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Tsar Nicholas II and World War I

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Александр Павлович Шиманский
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Imperial Russia
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188908984 / Жалобы? Ошибка? Выделите проблемный текст и нажмите CTRL+ENTER!

Did the decision of Tsar Nicholas II to take personal command at the front accelerate the fall of the Russian Empire?

Viewpoint: Yes. The tsar was unqualified to command at the front, and he exacerbated an already bad situation by a series of poor decisions.

Viewpoint: No. The Russian military situation was so bad by late 1915 that decisions made by the tsar after that point had little bearing on the collapse of the empire.


Russian tsar Nicholas II left the newly renamed city of Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) in 1915 to assume personal command of the armies at the front. He did so against the urgent advice of his ministers, who argued that an already disrupted administration would be strained to the collapsing point if the autocrat ultimately responsible for decision making was five hundred miles out of touch. They contended that it was foolish to take such a step after the series of defeats Russia had suffered during the summer: setbacks resulting in the loss of Warsaw, the sacrifice of two million casualties, and the virtual exhaustion of Russian reserves of weapons and ammunition. Instead of being the rallying point of the Russian people at war, the monarchy would become their scapegoat by accepting de facto responsibility for anything else that might go wrong with the conduct of operations.
Nicholas was adamant. Since August 1914 he had wanted to take the field at the head of his troops. He spent as much time as possible at army headquarters, frequently accompanied by his son, playing the roles of a loving father and an interested spectator. His own military skills were best illustrated by his personally testing a new design of uniform and pack in a nine-hour march before the war. If Tsar Nicholas manifested the virtues of a storekeeper, as a soldier he showed the qualities of a supply sergeant. Nor did the tsar possess the force of character to impress the senior staff officers who now did the real work of command. None of the military decisions made between his assumption of command and his abdication in 1916 owed anything to his input. Instead, familiarity bred neglect. The tsar was no longer a figure of awe and mystery--just the unassuming middle-aged man in an unpretentious uniform who waited every day for the regular letters from his wife.
Nicholas's gesture had international consequences. The French and British governments interpreted it as nailing the flag to the mast: the tsar's government would stand or fall with the outcome of the war. Germany too processed the decision as a signifier, ending any possibility of a negotiated peace. The real significance of Nicholas's decision, however, was as his advisers predicted. His physical removal from Petrograd left the threads of government hanging. They were taken up by the tsarina. German-born and lacking the intellectual development to shape her driving energy, which was increasingly in thrall to her sinister adviser monk, Grigory Rasputin, Alexandra would complete the catastrophe of the empire.

Viewpoint: Yes. The tsar was unqualified to command at the front, and he exacerbated an already bad situation by a series of poor decisions.

Tsar Nicholas II's decision to take personal command of the armed forces in August 1915 was one of the most disastrous decisions in Russian history. At a stroke he both removed effective leadership from the war effort and absented himself from the seat of the political power in the empire. As the war on the Eastern Front dragged on, both of these factors conspired to lead Russia into catastrophe. A significant amount of responsibility for the military defeat of Russia and its descent into the horrors of revolution and communism must be laid at the feet of its last emperor.

From a military standpoint Nicholas II's arrival at headquarters made positively no sense. Apart from his brief service as a cavalry officer when he was still heir to the throne, he had no education in military affairs. Unlike his ancestor Peter I (the Great), who had patiently educated himself in the arts of war and based all promotions and assignments--including his own--on strict meritocracy, the unprepared Nicholas merely appointed himself to the Supreme Command. This decision was especially disastrous in the emerging school of modern warfare, where no army could take the field effectively without high-quality professional leadership. This reality had been recognized even in underdeveloped Russia, where the reformist Tsar Alexander II had dramatically reformed and modernized officer training and military techniques after the defeat of his country in the Crimean War (1853-1856). Nicholas, who modeled his relationship with the nation after the power scenarios of the Romanovs of the seventeenth century, showed his disregard for military professionalism by placing himself at the head of his army despite his lack of qualifications.

