Russia in World War I: Was victory ‘stolen’ by a stab in the back?

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Some experts claim that Russia was on the road to victory in the Great War but then it was abruptly sabotaged by selfish and cowardly politicians who organized the two revolutions in 1917, and who then later signed a separate peace deal with Germany. Is this thesis valid?

“In autumn of 1915, the Germans were halted at distant frontiers. They were not close to Moscow or Petrograd … As far as those people who are able to think strategically, or one might say historically, it was already clear by the end of 1915 that we were winning the war! The question remained when would it be over and at what price? ... Germany was doomed,” said Vladimir Lavrov, senior research associate of the Institute of Russian History, (link in Russian).

In the autumn of 1915, the German offensive on the Eastern Front (known in Russia as the “Great Retreat”) grounded to a halt, and Berlin’s strategy of a quick victory was derailed both in France and Russia, the historian underlined.

Betraying Russian national interests

The interpretation of Russia being cheated of victory is shared not only by some historians, but also on the highest political level.

“…This victory was stolen from the country,

“…This victory was stolen from the country. It was stolen by those who called for the defeat of their own Fatherland, own army, who sowed discord and aspired to grab power, betraying the country’s national interests,” said President Vladimir Putin five years ago on the occasion of the centenary of World War I’s commencement. The majority of Russians (40 percent) also think the country was on the path to winning the war, according to the survey.

Putin clearly blamed the Bolsheviks, who in October 1917 overthrew the Provisional Government that had been established after the abdication of Nicholas II in February that same year. The Bolsheviks came to power promising to end the war, which they did in March 1918, concluding a peace with Germany. The war finally ended for all combatants in November when Germany and Austria-Hungary acknowledged defeat.

German ‘rain of metal’

The “stolen victory” narrative might look surprising. The war started as a disaster for Russia. In 1914, two of its armies in Eastern Prussia suffered a humiliating defeat, and then 1915 witnessed the Great Retreat when the country lost vast territories in the West. One of the reasons for this debacle was the lack of weapons and ammunition, especially cannon shells, as the Russian economy could not provide the necessary war supplies.

Russian soldiers collect their dead from the battlefield during World War I

“The Germans are plowing battlefields with a rain of metal, as well as the trenches, often burying the defendants alive. They spend metal; we – human lives. They advance boosted by success, while we incur heavy casualties, spilling blood fighting and retreating,” summed up one Russian general in mid 1915 in a letter to Defense Minister Aleksei Polivanov (link in Russian).

Russia overcame the crisis

By early 1917, however, Russia in many respects was in a different situation than at the war’s beginning.

In 1916, Russian industry overcame the deficit of war supplies

“The Russian military-industrial sector began to rise. … In 1916, Russian industry overcame that crisis [the deficit of war supplies] but did it unevenly. … By the end of 1916, a program of new factory building was adopted,” argues historian Vasiliy Tsvetkov.

Moreover, according to some estimates, Russia spent 20-23 percent of its GDP on the war effort, while the UK spent 37 percent. So, there was potential for Russia to expand production.

Russia also launched a massive operation in 1916 against Austria-Hungary - the Brusilov Offensive. Although successful, Russian generals were unable to convert it into a game changer on the Eastern Front.

Russia’s exhaustion

Nevertheless, many historians say that the expansion of the Russian military economy, as well as General Brusilov’s success on the battlefield, were not enough to win the war.

General Alexey Brusilov (1853-1926) headed a successful offensive operation in the South-Western Front in 1916

“There’s a viewpoint in historiography that the Brusilov Offensive led to Russia’s exhaustion because the number of casualties and the amount of resources expended was high,” argues Alexander Shubin, a professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities and a senior research associate at the Institute of World History.

The historian also mentions that by 1917 the economy was able to meet the needs of the army, but the cost was too great, undermining the rest of the economy.

“One might say that by 1917 the strain of the war created those setbacks and failures that led to the February social explosion. The strain was so strong that even before the Revolution there were problems in Donbass [the main coal-producing region], and the disorganization of transportation led to a situation where even the capital city was badly supplied. The strain was so great that the country’s archaic social-political system could not cope with it.”

‘Fatal mistake’

Even if the February Revolution never had happened, there could be no hope for a decisive blow against Germany because Russian troops rarely were successful against the Germans in World War I. Moreover, the latter would have come to the rescue of its ally, Austria-Hungary, if Russia had been victorious on the battlefield against that Central European empire. Thus, we can also conclude that there was no chance for advance in this direction.

Russian prisoners of war taken by Germany

The country could not wait until the Allies might win either. “The Entente wished Russia to distract the Central Powers, and so the Allies pushed Russia hard to fight.” It was also not wise to expect help from the United States, which entered the war in April 1917 but only arrived on the front by mid-1918, underlines Alexander Shubin.

According to historian Boris Sokolov, “By the end of 1916 Russia could no longer fight, but those who came to power in February 1917 did not realize it.”

Until the very end the Provisional Government tried to carry on with the war in line with its obligations to the Allies. This was the "fatal mistake” that led to the Bolshevik Revolution in October.

Do you know how Russian soldiers lived on the front lines of WWI? See some rare photos here.

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