22 July 1914 – Fragile Empires: Russia

If weight of arms alone won wars, Russia would be the most powerful country in the world in 1914. With 115 divisions of infantry, 38 of cavalry, almost eight thousand artillery guns, and the world’s largest air force, on paper the Imperial Russian Army seems unstoppable. But Russia is actually a very hollow power: poor roads and limited rail connections make mobilization such a long, difficult process that the German High Command correctly estimates they will have forty days to fight France in the West before their first contact with their enemy’s mobilized reserves in the East.

The sheer size of the Russian Empire, which has reached its largest geographic extent, also obviates the empire’s manpower advantage. Although it will dominate Eastern Europe later in the 20th Century, even the Soviet Union never quite reaches the same size as a single sovereign entity. Having only recently consolidated its possession of Siberia, the Empire stretches from the Pacific in the East to Poland and Sweden in the West, dominating Asia. Such a large empire requires garrisons everywhere, using up resources that might otherwise crush its enemies in Europe.

Social and political tensions are high: nearly half of Russia’s industrial workers have already been on strike this year. The foreign and domestic crises of 1905 are still fresh in the minds of radical and reactionary alike. Tsar Nicholas has agreed to reforms, but they have proven inadequate, and his family is as detached and remote from the daily life of Russians as if they lived on another continent. Most famously, a controversial itinerant monk named Rasputin enjoys the Tsaritsa’s favor, and has been sticking his nose into the empire’s foreign affairs since the Balkan Wars began. For now, Rasputin opposes war, but his influence will eventually push Nicholas to make fateful command decisions — and his infamy among Russians will discredit the regime long after his death.