Category Archives: Russia

14 JULY, 1917: Stuck In The Middle

A hundred years ago today, after exactly eight years in office, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg resigned as Germany’s Imperial Chancellor.  On the same day, far to the northeast, the first Provisional Assembly of Estonia opened its first session.  Neither centenary is likely to make much of a splash in British heritage terms, but both signalled big changes in the modern history of their own countries.  I’ll start, like you do during world wars, with Germany.

Bethmann Hollweg’s departure had been coming.  The advent of the Third Supreme Command, a lurch towards totalitarian control over an all-out war effort by a military-industrial oligarchy, had condemned Germany’s wartime political truce, or Burgfrieden, to a slow death, leaving the Chancellor adrift in the space between polarising political extremes.

I won’t repeat my enthusiastic condemnation of the Third Supreme Command’s dictatorship (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint), except to point out that its attempt to harness every aspect of German economic life to the pursuit of total victory deliberately rode roughshod over political opposition.  Liberal or moderate left-wing elements, both within the labour movement and in the Reichstag (parliament), were by then accustomed to being consulted, and even occasionally listened to, in line with the Burgfrieden, and reacted by stiffening their opposition.  As the exceptionally harsh winter of 1916–17 brought severe civilian shortages and faltering popular morale, political opposition focused on the Supreme Command’s refusal to consider any peace built on less than total victory, while industrial opposition took the form of strikes and street protests.

Bethmann Hollweg could only weave between the lines and hope to find some route back to national unity, but he never really stood a chance.  Although he retained the support of the Kaiser – who was, in his one-eyed, bewildered way, equally desperate to keep the nation together – the Chancellor was regarded as part of the problem by both the Reichstag and the Supreme Command.  His attempts to broker a negotiated peace were as hopeless as they were half-hearted (18 December, 1916: Peace?  No Chance), and though he hoped to appease the Reichstag by prising a promise of post-War constitutional reform from the Kaiser in March, it was too little too late.

April saw the US enter the War, while a wave of strikes hit industrial production in northern Germany and the political debate about war aims became entangled with demands for immediate constitutional reform.  All this helped undermine a hitherto solid popular faith in the Supreme Command’s promises of imminent victory, and with no sign that the regime intended to listen to, let alone meet any of its demands, rising public discontent encouraged the Reichstag’s main opposition parties to come together and formally demolish the Burgfrieden.

All pomp and bad circumstances… the Reichstag in July 1917.

On 7 July 1917 the centre and socialist parties tabled a joint declaration in the Reichstag demanding an immediate peace without annexations or indemnities.  Known as the Peace Resolution, it was proposed by Max Erzberger, a leading member of the conservative Catholic Centre Party who generally regarded socialists as Satan’s little helpers, and it was passed by 212 votes to 126 on 12 July.  A direct affront to the Supreme Command’s ambitious plans for expansion into Eastern Europe, the Resolution left Bethmann Hollweg high and dry, unable to support either its proponents or its right-wing opponents.  Liberal leaders in the Reichstag, the Supreme Command’s phalanx of right-wing deputies and senior military officers were all sufficiently dissatisfied with the Chancellor’s dithering response to form an unlikely (and very temporary) alliance that forced his resignation on Bastille Day.

Appropriately enough, Bethmann Hollweg’s fall marked the start of a new phase in Germany’s accelerating collapse to revolution.  Faced with the firm parliamentary expression of public opposition, and with something less than full support from the civilian head of government, the Supreme Command simply sidelined the Reichstag and the office of chancellor.  Bethmann Hollweg’s replacement, Georg Michaelis (appointed after the Kaiser refused to accept the Supreme Command’s first two choices, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz) was a puppet of the Ludendorff regime with no personal support in the Reichstag.  That didn’t matter to the Supreme Command because it had stopped listening to the Reichstag, which did manage to remove Michaelis in October – only to be saddled with another puppet, the elderly Bavarian right-winger Georg von Hertling – but otherwise exerted no significant influence on policy for the rest of the War.

In response to its loss of parliamentary legitimacy, and by way of providing a semblance of popular mandate for its pursuit of the Hindenburg Programme’s crazy targets, the Supreme Command put funds into a new political pressure group, the Fatherland Party.  Led by Tirpitz, and loudly in favour of all the Supreme Command’s expansionist visions, it was launched in the autumn of 1917 and did eventually boast more than a million members, but most came from the conservative agrarian or military communities, and it had no impact on the gathering storm of disempowered opposition from practically every other sector of German society.

The emblem of the Fatherland Party, 1917-18.

While Germany was being plunged into a deadly experiment in totalitarian post-democracy, a nation with rather less hubris when it came to world-changing destiny was taking its first, albeit faltering step towards a future as a sovereign democracy.

Until the fall of the Russian tsar in 1917, modern Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, divided between the province of Estonia to the north and the northern, Estonian-speaking part of Livonia to the south. The region was effectively ruled by an oligarchy of semi-feudal landowners, many of them German-speaking, but Russification during the nineteenth century had reduced the influence of the German language on popular culture. Nationalist and Estonian language groups had sprung up during the early twentieth century, particularly during and after the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, and had become well established without achieving anything much by 1917, when the February Revolution changed everything.

You are here…

In line with its revolutionary principles, the new Provisional Government in Petrograd issued a decree on 12 April 1917, unifying the regions of Estonia and northern Livonia as an autonomous Governate of Estonia, and calling for elections to a national assembly. Using a system of two-tier suffrage designed to ensure the influence of reliably socialist soldiers and industrial workers, the elections were a political battleground on the Russian model, with Bolshevik and other revolutionary agitators competing for popular support with more moderate socialists, liberals and nationalists. The 62-seat Provisional Land Assembly (known locally as the Maapäev) that met on 14 July at Toompea Castle, the traditional seat of power in Estonia and the country’s current parliament building, reflected all those interests across seven fairly evenly matched party groupings.

While nationalist and moderate elements coexisted with revolutionaries for whom independence and liberal parliamentary institutions were merely steps on the way to a new world order, autonomy left Estonia open to the free passage of Russian agitators and ideas. Far from producing the basis for unified progress towards sovereign status, the arrival of democracy plunged Estonia into the same kind of chaotic factional warfare that was undermining the Provisional Government in Russia.

Months of instability culminated in a failed Bolshevik coup d’état in the wake of Russia’s October Revolution, prompting a declaration of full independence by the Assembly in November 1917. Revolutionary parties fared poorly in new elections held the following January, but Russian-funded Bolsheviks responded with a second, more serious attempt to seize power, and that persuaded the newly independent nation to ask for German protection.

Russian war minister Kerensky addresses sailors in Revel (Tallinn). The port was a major Russian naval base and a hotbed of revolutionary activism.

Estonia got German protection in spades. After expelling revolutionary forces from the port of Revel (Tallinn to you and me) in February 1918, the German Army put the country under military occupation, inevitably coupled with economic exploitation. The small Estonian Army created by the Assembly was disbanded in April, which left the country virtually defenceless when the German withdrew after the Armistice, a situation immediately exploited by a Red Army invasion.  The Soviet force (ostensibly made up of Estonian revolutionaries) was eventually prevented from retaking Tallinn by Royal Navy warships in the Baltic, and driven back into Russia by a reconstituted Estonian army the following January. Fighting inside Russia continued for most of 1919, and Russia’s Bolshevik regime officially recognised Estonia’s full independence by a peace treaty signed in February 1920.

So while a defiant expression of German liberal democracy left it helpless in the face of right-wing dictatorship, the first expression of Estonian liberal democracy plunged a country so far untouched by three years of fighting into virtual civil war as it fought off left-wing dictatorship.  In both cases, the existence of democracy depended on the goodwill of authorities that were anything but liberal, and in both cases it would take a long, painful process to establish liberal democracy as genuine political force.   If there’s a lesson for the future to be drawn from these vaguely linked events, I guess it’s that anything stuck in the middle of the political road – be it Bethmann Hollweg, Estonian nationalism or liberal democracy – is a fragile thing in extreme times.  Oh, and that democracy handed out to populations by powerful third parties – be they kings, empires or multinational coalitions – can always be taken away again.

1 JULY, 1917: The Last Straw

The second half of June 1917 was, in some ways, a bustling interlude for Europe at war.  The great Allied offensive in France had failed, the German attempt to end the war with submarines was failing and the overthrow of the Russian tsar hadn’t brought the end of civilisation as great power strategists knew it – but there was plenty of tidying up and polishing of tarnished images to do before the next wave of fighting, scheduled for early July.

The first division of US Army troops landed at the French port of St. Nazaire on 25 June, a moment that brought a proud tear to the eye of their watching c-in-c, General John J. Pershing, but had no immediate military significance.  The First Division – some 14,500 men, many of them raw recruits – was in for a long spell of training by French officers and a longer wait for any action, but the enormous Allied fanfare that greeted its arrival was all about boosting popular morale after another disappointing spring.

