Revolution in the Army

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

At the time of the February Revolution, the Imperial Russian Army contained some seven and a half million soldiers who were overwhelmingly drawn from the peasantry. The most immediate and tangible effect of the Revolution on the army was Order No. 1 issued by the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on March 1, 1917 and approved under duress by the Provisional Government. Among other things, the Order called for the election of soldiers’ committees under whose disposal all arms were to be placed. Although they were to maintain “the strictest military discipline,” soldiers were to enjoy the rights of all citizens outside the service and the ranks. They also were no longer to be addressed by their officers in the familiar (and condescending) form of “you” (ty). The addressing of officers with titles such as “your Excellency” was abolished and replaced by “Mister General,” “Mister Colonel,” etc.

The first few weeks of the revolution witnessed the desertion of between 100,000 and 150,000 soldiers, most of whom were peasants anxious to return to their villages to participate in what they expected would be a division of the land. There was also a substantial tide of arrests of officers, particularly senior commanders, and their replacement by more popular individuals. Instances of violence, including executions of officers, were recorded in the Baltic Fleet and in the Petrograd garrison, but were relatively rare at the front. In his report of April 16, General Alekseev, the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, complained that “the army is systematically falling apart,” a situation that he attributed to the spread of “defeatist literature and propaganda.” But what is no less striking about the revolution in the army is the extent to which rank-and-file soldiers justified their actions in the patriotic terms of defending a “free Russia.”

Whatever the case, Aleksandr Kerenskii, who had replaced Aleksandr Guchkov as Minister of the Army and Navy in May, became convinced that Russia either had to accept the virtual demobilization of the army and capitulate to Germany or assume the initiative in military operations. Touring the fronts, he sought to whip up enthusiasm for an offensive that he and the leading core of officers hoped would ignite patriotic fervor and bring victory to revolutionary Russia. The offensive, under General A. A. Brusilov, began on June 18 all along the southwestern front. After some initial successes, the Russian army’s advances were repulsed, and the desperate attempt to stem the tide of the army’s disintegration actually served to accelerate it.

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