Российская ассоциация историков Первой мировой войны

Ekaterina Romanova Perceptions of war burden sharing in the Russian society during the First World War (1914 – February 1917)


Ekaterina Romanova

Perceptions of war burden sharing in the Russian society during the First World War  (1914 – February 1917)


The First World War, being a “total war”,[1] placed its burden on the whole population of the fighting states. The success in it depended not only on the performance of the armies, but also – and as the war continued, even more so – on the state of the home front. As Jay Winter and Antoine Prost put it ‘…winning the war became a test of the legitimacy of the political and social order’.[2] Indeed, the socio-political organization of each state was challenged by the task to mobilize national resources, and the ability of both the government and the society to answer such a challenge became essential for the outcome of the war for every country. The war effort was supported by both constraint on the part of the state and consent of the population to endure it. Although historians disagree on the relative role of each of these two factors,[3] it is evident that the combination of both provided for the effectiveness of mobilization.

The perception of war burden sharing may be regarded as one of the key indicators of the level of consent in the society. It reveals the existing links between the individual, the society, and the state, shows how personal interests were identified in relation to that of other groups of society, or the whole nation, thus, in the case of Russia, shedding the light on the much debated issue of nation building at the beginning of the XX century.[4] It also reflects both material and mental aspects of mobilization, its ‘ethic’ defined by Pierre Purseigle ‘as the matrix of thought and behaviour that shaped both the identity and the involvement of local communities (but also other groups and individuals – E.R.) in the war effort’.[5]

At the centre of this paper is the question of how Russians perceived the sharing of war burden during the First World War. The character of the First World War has been the subject of a continuous scholarly debate in Russia, its assessments ranging from patriotic to imperialist.  Such confusion can partly be attributed to the course of the Russian history in the XX century. Twice for the century Russia went through the drastic change of social and political order which had a huge impact on the perception of national identity. The memory of the Great War became an important element of such perception. At the same time, the confusion is to a certain extent rooted in the complexity and diversity of war-time judgments on the essence and the aims of the war, which differed not only between various groups of the Russian society, but also between individuals, each of whom had his or her own unique war experience. They were also changing as the war continued. Among them the perceptions of war burden sharing were fundamental, both reflecting and affecting the state of the Russian society during the First World War.

The end of the XIX – the beginning of the XX century in Russia was marked by fast economic, especially industrial growth, which, however, did not result in political or social stability. The Tsarist regime survived the turmoil of the First Russian Revolution of 1905-1907, but had to grant political concessions to the liberal movement. The establishment of a semi-constitutional system with a representative organ – the State Duma – was able to placate the opposition only for a short time; a controversial agrarian reform, which was introduced in order to create a stable foundation for the existing political regime, could not bring prompt results. So liberals sought more freedom and participation in the government, peasants were not satisfied with the distribution of land, industrial workers went on strikes demanding better working and living conditions. Stanislav Tiutiukin points out that there existed ‘real antagonism between workers and the bourgeoisie, peasants and landowners, and also serious tensions between landowners and the bourgeoisie’.[6] He sees ‘the sparks of the future civil war’ in the fact that a peasant’s land allotment was on average 300 times smaller than a landowner’s estate. ‘Not only the extreme inequality of income and continuous clash of material interests’, but also ‘completely different spiritual orientation’ of the upper- and the lower-classes, where the former tended to adopt the values of western civilization and the latter remained adherent to ‘traditional’ and religious values, contributed to the ‘polarization’ and ‘socio-cultural division’ within the society. Thus the war, placing an extra burden on the country, potentially threatened the existence of the already shaken social and political order.

However, at the same time, it also seemed to create an opportunity to consolidate the society. At the outset of the war official press stressed the sense of community which unified the irreconcilable. In November 1914 a Russian liberal Peter Sruve wrote: ‘We sensed ourselves in the war as a nation and a state, as Russians and Russia’. [7] Fedor Stepun, who served as a junior army officer, noted the excitement at the outbreak of the war, which was marked by ‘the overcoming of rigidity, selfishness and egoism’. ‘Many gladly gave away part of their comfort and means in favour of the wounded and families of reservists’.[8] The emerging solidarity among the society manifested itself in charities and donations, which can be regarded as the examples of the readiness to sacrifice for the common cause.

The examples of solidarity invoke the question of its foundations. Of course, one of the underlying causes of a potential consolidation was the existence of the common enemy outside the state and the need to confront it. So it was a negative consolidation of “us” against “the other”. Among positive motives press, propaganda, police reports, and memoirs often named that of the defence of religion, motherland, and the cause which was considered morally right. However, the perception of these notions as well as their significance as incentives to a certain pattern of behaviour varied across the society.

