Written by Vladimir Moss



     Grand-Duke Nicholas, the commander-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces in August, 1914, responded to news of the German offensive in the West by reversing the entire Russian strategic plan: disregarding the incomplete concentration of his armies, he ordered a full-scale advance into Eastern Prussia. At first he was successful, and the Germans were forced to transfer troops from the Western front at a critical stage, with the result that Paris and France were saved. As the French General Cherfils remarked in La Guerre de la Déliverance, “The spirit in which this offensive was undertaken is something which demands the greatest attention. It was conceived as an intervention, a diversionary operation, to assist and relieve the French Front. A Russian Commander-in-Chief, the Grand Duke behaved more like an ally than a Russian and deliberately sacrificed the interests of his own country to those of France. In these circumstances his strategy can be termed as ‘anti-national’.”[1] 

     Unfortunately, this strategy led to a catastrophic defeat in East Prussia at the Battle of Tannenburg, where 100,000 Russian prisoners were taken and General Samsonov shot himself. By early 1915 the Russians had lost 1.2 million men, dead, wounded or taken prisoner.

     However, the Russians were successful against the Turks in the Caucasus. In May, 1915, after the fall of Van, a Russian/Armenian mini-state was set up. This became the Turks’ excuse and the context for the Armenian genocide. The Turks massacred almost 2 million Armenians, and it was the Tsar who, by attacking the Turks, stood out as the Armenians’ protector and avenger…  

     In the spring of 1915, The Russians, burdened by a catastrophic deficit in shells and rifles, suffered a series of heavy defeats at the hands of the Germans (they did much better against the Austrians), resulting in the loss of Poland and Lithuania. “There was no resisting the German advance that spring. The heavy German guns shelled the Russian trenches with more than a thousand high-explosive shells a minute, ‘churching into gruel’, as one contemporary wrote, the waiting Russians, most of them unarmed, unprotected by helmets. Corps after corps were decimated, entire regiments swept away, or nearly so, by the relentless guns. In the air, the Russian pilots had no machine-guns, and were reduced to trying to ram the enemy at the cost of their own lives and planes. Reinforcements were sent to the ever-receding front, most of them unarmed raw recruits, destined for slaughter. Transport and supply lines reached new levels of inefficiency, and even the telephones failed to work when the exchange stations, located deep in the Polish forests, were demolished by wild boars…”[2] 

     Scapegoats were sought, and a group of ministers in Petrograd forced the Tsar to sack two of his best-trusted ministers, the War Minister Sukhomlinov and the Interior Minister Maklakov. Thus on June 10 the revolutionary P.B. Struve wrote to Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov on the necessity of replacing Sukhomlinov with General Polivanov, a protégé of the industrialist, leader of the Octobrist party and Masonic plotter against the Tsar A.I. Guchkov; three days later, Polivanov was appointed Minister of War. Then, on June 16 Polivanov (who later joined the Bolsheviks) gave a defeatist speech before the Council of Ministers, saying that there could be no talk of victory over the Germans and that “we must earnestly beseech his Majesty to convene a military council with the participation of the Government in the nearest future. Otherwise, it may be too late…” In the conversation that followed, the opinion was expressed that Military Headquarters had seized the rights of the civil authorities and even the Council of Ministers itself. 

     Clearly the truth was the exact opposite: the liberal ministers were trying to take control of the army themselves. They were not to know that the Tsar had already decided to remove the commander-in-chief Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich and assume the post himself. When the decision was announced, on August 23 / September 5, 1915, many opposed it, including Foreign Minister Sazonov and the Dowager Empress. It was felt that if things went badly on the battlefield the Tsar would be blamed as being directly responsible. But “God’s will be done,” wrote the Tsar to the Tsaritsa after arriving at headquarters. “I feel so calm” – like the feeling, he said, “after Holy Communion”.

     Before then, at a meeting in the house of the Moscow merchant Konovalov it was decided to force the government to tender their resignations in favour of a new ministry headed by Rodzyanko or Prince Lvov, with the foreign ministry given to Miliukov the war ministry – to Guchkov, the trade and industry ministry - to Konovalov, and the justice ministry - to Maklakov. And it was decided to champion Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich as commander-in-chief as against the Tsar, in spite of the fact that until then they had been opposed to Nikolasha, hoping to get one of Guchkov’s men in his place!

