The Russian Revolution: Before 1917 - The Gathering Storm

1917 was the year the Russian revolution changed the course of world history. But before the masses took to the stage, a whole period had prepared the fall of Tsarism. While the reign of Nicholas II appeared strong on the surface it was rotten to the core.

[All dates are according to the Gregorian calendar which is 13 days ahead of the Julian calendar used in Russia in 1917.]

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When Tsarist Russia entered the First World War in July 1914, very few people would have guessed that the whole regime would collapse less than three years later. Russia was seen as a stable power. The economy was growing fast, sustained by “unending” reserves of cheap moujik (peasant) labour power streaming into the industrial centres of Petersburg and Moscow from the provinces. The army had been reformed and the autocracy, which had been shaken only a few years earlier, regained confidence and a certain degree of stability after having defeated the 1905 revolution. Tsarism was envied among many layers of Europe’s elite. Power over all institutions and the major economic entities was concentrated in the hands of one man who could personally guarantee investments and deal with any trouble from the trade union and Social Democratic movements.

It is true that the position of the masses was dire. Strikes and protests had been on the rise between 1912 and 1914, but once the war machine had been set in motion, the defence of “the fatherland” and “our Serbian brothers” cut across the movement. The ruling class, from the monarchists to the liberal bourgeoisie, was just as intoxicated as the masses, albeit from another class point of view. Bruce Lockhart, a very intelligent British agent who lived in Moscow and frequented all the circles of the ruling class, captured the mood of euphoria which swept Russia in the early days of the war:

“I have to shut my eyes to recall the enthusiasm of those early days. There in the patchwork of my memory I see again those moving scenes at the station: the troops, grey with dust and closely packed in cattle trucks; the vast crowd on the platform to wish them God-speed; grave, bearded fathers, wives and mothers, smiling bravely through their tears and bringing gifts of flowers and cigarettes; fat priests to bless the happy warriors. The crowd sways forward for a last handshake and a last embrace. There is a shrill whistle from the engine. Then, with many false starts, the overloaded train, as though reluctant to depart, crawls slowly out of the station and disappears in the grey twilight of the Moscow night. Silent and bare-headed, the crowd remains motionless until the last faint echo of the song of the men, who are never to return, has faded into nothing. Then, shepherded by the gendarmes, it files quietly out into the streets.

“I come away with a hopefulness which overrides my better judgment. Here was a Russia which I had never known – a Russia inspired by a patriotism, which seemed to have its roots deep down in the soil. It was, too, a sober Russia. The sale of vodka had been stopped, and an emotional religious fervour took the place of the squalid intoxication which in previous wars had characterised the departure of Russian soldiers. Among the bourgeoisie there was the same enthusiasm. The wives of the rich merchants vied with each other in spending money on hospitals. There were gala performances at the State theatres in aid of the Red Cross. There was an orgy of national anthems. Every night at the opera and the ballet the Imperial orchestra played the national hymns of Russia, England, France and Belgium, while the audience stood at attention in a fervour of exalted patriotism. Later, especially when the number of Allied hymns assumed the dimensions of a cricket score, the fervour evaporated, and the heavy-paunched Mus­covites groaned audibly at an ordeal which lasted over half an hour. But in those early weeks of 1914 Russian patriotism had much on which to feed itself. The beginning of the war, indeed, was all Russia, and, as the news of each Russian advance was made public, Moscow gave itself up to a full-throated rejoicing. If there were pessimists at that moment, their voice was not raised in the market-place. Revolution was not even a distant probability, although from the first day of the war every liberal-minded Russian hoped that victory would bring constitutional reforms in its train.

“In St. Petersburg, it is true, these early Russian triumphs invoked covert sneers at the failure of the Franco-British effort. In drawing-rooms one heard whispers about English faint-heartedness, and pro-Germans spread slimy rumours about England's determination to fight until the last drop of Russian blood. In Moscow, however, the tongues of the slan­derers were silent, and enthusiasm for the Russian victories was tempered by a generous sympathy for the difficulties of France and England. Indeed, as far as Russia was concerned, the heart of the alliance was in Moscow." (Memoirs of a British Agent, Bruce Lockhart)

In the twenty years from 1895 to 1913, the Russian economy had grown by more than 5 percent each year. This was interrupted during the period of the 1905 revolution, but had returned to the same high levels between 1907 and 1914. Although it is true, it took its starting point from a very low level, in relative terms, Russia’s economy was one of the fastest growing in the world. The growth in the cities was on an even higher level. Growth in industrial output was between 6-8 percent per year. In the west Russia’s “emerging market” was seen as an “investment opportunity”. The conditions for investment were very appealing to European finance capital in search of new markets. Russia became a key market. By the time of the revolution, foreign firms controlled half of all investments in Russia, with the allies – France, and Britain – holding 68 percent of these.