From a sound, professional perspective, moreover, such a transition was unnecessary. Despite antiquated strategic thinking and incompetence in the ranks of its officer corps, Russia fielded enough reliable commanders in World War I to obviate the emperor's need for his presence at headquarters. The commander in chief whom Nicholas replaced, his cousin Grand Duke Nicholas (Nikolay Nikolayevich), was a career officer and one of the most modern and progressive thinkers in the Russian military. The initial success of Russia in mobilizing the forward elements of its army fast enough to defy prewar predictions of its effectiveness was largely his doing. The early reversal at Tannenberg in August 1914 resulted much more from the incompetence of the responsible field commanders than from the Grand Duke's command. The shortages of weapons and ammunition that bedeviled the Russian army thereafter were brought on by the incompetence of the corrupt war minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov. When Grand Duke Nicholas had the opportunity, moreover, he proved his command abilities amply. Despite the terrible defeat in East Prussia, the Russian armies arrayed against the Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia inflicted a high number of casualties and made impressive gains in the autumn of 1914. Combined German and Austrian attacks in Russian Poland later in the year were checked. Even the great retreat of the summer of 1915, which surrendered much ground to the Central Powers and was the immediate pretext for Grand Duke Nicholas's dismissal, was conducted skillfully and for sound strategic reasons.

Nicholas II's personal assumption of command grew out of one of the critical weaknesses of his reign: his own shortsightedness as a ruler and as an individual. In addition to his naive belief that he shared a personal communion with the Russian people, he ruled over a political system that could not function without his immediate presence. This fact was not merely perceived in hindsight. When the Emperor announced his decision to his cabinet, ten of the twelve ministers of state objected and tried to convince him to reconsider. Tellingly, ministers in Imperial Russia served only at the pleasure of the tsar and had no responsibility to the Duma (protoparliament), which had existed since 1906, or to any other institution. That Nicholas was about to make a catastrophic mistake was clear even to his own placemen.

What was the content of their objections? First of all, the already delicate domestic political situation in Russia would be endangered by the tsar's personal association with the military fortunes of his country. Any other military commander could be blamed for a disaster and then dismissed, but by taking personal command the Emperor would now bear personal as well as political responsibility for all military failures. The deterioration of the Russian position in the field after he assumed command made such an outcome unavoidable regardless of the myriad of other problems faced by the war effort. Indeed, one of the leading criticisms of Nicholas's leadership has been that he single-handedly lost the war and caused the deaths of millions of Russian soldiers. As unfair as that opinion may be, Nicholas's own foolishness made it stick.

The larger and more obvious problem was that the Emperor's near-permanent move from the capital, Petrograd, to Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) in the provincial town of Mogilev took him away from his paramount responsibilities as head of state. In an age before radio and other "real time" means of communication, the communications infrastructure of Russia was incapable of keeping the tsar in regular touch with events elsewhere. Even though the telephone had been invented and came into regular use on the Western Front, none was ever installed at the tsar's military headquarters. To communicate with the capital, he had to rely on correspondence by telegram and regular mail. As a result he became less and less in touch with the political realities of the home front. Domestic political issues either eluded his attention altogether or reached him in a grossly distorted form.

The growing disconnect between the tsar and the capital was especially dangerous because Nicholas tried to compensate for his absence by entrusting more and more authority to his wife, Empress Alexandra. There were indeed few reasons why he should have done so. The Empress was herself not Russian, but rather a princess of the German Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, who was thought to be personally cold and uncomfortable in her husband's country. At a time when Russia was engaged in a mortal struggle with Germany, public opinion and even many in the elite shared the view that Alexandra was actively working against Russia. While the various conspiracy theories and rumors about her pro-German machinations were untrue, they nevertheless spread like wildfire as the war continued, and acquired more credibility with each new military reverse. As a matter of principle, moreover, the Russian empress had no traditional or other kind of role in government, and many saw the enhancement of Alexandra's role as a subversion or usurpation of the tsar's rightful authority. After a few months of her de facto government, court circles and even relatives of the tsar began to talk about a minor coup d'état to deprive her of power and to place her under house arrest.

To make matters worse, the Empress found herself incapable of making many government decisions and came to rely with increasing desperation on the shady Siberian mystic Grigory Rasputin, a peasant who had an inexplicable ability to soothe the suffering of the hemophiliac heir to the throne. After his appearance at court became well established in the tsar's absence, Rasputin brought further disgrace on the Romanov dynasty. Quite simply, he used the trust of the Imperial family and his access to the Empress to peddle influence for money and sexual favors and frequently boasted in public about how much power he exercised over the imperial family. Because of the tsar's absence and Rasputin's salacious reputation, it was widely rumored that the mystic and the Empress were having an affair. While this innuendo was certainly untrue, it was nevertheless circulated and believed. Much of the antimonarchy propaganda that developed during the war involved pornographic depictions and insinuations involving the Empress and the mystic.