The French were meanwhile taking the opportunity to tidy up the mess they’d helped make in Greece, as discussed the other day, and the British firmed up for a renewed invasion of Palestine by appointing General Allenby, a seasoned, senior general, to command the theatre (24 March, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip).  The German High Command, having learned more from the Battle of Messines than the victorious British, was busy toughening up its defences on the Western Front, and preparing for the offensive Haig was quite obviously planning in Flanders by transferring troops there from the dormant Eastern Front (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn).

The German Army could afford to do this because Russian armed forces were still far too busy with revolution to perform any coherent military function.  This was old news by late June, recognised on all sides as a fact of life and emphasised when the Russian Black Sea fleet mutinied at the Crimean base of Sevastopol on 21 June.  It’s a measure of the Russian Provisional Government’s desperation to establish some sort of control over the revolution’s cascading chaos that, when the brief European interlude came to a crashing end on 1 July , it was shattered by the launch of a major Russian Army offensive.

Known as the Kerensky Offensive or the July Offensive, the attack was planned by the Provisional Government’s effective leader, war minister Kerensky, and the Russian Army’s new c-in-c, General Brusilov.  Both recognised that it represented an enormous gamble on the Army’s willingness to fight, and both knew the odds were heavily against success.

The collapse of the Provisional Government’s fantasy that an outburst of international pacifism would end the War left Kerensky with little option but to hope that a ‘liberty offensive’ against the ‘imperialist’ Central Powers, and ideally a victory, would unite popular opinion in defence of the revolution while encouraging Russia’s allies to maintain vital economic support (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).  Brusilov, the architect of Russia’s only notable military success on the Eastern Front, had been on the point of dismissal before the new government promoted him, and regarded the Army as doomed unless it could be revived by the patriotic unity that only a fighting victory over a hated enemy could inspire.  Between them they set up a repeat of the 1916 offensive in Galicia, at the southern end of the Eastern Front, that had made Brusilov’s name (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…).

Whereas the first Galician offensive had attacked along the whole Galician sector, lack of reliable manpower restricted the second to two main thrusts.  Brusilov took command of the northern attack, by the combined remains of the 7th and 11th Armies (31 divisions, now renamed the ‘Red Army’) along a 65km front around the town of Brody.  Launched on 1 July, it went very well at first, taking 10,000 prisoners on the first day and driving German General Bothmer’s largely Austro-Hungarian Südarmee back towards Lvov – but it soon lost momentum as low morale, chaotic supply lines and the arrival of German reinforcements (sent from the Western Front once Brusilov’s preparations had made his intentions clear) reduced its advance to a crawl.  Aware that his forces were falling apart, Brusilov called off offensive operations around Brody on 16 July.

There’s your map. You’ll be needing it.

Meanwhile, in the Bukovina region to the southwest, General Kornilov’s Russian Eighth Army had opened its attack along a 100km front south of the River Dneister on 6 July.  Facing Austro-Hungarian forces that were barely fit to fight, it too enjoyed early success, breaking through the lines west of Stanislau on 8 July and advancing some 30km by the time the attack ran out of steam on 12 July.  With troops refusing to fight and supplies running short, Russian forces were static or withdrawing all along the Galician front when Bothmer’s reinforced Südarmee launched a major counterattack on 19 July.

Preceded by a 7-hour preliminary bombardment and led by German Army units, the counterattack’s main thrust was aimed at Brody, and it blew away the right wing of Brusilov’s force, gaining 15km in the first day – at which point the Red Army disintegrated, with most troops simply giving up and going home.  Austro-German forces then advanced into empty space, retaking Stanislau on 24 July, reaching Czernowitz on 3 August and crossing the Galician frontier either side of the Dneister by the time new c-in-c Kornilov – who replaced Brusilov on 1 August – had stabilised the front.

The Russian Army was just about capable of an attack in July 1917… but ran away when it was attacked.

A supporting offensive by Russian and Romanian forces based in Moldovia was eventually launched on 22 July, and met a similar fate. After making initial gains, it was halted when German General Mackensen’s multinational army in Romania counterattacked on 6 August.  By 9 August Mackensen’s troops had won a battle around the town of Foscani to threaten the Allied rear, but although one Russian division disintegrated of its own accord the Romanian Army, drastically reorganised since the debacle of its 1916 campaign, regained some of its former reputation by refusing to buckle.  The Allied line was still holding at the end of August, when the German High Command switched its attention to other fronts.

The Kerensky Offensive is not part of our First World War heritage showreel, and on one level that’s fair enough.  Like so many other wartime offensives it was a miserable failure that achieved none of its aims and wasted thousands of lives.  On the other hand, and unlike any of its better-remembered predecessors, it was decisive.

After the offensive’s failure, the Russian Army effectively ceased to exist and, apart from an experimental German attack around Riga in September, serious fighting on the Eastern Front came to an end. The Provisional Government in Petrograd never recovered from the stigma of sending Russians back into battle, and had no more big cards to play as the revolution passed irrevocably into the angry control of the streets and the soviets.  The German High Command, recognising that it could leave Russia to fall apart on its own, was able to redistribute its forces for fighting on other fronts and the exploitation of occupied eastern European territories.  Given the momentous consequences of these changes – in the short term for other battlefronts and for the German war effort; in the long term for the history of Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe and the superpower world – the Kerensky Offensive stands as one of modern history’s great military turning points.

So while you’re applauding 150 years of Canada’s benign consumerism, and just before the heritage industry swamps you with remembrance of Passchendaele’s hapless horrors, raise a glass of something very cold to Kerensky’s doomed last throw of the dice. The July Offensive may have been the worst kind of First World War battle, a grotesque waste of lives in a cause its perpetrators knew to be all but hopeless, but at least this batch of dead soldiers changed the world.

16 JUNE, 1917: Peace Wars

By way of an anniversary, the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened in Petrograd a hundred years ago today.  I plan to talk about it in context rather than in detail, because although it confirmed the legitimacy of the Provisional Government that had, in the form of various coalitions, been trying to run Russia since the February Revolution (in March), it otherwise reflected the chaotic nature of its political environment.

Most of the thousand or so delegates, and most of the workers or soldiers they represented, simply wanted food and peace in a hurry, but debates were guided by the more political animals among them, representing a wide spectrum of liberal and socialist views. These politicians, some of them hardened opponents of the old regime at the climax of a decades-long struggle, bickered along the lines anyone with a working knowledge of socialism in the early twentieth century would expect.

The majority wanted controlled, relatively gradual change within something like the social, political and geopolitical norms of the day, while a substantial minority argued for immediate revolution and a completely new socio-political world order. For the moment, the political gradualists still held sway in Petrograd and Moscow (the only places that really mattered when it came to controlling Russian politics), but with every day that passed without peace or economic transformation the workers and soldiers became more impatient, their mood more in tune with the aims of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other revolutionary political factions.

Messrs Skobelev, Chkheidze, Plekhanov and Tsereteli.  Members of the Provisional Government and executive committee members of the All-Russian Congress, these were the relatively moderate socialists trying to hold back the tide of revolutionary pacifism in Russia.

The Congress both reflected the wild state of flux that had characterised Russian politics since the beginning of the year (and that generally accompanies revolution on the streets wherever it takes place), and was one of its by-products. Worker’s and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, had been a feature of the half-cocked 1905 revolution in Russia, and had returned in force during 1917, springing up spontaneously or as the work of local agitators all over Pertrograd, Moscow and the armed forces. During the February Revolution, those in the capital had been loosely organised into a central Petrograd Soviet, which had since been acting as a form of volatile but extremely powerful parliament, allowing the new Provisional Government to remain in power at its pleasure and drawing it ever further to the left.

The Petrograd Soviet was meanwhile facing its own challenges from below. In an attempt to add some semblance of concrete to its essentially ad hoc authority, it had organised a meeting of all the soviets it could muster, convened on 3 June with the understandably grandiose title of the National Conference of Soviets. The main business of the Conference was to organise the systems of credentials and voting necessary to turn itself into a congress that could claim a national, democratic mandate for policy decisions.

After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik-controlled All-Russian Congress would go on to function as the supreme political authority in Russia (rather than the whole USSR) until 1936, but in June 1917 it was just another noisy institution flailing in the whirlwind of ongoing revolution. While its leaders jockeyed to fill power vacuums, its constituent soviets swung towards radicalism and their delegates waited to be replaced, its debates centred on the one shared aim that might, if achieved, bring relative calm and the prospect of real social progress: peace.

Everyone with anything to say inside revolutionary Russia talked about wanting peace, and Russia – with its army, economy and society in ruins – was obviously ripe for peace, but wanting peace wasn’t quite the same as being a pacifist or as simple as it sounds.

