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Russia and the Russian Empire

Original hand-painted watercolor by E.R. of the Russian Imperial flag with double-headed eagle on a yellow field. Dated Brughes, September 6, 1916, it would have been painted in occupied Belgium. Text, in Russian, ends "Huzzah!"

Original hand-painted watercolor by E.R. of the Russian Imperial flag with with double-headed eagle on a yellow field. Dated Brughes, September 6, 1916, it would have been painted in occupied Belgium. Text, in Russian, ends "Huzzah!"

Image text

Text, in Russian, ends Huzzah!

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In 1914 the Russian Empire stretched across Europe and Asia, from the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires to the Pacific Ocean. It bordered the Baltic and Arctic Seas to the north, and, in Europe, Turkey and the Black and Caspian Seas to the south. Its population of 170 million dwarfed that of any other European country, and was 50 million larger than the combined population of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Empire included a significant part of Poland, including the major city of Warsaw. It shared a border with Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus Mountains. Finland was part of the Empire, but retained a significant measure of autonomy, enough that Finland provided a safe refuge for revolutionaries sought by the Russian police. Besides the Russian and Ottoman Empires, Romania also bordered the Black Sea and shared a border with Russia, one that would Russia would have to defend when Romania became an ally and was quickly defeated in 1916.

Russia's sea lanes were, and are, limited. The port of Archangel on the White Sea was frozen in winter. The Baltic ports could reach the North Sea and the Atlantic by contending with the German fleet and passing through the narrows of the Skaggerak and Kattegat. The Black Sea ports were separated from the Mediterranean Sea by the the two straits the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, and the Sea of Marmora between them, bodies of water within Turkey. Turkey's entry into the world war would close this sea lane to Russia. Russia's other ports were on its Pacific and Asian coast, connected to European Russia by rail.

Advertising postcard map of European Russia, with inset images of a mounted Cossack lancer, a troika, and St. Petersburg.
Text in French and Dutch:
There is no better starch than Remy Starch, made of pure rice.
Il n’est pas de meilleur Amidon que l’Amidon REMY, Fabrique de Riz Pur.
Er bestaat geenen beteren Stijfsel dan den Stijfsel REMY, Vervaardigd met Zuiveren Rijst.


The head of both state and government was Tsar Nicholas II, an autocrat and ardent believer in autocracy. Nicholas had come to the throne in 1894 after the death of his father. The Russian capital was St. Petersburg, later Petrograd, which was the center of court life. The second city was Moscow.

Russia had been modernizing under Nicholas's grandfather Alexander II who, among implementing other reforms, freed the serfs in 1861. Alexander was assassinated, and his grandson Nicholas shared little of his grandfather's progressive impulses.

The Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905

In 1904 Russia went to war against Japan in what it expected would be an easy victory over a backward nation. But Japan had been modernizing and it defeated Russia the following year, defeating both a fleet that had sailed from the Baltic to Port Arthur on Russia's Pacific coast, and an army in the Battle of Mukden. The humiliating failure increased liberal agitation and led to student and worker strikes. In January 1915, workers held a peaceful demonstration in Petersburg. On Sunday January 22 (January 9, Old Style), 1905, Tsarist troops fired on the demonstrators, killing hundreds. In the coming weeks strikes erupted in Russian Poland, Finland, the Baltic coast, the Caucasus, and the Urals. By October 2,000,000 workers were on strike. The navy saw mutinies in Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Vladivostock on the Pacific, and Kronstadt in the Baltic little distant from Petersburg. The mutinies included that of the battleship Potemkin in Odessa on the Black Sea.

On October 30 (October 17 Old Style) 1905, Tsar Nicholas reluctantly agreed to reforms including the establishment of the Duma, a representative legislature. He did so with a sense of shame, and dissolved it when he could, and reconstituted it when he had to in the years before the war. The first Duma lasted from May to July, 1906. Despite the patchy record, called into being when the government needed their support, sent home when their members pushed too far for the autocracy, the Duma's members gained some experience in debating and legislating in the years it survived.

The 1905 Revolution and the establishment of the Duma saw the creation of political parties that would lead Russia in the coming years including the socialist parties the Cadets, the Mensheviks, and the Bolsheviks.

Economic Growth and Alliances

After defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia experienced significant economic growth. Some of this was funded by France which wanted an powerful ally. Fearful of facing a war with Germany without a major ally, France and Russia agreed a Franco-Russian Alliance, a predecessor to the Triple Entente. Despite the differences between republican France and autocratic Tsarist Russia, the two countries shared a fear of Germany. France was especially interested in the vast population of Russia and the army it thought that implied.

