After a short spell of personal chaos – wandering about hot places in a heatwave, mind reduced to steamy half measures, time and deadlines lost in the haze – thoughts turn naturally to the institutionalised chaos of the Russian Empire in 1915. By late June of that year the Tsarist regime had been at war for almost eleven months, and had nothing positive to show for it.
On the Eastern Font, Russian forces had been swept back by German and Austrian attacks, had regained ground with a series of reactive counterattacks, had failed to get a confused, multi-headed offensive plan for the first half of 1915 off the ground, and were currently licking their wounds after another German-led offensive had driven them into a major retreat. Galicia, Kurland, Lithuania, much of Belorussia and Poland, with its vital coal mines and heavy industries, had been lost. The central high command, Stavka, had been exposed as a shambles of factional in-fighting and personal whim, manpower losses had been huge, and the only saving grace attached to an equally enormous sacrifice of equipment was that hardly any modern weaponry had so far made it to the battlefield.
Matters were proceeding more smoothly on the Caucasian Front, where a relatively tiny secondary force was guarding Russia’s long-term ambitions towards the Mediterranean and had repelled a poorly conceived, ill-managed Turkish offensive from Armenia. At sea, a Russian Navy still recovering from the trauma of defeat by Japan a decade earlier was trading raids with Turkish forces in the Black Sea and doing nothing much in the Baltic. All in all Russia’s War was going badly wrong, but thanks to the feebleness of Austrian and Turkish war efforts, and because even the best German efforts couldn’t overcome contemporary technology’s tendency to stalemate, it hadn’t quite become hopeless.
So hope persisted in Moscow and St. Petersburg – which housed pretty much everyone empowered or informed in Russia, along with most of the Empire’s industry, industrial workers and revolutionaries – and like everything else that happened in or to Russia, hope stirred up the political crisis that had been threatening for decades to tear the Empire apart .
This isn’t the place to embark on a political history of Russia, so I’ll take short cuts. Until 1906 Tsar’ Nicholas II, not a particularly intelligent or firm-willed man, had ruled European Russia, Central Asia, large chunks of Transcaucasia and Poland as an autocrat, appointing chosen men to all important administrative posts, most of them from a bloated, spectacularly conservative aristocratic class. While this was barely noticed by the vast, peasant majority of the country’s 166 million people (in 1914), most of them subsisting in essentially feudal conditions, the few million gathered in the two main cities were living in the modern world and ripe for uprising.
Revolution came in 1905, in the aftermath of military defeat by Japan, and forced Nicholas to accept constitutional government. A parliament, the Duma, was elected on a narrow franchise, and a collection of moderate liberals and acquiescent conservatives sat from the following year. The Tsar and his advisors quickly lapsed into complacent repression, ignoring the promises of 1905, and by 1912, when revolutionary industrial unrest erupted anew, the Duma had ceased to provide an effective focus for political opposition and street socialism had reclaimed the baton. Almost half the entire industrial workforce was involved in strikes during the first half of 1914, and Soviet historians would later argue that only the outbreak of war prevented revolution that year. Meanwhile the landed classes, conservatives in the Duma, industrial interests and court reactionaries went right on relying on repression as if nothing was changing.
Across almost the whole established political spectrum (the exception being the Duma’s 21-strong socialist group), the outbreak of war was greeted by righteous enthusiasm comparable with that elsewhere in Europe, leaving the Tsar’s regime free to blunder on in the usual way. And blunder it did, wiping out a third of its tax revenues by outlawing vodka on moral grounds, leaving military strategy to a collection of bickering aristocrats without firm supervision, and making no effort to reform an economic system that meant the government was simply a customer to profiteering industrialists. Political consensus survived the setbacks of 1914, but crumbled after the military disasters of spring and early summer 1915, when hope brought together the ambitions of liberal reformers in the Duma and pragmatic reformers among the ruling elite.
On 26 June one of the latter, General Alexei Polivanov, moved up from deputy to the post of war minister, after a successful defamation campaign against his particularly corrupt and debauched predecessor, General Sukhomlinov. Polivanov sponsored the immediate formation of a War Industries Committee, working closely with its new head, Aleksandr Guchkov, the Duma’s leading moderate liberal and a vital link between political and industrial interests. The Committee coordinated orders to big companies and their supply, and formed local committees to maximise exploitation of smaller industries. By the autumn it had established special councils for the supply of defence, food, fuel and transport, each including representatives of the government, the Duma, industry and the royal Council of State.
The plan worked. It may only have worked because efficient trading guaranteed enormous profits for Russia’s biggest industrial companies, but during the next year Russian military-industrial output mushroomed, so that by the time the Russian Army set out to recover lost ground in June 1916, it was relatively well-equipped.
Mere efficiency was never going to transform Russia into a modern state. The surge was funded from coal and iron reserves, and maintained by cutbacks to civilian requirements that stripped the agricultural sector, upset powerful landowners from western Russia and contributed to desperate food shortages in cities swollen by refugees from a depressed countryside. It couldn’t be sustained, and industrial output began to fall again in 1916.
Meanwhile the Tsar’s romantic commitment to old-school repressive autocracy, strongly encouraged by his wife, premier Goremykin and the rest of the unreconstructed old guard, hadn’t long tolerated the creeping tide of liberalism. A very mild programme of political reform proposed by an alliance of centre-right Duma and Council of State members was rejected in late August, and in September the Duma, equally afraid of repression from above and revolution from below, meekly accepted its suspension and the removal of liberal ministers.
Polivanov himself would last until March 1916, by which time the pendulum would have swung all the way back to the ultra-conservatives… but that’s a story for another day, as are the shambles of the Tsar’s personal assumption of command at Stavka and the next phase of the Empire’s epic implosion. For now my point is that, given a tiny widow of opportunity at a time of crisis, a few practical men managed, for good or ill, to keep Russia in the war to end wars, at least for a while. An anniversary worth mentioning, and one you won’t be hearing about on television.