For Marxism-inspired revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky – important street politicians in the context of the Petrograd whirlwind, but at this stage hardly bookies’ favourites as Russia’s next leaders – peace was a simple matter. Unwavering pacifists, they had opposed the War since before it began, regarded the conflict as a grotesque example of elite classes getting underclasses to do their fighting for them, and simply demanded that Russia stop fighting at once, leaving the warring states to sort out any fallout for themselves. This view resonated nicely with the impatient masses, but not with the gradualist side of Russian socialism, and not with the Provisional Government.

Left-leaning, and lurching further that way to keep up with events, but still essentially attached to the principles of pre-War liberal Europe, the Provisional Government desperately wanted peace and a chance to calm the storms, but not at any price. It promoted the socialist slogan – ‘peace without annexations or indemnities’ – that had already become a global buzz-phrase for pacifists, but it didn’t want to leave Russia at the mercy of a victorious German Army and it didn’t dare risk the loss of Allied economic aid by walking away from the fight. The government instead pinned its hopes on ending the War by bringing international socialism together for a peace conference – but by mid-June that wasn’t going so well.

In early June, the National Conference of Soviets (along with Dutch and Scandinavian socialist groups) had sent invitations to a conference in Stockholm to socialists from all the belligerent countries, but most belligerent governments were in no mood to grant passports to travelling pacifists and immediately banned delegates from travelling to Stockholm. Even more damagingly, a majority of Western European socialists at war, though in theory committed to seeking peace, remained patriots first and foremost, determined on a peace in line with their country’s needs and ambitions. The same catch had undermined international socialism’s stand against war in 1914, and pre-conference talks with international socialists already in Petrograd as observers quickly demonstrated that as yet, despite war-weariness and the rebirth of socialism as a revolutionary force in Russia, nobody else on either side was willing to abandon national interest for international brotherhood.

Displaying the kind of optimism it takes something like the overthrow of an emperor to generate, the Provisional Government clung to the belief that Stockholm represented a real chance of peace, pinning its hopes on the fact that the British government, alone among the major allies, had granted passports to pacifists. By the time the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened those hopes had been dashed, and the British government was in the process of changing its mind. Why and how the Lloyd George coalition dithered its way to disapproval pretty much summed up why mainstream socialism was, as diplomacy had been a few months earlier, incapable of delivering peace in 1917.

For obvious strategic reasons, the British government wanted the Provisional Government to survive and carry on fighting. With the Labour Party installed as part of the governing coalition, it was also less afraid of pacifists or revolutionaries than most European governments (and less hostile to socialism in general than the USA), so its first reaction to the Stockholm proposals was to give peace and the new Russian regime a chance. Passports were therefore granted to a small group of pacifists, led by Labour MP and future premier Ramsay Macdonald, but they were prevented from sailing from Aberdeen on 11 June by the Firemen’s and Seamen’s Union, which then organised a nationwide blockade of ports to stop them finding a another route out of the country.

The leader of Labour’s pacifist wing thwarted by a picket line? Cartoon gold in 1917.

The stated reason for this superficially bizarre behaviour was the seamen’s fury at public rejection by pacifists, and by MacDonald in particular, of their demands for reparations from Germany to compensate the victims of submarine warfare. MacDonald tried to defuse the situation by making a statement accepting the seamen’s view that reparations should be paid to both Allied and neutral victims, but it made no difference because the real issue behind the blockade was the union’s mistrust and resentment of pacifism itself.

The delegation gave up and went home on 15 June, by which time popular and press support for the union’s actions had made clear to the cabinet that, much as the government wanted to give peace without indemnities a chance, the nation as a whole wanted the pound of flesh propaganda had led most people to expect. The delegates’ passports were cancelled, any hope disappeared that the Stockholm conference would be more than another token gathering of powerless pacifists, albeit bolstered by the newly empowered pacifists of the Russian revolutionary left, and the government in Petrograd was left with the impossible task of satisfying bellicose allies and a pacifist population.

Peace was what everyone wanted, even in Britain, but pacifism was another matter altogether.

Just how badly that turned out is another part of the wider story. For now, this grossly simplified, largely fact-free amble through the muddy, swirling waters of socialist politics in June 1917 is a reminder of how quickly the solidarity of opposition can be turned into civil war by the expectations, dilemmas and compromises that come with power. It is also, like the fate of Austrian Emperor Karl I (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), a reminder that once you start breaking up a system you’d better go all the way, or someone else will do it for you. They can often seem like a good idea to people trying to balance a vested interest in stability against a conscience, but moderate revolutionaries are still an oxymoron trying to deliver the impossible… so watch your back, M le Président.

21 APRIL, 1917: Anarchy in the Ukraine

You couldn’t say it was exactly world-shattering news at the time.  It couldn’t really compete for headlines with the monstrous Allied offensives in full cry on the Western Front, accompanied by the crowd-pleasing dogfights of Bloody April and the Red Baron’s surge to fame.  From anywhere West of the Rhine, it hardly seemed important compared with the rising crescendo of submarine warfare, the exotic dramas of British advances through the Middle East, the diplomatic fallout from Washington’s momentous move to war, or reports of mayhem in St. Petersburg as Lenin joined the crowded ranks of revolutionaries returned from exile.  What with all that and more kicking off at around the same time, it’s hardly surprising nobody in the West made too much fuss about the successful conclusion, on 21 April 1917, of the first Ukrainian National Congress.  A century on, nothing’s changed.

What little attention Western academics have paid to the Eastern Front over the decades has tended to view it from the perspective of the major empires involved, understandably enough given that most available source material comes from imperial bureaucracies, especially the German bureaucracy.  So our standard Western view of the First World War skates over its enormous importance to those countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic states – that stood on the western frontiers of the Russian Empire and would one day form an inner ring of Soviet satellites.  In the Ukraine, for instance, the Great War was on one hand a social and environmental catastrophe, as the country became a battlefield under military occupation and conscripted Ukrainians fought for both sides, but was on the other hand a golden opportunity that transformed the idea of national independence into fleeting reality.

Ignoring the current battle for its eastern territories, modern Ukraine comprises the western majority of what was, in 1914, the Russian imperial province of Kiev, along with parts of what was then southern Poland, some of it under Austro-Hungarian control. Nationalist ideas and organisations had taken hold among academics, businessmen and politicians in pre-War Kiev, aiming at greater regional autonomy and promotion of the Ukrainian language, but they were efficiently suppressed in one of the most militarily controlled sectors of the Russian Empire and had little impact on the rest of the country. Controls were tightened further under wartime conditions, but everything changed when the February Revolution of March 1917 toppled the Russian Tsar (8 March, 1917: False Start).

Ukraine as envisaged by the Rada in 1917. Big, huh…

News travelled fast by telegraph in March 1917, and views moved like lightning through the conduit of a Russian Army consumed by revolutionary turmoil at every level. On 17 March, only five days after proclamation of the new Provisional Government in St. Petersburg, Ukrainian politicians, workers, military agitators, businessmen, students, bureaucrats and churchmen came together in Kiev to found the Central Council of Ukraine. More commonly known as the Central Rada, it was led as chairman by historian and nationalist activist Mikhailo Hrushevsky, and wasted no time testing the St. Petersburg government’s avowed liberal principles.

Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, among the finest beards of the War so far.

After issuing a declaration of support for the Provisional Government on 22 March, the Rada began establishing itself as St. Petersburg’s rival for authority over the Russian Ukraine. Hrushevsky, essentially a social democrat, guided the Rada in pursuit of autonomy as a prelude to full independence, and spent his first weeks in office building a wider mandate for its authority, organising delegates from the many elements represented by the Rada, and anyone else willing to participate, into a national congress.

Seven hundred voting delegates – along with 200 non-voting observers and some 600 guests – attended the National Congress that convened in Kiev on 19 April.  The Congress elected 150 delegates to form a new Rada that was in effect a governing parliament, and confirmed Hrushevsky as its chairman, with leaders of the two main Ukrainian political parties as his deputies.  Most significantly, the new Rada included representatives from provincial authorities, and from the socialist workers’ organisations and soviets that were surging into life in every urban area of any size, extending its writ beyond the Kiev region for the first time.  By the time the Congress dissolved on 21 April, it had transformed the Central Council into a provisional government that would lead the Ukraine towards tentative and short-lived independence.

During the next few weeks, the Rada worked to establish its bona fides as a legitimate national government.  It elected a ‘small council’ of thirty members, including representatives of most political groupings, to serve as a cabinet, and on 10 June it declared national autonomy for the Ukraine.  Later that month, in an attempt to widen its influence beyond Kiev, the Rada was expanded to include 130 representatives from soldiers’ councils and 133 from the peasantry.

Peasants made up the vast majority of the Ukraine’s 30 million people.  Principally concerned with peaceful subsistence, they gave the Rada important if somewhat uncommitted support, and presented no serious threat to its authority.  Soldiers’ councils, or soviets, were much more dangerous to the Rada.  In control of most Russian Army units in the Ukraine, they were inclined to preach socialist revolution and generally looked to St. Petersburg for authority, as did many socialist groups in urban areas.  The Rada’s attempt to incorporate the soviets, which was only partly successful and had little impact outside the north of the country, reflected its greatest challenge in the months after the Tsar’s demise – how to achieve peaceful co-existence with a Russian Provisional Government that still claimed political control over the Ukraine.

