World War I was indeed the major cause for the downfall of Tsar Nicholas II and his dynasty. However, while World War I was a major immediate cause to the downfall of Tsarism, the part played by individuals of the likes of Tsar Nicholas II and Pytor Stolypin cannot be underestimated. Events such as Bloody Sunday and the tensions that existed in Russia prior to World War I, as well as Tsardom’s inherent system of repression and the socioeconomic discontent as a result of World War I, are also major contributing factors to the downfall of Imperial Russia.
Both ethnic and class tensions existed as long-term causes to the downfall of Tsarism long before the outbreak of World War. The 1897 census revealing a total of one-hundred and twenty-six million persons, eighty-two percent of which were peasants, means that peasants were vastly overrepresented in the population of Russia, as was the typical lack of civil development and wealth inequality that was synonymous with being a member of the peasantry. The importance of the frustration shared by such classes as the peasants and the proletariat working class cannot be understated, and can be best illustrated within World War I itself. The massive overrepresentation of peasants in the Russian Armed Forces under the reign of Nicholas II meant that many felt as if their children, friends and husbands were merely being used as cannon fodder, along with the horrendous statistics of loss of life in the Russian Army. The requisitioning of peasants farming equipment, grain and horses – essentially stripping peasants of their livelihood – created widespread discontent among the peasantry for the Tsar. The mass exploitation of the working classes in the major cities of Russia, particularly during World War I, with a lack of labour laws and the outlaw of trade unions, coupled with the influx of peasants to the cities as a result of the reforms of Minister of Finance Sergei Witte from 1893-1903, resulted in overcrowding and squalor within major cities. The challenges faced by these classes as a result of Tsardom only exacerbated their discontent for the Tsar, and made them susceptible to revolutionary ideals. The policy of Russification and the suppression of minority cultures and ethnic groups such as Semites, with pogroms being carried out against non-Russians in 1905-06 by far-right groups as the Black Hundred, revolutionised the minority cultures of Russia, which collectively, were not so minor, against the Tsar and his continuation of his father’s racial and ethnic policy.
As stated in the official history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CSPU), “on [the 9th of January 1905] the workers received a bloody lesson. It was their faith in the Tsar that was riddled with bullets that day”. Bloody Sunday was the day that would forever break the almost-mystical union that existed between the Tsar and his subjects. With the demonstration of up to one-hundred and fifty-thousand protestors being fired upon by the Tsar’s winter palace guards in response to a congregation of men, women and children in a plea for help, this day would forever brand the Tsar as Tsar Nicholas the Bloody. His cult of personality as both God’s representative on earth, and as father of the people, could never be reconciled. The importance of this day cannot be underestimated, from this day onwards, the Tsar would be alienated from the people of Russia; as their ruler, not their leader.
In saying this however, World War I was indeed a major and immediate cause of the downfall of Tsardom. The failure of the Great Military Programme to supply six and a half million men with only four million and six-hundred thousand rifles meant that the Russian Armed Forces were severely under-equipped and ill-prepared for war. This ill-equipment and underdevelopment can only be best illustrated by the catastrophic losses sustained by Russia in both August 1914 in the Battle of Tannenburg with the death of seventy-thousand Russians, and another sixty-thousand in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. These horrendous losses meant that the Tsar, on behalf of the armed forces, was exemplified as an atrocious strategist in executing a successful offensive against the German Empire. By the end of 1914, one million and two-hundred-thousand Russian men were dead, wounded or incarcerated as prisoners of war. The Russian public, initially invigorated by the wave of patriotism, was quickly growing weary of war altogether. The decision of Nicholas II to dismiss Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich as the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces in favour of himself, pinned the entire blame of the losses in World War I on Tsar Nicholas, to his own detriment. This catastrophically affected the public perception of the Tsar as a competent and legitimate leader which only aggravated already-existing frustration with the Tsar.
The inherent system of repression in the autocratic system that was Tsardom, particularly carried out by Prime Minister Pyotr Stolyin, revolutionised the public against the Tsar, fed up with the oppression they were continually subjected to. As stated by Stolyin himself, “repression first, then, and only then, reform”. The execution of over three-thousand persons by Stolypin between August 1906 – April 1907 alone, mostly suspected revolutionaries and liberals, meant that the Russian peoples were beginning to become open-minded towards the ideas of revolution to see a discontinuation of such repressive policies. The reintroduction of Russification, censorship of the press, surveillance of universities and liberal activists were all policies employed by Stolypin that further inflamed the society of fear that had been created by Nicholas II, with ever-growing discontent for the Tsar thereafter. The rigging of the electoral system by Stolypin meant that one percent of the population was voting for three-hundred of the four-hundred and forty-one duma deputies, as voting was suspended in areas that had not reached “sufficient levels of civic development”, id est, in areas known for being Revolutionary or liberal, or comprising mainly of peasants or of the proletariat working class. The resentment that this system of repression created can only be best illustrated by the events of the 1st September 1911, whereby Pyotr Stolypin himself was assassinated, by Dimitry Bogrov.
While World War I indeed played a major role of the downfall of Tsarism, it would be inappropriate to suggest that other major factors such as Bloody Sunday, class and ethnic tensions as well as a system of Tsarist repression, did not play a pivotal role in the downfall of the Tsar and the Romanov Dynasty.
Ethan James Hunt
VCE History: Revolutions Unit 3
Catherine McAuley College
Approximately 40 minutes allocated time
A4 summary sheet allowed
To what extent was World War I the major cause for the downfall of Tsarism?