Written by Vladimir Moss



     Russia’s prospects from a military point of view were better in the winter of 1916-17 than a year before. This was the opinion of the British military attaché in Russia, and his estimate was shared by Grand Duke Sergius Mikhailovich, Inspector-General of Artillery at Imperial Headquarters. As he said to his brother, Grand Duke Alexander: “Go back to your work and pray that the revolution will not break out this very year. The Army is in perfect condition; artillery, supplies, engineering, troops – everything is ready for a decisive offensive in the spring of 1917. This time we will defeat the Germans and Austrians; on condition, of course, that the rear will not deprive us of our freedom of action. The Germans can save themselves only if they manage to provoke revolution from behind…”[1]

     “By 1916,” writes David Stevenson, “Russia, exceptionally among the belligerents, was experiencing a regular boom, with rising growth and a bullish stock exchange: coal output was up 30 per cent on 1914, chemicals output doubled, and machinery output trebled. Armaments rode the crest of the wave: new rifle production rose from 132,844 in 1914 to 733,017 in 1915, and 1,301,433 in 1916; 76mm field guns from 354 to 1,349 to 3721 in these years; 122mm heavy guns from 78 to 361 to 637; and shell production (of all types) from 104,900 to 9,567,888 to 30,974,678. During the war Russia produced 20,000 field guns, against 5,625 imported; and by 1917 it was manufacturing all its howitzers and three-quarters of its heavy artillery. Not only was the shell shortage a thing of the past, but by spring 1917 Russia was acquiring an unprecedented superiority in men and matériel.”[2]

     As. F. Vinberg, the colonel of a regiment in Riga, wrote: “Already at the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917 many knew that, insofar as it is possible to calculate the future, our victories in the spring and summer of 1917 were guaranteed. All the deficiencies in the material and technical sphere, which had told so strongly in 1914 and 1915, had been corrected. All our armies had every kind of provisions in abundance. While in the German armies the insufficiency in everything was felt more strongly every day…”[3]

     “The price of this Herculean effort, however, was dislocation of the civilian economy and a crisis in urban food supply. The very achievement that moved the balance in the Allies’ favour by summer 1916 contained the seeds of later catastrophe.”[4]


     Fr. Lev Lebedev cites figures showing that the production for the front equalled production for the non-military economy in 1916, and exceeded it in 1917.[5] This presaged economic collapse in 1918. So if Russia did not defeat Germany in 1917 she was likely to lose the war…

     Nevertheless, from a purely military point of view there were good reasons for thinking that Russia could defeat her enemies in 1917. Thus Dominic Lieven denies that there was “any military reason for Russia to seek a separate peace between August 1914 and March 1917. Too much attention is usually paid to the defeats of Tannenburg in 1914 and Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915. Russia’s military effort in the First World War amounted to much more than this. If on the whole the Russian army proved inferior to the German forces, that was usually true of the French and British as well. Moreover, during the Brusilov offensive in 1916 Russian forces had shown themselves quite capable of routing large German units. Russian armies usually showed themselves superior to Austrian forces of comparable size, and their performance against the Ottomans in 1914-16 was very much superior to that of British forces operating in Gallipoli, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Russian defence industry performed miracles in 1916 and if there were legitimate doubts as to whether this level of production could be fully sustained in 1917, the same was true of the war economies of a number of other belligerents. It is true that Rumania’s defeat necessitated a major redeployment of troops and supplies to the southern front in the weeks before the revolution and that this, together with a particularly severe winter, played havoc with railway movements on the home front. Nevertheless, in military terms there was absolutely no reason to believe that Russia had lost the war in February 1917.

     “Indeed, when one raised one’s eyes from the eastern front and looked at the Allies’ overall position, the probability of Russian victory was very great, so long as the home front could hold. Although the British empire was potentially the most powerful of the Allied states, in 1914-16 France and Russia had carried the overwhelming burden of the war on land. Not until July 1916 on the Somme were British forces committed en masse against the Germans, and even then the British armies, though courageous to a fault, lacked proper training and were commanded by amateur officers and generals who lacked any experience of controlling masses of men. Even so, in the summer of 1916 the combined impact of the Somme, Verdun and the Brusilov offensive had brought the Central Powers within sight of collapse. A similar but better coordinated effort, with British power now peaking, held out excellent prospects for 1917. Still more to the point, by February 1917 the German campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare made American involvement in the war in the immediate future a near certainty: the Allied superiority in resources would thereby become overwhelming.

