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World War I Monday, 2 November, 1998, 16:33 GMT
War and revolution in Russia
Russian soldiers in training for WWI
Russian soldiers in training
Russian Affairs Analyst Stephen Dalziel looks at the significance of the Great War for Russia.

One country which will not be marking the 80th anniversary of the end of the Great War in November 1918 is Russia.

World War 1:Special Section
This is because for Russia the war ended in March 1918, with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Russia had experienced two revolutions in 1917, and by 1918 was in the throes of civil war.

But the Great War played a direct role in bringing about those revolutions, and thus represents an important, if often overshadowed, development in Russian history.

Echoes of the past

Russian Infantry
The war was over for Russia in early 1918
The changes which rocked the country, culminating in the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 and the subsequent four-year civil war, meant that the war which was "the Great War" for much of Europe was little more than a sideshow in Russia.

Russia's entry into the war has resonance today with its position over the crisis in former Yugoslavia. Today, Russia has been at odds with the other members of the contact group which is trying to bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict in former Yugoslavia because of its support for the Serbs. Russia's position was similar in 1914.

Tumbling into war

Tsar Nicholas II
Tsar Nicholas II failed to deal with the problems the war created
In 1914, following the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria demanded concessions from the Serbian government.

Germany supported Austria; Russia sided with the Serbs. Austria declared war on Serbia; Russia announced a general military mobilisation. Germany then declared war on Russia. Russia had almost accidentally tumbled into something which was to lead to the downfall of tsarism; the failure of an attempt to create a democratic state; and the imposition of a totalitarian system which was to repress the Russian people and millions of their neighbours for most of the century.

Problems for the Tsar

Tsar Nicholas II and the Russian government fell into the same trap at the outbreak of the Great War as the leaders of the other powers involved: they assumed it would be a short, victorious war. The Russians hoped that this would help to restore some of the authority of the Tsar, which had been damaged by the failed revolution of 1905 and the Tsar's subsequent indecisiveness.

In fact, Nicholas was to prove hopelessly inadequate at dealing with the problems the war created.

Not all of Russia's problems were of Nicholas' creation. The problem of providing victuals for a vast army and keeping the population fed proved enormous. The peasantry was badly hit by the call-up of some 14 million men, and communications across Russia's great land mass were disrupted by troop movements.

Ultimately, a combination of low morale in the army, a general dissatisfaction with the conduct of the War and Nicholas' gross incompetence saw tsardom swept away to be replaced by a provisional government in March 1917.

But this government's continued support for the war effort played into the hands of the Communist leader, Vladimir Ilich Lenin. In November 1917, in a move now widely regarded less as a revolution than a small-scale, but highly effective, coup-d'etat, Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power.

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

One of the Bolsheviks' first aims was to pull Russia out of the war. So on 3 March 1918, they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

This ceded vast tracts of land in the West of the old Russian Empire to the Germans, much of which was to be seized back 21 years later following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which carved up Poland between Germany and the USSR.

But as a result of Brest-Litovsk, when the Western powers celebrated the signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918, Russia was too deeply embroiled in its own civil war to pay the event more than passing interest.

Links to more World War I stories are at the foot of the page.


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