3 Remnants of a Feudal Army

'I promise and do hereby swear before the Almighty God, before His Holy Gospels, to serve His Imperial Majesty, the Supreme Autocrat, truly and faithfully, to obey him in all things, and to defend his dynasty, without sparing my body, until the last drop of my blood.' Every soldier took this oath of allegiance upon entering the imperial army. Significantly, it was to the Tsar and the preservation of his dynasty rather than to the state or even to the nation that the soldier swore his loyalty. Every soldier had to renew this oath on the coronation of each new Tsar. The Russian army belonged to the Tsar in person; its officers and soldiers were in effect in vassalage to him.25

The patrimonial principle survived longer in the army than in any other institution of the Russian state. Nothing was closer to the Romanov court or more important to it than the military. The power of the Empire was founded on it, and the needs of the army and the navy always took precedence in the formulation of tsarist policies. All the most important reforms in Russian history had been motivated by the need to catch up and compete in war with the Empire's rivals in the west and south: Peter the Great's reforms had been brought about by the wars with Sweden and the Ottomans; those of Alexander II by military defeat in the Crimea.

The court was steeped in the ethos of the military. Since the late eighteenth century it had become the custom of the tsars to play soldiers with their families. The royal household was run like a huge army staff, with the Tsar as the Supreme Commander, all his courtiers divided by rank, and his sons, who were enrolled in the Guards, subjected from an early age to the sort of cruel humiliations which they would encounter in the officers' mess, so as to inculcate the principles of discipline and subordination which it was thought they would need in order to rule. Nicholas himself had a passion for the Guards. His fondest memories were of his youthful and carefree days as Colonel in the Preobrazhensky Regiment. He had a weakness for military parades and spared no expense on gold braid for his soldiers. He even restored some of the more archaic and operatic embellishments to the uniforms of the elite Guards regiments which Alexander III had thought better to abolish in the interests of economy. Nicholas was constantly making fussy alterations to the uniforms of his favourite units — an extra button here, another tassel there — as if he was still playing with the toy soldiers of his boyhood. All his daughters, as well as his son, were enrolled in Guards regiments. On namedays and birthdays they wore their uniforms and received delegations of their officers. They appeared at military parades and reviews, troop departures, flag presentations, regimental dinners, battle anniversaries and other ceremonies. The Guards officers of the Imperial Suite, who accompanied them everywhere they went, were treated almost as extended members of the Romanov family. No other group was as close or as loyal to the person of the Tsar.26

Many historians have depicted the army as a stalwart buttress of the tsarist regime. That was also the view of most observers until the revolution. Major Von Tettau from the German General Staff wrote in 1903, for example, that the Russian soldier 'is full of selflessnesss and loyalty to his duty' in a way 'that is scarcely to be found in any other army of the world'. He did 'everything with a will' and was always 'unassuming, satisfied and jolly — even after labour and deprivation'.27 But in fact there were growing tensions between the military — in every rank — and the Romanov regime.

For the country's military leaders the root of the problem lay in the army's dismal record in the nineteenth century, which many of them came to blame on the policies of the government. Defeat in the Crimean War (1853—6), followed by a costly campaign against Turkey (1877—8), and then the humiliation of defeat by the Japanese — the first time a major European power had lost to an Asian country — in 1904—5, left the army and the navy demoralized. The causes of Russia's military weakness were partly economic: her industrial resources failed to match up to her military commitments in an age of increasing competition between empires. But this incompetence also had a political source: during the later nineteenth century the army had gradually lost its place at the top of government spending priorities. The Crimean defeat had discredited the armed services and highlighted the need to divert resources from the military to the modernization of the economy. The Ministry of War lost the favoured position it had held in the government system of Nicholas I (1825—55) and became overshadowed by the Ministries of Finance and the Interior, which from this point on received between them the lion's share of state expenditure. Between 1881 and 1902 the military's share of the budget dropped from 30 per cent to 18 per cent. Ten years before the First World War the Russian army was spending only 57 per cent of the amount spent on each soldier in the German army, and only 63 per cent of that spent in the Austrian. In short, the Russian soldier went to war worse trained, worse equipped and more poorly serviced than his enemy. The army was so short of cash that it relied largely on its own internal economy to clothe and feed itself. Soldiers grew their own food and tobacco, and repaired their own uniforms and boots. They even earned money for the regiment by going off to work as seasonal labourers on landed estates, in factories and mines near their garrisons. Many soldiers spent more time growing vegetables or repairing boots than they did learning how to handle their guns. By reducing the military budget, the tsarist regime created an army of farmers and cobblers.

