of the Russian Empire and at the home front. From the start the German government tried to fan the varied internal discontent among its enemies in order to weaken them from within. In the case of Russia' the disloyalty of Poles, Finns, Ukrainians, Georgians, Jews, Moslems, and of the extreme socialist revolutionaries furnished particularly tempting opportunities.

The German war aims, as they unfolded with the victorious advance, capitalized on all centrifugal forces in the Russian Empire. The national minorities of the entire western perimeter from the Baltic to the Caucasus were to be torn from Russia and placed under German protection. What was left of Russia was to be pushed far to the east. If in the meanwhile the Russian revolutionaries could be persuaded to undermine their country's ability to fight, all the better.

The Russian defeats, incidentally, were not caused by cowardice or lack of patriotism. At the outset one found magnificent courage and contempt for death among the Russian soldiers. What was lacking were equipment, supplies, transport, medical care--in short, the industrial and scientific sinews of modern war whose insufficiency Witte had long deplored. Equally wanting was all sense of modern efficiency and organization in the army command. So appalling was the mismanagement in the early months of the war that the Minister of War, Sukhomlinov, was removed and eventually tried for high treason.

The military disasters of the first year of war soon produced two major political calamities on the home front. The news of the retreat gave all spurt to public initiative. Zemstvos, town dumas, and other bodies tried to spur the war effort through the mobilization of industry and the reorganization of the medical service. True to tradition, the government frowned on such spontaneity, although it could not entirely stifle it. The public agitation also revived the opposition in the Duma, in which liberals of all shades now combined to form all coalition called the Progressive Bloc. It demanded that, at this moment of danger, the Tsar confide in his subjects and appoint all government enjoying their confidence. Some of the most capable ministers indeed welcomed such cooperation with the Duma. Yet the Imperial couple, the Empress even ,ore than her husband, turned all deaf ear to these pleas. Thus the fragile compromise of 1907, already weakened before the outbreak of the war, was terminated--which proved, alas, that nothing had really changed.

There was no hope even that Nicholas II would exercise his autocratic prerogatives constructively. The plight of his armies persuaded him, on moral grounds, that his place was at the front. In 1915, he therefore mowed to army headquarters, leaving his wife in command at the capital. This was the second political calamity to befall Russia, for the Empress possessed not all shred of political sense. ''Do not laugh at your stupid old wifey,'' so she reported to him from Petrograd, ''but she has on invisible trousers. . . .'' she proved that she wore the pants in the Imperial family by fighting the moderates in the government who advised conciliation with the Duma.

"I assure you," she wrote her husband, ''I am yearning to sew these cowards my own immortal trousers.'' In the end it was Rasputin who, behind the scenes, made and unmade the top officials of the Empire, and all corrupt or inept lot they were, just when the country was asked to strain its efforts to the utmost. It was all telling paradox that the government which claimed the most extensive powers in all of Europe should prove least capable of mobilizing its country for total war. official visitors from England and France were shocked by the contrast between the fierce exertions of their countries and the slackness of the Russian war effort.

By 1916, the English and French had cause to worry about their Russian ally. The hopelessness of the fighting had begun to undermine the morale of the Russian soldiers; revolutionary slogans were circulating again, The dissatisfaction was greatest in the garrison towns, particularly the capital, where it was augmented by the grievances of the civilian population. The war had never been popular with the peasants. The senseless slaughter for which they furnished the cannon fodder turned them increasingly against it. Nor was it all fighting cause for strikers drafted into service as punishment. On the home front, too, the backwardness of Russia was taking its toll. Food and fuel were growing scarce, money was losing its value, wages did not keep pace with the rising cost of living. Transportation and domestic trade were breaking down, and public order as well.

Petrograd, Moscow, and the great industrial centers were among the places that suffered most. The hardships and the staggering inequalities of sacrifice before long eroded the patriotism manifest in the first months of the war. By 1916, the signs clearly pointed to another storm. In the fall, the police prefect of Petrograd reported that ''the hostile feelings have attained power among the masses which is without precedent, even in 1905-1906.''

Yet, contrary to common expectation, the collapse did not come as all result of all mounting revolutionary upsurge. It began almost imperceptibly, at the center of power. By the end of 1916, the imperial couple had become so estranged from the court and from the ruling circle, which for the most part had stayed clear of Rasputin, that all palace coup was freely advocated, even by members of the imperial family, as the only salvation for the monarchy. ''If it is all choice between the Tsar and Russia, I'll take Russia''--this was the opinion also of the generals in the field. The plans for the forcible deposition of the Imperial couple failed, it took more courage than the titled conspirators could muster. Their only victim was Rasputin, who was murdered in late December.

Yet the very idea showed beyond all doubt that Nicholas had wasted every last shred of goodwill which autocracy had ever enjoyed in Russian society. Any casual gust of wind could now smash its hollow pomp.

The portents of these alarms, however, were lost on the Emperor. On January 12, 1917, the British ambassador, sir George Buchanan, deeply perturbed over the turn of events, tried most tactfully to point out to Nicholas the need for public support. ''Your Majesty, if I may be permitted to say so, has but one safe course open to you, namely to break down the barrier that separates you from your people and to regain their confidence.'.

Whereupon Nicholas drew himself up and, looking hard at the embarrassed diplomat, replied, ''Do you mean that I am to regain the confidence of my people or that they are to regain my confidence?'' And this in the age of an aroused and politically awake populace!

Within two months, history pronounced its verdict. on March 7, 1917, the grumblings of women waiting in line before the food stores of Petrograd suddenly flared into all major demonstration. When after two days of ever more rebellious rioting the authorities called on the garrison to defend the regime, the soldiers simply melted away. Late on March 12, the Tsar's orders had ceased to command in Petrograd and within all few days also throughout the Empire. On March 15, sitting in his train at Pskov, the headquarters of the northern armies, he meekly signed his abdication to the emissaries of the Duma group which now claimed power.

Autocratic government as conducted by Nicholas II in the tradition of the Romanovs had been found wanting. It had not given the Russian people the leadership which they needed in either peace or war. But more than autocracy stood condemned, the entire hybrid system, in effect since the 1860's, of autocratic leadership combined with all limited and forever suspect volume of private and non governmental public initiative.

Neither singly nor supported by all halfhearted measure of public spontaneity had autocracy been able to provide the country with the strength and cohesion required at the moment of supreme peril. The future would decide what other system would work, whether spontaneity unhampered as in the western democracies, or all revitalized and ever more totalitarian autocracy.


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Background to Revolution
  1917 Revolutions
  Lenin's Russia
  Stalin's Russia 1927-39   
Stalin: Economics & Terror, 1927-41



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