Attitude and behaviour connected with mobilization at the outbreak of hostilities demonstrate the scope and limits of the sense of community in the Russian society. Both contemporaries and historians have agreed that the initial mobilization was generally successful in Russia.  96% of reservists turned up at the points of mobilization[9]. Though an important indication of the attitude of the population to the war, it does not per se reveal the complexity of feelings and perceptions which lay behind such behaviour. Current scholarly research shows that once prevailing notion of ‘war enthusiasm’ in the western countries at the outbreak of hostilities was a mere myth.[10] Even to a lesser extent can such notion be applied to Russia. Of course, there was some excitement which manifested itself in patriotic speeches and meetings, the expressions of solidarity in the State Duma and the press, but it was limited to big cities, and did not go deep into Russian province.

Since peasants were by far the largest class of the Russian society (75.4% of the Russian population)[11] and contributed most to the active army (12.8 million out of 15.8 million mobilized by October 1917[12]), their attitude and behaviour have always been in the centre of attention. To one of the leaders of Russian liberal movement, later the Foreign minister of the Provisional Government Pavel Miliukov the attitude of the mass population to the war ‘in accord with the rise of their literacy was more conscious than the attitude of the serf people to the wars of Nicolas I, or even of the freed people to the liberation war of 1877-1878…’. Nevertheless, it could be expressed by the typical formula: ‘we are kaluzkie (i.e. from Kaluga), and Wilhelm will not come as far as Kaluga’.[13] The prevalence of local over national or imperial outlook among the Russian peasantry is also underlined in Stepun’s memoirs. The soldiers in his artillery battalion, initially based in Irkutsk, could not see the sense in three week train trip to meet the Germans. ‘Why go and look for him (the German)’? ‘Let him come here, and then we will fight him’.[14]

Much quoted evidence of general Brusilov demonstrates that soldiers could not explain the reason the country fought the war. Although they learned from the Tsar Manifesto of the German declaration of war and the necessity to help the unjustly treated Serbs, almost nobody knew who the Serbs were, and it was ‘absolutely incomprehensible’ why the Germans started the war because of Serbia.[15] Stepun recalled the confusion among recruits as they learned that the Germans were Christians. Religious consciousness could put up with a war for the defence of faith, but one between Christian nations was beyond understanding. The mood in the village was characterized as ‘depressed’, ‘gloomy’ and ‘concentrated’[16]. The war was perceived as a natural calamity or a God’s punishment.

Such evidence is not intended to deny the upsurge of patriotic feelings which was there and along with the traditions of obedience and a sense of duty (perceived rather not as a civil duty of a citizen, but as a feudal duty to the Tsar) determined the behaviour of the majority of peasants at mobilization and allowed Russia to endure the war for more than three years, but rather to stress the importance of local interests for a peasant and also to highlight potential divisions in the perception of and attitude to the war among different groups of Russian society.

The war for the peasantry did not entail any rewards, but was rather perceived as a waste. Stepun recalled that at the beginning of it, before being sent to the front, soldiers asked him, if it was not possible for the Tsar to pay the Germans off to appease them – that would have saved the Emperor from the necessity to send people to war and to injure them in vain.[17] Even more insightful are the records of soldiers’ attempts to understand the behaviour of the enemy. In their opinion, if the Germans had lived easy life, they would not have taken up arms. That supposition led to the thought that they might have started the war because they were cramped for space. On the one hand, such attitude to the enemy perceived as not willing but having to fight contributed to the sense of a certain community of those at war who were forced to fight because of circumstances beyond their control. The feeling of indifference and the absence of hatred to the enemy on the front, indicated in several sources, reflected such perception.[18] On the other hand, we can trace here the connection of the peasants’ outlook with the idea of the land, which was regarded as the ultimate value. The lack of land became more or less synonymous with a hard life and could invoke some sympathy even for an enemy. This reflected the way of thinking not in the categories of national, but socio-economic interests.