Public perceptions of the monarchy were worsened by the plain fact that Rasputin's input had a serious impact on policy decisions and appointments. It is clear that the Empress trusted him implicitly, and together the two worked to oust responsible officials who objected to Rasputin's influence and presence at court, or who advocated reforms that would threaten the power of the throne. Unfortunately for Russia, many of these individuals were competent modernizers whose talents were sorely needed for the good of the country. Indeed, the mystic's chicanery contributed to the dismissal of Grand Duke Nicholas, who had once threatened to hang Rasputin if he came to headquarters. Although historians debate how deep Rasputin's influence truly was, there was nevertheless a pronounced correlation between Alexandra's conveyance of his advice to the tsar and Nicholas II's actual decisions about government appointments and sometimes even military matters. Before Tsar Nicholas had taken command of the army, Rasputin's presence at court had been barely tolerated and his political influence was nearly nonexistent. When Rasputin was eventually assassinated in December 1916, the murder was carried out by conservative defenders of the throne who included a first cousin of the tsar, his nephew by marriage, and a prominent right-wing politician.

The events of February 1917 revealed exactly how much the tsar's authority had deteriorated. When a series of strikes, bread riots, and political demonstrations created mass unrest in Petrograd toward the end of the month, the response of the government was totally inadequate. Unseasonably warm weather added to the crowds, and the situation quickly got out of hand. Nicholas II's response was a pure product of his absence at the front and the lack of effective communications. In the first critical days of the disturbances, when his personal leadership might still have made an impact, the tsar received only limited information from the capital and simply responded that the crowds should be dispersed. In other words, he reacted as if Petrograd were experiencing the same type of run-of-the-mill demonstrations that had happened before and could be controlled with relative ease. What he did not know was that there were hundreds of thousands of people in the streets and that neither the overwhelmed police nor the green army units in the capital were capable of restoring order or were even particularly willing to do so for his sake. By the time Nicholas realized that he should return to the capital, already several days after the initial reports had reached him, it was too late. Striking railroad workers stopped his train from approaching Petrograd. Isolated in the provincial city of Pskov in western Russia, he suddenly found himself confronted with delegations from his army commanders and the Duma informing him that he had no choice but to abdicate from the throne. Even before Nicholas issued his abdication manifesto, however, a committee of high-profile Duma members took "temporary power" as a Provisional Government. Most military units in the capital, including one commanded by another first cousin of the tsar, had already sworn allegiance to it, and most other army units quickly recognized its authority after the abdication. The traditional tsarist police and administrative apparatus disappeared almost overnight. The Russian monarchy had vanished.

Nicholas II was in many ways responsible for his own fall from power. Removing himself to military headquarters was foremost among his mistakes. Closed off to the home front, the crucial domestic political leadership that Russia needed was no longer forthcoming from its only recognized authority. In Nicholas's absence real power flowed from his suspiciously German wife and an unsavory peasant mystic, while total responsibility for military reverses rested squarely on the tsar's shoulders. Nicholas's effective departure from domestic government also surrendered ever more authority and legitimacy to the heretofore strictly controlled Duma and to other institutions of burgeoning civil society in late Imperial Russia. The final nail in the coffin came during the abdication crisis itself, when popular demonstrations with no far-reaching political goals revealed the inefficacy of the autocracy and provided an entrée for a new form of government. No one knew in early 1917 what that transition would mean for Russia and the world, but much of it originated with Nicholas II's de facto abdication from serious leadership in August 1915.

-- Paul Du Quenoy, Georgetown University

Viewpoint: No. The Russian military situation was so bad by late 1915 that decisions made by the tsar after that point had little bearing on the collapse of the empire.

When news of Nicholas II's decision to assume command of the Russian army reached his Council of Ministers, they warned him, almost unanimously, that this move was a grave error. The Russian ministers feared Nicholas's decision not only because the tsar was unschooled in military tactics and strategy but also because of the enormity of the crisis that confronted the Russian army by late summer 1915. Even worse than Nicholas's decision was his timing. The Great Retreat, begun under the blows of German general August von Mackensen's offensives in May, was nearing its climax. The withdrawal, or perhaps more accurately the evacuation, of Russian Poland and the westernmost lands of Russia was nearly complete. Only the fall rasputitsa, the quagmire of mud that defined Russian roads with the start of the seasonal rains, brought the German advance to a halt.

Since the opening of World War I, catastrophic losses had eviscerated the Russian army as a fighting force. The Russian system of divided command, replete with competing fronts, contradictory strategies, and jealous generals, was fatally flawed and the war all but lost by September of 1915 when Nicholas assumed command. Rifts between "traditionalists" (usually nobles) in the artillery and cavalry versus "innovators" (often of "plebian" origin) in the infantry seriously undermined combat operations. Army commanders often refused to talk to each other and sometimes even to their own chiefs of staff because of loyalty to one of these perspectives. Most infamously, the antagonism between Aleksandr Samsonov (an innovator) and Pavel Rennenkampf (a traditionalist) prevented their coordination of their advance into East Prussia with the tragedies of Tannenberg (1914) and the Masurian Lakes (1914) as the result.