A compromise was reached in July, when the Russian government agreed to recognise the Rada and defer any binding decisions concerning the Ukraine’s autonomy or sovereignty.  The deal prevented any immediate, mutually unproductive conflict but otherwise solved nothing.  With Kerensky’s Russian regime being forced further and further to the left in order to survive, Ukrainian soviets becoming more radical with every passing day and the Central Powers waiting in the wings if the Russian Army collapsed, the Rada government could do little more than survive through a summer of rising instability, maintaining an appearance of cohesion in its Kiev power base amid seismic socio-political shifts on all sides.

For all its rapid reaction to events, impressive attempts to promote unity and efficient creation of ‘national’ institutions, the Rada’s provisional government was not long for this world.  Viewed by revolutionary socialists as a liberal, bourgeois enemy of the workers, and dismissed as such by the Bolshevik regime after Russia’s October Revolution, it was effectively overthrown in January 1918 by a rival soviet government based in Kharkov.  The Rada responded by declaring Ukrainian independence from the new Soviet Union on 22 January and making a separate peace with the Central Powers, which had been providing diplomatic and financial support since the spring.  This treaty, signed on 9 February and known in Germany as the Brotfrieden (‘bread peace’), left the Rada as a powerless puppet government and ushered in a long period of violent misery for the Ukrainian people.

Signing the ‘bread peace’. Bad idea.

On the positive side, the Central Powers granted Ukrainian control of the Cholm region, a northern province that was also claimed by an independent Poland.  The concession ruined Vienna’s hopes of getting Poland to accept an Austro-Hungarian protectorate, but the urgent need for Ukrainian food supplies was seen as more important.  In return, the Rada invited the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies to occupy Russian Ukraine, authorised their immediate seizure of grain and other supplies on a vast scale, and accepted German Field Marshal Eichhorn as effective military dictator of Ukraine and the Crimea.

Eichhorn’s ruthless attempts to meet the colossal demands for food laid down by the Third Supreme Command in Berlin brought severe hardship to rural Ukrainians, while his imposition of forced labour programmes to increase agricultural production fed rising nationalist unrest in the countryside.  By the time Eichhorn was assassinated by nationalists in Kiev, on 30 July 1918, military occupation was the only force keeping a lid on a chaotic cauldron of revolutionary turmoil, and the collapse of Germany in November brought anarchy in the Ukraine.

During the next three years fourteen different governments claimed to represent the Ukraine, and a state of civil war was only calmed by a fairly secure Bolshevik takeover in 1921.  From the that point the Ukraine became part of the USSR, and though the new Soviet Republic permitted some nationalist and peasant representation, no echo of the Rada’s legacy survived the brutal repression of Stalinism in the 1930s.

So why bother commemorating the birth of something that can only be described as a short-lived failure?  Because the Ukraine is now a sovereign state, in part constructed from the blueprints laid down by the Rada in 1917 and under severe pressure a century later. These days I think we can all agree that its future matters to ours, so on the grounds that it’s good to understand things that matter, here’s to the flawed godfathers of Ukrainian nationhood, and here’s to sneaking a bit of the Ukraine’s history, however sketchy and blind to its many controversies, into our heritage.

8 MARCH, 1917: False Start

A bit like damp inside a wall, the way in which information travels can be mysterious, counter-intuitive even.  Take today’s big, important centenary.  Thursday, 8 March 1917 was the first day of the uprising in Petrograd known to Western posterity as the February Revolution, and to most Russians as the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution – but the date isn’t as well known as it used to be, and that’s because of the Internet.  Here’s why.

Once upon a time, we picked up most of our history in books.  A lot of history books through the ages have been guilty of at least some political or academic bias, but even the most rabid, ridiculous propaganda needed to get basic stuff like dates right, by way of appearing sufficiently informed to compete in the arena of opinion. These days, the ‘right’ answer to anything is whatever’s most popular on the Internet, presumably on the grounds that going with the majority makes for best guesses, and whatever’s most popular tends to attract a lot of hits, increasing its apparent popularity and keeping it top of the chart.

Bad luck all round, then, that the oldest and best-established source for Internet facts about the First World War is the Times Chronology. A day-by-day diary of the War, written at the time and now out of copyright, it has a lot to recommend it – it’s nicely wide-ranging, for instance, and it translates into a very user-friendly website – but it is still the news as reported at the time, complete with all the Anglocentric bias, propaganda and (inevitable) ignorance that characterised the wartime British press.

The February Revolution came to the notice of The Times on 12 March 1917, when the uprising was on the point of proceeding to what we might call Stage Two, the overthrow of the Tsar and the formation of a new government.  That’s therefore the opening date of the Revolution as reported in the Chronology, and therefore the date quoted as fact by thousands of other sources (and presumably millions of schoolkids) all over the world.  Oops.

Popular history’s accidental loss of the February Revolution’s opening days flags up the need to root out and critique the sources of conflicting Net-facts, but there’s another point here that seems worth making.  Mass reinvention of memory isn’t a completely new phenomenon – I once blundered into redefining casualty figures for a Second World War battle by publishing an average of all the other figures quoted, and that was back in the 1980s – but the Net has been giving it some epidemic muscle.  The seeds of this year’s ‘post-truth’ have been germinating on our devices for some time, looking like innocent mistakes of no great consequence but training us all to accept the idea that the loudest, most persistent voice is probably the one to believe.

Then again, the seeds of post-truth in general have been around a lot longer. It can be argued that they go back to Napoleonic era propaganda, the Bayeux Tapestry or even the Bible, but the blame for their full flowering in the modern era is often pinned on the Russian Revolution of 1917, which enshrined as doctrine the state’s right to invent truth for its own purposes.  That was of course the altogether more celebrated Bolshevik, or October Revolution, a highly effective coup d’état carried out by a few people with a plan. The February Revolution, on the other hand, didn’t come with a plan. The uprising that erupted in the streets of Petrograd on 8 March – that tore down centuries of Tsarist rule and still ended up as a footnote to history written by the winners – was an outbreak of unadulterated chaos.

I’m not going to repeat myself by going into the toxic mix of longstanding social tensions, rapid industrialisation confined to tiny hotspots, governmental repression and wartime pressures that had the Russian Empire’s economy, society and political system on the ropes.  A browse through the ‘Russia’ category should fill in at least some background to a wave of industrial unrest, fuelled by primitive pay and conditions amid a government-sponsored orgy of civilian shortages and elite profiteering, that was sweeping the industrialised cities of Petrograd and Moscow in early 1917.

In Petrograd, a mass strike call by socialist and workers’ groups was answered by 140,000 workers on 22 January (we’re sticking to the modern calendar here) and followed by the arrest of its leaders. Another mass strike brought out 85,000 Petrograd workers on 27 February, and from that point worker protests spun out of control. Wildcat strikes all over the city were joined by civilians of all kinds protesting at rumours of bread rationing (pretty much the ultimate disaster signal for an empire covered in wheat fields), and demonstrators congregated in the city centre from 8 March, demanding food, peace and – as their numbers grew over the following days – revolution.  If you’re reminded, weather conditions aside, of scenes in Cairo during the Arab Spring, you’re not far off the mark.

Russian spring, 1917

The Tsarist regime was by now quite used to turning its guns on protestors, but troops began refusing royal orders to fire on civilians on 11 March.  Most of the Petrograd garrison had joined the rebels by 13 March, and similar scenes had put Moscow in rebel hands by the next day.  Meanwhile, as the Army’s plans for a pro-monarchist advance on Petrograd fell apart for lack of reliable troops, the imperial cabinet had resigned en masse on 12 March and liberal deputies in the Duma had attempted to co-opt the uprising by forming a new government, proclaiming themselves a Temporary Committee on the same day and demanding the Tsar’s abdication.  In a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy as an institution, the Army’s supreme command, Stavka, supported the demand.

Nicholas II duly abdicated on 15 March, and later that day the Duma announced formation of a ‘Provisional Government’.  The new government’s nominal leader, Prince Lvov, was an experienced imperial politician with a history of representing landed interests, and was chosen in an attempt to unite urban and rural elements behind the Duma.  Inasmuch as this represented any kind of revolutionary plan, it was rapidly overwhelmed by events.

Stavka, reduced to grasping at anything that might calm the troops, announced its acceptance of the new regime, and on 16 March the monarchy disappeared when the ex-Tsar’s brother, Grand Duke Michael, refused to accept the crown.  In terms of conventional politics, the Provisional Government now had the field to itself – but conventions were being overwhelmed by street politics.