Peasants’ and soldiers’ local outlook was connected with the land and agricultural work. The life on the land was real, the one having value, and hence at the first sight incomprehensible contemptuous attitude of soldiers to volunteers, the latter being seen as ‘having fled from the deeply respected, sacred and useful’ work on the land for the sake of an artificial adventure.[19]

Peasants were fighting for their Tsar, their religion, and the right cause since the war was regarded as a defensive, and therefore a just war. However, the war distracted a peasant from his household, and such distraction was very painful. The connection of his local interests with the interests of the country at war was not always evident. A would be soldier worried about his household, about how his wife could manage without him. Peasants’ and soldiers’ requests to authorities of different rank indicated the existing apprehension that their land rights might be infringed upon in their absence. Some of them, for example, suggested that the redistribution of land should be stopped for the period of war.[20]

Conscription into the army placed a heavy material burden on a peasant’s household. Work on the land was the source of living not only for a peasant, but also for his family, and the significance of providing a peasant’s household with workforce was, though indirectly, recognized by the government which, under the Law regulating military service, granted wide family exemptions. According to Golovin, around 48% of those of age were subject to them.[21] However, the need for reinforcements of the acting army made the government revise some rules. Distraction of working force from peasants’ households, labour shortage, became one of the main economic and social problems in Russia during the war.

The initial concern of women, who in the course of the war were substituting men as the main labour force in the village,[22] caused by the prospect of losing the bread-winner of the family is reflected in several police reports. For example, at the outbreak of the war a police agent in Tashkent noted ‘discontent among the wives of those called up’. Women were worried that with their husbands gone to the front they would remain at home without any means to sustain their living. They even expressed the intention to commit suicide plunging with their children under the wheels of a train on the day of the departure of recruits[23]. Later soldiers’ wives were also characterized as an element able to provoke discontent.[24] Therefore, money allowances provided according to the Law of June 25, 1912, by the state to the families of those mobilized were of utmost importance. Golovin justly states that ‘the measure was reasonable and fair. However, the money restored only economic, but not social justice: money cannot make up for the life or injury’[25].

The question of war influence on material conditions of those peasants who remained in the rear is a debated one. Some historians conclude that it was worsening, others are not so categorical - they point out that there were some examples of its improvement[26]. Porshneva refers to the data showing the rise in the consumption of bread in the peasants’ households in producing areas as compared to that before the war[27]. According to the police materials high prices for the flour and bread allowed the peasants to save money and sign for war loans.[28] Chiefs of Gèndármery Departments of Moskovskaia and Mogilevskaia provinces reported of favourable influence of allowances on the well-being of peasants’ households. The allowances were characterized as sufficient, and the reports concluded that the majority of peasants were not only better-off, but also started to save money.[29] Some interesting evidence is contained in the report from Vernyi, a town in Semirechie. It refers to the complaints of women, whose husbands were not called up. The women considered their husbands to be bad labourers and felt irritation because they were deprived of the opportunity to receive money allowance which went to soldiers’ wives and which could have enabled them to hire an agricultural worker. Those women who had used to work as maids, after having received the allowance, could live on it and therefore refused to do such work.[30]

Of course, these examples are not enough to generalize on the effect of the allowance on the material conditions in the village; they differed from one area to another, they were changing in the course of the war. However, even if the allowance contributed at first to the improvement of the conditions of life, to some extent compensating for a conscripted family member, and using Golovin’s term ‘restoring economic justice’, as the war continued, the problem of labour shortage was becoming more acute.

Conscription of the second-tier militia (opolchenie 2 razryada), started in September 1915, came as both a material and moral blow to the village.[31] It included the only sons in the family or sons (grandsons) who were the only able-bodied males in the family. This was a material blow because it deprived the villages and households from more labour force. In 1917 only 38.7% of able-bodies men remained in their households.[32] It was a moral blow because traditionally militiamen were regarded as exempt from the service in the active army. In the village it appeared as unforeseen and sudden. People were neither ready for it materially, nor had been prepared for it morally. Characteristically, both from the point of view of the ability of the government to control the situation and of the gravity of the measure, that The Council of Ministers, contemplating such a step foresaw political difficulties and possible social protest which it could entail and therefore felt the necessity to sanction it with the authority of the Duma. In the words of the Minister of the Interior Prince Scherbatov: ‘if it becomes known that we conscript the second-tier militia without the Duma sanction, I am afraid, we will not get a single man’.[33]

Among other things, the problem of labour shortage and deteriorating material conditions manifested itself in the change of attitude to refugees. Sympathy of the first months of the war gave way to growing irritation and accusations of laziness and idleness in 1915. Their position as against that of the working classes of the society was regarded as unfairly favourable. They received assistance, but allegedly refused to work, so got some benefits without sharing the burden.[34] Anfimov, having studied the activity of Lebedyanskii  Committee on Settlement of the Refugees, concluded that one reason to evade from work (according to his calculations, 10% of refugees did so) was extremely low wage rate offered to the refugees. In February 1916 the Committee fixed the rate at 4 rubles per month for female (30 kopeks per day for day labourers), and 8 rubles per month for male labourers (60 kopeks per day). Even in 1915 a hired labourer got 96 kopeks per day (females) and 1 ruble 78 kopeks (male). Refugees were paid even less than the prisoners of war.[35] Both refugees and war prisoners were regarded as a reserve of workforce. As Anfimov showed in his study of the Russian village during the war, the majority of war prisoners were at the disposal of the Ministry for Agriculture.[36] Addressing the question of ‘economic justice’ it is necessary to point out that though small households and large estates both faced the lack of workforce, only the latter (due to both social connections and material conditions of their owners) were able to attract the labour of war prisoners. [37]

