When the Russian Empire entered World War I in August of 1914, the Tsarist regime viewed it as a chance to renew patriotic fervor and confidence in the government. Since the institution of a weak constitutional order after the 1905 Russian Revolution, the Russian autocracy existed in a constant state of peril. A victory against the great powers of Austria-Hungary and Germany would win the government favor and weaken the political clout of revolutionary actors. However, not unlike a decade earlier in the Russo-Japanese War, the incompetence of the military’s leaders and the inability of Russian industry to properly train, supply, and direct the troops would have the opposite of the intended effect and bring the empire to its knees. And this time the soldiers themselves would help tear it down.
Although the war started on a positive note with a successful initial push into East Prussia in August of 1914, things quickly turned for the Russian forces. Despite greatly outnumbering enemy forces, they had suffered two major defeats by September, costing over 300,000 men and ejecting them out of Germany. In the next two and a half years, the army would not fare much better and when it did succeed, it came at great cost. By the end of October 1916, they suffered almost 5,000,000 casualties and had been driven out of Poland. Needless to say, troop morale suffered greatly.
More than 18 million men served in the Imperial Russian army during the war and the vast majority of them came from the peasantry. The hardships of war as well as the failures of their leaders to bring them victory led many of them to lose faith in the Tsar and his government and turn towards radical political views. Mutinies and desertion began to occur from the front all the way back to the hotbed of revolution in Petrograd.
These mutinies were vital to the success of the spontaneous February Revolution that resulted in the abdication of Nicholas II. In the days leading up to the overthrow a combination of police, cossacks, and soldiers were tasked with maintaining order in Petrograd. Loyal to the Tsar, the police held their lines as best they could and waited out the demonstrations. The soldiers, however, sympathizing with the demands of the demonstrators, often mingled with them in the streets. The crowds recognized this and actively attempted to neutralize the soldiers. On February 25th Nicholas II ordered Sergey Khabalov, the military commander of Petrograd to “put an end to the disorders in the capital.” Khabalov ordered his commanders to apply “ultimate means” to restore order. After a day of heightened violence, the 27th of February saw mass mutinies occur, triggered by a successful “coup” by the Volynskii Regiment in which soldiers told their officers that they would not fire on demonstrators. Other regiments followed suit and they began raiding arms stores, freeing prisoners, and taking over police stations. By the end of the day rebels controlled large portions of the city and most soldiers had either joined them or become neutral. According to a report by Khabalov, on the following morning only 600 infantry and 500 cavalry of the original 180,000 men in the garrison remained loyal to the government. Days later, Nicholas abdicated the throne; the first step on Russia’s path to becoming the Soviet Union.
The wave of mutiny that swept over the garrison of Petrograd shows just how disaffected the people had become with the state of affairs under the tsarist government. Tired of fighting a bloody and failed war and sympathizing with the plight of the worker and peasant classes from which most of them hailed, the imperial army ironically delivered the fatal blow to the nearly 200 year-old Russian Empire.
Simkin, J. (n.d.). Russia and the First World War. Retrieved from http://spartacus-educational.com/RUSfww.htm
Stanley Washburn, The Russian Campaign: April to August, 1915 (London: Andrew Melrose, LTD., 1915), 268.
Wildman, Allan K.. The end of the Russian Imperial Army. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980-1987.