Workers’ groups, socialists and unions in Petrograd had been forming into elected councils, or ‘soviets’, which had in turn elected representatives to a high council, the Petrograd Soviet.  The only organisation able to influence or exert any strategic control over the city’s rebel masses, the Soviet promoted socialist revolution and its ambitions had little or nothing in common with the Provisional Government’s broadly liberal agenda for a parliamentary democracy.  Forced to appease the Soviet as the only means of remaining in even nominal control, the Provisional Government was being dragged to the left from the moment of its creation, and effective leadership quickly passed to its only socialist member, justice minister Kerenski.

Workers’ revolution always sounds like a good idea…

For the next few months the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government functioned as an uneasy, volatile and patently unsustainable dual regime.  A series of coalition cabinets formed by Kerenski – a politician whose struggles deserve more attention than they get from posterity – could do nothing to slow the Soviet’s accelerating radicalism, and neither body exerted any real control over the countryside beyond Petrograd and Moscow.  Meanwhile, under intense pressure from the western Allies, this unstable, fragile new Russia was still attempting to fight the biggest war in human history.

A worried man… Alexander Kerenski.

I’ll get back to post-imperial Russia and the Provisional Government as their tragedy plays out during 1917, but for the moment let’s just tip a hat to Revolution itself.

For all the chaos surrounding its eruption, the contradictions built into its progress and its belittlement by posterity, the February Revolution as an event did change the world.  It provided a huge and much needed shot in the arm for international socialism, which had been crushed by the events of August 1914 but now began reorganising to promote peace and post-War revolution.  It also acted as a magnet for individual activists, not all of them Russians, exiled from their homelands and ready to toss their metaphorical matches into the powder keg.  At the same time, the Provisional Government’s liberal credentials freed the United States to enter a wartime alliance without condoning despotism, and a wave of sympathy for the Russian people among the western Allies breathed new life into liberal visions of a ‘peace without annexations’, visions that were destined to exert a powerful influence over the immediate post-War world.

So there’s no real excuse for treating the February Revolution as a footnote, let alone for allowing its opening phase to disappear from popular history, particularly since its other great contribution to the future was setting a modern precedent for violent regime change driven by popular protest.   I’ll leave you to decide if that counts as an achievement.

20 FEBRUARY, 1917: Ask Don’t Get

A hundred years ago today, the Petrograd Conference broke up. Called for the purpose of assessing and improving Russia’s contribution to the Allied war effort, and Allied contributions to the Russian war effort, it had lasted 20 days and achieved very little.   All the same, the fact that it took place at all and the ways in which it failed do add up to an interesting glimpse at what an alliance between Britain, France and Russia really meant in 1917, as well as providing a snapshot of Russian imperial government immediately before it collapsed.

In any war you care to consider, at any time in history, coalitions mean conferences, whether called to coordinate the efforts of allies during a war or to share out the spoils at its end.  These days, international conferences at any level can take place without participants leaving their screens, and pre-industrial conferences among military allies ended to take place in the tent next to the battlefield.  In between, international conferences involved a lot of overseas travel.

The First World War took place just before technology took the sting out of overseas travel.  Conferences between widely separated allies remained arduous and potentially dangerous undertakings, usually conducted during the military quiet periods of mid-winter or high summer to reduce the risk of some major strategic change during the slow process of convening the delegates.

This basic logistic problem was one reason why it took the Allies until the end of 1915 to organise a major conference in France (8 December, 1915: Chat Lines), and the main reason why it was difficult to arrange any kind of conference between the Allies and Russia.  If getting a few Russian delegates to France represented an achievement, nobody wanted to ship boatloads of Allied delegates to Russia for a conference unless absolutely necessary.  By the middle of 1916, from both sides of the alliance, it was beginning to seem absolutely necessary.

 

Petrograd, as it was called between 1914 and 1924, was further from western Europe than this looks.

From a Russian perspective (as if perspective was a factor in imperial Russian government), the alliance wasn’t providing anything like enough military, supply or financial support.  Officials in Petrograd regarded the war on the Eastern Front as vital to the future of the Western Front, and believed that the Allies – and particularly Russia’s prime supplier, Britain – were holding back supplies because they failed to appreciate this fact.  Russian diplomats had meanwhile been unable to soften Britain’s hostility to unilateral trade between Russia and the USA, an attitude Petrograd put down to jealousy.

From an Allied point of view, the real problem with supplying the Russians was the Russian regime.  Shiploads of supplies were known to be rotting in dockyards that were simply not equipped to deal with the amount of traffic being sent from the West, let alone with the hundred percent increase the Russians were demanding.  The western Allies also doubted that military aid was being used properly when it did arrive, and the same applied to the financial credit being extended to Russia.  As for unilateral transatlantic trade, the British in fact feared that Russian business methods, considered cavalier and untrustworthy, could destabilise Allied relations with the USA.

Behind all these concerns lay a deep Allied mistrust of the Russian political and bureaucratic systems, and a mounting belief that the only way to sort them out was to go to Russia, find out what was really happening there and arrange support accordingly.  This was the main reason for Lord Kitchener’s trip to Russia in July 1916, which followed the failure of a London conference on Russian affairs, but his death en route postponed matters.  During the autumn, as Russian demands for loans beyond the scope of current agreements sparked another round of fruitless discussions with diplomats, plans were finalised for a major conference at Petrograd in early 1917.

Led by cabinet ministers and senior generals, British, French and Italian delegations finally reached Petrograd at the end of January, and after a few days of fractious preliminary meetings the conference opened officially on 1 February.  It quickly became clear that a full plenary session would be so crowded that any serious progress would be impossible, so the conference was split into committees to deal separately with military, political, financial and supply issues.  Even then, to the particular annoyance of British delegates, proceedings were slowed because a lot of senior Russian delegates were new to their jobs, such was the rate of ministerial turnover in the Tsar’s crumbling government, and by squabbling between rival Russian ministries.

The political committee had the easiest task, largely confined to confirming present arrangements and ensuring that all parties were aware of the others’ intentions.  The military committee was essentially in the same position, although the western Allies were obliged to repeat their rejection, confirmed at the Rome Conference a few weeks earlier (7 January, 1917: Back Door Man), of Russian demands that Greece be compelled to join the War on the Allied side, using military force if necessary.  Discussions about finance centred on Russia’s attempts to stop Britain demanding gold payments for loans made the previous year, and to secure unlimited credit for the duration of the War. They got nowhere, with Lord Milner, the head of the British delegation, eventually ending the debate by insisting on the need for further study.

Lord Milner’s worth a post of his own, and was a shadowy, influential figure among the British political elite. He was also a hard-core nationalist, imperialist kind of a guy…

The most important discussions and heated arguments were reserved for the knotty question of supplying Russia with military aid and trade. The Russians wanted more weapons from the western Allies, especially artillery, machine guns and rifles, but their negotiating technique reflected the regime they spoke for – inclined to fantasy, comfortable with fiction and naturally uncompromising – so they simply demanded huge numbers of everything.  The British and French (Italy was asking, not giving) wanted realistic assessments of Russia’s actual needs and of how much Russian docks could actually handle.  Supply would then depend on Allied estimates of what would constitute bang for buck on the field of battle.  These were not compatible positions, and they hadn’t got much more compatible by the time the conference broke up.

The Petrograd Conference failed to instigate any real changes in policy or process, failed to elicit any signs of reasonable compromise from the Russian administration, and was quickly rendered null and void by revolution in Russia – but it did provide one or two small benefits to the Allied war effort.  The Allies had learned to address all their issues with Russia as a coordinated whole, and their willingness to send important delegates such a long way had confirmed (to themselves and to Russians) the seriousness of their commitment to the alliance.   This helped smooth relations with the new Provisional Government in Petrograd, and some of the more useful organisational reforms discussed at the Conference did survive to improve the flow of supplies in the months that followed.

Petrograd also gave us a last, damning glimpse of imperial Russian bureaucracy and government at work before the February Revolution (which took place in March by the western calendar) consigned them to history.  The British, the French and the new Russian government were all quick to point the finger at the old regime when analysing the failings of the Conference, and I’m no apologist for the last Tsar’s catastrophic performance, but there is another side to that part of the story.

No matter how loudly they blamed Russian inefficiency, corruption and intransigence, the British had come to Petrograd with no intention of shifting their own position on supply and finance, or of admitting their own weakness in those matters.  By early 1917, all Allied loan and credit arrangements were dependent on US agreement, and a Wilson administration desperate to find grounds for peace was in no mood to make generous arrangements with belligerent autocracies.  Any major increase in supplies to Russia would also depend on US industry, which was already working to full capacity for its preferred Anglo-French clients, and anyway the rapid increase in losses to German submarines meant the British couldn’t spare any shipping to deliver more supplies.  Nothing about any of this was going to change in Petrograd, and the British knew it.

So although it wasn’t the first, the last or anything like the most significant example of the practice, the Petrograd Conference was a reminder of how easily and often the presence of a convincing scapegoat can be used to distract history’s attention from the full picture.