In 1914 Russia's Army and Navy were recovering from the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War. Relative to Russia's population, the army was smaller than those of Germany or France and inadequately supplied. Many soldiers would go to war with sticks rather than rifles.

The Royal Family

Nicholas's wife, the Tsaritsa Alexandra, was German-born, but primarily raised in England. A protestant, she converted to the Orthodox faith to marry, and embraced the faith. She and Nicholas had four daughters before she gave birth to their son and heir to the throne the Tsarevitch Alexander. He was a hemophiliac, a condition that ran in his mother's family. The royal couple had little social interaction with the court, and lived much of the time at Tsarskoye Selo, the royal palace south of Petersburg. Alexandra had few confidants, and fewer as time and the war went on. Anna Vyrubova, a lady-in-waiting, was one. The monk Rasputin was another, one whom Alexandra believed could heal her son.


In the month following the June 28, 1914 assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Russian officials assumed this crisis would pass as others had. During July the was little concern that a general war was coming. French president Poincaré left St. Petersburg on On July 23 after a state visit to Russia. The same day, Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, demanding unconditional acceptance within 48 hours. Serbia accepted all but one condition, giving Austria-Hungary the result it clearly sought, and leading it to declare war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. Russia responded by partial mobilization - against Austria-Hungary, but escalated to full mobilization - extending along its border with Germany as well - on the 29th when Austria-Hungary shelled Belgrade, Serbia's capital. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia.

German General Paul von Hindenburg luring a Russian army into the Masurian Lakes. In the Battle of Tannenberg, the Germans destroyed the Russian Second Army, killing 50,000 and taking 90,000 prisoners. The Russian First Army managed to escape the same fate in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. The postcard was sent from France September 11, 1915.

Russian war plans were based on an assumption of simultaneous war against both Germany and Austria-Hungary, requiring mobilizing forces from the Baltic Sea to the Romanian border, facing both empires. Variant A of its plans focused on Austria-Hungary with two armies totaling 29 divisions facing Germany, four armies of 45 divisions deployed to invade Austria-Hungary, and two reserve armies. On July 30, 1914, Russia executed Variant A with over 1,300,000 men mobilized.

Germany's war plan relied on a rapid defeat of France as Russia slowly mobilized, leaving East Prussia relatively lightly defended. Responding to Germany's request for an offensive against Russia, Austria-Hungary invaded Russia on August 20 from Galicia, northeastern Austria-Hungary, on the Russian side of the Carpathian Mountains. In four battles between August 23 and September 11, the Austro-Hungarians initially drove back the Russians, but were subsequently outmaneuvered and overwhelmed. By the end of October, the Russians had conquered Galicia, taken much of Austria-Hungary's rolling stock, and captured 350,000 prisoners.

Victorious against Austria-Hungary, Russia lost an army to Germany in the Battle of Tannenberg, part of a lackadaisical, poorly-coordinated invasion of East Prussia that Russia launched before being fully mobilized and at the urgent request of France whose armies were retreating before German forces. One German response of Russia's invasion was to shuttle troops from the Western to the Eastern Front, thereby helping the Allies win the Battle of the Marne in France.

Victorious at Tannenburg, von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, German commanders in the East, tried by failed to destroy a second Russian army in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes.

As Russia prepared for an invasion of Silesia in southeast German, Germany came to Austria-Hungary's aid with a new Ninth army and an offensive against Russia across Polish Russia and Galicia. From September 28 to October 17, German and Austro-Hungarian forces advanced along a 300-mile front. To defend against an anticipated German offensive from East Prussia, Russian armies were in a position to strike the German left flank. Realizing the danger, Hindenburg and Ludendorff retreated in the second half of October, returning to their original line on November 1.

As Russian forces resumed their offensive into Silesia, the German Ninth Army shifted again, this time to the north. The Battles of Ivangorod and Lódz stopped the Russian Silesian offensive.

Turkey's entry into the war opened new battle fronts in the Caucasus Mountains and Black Sea. The newly-Turkish battleships Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli shelled Russian ports in the Black Sea, leading to Russia's declaring of war on Turkey on November 2. Both Russia and Turkey staged mutual invasions along their common border, to little effect. As winter seemed to bring operations to a halt, Turkish War Minister Enver Pasha was shifting troops across Turkey to launch a winter offensive. Russia would begin 1915 with a victory over Enver's army.

By mid-September, Russia had lost 250,000 men, 40,000 of them prisoners. Anti-German sentiment led to the renaming of St. Petersburg to Petrograd, suspicion of Germanic Russian commanders such as von Rennenkampf who had badly led the Russian First Army, and Tsarita Alexandra, the German-born Empress. Russia had mobilized its army, but its production of artillery, shells, rifles, and bullets fell far short of its ambitions, much less its needs.