Russia entered the war for two thoroughly reactionary and imperialist reasons. It was openly recognised by the establishment that the army needed another three years of preparation to be able to enter the war. Yet, as Trotsky explained, that was Russia’s price for its position as a “privileged colony”. The allies who found themselves in a difficult position in the first phase of the war needed Russia to weaken Germany’s eastern flank.

At the same time, the ruling elite, as always self-deluding, thought that Germany was too busy on the western front to be able to put up tough resistance against a Russian offensive. The ruling class dreamed of achieving its own long term historical ambitions of dominating the whole of the Caucasus, the Balkans and the plains of eastern Europe as well as the Turkish straits. Constantinople was a key to making Russia into a naval power which could one day sit at the same table as her masters. Of course, the western powers had no intention of granting Russia these wishes. Britain – and France – had dedicated more than a century in propping up the rotten Ottoman Empire to prevent just such a scenario.

Nevertheless the illusion persisted. As we have seen, at the onset of the war the mood was jubilant amongst all classes. In the early days of the First World War a strong patriotic mood cut across the rising wave of revolution that had been developing prior to the war. The working class, and in particular its advanced elements, were drowned by waves of moujiks who were mobilised to the front, as well as into the factories. But dragging the peasantry out of its centuries long slumber and into the modern world by means of the war mobilisation meant that the social basis of stability was shaken to the core. The development of the War would soon see patriotism giving way to anger and hatred towards the status quo. But in 1914 that was the music of the future. On the surface, Tsarism seemed stable.

The Peculiarities of Russia

Below the surface powerful contradictions had been long building up. Tsarism was a rotten semi-feudal system, but as opposed to western Europe, capitalism never rose to the task of overthrowing it. The historical revolutionary role of capitalism and the capitalist class was precisely to uproot the remnants of previous class societies, to end all feudal and pre-feudal “idyllic” relations and replace them with unveiled naked exploitation. From a Marxist point of view, this allows for the freest development of the working class, which is the only class that can decisively end class society once and for all.

However, the slow tempo of social development and differentiation meant that Russian capitalism was never able to develop independently. Long before capitalism could become an independent force in Russia its development was cut across violently by western capital – already several hundred years ahead of Russia – which was spreading globally in search of new markets.

The driving force of capitalist development in Russia, more than anything, was the external military and commercial pressure from the west. Modern machinery and technique were imported by Tsarism itself, mainly to maintain the gigantic military and police apparatus. But while Tsarism managed to hold its ground militarily, it was unable to do so economically. European finance capital flooded the Russian market and in the weak and rotten Tsarism they found an ideal partner.

In Russia, the superiority of western production saw little competition from the backward local capitalist elements. Thus, the “indigenous” capitalist class, instead of being counterposed to the old feudal aristocracy, actually rose from within Tsarism itself and under the domination of western finance capital. It came into being just as the system it represented was already decaying.

Capitalist production in Russia did not grow in opposition to the old society, but was built by the old order and became a means for it to consolidate itself. While drawing on all the most modern developments from the west, it also entrenched pre-capitalist modes of social organisation. Trotsky explained this process in his monumental History of the Russian Revolution:

“The privilege of historic backwardness – and such a privilege exists – permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages. Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. (...)

“The laws of history have nothing in common with a pedantic schematism. Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class.”

The contrasts in Russian society were glaring. Around the turn of the century, out of the 150 million population, the vast majority were peasants from the provinces who lived in conditions of extreme backwardness, and were only just beginning to be integrated into national life.

"The dominant image of Russian rural life was still one of misery. In addition, life expectancy for a population which was five-sixths rural was only thirty-six years, as against Western Europe's fifty­five. The infant mortality rate was 273 per thousand. Poorly equipped and cut off from the rest of the country, the peasants lived in a world untouched by progress." (The Russian Revolution of February 1917, Marc Ferro)

Meanwhile the proletariat, drawn from the peasantry and numbering around 10-25 million with their families, was thrown into the most modern conditions in the cities and working in advanced industrial complexes.

The war was an additional impulse to this development, drawing in new techniques, investments and a whole new layer of peasants as the economy was geared to support the imperial ambitions of Tsarism. Giant factories rose up in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

While major industry in the west was surrounded by a large layer of small and medium scale industries, Russian industry, on the contrary, was dominated by large scale production factories concentrated in a few industrial islands surrounded by a sea of semi-feudal backwardness. Large enterprises, with more than 1,000 workers each, employed 17.8 percent of the workers in the United States but 41.4 percent in Russia.

