World War I saw the crumbling of empires, and among those to collapse was the Russian empire of Czar Nicholas II. When Nicholas declared war against Germany and Austria-Hungary in July 1914, he was the absolute ruler of a realm of nearly 150 million people that stretched from Central Europe to the Pacific and the edge of Afghanistan to the Arctic.

Less than three years later, in March 1917, after soldiers in Petrograd joined striking workers in protest against Nicholas’ rule, the czar was forced to abdicate. The following July, he and his family were herded into a cellar by Bolshevik revolutionaries and shot and stabbed to death, ending the Romanov dynasty’s three centuries of rule. Soon, amid the ruins of the Russian empire, the Soviet Union arose to become a world power.

Whether World War I was a game-changer that caused the Russian Revolution, or only hastened the inevitable collapse of an outdated monarchy unsuitable to compete in the modern world, is a question that historians continue to debate.

“Russia was more unstable and had more serious internal dilemmas than many other great powers, and so the degree to which the shock of war resulted in chaos was correspondingly more intense,” explains Steven Miner, a history professor at Ohio University who specializes in Russia, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. “Collapse minus war was possible, but in my view not certain. Involvement in the cataclysm of war made it nearly inevitable.”

World War I Exposes Russia’s Weaknesses

Prior to the war, Russia was at a crucial crossroads. “Some argue that Russia was slowly evolving more modern political and social institutions, that it had a vibrant culture, a highly educated elite, that it had survived the upheaval of the 1905 revolution, and that it had the fastest-growing economy in the world before 1914,” Miner says. But as he notes, the Czarist regime faced plenty of threats to stability, from dire urban working conditions to labor strife that the Czar’s soldiers tried to put down by massacring gold miners in Siberia in 1912. To make matters worse, Nicholas II was starting to roll back the limited democratic reforms that he had agreed to in 1905.

The antiquated czarist regime’s determination to hang onto power hindered modernization efforts, as a result, “the Russian Empire trailed behind the rest of Europe in terms of economic and industrial strength,” says Lynne Hartnett, an associate professor of history at Villanova University and an expert on the Russian Revolution.

That made Russia vulnerable in a war because its factories simply couldn’t produce enough arms and ammunition to equip the Czar’s 1.4 million-man army. At the start of the war, the Russians had 800,000 men in uniform who didn’t even have rifles to train with, and those who did often had to make do with obsolete weapons that were nearly 40 years old, according to Jamie H. Cockfield’s 1999 book, With Snow on Their Boots. Some soldiers had to go into battle unarmed until they could pick up a rifle from another soldier who had been killed or wounded. And Russia’s output of bullets initially was just 13,000 rounds a day, so they had to make every shot count.

Russian Military Loses Confidence in Monarch

To compound the lack of preparedness for war, Nicholas II also led the Russian military, a position that he didn’t have the training or experience to do. 

“He fancied himself a military strategist, but he was not,” says Mayhill Fowler, a Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies professor at Stetson University. As she notes, Nicholas disregarded a prewar memorandum from one of his advisors, warning that in the event of a defeat by Germany, “social revolution in its most extreme form is inevitable.”

It also didn’t help that when Nicholas left Petrograd to join the troops, he left behind his German wife, Czarina Alexandra, whose brusque demeanor and distaste for Russian culture made her unpopular with the Russian populace.

The Romanovs, WWI
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The Romanovs visiting a regiment during World War I, c. 1917. L-R: Grand Duchess Anastasia, Grand Duchess Olga, Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarevich Alexei, Grand Duchess Tatiana, and Grand Duchess Maria, along with Kuban Cossacks.

The war quickly turned into a disaster, with Russia suffering a brutal defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg just a few weeks into the war. Some 30,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded, and nearly 100,000 were taken prisoner by the Germans.

“Things didn’t Improve as the months dragged on,” Hartnett says. “By the end of the year, the Russian empire had lost more than one million men.” Russia’s ammunitions were all but exhausted and the country’s infrastructure was not equipped to efficiently resupply troops.

Though peasant soldiers suffered the most casualties, “for regime stability, the most serious losses were among the officer corps,” Miner explains. Their loss weakened the army so much, he notes, “that when push came to shove in 1917, the army was not a reliable defender of the monarchy.”