Russia began 1915 with a victory over the Turks in the Battle of Sarikamish. In the coming months, Russia advanced into eastern Turkey which had a large Christian population, much of it Armenian. Russia's success, and accusations of Armenian support for and collaboration with the invaders was one of Turkish leaders' rationalizations for their war on their Armenian citizens.

In February, Germany launched an new offensive with a feint in the Battle of Bolimov. This marked the first use of poison gas in the war. The cold limited the effect of the gas, and the Russians did not report its use to their allies who would be stunned by its use in April in Ypres. Bolimov was a prelude to the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes in which Russia lost another 200,000 men, 92,000 of them prisoners.

After the campaigns in the autumn of 1914, Russia still threatened Austria-Hungary, besieging its great fortress of Przemyśl and, in bitter fighting, threatening to break through the Carpathian mountain passes onto the Hungarian plain. It became increasingly likely that Italy would join the Entente Allies, a move the would burden Austria-Hungary with another battlefront. (Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 23). To relieve the threat to Austria-Hungary, German and Austro-Hungarian forces launched the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive on May 2, 1915, breaking the Russian front and achieving the breakthrough commanders sought repeatedly during the War. Russia's Great Retreat continued into September, stopped by the weather and by a Russia line that was at last holding.

A Russian Cossack riding among refugees fleeing before a Central Power advance. The Russians adopted a scorched-earth policy in the months-long retreat before the German-Austro-Hungarian Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive of the spring, summer, and fall 1915, with Cossacks accused of burning homes and crops to deny them to the advancing enemy, and to prevent civilians from remaining behind and providing intelligence to the invader.
Il Cammino della Civiltà
The Path of Civilization

Despite a population that dwarfed those of its enemies, Russia suffered more than any other great power from a lack of munitions that was not limited to a shortage of shells and heavy artillery, but saw infantrymen going to war without rifles, reliant on picking up that of a fallen comrade. Russia's attempts to import weapons had been limited first by Turkey's closure of the Dardanelles, and again when Serbia was overrun by the combined forces of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria at the end of 1915. Russia imported weapons from Japan and the United States through Vladivostock.

The Retreat left Russia stripped of Polish Russia, Warsaw, some of its Baltic territories, and with a front that had been pushed back as much as 300 miles. In the Retreat, Russian troops burnt crops and villages, leaving a wasteland behind them, and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. Defeat, food shortages, and homelessness weighed heavily on the Russian people who looked for explanations. In Petrograd, the weakness of Tsar Nicholas was blamed not only on his own shortcomings, but also on the influence of the Empress, Madame Vyburova, and Rasputin, who advised the family no only on personal matters such as the hemophilia of the Tsarevitch, but also on politics and the conduct of the war. All were suspected of secret dealings with Germany.

In July Nicholas took command of the Army, dismissing Grand Duke Nicholas. The Tsar became increasingly autocratic, dismissing more liberal ministers, replacing them with reactionaries. On September 16, he prorogued the Duma.

On October, Germany and Austria-Hungary launched an invasion of Serbia. The country's defeat was assured when Bulgaria ended its neutrality by invading Serbia from the east. Serbia was quickly defeated, further isolating Russia and neutral Romania.

By the end of 1915, Russia had suffered more than 2 million casualties, man of them held as prisoners of war.


Russia's Great Retreat of 1915 left the country with a shortened and stabilized battlefront. The government had invested in weapons production, and the country had responded by dramatically increasing its munitions production. Men left the countryside not only for military service, but also for jobs in urban factories.

At a conference in March, the Allies agreed to launch joint offensives in 1916. Germany's offensive against Verdun added to the urgency of a Russian offensive. Russia began an offensive around Lake Norotch on March 18, 1916 with great hopes, and more artillery than it had been able to muster for any battle to date, but the offensive failed, in part because of the failure of the artillery and infantry units to coordinate their efforts.

Cigarette card of General Aleksei Brusilov (Brusiloff).

The Battle of Lake Norotch left some Russian generals convinced that Russia did not have the capability to wage a successful offensive. General Alexsei Brusilov had learned instead that a different type of offensive was required. The stock formula of a massive preliminary bombardment followed by concentrated forces on a narrow front that would lead to a breakthrough allowing cavalry to get behind enemy defensive lines had failed. Brusilov recognized that preparations — concentrated forces, preliminary bombardments — minimized the chance of surprising the enemy. He instead planned an offensive along a broad front, with dugouts to conceal reserve troops and extensive coordination between artillery and infantry. Russia launched the Brusilov Offensive, Russia's most successful offensive of the war, but one that was brought to a halt after adding another million casualties to Russia's tally. Brusilov's success helped determine Romania's entry into the war in August, 1916. Romania's rapid defeat worsened Russia's position by extending its front by over 500 miles.