In 1917 in St. Petersburg there were 31 state-owned or state-controlled companies. Ten of these, with a total of 53,000 workers, were run by the Artillery Administration. The largest of these were: the Pipe Works (Trubochnyi zavod), 18,942 workers; the Cartridge works (Patronnyi zavod), 10,000 workers; the Okhta explosives works, 10,200 workers; and the Sestroretsk works, outside the capital, with 6,228 workers. Another 36,000 worked in five factories run by the Naval Ministry. Besides these there were several semi-state owned companies such as the massive Putilov works, with around 30,000 workers, and the Nevsky shipbuilding company with more than 6,000 workers. Within these some of the most modern production techniques were employed.

The increase in war-time production meant that the number of factory workers in St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd in 1914) grew from 242,600 in 1914 to 417,000 in 1917. More than 240,000 of these worked in the metal industry. 70 percent of Petrograd workers worked in factories of over a thousand, and two-thirds of these worked in huge factories with more than 2,000 workers.

In 1917 the advanced technology and concentration of industry in Petrograd was unique in the world except for Germany. However, in the overall picture, it was an “island of technologically sophisticated state-monopoly capitalism in a country whose mode of production still consisted in the main of rudimentary capitalist and precapitalist forms, albeit under the overall dominance of large capital.” (Red Petrograd - Revolution in the Factories 1917-1918, S.A. Smith)

The forces at play

Tsar Nicholas II and his cousin King George V - Photo: Public Domain in USAThe ideological landscape necessarily reflected the objective conditions. Tsarism – embodied in the Romanovs themselves – was swimming in a cesspool of mysticism and superstition. Their relationship with mystics and fortune tellers was well known and not at all an isolated phenomenon within the rotten nobility. One of these charlatans, the priest Grigori Rasputin, became one of the most influential men in Russia by way of his sway over the Tsar and the Tsarina. This also reveals the character of the Tsar himself. He was known for being  extremely incompetent, weak and indecisive.

Having been bred to be unchallenged, he found justification for his existence not in his deeds and his relations to the world, but in the mythical origins of his position.

The French ambassador made an insightful observation of the mindset of the Tsar: “But Nicholas II, as I have so often said, does not enjoy the exercise of power. If he jealously upholds his autocratic prerogatives, it is solely on mystical grounds. He never forgets that he has received his power from God Himself, and is always reminding himself that he will have to account for it in the valley of Josaphat. This notion of his sovereign function is the exact opposite of that which inspired Napoleon's famous remark to Roederer: ‘I myself love power; but I love it with an artist's love; I love it as a musician loves his violin, something from which to draw sounds, chords and harmonies!’ Conscience, humanity, gentleness, honour – these, I think, are the outstanding virtues of Nicholas II. But the sacred spark is not in him.” (An Ambassador's Memoirs, 31 January 1917)

This blind belief in the divine nature of his position took possession of him, the more isolated the Tsar became and the more untenable his position. His diaries and conversations reveal an increasing indifference and detachment in step with the hopelessness of the situation in Russia. All of these tendencies, were only magnified by the crisis. On 16 January, upon hearing the strong warnings of a coming revolution and plotting against the Tsar by Prince Golytzyn, he merely replied: “The Empress and I know that we are in God's hands. His will be done!” That was the true expression of his mindset.

Mysticism was not just confined to the top of Tsarism. The court and the wider aristocracy was just as rotten as the emperor himself. Paléologue, gives several examples of such habits in his diaries. On 26 January 1917, a month after the murder of Rasputin for instance, he writes:

“Old Prince Kurakin, a master of necromancy, has had the satisfaction of raising the ghost of Rasputin the last few nights.

“He immediately sent for Protopopov, the Minister of the Interior, and Dobrovolski, the Minister of justice; they came at once. Since then, the three of them have been in secret conclave for hours every evening, listening to the dead man's solemn words.”

They were completely submissive to the autocrat. The idea of absolutism was bred into their minds and they saw their fates completely tied to the Tsar. “To the aristocracy” Bruce Lockhart writes, “the complete absolutism of the Tsar was something more than a religion. It was the rock on which its own sheltered existence was built. In its eyes the Emperor was the only real monarch in the world”. Once the crisis was ripe, however, as in all societies in crisis, a reactionary trend, in the literal sense of the word, appeared within the defenders of the old order. The aristocracy attempted to solve the contradictions with the idea of saving Tsarism from the Tsar. A return to “the good old days” was their main position. But this in itself was to be a key element in the downfall of the whole regime.