For peasants, mobilization entailed not only material but also ‘blood’ sacrifices, therefore raising the question of social justice. Both the rules of mobilization (the categories subject to mobilization) and the way it was conducted might have caused the perception of unfairness. The greatest burden of mobilization, as it was mentioned earlier, was placed on rural Russia. The amount of money allowances for mobilized family members received in urban areas accounted for only 8.5%, whereas around 15% of population lived in towns.[38] Such difference is understandable – the country at war needed industrial production, functioning administration – so there were exemptions for qualified workers, and also some civil servants, the police, etc. However, in the course of the war such distribution of burden was seen as unfair by those mobilized. Some groups of urban population who enjoyed exemptions were regarded as evading military service and not bearing the fair burden of war. There existed certain irritation against industrial workers, so the war made the conflict between the country and town more acute. The exemptions given to the police were considered unfounded.[39] Work at such organizations as All-Russian Union of Zemstvos and Cities, and also in Military-Industrial Committee granted exemptions. Golovin calculated that Union of Zemstvos and Cities accounted for 5352 exemptions, whereas Military-Industrial Committee for about one million.[40]

Police reports indicated the emerging practice, accepted by people of wealth and relatively high social status, to apply for and get the jobs which provided exemption from military service (for example, with postal service or telegraphy).[41] It caused discontent and was considered unfair especially because, as the reports stated, such individuals would never have applied for such positions in the peacetime. This pattern of behaviour, especially on the part of intelligentsia, is also documented by some memoirs. According to general Danilov ‘there were a lot of those who tried either to evade from military service, or at least from the burden of the front line. They tried to find a safe place in the rear. The mobilization department was flooded with requests and applications for exemptions from or, at least, deferrals of conscription. What was worse, such cases did not lead to necessary repressions from the side of the authorities and even were not properly condemned morally; on the contrary, society looked at this phenomenon with an almost criminal indulgency’.[42] There lacked the ‘social pressure forcing the reluctant combatants to go to the front’ within their own class, which as Watson’s study of combat and morale in British and German army showed, existed in Britain. ‘Those not in uniform’ did not feel ‘excluded from their communities’, as they did in England.[43] So there lacked a quite effective mechanism of social control of behaviour. In Golovin’s opinion there was little understanding among the intelligentsia that ‘the defence of motherland’ was a ‘civil duty of each citizen’, and this led to the practice of looking for positions in the rear or at least ‘safe’ places in the army”.[44]

Again, this does not characterize the behaviour of the whole class. Many, even opposed to the regime, went to the front, feeling, as for example Mikhail Lemke did, that in contrast to the Russian-Japanese war, the war against Austria-Hungary and Germany was not the case of the Tsar and his circle, but of the people.[45] The problem was that ‘the masses did not see the heroic sacrifice of those officers who fought in the army”, but saw those who chose to stay at home.[46] Relatively numerous cases of evasion from service contributed rather to the division than to the consolidation of the society.

            The above mentioned cases represented what might be called ‘legal’ evasion, but there were also cases of illegal evasion. One of the reasons not to be conscripted was medical disability. Reports and complaints document accusations of bribes given to medical commissions, hence denunciations of their activity and claims for new examinations.[47] Tutolmin concludes that there were fewer applications asking for exemptions from military service than those indicating abuses and unfairness during mobilization.[48] Abuses of medical commissions and the practice of bribes did not help social consolidation. Such practices to some extent contributed to the gap between the front and the rear: those in the rear did not always appreciate the sacrifice of those fighting in the army, those in the army referred to the rear as stuck in “dissipation, drinking, thefts, complete unconcern and irresponsibility”.[49]

The sense of unfairness was sometimes intensified by the existing rules, attitude of authorities of different rank, practices during mobilization. Unpreparedness and confusion at the points of mobilization and requisition (lack of foodstuffs, delays in payments) or by organizing works for the needs of the army caused discontent and, as Posadskii showed, sometimes even riots.[50] Abuses on the part of local authorities and the practice of bribes led to the conclusion that those who were better-off would be able to pay off and shift the burden to the lower classes.

