Many in Russia would argue that it was the catastrophic impact of war coupled with the failure or the Tsar/Tsarina to embark upon the problems created by involvement in World War One that triggered the Tsar’s fall. Nevertheless it is fair to say that discontent among the Russian people had been growing for several years. This dissatisfaction destabilized the position of the Tsar and undermined his authority.
Was it a series of mitigating circumstances and bad luck that brought on the Tsar’s downfall? Or was the Tsar’s own incompetence the key to his failure?
There were many causes for the growing discontent in Russia before 1914. There were various politically related issues linked to power, control and government. Nicholas was a deeply religious man and believed he had been chosen to rule Russia by God and felt that he did not have to consult others about his decisions. In the period of late 19th and early 20th century there was an age of modernisation spreading through Western Europe. Everything had advanced, both technologically and socially. But the Tsar’s refusal to adapt to his rapidly changing country created serious social and political grievances.
A huge civil service was employed to carry out decisions about the country (the Tsar always having the final say) but getting decisions carried out in such a vast country with poor communications was very slow. There was no parliament to represent the views of the people and all newspapers and books were censored. If anybody criticised the Tsar, the Okhrana (the secret police used to deal with opposition) callously punished that person, often exiling them to the cold of Siberia or giving out long jail sentences. This system of government was increasingly resented because the needs of the majority of the population were not really considered.
The economic want for modernization and the social conflict in both the rural and industrial parts of Russia also caused great pressure on the Tsar and in all probability was a major part of his fall. There was a vast gulf between the wealthy and poor in early twentieth century Russia. 4/5 people in Russia were peasants and the other parts of the population were Nobles and Upper class. Although evidently peasants predominantly populated the country, they owned an insufficient amount of land compared to the Nobles and Upper Class. The peasants lived in terrible conditions; the average life expectancy was less than 40 years and Russia’s rocketing population increase made land shortages even worse.
World War 1 created even more pressure on the Tsar and in my opinion was a major cause of his abdication. To put it bluntly, it was a complete nightmare. Over one million soldiers were killed, wounded or taken captive by the end of 1914 and by 1917, that figure had increased to eight million. The soldiers blamed their aristocratic officers, who to them appeared insensitive to what they were going through. The soldiers were also very poorly equipped, often lacking guns and ammunition. To cut a long story short, criminal ineptitude and lack of collaboration in the higher command resulted in slackness and poor leadership.
The effects of the war on the Russians at home were dire. There was a massive shortage of food; one of the reasons for this being that millions of male peasants were conscripted to the army so consequently there was a lack of farmers and in result of that, a lack of food. Secondly, the Russian railway system was being used to transport provisions to the war front and so there were fewer trains for food. To add to the insult, the lack of coal and fuel meant that citizens in the cities were cold as well as famished! After all this discontent gathering in Russia, the cities began to lose confidence in the government.
In September 1915, Nicholas, already under a significant amount of pressure, increased the strain on himself when he decided to take over the running of the war and go to the war front himself. This was a terrible mistake and his decision had serious consequences; being in charge of the war meant that he was blamed for all of the defeats! As Nicholas now spent most of his time at GHQ, (the military headquarters) he handed the responsibility for the domestic policy and the running of the country over to his wife, the Tsarina (Alexandra Fyodorovna).
Not only was the Tsar losing support of a consequence of his faulty actions, the Tsarina was also losing a considerable amount of respect. The nobles became a laughing stock, rumours had begun to circulate that Alexandra was a German spy and was having a love affair with Gregory Rasputin, a peasant/monk with no formal education who claimed he had healing powers. The Tsar and Tsarina’s son, Alexis, suffered from Haemophilia (a disease that stops blood from clotting when wounded). When Alexis was taken seriously ill in 1908, Rasputin was summoned to the Royal Palace. He managed to stop the bleeding and from then on he became a member of the Royal entourage and forged a close relationship with Nicholas and Alexandra.
The Tsarina made a mess of running the country, she refused to work with the Duma (the Russian national parliament) and dismissed able ministers and replaced them with friends of Rasputin. The Tsar and Tsarina soon lost even more respect, the country was appalled that Rasputin, a peasant, should be allowed such and influence on the running of the country. It was alleged that Rasputin was fundamentally ruling the country through the Tsarina. Of course, inevitably, the majority of the country held the Tsar responsible for allowing the situation to develop.
There is some evidence that Rasputin had a sexual appetite, but no evidence at all that suggests him and the Tsarina were having a love affair. But it is certain that Rasputin had a great amount of influence on the Russian queen and this is what the people hated. Prince Felicks Yusupov (husband of the Tsars niece) absolutely despised the monk; he was reluctant to blame the rulers for the problems in Russia and so this is whom he blamed. On December 29th 1916, Prince Yusupov attempted to poison Rasputin and when this failed, he shot him. But even with Rasputin dead the problems in Russia still carried on, surely if he was the key to all the struggle in the country like Yusupov claimed he was, then getting rid of him would have resolved the dilemma? Rasputin was merely a symptom, not a cause.
Personally I believe that the Tsar himself was the chief cause of his own fall. First of all, he hardly knew his country at all. There were countless demands for change within Russia but he disregarded them and often tried to crush anybody valiant enough to stand up. He owned one sixth of the world and hardly knew anything about the people in it! Perhaps if he had found out what his people sought after, then the pressure may have decreased.
You would have thought that already being under a great deal of strain, Nicholas would be intelligent enough not to take over the management of the war. But possibly, if he didn’t know his country then maybe he didn’t realise how poorly equipped the soldiers were and how half of the army was made up of peasants since the professionals had already been wiped out! So then there was the issue that being in command predestined that he was held liable for all of Russia’s defeats, thus creating even more pressure for himself. Well, I’m astounded he didn’t explode with all that anxiety hanging over him. There is no doubt that Nicholas was a well-meaning person and devoted to his family, but in all sincerity, a duck would have probably done a better job.