“Give us the child for 8 years and it will be a Bolshevik forever.” – Vladimir Lenin
Dedicating my first post to my love for the Russian Revolution is of no surprise to anyone who knows me. I guess you could psychoanalyse this and come to the conclusion that my subconscious is fuelled by chaos and anarchy… sometimes. This essay was written late last year and could do with several tweaks here and there, but nonetheless I hope this stimulates your curiosity for this fascinating and magical era of History.
In the years of 1914-17, the influence of Tsarina Alexandra and Rasputin on Tsarist rule contributed to its declining confidence. They stood as a factor that ran parallel to the economic crises facing Russia such as the inflation and food shortages, exacerbating the state of affairs in the government. But, Russia’s involvement in the First World War held more responsibility – that is, accountability over something – than Tsarina Alexandra and Rasputin. This is because it ultimately led to many other factors that further diminished confidence, such as Nicholas’ absence in Petrograd from late 1915 resulting in the Tsarina’s unpopularity, Russia’s economic woes, and the establishment of the Zemgor and the Progressive Bloc.
Firstly, the influence Tsarina Alexandra and Rasputin had over political affairs gravely tainted the Tsarist rule. From the beginning, the public did not have a positive image of either the Tsarina or Rasputin and this worsened throughout this period. Whilst Alexandra was disliked on account of her withdrawn personality and German origins (this was not beneficial as Russia was at war against Germany), Rasputin’s debauched private life and links with dubious financiers were the subject of relentless rumours that further stained the royal family. This was exacerbated when Nicholas took the disastrous decision to leave Petrograd for the Western Front in September 1915, as this left Alexandra and Rasputin with the ability to exercise greater influence in political affairs. Despite the unclarity of the extent their influence wielded, from the outside, Russians readily believed that the period of the ‘ministerial leapfrog’ in 1916 was a result of their corrupt nepotism. This period saw three different Chief, Interior, and Foreign Ministers, as well as three Ministers of Justice. This chaotic state of affairs was not only a severe detriment to the Tsar’s reputation as he was viewed to have left Russia in the hands of traitors conspiring to bring about a German victory, but also a colossal blow to his autocratic rule and effectively the Tsarist regime. It offered revolutionaries the chance to preach Rasputin as the symbol of the evils of the outdated regime; even conservative Russians who supported the regime in 1905 became increasingly disillusioned. This evidently shows the damaging effect the two individuals had on the certainty of Tsarist rule. But, despite their devastating influence, their role was a short-term factor that only later contributed to the declining confidence. Describing the Tsarina and Rasputin as ‘responsible’ implies that their impact would have been underlying in many, if not, all factors contributing to the loss of confidence in Tsarist rule and because of this, would have been a long-term factor.
It was, indeed, the long-term impact of Russia’s involvement in the First World War that fundamentally initiated the diminishing confidence in Tsarist rule. To the Tsar and the government, the war was a chance to redeem the public’s certainty in the system. The Russian army in 1914 had a formidable outward appearance, with a peacetime strength of 1.4 million men and 3 million trained reservists. However, within, the army was riddled with incompetent generals, a lack of national identity amongst soldiers, low physical conditions and education standards, alongside poor equipment. The battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in late 1914, the 1915 ‘Great Retreat’, and the ‘Brusilov Offensive’ of 1916 were monumental losses for the Russian army that were widely assumed to be a reflection of the government and the Tsar’s mismanagement and ineptitude amongst many – especially the middle-class and the opposition politicians. Due to the war, peasants were angered as not only did they suffer the human cost of war (with 15 million of their men conscripted to the army), but they also resented the requisition of horses carried out by the armies. With their lack of Russian identity, many did not care for the war effort; women, children, and the elderly despised having to carry out laborious work previously done by the men. This was dangerous for Tsarist rule as keeping 80% of the population under their control was becoming more difficult as peasants’ receding confidence led to increasing unrest in the countryside. Also, the panic that arose in political circles over the disaster of the ‘Great Retreat’ of 1915, and the concerns over personal criticism in the event of future defeats was the reason why Nicholas took the decision to leave Petrograd for the Front in the first place. This heightened the unpopularity of the Tsarina and Rasputin after the chaotic period of 1916 was seen as their doing, lowering the confidence of the people in Tsarist rule. Clearly, the Russian war effort was the primary factor responsible for the deteriorating assurance.
