Russia’s involvement in World War I alongside its allies, France and Britain, had resulted in a number of heavy losses against Germany, offset only partially by consistent victories against Austria-Hungary. Defeat on the battlefield fed the growing discontent among the bulk of Russia’s population, especially the poverty-stricken workers and peasants, and its hostility towards the imperial regime, led by the ineffectual Czar Nicholas II. This discontent strengthened the cause of the Bolsheviks, a radical socialist group led by Vladimir Lenin that was working to harness opposition to the czar and turn it into a sweeping revolution that would begin in Russia and later, he hoped, spread to the rest of the world.
The February Revolution broke out in early March 1917 (or February, according to the Julian calendar, which the Russians used at the time); Nicholas abdicated later that month. After Lenin’s return from exile (aided by the Germans) in mid-April, he and his fellow Bolsheviks worked quickly to seize power from the provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, Russia’s minister of war. On November 6, aided by the Russian military, they were successful. One of Lenin’s first actions as leader was to call a halt to Russian participation in the war.
An armistice was reached in early December 1917 and a formal cease-fire was declared December 15, but determining the terms of peace between Russia and the Central Powers proved to be far more complicated. Negotiations began at Brest-Litovsk on December 22. Leading their respective delegations were Foreign Ministers Leon Trotsky of Russia, Baron Richard von Kuhlmann of Germany and Count Ottokar Czernin of Austria.
In mid-February, the talks broke down when an angry Trotsky deemed the Central Powers’ terms too harsh and their demands for territory unacceptable. Fighting resumed briefly on the Eastern Front, but the German armies advanced quickly, and both Lenin and Trotsky soon realized that Russia, in its weakened state, would be forced to give in to the enemy terms. Negotiations resumed later that month and the final treaty was signed on March 3.
By the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia recognized the independence of Ukraine, Georgia and Finland; gave up Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Germany and Austria-Hungary; and ceded Kars, Ardahan and Batum to Turkey. The total losses constituted 1 million square miles of Russia’s former territory; a third of its population or 55 million people; a majority of its coal, oil and iron stores; and much of its industry. Lenin, who bitterly called the settlement that abyss of defeat, dismemberment, enslavement and humiliation, was forced to hope that the spread of world revolution—his greatest dream—would eventually right the wrongs done at Brest-Litovsk.