     On September 6 eight out of the thirteen ministers wrote a collective letter of resignation to the Tsar, which ended with the words: “Being in such conditions, we are losing faith and the possibility of serving you and the Homeland with the consciousness of being of use.” However, Prime Minister I.L. Goremykin and Justice Minister A.S. Khvostov did not sign the letter, thereby foiling the plot. Goremykin demonstrated that he saw though the leftist plot, and showed himself to be a true monarchist, declaring: “I am a man of the old school, for me the command of his Majesty is law. When there is a catastrophe on the front, his Majesty considers it the sacred duty of the Russian Tsar to be with the army and either conquer with them or die. You will not by any arguments dissuade his Majesty from the step he had decided on. No intrigue or any influence has played any role in this decision. It remains for us only to bow before the will of our Tsar and help him… In my conscience his Majesty the Tsar is the Anointed of God, the bearer of supreme power. He personifies Russia. He is 47 years old. It is not since yesterday that he has reigned and disposed of the destinies of the Russian people. When the will of such a person is defined and the path of action determined, his subjects must obey, whatever the consequences. Beyond that, it is the will of God. That is what I think and I will die with that conviction.”

     Meanwhile, between September 5 and 8 a conference was taking place in Zimmerwald in Switzerland. It was attended by socialists from many European countries, including Lenin and Trotsky. It declared that the war was the result of imperialism (it did not matter which of the imperialists was most to blame) and called on delegates to conduct class warfare in their respective countries in order to force governments to end the international war…

     On September 7, taking advantage of the Tsar’s absence at Headquarter, a “progressive bloc” consisting of most of the Duma (including the supposedly monarchist Octobrists) and several members of the State Council, was formed. They demanded “a ministry of trust” and “a government endowed with the country’s trust”. In order to bring the war to a successful conclusion, they said, the authorities had to be brought into line with the demands of “society”, by which they meant themselves. The bloc also put forward several political demands: a broad political amnesty and the return of all political exiles; Polish autonomy; reconciliation with Finland; the removal of repressive measures against the Ukrainians; the removal of restrictions on the Jews[3]; equal rights for the peasants; the reform of zemstvo and city self-administration, etc.

     All these were questions that the Tsar considered “important, state matters, but not vital for the present moment”. Not unreasonably, he wanted all attention to be concentrated for the moment on winning the war.[4] Paradoxically, during the war parliaments in the West European countries had less influence on their governments as all major decisions were taken in small war cabinets. Only in Autocratic Russia did the parliamentarians demand – and get – more and more of a voice.[5] Essentially, it was an attempt to seize power from the autocrat…

     The Tsar responded by ordering Goremykin to suspend the Duma and sacked the ministers who supported the bloc. On September 16 he summoned the Council of Minister to Headquarters and tore up their petition to pieces in front of them. The Duma was duly suspended, and was not reconvened until February 9, 1916.

     The liberals continued their agitation, but gradually the mood in the country turned against them … 

     The Tsar wrote to his wife on September 22: “The behaviour of some of the ministers continues to amaze me! After all that I told them… I thought that they understood me and the fact that I was seriously explaining what I thought. What matter? – so much the worse for them! They were afraid to close the Duma – it was done! I came away here and replaced N, in spite of their advice; the people accepted this move as a natural thing and understood it as we did. The proof – the numbers of telegrams which I receive from all sides, with the most touching expressions. All this shows me clearly one thing: that the ministers, always living in town, know terribly little of what is happening in the country as a whole. Here I can judge correctly the real mood among the various classes of the people: everything must be done to bring the war to a victorious ending, and no doubts are expressed on that score. I was told this officially by all the deputations which I received some days ago, and so it is all over Russia. Petrograd and Moscow constitute the only exceptions – two minute points on the map of the fatherland.”[6]