 

30 DECEMBER, 1916: About Time

One of the problems us humans have with 20th-century history in general, and with the world wars in particular, concerns the power of pictures.  There’s something intrinsically convincing about photographs and film from the age before Photoshop, probably because we’re instinctively trained to trust the image seen with our own eyes over any of the, often far more comprehensive pictures conjured up in speech or writing.  During and since the Second World War, for instance, propaganda or entertainment priorities have required film-makers and photographers to focus on the machines it spawned, and so most people consider that war the epitome of mechanisation, despite the fact that it is often and accurately described by historians as largely horse-drawn.

Film has meanwhile defined the First World War as a battle of machine guns, artillery, biplanes and heavy industry.  Up to a point, even allowing for the exaggerations of propaganda, it was – but only in those few places at the forefront of global socioeconomic and technological development.  What all those sepia photographs of trenches, tanks and Sopwith Camels fail to get across is that most of the world at war was living in much less sophisticated times.

This was obviously the case in what we now think of as the Third World – everywhere except Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, with Japan coming up fast on the rails – and the difference defined much wartime imperial interference in Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus.  Less obviously, big chunks of Europe were also way off the pace set by the most developed nations.  Small, independent countries like Serbia, Romania or Portugal, as well as large swathes of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, lived in conditions closer to feudalism than to the social norms in Germany, Britain or France.

Nowhere was the clash of modern warfare and mediaeval mysticism more pronounced or more important to the future than inside Russia, and nothing illustrates that more than the life and death of Grigor Rasputin, the Mad Monk to end all mad monks, who was murdered in St. Petersburg a century ago today.

Rasputin has made a couple of previous appearances in this prolonged folly, as the eccentric and massively influential personal advisor to the Tsarina, Alexandra.  His road to power and how he behaved when he got it provide a snapshot of contemporary life that should dispel any lingering sense that pre-revolutionary Russia was living in the twentieth century.

Best estimates, largely based on his own claims and those of unreliable associates, have Rasputin born in 1869 to a modestly prosperous peasant family in the rural semi-wilderness of western Siberia.  He grew into a young man possessed of strange (if unspecified) gifts, without schooling or social ties but with a village reputation for drunken violence and lechery.  He appears to have married at 19 and sired three children, before undergoing an intense religious conversion about a decade later and leaving his family for the life of an ascetic religious wanderer in about 1900.  Sources suggest his religious commitment was part-time at this point, and that he returned home to help with the harvest each year.

If this all sounds a little vague, that’s the way things were in the Dark Ages, and plenty of equally uncertain tales surround Rasputin’s transformation from village weirdo to imperial influence.  Sometime after the turn of the century he seems to have walked 3,000 kilometres to visit a monastery in Kiev, where his intense, undoubtedly compelling preaching and personality attracted attention from senior clergy.  Armed with introductions to religious leaders in St. Petersburg, he probably arrived in the capital during 1904, and is said to have made contact with the royal family through Princess Milica of Montenegro, the spiritually inclined wife of the Tsar’s cousin, Grand Duke Peter, himself a dabbler in the occult and at the time a major influence at court.

First presented to the Tsar and his family in November 1905, Rasputin clearly made a strong impression.  Amid the civil unrest and political turmoil that followed that year’s parliamentary revolution in Russia, and that accompanied the Tsar’s subsequent efforts to ignore it, he was invited back to provide the Romanovs with prayers and spiritual consultation in 1906 – but his magic moment came in April 1907, when he was called in to pray for the Tsar’s heir and only son, two year-old Tsarevich Alexei.  Once Rasputin’s presence (or maybe his prayers, or his healing superpower, or even a decision to stop giving him aspirin) had calmed the boy and stopped his painful bleeding – later diagnosed as a rare form of haemophilia – Alexandra decided he was her son’s indispensable saviour.

It was a faith she never lost, though as one of a wide range of spiritual or religious gurus consulted by superstitious courtiers Rasputin did fall out of immediate favour from 1910, when a press campaign against him coincided with widespread distaste among elite courtiers for his loud and libidinous ways.  Alexandra got her man back after October 1912, when legend has it Rasputin brought the injured Alexei back from his deathbed by sending her a reassuring telegram.  A constant stream of theories and arguments surround this legend, most of them aiming to show that Rasputin was either a charlatan, very lucky or both, but for the next three years Alexandra defied repeated attempts by politicians, church leaders, the press and (at times) the Tsar to remove the mad monk from the centre of power.

Quite what Rasputin got up to in his pomp is hard to pin down. Scandal and rumour had him living the full sex, drugs and rock’n’roll fantasy, with plenty of conspiracy, murder and devil-worship thrown in, but all that can be said for certain is that he was often drunk, had a lecherous side and exerted a baleful influence over the career of any courtier or politician that attracted his mystically induced displeasure.

So far, and give or take a telegram, Rasputin’s rise might easily have been set sometime before 1066, yet this was a time when modern industry and mass politics were well established as fundamental to life in other European empires.  The same influences were well on the way to shaping the socio-politics of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev, the three enclaves of industrial and technological modernity within the Tsar’s fiefdoms, but the tiny aristocratic elite that made all the Empire’s big decisions was still living in the same, pre-scientific age as Rasputin’s home village.

Once this bizarre perspective is taken as fact, all the useless, dithering, illogical and emotional decisions taken by the wartime Tsarist regime – at home, diplomatically and in the field – look less like the work of morons than the blundering of confused time-travellers, reduced to superstition and internal bickering in the face of dynamics they couldn’t possibly understand.

Here's the Tsar blessing his troops in 1916... and everyone concerned is living in the past.
Here’s the Tsar blessing his troops in 1916.  Everyone concerned is living in the past.

That wasn’t really a good excuse.  The Tsarist regime had time and again chosen to live in the past when offered pathways towards modernity, and it steadfastly refused to abandon mediaeval government during the War years.  When the Tsar, behaving just like a nervous Plantagenet, took personal command of the armies on the Eastern Front in September 1915, he left his wife in effective command of the home front.  The rigidly ultra-conservative policy pursued by Alexandra was divisive, unproductive, dangerous and carried out amid constant consultations with Rasputin, and though history has no way of knowing quite how and to what extent he directed events – self-consciously or unwittingly – his power over the Tsarina became the nation’s favourite scandal.

As had once been the case in most mediaeval European countries, discontent under a royal regime was directed against the ruler’s closest advisors, and during the months that followed Rasputin was accused of every conceivable sin, including spying for the Germans, by the press, the church, the police and his enemies at court.  He was of course no kind of innocent victim, but most of the accusations were false, and he was meanwhile fulfilling the time-honoured role of barrier between the monarchy and its critics.

In that context, Rasputin’s assassination on the night of 29/30 December (17/18 December by the Russian calendar of the day) was an unconscious act of class betrayal by the distinctly motley collection of minor aristocrats and courtiers responsible.  It was also an almost unbelievably clumsy and incompetent act, involving almost as many myths as the victim’s life.  The murder may or may not have involved Rasputin surviving poison and a number of major gunshot wounds before his (probably dead) corpse was dumped in the Moika, one of St Petersburg’s central rivers, where it was found two days later.

Though hailed by almost everyone except Alexandra as a blow against bad government, Rasputin’s death made absolutely no difference to the political situation in Russia, but merely stripped away one of the Tsar’s protective barriers at a time when the opposition to the regime was coming to the boil.  Royal embarrassment was avoided, and future myths guaranteed, by sending the only two conspirators punished for the murder into permanent exile, and the Tsar ignored all pressure to restrict Alexandra’s control over government until the following March, when revolution did the job for him.

My point here is that Rasputin’s life and death were compelling copy, then as now, but that he was a symptom rather than the cause of the royal family’s wilful anachronism.  Choosing to live in the past with the peasantry, rather than with the modern world exploding around them, was the fatal error that doomed the Russian imperial elite to destruction, informing every false step along the way.  A hundred years on, when our ruling elites are clinging to the wrong century and conjuring up political demons all over the place, remembering Rasputin’s wild contribution to the Tsar’s downfall feels like a good idea.

 

28 MARCH, 1916: Infested Waters

A few weeks back, while chatting about a Russian offensive on the Caucasian Front (16 February, 1916: The Walrus in Winter), I mentioned operations along the Black Sea coast.  It occurred to me then that I hadn’t been giving the Black Sea the attention it deserved, given that it was a war zone from the autumn of 1914 until after Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 – so I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back there, and here it is.

On 28 March 1916, Russian torpedo boats in the Black Sea destroyed a Turkish munitions depot and ten merchant ships (most of them sailing craft).  Though this was a bumper haul and received some publicity in the Allied press, it had no great significance for either the Black Sea or the War in general, but it does sum up the first 18 months of the campaign quite nicely.  I’ll try and do the same.

