From Mobilization to Revolution: World War I in Three Slogans

How did World War I impact the Russian Revolution? Why did patriotic enthusiasm quickly give way to disillusionment? Or did the enthusiasm ever exist? Historian Konstantin Tarasov explains how the attitude towards war changed in Russian society as events unfolded


Source > Posle

“All Hail the War”

In the middle of July 1914, crowds shouting “Down with Austria and Germany!”, “Long live Serbia!”, “Long live Russia!” and even “All Hail the War!” filled the streets of the major cities of the Russian Empire. People were making speeches on every corner, singing “God Save the Tsar!” and kneeling in front of temples and monuments to tsars and generals. Such excitement could be observed not only in Russia during the July Crisis that preceded the outbreak of World War I. Trying to understand the causes of this long and complex conflict, the authors of the earliest scientific and journalistic works pointed out this extraordinary phenomenon. They called the incredible patriotic zeal and the uniting of political forces in the face of an external enemy the “spirit of 1914.” However, in no country did this sentiment last as long as the fighting. It dissipated like a fog. For several years states had to balance the demand for new people on the battlefields against the threat of a social explosion. Why did this happen, and how did this process unfold in Russia?

When answering this question, one must refrain from broad generalizations regarding these patriotic marches, especially as reported in the press. Recent studies, including those based on Russian archives, have shown that it was not only patriotic euphoria that drove people to join the enthusiastic crowds. Their feelings were mixed, and included anxiety, panic, and depression. Having heard the terrifying news, the citizens took to the streets, worried about their lives and the well-being of their loved ones, especially those who were to go to war. In part, they shouted “hurrahs” or chanted religious songs to cope with disorientation and to alleviate their fear. 

Another critical aspect of the “patriotic drive” of July 1914 is that it primarily came from the educated urban population, for whom the European war was not a surprise but a long-awaited event. Several serious foreign policy crises preceded World War I. And it was not just the failed Russian-Japanese war, from which the authorities were confident that the Russian army could recover. The knot of contradictions in the Balkans in 1908-1913 had repeatedly threatened Europe with large-scale warfare. The press saw attempts by the tsarist foreign ministry to avoid involvement in the conflict as a national humiliation, another concession to potential adversaries, and a betrayal of the “Slavic brothers.” On the eve of 1914, the major Russian newspapers cautiously observed the militarization in Germany, fearing it was a preparation for the coming pan-European war. In this sense, for some people the outbreak of World War I, while not without danger, marked a deliverance, a catharsis, and the beginning of a new life. The poet Valery Bryusov, who had always followed the popular mood carefully, wrote the poem “The Last War” in 1914. It ended with the following lines:

Let the frail edifice of times 
Bloodily collapse,
In the disloyal glow of laurels
Let the new world rise! 
Let the ancient domes tumble,
And its pillars loudly fall;
Let the dreadful year of the battle
Be of peace and freedom, dawn!

Some in the educated classes expected the war to create a new world order, the end of the old world, followed by a rebirth. Both fear and joy came out of this sentiment, accompanied by an unfounded conviction that the war would be short.

We know little about how the rest of the population reacted to the war. The lower classes in both urban and rural areas left hardly any written records, especially any that revealed emotions and experiences. Some observers reported that the farther they traveled from the center of the Russian Empire, the louder they could hear the weeping over those leaving for the war. They noticed a gloomy concentration and melancholy among the common folk. The authorities took those as signs of dedication, resignation to fate, and a profound commitment to their duty. The military commanders were worried the first experience of general mobilization would fail, but there was a very high turnout at the recruiting stations (over 95 per cent). Researchers believe the peasants went to war to defend themselves against the aggressor, but also due to traditionalist monarchic and orthodox values. 

However, for the army chiefs, the high figures of general mobilization were soon overshadowed by reports of conscripts rioting. They smashed administrative offices and shops everywhere they went. Soviet historians often claimed that this occurred due to anti-war dissent. Instead, the riots broke out because the traditional relationship between the authorities and the people was jeopardized. For example, Prohibition in the Russian Empire hindered the centuries-old ritual of seeing men off to the army. The government’s inability to control prices and compensate the families caused fear among the mobilized that their loved ones would be left without the means to survive.

