125: Revolution Russia Pt. 3


With the Tsar now gone, Russia continues its slide into the abyss.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 125. A big thank you goes out to Tom, Kyle, and Cory who have chosen to support this podcast on Patreon where they now get access to special Patreon only episodes, like the one to be released this weekend on the doctrine of the German Army during the war. You can head over to patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar to find out more. Last episode saw the February Revolution sweep through Petrograd and the abdication of the Tsar. This week we are going to look at the fallout. With the overthrow of the Tsar and his government the question very rapidly became what, and who, to replace it with, a question that would find its answer in the Provisional Government. Unfortunately for those who were a part of this government all of the previous problems that had caused so much of a problem for the Tsar did not just disappear when he abdicated but instead just became something for the Provisional Government to deal with. The new government had to decide if they were going to obey or ignore the International Agreements made by the Tsar, the most important of which was the alliance with Britain and France. They also had to find a way to deal with the rise of anti-war sentiments among Russian citizens if they chose to stay in the war. Finally, and most importantly, they had to figure out how to deal with all of the domestic issues that had started the revolution in the first place. All of that will be discussed today before we close out by looking at the reaction from the other countries in the war, both Russia’s allies and enemies.

In early March 1917 it was completely possible for the more radical Socialist groups within Russia to take control of the government. Last time we talked about how they did not want to do that though, and I think I should dive into some more detail since there is going to be so much discussion about the government that followed them in this episode. Two of the largest groups within the revolutionary movement were the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, or SRs for short. Both of these groups played a role in organizing and maintaining the Petrograd Soviet. A key belief of both of these groups, and one that would drive many of their decisions, was a belief that Russia was simply not ready for a full on socialist revolution. They believed that most of the country was simply too backward to be able to sustain such a society. This belief went all the way back to Marx and the French Revolution, both of which were huge influences and inspirations for the Russian Socialists. Marx believed that a society had to go through several stages before reaching a socialist utopia and one of these states was a bourgeois revolution. However, instead of going through this type of revolution in 1917 the Russian proletariat lead the events of February 1917. Both the Mensheviks and SRs believed that this was not the correct moment for such a revolution. They also knew that during the French Revolution there had been many issues with the transition from monarchy to republicanism, and they were concerned that something like the French Reign of Terror could happen in Russia as well. Both of these facts made them hesitant to truly assert control. This would be true in March 1917 and it would still be true in October. Another problem, and this is something that can be very common in these types of upheavals, the socialists had always been the opposition, often very hostile, to the Russian government. Now things had changed, isntead of being a group relegated to the more extreme corners of Russian politics they were now in control. Instead of railing against an unjust government they now found themselves to be the leaders, they had become the man, and now they had to make real decisions and enact real change. This was very different than before, where they could just complain without any real responsibility to do anything, and their inexperience in large scale political leadership began to show. This would never really be something that the Mensheviks or the SRs would solve, but later socialist groups would. Even during the Civil War that would soon be upon them the experience, idealism, and naivete of the socialists would play a key role in why they lost to the more ruthless Bolsheviks.

Even though the Soviet was not willing to take control of the country they were still able to use their position of power to get some of what they wanted. When the provisional government was created it could only gain the support of the Petrograd Soviet under some conditions, there were several of them and some of them were quite big. In his book A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution Orlando Figes would outline them as follows: * An immediate amnesty for all political prisoners * The immediate granting of freedom of speech, press, and assembly * The immediate abolition of all restrictions based on class, religion, or nationality * Immediate preparations for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, elected on the four-tail suffrage to determine the form of government and the constitution of the country * The abolition of all the police bodies and, in their place, the creation of a people’s militia with elected officers responsible to the organs of local self-government * Elections to these organs on the four-ail suffrage * A guarantee that the military units having taken part in the revolution would neither be disarmed nor sent to the front * Recognition of full civil rights for the soldiers off-duty The Provisional government had to agree to those demands if they wanted to have the support of the Soviet and while they did agree to them, they did not exactly feel comfortable about all of them, or the position that they were now in. Their biggest concern was both a perceived and very real lack of mandate from the people for them to be in charge. They had never really been elected or put in the position of power on purpose, they sort of just lucked into it due to the actions of others. The solution to this was very clear, they could call for a very quick election under the new democratic rules, however this was not seen as the best path either. The entire country was in chaos and it was likely that any government elected out of it would also be in similar chaos therefore the Provisional Government believed that it should be very cautious with the whole voting and that they needed very detailed and specific legal preparations before calling for an election. Important questions like who could vote, how they could vote, and what precisely they were voting on all had to be considered. All of these questions were complicated by the displacement and disorganization caused by the war and the turmoil of the revolution. The army certainly could not be ignored, but how they were to be counted and what they would be voting on were open questions. Mixed in with all of these logistical and administrative problems was the belief that the government, at a national level, both should not and could not coerce people into doing things. These types of liberal leanings, no matter how much they may have been rooted in some sense of decency and freedom, were not going to serve the government well over its short lifespan.