     “In the autumn,” writes Robert Massie, “the Tsar brought his son, the eleven-year-old Tsarevich, to live with him at Army Headquarters. It was a startling move, not simply because of the boy’s age but also because of his haemophilia. Yet, Nicholas did not make his decision impetuously. His reasons, laboriously weighed for months in advance, were both sentimental and shrewd…

     “It was his hope that the appearance of the Heir at his side, symbolizing the future, would further bolster their drooping spirits. It was a reasonable hope, and, in fact, wherever Alexis appeared he became a center of great excitement…”[7]

     The tsar’s decision to take supreme command of the army turned out to be the right one. Two days after he assumed command, the Germans were defeated at Tarnopol; and within three weeks, the German-Austrian offensive on the Eastern front had been halted. Thanks to organizational changes introduced by the Tsar, the crisis in supplies that had contributed so significantly to the defeats of 1915 was gradually overcome. It is only just to give the Tsar the credit for this. But very few historians do, so strong is the continuing bias against him… However, the leading German commanders recognized the Russian recovery. Thus Hindenburg wrote: “For our GHQ the end of 1915 was no occasion for the triumphal fanfare we had anticipated. The final outcome of the year’s fighting was disappointing. The Russian bear had escaped from the net in which we had hoped to entrap him, bleeding profusely, but far from mortally wounded, and had slipped away after dealing us the most terrible blows.”[8]


    The Russian offensive led by General Brusilov in June, 1916 was launched against the Austrians in Galicia in order to relieve not only the French at Verdun but also the Italians at Venice. It was highly successful. “The consequences of this victorious operation were at once manifest on the other theatres of war. To relieve the Austrians in Galicia the German High Command took over the direction of both armies and placed them under the sole control of Hindenburg. The offensive in Lombardy was at once abandoned and seven Austrian divisions withdrawn to face the Russians. In addition, eighteen German divisions were brought from the West, where the French and British were strongly attacking on the Somme. Further reinforcements of four divisions were drafted from the interior as well as three divisions from Salonica and two Turkish divisions, ill as the latter could be spared. Lastly, Rumania threw in her lot with the Allies...”[9]

     By August, the Russians’ successful offensive in Galicia threatened to take Austria out of the war. Among other consequences, such as taking the pressure off the Italians in the south, it encouraged the Romanians, who had taken a neutral stance until then, to join the Allies. This decision brought the Kaiser close to despair. “The news of Romania’s entry into the war, writes Adam Tooze, “‘fell like a bomb. William II completely lost his head, pronounced the war finally lost and believed we must now ask for peace.’ The Habsburg ambassador in Bucharest, Count Ottokar Czernin, predicted ‘with mathematical certainty the complete defeat of the Central Powers and their allies if the war were continued any longer.’”[10]

     In his Memoirs Hindenburg, who had been brought from the East to take control of the German armies in the West, writes that “the only solution to relieve a desperate state of affairs” was “a policy of defence on all fronts, in the absence of some unforeseen and untoward event”[11] – like a revolution…

     “Few episodes of the Great War,” writes Sir Winston Churchill, “are more impressive than the resuscitation, re-equipment and renewed giant effort of Russia in 1916. It was the last glorious exertion of the Czar and the Russian people for victory before both were to sink into the abyss of ruin and horror. By the summer of 1916 Russia, which eighteen months before had been almost disarmed, which during 1915 had sustained an unbroken series of frightful defeats, had actually managed, by her own efforts and the resources of her allies, to place in the field – organized, armed and equipped – sixty Army Corps in place of the thirty-five with which she had begun the war. The Trans-Siberian railway had been doubled over a distance of 6,000 kilometres, as far east as Lake Baikal. A new railway 1,400 kilometres long, built through the depth of winter at the cost of unnumbered lives, linked Petrograd with the perennially ice-free waters of the Murman coast. And by both these channels munitions from the rising factories of Britain, France and Japan, or procured by British credit from the United States, were pouring into Russia in broadening streams. The domestic production of every form of war material had simultaneously been multiplied many fold.