Some scholars see workers stopping going on strike as another indication of the widespread patriotic sentiment. However, there are some crucial factors to be considered here. First, the wave of strikes in the first half of July 1914 was suppressed by mass arrests, armed attacks on demonstrators by police and troops, and lockouts announced by some employers, so workers’ unrest had already ceased before the declaration of war. Second, workers in factories were officially released from the prospect of going into the trenches. A worker at a large metropolitan factory recalled: “It became impossible to drag a worker away from the work station; everyone clung to their machines like a drowning man to a straw”. Finally, the outbreak of war led to a split in the socialist movement. Many politicians were willing to support their governments in the face of the military threat, urging their supporters to postpone the class struggle until a more peaceful time. Considering all these, the “spirit of 1914” does not seem as ubiquitous a phenomenon as it might at first appear. 

“Everything for Victory!”

Wartime propaganda sought to maintain the image of a united society. The press and mass culture, including lubok, tried to support and inspire patriotic sentiments, presenting the ongoing conflict as a new Patriotic War (the name given to the French invasion of 1812). Public organizations contributed to the state’s war efforts, opening private hospitals for wounded warriors, donating to the families of soldiers, refugees, and prisoners of war, and in other ways. At the end of July 1914, the All-Russian Zemstvo Union was formed, followed by the Union of Cities. A year later, they merged into the Union of Zemstvos and Towns, which gathered public contributions for the needs of those at the front. Businesses mobilized industry in response to the army’s combat supply crisis in 1915. Special committees on defense, fuel, food, and transport were created under the aegis of the government. Grassroots military-industrial committees were organized, uniting the efforts of government and business to bring victory. The scope of such activities was tremendous. In early 1916, the tsarist government called for civil peace on the home front and public cooperation to achieve a victorious peace. The press responded enthusiastically with the slogan “Everything for Victory!” which appeared on the war loan posters in 1916. 

Having acknowledged the sincere patriotic impulses of the public, we, at the same time, should wonder about their motives. Was this not, among other things, a form of avoiding military service? By the end of 1916, up to 3 million people had been granted a draft deferment because their work was considered necessary for defense. After the Revolution, it turned out that people were often assigned to this kind of service through bribery, while continuing to do their regular jobs. Can it be that most patriotic activities were, in fact, a sort of socially approved behavior to please the elite, the tsar’s inner circle included? Or, on the contrary, can such activity be seen as a disappointment in the authorities, unable to manage the crisis on their own? Finally, the interest of businesses’ in receiving massive government military orders must also be considered. 

The socialist Vladimir Stankevich, while acknowledging a broad public initiative, nevertheless concluded: “But all this [enthusiasm] did not go beyond supplying the army, assisting, helping, and almost fitted into the formula of benevolent neutrality. The war was seen as important and necessary, but still an extraneous phenomenon.” The desire to “fence ourselves off” from the war faced the realities of a new type of military conflict, which demanded a supreme effort on the home front to meet the needs of the army. “What does it have to do with us? Let the military fight” was a common view expressed in letters to the Ministry of War. 

Of course, those with no money or connections enabling them to evade military service or make a living during the crisis were the ones whom the war impacted the most. Their attitude toward the war is often associated with the allegedly typical sentiment in any village: “We are from Tver/Pskov/Kaluga; the Germans will not reach us.” In other words, the reluctance of peasants to endlessly sacrifice their lives for victory is explained by their lack of national consciousness and understanding of the goals of the war. However, it is necessary to look closely at what happened to most of the Russian Empire’s population during the war. 

In 1914-1915 a large part of the regular army and the reserves prepared in previous years were destroyed. The conscription of people who had not previously undergone military training began. But they also died in the endless butchery of trench battles. To make up for the losses, the authorities shortened the lists of illnesses and privileges exempting men from recruitment to the army. They also lowered the draft age by three years, from 21 to 18. In February 1916, out of despair, the government decided to recruit into the army men who were under trial, under investigation, or serving their sentences. They began enlisting the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Far East, who had previously been exempted from military service, to construct defensive structures. The notorious decree also testified to the exhaustion of the reserves. Its implementation was a complete disaster, with massive riots and thousands of victims. 

