01 February 1916 – The Downward Spiral

When Prime Minister Ivan Goremykin convinced Tsar Nicholas II to prorogue the Duma and suspend Russia’s nascent democracy last year, it was seen as the final victory of the bureaucracy. But the failures of 1915, especially the Russian Army’s ignominious retreat from Poland and continuing production shortages, have knocked the autocratic government on its heels for months. Yesterday, Duma leader Mikhail Rodzianko sent Goremykin a foreboding letter to denounce his continued failure to resolve the shortages and mismanagement that still bedevil Russia on the battlefield — and have begun to seriously damage the regime’s credibility in the streets.

I am writing this while still under the impression of the data that was just discussed at the special conference for defense, and which relates to the catastrophic condition of the problems of railroad transportation. This question was raised at the last session of the special conference. The work of a special commission was devoted to it, but its solution went no further than mere discussion, proposals, and estimates. And today, the catastrophe, which was only probably then, is upon us.

The details of the conditions existing in the factories that produce munitions of war, conditions which may lead to the suspension of the operations of these factories, and the information concerning the approaching famine that threatens Petrograd and Moscow, as well as the possibility of serious popular disturbances in connection with this state of affairs, have, no doubt, been reported to you by the chairman of this conference. These facts and considerations make it quite apparent to me, as well as to other members of the conference, to what an abyss our country is rapidly moving, thanks to the complete apathy of the government, which takes no active and decisive measures for the purpose of forestalling the events that threaten us.

[…] The end of the war is rapidly approaching, while within the country, in every department of the people’s life, even in those which are concerned with the satisfaction of the prime necessities of life, complete disorder prevails and grows.

Citing ill health, Goremykin has sought to resign his post for weeks rather than surrender a morsel of his power to the people’s representatives. Today, the Tsar finally accepts it and names Boris Vladimirovich Stürmer as his replacement. From an objective view, Nicholas could not have made a worse choice. Foreign minister Sergey Sazonov regards Stürmer as “a man who had left a bad memory wherever he occupied an administrative post;” Rodzianko calls him “an utter nonentity.” French ambassador Maurice Paléologue, who uncovered the abysmal arms production situation in Russia more than a year ago, takes three days to gather information about the new appointment before concluding Stürmer is

Worse than a mediocrity– third rate intellect, mean spirit, low character, doubtful honesty, no experience and no idea of state business. The most that can be said for him is that he has a rather petty talent for cunning and flattery…His appointment becomes intelligible on the supposition that he has been selected solely as a tool; in other words, actually on account of his insignificance and servility.

Indeed, only from the royal court’s point of view does Stürmer’s appointment make any sense at all. A loyalist who lacks any political agenda, Stürmer is practically the only sycophant left in Petrograd who isn’t too old or inexperienced at governing for the job. Anti-democratic, he once succeeded in displacing the elected government of Tver’, which was seen as too liberating in its influence. Nicholas wants a man who will execute his policy without objection, who will not threaten to resign, who will not cooperate against him with the parliament. Yet he also needs someone who can foster better relations with the Duma while he is away from the capital at his headquarters, so who better than a flunky that he has long wanted to make Mayor of Moscow?


Left: Tsarina Alexandra, whose influence is felt in the appointment of Boris Stürmer, right

The decision is immediately seen as evidence of the rising power of Grigori Rasputin, rumored lover of the tsarina. In fact, her influence is key to Stürmer’s advancement and will be integral to his tenure as Prime Minister. At her behest, he will fire the competent managers and political advisers who displease her or her mad monk. His reputation for grift is further enhanced when, shortly after taking office, Stürmer tries to redirect 5 million rubles from the military fund to his own office. Yet he will prove unable to articulate or impose a coherent policy of any kind, often leaving meetings without having seemed to understand the topics of discussion at all, leaving ever-more of his work in the hands of Alexandra and Rasputin.

All of this would be bad enough, but Stürmer’s very name is too German for a populace steeped in conspiracy theories about enemy agents supposedly running the country, exacerbating popular discontent with the government. While Stürmer asked the Tsar to allow him to change his surname to Panin in January, Nicholas procrastinated in deference to the aristocratic Panin family; the tsarina and Rasputin have declared that no such change is necessary, further undermining the legitimacy of their chosen Prime Minister.

And Russia needs bold leadership at its center. During the month of February, state budget discussions in the Duma reveal that the deficit has exploded to 355 million rubles, accumulating at 31 million a day. Last year ended with Russian government debt standing at 8 billion rubles; it will reach eleven billion before the year’s end. Alarmed at the prospect of their chief ally running out of cash, Britain and France float emergency loans, while the Russian crown obtains loans in the United States exceeding $100 million. During the first half of 1916, Russia suffers a trade deficit of 520 million rubles due to all the imports of weaponry and munitions. Despite being “a dictator with full powers,” in the words of Rodzianko, Stürmer fails to resolve these issues, managing only to lower the threshold of income tax and further shutter the vodka trade in the misguided belief that a ‘new energy’ will fix everything.

Meanwhile, the nation’s energy supply is actually diminishing as railroads fall apart, workers experience tool shortages, and declining food systems lead to absenteeism and decreased productivity. None of these problems will be solved by the Stürmer premiership. Instead, they will all be greatly magnified.

Programming note: this blog has been suspended recently due to a combination of illness, employment changes, and server issues. We will now attempt to resume a regular schedule of programming as well as filling in backdated posts, but there may be further brief interruptions.


The sumptuous accommodations of the royal train contrast with the deteriorating Russian rail network