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The Importance of the First World War

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The First World War was a significant turning point as resulted in the end of three hundred years of Tsarist rule and also led to the world’s first communist government. Politically the impact was huge but to evaluate its importance as a turning point in the development of Russian history it needs assessing in terms of its economic and social impacts as well. It also needs evaluating against other key turning points such as the Emancipation edict of 1861, the 1905 revolution, Stalin’s rule in the 1920’s and also Khrushchev’s destalinisation era.

As mentioned above the First World War resulted in massive political change. As the patriotism declined due to losses at Tannenburg and Masurian Lakes the Russian population came out against the Tsar who was leading the war at the front. In similar conditions to the 1905 revolution which was in response to the failures of the Russo Jap War the people revolted against the Tsar with strikes and peasant uprisings. The main difference between the two occasions was that the army was on the Tsars side in 1905 but this time they helped lead the revolt with the Duma. The provisional government replaced the Tsar and it appeared that democracy was going to take hold in Russia. However, the problem of the First World War was still around and as losses continued to pile up the Bolsheviks managed to take hold of power.

The First World War clearly had a huge impact as led to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and led to communist rule. However, 1905 was also a time of political change. Nicholas II was forced into creating the Duma and allowing political parties and trade unions after uprisings which emerged from first the defeat to Japan and then the slaughter of civilians in Father Gapon’s march. This change was not as significant as the First World War’s as didn’t lead to a change in government and was only a small step towards democracy. When Nicholas II published the fundamental laws in 1906 the majority of the Duma’s power was gone and with it any real chance of democracy in Russia at that time.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s Stalin changed the political structure of Russia even further away from democracy by creating a totalitarian state based around terror. With the use of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, Stalin crushed all opposition and controlled Russia by himself. Even though it was Lenin who created a one party state it was Stalin who removed any in party dissent and public debate through the purges and use of the Gulag. This political change was not particularly great as saw no change in government and was just an extension to the autocratic and one party system which Russia had been used to for over 300 years. Overall the First World War had the greatest political impact as led to seventy one years of communist rule and ultimately led to Stalin’s totalitarian state being created. It was the tipping point for the Tsarist governments fall from power.

World War One also had an impact on the Russian economy. It cost over one and a half billion roubles which was mainly financed from foreign loans. The result was rampant inflation which meant that some services such as tram rides became free as it was unfeasible to make people pay. This made the public more discontent with the Russian government as their living standards were declining and it was one of the reasons for the overthrow of the Tsar. As well as this, the First World War also led to Lenin’s policies which he introduced when he took power. The first was War Communism which involved state control of all industry and grain requisitioning. This led to a serious famine in 1921 and also a dramatic fall in production. However, this was mainly because a civil war was being fought and Russia had conceded a lot of land with the Treaty of Brest Litovsk.

The second was the NEP which was not because of the World War but because of the 1921 famine and Kronstadt uprising. Overall the World War had limited economic impact. Other turning points such as Stalins’ five year plans had a much greater impact. Stalin managed to improve production levels to equal the West’s which had been a major aim of all Russian governments since the start of the period and was only ever neared during Witte’s Great Spurt in 1905. Stalin managed to increase coal, iron and cotton output tenfold and also send electricity into over fifty percent of homes. His economic success was so great that Russia managed to win World War Two and come out of it as a world superpower. However, one of the faults of Stalin’s 5 year plans were that he neglected consumer goods. This all changed under Khrushchev in the late 1950’s and 1960’s when he began to shift focus. By 1960 over fifty five percent of households had televisions and washing machines but this is low compared to the West, in particular the USA where over fifty percent had colour televisions which were still a privilege for the rich in Russia.

The Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 under Alexander II and other agriculture reforms were also turning points in the development of Russian history. The freeing of the serfs was meant to make agriculture more efficient and help feed the growing urban proletariat. However, this failed to happen as land was often of a poor quality and the land plots were often too small to grow a surplus. This is similar to the economic changes made by Stolypin in the 1890’s and Khrushchev in the 1950’s. Both wanted to improve agricultural output so that the workers could be fed and less people were needed to farm the land. Both methods included movement of the peasants eastward into uncultivated land. Stolypin’s attempt created the richer Kulak class whereas Khrushchev’s Virgin Land Campaign had success at the start but by 1960 all the soil had eroded and production was very low. Overall these economic developments had little impact and it was Stalin’s five year plans that had the greatest impact in the development of Russian history and therefore on economic terms the First World War has been over exaggerated.

Social impacts caused by the World War include the loss of millions of lives, food shortages and a lower standard of living. Over one and a half million people died fighting for Russia in the war and another two million people were captured or seriously injured. This meant that there was a huge fall in Russian population and this made it harder to increase productive capacity back to what it was previously at. There was also a very high ratio of women compared to men which meant that birth rates were low in the next few years. Food shortages were an issue as grain requisition started during the war and continued under Lenin until 1921 when the civil war ended. These impacts are very limited in nature. This contrasts massively with other times during the period.