     “Once stalemate set in on the battlefield in 1914, the First World War became as much as anything a contest over which belligerent’s home front would collapse first. This fate befell Russia in large part because even its upper and middle classes, let alone organized labour, were more hostile to the existing regime and less integrated into the legal political order than was the case even in Italy, let alone in France, Germany or Britain in 1914. In addition, opposition to the regime was less divided along ethnic lines than was the case in Austria-Hungary, and Russia was more geographically isolated from military and economic assistance from its allies than was the case with any of the other major belligerents. Nevertheless, unrest on the domestic front was by no means confined to Russia. The Italian home front seemed on the verge of collapse after the defeat of Caporetto in 1917 and the French army suffered major mutinies that year. In the United Kingdom the attempt to impose conscription in Ireland made that country ungovernable and led quickly to civil war. In both Germany and Austria revolution at home played a vital role in 1918, though in contrast to Russia it is true that revolution followed decisive military defeats and was set off in part by the correct sense that the war was unwinnable.

     “The winter of 1916-17 was decisive not just for the outcome of the First World War but also for the history of twentieth-century Europe. Events on the domestic and military fronts were closely connected. In the winter of 1915-16 in both Germany and Austria pressure on civilian food consumption had been very severe. The winter of 1916-17 proved worse. The conviction of the German military leadership that the Central Powers’ home fronts could not sustain too much further pressure on this scale was an important factor in their decision to launch unrestricted submarine warfare in the winter of 1916-17, thereby (so they hoped) driving Britain out of the war and breaking the Allied blockade. By this supreme piece of miscalculation and folly the German leadership brought the United States into the war at precisely the moment when the overthrow of the imperial regime was preparing Russia to leave it…” [6]

     Russia was not defeated militarily from without, but by revolution from within. And yet the losses sustained by Russia during the war had a significant bearing on the outcome of the revolution. The pre-revolutionary aristocracy of Russia was almost completely wiped out in the first two years.[7] And in the first year almost all the old military cadres, from privates to colonels, - that is, the best and the most loyal to the Tsar – were killed. From 1916, to fill up the losses in the ranks of the junior and middle commanders, the officer schools were forced to take 9/10ths of their entrance from non-noble estates. These new commanders were of much lower quality than their predecessors, who had been taught to die for the Faith and the Fatherland. Especially heavy losses were suffered in the same period by the military chaplains. The older generation of clergy had enjoyed considerable spiritual authority among the soldiers. But they were replaced by less experienced men enjoying less authority.[8]

     The critical factor was the loss of morale among the rank and file. In general, the appeals of the extreme socialists that the workers of different countries should not fight each other had not been successful. Patriotic feelings turned out to be stronger than class loyalties. However, the terrible losses suffered in the war, the evidence of massive corruption and incompetence in arms deliveries, the propaganda against the Tsar and the return of Bolshevik agitators – all these factors began to take their toll.


     Oldenburg writes that in the autumn of 1916 “the spirit of military regulations, the spirit of the old tsarist army was strong, even the shadow of tradition turned out be sufficient to maintain discipline in the eight-million mass of soldiers”.[9]

     However, more recent authorities paint a darker picture. According to Stevenson, “Evidence suggests that many soldiers were convinced by 1915 that they could not beat the Germans, and that by the end of 1916 they were full of despondency and recrimination against the authorities who had sent them into war without the wherewithal to win. The evidence that victory was as remote as ever, despite Brusilov’s initial successes and another million casualties, produced a still uglier mood. Soldiers’ letters revealed a deep anxiety about the deteriorating quality and quantity of their provisions (the daily bread ration was reduced from three pounds to two, and then to one, during the winter), as well as anger about rocketing inflation and scarcities that endangered their loved ones’ welfare. Many wanted to end the war whatever the cost, and over twenty mutinies seem to have occurred in October-December 1916 (the first on this scale in any army during the war), some involving whole regiments, and in each case taking the form of a collective refusal of orders to attack or to prepare to attack.”[10]


     This was not a situation that one man at the summit of power could reverse. Russia was that nation of which the prophet cried: “Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked to anger gthe Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward. Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the goot even to the head there is no soundness in it. But wounds and bruises and putrefying sores. They have not been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointment. Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire, strangers devour your land in your presence” (Isaiah 1.4-7).