     “The mighty limbs of the giant were armed, the conceptions of his brain were clear, his heart was still true, but the nerves which could transform resolve and design into action were but partially developed or non-existent [he is referring to the enemy within, the Duma and the anti-monarchists]. This defect, irremediable at the time, fatal in its results, in no way detracts from the merit or the marvel of the Russian achievement, which will forever stand as the supreme monument and memorial of the Empire founded by Peter the Great.”[12] 

     By the autumn of 1916 the Russian armies were clearly increasing in strength – a fact confirmed by several sources. Thus the British military attaché in Russia said that Russia’s prospects from a military point of view were better in the winter of 1916-17 than a year before. This estimate was shared by Grand Duke Sergius Mikhailovich, who was at Imperial Headquarters as Inspector-General of Artillery. 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…”[13]

     As. F. Vinberg, a 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…”[14]

     “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 materiel.”[15]

     “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.”[16] 

     Fr. Lev Lebedev cites figures showing that military production equalled production for the non-military economy in 1916, and exceeded it in 1917.[17] This presaged complete economic collapse in 1918. So if Russia was to win the war, she had to do it now, while the supply situation was still good and the tsar still ruled… 

     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…” [18]


     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.[19] 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.[20]

     The critical factor was not lack of armaments, as in 1915, but a loss of morale among the rank and file. In general, the appeals of the extreme socialists at the Zimmerwald conference 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. S.S. 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”.[21] 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.”[22] 

     This was not a situation that one man, even one at the summit of power, could reverse. For Russia was now 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,” according to Baroness Sophia Buksgevden, the Tsarina’s lady-in-waiting, “fell a task whose successful execution would have required the appearance on the throne of Napoleon and Peter the Great in one person…”[23]

     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.”[24]

     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 was the revolution well-entrenched with its 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. What many of them really hoped for was the defeat of Russia followed by the fall of the monarchy, which would enable them to assume power.

     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[25]; that the Tsarina was pro-German and even a German spy, which she was not[26]; 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…”[27]

     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… 

     “Several days later,” writes I.P. Yakobi, “the former minister of the interior N.A. Maklakov delivered in the State Council a speech that was murderous for the opposition. With figures at his finger-tips, the orator demonstrated that the so renowned ‘social organizations’ who were supposed to have supplied the army instead of the incapable Tsarist Government had in reality done almost nothing for the war. Thus, for example, the military-industrial committee, which was ruled by Guchkov, had hardly been able to provide one-and-a-half percent of all the artillery orders, which had been fulfilled by state factories. ‘The opposition does everything for the war,’ said A.N. Maklakov, ‘but for the war against order; they do everything for victory, but the victory over the Government. Here, in the rear, they are trying to deceive Russia, but we shall not betray her. We have served her, we have believed in her and with this feeling we shall fight and die for her.’

     “Prophetic words! Twenty months later N.A. Maklakov, faithful to his oath and his duty, fell brilliantly to the bullets of the enemy of the Fatherland – the Bolsheviks, while at the same time the ‘heroes of the revolution’ – the Kerenskys, Miliukovs, Guchkovs and Rodziankos – pusillanimously fled from Russia, saving themselves from the fire they had themselves lit.”[28]


     The disintegration of the Russian Army began immediately the Tsar abdicated in March, 1917. The Petrograd Soviet, although not yet formally in power, issued “Soviet Order Number One”, which proclaimed: “The orders of the military commission of the State Duma are to be obeyed only in such instances when they do not contradict the orders and decrees of the Soviet.” In other words, the Provisional Government that officially came into being on March 3, and which was formed from liberal Duma deputies, was to rule only by permission of the real ruler, the Soviet, which had come into being on March 1 and supposedly represented the soldiers and workers. So Soviet power was born in March, not October, 1917. Only for a few months this fact was masked by the “dual power” arrangement with the Provisional Government.