The 1861 emancipation should have been a massive social change. Freeing the peasant’s form their land could have created a larger working class and resulted in a wealthier more efficient class of peasant forming. However, because of redemption payments and internal passports the impacts were limited, with few people moving to the cities and few peasants becoming wealthier than the others. Stolypin was the first to create the Kulak class in the 1890’s and this was the first time real social change occurred. The Kulaks also experienced the second period of social change when Stalin liquidated them in one of his Great Purges. On one day it was known for Stalin to have signed the death certificates of 6000 peasants and overall the NKVD sent over 40 million people to the Gulag. Despite all these negatives Stalin did improve the social conditions.

He was the first leader to really tackle education and illiteracy after Alexander II had failed and Alexander III had imposed stricter controls on education and university admission. Stalin managed to reduce the illiteracy rates to 18% and by 1932 over seven million people attended secondary school. However, housing conditions under Stalin were also poor and communal living space decrease from 8.5 metres squared in 1914 to 5.8 in 1930. Khrushchev improved housing by doubling the amount and also moving away from communal living. Overall the social conditions were not impacted on that much by WWI. Stalin’s rule and the emancipation in 1861 both had a greater impact and therefore we can conclude that the impact of WWI on the development of Russian history has been exaggerated.

The importance of WWI in the development of Russian history has not been exaggerated. The political impact was so huge as led to the first worldwide communist revolution. Even though WWI had less of a social and economic impact than say Stalin did in the 1930’s, it still ultimately led to future impacts. Without the communist revolution which was caused by the World War then few of the economic and social impacts would have been possible as Stalin would never have gained power when Lenin died.

The Communist rulers were effective autocrats, the Tsars were not. How far do you agree with this view of Russian government?


Discuss the meaning of an effective autocrat –

That it is very much individual rule

Large amount of control over the vast country

Maybe introduce how the essay will be structured – ‘in order to analyse this question one must look first at…’

Then go on to signpost argument – whilst it is partly true that the Tsars were ineffective

in some ways they were effective, however the communists were much better

(Possibly too long? Also some say that you should give an overview of the period/trends slightly)

First paragraph: Tsars were not effective autocrats:

Could not repress opposition very successfully and therefore did not remain in control:

Examples – Alexander II was assassinated even though the Populist numbers were tiny, and he should have executed them when they went to the countryside, instead he let their numbers grow

Similarly Nicholas was forced to be less autocratic because he was not a successful autocrat – could not control the people which led to the duma which lessened his powers – they were able to stop a law coming in to place…

Explain that this may be caused by their lack of control over the whole of Russia – secret police was small, corrupted civil servants, lack of centralisation

Second paragraph: However, whilst the Tsars did have moments when they could not control Russia single handedly at some points they were pretty effective:

They were effectively autocratic in the sense that it was very much a personal rule – had ministers advise them, but ultimately their decision – no constitutional government as they maintained a lack of democracy – whilst the Duma was forced upon Nicholas, he managed to effectively nullify its powers – manipulated the electorate, passed laws when they were not in session, even under AII with the creation of the zemstvo there was never any desire for real political change, just the more efficient running of local administration

maybe add : (AIII reversed judicial reforms which he felt opened up autocracy to the challenge, getting rid of justices of the peace, replacing them with land captains etc)

(Another paragraph) Also they did largely keep opposition (by repression) to a minimum even considering the examples above –

It was only when Nicholas went away to the front that opposition was successful, previously he had maintained individual, autocratic rule by repressing people – stolypins neckties, duma, (censorship)

AIII – the reaction – crushed the populists for a decade

AII Repressed the poles in the polish revolt

Communists, as the statement suggests were similarly effective autocrats:

Continuity of themes above – lack of democracy – Lenin dissolving the Constitutional assembly, abolishing trade unions, ilegalising political parties

Similarly used repression to maintain control – Every leader used the secret police

Similarly ruled individually – although not officially but Lenin always had the final say, it was his interpretation of marxism that people followed – NEP was his policy which was largely unpopular and Treaty of Brest Litovsk was his idea

Stalin did too – using the cult of personality

Next paragraph – Communists more autocratic than Tsars

Had more control – totalitarian – due to centralisation – e.g collectivisation – enabled greater control of peasants. Grain requisitioning under Lenin and Stalin – something Tsars would never have dreamt of enforcing – too invasive. But the Communists had greater control over the countryside and the factories

More repressive and more successful in being so:

Secret police stronger than ever under Lenin and Stalin, great purges

Ohkrana small, Cheka large

Gulag existed under Stalin and Krushchev (and lenin???)

Better at exiling, under Tsars people just came back – Stalin and Lenin did! But under the Communists they eliminated them

Better at dealing with opposition – Stalin so paranoid that he assassinated any potential threat – Kirov, Trotsky – but Tsars did not eliminate many potential threats


Partly agree with the view – but it is not as black and white – Tsars whilst they did show periods in which they were ineffective autocrats, did maintain power quite well considering the size of Russia. However compared to the Communists they were not very effective.

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