I’ve always been interested in Russian history, specifically the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. But lately, I’ve become fascinated with the last hundred years or so leading up to the overthrow of the Romanovs. Why this sudden interest is a mystery to me. Maybe it’s the speculation Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in hopes of recasting himself as one of the great expansionist-minded Tsars of the past. Or maybe it’s just a recent manifestation of my fascination with the 19th century. (It’s been over 20 years since I read Norman Davies, in his tour de force Europe: A History boldly make the claim the 19th century had a greater impact on our modern world than even the 20th.) Or maybe it’s something as simple as seeing the trailers and teasers for the Netflix series Shadow and Bone, with its pre-Revolutionary Russia-inspired Kingdom of Ravka.
But whatever those origins might be, it inspired me enough to borrow a copy of Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge. Over the years Claire of the blog The Captive Reader has featured several of Rappaport’s books, speaking highly of the British historian’s work. I spent a good chunk of the Veterans Day weekend reading Caught in the Revolution and was duly impressed. Rappaport’s 2017 book is based heavily on first-hand accounts of Americans, Brits and other foreign nationals residing in Petrograd during the final years of World War I. Highly detailed yet readable, Caught in the Revolution is like an astute outsider’s inside look at the earth-shattering political upheaval occurring between the February Revolution and the subsequent Bolshevik coup nine months later.
By the winter of 1917 Russia was ripe for revolution, and those foreigners residing in Petrograd had a front row seat. The War was going poorly for Russia. Suffering defeat after defeat and its armies pushed back across Russian territory, casualties mounted and support for the war, especially among the impoverished peasantry and urban working class was evaporating. Residents of Petrograd faced, in what would be called in today’s terminology, serious supply chain issues. With the empire’s railway network barely functioning under the immense stress of Europe’s First World War combined with millions of young Russian men under arms and thus unavailable for industrial or agricultural work foodstuffs rotted in the fields leaving the cities hungry.
Had he been in the capital Petrograd, perhaps the Tsar could have seen firsthand how bad things were and authorize even a modest relief plan. But instead he was hundreds of miles away, trying to lead his troops to victory and failing miserably. Ruling in his absence was a series of royal ministers, each one more reactionary and unpopular than the last. Cold, hungry and tired of seeing their sons, husbands and brothers sent to die in a lost war the women of Petrograd had had enough. Taking to the streets to protest, their movement quickly grew in both numbers and intensity until those forces tasked with making them to disband refused to follow orders. By then it was only a matter of time before the Romanov dynasty was overthrown, unleashing a political whirlwind Russia, and the world had never seen.
Those in Petrograd witnessing firsthand these seismic events, most if not all assumed the upheaval was unique just to Russia. But across Eurasia, the great land-based empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman realms also were unable to withstand the onslaught of World War I. Financially exhausted and bled white by four years of unprecedented slaughter the once eager belligerents collapsed under the weight of unresolved political tensions, material deprivation and long-simmering ethnic yearnings. Even a victor like Italy would feel inadequately compensated territorially for the bloody sacrifices it suffered on the battlefield. In the years immediately following World War I a bitter, divided nation descend into political chaos only to have a Fascist strongman step into the political vacuum.
Tragically, within 20 years Italy, Russia, and so many other former kingdoms and their subject realms would be ruled by authoritarian regimes far more excessive and deadlier than the monarchies that preceded them.