I’ll start with why the Black Sea was a war zone, and a map (stolen, and used before) makes it fairly obvious.

Ottoman-Empires-rail-system-1914-1024x890The Russian and Ottoman Empires had been competing for decades to control the Caucasus region, and Russia’s ultimate territorial fantasy had long been to break into the Mediterranean by seizing the Dardanelles Straits, so the Black Sea was a natural area of contest and both sides had plans for a naval campaign before 1914.

They were modest plans. The Turkish Navy had been undergoing rapid expansion, but was still desperately short of modern warships and could barely cover its commitments in the Mediterranean, while the bigger, more modern Russian Navy was primarily concerned with defending St. Petersburg from German warships in the Baltic. Both sides therefore envisaged an essentially defensive campaign in the secondary theatre of the Black Sea, focused on disrupting the other’s supply routes, and the Russians expected – with some justification – to dominate proceedings.

Russian prospects looked even better when, on the outbreak of war in August 1914, the British government decided to hold on to the two modern dreadnoughts it was building for Turkey – but a few days later the Turkish Navy suddenly acquired two modern German warships, the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau.  They weren’t as big, powerful or deterrent as dreadnoughts, but once renamed (as the Yaviz Sultan Selim and the Midilli) and deployed in the Black Sea they were the fastest ships in the theatre, and only Russia’s five slow, pre-dreadnought battleships could match the Goeben‘s firepower.

The captain of the Goeben, Wilhelm Souchon, was nominally under Turkish command but – like ‘military advisers’ as we know them today – was actually working for Berlin and committed to pursuing German strategic interests.  In control of what was, for now, the region’s ultimate deterrent, its big guns an obvious threat to Constantinople, he enjoyed considerable autonomy and exerted an understandably powerful influence on Ottoman naval policy.  Once Turkey was committed to joining the Central Powers, at the end of October 1914, Souchon’s priority was distraction of Russian forces from other fronts, and he secured navy minister Djemal Pasha’s agreement to announce Turkey’s belligerent status by leading a surprise raid on the Russian naval bases at Odessa and Sevastopol.

The attack failed to do any lasting damage to ships or facilities, but it did convince the Russians to deploy their old battleships as a defensive unit.  During the next few months they operated only as a group and, apart from an inconclusive, 14-minute skirmish in November, the threat of their combined guns was enough to keep Goeben at bay.   Major warships on the both sides undertook occasional sorties as coastal raiders or escorts, but avoided each other, and the campaign quickly developed a pattern similar to that emerging in the Baltic.  Largely fought by small craft, it centred on disruption of enemy supply lines with minefields, backed by nuisance attacks on enemy coastal installations or harbours.

With more ships, better ships and better crews (their training much improved since a lousy performance against Japan in 1904–05), the Russians held the advantage from the start.  They had already laid more than 4,000 mines in the Black Sea by Boxing Day 1914, when the Goeben hit two of them and suffered serious damage.  The Ottoman Empire didn’t have a shipyard big enough to handle the Goeben, so repairs took months rather than weeks.  Although able to limp out for brief escort missions in February and March, by way of keeping the Russian fleet cautious, the battlecruiser was not fully operational until May 1915, and by then nothing an increasingly frustrated Souchon could do was going to shake Russian dominance.

Most Russian minelaying and commerce raiding – by destroyers, submarines and torpedo boats – was concentrated on the port of Zonguldak, some 200km east of the Bosphorus and the sole entry point for vital Turkish coal imports.  By the middle of the year the Turks had lost dozens of colliers, and before its end coal supplies had been effectively throttled, creating fuel shortages all across an Ottoman war effort heavily distracted by the demands on land and sea of the Gallipoli campaign.

While Russian strength was steadily reinforced by new destroyers and submarines, and Russian raids on the Turkish coast were a regular occurrence throughout 1915, the Turkish Navy lost a cruiser during its only coastal raid of the year, in April, and lost the Breslau for seven months after it hit a mine off Constantinople in July.   The first of Russia’s new dreadnoughts, the Imperatrica Maria, reached the Black Sea at about the same time, and in theory its arrival cemented Russian dominance of the theatre – but in practice it made little difference at first.

Like its counterparts all over the world, the Russian Navy didn’t like taking risks with dreadnoughts, or for that matter with any other big, expensive ships.   Although Berlin ignored most of Souchon’s incessant calls for reinforcements in the Black Sea, two German U-boats had been sent there in the early summer, and the threat was enough to prompt a Russian ban on all offensive operations by major units from June.   With more U-boats expected (six had arrived by March 1916) the ban stayed in force until October, and when Russian offensive patrols resumed they took few risks.

The arrival of the second Russian dreadnought, Imperatrica Ekaterina II, in December didn’t immediately change anything.  With the blockade of Turkish coal supplies running smoothly, and the Ottoman Navy less and less of an offensive threat,  the campaign was still dominated by the ‘mosquito’ warfare of smaller craft into early 1916 – but by March the Russian Black Sea fleet was in the process of finding a new role.  On 4 March, Russian fleet units supported troop landings on the Black Sea coast at Atna, and in April they would perform the same task on a larger scale as General Yudenich took the major port city of Trabzon.

In a theatre complicated by Bulgaria’s alliance with Central Powers in late 1915 and Romania’s in mid-1916, the minelaying and raiding of commerce war would  continue and intensify, but from now on the Russian fleet would also perform an important army support role, transporting and landing thousands of troops during the next two years.  The turkey shoot enjoyed by Russian torpedo boats in late March was just a small propaganda event at the time, but with hindsight it was the firework display that marked the end of the campaign’s first phase.

I’ll finish with a tease of a ‘what if’.  In May 1915, just before fear of U-boats triggered a burst of caution, the Russian high command toyed with sending the Black Sea fleet into the Bosphorus to support the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles. The idea was soon dropped (as unlikely to make much difference to the disaster brewing on Gallipoli), but if imagining where we’d be with a different history floats your boat, have fun picturing the twentieth century with Russian warships all over the Mediterranean.

1 FEBRUARY 1916: Alex in Wonderland

The early part of 1916 wasn’t a good time for imperial leadership in Europe. The British government was dithering in search of strategic inspiration, and French political authorities were struggling to maintain credibility with an increasingly war-weary population. The pressures of total war under blockade conditions were forcing German society and economy into dangerous overdrive, and were destroying the socioeconomic unity of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.

In London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Constantinople, authorities were sharply aware that keeping the body politic onside and committed to victory was vital to national survival, so that even the Kaiser’s conservative and autocratically inclined regime tried to at least present military and sociopolitical changes as ultimately beneficial to Germans in general.

Over in St. Petersburg, none of that stuff bothered the Romanovs.

A century ago today, Boris Stürmer replaced Ivan Goremykin as Russian prime minister.  Unlike other changes at the top around Europe during the winter of 1915–16, the appointment had nothing to do with keeping opposition politicians, the national workforce or anyone else onside – and everything to do with keeping Tsar Nicholas and his wife happy.

It’s not that getting rid of Goremykin was an unpopular move. The veteran lawyer and bureaucrat, well into his seventies and in semi-retirement when appointed prime minister in early 1914, got the job because his ultra conservative views and ingrained subservience to the crown chimed nicely the Tsar’s preferences. For two years he’d performed as advertised, maintaining a complete disregard for popular opinion and a mutually hostile relationship with the Duma, Russia’s half-baked parliament.  To no one’s surprise, he had been the only civilian minister to support the Tsar’s decision to take personal charge of the high command, Stavka, in September 1915, and that display of automatic loyalty eventually cost him his job.

In the Tsar’s absence, court affairs fell under the control of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, a woman who combined strength, stupidity and a penchant for scheming to dangerous effect.  With liberal deputies in the Duma clamouring for the prime minister’s removal as the military situation went from bad to stagnant, she and Gregor Rasputin – the mad, monkish mystic behind most of her thinking – engineered Goremykin’s replacement by one of their trusted protégés, a man guaranteed to antagonise all but the most rigidly conservative royalists.

Another seasoned bureaucrat and courtier, Stürmer was a surprise choice, not one of the usual royalist suspects for high office, but in every other respect he was anything but a fresh start.  No less unbendingly conservative than his predecessor, and eight years younger, he was chosen because the Tsarina and Nicholas believed that unpatriotic opposition, its roar reduced to a murmur inside the blackout blanket of court life, could be silenced if the Duma was confronted by a more vigorous defender of royal privilege.  That Stürmer was a sick man, distinctly short on vigour, seems to have mattered less than his guaranteed obedience to Alexandra.

Stürmer lasted as prime minister for almost nine months, during which he did nothing whatsoever to sustain the regime he served.  Ill health interfered with his workload from the start, but that didn’t stop him adding the interior ministry to his portfolio in March and switching it for foreign affairs in July.  His general performance, reminiscent of the dilettante politicians of the Napoleonic era, attracted contempt from all sides, and his unpopularity on the streets ran a close second to that of the much more energetic (and genuinely loathsome) interior minister, Aleksandr Protopopov.