Not only actual and perceived unfairness in the distribution of war burden within the society, but also what was regarded as unfair treatment on the part of the state caused irritation. Paying the duty to the state, personified in the figure of the Tsar, implied some sort of reciprocation. Sacrifice needed to be rewarded. The lack of such reciprocation led to the situation where an individual stopped perceiving the defence of such a state as his moral duty. Illustrative is a case of an individual attitude to the war described in one of police reports from Tashkent. In the focus of it was a policeman (gorodovoi), who was noticed expressing more than skeptical attitude to those fighting for ‘motherland’. His disillusionment was caused by his life experience. During the Russian-Japanese war he had been wounded and shell-shocked. Awarded by two Crosses of St. George, he was entitled for a pension, however despite several applications, did not get it. In the course of the war with Germany his three brothers went to the army, one of them was killed, the second was missing and the third was wounded and lost his legs. 17 members of the family left were nearly starving. So his utterances indicated his perception of the rupture of the ties with the state or ‘motherland’. Symbolic was his decision not to wear his awards. However, he did not refuse to fight, stating that if he were conscripted he would fight for the sake of religion.[51]

 During the First World War the idea of getting a reward for the service was present in the minds of the Russian peasantry. However, it is important to stress the fact, that peasants expected the reward not from the war, i.e. possible acquisitions as a result of it (so they could not identify themselves with the war aims either of the government or Russian liberals), but because they fought the war. On the one hand, it can be explained by the fact that they did not see the prospects of economic utility of possible war gains, as for example, soldiers’ attitude to the war in the  Carpathians, noted by Stepun, shows: ‘why do we need Galicia, if it is not suitable for ploughing’. [52] On the other hand, the land was abundant in Russia, however, the distribution of it was regarded as unfair. The circumstances of the war intensified the feeling of injustice. The lands belonging to the Germans were regarded as the primary object for confiscation.[53] Anti-German propaganda coupled with lack of success on the front, which was partly attributed to the German influence in high places, resulted in the rise of anti-German feeling. German landowners, industrialists, and also the members of the Emperor’s family were accused of sympathizing with and even helping the enemy, thus protracting the war, which required more sacrifice from the lower classes. This anti-German feeling reflected both national divisions brought about by the war and existing socio-economic contradictions. On the one hand, the Germans and their influence were seen as opposed to the war effort and as a barrier to the victory in the war. On the other hand, Germans who were becoming the object of accusations mainly belonged to the upper- or upper-middle-class of the society, whose policies and behaviour were regarded as detrimental to the interests of the lower classes.

The perception of the incompatibility of interests of the lower and the upper classes of the society was reflected in sometimes contradictory conclusions about the character of the war and the policies of the government. On the one hand, it was depicted as imperialist and the government policy was characterized as aimed at the pursuit of interests of capitalists. Though such outlook was not widespread, its main proponents being the left-wing of Russian social democracy (the Bolsheviks), even at the beginning of the war police reports made records of several everyday conversations which seemed to suggest the idea that the war was regarded as fought in the interests of ‘ten people’,[54] that only the upper-classes and bourgeoisie could benefit from it.[55] From 1916 on, among popular explanations of the war causes there appeared one which connected it to the intention of landowners to get rid of peasants because the latter were encroaching on the lands belonging to the former.[56] Such interpretations reflected the anti-war mood of population and stressed the idea that the war was contrary to the interests of the majority of Russian people.

On the other hand, as evidenced by the above mentioned notion of the German influence, there existed the perception of treason and betrayal of the people’s struggle. However, those who were considered guilty of it were not necessarily Germans. For example, after the unsuccessful East Prussian operation, an absolutely unfounded rumour was circulating, that general Samsonov allegedly ‘sold two army corps’, got the money from the Germans and escaped abroad.[57] There were rumors that Empresses Maria Fedorovna and Alexandra Fedorovna were sending the gold, money, food to Germany, that Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolaevich ‘had sold the Carpathians for a barrel of gold and therefore the war would be lost’.[58]

As the war went on, the burden of it was becoming heavier, and, therefore, the voices of those protesting against it louder. Indicative is the change of the attitude to a possible negotiated settlement with Germany. According to one of the police reports, in 1914 each person who dared to speak at a meeting of the necessity of concluding peace was immediately hissed off.  However, in 1915 the situation was changing – people started listening to such speeches.[59] Tension concentrated in towns or cities, where the main factors determining the situation were the sharp increase in prices and the shortage of food. These problems only deepened the existing socio-economic division in the society.