Liberalism, with the Cadet party as its purest representative, was by no means much superior. For one, their main representatives were partially drawn from the landowning and bureaucratic nobility itself and brought that mindset into the movement. Their slogans echoed their position in society. As timid and cowardly as it had been from the inception, this was multiplied after the 1905 revolution. The liberal bourgeoisie was more worried about independent working class movement than about the Tsar or even German imperialism. Thus the main slogan of the liberals was for a constitutional monarchy, where Tsarism would share power with it and its institutions, the Duma, the all-Russian Union of Zemstvos and the all-Russian Union of Towns. Of course, even this modest wish for a redivision of labour was too much to bear for absolutism. Yet the liberals clung on to their position until the end: to save Tsarism from itself. A position not too distant from that of the rest of the aristocracy and the arch-monarchists.

Side by side with these senile schools of thought, the most modern ideas found fertile ground amongst the industrial working class and a layer of the youth and the intelligentsia. The revolutionary ideas of Marxism found a mass base during the 1905 revolution, but were temporarily set back by the defeat of that movement. By 1914, as a new revolutionary wave was on the rise, the Bolsheviks got a new lease of life with the influx of tens of thousands of new members and supporters. However, the war was to cut across this movement and by 1917 the Bolshevik party organisation was only a shadow of what it had been just before the war.

Alexander Shlyapnikov, a factory worker and Bolshevik organiser, was the most prominent leading Bolshevik inside Russia during the war. Along with P. Zalutsky and V. Molotov, he formed a Central Committee Bureau. Zalutsky was in charge of liaising with the Petrograd Committee. Molotov, a student Bolshevik, dealt with publishing. Shlyapnikov was general coordinator and responsible for contacts with the party abroad and the provinces.

The strength of the Party in February was approximately 2,000-3,000 in Petrograd; 300-600 in Moscow; 500 in the Urals; 400 in Yekaterinoslav; 300 in Nizhy-novgorod; 170 in the Rostov area; 150 in Tver; 150-200 in Ivanovo-Voznesensk; 200 in Kharkov; 150 in Samara; 150-200 in Kiev and 200 in Makeyevsk.

Shlyapnikov explains the situation in the party:

“[W]e had to work under extremely tough conditions. We proved able to group many active comrades around us. But owing to lack of resources we did not succeed in expanding the work very widely. We were very poor. From 2 December 1916 to 1 February 1917 only 1,117 rubles 50 kopeks flowed into the funds of the Central Committee Bureau. We had to carry out all work within these means. If we sent an organizer out to the provinces we could not guarantee him even one month’s support; consequently we had to rely upon the initiative of chance visits by comrades from different areas or strokes of luck for our contacts. The Bureau spent very little on maintaining its staff. The majority had their earnings but underground workers even in February 1917 could not receive more than a hundred rubles a month. The supply of literature required a great deal of funds, but we were unable to assign very much to it.” (On the Eve of 1917, Alexander Shlyapnikov)

The party organisation was hopelessly unprepared for the tasks which lay ahead. The change in the political situation assisted the organisation with a new layer of students who could carry out work with little or no pay. Nevertheless the situation was a difficult one.

Bolshevik agitators in the factories, the most determined and uncompromising workers, were being systematically sent to to the front where their voices were temporarily drowned amongst the millions of patriotic peasants. The same process was taking place in the factories where the Bolshevik organisers and agitators were swamped by fresh peasant layers who were being brought in to support the war effort.

Furthermore, Lenin, Kamenev, Zinoviev and the other key leaders of the organisation were all in exile. Lenin was in Switzerland where his main focus was the struggle of the party against national chauvinism – in Russia as well as within the Second International. In Russia, Lenin was waging a struggle against defencism and the idea of class collaboration, which was most vividly expressed in the right-Mensheviks’ pro-war alliance with the Liberals. At the same time he was waging a struggle to save the best revolutionary elements and lay the foundations for a new International after the Second International had collapsed.

Lenin’s struggle was a long term struggle of arming the advanced layers of the proletariat for the future. The main thrust of his argument was: No trust in the liberal bourgeoisie; only an independent working class movement – in alliance with the oppressed peasant masses – can carry out the tasks of the Russian revolution, to overthrow absolutism, unshackle the oppressed nationalities of Russia and solve the agrarian question.

