Twentieth century Russia is a modern world depth study offered for GCSE History with all three exam boards, AQA, OCR and Edexcel, so here are some revision notes to help explain that all-important Russian Revolution. It’s a good time to look at the impact of the First World War too, with the centenary being marked this year.
The March Revolution (also known as the February Revolution) in 1917 resulted in the end of the Romanov Dynasty in Russia. But why did this happen? Historians love to have a good debate so ‘how far the impact of the First World War contributed to the revolution’ is often discussed. As you discover more and more about this topic, you might develop your own opinion on too. So, what actually happened to Russia during the war?
The Russian army was not a great one. Although Russia had the largest army out of all of the countries in the war, in proportion to its population it was just half the size of the army of France and Germany. The Russian army was also not well equipped, as 6.5 million troops only had 4.6 million rifles - bit of a problem there! No surprise then, that in 1914-15, the army experienced large defeats and, by 1915, 4 million Russians had been killed, wounded or captured. As you can imagine, the people of Russia were getting very dissatisfied.
So, in 1915, Tsar Nicholas II decided to go to the frontline and become Commander-in-Chief of the army. However, this then meant that the Tsar was directly responsible for the army and consequently, any failures of the Russian military would be associated with his failure as a leader. Not a great move by Nicholas! By 1916, fewer and fewer troops were willing to fight at the front and over half of the soldiers stayed in the urban barracks. Nicholas was losing the support of his troops as well as his people as they gradually blamed him more and more for Russia’s failures.
Difficult Living Conditions
Living conditions in the large cities during the war were awful, especially in Petrograd and Moscow. There was a huge shortage of supplies. Food and fuel were very hard to come by, especially as the railway had virtually collapsed by 1917 - leaving food supplies rotting in stranded carriages.
Moreover, hundreds of factories had closed during the war, leaving thousands of people unemployed. Gold standard was abandoned and more and more notes were put in circulation causing severe inflation! The costs of food and fuel quadrupled (even though there was hardly any available) and savings were virtually wiped out. The urban population was cold, hungry and out of work and people became very angry towards the Russian government.
Alexandra and Rasputin
With the Tsar fighting the war at the front, his wife Alexandra was left in charge, with a monk called Rasputin. They made a mess of the government as they kept changing ministers, replacing good ministers for their own friends. Between August 1915 and February 1917, 36 ministers were changed: not good for the country’s stability! It didn’t help that in a war fighting against the Germans, Nicholas’ wife was herself German. Alexandra and Rasputin were made a mockery of and it ultimately discredited the Tsar’s leadership - the Russian people were becoming less and less willing to support him.
No political reform
As Nicholas II was busy with the war, it was a good opportunity to allow some political reform. The Duma era came as a result of the 1905 Revolution but this was often criticised for being a ‘Rubberstamp democracy’. The Duma was the lower house of the Russian parliament but due to the Fundamental Laws issued in April 1906 it had very limited powers. The Duma therefore called for concessions during the war but the Tsar rejected their appeals, which led to the creation of the Progressive Bloc (made up of two thirds of Duma members) who wished to form a Duma-based government and basically run the country for Nicholas. But Nicholas wanted to keep his autocratic power and rejected these ideas too. Yet, as the Tsar showed himself to be increasingly incapable of running the war and country, the Progressive Bloc became a focal point of resistance - leading the Russian people to take matters into their own hands.
Big events followed. See below to view the timeline. (The dates are according to the old style Julian calendar -13 days behind the rest of Europe)
25th February - General Strike - troops were beginning to side with demonstrators. Policeman is shot by a cossack (soldier).
27th February - Unofficial meeting of the Duma, who taking control of Russia away from the Tasr.
28th February - Tsar Nicholas II attempts to return to Petrograd but is prevented from doing so by his own troops. Now he’d lost the support of the army and the Duma!
2nd March - Provisional Government formed out of Duma Committee. Nicholas signs Decree of Abdication for himself and on behalf of his son, Alexei.
3rd March - New government publicly declared.
4th March - Formal declaration of the abdication of the Tsar and the end to the Romanov dynasty after 300 years! Bye bye Nicholas!
That was by no means the end of Russia’s problems though; the mayhem continued and in October 1917 the Bolsheviks took over in a second revolution.
So how far was the First World War to blame for the March/February Revolution? Was it the main cause or was it just the trigger to a revolution that had been long-due because of the failures of autocracy? You decide!
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