105 years after the onset of the Great War, it is finally clear: the Russian Empire and the Tsar did not lose it, and its losers the Bolsheviks were not Russia.
105 years ago, on August 1st 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. This was the start of the Great War, or “First World War”, as it is usually known in textbooks – a truly fateful even for the entire world, one that, in a certain sense, created reality as we know it. However, it is only now, a century past, when our country starts to recover the memory of its battles, exploits, and heroes, that the grand events of 1914-1918 reclaim their rightful place in Russian historical consciousness.
Why have we lost track of WWI for a hundred years? The answer is quite clear. By its end date, both the Russian Empire and Kerensky’s ephemeral “Russian Republic” ceased to exist. The Russian Army, once leading a steady fight in the front lines, was poisoned by Bolshevik propaganda, then proclaimed “disbanded” by Trotsky, and started to desert en masse.
The Bolsheviks, ruling over what was left of Russia for the next 70 years, first spent the Great War spreading overt defeatist propaganda, then usurped power – financed and supported by German intelligence – only to sign an “obscene” (in their own words) peace treaty and acquiesce to the role of German junior partners just to keep said power.
Such was the appraisal of this “treaty” by St. Patriarch Tikhon in his epistle from 18th March 1918:
“This newly signed peace deprives us of entire swaths of land populated by Orthodox Christians and brings them under the reign of our faithless enemies, with dozens of millions of Orthodox facing a great spiritual temptation. This peace separates even the Ukraine, Orthodox since time immemorial, from the fraternal fold of Russia. The capital city of Kiev, the mother of Russian cities, the cradle of our baptism, the keeper of our holy relics, is no more a city of the Russian realm. A peace that gives our land and kinfolk away to harsh bondage is not one that would give the people their desired calm and solace. It brings nothing but the greatest damage to the Orthodox Church and untold losses to the Fatherland”.
Evidently, Soviet propaganda held a major interest in demeaning the importance of the Great War. Over the entirety of the Soviet period (save the four years of a new war with Germany), historians, propagandists, and writers were mostly concerned with the apologetics of the Brest-Litovsk treaty.
First, it was necessary to convince their audience that Russia’s war effort went poorly and the war had been de facto already lost by the Tsarist government when Bolshevik envoys signed an unavoidable capitulation. To achieve this end, one had to endlessly blow out of proportion every Russian military misfortune, paint the Tsar and his generals as clueless nincompoops, Russian military industry as obsolete, and, last but not least, repeat the spiel about a war fought for “imperialist interests” that was unnecessary for Russia and the Russians.
Second, it needed to emphasize the idea that the Russian people found the war onerous beyond measure, that Russian soldiers couldn’t wait until they were permitted to desert from the front lines. Consequently, all instances of Russian military valor, self-sacrifice and gallantry had to be silenced, and Russian heroes forgotten or subjected to scornful ridicule, like the courageous Cossack Kozma Kryuchkov…
Lamentably, the denigration of the Great War outlived the Bolshevik régime and integrated itself into Neo-Stalinist rhetoric: the Tsar “lost” the First World War, you see, while Comrade Stalin won the second one… What is more, given that they can no longer justify the Brest-Litovsk betrayal with “defending the conquests of the revolution” (who gives a damn about a revolution that led to the loss of Kiev?), Neo-Bolshevik apologetics have to assert that the war had already been lost by October 1917, and the Bolsheviks just accepted the facts on the ground. For this, they have to redouble their effort in belittling the military achievements of the Imperial Army and its home front.
Fortunately, the normalization of Russian national consciousness is slowly coming to pass. The centenary of the Great War was rather visibly commemorated. There are new monuments to its soldiers, new films and TV series taking place fully or partly on the front lines, excellent and informative documentaries. Archive data on WWI soldiers is published on the Internet, allowing, among others, the author of these lines to reconstruct his great-grandfather’s military progress in East Prussia.
