In this essay I will discuss the impact of Nicholas’ actions on his fate and assess their importance in relation to other factors which led to the fall of the Romanov dynasty. I will argue that whilst the actions of Nicholas himself indeed played a part in his downfall, the major reason for his downfall the was WWI and its effects on the Russian people.
The actions of Nicholas were important in causing his downfall. His major mistake was the decision to leave Petrograd in August 1915 and go to the front at Mogilev in order to become Commander-in-chief of the Imperial army. This was a mistake as the Tsar was now personally blamed for the defeats the army suffered instead of his ministers, such as the failure of the Brusilov Offensive, which resulted in one million Russian soldiers being killed. This mistake was compounded by the fact that he left the Tsarina Alexandra in charge of the government. She was unpopular because of her German nationality and was influenced by Rasputin, who had a terrible reputation.
This, and her terrible political judgement, tarnished the Tsar’s reputation and weakened his popularity. She sacked able ministers and replaced them with her and Rasputin’s friends – 35 were sacked between 1915 and 1916. Often the ministers she replaced them with were incompetent and were unable to deal with any of the problems the cities were facing, such as the shortages of food and fuel. Her reputation was tarnished by her close friendship with the starets or holy man, Rasputin, whom she believed could cure her son Alexei’s haemophilia. He had a bad reputation as a drunkard and womanizer, leading to rumours that he and Alexandra were having an affair. Alexandra was totally out of touch with the problems ordinary people were facing in the capital. This, together with the fact Alexandra was German, made her extremely unpopular. However, whilst this also made the Tsar unpopular and undoubtedly contributed to his downfall, it was not the main cause of his downfall; the war had a much greater effect.
His second major mistake was his decision to reject the offer made by the Progressive Bloc (mainly made up of Kadet and Octobrist Duma deputies) to form a “national government” which would have national support and be a “Government of Public Confidence.” They would have helped to coordinate supplies and organize the war effort. However the Tsar, partly influenced by Alexandra, who called their leader “that fat pig Rodzianko”, rejected their offer in the hope of helping to maintain autocracy.
However, while the Tsar’s own actions undoubtedly contributed to his own downfall, the advent of World War One was a far greater cause. In fact many of the problems Nicholas faced would not have arisen without it.
Despite the enormous size of the Russian Army (14 million), and its nickname “the Russian Steamroller”, it suffered several serious defeats, such as at Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes in 1914, as well as the failure of the aforementioned Brusilov Offensive in 1916. By 1917 there had been 7 million casualties: 1.8m killed, 2.8m wounded and 2.4m taken prisoner. This happened because of myriad reasons – the soldiers had a poor supply of equipment – there were only 4.6million rifles; some had no boots, and there was a lack of munitions. There were few field hospitals, as well as a shortage of bandages and medical supplies.
Communications were poor, meaning that messages were easily intercepted by their enemies and the coordination of supplies was poor. There was a breakdown in the railway system, with blocked lines and broken down trains – there was a lack of fuel and food, and weapons weren’t distributed. These problems were made worse by the low quality of the generals, who had little understanding of modern warfare and the poor leadership shown by the Tsar. As the war progressed the quality of the soldiers began to decrease as most of the officers were killed and replaced by conscripts with little military training, know pejoratively as “peasants in uniform”. All of this contributed to low morale amongst the soldiers and a high level of desertion. The Tsar was blamed for these problems and became more unpopular.
Like the Russo-Japanese War, WWI put a strain on the economy, meaning that people’s quality of life was lowered. This, together with Russia’s military defeats under the Tsar began to change people’s attitudes towards him in a strongly negative way. In this way the war had a bigger impact on the fall of the Tsar than the actions of the Tsar himself. There is a parallel between the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 Revolution and WWI and the 1917 Revolution. In both cases war was the major factor in catalyzing discontent.
The war led to Russia suffering many economic problems. Government spending on the war increased from 4 to 30 million rubles from 1914 to 1917. Russia was forced to abandon the gold standard as they borrowed money from other countries and printed more money to finance the war. This led to a 300% increase in inflation. Discontent grew among the middle classes as they were forced to pay more in taxes, and also among workers as food prices quadrupled but wages only doubled. Living standards were decreasing across all strata of society. The Russian people blamed the Tsar for these problems, as he was seen to be Commander-in-Chief of the army, and responsible for the war which was causing their hardship.
Rampant inflation forced factories to close or reduce their operating hours by 1916, leading to unemployment and greater poverty, especially in cities like Petrograd and Moscow. There were food shortages in the cities despite there being good harvests in the years 1913-16 – this was due to peasants hoarding grain, again due to inflation and also a lack of consumer goods. The army’s appropriation of roads and railways to supply troops meant that there were problems with the rail system. There was only single line tracks, and often the signaling system would break down, leading to blocked lines. Rotting food began to pile up – the city of Archangel sank into the ground under the weight of undistributed supplies.
These problems played a large part in causing Nicholas’ downfall, but they would not have arisen without the War, which I would argue is the main factor in causing the collapse of the system of autocracy.
These terrible economic problems meant that by the time the February Revolution happened in 1917 living conditions in Petrograd were very poor. The shortages of food and fuel were chronic – by February 1917 only 300 wagons containing grain of the 1000 needed were getting to the city. Bakeries closed down, and bread queues began to form. The lack of fuel was worsened by the harsh winter the people suffered at the end of 1916.
These problems culminated in a change in attitude in the capital towards the Tsar which made it possible for Revolution to happen. Although the problems with Alexandra were largely of the Tsar’s own making, the economic issues were almost wholly caused by the war, and the fact that the people were freezing and starving was a bigger cause of hostility towards the government than the Tsarina’s incompetence.
Therefore, I would say that the war played a larger part in the Tsar’s downfall than his own actions. The war was the trigger which provided the conditions for the revolution to happen; the workers at the Putilov Steel Works were striking because of working conditions and food shortages; the women who joined the strikes on International Women’s Day did so because of bread queues and food shortages. These were economic problems which, although incompetence played a part, were mainly caused by the war. The Tsar’s own actions did play a part at the end of the Revolution, when his hesitant personality led to him abdicating without much of a fight. There was also a loss of confidence in his ability to lead among the army, which resulted in the Petrograd garrison refusing to fire on demonstrators and Nicholas being stopped at Pskov by disloyal troops. This was largely the Tsar’s own doing. However, the events that led to his abdication would not have happened without the impact of WWI on the Russian economy and people.