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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
The Russian Empire


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Growing social and political unrest in Russia led to some modest reforms in the first half of the 19th century, but as time went on the governing autocracy saw little need for further significant changes that might challenge their power. These tensions came to the boiling point after the disastrous Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War; and unrest led to revolution in 1905. To help quell the situation, Czar Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto, which created a national legislature (Duma) and extended the right to vote. This calmed things down enough to end the revolution, but the Socialists were not satisfied. They were however too divided at this time to form a strong opposition, and the Czar was able to continue exerting substantial power.

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When the June Crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia erupted from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serb, Czar Nicholas tried to calm the growing tensions. He received reassurances from the Kaiser that Germany was also working to keep the peace, when it was actually reassuring Austria-Hungary that it would support it in war. When war on Serbia was declared on July 28, 1914, the Czar felt betrayed. Although Russia’s army was still in a process of reorganization, the Czar ordered it to mobilize. He wanted to lead the Imperial Russian Army himself but was advised to make his cousin, the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich commander in chief.




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Russia had long envisioned itself as the protector of Slavs and Orthodox Christianity in the Balkans, and these Pan-Slav ideals now led to popular support for Serbia in the streets. Many in Austria-Hungary thought these pro-Serbian feelings irrelevant in the face of German power. RussiaŐs fear of revolution may have once forced her to back down, but now the growing German presence in Turkey had led to more overwhelming fears of encirclement. Within days of Russia beginning her mobilization, a confident Germany warned her to stop. Russia would not back down leading Germany to declare war on August 1, 1914. Austria-Hungary would follow on August 6th. For the moment the call to war was popular in Russia. Even the name of their capital, St. Petersburg was changed to Petrograd because it sounded too German. Some hoped that a victory would win them back the prestige lost in their disastrous war with Japan. Now only the Socialists still called for peace, but their leaders were being arrested and exiled.

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Like all the major powers of the times, Russia planned for an offensive war even though they were ill prepared for one. Russian armies had largely recovered all their strength since the Russo-Japanese War but they were still in the process of being modernized and there were at least two more years to go before this reorganization and upgrades to their rail system was complete. Germany counted on these deficits to allow it to fight a defensive war in the east while putting its main effort in the west so that it could quickly defeat France. Despite Russia’s problems it was still a formidable force. When German spoiling attacks only delayed the Russian steamroller, panic set in. Although the Russian army was notoriously slow, there was an inevitability about their eventual victory that inspired many Allied propaganda cards.

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Their first Russian goal was to use the 1st and 2nd Imperial Armies to cut off and destroy the Germans positioned in East Prussia. Things started off reasonably well but a change in German leadership led to the unexpected destruction of the 2nd Russian Imperial Army at Tannenburg, and the mauling of the 1st Army at the Battle of Masurian Lakes. These major defeats so early in the conflict were a shock to everyone. It allowed Germany to wage the two front war it never thought it could manage, and it also greatly hampered Russia’s ability to conduct future offensive operations. These events naturally received wide coverage on German postcards while they were ignored by Russian publishers. Postcards were not issued for news but for propaganda; and the amount of coverage of any battle was often determined by who lost and who won.

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Though the Germans had won two unmistakable victories, further efforts to exploit them in this sector were not immediately realized. While Russian armies always seemed to extricate themselves from German traps, they more than made up for it by suffering enormous casualties during their own failed attacks at the Second Battle of Masurian Lakes in 1915 and Lake Narotch in 1916. In previous wars such casualties would have probably inspired surrender, but the massive scale of the Great War meant that it was no longer possible to defeat a resolute enemy in a single battle.

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Even though it was Austria-Hungary that opened the war on the Eastern Front in August 1914 with their promising offensive through Galicia and the Ukraine, it was ultimately the Russians who would make their greatest gains here. While Austria-Hungary wished to pre-empt a Russian advance, they were not prepared for such a large undertaking. As a result they were forced to retreated into the Carpathian Mountains once Russia fully mobilized. They left all of Galicia to the Russians except the fortress at Przemysl, which was put under siege. This retreat exposed the Hungarian Plain, which posed an immediate danger to Silesia from a Russian invasion.

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Unlike the Western Front, the War in the East was far more fluid. While trenches were widely employed, there was no continuous line as there was on the Western Front, which created a more fluid situation that often endangered flanks. Before the Russians could enter Silesia the Germans brought reinforcements into the region and counterattacked. There were serious moves to take Warsaw and at Lodz, but in the end all the back and forth fighting through 1914 would largely leave everyone where they had started. Exhaustion would finally turn the situation into a stalemate by the end of the year.

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Przemysl was considered the gateway to the Carpathian Mountains and once it was surrounded by a ring of forts it became on of the largest defense works in Europe. Its siege garnered much attention, and when it fell to the Russians in March 1915, it became headline news around the world. The Germans would reclaim it during their offensive in June. The fighting here was captured on postcards from many different nations.

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Early victories in the East and a stalemate in the West allowed Hindenburg and Ludendorff to refocus Germany’s war effort against Russia. After receiving reinforcements a joint Austro-Hungarian German offensive was launched against Russian-Poland in May 1915 in which they broke through the Russian lines. A larger second offensive was then launched in July that forced the Russians to withdraw from the Polish salient if fear of being trapped.