Russian casualties in the first full year of war were staggering--1.5 million Russian troops had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner by the end of 1914. Allan K. Wildman, in The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers' Revolt (1980), noted that this figure represented nearly half of the prewar trained manpower and was especially devastating to the officer corps. Russia could never make good these losses. It could replace private soldiers with new conscripts, but the experience and training of both officers and men was never successfully duplicated. Even a commander in chief vastly more talented than Nicholas II could not provide men with the experience lost in the first year of the war. The most successful Russian general, Aleksey Brusilov, described the loss: "In a year of war, the regular army had vanished. It was replaced by an army of ignoramuses." By the end of 1915, before Nicholas's own actions and decisions could bear fruit for good or ill, total Russian casualties reached 3.8 million, an unimaginable figure made more concrete by one general's calculation that Russia had lost 300,000 men per month since the start of the war.

Even more crippling than the physical loss of such prodigious numbers of men was the psychological devastation. Dennis E. Showalter, in Tannenberg: Clash of Empires (1991), noted that such psychological damage was apparent as early as Tannenberg: the commanders and troops of the Northwest Front had marched into East Prussia confident in their two-to-one numerical superiority and believed in their forthcoming overwhelming victory. Therefore the disaster at Tannenberg was even more devastating to the Russian psyche than the physical loss alone.

Before Nicholas assumed command, replacements were rushed into combat without sufficient training, and frequently without weapons. Not surprisingly, these raw troops retreated rapidly before the well-oiled military machine of Germany. How they retreated revealed their commanders' (not the tsar's) incompetence.

In an illusory analogy to the Napoleonic invasion, Russian commanders incorporated "Moscow tactics" into their withdrawals in 1914-1915. These tactics included a scorched- earth policy that destroyed the best industry in Russia and generated an endless stream of refugees who streamed eastward, clogging roads, draining resources, and demoralizing citizens and soldiers alike.

This demoralization, however, was not the only problem Russia faced. Nicholas's political decision making before assuming military command had already hopelessly isolated him from his own government and alienated him from his people to a degree that made his subsequent military role inconsequential.

Despite the Great Retreat, patriotic Russians of genuine talent, ability, and loyalty rallied to the Russian cause. National, provincial, and municipal leaders developed plans to assist the state in its time of need; Nicholas's own ministers overcame their rivalries to present to him a united plan of action.

Members of the Duma (protoparliament), infamous for political infighting, overcame their differences to form a "Progressive Bloc" in early 1915. Oriented toward mobilizing the Russian economy and industry to support the war effort, this group represented an unprecedented union of almost 75 percent of the deputies into one alliance. By August the Bloc had developed a program of action that might have alleviated some of the worst logistics problems. At least cooperation with the Bloc might have reduced the growing rift between the tsar and his people, but Nicholas's prime minister refused to even hold conversations with Bloc representatives.

At the same time, the Union of Municipalities and the Zemstva Union, representatives of cities and provinces of Russia, convened a congress in Moscow to devise methods of supporting the war effort. Prince Georgy Lvov, renowned throughout Russia for his work in providing medical aid to wounded troops, called this congress "The moment . . . to establish a true alliance between the tsar and the people."

Prince Lvov was not the only prominent Russian to note the vitality of these movements or their decisive potential. Nicholas's own ministers urged compromise with the Bloc and the congress. They urged Nicholas to replace the aged Prime Minister Ivan Goremykin and at least negotiate to involve these popular representatives in solving the problems of the country. Instead, Nicholas replaced the most outspoken ministers and refused to talk to either the Bloc or the congress. This action made cooperation with the Duma impossible, alienated many of the last, most able supporters in the regime, and began the process of inserting malleable mediocrities into ministerial posts under the influence of Empress Alexandra and Grigory Rasputin--the infamous "ministerial leapfrog."

Nicholas's assumption of command is often condemned for increasing Alexandra's, and thereby Rasputin's, influence in government affairs. Her domination of Nicholas, and Rasputin's power over her, however, were already well established before his departure. She was Goremykin's champion and the Grand Duke Nicholas's (Nikolay Nikolayevich) enemy, with the devastating consequences of alienation and isolation shown by the Bloc and Congress decisions. Alexandra's alienation from the people, largely based on her German ancestry, was so pronounced that not even her genuinely dedicated hospital work for wounded soldiers could endear her to them. To argue that she would have had less influence over Nicholas and government affairs had he remained in the capital is moot.