However, the basic historical appraisal of the Great War is far from stable, as the main question still goes unanswered: Did Russia lose WWI?
An answer in the affirmative seems self-evident. During the war, the Russian Empire was destroyed, the Provisional Government was ousted from power, the Soviet Russia created by the Bolshevik signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and accepted herself as the losing party; therefore, our defeat is abundantly clear.
Let’s start with the latter. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty was declared null and void by all signatories. The text of the Armistice signed between the Entente and Germany on November 11 th 1918 included the German repudiation of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the removal of German forces and military agents from the Russian soil. On November 13th, the Bolsheviks themselves publicly repudiated the treaty (however, as the future events leading up to the Rapallo treaty would show, Lenin never truly abandoned his loyalty to Germany).
The text of the Versailles Peace Treaty, signed on June 29th 1919, included Article 116, which included the following text:
Germany acknowledges and agrees to respect as permanent and inalienable the independence of all the territories which were part of the former Russian Empire on 1 August 1914. … In accordance with the provisions of Article 259 of Part IX (Financial Clauses) and Article 292 of Part X (Economic Clauses) Germany accepts definitely the abrogation of the Brest-Litovsk Treaties and of all other treaties, conventions, and agreements entered into by her with the Bolshevik Government in Russia. The Allied and Associated Powers formally reserve the rights of Russia to obtain from Germany restitution and reparation based on the principles of the present Treaty.
Therefore, the Brest-Litovsk treaty was twice declared null and void by Germany herself, and the right to German reparations was shared by Russia (then practically non-existent as a state) among the victors of WWI.
Needless to say, the Entente allies, largely complicit themselves in the betrayal of Russia and its push towards Revolution, could have done much more. For example, they could have recognized the government of Admiral Kolchak and given it a right to sign the Versailles peace treaty, much like the Allies did with a completely devastated France (signatory of a humiliating armistice with Germany) by recognizing General de Gaulle’s Free France government (a complete imposture according to the then-current French political system) and not only giving it a right to accept Germany’s surrender but also granting it an occupation zone.
It is quite clear why the Allies had no desire to do the same with the Russia. Recognizing a White Russian government implied accepting its pledge to restore a united and indivisible Russia; the Allies wanted the Empire to fragment as much as possible. That is why Russia is described as non-existent in the Versailles wording, and the Germans had to accept all new statelets in Russian territory that the Entente would care to set up (in all fairness, the separatist governments of the Baltics, the Ukraine, and Azerbaijan were all creations of Germany and its allies).
All things considered, Russia is mentioned in the Versailles treaty without even existing and treated as the victor, with all agreements implying her defeat by Germany completely annulled.
Moving on to the next question: Was Russia ever defeated by Germany, and was the Brest-Litovsk treaty a Russian-German agreement? The answer is once again in the negative. As duly noted by the Versailles Treaty, Germany made peace not with Russia but with the Bolshevik government. Its signatories were Grigori Sokolnikov, Lev Karakhan, Georgy Chicherin, and Grigory Petrovsky on behalf of the “Russian Federative Soviet Republic” [sic] – that is, a previously unheard of and unrecognized legal entity that had no de jure relation to the Russian Empire that had entered the war with Germany in August 1914.
Bolshevik proclamations in late 1917–early 1918 and their much-vaunted “publication of secret agreements” (documents where Tsarist diplomacy drove a hard bargain for firm Allied guarantees of postwar Russian benefits, including Russian control of Constantinople) implied a breach of alliance and forfeiture of political succession. Germany’s negotiations and treaties with the Bolsheviks, their de facto agent, had and still have no legal implications for the Russian Empire, a truly sovereign state on Russian territory, whose functioning was interrupted in 1917.