By 1917 a total of 15-16 million men had been drafted into the army. The total combat losses of the active Russian military (those either killed or who died later from wounds) amounted to about 1,650,000. In addition, between 700,000 to 900,000 people suffered a disability and were declared unfit for military service after recovery. By the middle of 1916 the human resources of the Russian Empire were almost exhausted. For the following year’s campaign, the military command could count on no more than one and a half million men consisting of recruits from the older age group (30-40) who had never served in the army, the recruits of the early call-up and those deemed fit after the lowering of health requirements. The acute shortage of military personnel went hand in hand with a noticeable lack of workers in the countryside. In some areas, conscription took up to 50 per cent of the male workers between 20 and 40 years old. By the middle of the third year of the war, tsarist censorship began to restrain letters from and to the army that criticized the unfair distribution of the burdens of war. The shortage of necessities and the enormous rise in prices most severely affected the poorer parts of the population. “Plunderer of the home front” became a popular name-calling given to those who either did not share the misery of the war (for example, legal or illegal evaders, workers, policemen, and others) or who profited from it (bankers, landlords, traders, and speculators). As stated in the report of the security branch, the disorganization of the home front led to “complaints about the ‘corruptness of the administration’,’ the incredible hardships of war and unbearable conditions of daily existence.” The population increasingly sympathized with the idea “first of all, destroy the internal German and only then the foreign one.” Incidentally, this was true not only of the lower class but also of the educated, among whom spy mania, the urge to fight “German supremacy,” and suspicion towards the government, which experienced one defeat after another, flourished.

Severe conditions of service, the poor, short military training of those who were mobilized, military failures, and the mobilization of people who didn’t know how to use arms began to affect the condition of the armed forces of the Russian Empire. By 1917, riots started to break out among the soldiers in different parts of the front and the rear, severely suppressed by the command. But on the whole, resistance was mainly passive. Desertion was growing. Nationwide, until March 1917, about 700-800,000 deserters were detained at the front, rear, and bases. Taking into consideration those who were not detained, one could estimate the total number at one to one and a half million. It means that even before the revolution, one in ten armed forces members had tried to evade service. The epidemic of self-inflicted injuries (front-line soldiers deliberately harmed themselves to leave the front line) was a dangerous symptom for the military authorities. Finally, fraternization with the enemy and intentional surrender were regular. It isn’t easy to evaluate the magnitude of these phenomena. Still, they were sufficient to make the authorities and the high military command recognize them as a pressing problem and toughen penalties for them. 

“Long live universal democratic peace!”

All of these war-related trends certainly spurred the beginning of the revolution. However, to a greater or lesser degree, they were typical for all the major countries involved in the total war. 

Moreover, one cannot suppose the revolution arose from anti-war sentiments. The protest demonstrations in Petrograd, which began on February 23, 1917, were caused primarily by problems with food supply and distribution. Underdeveloped railroad networks, suffering wartime overloads, could not cope with delivering all the necessary goods to the capital, which had already become almost a front-line city by that time. Ration stamps for necessities in the Russian Empire had yet to be introduced; therefore, anyone could buy as much bread as their finances allowed. Not surprisingly, those who found themselves at the end of the line needed more. The army joined the anti-government demonstrations to protest against using arms against demonstrators and the humiliating and harsh barracks regime. Some political circles that tried to lead the revolution saw overthrowing the monarchy as a means to bring victory. In their opinion, at the root of the defeats was the inept leadership of the Tsar and his entourage, who compromised themselves with corruption scandals. 

In the new political system that emerged after the revolution, the same moderate socialists, who believed it was necessary to defend the country as long as the military threat was substantial, played the most crucial role. They made the idea of a defensive war their motto and deemed it necessary to hold the front until all parties could reach fair terms for peace. It seemed to be a reasonable way to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. Such a war proved popular among the grassroots, who turned from a voiceless majority into the main political actors of the revolution. During that period, pacifists and supporters of unconditional peace were in the minority. 

At the same time, the revolution meant an opportunity for the discontented to discuss the crisis aloud, and the authorities had to consider the opinion of the “masses” in their policies. The fair distribution of the burden of war became one of the main themes in the numerous resolutions of the different rallies and meetings. Various segments of the population, which had previously lacked the resources to do so, now sought to “fence themselves off” from the war. Social tension grew against the “proprietors” accused of benefiting from the general misery. In mid-June, there were demonstrations in Petrograd and other cities. The most popular demands were an end to the war and a fair peace without annexations and contributions (without monetary or territorial gains for all countries). 

The government made a fatal mistake when it planned an offensive at the front under the slogan, “The best defense is in the offensive.” Alexander Kerensky, the Minister of War and an incredibly popular politician at the time, saw that vigorous action on the front could save the decaying military organism, unite soldiers and officers, and inspire the population to support a revolutionary war against the German and Austro-Hungarian monarchy. His authority and personality were at stake as he toured the front lines with inspirational speeches. Without the personal involvement of Kerensky and his supporters, the soldiers would hardly have left the trenches when ordered. Nevertheless, it was impossible to win the high-tech war with mere enthusiasm. The June 1917 offensive ended in disaster, the failure of the front, and harsh measures against retreating army units to stabilize the situation. 

