With a century passed since the beginning of World War I, a memorial has been inaugurated in Moscow to honor the 2 million lives the conflict cost Russia. But what was WWI to the country, which saw its military campaign collapse amid the 1917 revolution?
World War I began for Russia on August 1, 1914, less than three
years before the revolution which brought down the royal family.
On that day, Germany declared war on the Russian Empire. This was
four days after the official beginning of WWI and a just over one
month after the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke
Franz Ferdinand, was murdered in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb
nationalist, Gavrilo Princip.
Russia fought WWI together with its Entente allies – France and
the UK, which were supported by over two dozen states, including
the US, Japan, Serbia, Italy and others. On the opposing side
were the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman
Empire and Bulgaria.
A total of 60,000 soldiers were killed or taken prisoner as
result of a failed Russian offensive in East Prussia in late
August 1914. However, Russia’s involvement also became a major
distraction for the German Empire, preventing it from achieving a
successful blitzkrieg on the Western front and occupying France.
In September 1914, Russia inflicted a painful defeat on
Austria-Hungary, claiming large territories in Galicia (now
Ukrainian territory). Austria-Hungary lost nearly half of its
830,000 troops in the massive Galician campaign, raising doubts
about its capabilities.
Advances by the Central Powers and a shortage of artillery shells
forced Russia to withdraw from Galicia and Poland in June to
September 1915, which was labeled the Great Retreat. Despite
leading to numerous casualties, the maneuver exhausted Germany's
offensive potential and allowed Russian forces to regroup.
The Brusilov Offensive in Galicia, in June-September 1916, was
Russia’s greatest success during WWI. It saw the Central Powers
losing 1.5 million troops through death or injury.
The Russians also conducted successful operations against the
Ottoman Empire throughout 1916, taking control of the strategic
cities of Erzurum, Trapezund, Erzincan and Mus. The Tsarist
armies' achievements on the battlefield effectively inspired
Romania to join the war on the side of the Entente.
However, the euphoria was short-lived. By early 1917, supply
shortages, political instability and anti-war calls within the
country seriously affected the battle capabilities of the Russian
army, which failed to achieve significant military gains after
the successes of 1916.
This further aggravated the crisis within Russia, where bread
riots broke out in Petrograd and led to the revolution that
brought down the Romanovs. The subsequent Provisional Government
tried to keep Russia in the war, but the Bolsheviks swept to
power several months later in the October 1917 revolution, using
Vladimir Lenin's program of "Peace, Bread, Land" and "All Power
to the Soviets" to win a majority of the workers, soldiers and
peasants to their side.
Following the establishment of the world's first socialist state,
the Bolsheviks fulfilled their campaign promise to take Russia
out of the war, signing a peace treaty with the Central Powers.
According to the treaty, signed in Brest-Litovsk on March 3,
1918, the new government canceled all Imperial Russia’s
commitments to its allies.
WWI saw Russia paying the greatest price among the members of the
Entente, with 1,670,000 troops and 1,070,000 civilians perishing
in the conflict. The losing Central Powers Germany (2,036,897)
and Austria-Hungary (1,496,200) had a greater military death
toll, but managed to avoid Russia's crippling civilian losses.