There emerged the phenomenon of profiteers, which was widely described in the press, police reports and memoirs. Contemporaries reported of fabulously high profits of big industrialists and merchants. In 1916, one of the local papers categorically stated that ‘the accusations of all Russian industry in profiteering can be considered proved’.[60] The rise of prices was attributed to the activity and influence of profiteers. For example, extremely high price for the flour in Saratovskaia province was regarded as the result of policies pursued by big mill-owners in their thirst for profit. Abuses were reported by the purchase of bread for the army. High price was seen as the result of the agreement between the responsible for the purchases, a middleman, and big mill-owners. Of course, such cases (often publicized even in the legal press) cast the doubt on the patriotism of merchants and industrialists.[61] In comparison with their profits their sacrifice for the war effort was seen as negligible.[62] High profits of ones and the deteriorating material condition of the others undermined the idea of solidarity and consolidation. To a certain extent, the rise of prices exacerbated the contradictions between town and the country. If peasants regarded industrial workers as evading from military service and even protested against requisitions on the basis that the bread would be sent not only to the acting army, but also to the workers of defence plants, workers blamed peasants for doing nothing to reduce food prices. The cases of profiteering coupled with soaring prices also resulted in growing distrust to local and central authorities, who were blamed either for their inability to organize necessary supplies and suppress the activity of profiteers, or for the connivance and even agreement with the latter.

In contrast to the beginning of the war when the mood in the rear was mainly dependant on the situation on the front, from mid 1915 the impact on it of material conditions at home was becoming overwhelming. The cost of life in the cities was rising and, very much according to it, the attitude of the urban population to the war was changing.

At the outset of the war the attitude of industrial workers to it fluctuated between indifferent and favourable. They were ready to go to the front if they were ordered to. Marked decrease in the number of strikes in the second half of 1914 is usually explained by several different causes, among which the upsurge of patriotism and the feeling of solidarity with soldiers played a significant role. However, not only mechanisms of forming consent but also instruments of constraint influenced workers’ behaviour. The fear of losing exemption from the service in the acting army deterred them from going on strikes. Another factor which had an impact on the attitude of workers to the war was linked with the prospects of improving their material position due to the increase of orders for industry.

A lot of sources indicate that in the course of the war the wages of industrial workers were steadily rising. Again, as in the case of peasants it is very difficult to generalize - the situation differed from town to town, from industry to industry, from factory to factory. It was not the same for workers of different qualifications. For example, industrial workers of Petrograd were better paid than that of Moscow.[63] On average, in Central Russia workers’ wages increased from 264 rubles a year in 1913 to 322 rubles in 1915, whereas the prices for the same period rose by 72.4%.[64] Though the exact figures of wages usually differed, the general trend was the same – the pay rise could not compensate for the rise of prices. For example, workers of the plant ‘Novyi Aivaz’ in Petrograd, where the wages were considered high, earned on average before the war 4 rubles a day, in 1915 the wages rose to 5 rubles, but before the war one could buy twice as much for 4 rubles as for 5 rubles in 1915.[65] According to the data of the health insurance society of the plant ‘Treugol’nik’ in Petrograd, the wages of an unskilled worker rose from 1-1.25 rubles (for 24-hours) before the war to 2.50-3 rubles in 1916, of a metalworker – from 2-2.50 to 4-5 rubles, of a fitter – from 2-3 to 5-6 rubles a day. At the same time the cost of coal increased from 2-3 rubles (for a month), to 8-12 rubles, dinner at a canteen was worth 1-1.3 rubles instead of 12-20 kop. before the war, the price of tea rose from 7 kop. to 35 kop., that of high boots went up from 5-6 rubles to 20-30 rubles, a shirt cost 2.5-3 rubles as compared to 75-90 kop. before the war.[66] Nevertheless, indirect evidence that some of the workers might be better-off during the war can be found.  January 1917 Appeal of workers’ section of Central Military-Industrial Committee stated that ‘if today any of comrades has good wages and is ready because of it to forget about his lack of political rights, may him remember that no savings will save him from unemployment or extremely high prices after the war’.[67]

Of course, there was dissatisfaction among industrial workers. In spite of wartime laws they tried to fight for their economic rights. Interestingly, especially at the beginning of the war anti-German feeling was used as a means of such a fight. German (by their origin) factory-owners or engineers were the object of workers’ complaints, which claimed that they did not raise wages intentionally hoping for the workers to stop work and production thus contributing to the German cause.[68] From August 1915 on, the number of strikes began to rise. Workers’ groups, which spoke of their intention to uphold workers’ economic rights, were formed in some Military-Industrial Committees.