     The immediate effect of Order Number One was to destroy discipline in the army. The English nurse Florence Farmborough wrote in her diary for March 4, 1917: “Manifestoes from the new Government have begun to be distributed widely along the Russian Front. Our Letuchka [flying squad] is well supplied with them; many are addressed to me by the military staff – a courtesy which I greatly appreciate. The main trend of these proclamations directed especially to the fighting men, is FREEDOM. ‘Russia is a free country now,’ the Manifestoes announce. ‘Russia is free and you, Russian soldiers, are free men. If you, before being freed, could fight for your Mother-Country, how much more loyally will you fight now, when, as free men, you will carry on the successful conflict on behalf of your free Country.’ So the great perevorot [revolution] had come! Russia is a free country! The Russians are a free people! Tremendous excitement reigns on all sides; much vociferous enthusiasm, tinged with not a little awe. What will happen now? Newspapers are seized and treasured as though made of gold, read, and re-read. ‘The Dawn of Russian Freedom!’ ‘The Daybreak of the New Epoch!’ rhapsodise the romancer-reporters. A prekaz [order] has been sent to the Front Line soldiers describing the otkaz [dismissal] of the Emperor. We were told that in some sectors the news had been received with noisy gratification; in others, the men have sat silent and confused…”[29]

     The soldiers had to decide: which of the two powers – the Provisional Government or the Soviets – were they to obey? On March 7 a “Text of Oath for Orthodox and Catholics” and signed by Lvov was published and distributed to the army: “I swear by the honour of an officer (soldier, citizen) and promise before God and my own conscience to be faithful and steadfastly loyal to the Russian Government, as to my Fatherland. I swear to serve it to my last blood… I pledge obedience to the Provisional Government, at present proclaimed the Russian government, until the establishment of the System of Government sanctioned by the will of the People, through instrumentality of the Constituent Assembly…”[30]

     In general, the officers were happy to make this oath. And soldiers of all faiths repeated it word for word and then shouted “Hurrah!” But what of those who did not believe in God, or who thought they were now free of all masters – not only of Batyushka Tsar, but also of Batyushka God? 

     The formal head of the Provisional Government was Prince Lvov. But the real leader was the Justice Minister, Alexander Kerensky, a Trudovik lawyer who had wanted to be an actor. As Graham Darby writes, contemporaries saw Kerensky “as the real prime minister from the outset but despite being in both the government and the soviet – thereby embodying the dual power structure – he was in between the two camps, distanced from party politics, a politician of compromise who would fail to reconcile the irreconcilable… For a brief moment Kerensky was the essential man, the peoples’ tribune, a fine orator and a man of charisma. A good actor, he could catch the mood of an audience. He wore semi-military costume and attempted to strike a Napoleonic pose. He enjoyed immense popularity, even adulation, in the early months and a personality cult grew up around him fuelled by his own self-promotion, a range of propaganda (articles, medals, badges, poems) and a receptive audience. Many saw him as a saviour, the true successor to the tsar. There was, however, an inherent contradiction between Russia’s political culture, with its dependency on powerful leaders, and the democratic ideology of the early stages of the revolution, a contradiction embodied in Kerensky, the undemocratic democrat. The adulation went to his head and he came to overestimate his popularity long after it had evaporated. He moved into the Winter Palace, lived in the tsar’s apartments and used the imperial train. He was seemingly powerful but only by virtue of the offices he held and the fickle nature of mass popularity. To sustain the latter he had to fulfil everyone’s expectations, but as Lenin pointed out, he ‘wanted to harmonise the interests of landowners and peasants, workers and bosses, labour and capital’. It was an impossible task…”[31 

     Kerensky decided to visit the troops. On May 13 he came to Podgaytsy, and Sister Florence witnessed his speech: “He spoke for about twenty minutes, but time seemed to stand still. His main theme was freedom; that great, mystical Freedom which had come to Russia. His words were often interrupted by wild applause, and, when he pointed out that the war must, at all costs, continued to a victorious end, they acclaimed him to the echo. ‘You will fight to a victorious end!’ he adjured them. ‘We will!’ the soldiers shouted as one man. ‘You will drive the enemy off Russian soil!’ ‘We will!’ they shouted again with boundless enthusiasm. ‘You, free men of a Free Country; you will fight for Russia, your Mother-Country. You will go into battle with joy in your hearts!’ ‘We are free men,’ they roared. ‘We will follow you into battle. Let us go now! Let us go now!’