    The situation in Russia differed in only one way from that described by the prophet: the head, the tsar, was not sick, but a holy man. However, he could do nothing on his own – and, with the tsarists, he was alone. In any case, real one-man rule had become almost impossible by the early twentieth-century: not only had democratic sentiments spread throughout society in all the Great Powers, and public opinion as expressed in the press was a force that no ruler could ignore: the sheer complexity of ruling a large, increasingly differentiated and rapidly industrializing society inevitably involved a large measure of devolution of power with a corresponding loss of control from the head. Now Tsar Nicholas, as we have seen, was highly educated and intelligent, and probably as capable of coping with the vast complexity of ruling a twentieth-century empire as any man. Nor, contrary to the accepted opinion, did he lack decisiveness or courage. But it is true to say that he found it difficult to impose his will on his subordinates. He was the most tactful and merciful of men, and the least inclined, as the Tsarina noticed, to lay down the law in a masterful fashion. And yet such masterfulness was sometimes necessary, if not sufficient, and especially at this time. For “to the lot of the emperor,” as Baroness Sophia Buksgevden, the Tsarina’s lady-in-waiting, said, “fell a task whose successful execution would have required the appearance on the throne of Napoleon and Peter the Great in one person…”[11]

     But the tsar, to his credit, did not have the ruthlessness of those tyrants.Once the head of the police promised him that there would be no revolution in Russia for a hundred years if he would permit 50,000 executions. The Tsar quickly rejected this proposal… And yet he could manifest firmness, and was by no means as weak-willed as has been claimed. Thus once, in 1906, Admiral F.V. Dubasov asked him to have mercy on a terrorist who had tried to kill him. The Tsar replied: “Field tribunals act independently and independently of me: let them act with all the strictness of the law. With men who have become bestial there is not, and cannot be, any other means of struggle. You know me, I am not malicious: I write to you completely convinced of the rightness of my opinion. It is painful and hard, but right to say this, that ‘to our shame and gall’ [Stolypin’s words] only the execution of a few can prevent a sea of blood and has already prevented it.”[12]

     However, it was not the execution of a few (or even 50,000) revolutionaries that was the question or the solution ten years later, in the autumn of 1916. Only in the factories of St. Petersburg were they well-entrenched with their defeatist programme. The real problem was the legal opposition, the progressive bloc in the Duma, which professed to want the war continued to a successful end, but argued that success could be attained, in effect, only by destroying the Russian autocracy and replacing it by a constitutional monarchy in which the real power remained in their own hands.

     To this end they employed all kinds of dishonourable, lying means. They concealed from the general public the improving situation in the army; they insinuated that the Tsar was ruled by Rasputin, when he was not[13]; that the Tsarina was pro-German and even a German spy, which she was not[14]; that the Tsar’s ministers with German names, such as Prime Minister Stürmer, were Germanophiles, which they were not.

     In the Duma on November 1, 1916, the leader of the Cadet party, Paul Milyukov, holding a German newspaper in his hand and reading the words: “the victory of the court party grouped around the young Tsarina”, uttered his famously seditious evaluation of the regime’s performance: “Is it stupidity – or treason?” insinuating that the authorities wanted a separate peace with Germany. To which the auditorium replied: “Treason”. Major-General V.N. Voeikov, who was with the Tsar at the time, wrote: “The most shocking thing in this most disgusting slander, unheard of in the annals of history, was that it was based on German newspapers…

     “For Germany that was at war with us it was, of course, necessary, on the eve of the possible victory of Russia and the Allies, to exert every effort and employ all means to undermine the might of Russia. 