Both industrialists and authorities were interested in industrial peace during the war. Therefore there were attempts to lessen the effect of soaring prices on workers’ living conditions. Apart from the raise of wages, though insufficient, there were examples of organizing canteens or food shops at the factories, where food was sold to workers at lower prices. Measures taken by authorities as, for example, the introduction of price maximum or food ration cards for some products at a local level proved to be generally inefficient. As it was stated in the police report from Petrograd the food, which was subject to price maximum either disappeared, or was of such low quality that could be dangerous for health, [69] food ration cards did not always guarantee the provisions.[70]

 Though industrial workers suffered from the burden of high prices and lack of food, their material conditions were often characterized as relatively favourable in comparison with some other groups of urban population. Many police reports tried to draw attention to what they called desperate material conditions of clerks. The war led to the change in their way of life and to some extent to the perception of the loss of a certain status. One of the examples was a clerk serving at a bank and earning in 1916 90 rubles a month. He had a wife and three children. The family rented a three-room flat for 45 rubles (58 rubles – with firewood), of which two rooms they sublet to workers for 40 rubles. His wife cooked and spent on average 65-70 rubles a month, he had to mend his shoes and to wash the linen himself. The children did not go out because they did not have shoes. The family consumed almost no meat, tea or milk. [71]

A gloomy picture of material conditions of different groups of Russian society is drawn in one of the informant’s materials of the police department in Petrograd in September 1916.[72] The report is definitely prejudiced against the liberals and industrialists. However, such prejudice can also be regarded as the indication of the perceptions of war burden sharing. Such burden was presented as becoming unbearable for the majority of the society. The nobility faced the problem of high cost and shortage of labour, therefore the greater part of their lands could not be worked, small merchants and craftsmen went bankrupt, students having to care about finding the means of living could not think of education, the conscription of militiamen caused discontent, relatively high workers’ wages seemed hypocritical at the face of soaring prices, semi-hungry clerks and hungry intelligentsia were extremely opposed to the government. Only those who filled Military-Industrial Committees ripped off the population ‘under the flag of patriotism’ and ‘common cause’. The report forecasted that the government had only 2 or 3 months to improve the situation, otherwise ‘the man in the street would go after anyone who would promise to rid him of starvation’. Prompt peace was regarded as almost the only means to change the trend.

Political and socio-economic crisis resulted in the February Revolution which led to the overthrow of the Tsarist regime. However, it could not solve two outstanding questions, that of the land and peace. Most insightful comments of the situation in Russia just before the February revolution and shortly after it predicted that the revolution would not be able to restrict itself to mere political changes. The memorandum of the Department for the safeguarding of public security and order in Petrograd of November 3, 1916 stated that “we cannot count on the rough sea of people’s passions… stopping on the line of a “longed-for” cadet ministry”.[73] The former correspondent of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ in Russia Emile Dillon in contrast to many other foreign observers almost from the outset of the February Revolution characterized it as directed towards peace and saw in it “the movement” that “ushers in the first complete victory of social democracy not merely over autocratic doctrines and institutions, but likewise over the cherished survivals of feudalism, the incongruities of conservatism, the meanness of commercialism and the countless embodiments of the spirit of amateurism in high places”.[74] This quotation points to the features of Russian social, economic and political life which did not allow her to endure the burden of the Great War.

Perceptions of war burden sharing among Russians mirrored these features and reflected the contradictions of the transitional period Russia was undergoing. Industrial growth, the beginning of the decomposition of the land commune resulted in weakening traditional links within the society. This process was accompanied by social stratification which undermined the sense of community even at a local level. The change in material conditions resulted in the dissipation of value system, which manifested itself in some ethical norms losing their significance whereas others not having been formed yet. In the sense of ethics the society was becoming to a certain extent atomized and therefore vulnerable. Socio-economic divisions turned out to be stronger than national cohesion. Industrialists, financiers, liberals, who claimed to speak on behalf of the nation and pursue national interests, were perceived with apprehension if not hostility by both the Tsarist regime, and other groups of the society. On their part, the former fighting against the existing political regime also undermined the traditional basis for possible consolidation.


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[1] For the discussion of the usage of the term ‘total war’ see Chickering, ‘Total war: the Use and Abuse of a Concept’, in Anticipating Total War 1999, 13-28.

[2] Winter, Prost 2005, 153.

[3] See discussion in: Ibid., 105.

[4] See, for example, Porshneva 2000, 2008, Sanborn 2003.

[5] Purseigle, ‘Beyond and Below the Nations: Towards a Comparative History of Local Communities at War’, in Uncovered Fields 2004, 111.


[6] Tiutiukin, ‘From the Great War to the Great Revolution’, in  Voina 2008, 121.

[7] Quoted in Porshneva 2008, 188.

[8] Stepun 2000, 5.

[9] Golovin 2008, 688.

