From War to Social Revolution

As the war dragged on and the belief in treason at the court spread through the ranks, the mood of the soldiers became more hostile to their officers. The fact that the mass of the soldiers were peasants, and that many of the officers were noble landowners, added a social dimension to the conflict, which was exacerbated by the 'feudal' customs between the ranks (e.g. the obligation of the soldiers to address their officers by their honorofic titles, to clean their boots, run private errands for them, and so on).

The army was a school of revolution in this sense. Young peasant men were radicalized by their experience of the war. They were introduced to the ideologies of the socialists in the ranks where they mixed with better-educated soldiers from the towns. They learned to handle guns and new technologies, to organize themselves collectively, in opposition to the officers and other figures of authority. Their literacy improved, along with their social awareness and comradeship, their self-esteem and sense of power, and their tendency to resort to the gun to get things done. These skills would make them natural leaders of the revolution in the countryside.

As the economic crisis deepened, so the urban workers swung back towards the militant Left, resuming the pattern of labour protests begun in 1912-14. The workers' biggest problem was their inability to turn their money wages into food. The wartime printing of money and shortages of goods led to inflation. The peasants reduced their marketing of grain as the value of money declined. From the autumn of 1915 the cities of the north began to experience food shortages. Long queues appeared outside the bakeries and meat shops.

After a year of industrial peace the war between labour and capital resumed in the summer of 1915 with a series of strikes that soon gave way to larger protests. They mostly began with calls for bread but went on to demand an eight-hour day, an end to the war and the overthrow of the Tsar. The revolutionary parties played only a secondary role in these protests. They had all been crippled by police repression in the war. Many of their activists had been sent to the Front, their leaders forced into exile.

In October 1916 the workers of the New Lessner and Renault factories in Petrograd came out on strike and clashed with the police. The soldiers in the nearby barracks of the 181st Infantry Regiment came out to defend the workers, throwing rocks and bricks at the police. Mounted Cossacks cleared the scene. The mutinous regiment was removed from the capital, and 130 soldiers arrested. Over the next two days, 75,000 workers from 63 factories in the city joined the strike. Order was eventually restored. But the actions of the soldiers were an ominous sign of the army's reluctance to control the growing rebellion on the streets.

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