     “Count P.A. Ignatiev, who was working in our counter-espionage abroad, cites the words of a German diplomat that one of his agents overheard: ‘We are not at all interested to know whether the Russian emperor wants to conclude a separate peace. What is important to us is that they should believe this rumour, which weakens the position of Russia and the Allies.’ And we must give them their due: in the given case both our external and our internal enemies showed no hesitation: one example is the fact that our public figures spread the rumour coming from Duma circles that supposedly on September 15, 1915 Grand Duke Ludwig of Hesse, the brother of the Empress, secretly visited Tsarskoye Selo. To those who objected to this fable they replied: if it was not the Grand Duke, in any case it was a member of his suite; the mysterious visit was attributed to the desire of Germany, with the cooperation of the Empress, to conclude a separate peace with Russia.

     “At that time nobody could explain to me whether the leader of the Cadet party, Milyukov himself, was led by stupidity or treason when he ascended the tribune of the State Duma, holding in his hands a German newspaper, and what relations he had with the Germans…”[15]

     Treason was certainly afoot – but among the liberals, masons and socialists, not the Royal Family. On this basis, it could be argued, the Tsar should have acted against the conspirators at least as firmly in 1916-17 as he had against the revolutionaries in 1905-06. Moreover, this was precisely in what the Tsaritsa argued in private letters to her husband: “Show to all, that you are the Master & your will shall be obeyed – the time of great indulgence & gentleness is over – now comes your reign of will & power, & obedience…” (December 4, 1916). And again: “Be Peter the Great, John [Ivan] the Terrible, Emperor Paul – crush them all under you.” (December 14, 1916). She urged him to prorogue the Duma, remove Trepov and send Lvov, Miliukov, Guchkov and Polivanov to Siberia… But the days were past when the banishment of a few conspirators could have saved the situation. Soon even the generals would rebel against their commander-in-chief, compelling his abdication. At that point there was nothing that the righteous tsar could do except place his beloved country in the hands of the All-Just and All-Merciful God…

[1] Grand Duke Sergius, in Lyubov Millar, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Redding, Ca.: Nikodemos Publication Society, 1993, p. 182.

[2] Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War, London: Penguin, 2005, p. 237.

[3] Vinberg, Krestnij Put’ (The Way of the Cross), Munich, 1920, St. Petersburg, 1997, p. 149.

[4] Stevenson, op. cit., p. 237.

[5] Lebedev, Velikorossia (Great Russia), St. Petersburg, 1999, p. 465.

[6] Lieven, “Russia, Europe and World War I”, in Edward Acton, Vladimir Cherniaev, William Rosenberg (eds.), A Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914-1921, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

[7] Arsène de Goulévitch, Czarism and Revolution, Hawthorne, Ca.: Omni Publications, 1962, p. 191; Sergius Vladimirovich Volkov, “Pervaia mirovaia vojna i russkij ofitserskij korpus”, Nasha Strana, N 2874, August 29, 2009, p. 3.

[8] Lebedev, op. cit., pp. 463- 464.

[9] Oldenburg, Tsarstvovanie Imperatora Nikolaia II, Belgrade, 1939, vol. II, p. 210.

[10] Stevenson, op. cit., p. 218.

[11] Buksgevden, Ventsenosnitsa Muchenitsa (The Crowin-Bearing Martyr), Moscow, 2010, p. 372.

[12] Lebedev, op. cit., p. 430.

[13] In fact, the Tsar as often as not ignored Rasputin’s advice. See S.S. Oldenburg, Tsarstvovanie Imperatora Nikolaia II (The Reign of Emperor Nicholas II), Belgrade, 1939, vol. II, pp. 190-191.

[14] . This slander can be refuted by many excerpts from the Empress’s diary; and the French ambassador, Maurice Paléologue, wrote: “{The Empress’s] education and upbringing, her mental and moral formaton, are completely English;… the basis of her character is completely Russian … She loves Russia with a burning love…” (La Russie des Tsars pendant la Grande Guerre (The Russia of the Tsars during the Great War), vol. V, 1, pp. 249-50.).

[15] Voeikov, So Tsarem i Bez Tsaria (With and Without the Tsar), Moscow, 1995, p. 137. In fact, two months after the February revolution, he revealed that he knew (from whom?) that the revolutionary movement was being financed by the Germans.

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