Ninety years have passed since the start of World War I, but, no matter how remote that date may seem, the world continues to live in its shadow. This above all applies to Russia, as after the war the country went through two revolutions, a terrible civil war, a famine that claimed uncountable lives, and decades of Bolshevism. The incalculable human, intellectual, cultural and spiritual losses left no sphere untouched. If the losses from World War II are also taken into account, then one can only be surprised by Russians' unique ability to survive.
Unlike the other countries fighting in WWI, Russia took up arms without any clear idea why. The widespread supposition that the tsar wanted to clear the way to the Dardanelles is only partially correct.
The opposition, and not the imperial court, was far more interested in debating the Dardanelles. The latter entertained great doubts as to whether or not it had joined the right side in the war. The German and Austrian empires were far closer to it than the French and British democracies. But the liberal opposition in Russia saw a union with London and Paris as a guarantees that the tsarist regime would have to launch, one way or another, a constitutional reform along Western lines.
Even Nicolas II understood that the war was too much for the Russian Empire, which had not yet recovered from a defeat inflicted by the Japanese and from the social upheavals. Many figures in his entourage and his close associates constantly told him this. On the one hand, there were authoritative Russian politicians like Sergei Witte and Pyotr Stolypin and, on the other, there were his wife and Rasputin.
Pyotr Durnovo, former chief of the Police Department and Interior Minister, wrote in a memorandum to Nicholas II in February 1914: "The brunt of the war will doubtless fall to our lot, as Britain is hardly capable of playing a major role in a continental war and France, considering that immense losses will be suffered in this war in the present conditions and with modern military arms, will probably stick to strictly defensive tactics. We shall have to play the role of a battering ram breaking through the strongest part of German defence... A social revolution in a defeated country will become inevitable... Russia will then definitely be a most favourable area for social upheavals. It will be plunged into hopeless anarchy, the outcome of which is unpredictable." Nonetheless, even foreseeing its fate, Russia became involved in the war under pressure from its allies in the Entente, and its own Slavophiles and pro-Western liberals.
From the very start, the plan of military operations, as devised by the Russian General Staff, had to be changed to help France. Under the plan, Russia was to fight against Austria, and only after it had concentrated all its land forces launch an offensive against Germany. In reality, the Russian army was forced to start its offensive in Eastern Prussia immediately, i.e., when it still had not been mobilised. Colonel Alfred Knox, the British military attache, admitted that Russia's strategic plan had been changed for a sole purpose: to help the Allies in the West.
Even the very first unprepared offensive, which made it possible to save France from a quick defeat, inflicted great casualties on the Russians and undermined the far from immense forces of the tsarist army. Recalling those days, the daughter of Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador to Russia, wrote, in particular, that it seemed there was not a single family in Petrograd that had not suffered bereavement. Funeral processions slowly made their way from all railway stations.
Such was the price paid by the Russians for saving Paris. Later, at critical moments, the Allies repeatedly turned to St Petersburg for help, and Russia met France and Britain halfway.
The Russians remained on the battlefield until the Bolsheviks, the most zealous defeatists, seized power. Lenin associated his greatest hopes with that war. The task seemed obvious enough - to turn angered armed men against the authorities. He wrote openly in one of his instructions: "Only the development of this war can lead us to power, but we should say little about it in our campaigning."
The year 1917 was one of revolution instead of war for the totally exhausted Russian soldiers. Spring saw the first, bourgeois, revolution, and autumn the second, proletarian, one. Russia's total losses in that war were as follows: 1.7 million dead and nearly five million left crippled and wounded. The masses could not forgive the long-bankrupt ruling class for these losses.
As the police chief Durnovo and the revolutionary Lenin had foreseen, the "angry man" finally left the trenches and made for the capital.
Pyotr Romanov, RIA Novosti commentator