Political decisions alienated the tsar from his people and isolated him from his own government. But it was the desperate inability of Russia to mobilize its industry to a war footing, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of casualties, that gutted the morale and ability of the army and ultimately broke its loyalty to the throne.

Russian soldiers marched into combat in 1914-1915 blind, dismounted, and, incredibly, often unarmed. Aerial reconnaissance, so vital given the vast distances and rapid pace of operations on the Eastern Front, was nearly impossible. Cavalry could no longer perform this traditional function rapidly enough. Even though Russia had 250 airplanes at the start of the war, lack of spare parts (and frequent shootdowns by Russian troops, who believed that only Germans could use such infernal contraptions) kept most aircraft grounded and Russian commanders blind.

Equally disabling was the complete absence of motorized transport. All supplies for the army were moved by horse and human power once they reached the railhead. No trucks of any kind existed in any significant numbers, and if they had, the complete lack of all-weather roads would have rendered them useless. Even German commanders remarked at how incredibly difficult logistics operations became once they advanced into railless and roadless Russian territory. Unlike the Germans, Russian quartermasters had nearly impossible problems of distance to solve as well. The average rifle bullet destined for a Russian soldier had to travel 4,000 kilometers from its source, and the average artillery shell 6,500 kilometers. These incredible distances were aggravated by the fact that two of every three artillery shells and one third of the rifle bullets fired by Russian troops through the end of 1916 came from Allied, not Russian, factories. No commander in chief could solve these problems alone.

The one great successful Russian effort, the Brusilov Offensive, came after Nicholas assumed command. War Minister Alexis Polivanov, under Nicholas's command, worked energetically with the War Industries committees and the Zemgor (Red Cross) to dramatically improve conditions in the Russian army during the winter of 1915-1916. By early 1916 well-trained recruits were armed, clothed, and fed better than their predecessors, and the troops' confidence was restored. A half million of these Polivanovtsy spearheaded Brusilov's thrust in the summer of 1916. That offensive ultimately failed because of the same problems of incompetent command (Generals Alexei Evert and Aleksey Kuropatkin to Brusilov's right) and impossible logistics that had plagued the army before Nicholas took charge. The last, best Russian effort at victory ground up the Polivanovtsy and their supplies, and the criminal incompetence of Evert, Kuropatkin, the Guards' commanders, and others finally broke the will of the long-suffering peasant troops. W. Bruce Lincoln, in Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914-1918 (1986), noted the testimony of one Guards' lieutenant about himself and his men: "We are willing to give our lives for Russia, for our Motherland, but not for the whims of generals." By the end of 1916 the army was broken, fully and irreparably. It was destroyed by incompetent generals, failed logistics, and the horrendous, grinding casualties it suffered from the opening days of the war. Nicholas's decision to take command paled in comparison.

-- David L. Ruffley, U.S. Air Force Academy


On 22 March 1917 Tsar Nicholas II was arrested; the following is his final order of the day to the Russian army he had led, as recorded by French ambassador Georges Maurice Paléoloque:

I address you for the last time, you soldiers who are so dear to my heart. Since I renounced the throne of Russia for myself and my son, power has been transferred to the Provisional Government which has been set up on the initiative of the Imperial Duma.

May God help that Government to lead Russia to glory and prosperity! And may God also help you, my brave soldiers, to defend your country against a cruel foe! For more than two years and a half you have continuously borne the hardships of an arduous service; much blood has been spilt, enormous efforts have been made and already the hour is at hand in which Russia and her glorious allies will break down the enemy's last desperate resistance in one mighty common effort.

This unprecedented war must be carried through to final victory. He who thinks of peace at the present moment is a traitor to Russia.

I am firmly convinced that the boundless love you bear our beautiful Fatherland is not dead in your hearts. May God bless you and Saint George, the great martyr, lead you to victory!


Source: Maurice Paléoloque, An Ambassador's Memoirs, volume three (New York: Doran, 1923), p. 259.



Marc Ferro, Nicholas II: The Last of the Tsars, translated by Brian Pearce (New York: Viking, 1991).

Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (London: Cape, 1996).

Figes and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History (New York: Holt, 1994).

John Keegan, The First World War (London: Hutchinson, 1998).

W. Bruce Lincoln, Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914-1918 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986).

Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra (New York: Atheneum, 1967).

Bernard Pares, The Fall of the Russian Monarchy: A Study of the Evidence (London: Cape, 1939; New York: Knopf, 1939).

Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1990).

Dennis E. Showalter, Tannenberg: Clash of Empires (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1991).

Allan K. Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers' Revolt, volume 1, The Old Army and the Soldiers' Revolt (March-April 1917) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

Опубликовано 04 сентября 2007 года

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