On 22 January (9 January in the old-style calendar), he gave a speech at a meeting of Swiss young socialists where he said, “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” Unbeknown to Lenin, while he was saying those very words, a massive strike to commemorate the anniversary of the 1905 Bloody Sunday – the first day of the 1905 revolution – was shaking Petrograd. This was the first shot of the 1917 revolution, but Lenin only heard news of it weeks later. He could see a coming revolutionary crisis throughout Europe, but he could not have foreseen that he would be at the head of the first Soviet state less than 10 months later. Trotsky, the president of the St. Petersburg 1905 Soviet, arrived in New York on 13 January 1917. The slow pace of communications meant that both he and Lenin were unaware of the events which were shaking Russia to its foundations.

The war and the crisis

Meanwhile the situation in Russia was becoming explosive. The war had started with much fanfare, but the hubris of Tsarism was exposed very quickly. Tellingly, material had only been accumu­lated for a twelve-week campaign. The regime thought the war would be a quick affair. It mobilised 15 million people and expected about one million desertions. But by 1917 more than 2.5 million had been killed – representing until then the highest number of wartime losses of any nation. In total about five and a half million were counted as killed, wounded or captured. The number of deserters kept growing. The army could just about hold its ground against Austria-Hungary, but the German army backed by its modern industrial machine was too big a match for Tsarism.

After a surprise attack, which gained Russia some territory in Germany, on 26–30 August 1914, in the first month of the First World War, Russia received its first major blow when the Germans counter-attacked at the battle of Tannenberg. There Russia saw its Second Army – and shortly thereafter its First Army – completely destroyed. 78,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded, while 92,000 were taken as prisoners of war. In comparison, the German army lost about 14,000 men. Then, in 1915, a general retreat started with devastating consequences.

Russia’s army was far below the level of Germany’s. Its artillery was years behind, its officer corps on a lower cultural level and its industry unable to sustain the war. Germany had eleven kilometers of railroads per hundred square kilometers, France had eight or nine, while Russia had only four hundred meters, exclud­ing Siberia. This played a key role as Germany could carry out rapid troop movements, whereas the Russian campaign was constantly hampered by slow supply lines. Furthermore, supply lines into the cities were narrowed as the front swallowed up most of the capacity. The retreat from Poland, aggravated this situation. By 1916, out of a hundred locomotives, eighteen had been destroyed or were in the hands of the enemy, and five were out of commission. Rail traffic decreased by 32 percent in 1915 and by a further 22 percent in 1916.

As the losses piled up the lack of a sizeable corps of reserve officers became obvious. The officer caste was diluted with new inexperienced officers, which again weakened the army, leading to a spiral of new defeats and further depletion of the  army command structure. The troops at the front wanted to go home, back to their land. But each setback was met with more mobilisation. The class antagonism between the moujik and Tsarism could not have been expressed more clearly than in the complete indifference of the regime to its own soldiers. The mood in the trenches went from patriotic to insurrectionary. The revolutionary workers and intellectuals began to gain an echo once more.

The Great Retreat at the Eastern Front - Image: Public DomainDuring the setbacks of 1915, hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated without any preparations and plans for resettling them anywhere. The Great Retreat from Poland and Galicia brought about the death of 500,000 soldiers, while 1,000,000 were taken prisoners by the Germans.

These were far fewer losses than what the Russians could have expected, had they decided to stand their ground. But that was not how the Tsar viewed the question. In September 1915 he decided to take direct charge of the army and fire Grand Duke Nicholas who was the Commandership-in-Chief. In his letter to the Grand Duke, he wrote:

"My duty to my country, which has been entrusted to me by God, impels me today, when the enemy has penetrated into the interior of the Empire, to take the supreme command of the active forces and to share with my army the fatigues of war, and to safeguard with it Russian soil from the attempts of the enemy.

“The ways of Providence are inscrutable, but my duty and my desire determine me in my resolution for the good of the State.” (Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III)

The war was becoming a humiliation. But by taking command, the Tsar was putting his own personal stamp on this humiliation. Furthermore, the Tsar, a socialite and a lounger, more than an emperor, was known for his particular weakness in the field of military tactics and strategy.

The foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, a Tsarist loyalist, after giving the news to Maurice Paléologue in Petrograd, said the following:

‘“Now that I've told you officially all I had to tell, I can certainly admit, cher ami, that I greatly regret the step the Emperor has just taken. You will remember that at the beginning of the war he was anxious to put himself at the head of his troops, and that all his ministers – and I myself more than any of them – begged him not to do so. (...) Isn't it terrifying to think that henceforth it is the Emperor who will be personally responsible for all the misfortunes with which we are threatened? If the inefficiency of one of our generals involves us in a disaster, it will be not merely a military disaster but a political and social one at the same time.’ (...)

