Note: All dates are according to the modern, Gregorian calendar instead of the Julian calendar that was used in Russia at the time.
Over the first two and a half years of the war, Russia had experienced heavy defeats against Germany but at the same time had significant successes against Austria-Hungary. In any case, however, the war had become hugely unpopular at home. The Russian death toll was enormous, Russia was continuously losing territory, and the war had sparked food shortages throughout the country. Although there was a certain level of popular sympathy for Serbia, most Russians felt that the country had little to gain in the war and much to lose.
Popular confidence in Tsar Nicholas II was also at an all-time low. Not only was the tsar out of touch with the people, but many felt he had become a puppet, either of his German-born wife or of various special-interest groups. Although Russia was hardly a democracy, public opinion was still a powerful factor. Numerous underground organizations had sprung up over the previous few decades to oppose the tsar and his policies. More recently, labor strikes had begun wreaking havoc upon Russian industry.
In early March 1917 (late February by the Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time), the tsar’s entire regime unexpectedly collapsed after a series of large demonstrations in the Russian capital of Petrograd. Under pressure from both the military and the parliament, Nicholas II abdicated on March 15 (modern calendar). The event became known as the February Revolution.
As the struggle for control of the country began, parts of the military continued to fight on the war front, others quit fighting altogether, and others even fought each other. Germany quickly recognized an opportunity and made arrangements to help Russian revolutionaries in Europe, including Vladimir Lenin, to get back to Russia in order to fuel the ensuing chaos there. Lenin arrived in Petrograd on April 16 on a train provided by Germany.
After the developments of March 1917, participants on all sides watched Russia closely to see what it would do without a tsar. Although a new provisional government was officially in charge, the situation in Russia remained highly unstable, especially in the military. On July 1, Russian forces opened several new offensives along the eastern front—an action that Russian minister of war Alexander Kerensky ordered as part of an effort to boost morale in the army. On the same day, however, a huge antiwar rally clogged the streets of Petrograd.
Although the Russian advances initially showed promise against Austrian forces in Galicia, the Russian troops fled quickly when German reinforcements arrived. Sporadic fighting along the eastern front continued throughout July and August, but growing desertions, infighting, and general disorder throughout the Russian military greatly diminished its effectiveness over time.
Russia’s position in the war remained in question throughout the summer and fall of 1917. Officially, the country was still at war, and fighting did continue. However, there was intense disagreement in the country over whether or not Russia should remain at war, and if not, under what conditions it should leave the conflict.
The provisional government, under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky, favored remaining in the war until Germany and Austria-Hungary were defeated. The more radical Petrograd Soviet, a loose conglomeration of labor unions with a largely Socialist/Communist leadership, felt that Russia should get out of the war as soon as possible but also recognized that pulling out immediately would likely mean a loss of territory and heavy reparations. A third group, the Bolsheviks, who had even more radical leanings than the Petrograd Soviet, wanted the country to exit the war immediately, no matter the cost.
The debate continued throughout the summer and fall until November 6, 1917 (October 24 by the Russian calendar). On that day, the Bolsheviks seized total control of the country with the help of the military. The next day, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin issued his first decree, declaring Russia to be at peace. Though he ordered the Russian military to cease all hostilities, the country’s formal exit from the war would be somewhat more complicated.
On November 26, 1917, the Bolsheviks issued a call for a halt to hostilities on all fronts and requested that all sides immediately make arrangements to sign an armistice. This idea was not well received by France and Britain, who still intended to push the Germans out of their lands. When Russia received no response, it made another call, warning that if no one responded, Russia would make a separate peace. When there still was no response, the Bolsheviks, in an effort to embarrass the Allied forces, published a series of secret treaties that Russia had made with the Allies.
After several days of negotiations, a cease-fire was declared on December 15, 1917. A formal peace treaty, however, proved more difficult to achieve. It took months of negotiations, and Russia lost an enormous amount of territory. Russia’s land losses included Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Bessarabia, and the Caucasus region, along with some of the coal-mining regions of southern Russia.
Russia’s departure from the war posed a serious danger to the Allied forces, for it effectively closed the eastern front and thus meant that the Allies would soon face some 900,000 additional German troops on the western front. In addition, the large quantities of Russian equipment that the Germans captured would also now be used on the Allies. The United States provided the only possible hope to counter this sudden turning of the tables, but U.S. forces were not expected to begin major combat operations until the summer of 1918. On the whole, one might argue that Russia’s pullout, rather than bring the world closer to peace, likely extended the conflict by enabling Germany and Austria-Hungary to focus their entire attention on the west and south.
For Russia itself, the exit from the war cost most of the territorial gains the country had made since the reign of Peter the Great in the early 1700s. Although the Bolsheviks pronounced themselves Russia’s new leaders, their practical control extended little beyond Petrograd and Moscow. The war had drained Russia: 1.7 million of its soldiers had died in battle, and 3 million Russian civilians had perished as well. Moreover, the country was left in chaos, as there were still large groups of people remaining in Russia who opposed the Bolsheviks’ rule. Some sought to bring back the tsar; others favored a democratic government akin to the one promised by the provisional government that the Bolsheviks had overthrown. In the end, though Russia got out of World War I, the civil war that soon started within the country turned out to be even more costly for its people than World War I had been.