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World War One was to have a devastating impact on Russia. When World War One started in August 1914, Russia responded by patriotically rallying around Nicholas II.
Military disasters at the Masurian Lakes and Tannenburg greatly weakened the Russian Army in the initial phases of the war. The growing influence of Gregory Rasputin over the Romanov's did a great deal to damage the royal family and by the end of the spring of 1917, the Romanovs, who had ruled Russia for just over 300 years, were no longer in charge of a Russia that had been taken over by Kerensky and the Provisional Government. By the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin had taken power in the major cities of Russia and introduced communist rule in those areas it controlled. The transition in Russia over the space of four years was remarkable - the fall of an autocracy and the establishment of the world's first communist government.
Nicholas II had a romantic vision of him leading his army. Therefore, he spent much time at the Eastern Front. This was a disastrous move as it left Alexandra in control back in the cities. She had become increasingly under the influence of the one man who seemingly had the power to help her son, Alexis, afflicted by haemophilia. Alexandra believed that Rasputin was a man of God and referred to him as “Our Friend”. Others, appalled at his influence over the tsarina, called him the “Mad Monk” - though not in public unless they wanted to incur the wrath of Alexandra.
Rasputin brought huge disrepute on the Romanov's. His womanising was well known and he was considered by many to be debauched. How many of the stories are true and how many exaggerated will never be known, because after his death people felt free enough from his power to tell their own stories. However, his simple reputation while he was alive was enough to do immense damage to the Romanov's.
Rasputin was a great believer in the maintenance of autocracy. If it was to be diluted, it would have negatively affected his position within Russia's social hierarchy.
Ironically, with the devastation that World War One was to cause in Russia, it was Rasputin who advised Nicholas not to go to war as he had predicted that Russia would be defeated. As his prophecies seemed to be more and more accurate, his influence within Russia increased. Rasputin had always clashed with the Duma. They saw his position within the monarchy as a direct threat to their position. Alexandra responded to their complaints about Rasputin's power by introducing legislation that further limited their power.
The Duma took their complaints directly to the emperor. In September 1915, their representatives met Nicholas at his military headquarters to express their discontent that there was no government ministry back in the cities that had the confidence of the people. He told them to go back to St Petersburg and carry on working. At the end of September, another group went to see Nicholas to ask for a government that had the people's confidence. Nicholas would not see them. After this, Rasputin's power in St Petersburg was unchallengeable. As long as he had the support of the tsarina, he had power as Alexandra all but dominated her husband. As long as Alexis, the sole male heir to the throne, was ill, Rasputin had power over Alexandra.
When the Duma was dissolved in September 1915, Rasputin took charge of just about all aspects of government in St Petersburg. He held audiences on matters of state and then forwarded the problem discussed onto the relevant minister. Protected by the tsarina, Rasputin also involved himself in the war itself. He insisted that he looked at the plans for prospective campaigns and that he knew about the timing of the plans so that he could pray for its success. This was a gift for the sophisticated German Intelligence Service.
Ministers who criticised Rasputin or who disagreed with his policies were summarily dismissed. Scheratov (Interior), Krivosheim (Agriculture) and Gremykim himself were all dismissed for daring to criticise “Our Friend”. Gremykim was replaced by Sturmer who simply agreed with everything Rasputin said. While he had the support of Alexandra because of the position he had adopted towards Rasputin, Sturmer put his energy into embezzling the Treasury. Protopopov was appointed Minister of the Interior - he had spent 10 years in prison for armed robbery.
While chaos ensued at home, the war at the front was going badly. Poland was lost to the Germans in 1916 and they advanced to just 200 miles from Moscow. It became clear that the morale of the ordinary Russian soldier was extremely poor and desertion became a growing problem. Food supplies were poor and erratic. As the front line got closer to the home front, it became obvious to many that both fronts were in total chaos.
In October 1916, rail workers in Petrograd (St Petersburg) went on strike in protest about their working conditions. Soldiers were sent from the front to coerce the strikers back to work. They joined the rail men. Sturmer, having recalled the Duma, was alarmed by this development but he also seriously misunderstood the implications of what had happened.
|“We can allow these wretches to talk themselves out of existence and draw the sting of unrest and draw up loyal troops.” Sturmer|
The Duma met on November 14th 1916. Milykov, the leader of the Progressives, made an attack on the government, asking at the end of each comment he made about the government “Is this folly or treason?” Far more disturbing for the government was when the conservative Shulgin and the reactionary leader Purishkavitch made attacks on the government. Milykov would have been expected - but not the other two.
Sturmer wanted Milykov arrested. But in a rare example of decisiveness, Nicholas dismissed him on December 23rd 1916. He was replaced as premier by Trepov - a less than competent conservative. Alexandra also remarked that “he is no friend of Our Friend.” Trepov lasted only until January 9th 1917, when he was allowed to resign. Government was on the verge of a complete breakdown.
Nicholas was isolated at the war front but was frequently too indecisive to be of any use. Alexandra still tried to dominate the home front with Rasputin. Food was in short supply as was fuel. The people of Petrograd were cold and hungry - a dangerous combination for Nicholas.