The demoralization of the army was also connected to its increasing role in the suppression of civilian protests. The Russian Empire was covered with a network of garrisons. Their job was to provide more or less instant military assistance for the provincial governors or the police to deal with unrest. Between 1883 and 1903 the troops were called out nearly 1,500 times. Officers complained bitterly that this police duty was beneath the dignity of a professional soldier, and that it distracted the army from its proper military purpose. They also warned of the damaging effect it was likely to have on the army's discipline. History proved them right. The vast majority of the private soldiers were peasants, and their morale was heavily influenced by the news they received from their villages. When the army was called out to put down the peasant uprisings of 1905—6 many of the units, especially in the peasant-dominated infantry, refused to obey and mutinied in support of the revolution. There were over 400 mutinies between the autumn of 1905 and the summer of 1906. The army was brought to the brink of collapse, and it took years to restore a semblance of order.28

Many of these mutinies were part of a general protest against the feudal conditions prevailing in the army. Tolstoy, who had served as an army officer in the Crimean War, described them in his last novel Hadji-Murad. The peasant soldiers, in particular, objected to the way their officers addressed them with the familiar 'you' (tyi) — normally used for animals and children — rather than the polite 'you' (vyi). It was how the masters had once addressed their serfs; and since most of the officers were nobles, and most of the soldiers were sons of former serfs, this mode of address symbolized the continuation of the old feudal world inside the army. The first thing a recruit did on joining the army was to learn the different titles of his officers: 'Your Honour' up to the rank of colonel; 'Your Excellency' for generals; and 'Your Radiance' or 'Most High Radiance' for titled officers. Colonels and generals were to be greeted not just with the simple hand salute but by halting and standing sideways to attention while the officer passed by for a strictly prescribed number of paces. The soldier was trained to answer his superiors in regulation phrases of deference: 'Not at all, Your Honour'; 'Happy to serve you, Your Excellency.' Any deviations were likely to be punished. Soldiers could expect to be punched in the face, hit in the mouth with the butt of a rifle and sometimes even flogged for relatively minor misdemeanours. Officers were allowed to use a wide range of abusive terms — such as 'scum' and 'scoundrel' — to humiliate their soldiers and keep them in their place. Even whilst off-duty the common soldier was deprived of the rights of a normal citizen. He could not smoke in public places, go to restaurants or theatres, ride in trams, or occupy a seat in a first- or second-class railway carriage. Civic parks displayed the sign: DOGS AND SOLDIERS FORBIDDEN TO ENTER. The determination of the soldiery to throw off this 'army serfdom' and gain the dignity of citizenship was to become a major story of the revolution.29

It was not just the peasant infantry who joined the mutinies after 1905. Even some of the Cossack cavalry — who since the start of the nineteenth century had been a model of loyalty to the Tsar — joined the rebellions. The Cossacks had specific grievances. Since the sixteenth century they had developed as an elite military caste, which in the nineteenth century came under the control of the Ministry of War. In exchange for their military service, the Cossacks were granted generous tracts of fertile land — mainly on the southern borders they were to defend (the Don and Kuban) and the eastern steppes — as well as considerable political freedom for their self-governing communities (yoiskos, from the word for 'war'). However, during the last decades of the nineteenth century the costs of equipping themselves for the cavalry, of buying saddles, harnesses and military-grade horses, as they were obliged to in the charters of their estate, became increasingly burdensome. Many Cossack farmers, already struggling in the depression, had to sell part of their livestock to meet their obligations and equip their sons to join. The voiskos demanded more and more concessions — both economic and political — as the price of their military service. They began to raise the flag of 'Cossack nationalism' — a parochial and nasty form of local patriotism based on the idea of the Cossacks' ethnic superiority to the Russian peasantry, and the memory of a distant and largely mythic past when the Cossacks had been left to rule themselves through their 'ancient' assemblies of elders and their elected atamans.''0

The government's treatment of the army provoked growing resentment among Russia's military elite. The fiercest opposition came from the new generation of so-called military professionals emerging within the officer corps and the Ministry of War itself during the last decades of the old regime. Many of them were graduates from the Junker military schools, which had been opened up and revitalized in the wake of the Crimean defeat to provide a means for the sons of non-nobles to rise to the senior ranks. Career officers dedicated to the modernization of the armed services, they were bitterly critical of the archaic military doctrines of the elite academies and the General Staff. To them the main priorities of the court seemed to be the appointment of aristocrats loyal to the Tsar to the top command posts and the pouring of resources into what had become in the modern age a largely ornamental cavalry. They argued, by contrast, that more attention needed to be paid to the new technologies — heavy artillery, machine-guns, motor transportation, trench design and aviation — which were bound to be decisive in coming wars. The strains of modernization on the politics of the autocracy were just as apparent in the military as they were in all the other institutions of the old regime.

Alexei Brusilov (1853—1926) typified the new professional outlook. He was perhaps the most talented commander produced by the old regime in its final decades; and yet, after 1917, he did more than any other to secure the victory of the Bolsheviks. For this he would later come to be vilified as a 'traitor to Russia' by the White Russian emigres. But the whole of his extraordinary career — from his long service as a general in the imperial army to his time as the commander of Kerensky's army in 1917 and finally to his years as a senior adviser in the Red Army — was dedicated to the military defence of his country. In many ways the bitter life of Brusilov, which we shall be tracing throughout this book, symbolized the tragedy of his class.