In December 29, 1916 Rasputin was murdered in Petrograd — shot, stabbed, thrown in the Neva River while alive enough to be found with water in his lungs. His murderers were nobles and monarchists, and included Prince Yusupov, husband of the Tsar's niece, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a cousin of the Tsar, and right-wing members of the Duma. Because of their royal standing, the Tsar could do little more than exile the murderers.


The assassination of Rasputin in December of 1916 by nobles and right-wing members of the Duma had demonstrated the isolation of Tsar Nicholas and his family. At the beginning of 1917, the army was better equipped than it had been, but discipline was breaking down.

Food riots and strikes led to mass demonstrations in Petrograd on March 8 (February 23 Old Style) and 9, 1917, and to a three-day general strike the next day. After 60 marchers were killed by soldiers on March 10, first one then nearly all Petrograd regiments, 170,000 strong, came out in favor of the demonstrators. Debating through the days, the Duma finally acted on March 14, forming a provisional government.

At the same time, and following the model of the 1915 Revolution, socialists, Bolsheviks, and other leftists formed a soviet which had strong support from soldiers and workers. Both Duma and Soviet agreed the Tsar must abdicate. On March 15, he did.

The February Revolution ended Tsardom, but not the war, which continued to be supported across most parties, while being opposed by the Bolsheviks. The army was an increasingly blunt weapon. The day the Tsar abdicated, the Petrograd Soviet issued Order Number One, democratizing the army, providing amnesty for deserters, and providing for the creation of soviets within the military, effectively giving itself command of much of the army. These and other measures were instrumental in one million soldiers leaving the front. With German forces inactive, support for the war continued to fall, and when the government reaffirmed its treaty obligations to the Allies on May 1, mass demonstrations forced a change that brought Justice Minister and socialist Alexander Kerensky to the position of Minister of War.

While its army was passive on the Russian Front, Germany supported revolutionary movements in Russia financially and in other ways. The German General Staff provided a sealed train to deliver Vladimir Lenin, the leading Bolshevik, and other revolutionary exiles living in neutral Switzerland to reach neutral Sweden and ultimately Russia. Lenin arrived in Petrograd to a hero's welcome. Other revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky, returned to Russia or from internal exile. Most on the left supported an end to the war with neither annexations nor indemnities, a position unlikely to be agreed by Germany. Lenin was nearly alone in supporting ending the war with no conditions.

Following Petrograd's example, Moscow and other cities formed Soviets. Nationalist movements spread as non-Russian states including Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Siberia called for autonomy or independence.

A pencil sketch of a Russian soldier fleeing his trench as Central Power bayonets rise over it. The Kerensky Offensive, the last significant Russian offensive of the war, failed. By Ger. F. Kollar, addressed to Frau Hermine Kollar of Vienna.
Russlands = Offensive 1917

Kerensky, a renowned orator, placated the demonstrators who brought down his predecessor as Minister of War, but he too supported the war, and launched his own Offensive on July 1 against Austria-Hungary. After initial success, the offensive collapsed before an German-Austro-Hungarian counter-attack on July 19. Russia suffered another 200,000 casualties, 40,000 of them killed in Russia's last significant offensive of the war.

Russia's defeat led to more confusion in the capital. In July protesters again took to the streets to demand a halt to the war, turning to the Bolsheviks for leadership because of Lenin's consistent stance against the war. Unprepared to attempt to seize power, the Bolsheviks helped dampen the protests. At the same time, the government released documents indicating that Lenin was a German agent. As the public turned against him, the government rounded up Bolsheviks and other opponents, forcing Lenin into hiding.

On July 20, Kerensky formed a government with himself holding the positions of Prime Minister and War Minister. Meanwhile, opposition from the right coalesced around Russian Commander-in-Chief Kornilov who called for the abolishment of the changes that had been made in the military, including the reassertion of officers' authority, the re-institution of execution for desertion and other offenses, and a return to fighting the war. Both Kerensky and Kornilov imagined their command of greater military forces than they had. As the Germans resumed their advance, taking the Baltic port of Riga on September 3, Kerensky prepared to defend Petrograd, in part by freeing Bolsheviks from prison, and arming them and others. On September 12, Kerensky appointed himself Commander-in-Chief of the army, and ordered Kornilov's arrest. Kerensky had enough power to arrest or dismiss Kornilov and other generals, and consolidated it by creating a five-man directory and proclaiming a republic.

