Why did the Romanov dynasty collapse in 1917?

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To access the higher levels, you should show the examiner that you are able to categorise the main factors behind the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Firstly, remember that this question is asking you to discuss multiple reasons and to decide which is the most important. You should aim to write the most about the factor you think is most important.

There are five relevant reasons for the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. The first two are socio-economic hardship faced by the Russian working class and disillusionment among Russian troops, both of which can be categorised as factors relating to First World War. The effects of failed reforms and the role of the Siberian monk Rasputin should be categorised as reasons linked to Nicholas II’s leadership. Finally, the last of the main reasons is the scale and organisation of protests (which can have its own category for now).

 I like to argue that the First World War is the most significant factor in the collapse of the Romanov dynasty, but in this instance it’s definitely okay to argue that either Nicholas II or the nature of the protests are the most important reasons (different historians have taken each of these three views).

Firstly, let’s deal with the effects of the First World War. WW1 led to serious socio-economic hardship for the urban working classes in Russia. This was caused by prices rising steeply or ‘inflation’. This happened because the government became desperate for money – the national budget rose eightfold between 1913 and 1916. Prices rose an incredible 200% between 1914 and 1916. Food shortages also drove prices higher, and added to the economic strain. Agricultural workers were conscripted to the army as part of the war effort, so less food was produced. To compound this, the railways (Russia’s most important transport network) were being used to transport troops. As a result whatever food there was could not easily reach where it was needed. For example, in 1914 Moscow (Russia’s second largest industrial city) received 2200 wagons of grain, but by December 1916 this had fallen just to 300. So, higher prices and less food led to tension among the working classes, contributing to political instability. To worsen the situation, the news of a series of humiliating military defeats for the Russian army led many to question the role of the Tsar as military leader. It appeared that the hardships suffered by a huge number of Russian people would not be validated by a Russian victory or, rather, their sacrifices would be meaningless.

The second reason for the fall of Tsarism is the psychological effect of WW1 on returning soldiers, which was a substantial factor in the growing disillusionment with Nicholas II’s rule. Firstly, the Russian suffered a series of defeats; the Battle of Tannenburg for example, where 30,000 Russians were killed or injured, damaged Russian prestige so much that the frontline subsequently collapsed. This was not helped by supply problems – by the end of 1915, the Russians were limited to using only three artillery shells a day. A failing campaign put strain on troop-officer relations. When Nicholas II decided to fire his uncle Nicolai as commander-in-chief in September 1915, because of these defeats, he led the army very poorly (which is not surprising considering that he had no experience whatsoever). This only compounded the tensions in the army, and undermined Nicholas II. To some the Tsar became a symbol of Russia’s failings, and it can easily be argued that his removal was seen as a way to secure victory for Russia. This discontent was realised when the Petrograd garrison mutinied on 27th February. Many have seen this as a key turning point in the February revolution. This is because in 1905 Tsarism was threatened by revolutionary activity in Petrograd, but the army was crucial in crushing protests on behalf of the Tsar. Now, they had mostly abandoned him because of the effect the war had in exposing the flaws of Tsarism.

The next reason to consider is Nicholas II’s leadership. Part of this is his failure to provide comprehensive reforms. The Dumas, Russia’s first form of partially democratic government installed after the 1905 revolutionary, had been disbanded at the outbreak of war. The Tsar still kept a hold on the Duma membership however, so reforms were not easily passed. This fuelled opposition, in its varied forms. For example, 236 Duma deputies formed the ‘Progressive Bloc’ which existed primarily to call for ‘a government of public confidence’. During WW1 liberals formed ZEMGOR which was intended to aid war casualties, but the Tsar failed to use the organisation effectively. You might even like to explain here that Nicholas was the victim of an inherent trait of a Tsarist autocracy – in other words, as a dictator he just didn’t know to work with democratic organisations which made him look like an ineffective and uncaring leader.

We’ve already covered Nicholas’ decision to leave Petrograd in September 1915, in order to lead the army at the Front, but it’s also significant in terms of Nicholas’ failings as leader of the Russian state. He left his German wife, the Tsarina Alexandra to govern. In a time of political instability this was a very poor decision. Firstly, Alexandra was suspicious to Russians because of her German roots (Germany was the enemy after all. Russians were so hostile to Germany that the name of the capital, St Petersburg, was changed to Petrograd at the start of WW1 because it sounded less German). As a woman, she was viewed as a weak and unstable leader, easily open to influence. This was particularly problematic because of her aide and confidant Rasputin, a Siberian monk who had risen to note in the Royal court when he claimed to be able to cure the Tsar’s son of haemophilia. Rumours circulated about the nature of his relationship with the Tsarina, especially as he oversaw constant ministerial changes. The last shreds of Tsarism’s credibility were completely set aside in the eyes of Russia’s public. (Rasputin was murdered late in 1916, not by peasants or workers but by members of the aristocracy who wanted desperately to preserve Tsarism.) Rasputin should not really be the focus of an answer on the fall of the Romanovs. Instead, he is used as an example of Nicholas’ bad decision making, and how the people’s growing hostility to Tsarism could perhaps have been placated had Nicholas acted differently. Whether or not Nicholas could have done anything to save his dynasty is up for debate, so you can argue either way.

Lastly, you need to discuss the nature of the revolution in 1917 (how it differed from 1905), and why it led to the Nicholas’ abdication. If you wanted to you could categorise this as the role played by chance. For example, the protests in February 1917 grew so big because a series of uncoordinated strikes in the capital clashed with the reconvening of the State Duma which immediately attacked the government over food shortages, giving more people a mandate to protest. By 25th February 1917 over 200,000 people had marched on Petrograd’s streets. In 1905 protestors were divided ideologically, but in 1917 almost all were united by their rejection of Tsarism. The Petrograd Soviet coordinated strikes and protests, making them harder to quash because they would often occur simultaneously. By comparing February 1917 to 1905 you can illustrate the reasons why protests were successful the second time around.

For the conclusion you should aim to draw together your concluding points from each paragraph. I have said that war fuelled socio-economic hardship and created tensions in the army that inspired mutinies in Petrograd, reducing the Tsar’s power to suppress disquiet. Now is the time to explain why one factor is more important than the other, or deserves more consideration. For example, I would suggest that Nicholas’ flaws as leader are secondary to the role played by WW1 because he managed to survive the 1905 revolution, and his ineptitudes would not have been exposed had Russia not been fighting a war. The war also explains why so many people protested, and especially why Nicholas could not hold on to power – his previously loyal troops had turned on him. 

Kate M. GCSE English Literature tutor, GCSE History tutor, A Level En...

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