An extract from Henry Cowper et al., War Peace and Social Change: Europe 1900-1955, Book II: World War I and Its Consequences (Open University Press, 1990)

This was a textbook for an Open University distance learning course.






In the countryside,   In the towns,   Strikes and Political Agitation,   

Military morale at the Front,   Military morale in Petrograd,   Role of the sailors,  

Importance of Nicholas II 




The authors identified four causes of the Russian Revolution:


1   War-weariness brought about by military defeat and starvation, which fostered strikes in the factories and desertion from, and mutiny in, the army.

2.  Cracking morale in the army.

3.  Scandals involving the autocracy.

4.  A collapse of the old order as much as an insurrection by a new order.


Then they wrote:


I want now to expand upon, and in some instances qualify, these causes.   I have little to add on the subject of (3) above, however – the principal scandal was that of Rasputin; there were also rumours and suggestions that the Tzarina, who was German by birth, was in league with the enemy.














On the home front, life in general, and the economy in particular, had been seriously disrupted by mobilization.   By the end of 1916 over 14 million men had been mobilized in the empire.   The heaviest burden fell on the peasantry: almost half of the male rural labour force had been called up by the end of 1916, and the census of 1917 revealed that in most of the Russian provinces anything from one-third to two-thirds of the peasant households had lost their male workers.   The demands of war drastically reduced the number of draft animals on the land; most plants responsible for producing agricultural machinery were turned over to war production, while those that were left were last in line for fuel and metal supplies.   


In the countryside

Urban workers were hit by mobilization to a much lesser extent; those working directly for the war effort were generally exempt from military service, and in trades where skills and demands for their product were at a premium, workers used the strike weapon to push up wages.   Wartime inflation, however, tended increasingly to cancel out wage increases.   In October 1916 the Petrograd Security Police reported that 'While the wages of the masses have risen 50 per cent, and only in certain categories 100 to 200 per cent (metal workers, machinists, electricians), the prices on all products have increased 100 to 500 per cent.'   The report went on to give data based on one plant to demonstrate how wages were affected by wartime inflation…


In the towns

Wartime production demands led to an overall increase in the number of factory workers in the big cities: there were 242,600 workers in Petrograd in 1914 and 391,800 in 1917; in Moscow , during the same period, the factory labour force increased from 153,223 to 205,919.   The Tzarist government took extensive powers against organized labour and strike activity, yet after a brief respite during the first five months of the war the number of strikes began to rise inexorably.   The authorities were inclined to see political agitators at the back of every strike; in fact it is difficult to assess the role of union activists and political agitators.   The giant Putilov Works in Petrograd had 20,000 workers, but only 150 of them were Bolsheviks in February 1917.   Agitators and activists did begin receiving German financial support in March 1915, though it is unlikely that many knew where the money was actually coming from, least of all the strikers in Petrograd and in the Nikolayev naval yard, whose strike pay in January 1916 came from this source.


Strikes and political agitation 

Russian military losses were enormous.   While the statistics are unreliable because of the haphazard way in which they were collected, it seems generally accepted that by the end of October 1916 the Russian army had lost between 1.6 and 1.8 million killed, with another two million as prisoners of war and over one million more 'missing'.   Early in 1916 there had been reports of troops fraternizing with the enemy.   General Brusilov briefly improved discipline and morale, and his summer offensive met with early success, but some troops disappeared from the front and there were occasional mutinies.   The military postal censors reported that letters from the home front were increasingly expressing the desire for peace and that they were having a depressive effect on the troops; the soldiers' letters home were full of complaints.   Yet while senior officers at the front expressed alarm about morale and about replacements (some of whom were political exiles or exiled strikers) they also spoke of 'excellent' discipline.   In part this may have been bravado and a reluctance to admit discipline problems; nevertheless it must be remembered that the crucial breakdown of military discipline occurred not at the front but in Petrograd .


Military morale at the Front 

The precise number of troops in the Petrograd garrison early in 1917 is unclear; there appear to have been between 322,000 and 466,800 men in the city and its vicinity.   After the police (3,500 men) and the Cossacks (3,200 cavalry) they constituted the third line of defence in case of disorder.   The morale of the troops in Petrograd was particularly low.   They were bored with barrack life and highly resentful of their officers – at least at the front, junior officers shared the privations of their men.   A large number of the soldiers in Petrograd were in their forties; younger men were the first choice for the front.   There were also men recuperating from wounds or sickness, as well as strikers mobilized as a punishment.   When the strikes and food riots began, some troops obeyed orders and acted against the crowds; others, even the usually loyal Cossacks, began to fraternize.   Then, on 11 March (26 February 'old style') fraternization turned into a full-scale mutiny as one unit and then another killed their officers and began exchanging fire with those troops who remained loyal.


Military morale in Petrograd

In addition to soldiers there were large numbers of sailors in the immediate vicinity of Petrograd .   The city itself is at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland , which juts off the Baltic Sea .   Some fifteen miles west of Petrograd , in the Gulf, lies Kottin Island with the town of Kronstadt at its eastern tip.   Kronstadt was the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet.   There had been spasmodic fighting between warships in the Baltic, but much of the time the Russian sailors were idle, cooped up below decks on their ships or else idle in barracks.   Naval officers enforced a harsh and brutal discipline on their men.   The sailors, while conscripts, were generally from a different social background to the largely peasant soldiers...   The sailors of Kronstadt were not important in the initial trouble in Petrograd , but they seized the opportunity offered by the army mutinies in the city to execute unpopular officers (including the two principal admirals) and to imprison many more.   Later on they were to play a significant role in the revolutionary events.


Role of the sailors

Against the advice of many advisers who feared that military disaster which could be attributed to the Tzar would compromise the monarchy, Nicholas II had taken personal command of the army in 1915.   In March 1917, while at his military headquarters, he received regular reports on the situation in Petrograd from police and garrison commanders.   He ordered them to suppress the disorder.   On 11 March the chairman of the Duma, Mikhail V. Rodzianko, telegraphed the Tzar urging him of the necessity 'that some person enjoying the confidence of the country be entrusted immediately with the formation of a new government.'   Nicholas suspended the Duma.   This, together with the trouble on the streets, prompted the Duma into action.   It refused to disperse and, following a popular invasion of the Tauride Palace where the Duma met, the party leaders decided to establish themselves as a provisional committee.   On 14 March (1 March 'old style') the committee nominated a Provisional Government; the following day the Tzar abdicated.

Importance of Nicholas II

Clive Emsley and David Englander, in Henry Cowper et al., War Peace and Social Change:

Europe 1900-1955, Book II: World War I and Its Consequences (OU, 1990), pp. 145-8