One thing that the Provisional Government made clear was their plan to maintain their obligations to their allies. This meant, most importantly, that they were not only going to stay in the war, but they were also going to launch an offensive in 1917. This is important, and it also drove many other decisions by the government over the coming months. Unfortunately it also really hamstrung them when it came to how they could react and deal with the issues on the home front. What Russia really needed to so was leave the war, that would not have solved all of the problems, but it might have provided them some ability to react to them. The leaders of the government would realize this eventually, but far too late. In 1931 Alexander Kerensky, the eventual leader of the Provisional Government, would discuss this situation with the British Lord Beaverbrook in London. At that point the following exchange would take place “Would you have mastered the Bolsheviks if you had made a separate peace” asked Beaverbrook. “Of course” said Kerenky “We should be in Moscow now.” “Then why didn’t you do it” “We were too na├»ve”

With how important the war was to the situation at hand let’s take a moment to look at the opinions on the war of the various groups within Russia. For normal people in the towns and countryside whatever enthusiasm they had for the war was rapidly evaporating. While the economic issues were often different in the countryside when compared to the cities, they were still there. Even after the revolution, which was presented as a patriotic act to increase Russia’s war effort, those in the countryside never really came back on board. In the cities the groups outside of the government, like the socialists and the Soviets, were also trying to figure out where they stood on the war. This was especially important for the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet since they had so much sway over the Provisional Government. Many within the socialist groups in Russia saw the war as just proof the capitalism was borken and that socialism was the only way forward. This did not prevent them from seeing that Russia might not be able to exit the war. This policy was also taken up by the moderate socialist groups and therefore on April 11th the All-Russian Conference of Soviets would vote to continue their support for the war with two very important caveats. First they wanted a revision to Russian war aims, instead of trying to capture new territories, like say Constantinople, Russia would now pursue a goal of ending the war without annexation or indemnities. They also wanted to call on all of the countries, but especially their allies, to join them in this call and to open negotiations as soon as possible. While these actions were occurring the Russians would of course continue to defend themselves against aggression from their enemies. These declarations were sent to the Entente in late April. The British, French, and newly entered United States had no interest in agreeing to these terms. This is somewhat interesting when you consider the constant calls by Woodrow Wilson in the years before 1917 for a Peace without Victory, or a peace without annexations or indemnities. The United States had moved away from this stance for reasons that we will discuss in a few months when discussing the entry of that country into the war. On the German side they also were not at all interested in peace without annexations, at least not yet. With nobody else receptive to the Soveit method of making peace they fell back on their other position of keeping the armies in the field to defend the country. There was still hope that there would be public outcries supporting peace, especially from the socialist parties all over Europe. However in almost every other country the socialist parties had bought into the war just as much as their non-socialist countrymen and the Russians would never really grasp how little of a chance there was for socialist revolutions in other countries in 1917. The only country that would really come close was Germany, and then only late in 1918 when the situation had truly fallen apart. So just to summarize, the normal Russian citizen was continuing to support the war less and less, but the Soviets and the Provisional Government did support it. This points to a serious disconnect between the Provisional Government and the people as a whole. The government seemed to believe that they had far more support, both at home and at the front, than they really had, and disconnects between the government and the people never end well.

The war not in and of itself the biggest problem for the new government, no that award goes to the domestic problems from before the revolution which we discussed in episode 123 and those that would begin creeping in during the spring and summer of 1917. So far we have discussed a lot about the events in Petrograd and the cities during the revolution. This is after all where it started, but now that the Tsar has been overthrown the revolution moved to the countryside where it had some different effects. The key source of friction in the countryside was between the land owners and the peasants. In Russia at this stage there was still a system were peasants worked the land that was owned by either private land owners or government officials. Now that the government had changed, the peasants wanted this arrangement to change, and they saw the revolution as a way to break their traditional subservience to the land owners. Of course the landowners were not a big fan of this. The government took the position of defending the property rights of those landowners, but they ran into problems trying to actually enforce this support. The government tried to delay the land question by stating that they wanted to gather all of the information for each region before making any decisions or reorganizations. In a more stable time this probably would have been the correct move, but the situation in 1917 was anything but stable and the delay in action caused the peasants to take the situation into their own hands. Normally the government could have used the army to defend the landowners, but the soldiers that returned home on leave just made the whole situation worse. When peasant soldiers came home on leave, or when they just deserted and found their way home, they would often be the ones that would lead the other peasants in action against the landowners. In many instances this caused violence, riots, and attempts to either drive off the landowners or just flat out kill them. In the situations where this was successful the peasants often created communes. When this transition was complete the peasants often still did not fully support the government, who had not supported them in their demands for greater freedom. This friction would then put efforts to increase the food supply to cities on shaky ground. In those cities a similar situation was happening in the factories. Once the tsar was overthrown the demands of the factory workers did not just disappear, instead they began to increase. They did not just take a step or two up, no they kept increasing and were quickly spiraling out of control. Eventually the factory owners all banded together to resist, starting a string of strikes, lockouts, layoffs and factory closures with the result being thousands of workers found themselves without work. This then caused the workers to once again band together to protect themselves, eventually leading to the formation of the Red Guards. These tensions, both in the cities and the countryside was setting up a war not at the front but in the rest of Russia.

