1917 would be a hard year for Russia as it experienced 2 revolutions, in this episode we discuss some of the causes.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 123. A big thank you goes out to Tom and Shane for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon over at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. By supporting the podcast they have helped make all of this possible, thank you. This episode begins our series of episodes on the Russian revolution. Which means we should probably start with a discussion about what these episodes will cover. There will only be 6 episodes on this topic and, to be honest, we will not be taking a super deep dive into the intricacies of Revolutionary politics in Petrograd during 1917. We will cover the high points, and you will get the full story, but I think a truly deep dive into this topic could occupy a lengthy podcast all by itself. We will be keeping our conversations at least somewhat adjacent to the war, which means we will spend a 1/3 of our time discussing the 1917 Summer Offensive and the Russian exit from the war later in the year. We will also be discussing not just the events of 1917 but early 1918 as well. We will be covering the two revolutions of 1917, in March and November, along with the summer Offensive and then the exit of Russia through the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. This will take us to the end of Russia’s World War 1 story, although fighting within the country would continue for quite some time afterwards. This also means that we probably will not be checking in again with the Russians for at least the foreseeable future. But, all of that talk is getting ahead of ourselves. We start today at the beginning of 1917 at which point at least the Russian military leadership was somewhat positive about what they thought they could accomplish in 1917. In reality if the revolutions had not happened there is a good chance that the Russians would have been a highly productive member of their alliance in 1917. They still had a lot of men, a problem that was becoming more and more critical for all of the countries of Europe, and for many would be crippling by the end of the year. They were producing and importing more military goods than they ever had before. However, the grand hopes of the 1917 campaign would never come to fruition, the revolutions would see to that. As I have done so many times, I will start with episode with a quote from G.J. Meyer from A World Undone “Like many of history’s great upheavals, the end of the Romanovs was both a long time coming and shockingly sudden.” So, let’s jump in and talk about what the situation was in Russia in early 1917.
The Russian economy during the war is an interesting topic for discussion. Much like other economies around Europe during the war the root of the problem in the economy was not a decline, but instead a massive, unrestrained, unrelenting, boom. The Russian government had always strictly adhered to a gold standard. The gold standard, in its simplest form, meant that all of the Russian money in circulation could be covered by the Russian government’s gold reserve. This was seen as a safe, but conservative, way to manage an economy but it did have the effect of suppressing the amount of money that the government could spend. However, with the country at war it was time to unleash the government’s pocket books and a spending spree began. By 1917 Russia was spending about 30 million dollars per day on the war, which was more than France and Great Britain at the same point. This was done, first of all, by throwing the gold standard onto the rubbish pile. However the Russian government had to find a way to get more money, and the easiest way to do that was to borrow large amounts of money from the richest country in the world, at least at the time, Great Britain. There would be a lot of debate both inside the Russian government during the war, and for historians after about whether or not Britain and its banks were taking advantage of the Russian situation. They did offer large loans to Russia when finding other outside financing would have been a real challenge. However, those loans came with certain conditions. The first of which was that large stocks of Russian gold had to be brought to London as a kind of collateral, really they were holding it for ransom. Second, almost all of the Russian purchasing had to be done through London, which put a lot of control in the hands of British politicians when it came to what, how much, and when Russia could buy items. This at a time when the British were also trying to buy vast amounts of goods from international markets meant there was a large conflict of interest. The Russians did not really have a choice though since it was the only way for Russia to purchase the resources it needed. The Russian government did attempt to raise more money domestically as well. This came in several different forms. They gathered money from the Russian public through war loan campaigns, much like other countries would do. The greatly altered taxation in the economy as well. Before the war the levels of taxation was quite low in Russia, with a minority of governmental incomes coming from either direct or indirect taxation, only about a 1/5th of total receipts. Most of the money instead came from state run monopolies on goods like spirits, with a lot of that being vodka, it was Russia after all. This would change in 1916 when an income tax was introduced, but even this taxation, and other increased taxes, only put a small dent in the situation. Some estimates put these taxes as paying for only a week of the war in 1917, so 1/52nd of what was needed. All of this money being spent by the Russians, especially that money going into the domestic economy caused a massive boom, and also a large migration. Millions of young people moved into the cities to begin working in war industries instead of staying in the countryside. This was good for the factories, providing more, and relatively cheap labor, that they needed to work the shifts that were required. However this migration also put a greater strain on the urban societies. These were the roots of the problems that would come to a head in 1917.
All of these measures, including the large scale printing of new money, paid off for the Russians in the short term since it allowed them to stay in the war. Of course, the one great truth of modern finance is that if you pump a lot of money into an economy the inevitable result is inflation. By 1917 prices had risen 400%, a trend that would not slow but instead increase during 1917 with prices reaching 10 times their prewar value by the time of the October revolution. Real wages could never hope to keep pace with this rate of change, and the purchasing power of most Russians crashed down to what felt like nothing. It was in these money and inflation problems that one of the key pillars of the revolution was planted. When wages and money are meaningless, and people felt like they had nothing, they began to seek alternatives, something, anything, other than the capitalism which was running the Russian economy and which was also, apparently, letting them down.