On December 30th 1916, Rasputin was assassinated by Prince Yusipov. Alexandra bullied her husband into ordering an imperial funeral - something reserved for members of the royal family or senior members of the aristocracy or church.
Senior members of the royal family touted for how much support there would be for Alexis to rule with a regent - a clear indication that they recognised the reign of Nicholas could not go on. Grand Duke Paul sent a letter to the army generals at the front to ascertain their views on whether Nicholas should be replaced. However, there was so much intrigue taking place that it is difficult to exactly know who said what to whom.
By January 1917, it was clear that Nicholas had lost control of the situation. Yet in this month, amidst what must have seemed like chaos, a congress of Allied powers met to discuss future policies.
On February 27th, the Duma met for the first time after the Christmas recess. It met against a background of unrest in Petrograd. There was a general strike in the city, which had been called as a result of the arrest of the public representative of the Public Munitions Committee. The city had no transport system. There was food stored in the city, but no way of moving it around. Food shortages and food queues brought even more people out onto the streets.
On March 12th, those in a bread queue, spurred on by the cold and hunger, charged a bakery. The police fired on them in an effort to restore order. It was to prove a very costly error for the government as around the city about 100,000 were on strike and on the streets. They quickly rallied to the support of those who had been fired on. Nicholas ordered that the military governor of the city, General Habalov, should restore order. Habalov ordered the elite Volhynian Regiment to do just this. They joined the strikers and used their might to disarm the police. The city's arsenal was opened and prisoners were freed from prisons that were later burned. What had been a small disturbance at a city baker's, had turned into a full-scale rebellion - such was the anger in Petrograd.
On March 13th, more soldiers were ordered on to the streets to dispel the strikers. They saw the size of the crowds and returned to their barracks, thus disobeying their orders.
The Duma appointed a provisional committee, which was representative of all parties. Rodzyanko was selected to lead it. Alexander Kerensky was appointed to take charge of troop dispositions in an effort to defeat any effort that might be made by the government to dissolve the Duma. Kerensky was an interesting choice as he was a member of the Petrograd Soviet and had links with many factory workers committees within Petrograd.
It is known that Rodzyanko telegraphed Nicholas requesting that he appoint a Prime Minister who had the confidence of the people.
“The last hour has come when the destiny of the country had the dynasty is being decided.”
Rodzyanko received no answer to his telegraph.
On March 14th, rumours swept through the city that soldiers from the front were being sent in to put down the uprising. The Duma established a Provisional Government in response to this perceived threat. The important Petrograd Soviet gave its support to the Provisional Government on the condition that it summoned a constituent assembly, universal suffrage was to be guaranteed and that civil rights were to be enjoyed by all.
In reality, the Provisional Government in Petrograd had little to fear from troops at the front. Discipline was already breaking down and thousands of soldiers deserted. The Petrograd Soviet had sent an instruction to the front that soldiers should not obey their officers and that they should not march on the capital.
At this moment in time, Nicholas was caught between the war front and Petrograd. He received news of small disturbances in his capital and gathered together a group of loyal soldiers to put them down. He had no idea of the sheer scale of the 'disturbances'. He also had no idea of the political input into this uprising. Nicholas did not make it to Petrograd because of a heavy snow storm. He was forced to stop at Pskov. It was only here that Nicholas received a copy of Rodzyanko's telegram. It was also at Pskov that Nicholas learned that all his senior army generals believed that he should abdicate. On the night of March 15th, two members of the Provisional Government also arrived to request the same. With as much dignity as he could muster, Nicholas agreed and handed the throne to his brother, Michael. He confirmed the existence of the Provisional Government and asked that all Russians everywhere support it so that Russia would win her fight against Germany.
Michael refused the throne unless it was handed to him after the people had voted for him. This was never going to happen and Romanov rule over Russia came to an end.
The March revolution was not a planned affair. Lenin was in Switzerland, the Bolsheviks did not even have a majority in the Petrograd Soviet and the Duma had not wanted the end of the Romanovs. So why did it happen?
The ruling dynasty must take a great deal of the blame. Nicholas was an ineffective ruler who had let his wife dominate him to such an extent that the royal family became inextricably linked to a disreputable man like Gregory Rasputin. Such an association only brought discredit to the Romanovs.
The ruling elite also failed to realise that the people would only take so much. They took their loyalty for granted. In February/March 1917, lack of food, lack of decisive government and the cold pushed the people of Petrograd onto the streets. The people of Petrograd did not call for the overthrow of Nicholas - it happened as a result of them taking to the streets calling for food. People had to burn their furniture to simply get heat in their homes. Very few would tolerate having to queue in the extreme cold just for food - food that might run out before you got to the head of the queue. The spontaneous reaction to police shooting at protestors in a bread queue showed just how far the people of Petrograd had been pushed. That it ended with the abdication of Nicholas II was a political by-product of their desire for a reasonably decent lifestyle.