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Russia has mobilized for war many times before – sometimes it unified the nation, other times it ended in disaster

Eric Lohr, Professor of Russian History, American University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Two hundred years later, in 1812, Russia mobilized against a foreign invader, Napoleon, and won a decisive victory that brought Russian troops to Paris and made Russia a great power in Europe. It also ended Tsar Alexander I’s dalliance with liberal reforms. Russia became known as the “gendarme of Europe,” the active enforcer of an international alliance against constitutional liberalism.

But while these mobilizations for war unified the country and brought legitimacy to the regime, others did the opposite.

From 1768 to 1774, Catherine II, Russia’s greatest conqueror, launched a massive war against the Ottoman Empire that led to the conquest of much of modern southern Ukraine and Crimea.

But to win, Cossacks – irregular military groups living in Russia’s borderlands – and peasants bore the brunt. Formerly relatively free to choose the conditions of their service to the tsar, Cossacks were locked into the regular Russian army and sent to the front in large numbers. Peasants felt the twin burdens of ever tightening bonds of serfdom and wartime conscription.

The two groups joined together in a revolt that so seriously threatened the state that Catherine had to rush a peace settlement with the Ottoman Empire to bring the army home to crush the rebels.

In 1904, Russia underestimated the rising power of Japan and stumbled into a war with that country. A subsequent call-up of university students and young men for a very unpopular war proved to be a major cause of the revolution that ensued in 1905. Only when the tsar withdrew from the war and conceded a parliament and constitution was order restored.


Despite an effective mobilization of millions of soldiers at the beginning of World War I, Russia incurred massive losses as Germany and Austria-Hungary drove deep into Russian territory. Street protests against food shortages in February 1917 spurred a broad coalition of elected members of parliament and military commanders to overthrow the tsar. They thought a legitimate, popular government would inspire more fighting spirit among the troops.

The leaders of the new government doubled down on the war effort, ordering a major new mobilization of troops, calling up people who had been previously exempt, such as heads of households, older men and ethnic minorities. There were even orders to send to the front soldiers who had previously been kept in reserve garrisons because of suspect loyalties or subpar fighting qualities.

On paper, the Russian army swelled to 10 million men, the largest it had been through the entire war to date. With more troops and more weapons than the enemy and newfound legitimacy, the government overestimated popular support for the war and launched an offensive. But after a couple weeks of advances, the unreliable recent recruits were the first to desert, starting an avalanche of 2 million desertions that both destroyed the army and, as armed soldiers went back to their villages, started the agrarian revolution when peasants drove noble landlords out of the countryside and seized the land for themselves.

Fearing counterrevolution, the new government disbanded much of the police force but was unable to create a new one to replace it. The army was pinned down at the front and losing numbers fast as soldiers went home to claim land. It could not protect the state from the small Bolshevik faction of the communist movement, which conducted a successful armed coup in October 1917. The summer offensive has gone down in history as one of the worst military gambles ever.


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