Detested by the Duma and many of his cabinet colleagues, Stürmer ignored accusations of incompetence and (false) rumours that he was German agent, and relied on the favour of the Tsarina to keep him in his jobs.  His policy, such as it was, amounted to ignoring dissent in the name of stability, and was dictated to him by the Tsarina.  Meanwhile, furious protests went unanswered amid economic chaos at a time of desperate national dependence on a cooperative workforce, and demands for his removal grew ever louder.  By November 1916, with opposition in the Duma coming to the boil, the Tsar and Tsarina were ready, albeit reluctantly, to dispense with his services.

The Tsar, who regarded any kind of parliament as an affront to the crown, had reconvened the Duma in July 1915 to provide fundraising for the government at a time of national crisis.  Now he, his wife and Rasputin wanted rid of it, but simply dismissing it risked turning opposition into open revolt, a dangerous prospect when so much power was so concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Instead, calls for Stürmer’s removal were answered in late November and the relatively moderate Trepov installed in his place. Though the hated Protopopov remained in office, the gesture appeased the Duma just enough for Trepov to secure its peaceful adjournment in late December, at which point he was fired.

Having secured a hollow victory by silencing the only legitimate voice of opposition, effectively putting their fingers in their ears, Nicholas and Alexandra then appointed a complete nonentity, Prince Golitsyn, as prime minister and carried on as autocrats, but not for long…

All of the above is a very sketchy, partial picture of a very complex pre-revolutionary situation in Russia – so don’t go mistaking it for anything like the full story.  All I’m trying to do emphasise an essential difference between Russia and the states of Western Europe, then and now.

Russia in 1916 was a mediaeval empire, with twentieth-century technology, ideas and political pressures grafted onto very few, highly concentrated hotspots.  The Romanovs, surrounded by mediaeval courtiers obedient to their godlike whim, existed in a bubble within a bubble.  Royals and courtiers were in turn surrounded by the seething, revolutionary modernity of the cities that housed their palaces, but quite rightly believed that beyond the cities lay a vast nation loyal to the old ways.

Under those circumstances, revolution was probably coming to Russia anyway.  The blinkered, factional behaviour of the Russian royal family, so often blamed for its fall and nicely illustrated by the prime ministerial change of January 1916 , was as much a symptom as a cause of revolutionary conditions.  The same peculiar preconditions mean that, much as I like to make connections between then and now, claims that the 1917 revolution was ’caused’ by the First World War are equally simplistic.

On the other hand, the crashing impact of total, industrialised warfare did speed the arrival and shape the character of a revolution that drove the political development of 1917’s vast, mediaeval nation up an isolated blind alley for the next three-quarters of a century.  From that perspective it’s not so hard to spot the direct link between the Great War and a modern Russia that, a century after Stürmer’s appointment, is being run by a would-be autocrat with a puppet prime minister.

1 JANUARY, 1916: Pantomime Time

Not much in the way of significant centenaries today, apart from the British capture of Yaounda, the main German inland settlement in Cameroon – but I’ve talked about Cameroon before (6 September, 1914: They Speak French Now…), and Yaounda was just part of a long endgame that would see the colony subject to Anglo-French partition in March.  Instead, let’s mark the appointment, on New Year’s Day a century ago, of Russian Tsar Nicholas II as a British Field Marshal, and spin it into a reminder that the Great War in Europe didn’t take holidays.

To be fair to the British heritage industry’s seasonal focus on trench hampers and letters home, most of the European battlefronts were quiet over Christmas and New Year.  Despite very mild weather, and leaving aside the BEF’s incessant campaign of trench raids and nuisance operations (essentially the high command’s way of reminding everyone there was a war on), nothing much was happening on the Western Front.  Meanwhile British operations in Gallipoli were ending in evacuation, and the new front at Salonika was a masterpiece of inactivity.

Most European fronts not contested by British ground forces were similarly becalmed.  The alpine battle in northern Italy had been snowed off for the winter, and the invasion of Serbia was all but over, though Austro-Hungarian troops were almost ready to move into defenceless Montenegro.  On the Caucasian Front, where the distraction of Gallipoli had curtailed Ottoman ambition, Russian forces were preparing steadily for an offensive in the early spring. Stasis had also set in along the northern and central sectors of the Eastern Front, where trenches were too far apart for nuisance raids, German and Austro-Hungarian numbers had been depleted by the Serbian campaign, and the weather was cold enough to kill whole units of ill-equipped Russian infantry overnight.

Winter weather was less of a menace at the southern end of the Eastern Front, generally known as the Galician sector, but the mere fact that fighting was possible doesn’t explain why a full-blown Russian offensive was at the peak of its intensity on New Year’s Day 1916.  This was the Bessarabian Offensive, sometimes known as the Battle of the Strypa, after the river that was its main focus, and though it was one of the War’s more pointless exercises in mass slaughter, it was an anomaly that seems worth a look before we all settle down to a stale mince pie from the trench hamper.

I’ll start with a map (stolen of course, and removable on complaint).

romania-map-1000

You’ll notice it doesn’t mention Bessarabia, and that’s because I couldn’t find a comprehensible map that did, but it does put the region in a wartime context. Bessarabia is the wedge of land east of the River Dniester, some 500km of Black Sea coast either side of Constanta forming its base, and the area around Czernowitz (Chernivsti) its point.  Most of Bessarabia is in modern Moldova, and was part of Romania at the start of 1916, but the northern tip of the region (now part of the Ukraine) formed a border between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires – and marked the southern extremity of the Eastern Front for as long as Romania remained neutral.

The Kingdom of Romania, which had been juggling bribes from all sides since 1914, wasn’t likely to stay on the fence for much longer, and the need to impress Bucharest was one strategic justification for an immediate Russian advance south beyond Czernowitz. Another was the desire, albeit somewhat belated, to disrupt Austro-Hungarian operations in Serbia, and a third was the Russian high command’s simple urge to fight back, and be seen to fight back, after the terrible losses of 1915.

The fact that the Russian Army was capable of fighting back at all reflected startling improvements in output and quality of equipment since the summer’s establishment of the War Industries Committee (26 June, 1915: Hope and Hopelessness).  Sadly, the spirit of reform hadn’t extended to Stavka, the Russian high command, which was still a byword for dithering, bickering and scattergun strategy.  At a time when the entire Russian Army was in desperate need of reconstruction and recuperation, Stavka’s decision to fling new resources into action at the first possible opportunity was entirely typical, as was the choice of what was essentially a showpiece operation along a limited front in a far-flung corner of the theatre.

The show got underway as soon as the decision to attack in Bessarabia had been reached – in mid-November, and in time to bolster Russian demands at December’s Chantilly conference for more offensive activity from its allies. The world’s press was provided with regular updates on the offensive’s aims and estimated time of arrival, while Tsar Nicholas II, in personal command of Stavka since the late summer (hence the New Year honour from his cousin, George V), inspected preparations at the front in a blaze of publicity. Pre-match propaganda wasn’t unusual at a time when it was impossible to conceal preparations for a major land attack, but this was particularly loud, and generated high levels of expectation among Russia’s allies at a time when they had little else to cheer.

To say that the offensive itself failed to live up the hype would be a major understatement.  Sector commander General Ivanov prepared for action at a snail’s pace, eventually building a 2-to-1 manpower advantage over Austro-Hungarian defenders before launching the attack on 27 December. In an attempt to imitate the German ‘breakthrough’ tactics used during 1915’s Triple Offensive, Ivanov massed nine infantry and two cavalry corps for assault along a narrow front, but he failed to provide them with reserve support and was unable to respond when initial attacks were repulsed by Austrian artillery. The only Russian success came on the southern wing, where General Shcherbachev concentrated all his artillery along a single kilometre of the line and almost broke through, but lack of reserve support and well-organised counterattacks soon snuffed out the threat.

Two weeks of fierce fighting followed, featuring an equally unsuccessful re-run of the initial operation on 1 and 2 January, and continuing through the Russian calendar’s Christmas Day (which fell on 7 January) before Ivanov abandoned the operation on 10 January.  By that time what amounted to a failed PR exercise had cost the Russian Army about 50,000 men and gained it nothing at all.

The Bessarabian Offensive didn’t make much difference to the grand scheme of things, and the only lesson Stavka drew from the experience was the same one Joffre kept mis-learning on the Western Front:  that breakthrough tactics would work given yet more concentrated firepower at the point of attack.  I still think the battle is worth remembering, and not just as a seasonal signpost along the way to total war.

For great swathes of Eastern Europe, including the battle-scarred imperial margins of the Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, the First World War is not forgotten or reduced to clichés in the British manner, but is a visceral, visible memory of death, upheaval and destruction on a vast scale.  In a modern world that makes Eastern Europe our close neighbour, it seems a shame not to at least notice that.