     “When he left, they carried him on their shoulders to his car. They kissed him, his uniform, his car, the ground on which he walked. Many of them were on their knees praying; others were weeping. Some of them cheering; others singing patriotic songs. To the accompaniment of this hysterical outburst of patriotic fervor, Kerensky drove away…”[32]

     The soldiers had been promised that the Offensive (originally planned under Tsar Nicholas) would not long be delayed. But time passed, the order did not come, discipline collapsed, desertions began… Then came the Bolshevik agitators who harangued the troops with a new message: surrender! Farmborough describes one such meeting: “It was a most extraordinary meeting! Never, in our wildest dreams did we imagine that we should listen to such an outpouring of treachery. We sat in a group among the trees, surrounded on all sides by soldiers. Some of our hospital Brothers were there and I caught sight of several of our transport drivers.

    “The man who had come to speak to the soldiers had an ordinary face and was dressed in ordinary Russian clothes; dark trousers and a dark shirt, buttoned on the left and worn outside his trousers, with a black belt around the waist. His face was serious and pale, but he smiled and nodded once or twice to one or another of the audience, as though he recognized friends. He spoke for a time about Russia, her vast territory, her wealth and the many overlords who, possessing enormous estates and resources, were revered on account of their riches throughout the western world. Then he described the impoverished peasantry who, unschooled, uncared for and half-starved, were eking out a miserable existence by tilling and cultivating the land belonging to those same overlords. War had burst upon Russia and enemies had invaded her territory, and who were the men who had sacrificed themselves to fight the ruthless invaders and drive them off Russian soil! Not the wealthy overlords, not the despotic land-owners; no! – they were safely installed in their fortress-homes. It was those downtrodden countrymen who had been roped in in their thousands, in their millions, to stem the tide of invasion; when they had been killed, others had been quickly collected and sent to replace them. There had been no end to the slaughter and sacrifice of the Russian peasant. Enemy guns had devoured them daily, hourly; every minute of the day and night, the heavy guns had feasted on them and every minute new recruits were being seized and thrust like fodder into the voracious jaws of the enemy’s cannon. But now a tremendous even had taken place! The Tsar – that arch-potentate, that arch-tyrant – had been dethroned and dismissed. Russia had been pronounced a free country! – the Russian citizens a free people! Freedom had come at last to the downtrodden people of Russia.

     “Our doctors were moving restlessly. They were, as always, in officers’ uniform. I wondered if they were thinking it was high time to leave, but they stayed. Undoubtedly, it was the wisest thing to do. I glanced around. Most of the soldiers were young and raw, inexperienced and impressionable; all of them drawn from far-off corners of what, until recently, had been known as the Russian Empire. What easy prey they would be for seditious guile! New ideas could so readily take hold of their gullible minds and a cunning speaker would soon be aware that he could sway them this way and that with his oratory.

     “The speaker was harping on the theme of freedom. Freedom, he declared, was a possession so great, so precious, one dared not treat it lightly. But war was an enemy of freedom, because it destroyed peace, and without peace there could be no freedom. It was up to the Russian soldier to do all in his power to procure peace. And the best and quickest way to bring about a guaranteed peace was to refuse to fight. War could not be fought if there were no soldiers to fight! War was never a one-sided operation! Then, when peace had at last come to Russia, freedom could be enjoyed. The free men of Free Russia would own their own land. The great tracts of privately-owned territory would be split up and divided fairly among the peasantry. There would be common ownership of all properties and possessions. Once the Russian soldier had established peace in his homeland, he would reap benefits undreamt of. Peace above all else! Down with war!

     “The soldiers were all astir; they were whispering, coughing, muttering. But there all in full accord with the orator; he held them in his hand! Their stolid faces were animated and jubilant. ‘Tovarishchi! You free men of Free Russia! You will demand peace!’ ‘We will!’ they shouted in reply. ‘You will assert your rights as free Russian citizens!’ ‘We will assert our rights,’ they echoed with one voice. ‘You will never allow yourselves to be pushed into the trenches to sacrifice your lives in vain!’ ‘Never!’ they roared in unison…”[33]

     The success of the Bolsheviks’ propaganda against the war deprived the army of the minimum discipline required for any successful offensive. In the event, while General Alexeyev calculated that the losses from the July offensive would be about 6000, they turned out to be 400,000.[34]

     “The key to Russia’s military defeat,” writes Niall Ferguson, “was the huge number of surrenders in that year. Overall, more than half of total Russian casualties were accounted for by men who were taken prisoner.”[35] 

     An offensive that had been designed by Kerensky and the liberals to bolster the state by bringing all classes together on a patriotic wave ended by opening the path to the final destruction of the state. 

