Peter Gatrell – Russia’s First World War

Peter Gatrell’s book Russia’s First World War explores the social and economic developments that occurred in Russia during the First World War.  This short overview of the war and its affects within Russia is a synthesis that combines the existing research along with selected archival documents.  In examining the economic and social aspects of Russia, he explicitly focuses on “poverty, policy options and choices, and social faultlines” as “the threads that connect the narrative.” (3) Organized into a combination of chronological and thematic chapters from the outbreak of war to the summer of 1918, Gatrell explores several topics including mobilization, financing the war, food supplies, and the collapse of the tsarist regime.  Yet, as one might expect from the author of studies on refugees in Russia during WWI, the tsarist economy, and the rearmament of Russia prior to the Great War, this study places significant emphasis on refugees and economics and shows how these issues played a significant role in the collapse of tsarist Russia.

During the initial chapters, Gatrell examines how mobilization and war in general created great disruption throughout Russia.  The government implemented conscription without taking into account men’s professions thus famers and factory workers were drafted indiscriminately leaving holes in armaments and agricultural production which led to shortages in both munitions and foodstuffs.  In order to replace factory workers, Russian industry attracted women and unskilled migrants in the workforce resulting in massive migrations from the country to the city.  On the frontlines, war and military defeat dislocated thousands who travelled eastward to find food and shelter.  These refugees interacted with civilians realizing that they all shared the common experiences of outrage and senseless sacrifice.  Furthermore, as Gatrell contends, the rallying of Russian patriotism, the deportation of ethnic Germans, and the Kazakh’s revolt in 1916 created an economic nationalism which resulted in attacks on ethnic groups and led ethnicities within the empire to recognize their otherness and need for solidarity.

Not only did the regime receive criticism for the displacement caused by the war but also, as Gatrell stresses, it failed to implement policies to alleviate its own problems.  The tsarist state chose not to introduce a nationwide rationing system fearing a lack of public support and chose not to create a nationwide economic policy at the war’s outset fearing this would give the educated elite a platform to intervene in the decision making process.  The failure to create a nationwide economic policy led to bottlenecks and poor material quality as the indiscriminate conscription policy created an unskilled workforce.  Moreover, to pay for the war, the Russian government borrowed significantly from France and Britain and printed money which resulted in inflation.  These economic and social problems were sharpened by the war leading to social conflict and the February and October Revolutions but, while the Bolsheviks ended the war, they did not bring peace as their program remained a set of proposals without details.  Instead, suggests Gatrell, they adopted the economic apparatus of the old regime in order to implement their social transformation, they sustained the idea of government intervention, and they continued to utilize the military language of the tsarist state.  Most importantly, the Bolsheviks obliterated the memory of the Great War and instead emphasized the memory and experience of the Revolution and Civil War.

While the author demonstrates many of the social and economic aspects that affected Russia during the First World War he fails to discuss the political options available to decision makers and why they made certain choices.  For example, it is only noted that they chose not create a nationwide rationing system for food but there is no summary of the debates for this decision only that occurred and that it contributed to the famine of 1916.  By ignoring the debates and why decisions were made, Gatrell fails to fulfill one of his stated objectives – “policy options and choices.”  Moreover, military leaders’ decisions are also ignored by the author.  While the military is not the focus of his study, the war and military decisions must have affected the economic and social fabric of Russia life and by overlooking these problems the author fails to address the root of many of the Russia’s social and economic problems.

In a final concluding chapter, the Gatrell takes a more scholarly approach and compares Russia’s wartime experience with other European nations to suggest that Russia’s experience was not that distinctive.  To make his case, Gatrell point out that armaments and manpower shortages plagued all nations, that military leaders were also influential in many nations, that industrialization advanced throughout Europe, that the private sector mobilized for arms production, and that other nations faced revolutionary and class upheavals.  For Gatrell, the Russian experience was unique because it was the only nation to face a large population displacement and because the tsarist regime failed to unite the war effort with social reforms to secure political accommodation.  However, while accurate, his analysis is problematic.  In comparing the Russian experience with other European nations, Gatrell picks and chooses events from several European states to compare with the singular Russian state.  For revolutionary upheavals, food shortages, and significant military influence on policy makers, he singles out Germany; for accumulating loans to pay for the war, he looks at France and Great Britain agreements with the United States; and for dealing with multiethnic populations, he focuses on Austria-Hungary.  Thus, instead of showing that Russia’s experience was similar to other European states, the author shows that while some countries faced several of these issues, only Russia faced all of them within in three to four years emphasizing Russia’s unique experience.

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