“‘What other reasons are there for the Emperor's decision to take command personally?’

“For a moment Sazonov gazed at me with a gloomy and melancholy look. Then he hesitatingly replied:

“‘No doubt the Emperor wanted to notify us that the hour had come for him to exercise his highest prerogative power: the command of his armies. Henceforward no one will be able to doubt his determination to continue the war, cost what it may (...)’” (An Ambassador’s Memoirs, Maurice Paléologue)

The decision to take command would only lead to more crises, on the military front, as well as the political front. Being greatly unprepared for the technical aspect of his role, his natural inability to withstand personal pressure led to the adoption of a weak yet unstable strategy at the front. Whatever little authority he enjoyed at the beginning within the army would gradually disintegrate.

But more importantly, the fate of the war, the economy, the Tsar and Tsarism in general were now concentrated in one place. The Tsar’s decision increased the fissures in the ruling class. The mounting defeats would lead to pressure from all layers of the ruling class, from the liberals to the nobility and the extreme right-wing monarchists. From below, the moujiks would finally begin to relate their misery with their “little father”. Tsarist despotism was of course, rule by one man, but it had always attempted to keep the Tsar at a “safe distance” from “mortal” decisionmaking. Now the Tsar stepped out of the shade and personally took all the ills of society into his own hands. The problem was that absolutism, in principle, could not accept any direct criticism.

At first, the retreat spurred on a mood of patriotic defencism. As a counter to the slow clogged up network of the Tsarist bureaucracy, the bourgeois liberals set up a series of private organisations to support the war effort. The "Red Cross Commit­tee" was the first step and it gradually took over the administration of public healthcare and became a branch of the Ministry of Public Health. The zemstvos, local assemblies controlled by the rural gentry and united in the Union of Zemstvos under the leadership of Prince Lvov, became very prominent. The town mayors also united in the "Union of Cities" to coordinate the reception of refugees, the deployment of prisoners of war – which was a very profitable business – and other related functions. The "Union of Zemstvos and Cities" – also known as the Zemgor – was also set up to organise provisioning for the army and supplying it with munitions.

Finally the liberal Alexander Guchkov united all the major industrial magnates in the "War Industries Committee" which centralised national production to fit the war needs. This parallel “ministry of industry” set up branches in all major cities. The “Defencist” Mensheviks even joined these committees which set up a “Labour Group” meant to ensure class collaboration in the factories, i.e. to subordinate the interests of the working class to the reactionary imperialist war of the ruling class.

All of this meant that the army was better supplied in 1916 than in 1915, which in turn lead to a victorious offensive in Galicia. But it was only a temporary relief. Even at its best, Russian industry could not match the German, neither in the quantity or quality of the weaponry – in particular artillery – that it produced. The Germans had overwhelming artillery superiority of three-to-one in some areas. Furthermore, the allies reduced their deliveries. In 1916 France only supplied 56 out of 592 promised airplanes and 612 motorized units out of 4,194 ordered. This material was only 5 percent of the needs of the Russian army and Russia itself was able to supply only half the orders.

The direct costs of the war increased from 1,500 million rubles in 1914 to 14,500 million in 1916. The response was to heavily increase foreign borrowing as well as printing millions of rubles, which led to massive inflation. The growth of foreign borrowing enslaved Russia even more to her imperialist “allies” than before. When the Russians applied for a loan to France in 1916 they were told that “­Russia did not seem to be fighting with the same energy as France at Verdun.”

The loss of the industrial centres in Poland was a huge blow to the economy. The Ottomans’ entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers also meant that the Dardanelles, a key supply route for Russia, were closed. Along with the loss of transport routes, the increasing demand of the western fronts led to a decline in imports from allied industry.

As morale declined, the regime became desperate. Bruce Lockhart had a birdseye view of events from his embedded position in Moscow’s political elite:

“The fall of Warsaw was the culminating tragedy of the disastrous summer campaign of 1915. It was a blow, which could not be hidden even from the masses, and naturally there was a great increase of pessimism and peace talk. Men like Chelnokov and Lvoff were fine enough; their roots were in the soil. But the professional politicians were excited, and their nervousness spread like a wet fog until it enveloped half the population. Horrible rumours of Russians manning the trenches with nothing but sticks in their hands percolated through from the front to the countryside. Neither the old men nor the young recruits had any stomach for this slaughter, and at factory centres like lvanovo-Voznesensk there were anti-government strikes attended in some cases by shooting.