By the way, this curse of illegitimacy and rupture of legal succession still hovers over the modern Russian Federation. As correctly claimed by Konstantin Malofeev, “We are in a period of enduring illegitimacy. We still have unresolved issues from the viewpoint of Russian Imperial law. From the viewpoint of the Russian Empire, we are still undergoing a revolution. The Russian Federation is not a legal a successor of the Russian Empire. Of the Soviet Union, yes, but the Russian Empire, no.”
The hard work of restoring the legal succession between modern and historic Russia, the Russian Federation and the Russian Empire, must be done so that we assume the maximum possible amount of Imperial rights and benefits and divest from the maximum possible amount of toxic Soviet legacy. One of its most important steps is getting rid of the myth of Russia’s “defeat” in WWI, allegedly supported by a peace treaty signed by Bolshevik traitors.
Finally, the third part of the alleged “defeat” problem. Is it true that the Russian Empire was losing the war? No, it is not. At the moment of a treasonous overthrow of the Russian monarchy, the Empire, as a part of the Entente coalition, was rapidly moving towards victory in WWI and would doubtlessly have achieved it within a year.
The Great War was the war of a coalition of Great Powers against a Germany that had grown too economically powerful and decided to achieve hegemony in Europe and the wider world, gathering a bloc of so-called Central Powers (most importantly Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). To achieve its goals, Germany needed to crush her closest neighbor France, weaken Russia and possibly grab some of its territory, and force the British Empire to accept this new state of affairs. Therefore, the victory conditions for Germany implied a military destruction of France, then a painful defeat of Russia, then a peace with the UK. After achieving these results, Germany would have become the dominant power on the planet.
The reasons for Germany striking specifically in August 1914 were manifold: a hurry to start a war before Russia completed her rearmament program; checking the growing boldness of Serbia, Russia’s ally in the Balkans and a strong performer in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913; and starting the conflict while Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph, a fierce Russophobe, is still alive (none of his possible successors had a comparably strong enthusiasm for pro-German and anti-Russian policies).
Germany’s war plans involved a rapid defeat of France while an enormous and (in German opinion) awkward and cumbersome Russia is still mobilizing her armies, then crushing Russia herself. France hadn’t yet declared war on Germany when German forces had already invaded Belgium and Luxembourg, rushing towards Paris.
In these conditions, Russia’s rapid advance towards German lines became decisive for the course of the war. The 1st and 2nd Russian armies under Generals Rennenkampf and Samsonov, their mobilization still incomplete, rushed into East Prussia, forcing Germany to defend its border right at the height of their drive to the French capital. As a result, Germany’s strategic defeat was inflicted on Day 20 of the war during the Battle of Gumbinnen, where Rennenkampf’s 1st Army, mostly thanks to an excellent performance of Russian artillery, forced Gen. von Prittwitz’s 8th Army, tasked with defending East Prussia, into flight.
The victory at Gumbinnen was achieved thanks to the extraordinary qualities of first-line forces and the excellent peacetime military training led by Gen. Rennenkampf in his subordinate Vilna military district, writes military historian Gen. Nikolay Golovin (1875– 1944).
The result of the Gumbinnen debacle was von Prittwitz’s decision to evacuate East Prussia, which led the Kaiser and the German High Command to deploy two corps from the Western Front that proved to be the proverbial missing horseshoe nail during the Battle of the Marne. The victory at Gumbinnen saved Paris, and the relief of Paris doomed Germany to defeat in WWI. Strategically, the Great War was won on August 20th 1914 by Russian gunners whose shells, fired from their well-defended position, wrecked German artillery and August von Mackensen’s XVII Corps.
Unfortunately, a strategic reversal doesn’t always means that the doomed adversary immediately concedes defeat. Germany soldiered on for four years after the failure of the Paris offensive, dealing horrible strikes to her enemies and dooming millions of Russians, Frenchmen, and indeed Germans to death… However, the Germans had no wherewithal to break the deadlock and overcome the strategic supremacy of the Allies and particularly the British maritime blockade that had stifled German economy. This is once again proven by the fact the Germans, even after knocking out Russia from the war, freeing a huge mass of its forces, and harnessing the enormous resources of the occupied Ukraine, had to concede defeat in six months.