This issues really began when people tried to take their wages and turn them into something that everybody needs every day, food. The issues with trying to make this transaction began on the supply end of the food equation, and on that side of the story there were two different types of farmers with two different kinds of problems. On one hand you have the larger land owners. For them the first problem was machinery. Their farms were relatively highly mechanized before the war and they had done this through importing farming machinery. With imports highly curtailed by the war, and what domestic production there was often detailed to other work there was not much go to around. In 1913 over 100 million rubles worth of machinery was purchased, in 1916 that number was just 13 million. This began to cause serious problems on these larger farmed as irreplaceable equipment could no longer be fixed due to lack of parts and it also could not be replaced. This lack of machinery was felt even more as larger and larger numbers of men were drafted into the army. The second problem was fertilizer. Before the war most of the fertilizer used on these larger farms had come from abroad, but now there was neither the shipping nor foreign-exchangeable money to purchase it. The fertilizer that was available domestically had to compete with all of the other demands for rail transport, making it a challenge to get to the right places. These two problems resulted in a reduction in production in some of the most fertile areas of the country. For example the Stavropol region would only be producing about 1/5th of the grain in 1917 as it had in 1913. The other type of farmers in Russia were the peasant class. Unlike the larger landowners the war was remarkably kind to the peasants. Before the war they had not had access to machinery and fertilizer, so they barely noticed that they were gone. Even with the men taken from their ranks for the army they were able to increase the amount of land under tillage by about a 5th. The number of animals that were raised went up even more. The cattle population was up 25%, and other animals like pigs and sheep even more. This all sounds fantastic for everybody, but there was just one small little problem.
The peasantry had a very different interaction with the markets that the larger land owners, this was true both before and during the war. For the peasants the problem was one of access. Except for the areas right around the cities transportation was a big issue and this meant that when a peasant wanted to sell grain it would often have to go through several intermediaries before reaching the end of the line and the consumer. This meant that every time it changed hands a little of the profit was taken off of the top, for that person’s trouble, and by the time that the money got back to the peasant there was little left. It did not even really matter how high prices were on the other end, or how badly the food was needed there, the peasants would always get the short end of the stick. This meant that after the massive inflation the cost of goods was so far above the money that the peasant was making that it seemed a bit pointless to sell much of anything. Why sell what you had worked so hard to create when, due to inflation, you cannot buy anything with the money? The answer became to keep more of the grain for themselves. The first thing was simply to hoard, hide, and keep it but they also used it to feed the animals. This was part of the reason that the number of animals jumped so much during the war. But then these animals, instead of selling, because the money would once again be worthless, they would keep them and breed more. The result of all of this was that instead of about a quarter of the harvest finding its way to market like it was before the war, only about 15% was sold in 1917. The amount of food on the market fell, even when the amount of food needed in the cities went up by a third.
Even with these problems happening in food production their may have been enough food to feed the people in the cities, if the food could have easily gotten to them. Before the war the railway network in all of Russia had been geared to one purpose, getting goods to ports for exports to the international market. And for most of Russia this meant moving it south to the Black Sea where it could then be sent out through the Mediterranean. With the Ottoman entry into the war, and the needs at the front this meant that the Russian railways were not setup in the correct orientation, there also were just simply not enough of them. The incredible increase in traffic during the war years began to quickly cause problems. The rails and cars had not been in the best of states before the war, but after a few years of war time movement they were falling apart. It should be noted that this was not a problem only for Russia during the war, by 1917 French railways and locomotives were also in a wretched state, however in France they never had issues feeding the people in the cities, the Russians did. The lack of ability to transport food was compounded by the problems of moving coal for fuel as well, and I don’t know if you know this, but in Russia the winters get pretty chilly. All of these factors created a situation in the cities where the entire environment was ripe for revolution.
The cities of Russia would be the heart of the revolutions and none more than Petrograd. In December 1916 it had about 1/6th as much food as it needed to have on hand, and in January 1917 it would only get about half of what it needed to replenish the stocks every day. With the deliveries of food and fuel to cities like Petrograd so far under what was required other dominoes began to fall. Factories also began to lay off some workers since there was nothing for them to do due to lack of fuel. The cities felt like they were under siege, being starved out by an enemy, with workers having to come together to try and scape by a living. The traditional barriers between workers, like geography, class, skill levels, experience, even gender began to break down and while the various groups still disagreed on many details they could certainly agree on a few things. Capitalism had failed, and the government that mandated it had failed. The only conclusion was that there had to be another way. With the rise of starvation in the cities, and the subsequent rise in disease and death, I can sympathize with their problems. It is easy to point to obvious targets for why the revolution happened, that it was the Soviets or the Bolsheviks, or that some groups or people somehow masterminded the revolution in a grab for power and influence. However, it is critical to keep in mind as Russia descends into two revolutions and a civil war that it did not begin with actions planned by the Soviets, or from agitation by the Bolsheviks, or by speeches from Lenin. No the revolution started because countless people in Petrograd, and all over Russia for that matter, felt like they had nothing and the current situation gave them no hope of getting more. Their families, their children, were starving to death around them. They looked out into the world and had nothing to lose, and nothing to gain by sticking with the status quo. They wanted change, and it did not even truly matter what that change was. There was no risk in failure, because the only alternative to change was starvation and death.