“As usual, the authorities devised a counter-irritant for this public excitement. On August 23rd, when the pessimism was at its worst, Moscow hummed with rumours, emanating apparently from official quarters, that the Allies had forced the Dardanelles. In the afternoon a Moscow newspaper came out with large headlines: "Official: Dardanelles Taken." Then followed a graphic account of the bombardment of the straits with casualty lists and names of ships complete. On receipt of this news vast crowds assembled in the streets. People knelt on the Tverskaya Square to thank God for this glorious victory. There was a manifestation before the Consulate-General. In vain I tried to tell the mob that the news was false. "Official communique" shouted the newsboys, and in the storm of cheering my voice was lost. Later in the evening the crowd got out of hand, and near the Skoboliev monument there was a demonstration against the police, which ended as usual with a charge of mounted gendarmes.

“The next day there was general disappointment at the false report, and, together with my French colleague, I called on the Prefect to demand summary action against the editor and the publishers. He received us with the usual official unctuousness. I fumed and gave the Prefect best. I discovered later that the victory stunt had been operated in connection with the police in order to let the public work off steam.

“I do not profess ever to have mastered the psychology of the Tsarist police. I refuse, however, to believe either in its effi­ciency or in its honesty. The dreaded ‘Okhrana’ of the Seton Merriman novel was a myth fearful more by its name than by its omniscience. It was an organisation run by bunglers and dever crooks, and in it the bunglers outnumbered the brains by nine to one.” (Memoirs of a British Agent, Bruce Lockhart)

In 1916, before Germany launched a devastating submarine war on Europe's coastline, deliveries from the allies to Russia had fallen to 36 percent of the 1914 level. The industrial demands from the allied “shareholders” put even more pressure on the economy, which was then completely dedicated to the needs of the war. Marc Ferro explains:

“The requirements of sixteen million soldiers called for a recon­version of the economy, one that was to be unmatched anywhere outside of Russia. More than 80 percent of the factories were taken over to supply war needs. However, there was no rise in production because the new labor force, recruited from farms, was unused to factory work; in fact, output fell about 30 percent. Agricultural production, predictably, also fell off. Six hundred thousand prisoners and countless refugees did not adequately compensate for the loss of skilled farm workers, and land under cultivation was reduced by a fifth.

”Even then, of course, production did not meet the requirements of the army. With the front swallowing up all production, products started disappearing in the rear. The Russian economy began to fall apart. Unable to buy industrial products, the peasants slowed their deliveries to the cities. What good were rubles? There was nothing to spend them on. In the larger cities agricultural prices rose as fast as industrial prices.” (The Russian Revolution of February 1917, Marc Ferro)

The Russian ruling class had entered the war thinking it would be a swift affair. Blinded by the glitter of its growing industry and emboldened by its victory over the working class in 1905, it was determined to use the war to join the group of major powers. But reality was far from this, and in any case the allies were not prepared to allow Russia this opportunity. By the end of 1916 it was glaringly obvious to everyone that Russia could not represent a viable threat to Germany. The allies were pushing it to attack on the Eastern front, but the Tsar was trying his best just to maintain a stalemate.

The French ambassador briefed M. Doumergue, the French minister of colonies, who was heading the French delegation at the allied conference in January 1917:

“On the Russian front,(...) time is not working for us now. The public does not care about the war. All the government departments and the machinery of administration are getting hopelessly and progressively out of gear. The best minds are convinced that Russia is walking straight into the abyss. We must make haste." (An Ambassador’s Memoirs, Maurice Paléologue)

The allies wanted a joint major offensive on all fronts by April 1917, but they were amazed when general Gourko, speaking at the conference, put the question in terms of “Are the campaigns of 1917 to have a decisive character? Or must we not abandon the hope of obtaining definitive results this year?”

He went on to say that it would take up to a year to form, train and equip the necessary divisions needed for a major offensive. The French General de Castelnau who had visited the front and who participated in the conference, corroborated this opinion:

"[T]he High Command is badly organized; armament is totally inadequate and the transport service very defective. What is perhaps even more serious is the poor quality of the tactical instruction. They have not broken away from out-of-date methods; the Russian army is a year behind our armies in the West. It is incapable of carrying through an offensive on a large scale." (An Ambassador’s Memoirs, Maurice Paléologue)

The allies were fully aware of Russia’s troubles. If they were not fully aware of the crisis before the conference, they became so during it. Before the French delegation returned to France, Maurice Paléologue, said to Doumergue:

