MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events

WWI -- Russia


World War I — Russia

Russia entered the first world war with the largest army in the world, standing at 1,400,000 soldiers; when fully mobilized the Russian army expanded to over 5,000,000 soldiers (though at the outset of war Russia could not arm all its soldiers, having a supply of 4.6 million rifles).

Europe: 1914

Europe: 1914


The Russian Ministry of War was commanded by General Sukhomlinov. Though Tsar Nicholas wished to lead the Russian Army into battle personally, he was persuaded otherwise and instead named his uncle, the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, Commander in Chief.

Russian Artillery

Russian Artillery in formation


The first offensive Russia launched was in August 1914, against Germany in East Prussia. The Russian First Army (commanded by Rennenkampf) aimed straight into the heart of East Prussia (held by the German Eight Army), while the Russian Second Army (commanded by Samsonov) aimed to cut off the Eighth army's line of retreat. Once Eastern Prussia was secure, the Russian Ministry of War planned to march on Berlin.

The Battle of Tannenberg: The First and Second Russian Army rapidly compromised the German positions in East Prussia, moving with such zeal that they outran their logistical support. After weeks of loses, the remaining German Eighth Army (led by Ludendorf), left their defensive positions and marched between the advanced positions of both Russian armies. The German Army turned West and attacked the flank of the Russian Second Army. Within four days of fighting, bogged down in lakes and swamps, the Russian Second Army was defeated. Samsonov shot himself. A week later, General Hindenburg led the Eighth German Army, bolstered by reinforcements, to drive the Russian First Army completely out of Prussia.


Also in August, to the South, Russia engaged Austria-Hungary with much better success. The Russian Army quickly shattered their front line on the border of Galacia, forcing the Austrian army to retreat. On September 3, 1914, the Southern Russian Army captured Lemberg, the capital of Galacia (present-day L'vov in Western Ukraine). Undaunted by success, the southern army continued to push on to Cracow (present-day Kraków of Poland) and aimed to continue into Silesia (South-Western portion of the German Empire — present-day Czechoslovakia).

Artillery bombardment of Galacia

Russian artillery bombardment of Galicia

Shortly after the fall of Lemberg, General Hindenburg assembled a new army in Eastern Prussia, designated the Ninth German Army, to assist Austria and prevent the Russian Army from advancing on Silesia. The Ninth aimed to cut straight through Poland (a territory of Russia), capture Warsaw, and continue on into Galicia to engage the Russian Southern Army.

Once the German Ninth army got underway, it met extremely heavy resistance in Poland. Despite seven months of intense fighting the army was unable to capture Warsaw. Meanwhile, to the South, the Russian Southern Army was unable to penetrate Silesia but kept hold of Galicia.

The German High Command, realising a war with two fronts would be impossible maintain, told the troops on the Western Front to dig in and hold their ground — a shifted their attention to Russia. By September 1915, two-thirds of the German Army were deployed on the Eastern front.

The German offensive opened on April 15 (28), 1915, and sent the Russian Army, short of ammunition and supplies, falling back to the East.[...] On June 9 (22) Lemberg was recaptured. With the Russian Southern Army front compromised and in retreat, on June 30 (July 12) the German Twelfth Army, coming from the NorthWest (East Prussia and Pomerania) spearheaded into Poland. The Russian and Polish soldiers in Poland were being crushed.

After a month of desperate battle, the Russian Ministry of War conceded to let their troops retreat from Poland on July 9 (22), 1915. The German Army followed at the heels of the retreating Russians, but by the end of September the German advance halted to reinforce all the gains it had made: the new front was established from the Southern border of the Russian state of Moldavia straight up to kilometers outside Riga in Latvia. Poland and Lithuania, inhabitited by some 23 million people, had been lost to Germany.

Amid increasingly tense political protests in Russia, General Sukhomlinov (Minister of War) was arrested in the beginning of 1916 (though released in the following Autumn), and was replaced by General Alexis Polivanov. In August, Tsar Nicholas dismissed Nikolai Kikolaevich and assumed personal command of the Russian Military.

On May 22 (June 4), 1916, Russian launched its second and last major offensive of the war. The Russian Army opened offensive operations along an enormous front: from Pinsk (in SouthWest Byelorussia) to the Russian border with Romania — an advance nearly 400 kilometers long. The advance continued for ten weeks, inflicting heavy loses on the Austrian-Hungarian Army whose efforts in the main had been re-directed to fighting in Italy. Despite the Russian offensive, however, the front remained largely intact.

Domestic protests continued in Russia, breaking out in masse with the new offensive. The government responded with political shuffling: several Generals, adminstrators, etc, were dismissed. Workers, peasants and soldiers, remained in unwavering support of ending the war. Thousands were arrested.


Russian soldiers fleeing

Russian soldiers running from advancing German troops (July, 1917)


On October 26, 1917, the Soviet government issued a decree of peace, insisting that all belligerent powers open immediate negotiations for a democratic peace without annexations, and guarantee the right of every nation to self-determination (Russia was the only nation to do so at the end of the war, allowing all the former territories of Russia to self-determination. Independence was short lived however, as each republic was later incorporated/annexed into the Soviet Union by Stalin.) . The Entente refused to recognise the Soviet government, and continued the war. The Soviet government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, ending four years of aggression between Russia and Germany.


Defeat: The loses Russia suffered in the world war were catastrophic. Between 900,000 and 2,500,000 Russians were killed. At least 1,500,000 Russians and possibly up to more than 5 million Russians were wounded. Nearly 4,000,000 Russian soldiers were held as POWs (Britain, France and Germany had 1.3 million POWs combined).

Economically Russia was devastated. 8,000,000,000 rubles in war debts were outstanding, strangling the national economy of its breath. Inflation soared; the gold reserves (then backing the currency) were nearly empty, revenues were exceedingly low while reconstruction costs were huge. Russia was on the verge of complete collapse.




Kulaks: The Russians that prospered the most during the war were peasant land-owners: Kulaks. Cunning muzhiks bribed local officials to prevent conscription and saw a field of opportunity open up during the war. While more and more peasants were sent to their deaths on the front lines, kulaks grabbed up their land in a free-for-all. By 1917, kulaks owned more than 90% of the arable land in European Russia, where once the majority or arable land had been in the hands of peasant communes.

The most valuable commodity throughout the war was grain, and kulaks understood this with absolute clarity: food prices climbed higher than any other commodity during the war. In 1916, food prices accelerated three times higher than wages, despite bumper harvests in both 1915 and 1916. The price of grain in 1916, already at two and a half rubles per pud, was anticipated to raise up to twenty five rubles per pud. Hoping to raise prices, the kulaks hoarded their food surplus.

Throughout 1916, the average urban labourer ate between 200 and 300 grams of food a day.

In 1917, the urban populations of Russia were allowed to buy only one pound of bread per adult, per day. In practice, workers sometimes went days without food. As a result of the Land Decree of October 26, 1917, when the peasants took back their land from the kulaks, food slowly came back into the cities again. Though the Kulaks were overwhelmed by the peasants at home and those returning from the front, many responded later in the year, during the coming Civil War.