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Russia in the First World War

The Revolutionary Masses

The warring  powers had entered the hostilities in the conviction that they would relatively quickly achieve their main military objectives. The governments of the Allies - Britain, France and Russia - believed that they would be able to crush their main enemy, Germany, by attacking it on two fronts - from the west and the east. The Central Powers, on the other hand, represented by Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey, hoped to prevent the Allies’ joint operations, isolate and rout them, with powerful military strikes, one by one.

It was soon clear, however, that such hopes were unfounded. The war escalated into a world-wide, drawn-out conflict that required from the belligerents the mobilization of their entire human and economic resources. In such a war victory, as never before, depended not  just on the military success at the front but also on the strength of the rear. It required a robust, modern industry, reorganized for the conduct of war, an efficient and reliable transportation system and, above all, domestic peace and cooperation of various sections of society for the war effort. Torn apart by intense internal conflicts, Russia had little chance of winning a war of this kind.

On the whole, the Russian people entered the war in an heightened mood of patriotic euphoria which showed that, despite everything, traditions of loyalty to tsarism had survived among many sections of the population. Within a few weeks after the declaration of the war on 20 July 1914, the Russian government responded to the popular mood by renaming the country’s capital Petrograd. The new name had a patriotic Slavic ring to it, in contrast to the old name of St Petersburg, which now seemed too German.

The upper classes rallied around the government. In the Duma, all criticism of the government ceased. In July 1914 its deputies met for one day and voted war credits.

M. Rodzianko

A provisional committee of Duma members was set up under Michael Rodzianko, the Duma president, to organize aid for victims of the war. Zemstvos and town councils throughout Russia held conferences to consider how they could support the war effort. By August, the ‘All-Russian Union of Zemstvos for the Relief of the Sick and Wounded’ had been formed. In May 1915 representatives of industry and trade set up another body - the Central War Industries Committee - to coordinate war production. Alexander Guchkov, the Octobrist leader, was elected its chairman. In June 1915, zemstvos and municipal organizations merged in the ‘All-Russian Union of Zemstvos and Cities’. These voluntary organizations did much to co-ordinate Russia’s war effort.

Even on the Russian Left most socialists, with the exception of the Bolsheviks, followed the example of the veteran socialist Plekhanov and adopted a pro-war stand. Such attitude was motivated by the conviction that a victory by the Central Powers would mean the triumph of reaction and militarism and spell unshakeable domination of Europe by Germany.

However, by 1915, when Russia’s first major military set-backs occurred, the patriotic euphoria started to wane, as it became increasingly clear that the country’s economic, social and political system, as well as its armed forces, were failing the ultimate test of war. It became more and more obvious that the imperial government had again failed in its tasks, as in the Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese War, but on a much larger scale.

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