This defeat had, above all, political consequences. The disappointment in Kerensky personally (among the moderate socialists who had supported him), in the concept of defensive warfare, and in the system that had developed after February was growing. Meanwhile, support for rigid military dictatorship, on the one hand, and the left-wing parties, especially the Bolsheviks, on the other, steadily increased. The failed offensive and the threat of the “party of war” coming to power created conditions for the support of the “party of peace.” The Bolsheviks occupied this place in popular imagery, although their manifestos did not support this interpretation: they were not pacifists. But thanks to the colossal campaign against them in the preceding months, they gained this reputation. It came to the point when not only was any Bolshevik proclaimed a supporter of peace on any terms, but any anti-war uprising was declared to have been inspired by the Bolsheviks.

After the Kerensky government was overthrown and the gradual demobilization began, desertion from the front became rampant. Vladimir Lenin, chairman of the Soviet government, called it a “vote by foot” to cease hostilities immediately. Years of war had convinced soldiers that their main enemy was internal, not external. People put under arms sought to go home to protect their families from economic ruin, starvation, and the arrogant “bourgeoisie” (often including the wealthy inhabitants of the same village). In this respect, the drive for peace turned out to be consequential. Despite the resistance of the military command, at the call of the Bolsheviks, the privates independently and with great enthusiasm concluded truces at different areas of the front. 

The Soviet government advocated signing a fair peace treaty, hoping to bring all sides to the negotiating table. The only one who responded to this proposal was Germany. However, during the negotiations, it became clear that it had no intention of respecting the territorial integrity of Russia. To demonstrate to the states in the conflict the sincere desire for an agreement, the Bolsheviks organized a massive demonstration in mid-December 1917. Just as six months earlier, workers and soldiers took to the streets with slogans in support of peace: “Long live a universal democratic peace,” “Workers, soldiers of all countries, demand immediate peace,” “Long live Soviet power, which has opened the way to peace of nations,” and so on.

The more the peace talks at Brest-Litovsk stalled, the more the Soviet government accepted the possibility of a resumption of hostilities. The forces on both sides were unequal: demoralized and exhausted soldiers and poorly trained divisions of workers could not stand against the disciplined German regular troops. The Soviet leadership could only hope for the beginning of an uprising against governments in all the countries at war. Indeed, the trends at this time backed this hope. However, the military threat quickly changed the minds of the supporters of revolutionary warfare. After the failure of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, the German army launched an offensive. The Russian front fell apart, and whole military units moved to the rear without resistance. The Soviet authorities were unable to form significant revolutionary units. A speaker at the Petrograd party congress described changes in the mood of the “masses”: “Two weeks ago, the workers supported the idea of a revolutionary war. … But then they saw that the enemy was terrifying, including not only the Whites but also the Bavarian peasants with technologically advanced arms. In contrast, all we had were scattered unarmed artels [note: a cooperative association] of workers. So all the collectives, one after another, began to declare that no revolutionary war could be waged and that peace had to be concluded”. 

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was concluded in March 1918 in the direst military conditions of a failed front, when there was a direct threat of the Germans seizing the capital. This treaty, which implied both territorial and monetary losses, was recognized as shameful and humiliating not only by the opponents of Soviet power but also by the Bolshevik allies and the party itself. Its conclusion increased the dissent between the people and deepened the internal conflict, which escalated into a full-scale civil war. 

None of the political forces (the tsarist authorities, the moderate socialist government, the Soviets) could achieve the degree of social mobilization necessary for the continuation of military action at the front. For the country’s population in general, the war was an external event that disrupted their usual routine. Hence, various forms of evasion were born, in the people’s desire to fence themselves off from it. Of course, the attitude of the Russian population toward war and peace was changed and manifested itself distinctly only in periods of crisis. At this point, more than a hundred years later, it is impossible to say for sure which sentiments prevailed. Regardless of people’s ideas about foreign affairs, concern for one’s family and home was the dominant mood. External danger did not become an existential threat to the majority of Russians. But the hardships of the protracted conflict became an obvious question of survival, both at the front under bullets and at the home front on the verge of starvation. The state failed to perform the protectionist functions necessary to reproduce power in traditional societies. As a result, people took the responsibility to protect their loved ones and were ready to fight for it. And this is what is called a revolution. 

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