So Russia won WWI at the very start, albeit at a heavy price – the demise of Gen. Samsonov’s 2nd Army, encircled and devastated near Soldau. The defeat had the loathsome consequence of eclipsing Gumbinnen and forever slandering the name of its victor, Gen. Rennenkampf, who, alleged the all-knowing progressive anti-monarchist public opinion, “failed to help Samsonov”. In reality, Rennenkampf’s army advanced in a different direction, towards Königsberg, as per the orders of the Stavka and the front HQ, and knew nothing of Soldau before the battle had ended. The conqueror of Gumbinnen, the man who had decided the fate of the Great War, was vilified and his career buried.
German propaganda fabricated a canard alleging that the two generals had a falling out during the Russo-Japanese war and as a result “Rennenkampf betrayed Samsonov”. This falsehood, with the usual addition of “well, what did you expect from an ethnic German?”, was oft-repeated by Soviet propaganda that latched onto the meme of “talentless Samsonov and Rennenkampf”. After taking Rennenkampf’s life, the Soviets also took away his honor.
In 1918, he was executed by a Bolshevik firing squad in Taganrog under Antonov-Ovseenko’s order after refusing to join the Red Army and fight the Civil War against his own Russian brothers. “I will not become a traitor and fight against my own kind to save my life. Give me a well-equipped army, and I will happily lead it against the Germans; but you do not have such an army”. Those were the last words of Pavel Karlovich Rennenkampf, the first victor of the Great War.
However, even the Soldau defeat had a silver lining for the fate of the Great War. After the triumph over Samsonov, the career of the Hindenburg – Ludendorff tandem soared. The German High Commanded started looking for ways of breaking the strategic deadlock on the Eastern Front, and by 1917 Russia was tying up 46% of German divisions. Instead of conquering France and keeping Russia at bay with defensive lines and Austro-Hungary, Germany had to fight a war on two fronts, with its forces thinly spread over Lithuanian and Belarusian swamps, Galician foothills, and, near the end, Romanian mountaintops. Russia, by paying with blood and overexertion but also immortal and majestic feats of gallantry, deprived Germany and its allies of the tiniest chance of turning the tides of war.
The military actions of the Imperial Army during WWI weren’t always up to the standard. Military historian Anton Kersnovsky (1907–1944), a staunch Monarchist, assailed the Russian strategic command in his excellent History of the Russian Army.H e emphasized that Russia had good military planners, amazing individual commanders, but just one truly great military leader – Gen. Yudenich, relegated to the secondary Caucasus Front by wartime circumstance. Strategic errors often led to lost victories (such as the underused potential of the Brusilov Offensive) and excessive casualties (such as the bloodbath on the Stokhod, which undermined the gains of said offensive). All too often, Russian military planning was hamstrung by kowtowing before German doctrines and the demands of the Allies.
Some polemists make immature claims that Russia shouldn’t have exerted herself that much for her ungrateful allies. Indeed, the Entente and especially France all too often took Russia’s war effort for granted, and behaved like true traitors after Russia’s destruction in the Revolution. However, both world wars were those of coalitions: if you work for your allies, you work towards a common victory. If Russian soldiers hadn’t died in the swamps of Naroch, the French would have lost Verdun, causing an enormous crisis that would have also affected us. That is why Russia’s most bloodstained war effort would not have been in vain, had treason not deprived her of the well-earned spoils of war.
However, Russia did quite decently in achieving main strategic goals, leaving Germany with no chance of victory. The home front developed rapidly: the shortage of ordnance, artillery, and rifles came to an end; the army saw the introduction of automobiles and mass mechanization (in 1916, several automobile plants were founded, including the future ZiL), Russian artillery was seen as the best in the world both in its technical qualities and the skills of its personnel. In Russia, Igor Sikorsky created the first heavy bombers. The creation of Russian tanks was underway.