Furthermore, the economic catastrophes that intensified the disenchantment of the Tsarist regime was fundamentally a result of the war. The 1915 munitions crisis, where no steps by military planners were taken to stockpile vast quantities of munitions until later on, was said by the middle class and opposition politicians to be symptomatic of the government’s inability to organise Russia’s war effort properly. The huge cost of war prompted the rise of the national budget by an eightfold between 1913-1916, that factored into the rising inflation. The war further imposed huge strains on Russia’s transport system; prioritised military traffic caused transport problems for food supplies to cities. The delayed transport caused cargo to rot, so fewer food supplies were delivered. These food shortages resulted in heightened food prices in towns and cities that further propelled the inflation. The urban working class were hit particularly bad as purchasing power decreased – for example, from 1914-1917, the price of flour increased fivefold. Alongside the raised rent for accommodation and the harsh winters of 1916 and 1917, urban workers increasingly detested the Russian war effort and blamed the Tsar for their economic woes. In 1916, three-quarters of a million working days were lost as a result of strike action in Petrograd alone, where there were calls to end the war and remove the Tsar. Undoubtedly, declining confidence in Tsarist rule due to the economic crises led back to the war. With the political state of affairs involving Alexandra and Rasputin running alongside to this, the chaos for the Tsar and the government was exacerbated.
Finally, the lack of assurance in the government’s failing war effort motivated the establishment of the Progressive Bloc and the Zemgor. The actions of the Zemgor and the War Industries Committee were purely voluntary; leading war relief work that in fact only made a small contribution (around 5%) to the total wartime production, it was their initiative that sharply contrasted the lacklustre performance in the economic sphere of government departments. They provided medical care for wounded soldiers, operated field canteens, manufactured war essentials like uniforms, and assisted refugees escaping battle zones. The addition of the dedication and selflessness of Prince Lvov – the head of the Zemstvo Union – put the official apparatus of the state to shame. As well as this, the Progressive Bloc brought together the opposition in the Duma against the government who were increasingly doubtful of the Tsar’s ability to win the war. The existence of such a body that was formed in order to more effectively press for measures felt to be essential if the war was to be won was a clear indication of the declining belief in Tsarist rule. With the repeated dismissals of the Bloc’s demands by the Tsar and the resignation of many ministers when Nicholas left to the Front in 1915, only ultra-conservative Tsarists were appointed to ministerial positions. The Tsar and government became even less popular; by late 1916, leading figures in the Progressive Bloc like Guchkov were plotting to force Nicholas to abdicate. The lack of confidence in Tsarist rule was prevalent in what the establishment of the Zemgor and Progressive Bloc symbolised.
In balance, Tsarina Alexandra and Rasputin’s influence directly affected the tsar’s authority that was weakened and this attributed some responsibility to the diminishing confidence. Their preconceived image to the Russian people, the gossip, and the ‘ministerial leapfrog’ had a damaging effect on the monarchy; the Tsar’s autocratic rule declined as an establishment of trust within the people lessened. But, in retrospect, Russia’s involvement in the First World War weighs with most responsibility due to its accountability over other contributing factors like the disillusionment of the peasants and urban working class as well as the middle class and opposition politicians, and the economic woes of this period. A more impartial judgement of the declining confidence in Tsarist rule would be that Tsarina Alexandra and Rasputin were a significant contributing factor as opposed to holding absolute responsibility.
Taking the period of 1914-17 out of the question, what do you think was the most significant factor responsible for the declining confidence in Tsarist rule?