“Please tell the President of the Republic and the President of the Council that you have left me very anxious. A revolutionary crisis is at hand in Russia; it nearly broke out five weeks ago and is only postponed. Every day the Russian nation is getting more indifferent towards the war and the spirit of anarchy is spreading among all classes and even in the army. About the end of last October a very significant incident occurred in Petrograd; I reported it to Monsieur Briand. A strike broke out in the Vibori quarter and as the police were very roughly handled by the workmen, two regiments which were in barracks in the vicinity, were sent for. These two regiments fired on the police. A division of Cossacks had to be hastily called in to bring the mutineers to their senses. So in case of a rising the authorities cannot count on the army. My conclusion is that time is no longer working for us, at any rate in Russia, and that we must henceforth take the defection of our ally into our calculations and draw all the inferences involved.” (An Ambassador’s Memoirs, Maurice Paléologue)

Paléologue, a natural intriguer and therefore a perfect ambassador, could see what was happening behind the curtains of the Tsarist theatre. He had a much better view of the crisis than any of the revolutionary leaders. It was clear that the war had pushed Russia to the brink of collapse. Any major defeat or a further dislodging of the economy would make the whole system unravel. Yet, the western imperialists increased their pressure on Russia.

Russian troops in the trenches - Photo: Public DomainThere was a popular saying in those days, that Britain would fight “until the last drop of Russian blood”. Such was the relationship between Russia and its imperialist “allies”. For Britain, Russian soldiers were ideal cannon fodder to keep Germany’s Eastern Front busy. The Russian ruling class, on the other hand, wanted to disengage from fighting. The crisis within the army was ripe. But the Russian ruling class had other reasons. They were banking on the western front wearing both the central powers as well as Britain down. This way Russia could walk into the vacuum left behind by the Central Powers in Galicia, the Balkans and Constantinople. But it also opened the door for Russia gaining ground on Britain in Persia and China – where they had historically competed for domination. Of course, Britain and France had the same idea. In fact, Britain wanted to see Russia come out of the war in a weaker position, so as to pave the way for a tighter domination of British capital.

Even the prospect of a Revolution, did not fundamentally alter the plans of the imperialists, but they fatally miscalculated. In one of the many cynical conversations reported in Paléologue’s diaries, he writes about a discussion with the Italian ambassador:

“Carlotti does not think that a revolution is imminent. In any case, he presumes that if the Tsarist monarchy were overthrown by a popular rising, it would be immediately replaced by a constitutional and democratic régime, in accordance with the programme of the ‘Cadet’ Party; with the exception of a little bloodshed at the start, the new order would find no great obstacles to its inception. (...)

“I argued contra, that the abolition of Tsarism would probably inaugurate an unlimited period of disorder such as that which followed the death of Ivan the Terrible; Tsarism, I said, is not only the official form of Russian government; it is the very foundation, tie-beam and structure of the Russian community. It is Tsarism which has made the historic individuality of Russia and still preserves it. The whole collective life of the Russian nation is so to speak summed up in Tsarism. Outside Tsarism there is nothing.” (An Ambassador’s Memoirs, 21 February 1917, Maurice Paléologue)

This was the point of view of the ruling classes in Europe, i.e. that the Russian revolution, however damaging it might be to their interests, would not pose a threat to the capitalist order. On the contrary, it would weaken Russia as a potential threat in the future and make it more “manageable”.

Of course as we know, reality turned out very differently. Paléologue could see how Russia’s liberals were impotent, but he missed the decisive element in the equation: the Russian working class. He was blissfully unaware of the fact that a revolution, in the conditions that prevailed, could go further much further than anyone had anticipated.

All the conditions were being prepared for a revolution, but by its very nature, such a revolution would be much deeper than the ruling class and the imperialists could have imagined. The prolonged decay of Tsarism had hollowed it out from the inside. Liberalism was stillborn in Russia and had no inclination to carry out the most simple tasks of the bourgeois revolution. Far from uprooting the old society, it was desperately trying to save Tsarism from itself.

In the given conditions, there was nothing “outside of Tsarism”. But the bourgeoisie itself had built the very forces which would take Russia beyond the boundaries of its own system. With the liberal bourgeoisie incapable of carrying out the revolution, the task of removing the old order was left to the modern industrial proletariat, which, by taking power into its own hands would necessarily move beyond capitalism. It could do so with the support of tens of millions of peasants, who were either organised or mobilised directly by the war machine or came under enormous pressure from the requirements of wartime production. Because the bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying out its own revolution to the end, the peasants would swing behind that class that would move decisively in the direction of revolution, the proletariat.