If in the early days of the war Germany and Austria needed to mobilize 5% of their total ordnance to match one Russian shell with three of their own, the second year called for 50%. During the third year, to keep the 1:3 ratio, the Central Powers would have had to turn all of their guns towards Russia. Just to maintain a simple 1:1 parity, one would have needed all Austrian and 25% of German ordnance.
In other words, victory was imminent, and Russia’s contribution was so decisive that it was recognized by the Allies, who in fall 1916 had to acquiesce to Russia’s territorial demands, including the Black Sea Straits and Constantinople. However, they were successful in depriving Russia of those gains by pushing her towards a catastrophic revolution.
By the moment of the anti-royal coup, the Russian army had advanced into the territory of two out of three enemy Powers that shared a border with Russia. At no point did German armies advance into core Russian territories.
There could be no talk of a “battle for Moscow”, “siege of Petrograd”, “surrender of Kiev”, to say nothing of a “battle for the Volga”. There were no circumstances that could lead to millions of civilian deaths caused by the occupier.
Therefore, claiming that the Tsar “lost” while Stalin “won” is bald-faced cheating just going by respective casualty rates. WWI was fought in a much more “thrifty” way so far as soldiers’ lives were concerned, and mostly happened outside Russian territory. (Now compare the north of France dug over by German shells; even when Germany surrendered, there were German soldiers standing on French soil, but no French armies in German lands.) With their politicking, the Bolsheviks planted the seeds of World War II, so demographically disastrous for Russia, while Tsarist Russia was intent on terminating the war with a firm and harmonious peace that would have left Germany with neither cause nor the wherewithal for revanchism.
“If Russia had remained an organized state in 1918, all the Danube countries would today be little more that Russian governorates. Not just Prague but also Budapest, Bucharest, Belgrade and Sofia would be following the whims of Russian rulers. Russian military pennants would have flown over Constantinople on the Bosporus and over Catarro [Kotor] on the Adriatic”, said Hungarian Chancellor Count István Bethlen in 1934.
For the West, WWI ended a hundred years ago. For Russia, excluded from the peace process and plunged into a bloody feud, this war still goes on and no one knows the day when it will end, if it ever will. Mostly importantly, it ceases to be a forgotten war. We rediscover its heroes, memorialize them, search for documents on our great- and great-great-grandparents. Like true heroes of the past, they appear to us in a romantic sheen, in films, monuments, and elsewhere.
And this is where we can discern a certain providential meaning of the tragic events of 1917-18, visible only from a century’s worth of historical distance. There are victories true and Pyrrhic; Pyrrhic victories break an army’s fighting spirit while true victories uplift it.
Without Russia, the Entente won a Pyrrhic victory. The Great War broke the spirit of the victors at least as strongly as that of the defeated. Postwar literature (represented by such figures as Erich Maria Remarque from the losing side and Henri Barbusse, Richard Aldington, and Ernest Hemingway from the victorious) was one long tale of pain and horror. The generation that had spent four years in the trenches lost itself in its terrible trauma, and the victorious French crumbled in a second world war. The modern memory of WWI in Europe is the memory of the fallen, devoid of any glimpse of victory.
Only the Russian memory of WWI as the last Great War of the Empire, which is slowly being reclaimed after a century, is colored in heroic and romantic hues. We see our ancestors as heroes, not victims. Nowadays, after a hundred years, the Great War is a bottomless wellspring for our national spirit in the modern unstable and perilous world. For us, the main poet of WWI is, once and forever, Nikolay Gumilev, decorated with two St. George Crosses:
Like thundering hammers
Or the waves of a raging sea,
The golden heart of Russia
Steadily beats in my chest.
Oh the joy of decking Victory,
Like a maiden, in ropes of pearl,
While following the smoking trail
Of a retreating enemy…
Source: Translated by Anatoly Karlin at The Unz Review