[10] Verhey 2000, Ferguson 1999.

[11] Tiutiukin, Op.cit., in Voina 2008, 121.

[12] Porshneva 2000, 105.

[13] Miliukov 1999, 391. See also: Danilov 2000, 116. For a different opinion see: Denikin 1953, 316-317, Golovin 2008, 689-690.

[14] Stepun 1995,270

[15] Brusilov 1963, 71

[16] Mirovye voiny 2002, 360

[17] Stepun 1995, 269-270

[18] Stepun 2000, 42

[19] Ibid., 75

[20] See, for example, Tutolmin 2003.

[21] Golovin 2008, 410.

[22] Anfimov 1962,192.

[23] Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatcii (State Archive of the Russian Federation) (GARF) F.102 DP OO Op.1914 D.32 ch. 82 L. B ch. 1. l. b/n.

[24] Ibid. F. 102 DP OO Op. 1914 D.32 ch. 82. L.B. ch.2. l. 141.

[25] Golovin 2008, 397.

[26] See, for example, Tutolmin 2003, 181.

[27] Porshneva 2000, 136; see also Holquist 2002, 32-33.

[28] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D.167 ch. 46. l. 9.

[29] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167 ch. 45. l. 4, ch 46. l. 92.

[30] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167 ch. 84 (1). l. 21.

[31] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167 ch. 46. l. 72.

[32] Anfimov 1962, 189.

[33] Quoted in Golovin 2008, 465.

[34] See, for example, GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915. D. 167 ch. 69 (1) l. 7, D. 167 ch. 84 (1) l. 5, 46, 53, Op. 1916 D. 20 ch.84. L.B. l. 12.

[35] Anfimov 1962, 106-107.

[36] Ibid., 95

[37] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167 ch. 69 (1). l. 3. Agriculture experienced not only shortage of labour but also of horses, which were subject to mobilization, and machinery due to sharp decline in production and import. The Law regulating horse mobilization also to some extent discriminated against poorer households. According to it the only horse was subject to purchase for the needs of the army, whereas if a household possessed several horses, only half of them were bought. The price given could not cover the expenses for the purchase of a new horse. See Anfimov 1962, 196-197, Gatrell, Poor Russia, poor show: mobilising a backward economy for war, 1914-1917, in The Economics of World War I 2005, 257.

[38] Golovin 2008, 461. According to Gatrell, ‘the number of mobilised men from rural areas was equivalent to 50.7 per cent of the male population of working age (18 to 60 years). The corresponding figure for urban areas was 20.4 per cent. Gatrell, Op.cit., in The Economics of World War I 2005, 251.

[39] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167 ch. 46. l. 45.

[40] Golovin 2008, 488.

[41] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167 ch. 84 (1). l. 43.

[42] Quted in Golovin 2008, 689.

[43] Watson 2008, 53.

[44] Golovin 2008, 488.

[45] Lemke 2003.

[46] Golovin 2008, 490.

[47] Tutolmin 2003, 186.

[48] Ibid., 190.

[49] Stepun 2000, 161.

[50] See Posadskii 2002.

[51] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1916 D. 20 ch. 84. L. B. l. 115-117.

[52] Stepun, 1995, 271. Also quoted in Porshneva 2000, 108.

[53] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167 ch. 45. l. 28, ch. 46. l. 26.

[54] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1914 D. 32 ch. 84. L. B. l. 136.

[55]GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167 ch. 69 (1). l.1.

[56] Porshneva, 2000, 138.

[57] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1914 D. 32 ch. 84. L.b. ch.2 l. 134.

[58] Porshneva 2000, 127-128.

[59] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167 ch. 46. l. 24.

[60] Quted in Porshneva 2000, 205.

[61] Porshneva 2000, 177.

[62] See Lemke 2003.

[63] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 247.  l. 3.

[64] Kitanina 1985, 13. See also Gatrell, Op. cit., in The Economics of World War I 2005, 233-275.

[65] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167. ch. 57. l. 5. 

[66] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 167. ch. 57. l. 61.

[67]  Quoted in Tiutiukin 1972, 199.

[68] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1915 D. 247 l. 63.

[69] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1916 D.48. ch 57. t.2. l. 9.

[70] Porshneva 2000, 203.

[71] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1916 D. 48. ch. 57. t. 2. l. 12.

[72] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1916 D. 48. ch. 57. t. 2. l. 1-17.

[73] GARF F. 102 DP OO Op. 1916 D. 48. ch. 57. t. 2. l. 53.

[74] Dillon E. J. 1917. The Russian Upheaval, Fortnightly Review, vol. 101, May, 727.



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