In the Provisional Government one man would come to take control, and that man was Alexander Kerensky. He was a member of the Soviet, and also a member of the Provisional Government, which was extremely rare. He was also a gifted orator, and his ability to sway his listeners to his side was a key point in his rise to power. Given his position and abilities he quickly rose through the government, with his first stop being as Minister of war. During his stay as Minister of War he would oversee the 1917 summer offensive, and he would also remove several members of high command. Once he became the leader of the government he also led the charge for a lengthy list of reforms to Russian society. Freedom of assembly, press, speech, religion, removal of discriminations based on race and gender were all on his list of accomplishments. However, instead of his leadership and policies bringing everybody closer together they instead began to fall further apart. In the new government there were multiple factions, those on the political right came to be unified under the Kadets. This group pushed for bourgeois interests, property laws, and other conservative policies. On the other end of the spectrum were the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, who were having trouble living up to what their supporters wanted. The workers and the peasants, suffering under the circumstances we have already described quickly became disillusioned with those men that they had put in power. In their mind the socialists in the government were not pushing towards the reforms that they felt were necessary, they just simply were not fixing the big problems. Therefore, slowly at first but accelerating over the summer and autumn those on the far left began to abandon the groups that were in power. They turned instead to their more radical associates, and they called themselves the Bolsheviks.

As news began to spread about the Revolution, Russia’s allies in the war were initially hesitant. It was true that in many political circles the revolution was seen as a positive development. The liberal and socialist groups of the Allied countries saw this as a great step forward, bringing an end to the monarchy and instead putting a democracy in its place. This also played well with the narratives of those countries who were preaching a lot about getting rid of tyrants like the Kaiser. On the official side, there was somewhat more hesitancy. The Provisional Government did help themselves when they were vocal about their support in continuing the war, even if they also were babbling on about that peace without annexation nonsense. There were still concerns on both sides about the state of their Russian allies. This can be seen in actions like the change in flow of supplies from the British to the Russians. At the beginning of the year they had promised to ship 3.4 million tons of supplies to the Russians. However, as the situation deteriorated, and the new government was put in place in Petrograd these shipments occurred less and less frequently. The British would blame a lack of shipping for these delays, however the flow of supplies was mostly dictated by how useful the British analysts thought the Russian military would be in the coming campaign season. This meant delay after delay, even if officially the British government was officially and publicly in full support of the new Russian government. This made it very difficult for the Russians to launch their offensive in the summer, and that offensive was also the only way that the British were ever going to send more supplies, so somehow the Russians had to launch an attack to get supplies they needed to launch the attack, not a great situation. The British did start sending more material, but only right before the October Revolution at which point the British hoped that increasing shipment could help prop up the government, this was of course unsuccessful. How the British and French felt hardly mattered after the summer offensives, and their failures, because it was clear to just about everybody that Russia was no longer an effective ally on the military side of things, the only hope was that they could keep occupying German troops so they could not move them west.

In Germany the response among the socialist parties were mixed. Some, especially the more moderate leadership, saw it as evidence that Russia was weak and divided, which it was, and that maybe peace could be made. Some were concerned that it would rob the socialist groups of Germany of their will to fight, with many of them having spent most of the war pointing at the Tsar as the primary source of evil in the war. Others were hoping that the revolution would spread to Germany as well. It would be the first group, the more moderate, which would have the majority and in the Reichstag they were able to use the situation in Russia as a way to be able to adopt the July Resolution of 1917. This put the Reichstag as officially in favor of a “peace of understanding”, or as the Russians were calling it peace without annexations, or on the American side Peace without Victory. There were efforts by the socialists parties in Germany and Russia to help move this along by getting a meeting together in Stockholm. The hope was that all of the socialist parties of Europe could come together and organize pressure on the governments for peace. However, the Allies were never going to let any of their socialist representatives attend, so the talks were always a non-starter. This movement would show at least one thing, there were large groups of German leaders who even in mid-1917 were willing to discuss peace. Unfortunately for everyone involved these groups were robbed of whatever power they had after the October Revolution and the removal of Russia from the war. This just gave conservative groups too much power in Germany and prevented any more real discussions of peace until later in 1918, far too late to make a difference. All of that is in the future though, and next episode we will look at the biggest event on the Russian front in the Summer of 1917, because once again the Russian Army was going on the attack, maybe, hopefully, sorta, well, they were at least going to try.