The Kornilov affair damaged the right, now represented by Kerensky's government and seen as a threat to the revolution. In factories, the army and navy, cities, Moscow and Petrograd, more Bolsheviks were elected to the Soviets, and, on September 12, the Petrograd Soviet passed a Bolshevik resolution to calling for an immediate end to the war, and for a government composed entirely of socialists. In Petrograd, Moscow, and other cities, and in the military and factories, Bolsheviks were elected to more seats and chairmanships.

The Bolsheviks increasingly opposed Kerensky and more moderate parties. Kerensky opened a 'pre-Parliament' to legislate before an election for a Constituent Assembly in November. The Bolsheviks called for an immediate and honorable end to the war and the transfer of 'all power to the Soviets, all land to the people'. The Bolshevik Central Committee voted to support Lenin's program for immediate revolution, and prepared to defend the capital against 'Kornilovist pogroms' from the right. On October 29, the Bolshevik Central Committee supported for the immediate seizure of power, prior to the convening of the Constituent Assembly, now set for November 7.

Trotsky assigned Soviet commissars to the regiments within the city, but Polkovnikov, the military commander of Petrograd, refused to include them in staff meetings, forbade further demonstrations, and posted a guard around the Winter Palace where Kerensky and his cabinet met. On November 4, Trotsky ordered soldiers to occupy strategic points throughout the city.

The morning of November 6, Polkovnikov cut the telephone lines to Bolshevik headquarters, and attempted to close the party's papers. Kerensky could not convince the pre-Parliament to use force against the Bolsheviks. By the next morning, the Red Guards controlled, or soon would, railway and power stations, the city's bridges, and the telephone exchange. Kerensky left Petrograd in search of soldiers to support his Government. By 10 a.m. Trotsky's Military Revolutionary Committee declared it had fallen. Twenty thousand Red Guards patrolled the streets, and warships and sailors came to the capital to support the Bolsheviks, and dispersed the pre-Parliament delegates. The remaining cabinet members holed up in the the Winter Palace with somewhat over 1,000 soldiers to protect them. The battleship Aurora and the battery of the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul shelled the palace and Red Guards, soldiers, and sailors broke into the building. By 2:00 A.M. on November 8, the Red Guards arrested the besieged cabinet members. The Bolsheviks had accomplished the first phase of their the revolution, and immediately set to implementing their agenda and consolidating power. It would take a civil war to do so.

On November 26 Germany and Russia declared a ceasefire after agreeing to meet on December 2 in Brest-Litovsk to negotiate a peace agreement.


On January 15, 1918, Lenin was injured in an assassination attempt. The Constituent Assembly met on January 18, with the Bolsheviks holding a quarter of the seats, but in a Palace packed with Red Guards, soldiers, and sailors. The Assembly passed a program with many similarities to that of the Bolsheviks, but in increasingly threatening atmosphere that was eventually halted by the Bolsheviks and their supporters. On January 19, the Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets dissolved the assembly.

Red Army troops attacking German troops in the snow, Pskov, 1918. Tsar Nicholas signed his abdication papers in Pskov in March of the same year.
Text (Reverse):
В. К. Дмцтрцевскцц
И. В. Еастцнеев
Г.И. Прокопцмскцй
Рождение Красной Армии
первый бой с немцами под Псковом в 1918 году

Birth of the Red Army
The first battle with the Germans at Pskov in 1918

Trotsky, who led the Russian delegation at the peace negotiations, hoped that workers and soldiers in Germany and Austria-Hungary would follow the Russian example and revolt against their governments, and was not eager to conclude a treaty. He and much of the government opposed Lenin's call for immediate peace. On February 10, 1918, he declared there would be ‘no war, no peace’, and left. The Germans resumed their advance, taking huge swaths of Russia in Finland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, along the Black Sea to Odessa. With Petrograd threatened, the government moved the capital to Moscow. Russia finally signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918.

On March 21, Germany began Operation Michael on the Western Front, the first of its great spring offensives, ultimately unsuccessful, of 1918. When it needed every man available on the west, Germany's forces were holding a quarter of Russia's territory. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was annulled with the collapse of the Central Powers in November. In Russia, the Red Army faced civil war in Finland, insurrection in the south, independent Ukraine, and opposition in Siberia. British had landed in Murmansk in the north, and were, with other allies, about to land in Vladivostock. The Czech Legion, former Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, were traveling, sometimes fighting their way, across Russia by train. When they neared Ekaterinburg in the Urals where the former Tsar and his family were held, on July 16, the Romanoffs were executed.