There was nothing in Brusilov's background or early years to suggest the revolutionary path he would later take. Even physically, with his handsome fox-like features and his fine moustache, he cut the figure of a typical nineteenth-century tsarist general. One friend described him as a 'man of average height with gentle features and a natural easy-going manner but with such an air of commanding dignity that, when one looks at him, one feels duty-bound to love him and at the same time to fear him'. Brusilov came from an old Russian noble family with a long tradition of military service. One of his ancestors in the eighteenth century had distinguished himself in the battle for the Ukraine against the Poles — a feat he would emulate in 1920 — and for this the family had been given a large amount of fertile land in the Ukraine. At the age of nineteen Brusilov graduated from the Corps des Pages, the most elite of all the military academies, where officers were trained for the Imperial Guards. He joined the Dragoons of the Tver Regiment in the Caucasus and fought there with distinction, winning several medals, in the war against Turkey in 1877—8, before returning to St Petersburg and enrolling in the School of Guards Sub-Ensigns and Cavalry Junkers, where he rose to become one of Russia's top cavalry experts. Not surprisingly, given such a background, he instinctively shared the basic attitudes and prejudices of his peers. He was a monarchist, a Great Russian nationalist, a stern disciplinarian with his soldiers and a patriarch with his family. Above all, he was a devout, even mystical, believer in the Orthodox faith. It was this, according to his wife, that gave him his legendary calmness and self-belief even at moments of impending disaster for his troops.31

But Brusilov's views were broader and more intelligent than those of the average Guards officer. Although by training a cavalryman, he was among the first to recognize the declining military significance of the horse in an age of modern warfare dominated by the artillery, railways, telephones and motor transportation. 'We were too well supplied with cavalry,' he would later recall in his memoirs, 'especially when trench fighting took the place of open warfare.'32

He believed that everything had to be subordinated to the goal of preparing the imperial army for a modern war. This meant inevitably sacrificing the archaic domination of the cavalry, and if necessary even the dynastic interests of the court, for the good of defending the Russian Fatherland. While he was by instinct a monarchist, he placed the army above politics, and his allegiance to the Tsar weakened as he saw it undermined and destroyed by the leadership of the court.

Brusilov's disaffection with the monarchy was to conclude in 1917 when he threw in his lot with the revolution. But the roots of this conversion went back to the 1900s, when, like many of the new professionals, he came to see the court's domination of the military as a major obstacle to its reform and modernization in readiness for the European war that, with every passing year, seemed more likely to break out on Russia's western borders. The critical turning point was the failure of the General Staff to learn the lessons of the disastrous defeat in the Japanese war of 1904—5. Like many officers, he bitterly resented the way the military had been forced into this campaign, 6,000 miles away and virtually without preparation, by a small clique at court. The war in the Far East had led to the run-down of the country's defences in the west. When, in 1909, he assumed the command of the Fourteenth Army in the crucial Warsaw border region, Brusilov found a state of 'utter chaos and disorganization in all our forces':

In the event of mobilization there would have been no clothes or boots for the men called up, and the lorries would have broken down as soon as they were put on the roads. We had machine-guns, but only eight per regiment, and they had no carriages, so that in case of war they would have had to be mounted on country carts. There were no howitzer batteries, and we knew that we were very short of ammunition, whether for field artillery or for rifles. I [later] learnt that the state of affairs was everywhere the same as with the XIV Army. At that moment it would have been utterly impossible to make war, even if Germany had thought of seizing Poland or the Baltic provinces.33

Very few Russian soldiers received training for trench warfare. The senior generals continued to believe that the cavalry was destined to play the key role in any forthcoming war, just as it had done in the eighteenth century. They dismissed Brusilov's attempts to involve the soldiers in mock artillery battles as a waste of ammunition. Their notion of training was to march the men up and down in parades and reviews: these were nice to look at and gave them the impression of military discipline and precision, but as a preparation for a modern war they had no value whatsoever. Brusilov believed that such archaic practices were due to the domination of the General Staff by the court and the aristocracy. These people even seemed to think that whole divisions of the infantry could be commanded by dullards and fools so long as they had gone through one of the elite military schools reserved for noblemen. Attitudes like these alienated the new career soldiers from the Junker schools, who, unlike the prodigal sons of the General Staff, had often made it through the ranks by competence alone. It was not coincidental that, like Brusilov, more than a few of them would later join the Reds.

The grievances of the military professionals gradually forced them into politics. The emergence of the Duma after 1905 gave them an organ through which to express their opposition to the court's leadership of the military. Many of the more progressive among them, like A. A. Polivanov, the Assistant Minister of War, joined forces with liberal politicians in the Duma, such as Alexander Guchkov, who, whilst arguing for increased spending on the army and especially the navy, wanted this connected with military reforms, including the transfer of certain controls from the court to the Duma and the government. Slowly but surely, the Tsar was losing his authority over the most talented elements of the military elite. Nicholas tried to reassert his influence by appointing the elegant and eminently loyal courtier, V A. Sukhomlinov, to the post of War Minister in 1908. In the naval staff crisis of the following year he made a great show of forcing the Duma and the government to recognize his exclusive control of the military command (see pages 225—6). Yet it was almost certainly too late for the Tsar to win back the hearts and minds of the military professionals like Brusilov. They were already looking to the Duma and its broader vision of reform to restore the strength of their beloved army. Here were the roots of the wartime coalition which helped to bring about the downfall of the Tsar.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!