Russians Retreat

By the spring of 1915, Russian troops had to retreat before a combined German-Austrian onslaught. “Along with the horrifying large number of Russian soldiers killed and wounded, this great retreat led to a massive number of refugees,” Hartnett notes. Those hordes of desperate people streamed into Russian cities that already were struggling under the burden of the war effort.

“Store shelves were emptied of their products and inflation soared,” Hartnett says. “With losses mounting on the front and hunger and desperation growing at home, the Russian government felt the pressure.”

But Nicholas II somehow didn’t grasp just how bad of a situation he was in. As Hartnett notes, he clung to the belief that he and the Russian people had an unshakeable mystical bond.

As the czar saw things, “his family had been in power for 300 years, and he was appointed by God,” Fowler explains. His obliviousness is apparent in letters that he wrote to his wife, in which he mentions news of protests against his regime with mundane family matters. “He’s just not aware that his empire is in trouble,” Fowler says.

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Breadlines Lead to Rebellion

Wartime Russia still produced sufficient food during the war to feed its population, but even so, Russians still went hungry. “The problem was not production,” Miner notes, “but rather distribution and transport, which led to periodic shortages.” The inefficiency of the czarist state began to hollow out political support.

The Duma, Russia’s elected legislature, couldn't do much about Nicholas’ mismanagement of the country, since he had the power to dissolve it if members dared to disagree with him. Even so, “prominent members wondered aloud if the recent decisions made by the czar’s government were the consequence of stupidity or treason,” Hartnett says.

By early 1917, Russia was in throes of a crisis so severe that Nicholas could no longer ignore it.

“Breadlines grew in many cities and most notably in the capital of Petrograd,” Hartnett explains. At the massive Putilov factory in Petrograd, workers went on strike in the early days of March, demanding higher wages to compensate for the high price of food. Rather than meeting the workers’ demands, he says, the factors responded with a lockout, prompting thousands of workers to continue the strike.

A few days later, on International Women’s Day, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets of Petrograd, with striking factory workers joining forces with mothers who demanded food for their children.

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A Russian bread line guarded by the Imperial Police, March 1917.

“This led to the beginning of the end of the Romanov autocracy,” Harnett says. Three days into the protests, the czar’s officials ordered the military and police to break up the protests—using any means. The ensuing violence, says Harnett, claimed the lives of nearly 100. And on the next day, soldiers joined the demonstrators.

The army had enough. Czar Nicholas’ generals convinced him to step down. Three days later, Nicholas II abdicated in favor of his brother, Michael, who refused the crown. The reign of the Romanovs was over.

Germans Arrange Return of Vladimir Lenin

The war had led to Nicholas losing his grip on power, but the February Revolution (which has that name because, under the old Russian calendar, its events occurred in February) was just the start. The czarist regime was replaced by the Provisional Government, composed of moderate Duma deputies, socialists and liberals who bickered among themselves as they tried to get Russia under control again. The new government tried to continue the war and honor the alliances made by the monarchy, while it searched for an exit strategy.

The Germans, eager to get Russia out of the war so that it could concentrate on fighting France and Britain, decided to destabilize the Provisional Government. They arranged for Vladimir Lenin, a communist revolutionary who headed the Bolshevik party, to return from European exile to Russia in a secret sealed train. When he arrived, his slogan was “Peace, Land, Bread,” an appeal to Russians who were tired of the war.

Vladimir Lenin, Lenin and Manifestation, 1919, State History Museum, Moscow
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Vladimir Lenin, 1919. Found in the collection of Moscow's State History Museum.

“The war also helped give Lenin a platform for his coup in October,” Fowler says.

Alexander Kerensky, the final head of the provisional government, didn’t help his side by leading what turned out to be a disastrous offensive against the Germans and Austrians in July of 1917. “Casualties soared and so did desertions, helped by regular Bolshevik propaganda among military units,” Hartnett explains.

When Kerensky tried to send pro-Bolshevik units to the front, soldiers took to the streets in an uprising against the Provisional Government that became known as the July Days. While that insurrection failed, Kerensky and the Provisional Government were doomed. In November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power.

The following March, the new Bolshevik government of Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, giving up one million square miles of territory to appease the Germans. 

World War I, the conflict that had ended the Czarist regime, was over for Russia, but there still wouldn’t be peace. Civil war broke out later that year between the Bolsheviks and opponents to the regime. Ultimately, the Bolsheviks prevailed, and in 1922, a treaty was signed to establish the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.