"Great powers almost always get things wrong"

Lenin arrives at Finland Station Saint Petersburg April 16, 1917

Three days after the United States declared war on Germany, on April 9, 1917, another event occurred that could have had a decisive effect on the war, but certainly had an effect on the geopolitics of the next 75 years.

Russia, whose military mobilization in support of Serbia against Austria-Hungary can be said to have started the general war, was in bad shape by the beginning of 1917. The Russian army was barely holding on and discontent in the ranks resulted in desertion and near mutiny in some instances. On the home front the same economic privations that affected the Germany affected Russia.

This was compounded by Russia’s inept and sclerotic government, headed by the grossly incompetent Tsar Nicholas II. A severe food shortage during the first two months of 1917 became a crisis. The Russian people finally had enough of Nicholas and forced him to abdicate in early March. The Tsar was replaced by a provisional parliamentary government led by moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky. The new government stepped into a chaotic situation and proved to be unstable. Its leadership nevertheless vowed to continue the war.

Throughout the time the war was raging, and even as the Tsar was overthrown, communist revolutionaries, who had been seeking to overthrow the regime for over a decade were living in exile in Zürich Switzerland. Their leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had long decried wars between nations as detrimental to the establishment of classless proletarian regimes worldwide, and had made it known that he believed it was in the revolution’s best interest that Russia not be involved in the war. Problem was that Switzerland was a considerable distance from Russia and Germany, no less hostile towards communism than the Russian Tsar had been, was geographically in the way.

The German high command saw an opportunity for a ploy. If Lenin and the Bolsheviks obtained power in Russia, they would be inclined to withdraw from the war and make a separate peace, freeing Germans forces to fight in the west. The Germans believed these forces from the eastern front could be brought to bear in France before the Americans were able to arrive in sufficient numbers to make a difference. Thus, on April 9 the German military provided a train and safe passage through Germany, across the Baltic Sea to Sweden, into Finland, which was then part of Russian territory, and then to Saint Petersburg. Lenin and his entourage arrived at the Finland Station there on April 16.

Once in Russia, Lenin and his henchmen were able to gin up the latent opposition to the war, and unify sufficient numbers of Bolshevik controlled councils, known as Soviets. They overthrew the provisional government in November 1917.  Lenin did not achieve complete power in Russia immediately, and a civil war ensued between the Bolshevik Reds, and provisional government supporters and monarchists known as the Whites. Nevertheless, the Communists had control of the apparatus of the Russian government and began negotiating a peace with Germany. The treaty of Brest-Litovst was signed in March 1918. Russia was out of the war.

Unfortunately for Germany, Russia’s exit from the war came too late. In the spring of 1918, with additional, but fewer than expected military resources from the Eastern front, the German high command gambled on a final, all-out attempt to break through the allied lines in France. Now buoyed by fresh American forces, the western allies managed to stall the German advance. The combined forces then seized the initiative and, by November 1918 forced an exhausted Germany to sue for an armistice, and end the war in their favor.

The Russian civil war lasted into the early 1920s. The United States, Great Britain and other powers intervened in that conflict on the side of the Whites in limited ways, but to no effect. Lenin’s Bolsheviks ultimately won and established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the old Russian Empire. That regime sponsored the Comintern whose stated purpose was to bring communism to the entire world. After the even bloodier second World War, Soviet Russia engaged the West, led by the United States, in a Cold War which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union and fall of communism in 1991. Lenin and his successors’ regime ultimately fell of its own weight. But in the meantime, it wreaked 75 years of poverty, fear, death, and destruction in Russia and on the rest of the world.

For further reading on the details of Lenin’s journey, see British historian Catherine Merridale’s  Lenin on the Train (2017). As Merridale observes, “In part, it is a parable about great power intrigue, and one rule there is that great powers almost always get things wrong.”

Lenin’s Journey

2 comments on “"Great powers almost always get things wrong"

  1. May want to check the date in the first paragraph!

    Like

  2. Bob Reagan says:

    Bloggers get stuff wrong too. Thanks for noticing the typo. It's corrected.

    Like

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