     The offensive was crushed, and on September 3 the Germans entered Riga…

     Nobody was more saddened by the Russian rout than the imprisoned Tsar Nicholas, who had abdicated precisely in order to avoid civil strife and thereby guarantee the army’s successful offensive. “In the words of the children’s tutor, Pierre Gilliard, this caused the Emperor ‘great grief’. As always, however, Nicholas’s optimism struggled against bad news. ‘I get a little hope from the fact that in our country people love to exaggerate. I can’t believe that the army at the front has become as bad as they say. It couldn’t have disintegrated in just two months to such a degree.’”[36]

     But it had, and German forces continued to penetrate westwards, threatening Petrograd itself, until the shameful treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March, 1918 brought the fighting on the Russian front to an end. 

June 5/18, 2019.




[1] Arsène de Goulévitch, Czarism and Revolution, Hawthorne, Ca.: Omni Publications, 1962, p. 184.

[2] Carolly Erickson, Alexandra. The Last Tsarina, London: Constable, 2001, pp. 242-243.

[3] In August the Jewish leaders Kamenka, Ginzburg and Varshavsky had met the Interior Minister Shcherbatov and Finance Miniter Bark and said that Russia would lose all credit for the financing of the war on the money exchanges if the Jewish Pale of Settlement was not removed. Only communications minister S.V. Rukhlov protested against this blackmail. And so, writes I.P. Yakobi, “the Russian Imperial Government capitulated before organized Jewry, without a struggle, without resistance, with a certain cowardly haste. And as a result this same Jewry eighteen months later removed the tsarist regime” (Imperator Nikolaj II i Revoliutsia (Emperor Nicholas II and the Revolution), Moscow, 2010, pp. 92-93).

[4] Oldenburg, Tsartstvovanie Imperatora Nikolaia II, Belgrade, 1939, vol. II, p. 177.

[5] Viktor Aksiuchits, “Pervaia Mirovaia – neizbezhnaia ili ne nuzhnaia?” (chast’ 2), Rodina, August 5, 2013.

[6] Tsar Nicholas, in Lieven, Nicholas II, London: Pimlico, 1993, p. 215.

[7] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, London: Indigo, 2000, p. 282.

[8] Hindenburg, in Goulévitch, op. cit., p. 189.

[9] Goulévitch, op. cit., pp. 192-193.

[10] Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, London: Penguin, 2015, p. 47.

[11] Hindenburg, in Goulévitch, op. cit., p. 194.

[12] Churchill, The World Crisis, 1916-1918, vol. 1, pp. 102-103, London, 1929.

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

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

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

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

[17] Lebedev, Velikorossia (Great Russia), St. Petersburg, 1997, p. 465.

[18] 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.

[19] 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.

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

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

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

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

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

[25] In fact, the Tsar as often as not ignored Rasputin’s advice. See Oldenburg, op. cit., pp. 190-191.

[26] . 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 formation, 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.).

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

[28] Yakobi, op. cit., p. 123.

[29] Farmborough, Nurse at the Russian Front. A Diary 1914-1918, London: Blue Club Associates, 1974, p. 260

[30] Farmborough, op. cit., p. 261.

[31] Darby, “Kerensky in Hindsight”, History Today, July, 2017, p. 51.

[32] Farmborough, op. cit., pp. 269-270.

[33] Farmborough, op. cit., pp. 309-311.

[34] Figes, op. cit., p. 408.

[35] Ferguson, The Pity of War, 1914-1918, London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 368. Prisoners of war as a percentage of total casualties in the war were 51.8% for Russia, as opposed to 9.0% for Germany and 6.7% for Britain (op. cit., p. 369).

[36] Lieven, Nicholas II, p. 236.

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