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The collapse of the Russian Imperial Army in 1917
The collapse of the Russian Imperial Army in 1917

In just a few months, the Russian Imperial Army turned into an uncontrollable mass of armed angry people.

On the brink of disaster

One of the key questions in Russian history of the 20th century is why, in October 1917, the army did not defend the legitimate government against the Bolshevik insurrection? Several million people stood under arms, but not a single division moved to Petrograd to end the coup.

The overthrown minister-chairman of the Provisional Government AF Kerensky, who fled from Petrograd to the troops on the eve of October 25, 1917, was forced to flee again a few days later so that he would not be surrendered to the rebels. The irony of history was that Kerensky himself had a hand in the moral decay of an army that could have come to his defense. And when the hour of the uprising struck, the army ceased to exist.

The signs of this catastrophe have been observed for a long time. Problems with discipline forced the command in the summer of 1915 (during the period of the "great retreat" of the Russian army) to think about the organization of detachments. The soldiers - poorly trained peasants - did not understand the goals of the war and were eager to return home as soon as possible. In 1916, the officers began to face insubordination, which even a year ago could not have been imagined.

General AA Brusilov at one of the meetings at Headquarters reported on the following example: in December 1916 in the 7th Siberian corps “people refused to go into the attack; there were cases of indignation, one company commander was raised on bayonets, it was necessary to take drastic measures, shoot several people, change commanding officers …”At the same time, disturbances occurred in the 2nd and 6th Siberian corps of the 12th Army - the soldiers refused to go on the offensive. A similar thing happened in other parts. The soldiers often responded with threats to the officers' calls for obedience.

Lunch of Russian soldiers, World War I

With such sentiments of the rank and file, the command could only dream of serious operations. The army stood at an abyss - inequality of officers and privates in supplies, the theft of quartermasters, "shell hunger", lack of high-quality uniforms, economic problems in the rear, colossal losses of cadre officers, growing distrust of the monarchy and general weariness from the war - all this demoralized the soldier mass, incited it against the command and the government and made it an easy prey for revolutionary agitators.

Order number 1

However, until March 1917 the situation could still be called bearable, most of the Russian armies, divisions and regiments retained their combat effectiveness - albeit often reluctantly, but orders were carried out. The abdication of Emperor Nicholas II from the throne changed everything. A struggle for power began: on the one hand, the legitimate Provisional Government, on the other, the Soviets, the main of which was the Petrograd Soviet of Soldiers 'and Workers' Deputies. And the first thing that the Petrosovet did was to launch an offensive against the army as a support for the Provisional Government. On March 1 (14), 1917, the Petrograd Soviet issued Order No. 1, which General A. I. Denikin then called an act that marked the beginning of the collapse of the army.

The order actually allowed the soldiers to disobey the orders of the officers. He introduced elected soldiers' committees in the troops - only these committees were to be obeyed. They also transferred control over weapons. The titling of officers was also abolished. Gradually, one unit after another followed this order. One-man command in the army - the main principle of its functioning - was destroyed.

The soldiers' committees and officers entered a desperate but unequal struggle. Everything was aggravated even more by order No. 114 of the Minister of War of the Provisional Government A. I. Guchkov, who tried to flirt with revolutionary sentiments. Guchkov also abolished the titles of officers and banned the use of "ty" to the soldiers.The soldier took it simply - you no longer need to respect the officers and obey their orders. As the same Denikin wrote: "Freedom, and it's over!"

Order number 1

Discipline Fell

In these circumstances, the Provisional Government, which was trying to wage a "war to the bitter end" and follow the agreements with the allies, faced an impossible task - to convince the army, which did not want to fight, but wanted to "democratize", to go into battle. Already in March it became clear that hardly anything would come of it: democracy and the army are incompatible. On March 18, 1917, at a meeting at Headquarters, Lieutenant General A.S. Lukomsky stated:

Contrary to the hopes of the generals, after 1-3 months the situation did not improve. Mistrust between soldiers and officers only intensified as Bolshevik agitators worked in the troops (confrontation with officers was presented as a class struggle). Soldiers' committees arrested officers at will, refused to carry out even the simplest orders (for example, to conduct training sessions) and put forward various demands to the command regarding supply, withdrawal to the rear for rest, etc. At the front, mass fraternization of Russian soldiers with German and especially Austrian (less disciplined and less combat-ready).

