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The Strains of the War Effort and the Weakening of Tsarism

The onset of World War I had a drastic effect on domestic policies and a weak regime. A show of national unity had accompanied Russia's entrance into the war, but military reversals and the government's incompetence soon soured the attitude of much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and GermanOttoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets. In addition, inept Russian preparations for war and ineffective economic policies hurt the country financially, logistically, and militarily. Inflation became a serious problem. Because of inadequate matériel support for military operations, the War Industries Committee was formed to ensure that necessary supplies reached the front. But army officers quarreled with civilian leaders, seized administrative control of front areas, and would not work with the committee. The central government disliked independent support activities organized by zemstvos and various cities. The Duma quarreled with the bureaucracy, and center and center-left deputies eventually formed the Progressive Bloc, which was aimed at forming a genuinely constitutional government.

After Russian military reversals in 1915, Nicholas II went to the front to assume nominal leadership of the army. His German-born wife, Alexandra, and Rasputin, a debauched faith healer, who was able to stop the bleeding of the hemophiliac heir to the throne, tried to dictate policy and make ministerial appointments. Although their true influence has been debated, they undoubtedly decreased the regime's prestige and credibility.

While the central government was hampered by court intrigue, the strain of the war began to cause popular unrest. In 1916 high food prices and a lack of fuel caused strikes in some cities. Workers, who won for themselves separate representative sections of the War Industries Committee, used them as organs of political opposition. The countryside was becoming restive. Soldiers, mainly newly recruited peasants who had been used as cannon fodder in the inept conduct of the war, were increasingly insubordinate.

The situation continued to deteriorate. In an attempt to alleviate the morass at the tsar's court, a group of nobles murdered Rasputin in December 1916. But his death brought little change. In the winter of 1917, however, deteriorating rail transport caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes. Troops were summoned to quell the disorders. Although troops had fired on demonstrators and saved tsarism in 1905, in 1917 the troops in Petrograd (the name of St. Petersburg after 1914) turned their guns over to the angry crowds. Support for the tsarist regime simply evaporated in 1917, ending three centuries of Romanov rule.

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A good summary of Russian history is provided in The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Macropaedia, "Russia and the Soviet Union, History of." Three excellent one-volume surveys of Russian history are Nicholas Riasanovsky's A History of Russia, David MacKenzie and Michael W. Curran's A History of Russia and the Soviet Union, and Robert Auty and Dmitry Obolensky's An Introduction to Russian History. The most useful thorough study of Russia before the nineteenth century is Vasily Kliuchevsky's five-volume collection, Course of Russian History. Good translations exist, however, only for the third volume, A Course in Russian History: The Seventeenth Century, and part of the fourth volume, Peter the Great. For the 1800-1917 period, two excellent comprehensive works are the second volume of Michael T. Florinsky's Russia: A History and Interpretation and Hugh Seton-Watson's The Russian Empire, 1801-1917. The roots and nature of Russian autocracy are probed in Richard Pipes's controversial Russia under the Old Regime. A useful, if dated, translation of a Soviet interpretation of this subject is P.I. Liashchenko's A History of the National Economy of Russia to the 1917 Revolution. Social history is treated by Jerome Blum in Lord and Peasant in Russia from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century. Cultural history is discussed in James H. Billington's The Icon and the Axe and Marc Raeff's Russian Intellectual History. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of May 1989


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