The corporal of the 138th Bolkhov regiment recalled May 1917: “During the day, through binoculars, and in clear weather and with the naked eye, one could observe how grayish-blue and grayish-green caps appeared between two hostile lines, which walked arm in arm, gathered in crowds, went to those and other trenches …

Fraternization of Russian and Austrian soldiers

Crowds of naughty soldiers

Under these conditions, in June 1917, the Provisional Government decided to launch an offensive. A.F. Kerensky himself and other representatives of the Provisional Government went to the front to inspire the soldiers with speeches. Kerensky in those days received the nickname "chief persuading", officers became the same persuasion. These attempts to restore the morale of the troops looked like madness in the eyes of those who understood the true state of affairs.

Such was, for example, General A. A. Brusilov, who later wrote about May-June 1917 as a “terrible situation” - the regiments wanted one thing: to go home, divide the land of the landowners and “live happily ever after”: “All the units, which I just saw, to a greater or lesser extent, declared the same thing: "they do not want to fight," and everyone considered themselves Bolsheviks. (…) the army did not really exist, but there were only crowds of soldiers disobedient and unfit for battle. " Of course, the offensive, which had been cheerfully launched on June 16, failed.

Just like persuasion, repression, the massive disarmament of the rebellious units and the arrests of the instigators of the unrest did not help either. Often, threats against the rioters were simply impossible to carry out, and they achieved the opposite effect - angered the rank and file and radicalized them. Soldiers with weapons in their hands fought off the officers who were arrested and themselves raised the commanders to bayonets - even in the rear. So, in July 1917, the reserve battalion of the guard of the Moscow regiment rebelled, not wanting to be reorganized. The Commission of Inquiry described what was happening.

Kerensky speaks at a rally at the front, June 1917

On top of that, the soldiers beat people in the streets who condemned their behavior, demanded that all power be transferred to the Soviets, the land was divided, etc. The front stood up. Even if one regiment of the division was ready to go into battle, it often could not do this, since neighboring regiments refused to go into battle - without their support, the attackers would easily have been surrounded.

Moreover, the loyal units (the most reliable were the Cossacks and artillerymen) had to be used to pacify the rebels and rescue the officers who were simply terrorized. A typical case occurred in July 1917 in the 2nd Siberian Division. Her soldiers killed the commissar, lieutenant Romanenko:

A similar incident occurred on July 18 in the Krasnokholmsk regiment of the 116th division - the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Freilich, was killed with rifle butts.According to the report on this event to the Minister of War, "the reason is the battalion's unwillingness to obey the insistent orders to work to strengthen the position."

Soldiers rally in the barracks

Thus, already in July, the army was a revolutionary mass that did not recognize either the government or the laws. Whole fronts became uncontrollable. On July 16, the commander-in-chief of the armies of the Northern Front, General V.N.Klembovsky, reported:

On the same day (!) General AI Denikin, commander-in-chief of the Western Front, reported on the events of the last days: “Disobedience, robberies, robberies reigned in the units, distilleries were emptied. Some units, such as the 703rd Surami regiment, lost their human appearance and left memories for a lifetime."

Fraternization, mass desertion, murder, drunkenness and riot continued until October 1917. The generals begged the Provisional Government to endow them with the authority to restore at least a semblance of discipline with harsh measures, but failed - the politicians (and above all Kerensky) were afraid of the soldiers' indignation and tried to earn popularity by following the mood of the masses. At the same time, the soldiers were not given the most desirable - peace and land.

This policy has failed. That is why in October 1917 not a single division was found to defend the law. The Provisional Government had neither an army nor popularity.

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