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The lack of supplies was severely hampering Russian operations. Not only did munitions sent by the Allies have to be transported great distances from Murmansk or Vladivostok, there were the additional problems of inefficiency, corruption, and a very poor rail network. Even if the Russians wanted to counterattack, they lacked the supplies needed to carry it out. Instead the Russian army began trading territory for time. As they withdrew their defensive line grew straighter making it easier to defended. They were also falling back on their lines of supply while the Germans, now dependent on poor roads and rails were outpacing theirs. While this strategy kept the Russian army intact, they had to give up Poland as the price.

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Unhappy with the summer’s events, Czar Nicholas II removed Grand Duke Nicholas as the lackluster supreme commander, and took personal control over the Russian army. The German advance continued reaching Lithuania by September. Bad weather and counterattacks finally halted the German advance in the fall giving the surviving Russian units time to set up new defenses. The Central powers believing the Russian army was finished began transferring their troops to other fronts.

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After secretly amassing men and supplies, General Brusilov surprised the Austro-Hungarians holding Galicia by using all his troops to attack their entire defensive line in June 1916. Shattering their defenses, he pushed them back into the Carpathians and threatened to knock them out of the War. The inadequate Russian rail system however made it impossible to bring up enough supplies to further support this attack once the original gains were made. Brusilov renewed the attack when ordered to do so, but now facing growing numbers of German and Turkish reinforcements, the offensive ground to a halt by the end of August. While the Russians suffered heavy casualties, they still managed to badly maul the Austro-Hungarian army.

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The Ottoman Empire, who had made a secret military alliance with Germany, formally entered the War on the October 28, 1914 by launching surprise naval raids against Russia’s Black Sea ports. Russia then officially declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 3rd, but their troops had already begun marching into the Caucasus Mountains the day before. This move was met with a large Ottoman winter offensive that was defeated at the Battle of Sarikamish. This would be followed by a lot of back and forth fighting that eventually extended all the way into Persia. Armenians and Assyrians living within the Ottoman Empire allied themselves with the Russians after becoming victims of Turkish and Kurdish massacres. The Russians managed to gain ground through 1916, and hoped to eventually link up with the British pushing north from Mesopotamia. Despite all these gains, the Revolution in March 1917 led to massive desertions that rendered their army on this front useless for further operations.

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By the fall of 1916 the secret police (Okhrana) were reporting to the Czar that unrest within the army had never been so great, and that soldiers were openly demanding peace. Revolution was inevitable, it was just a question of when. It would arrive in March 1917 when striking workers in Petrograd took to the streets in greater numbers than ever seen before. When troops were sent in to to subdue the mob they joined them instead. The first Soviet of Workers was soon called, and the revolution would force Czar Nicholas II to abdicate. A Provisional government under Prince George Lvov was then established with the moderate Alexander Kerensky appointed Minister of War. Kerensky refused to make a separate peace with the Central Powers and pledged to uphold Russia’s commitment to the Allies. He renewed the offensive in Galicia that June. With most radical leaders in exile, support for the War seemed high in Petrograd, but many of his soldiers felt differently. Unwilling to give up on their victory over the Czar they began voting with their feet, and began going home.

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Kerensky saw to it that the Russian army was heavily resupplied. Not only did he stockpile ammunition shipped from the Allies, internal production of military equipment had increased substantially. When he opened a new offensive in Galicia in July 1917 the Russian Army led by Brusilov smashed through the Austro-Hungarian lines. Kerensky hoped that a victory would breath new life into his army but many soldiers had hoped that the fighting would end when the Czar abdicated. When they met strong resistance from the Germans and casualties mounted, their morale fell. Soon there were no longer enough reliable units left to carry out serous fighting and civil unrest broke out behind the front. Many military units had already formed into soviets that were making their own decisions, and now no one had complete control over them. A similar well planned offensive in the Caucasus never even got started.

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Since the 1905 revolution, Russia had been full of subversive movements, one of the more notable being the Bolsheviks who saw themselves as the leaders of the working class. Their founder, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known under his adopted name of Lenin, was arrested in Austrian Galicia when the Great War broke out, but he secured passage to Switzerland once they ascertained his anti-Czarist views. When the March revolution came in 1917, most radical leaders were in exile and anxious to return to Russia. Fearful he might be arrested by the Allies, Lenin requested help from the Germany to provide him with secure passage back home. They agreed believing his presence in Russia could impair their war effort.Leaving his Swiss exile, Lenin was transported across Germany by train to the Baltic where he picked up a ferry to Sweden. His public reception by the Bolsheviks in Stockholm alerted Kerensky of his impending arrival, and a propaganda war was launched to smear him as a German agent.

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It was expected that Lenin would be arrested when he tried to cross the border from Finland but he was safely escorted to Petrograd in April where he was greeted by cheering crowds. He quickly began garnering support among the soviets and stirring up unrest against Kerensky’s war. Leon Trotsky also returned from his exile in New York City in May, though he was interned for a period in Great Britain along the way.

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Although the provisional government began making significant reforms, many Russians became disillusioned by Kerensky’s commitment to carrying out the War. These feelings reached the boiling point when his July offensive in Galicia produced large amounts of casualties. As unrest grew and soldiers fell under the influence of local soviets, mass demonstrations known as the July Days broke out in Petrograd, which were met in turn by violent government countermeasures. After many protesters were killed the hopes of any compromise between the opposing fractions died. Bolshevik leaders were now arrested, and Lenin went into hiding on the Finnish border.

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As Kerensky assumed the Role of Prime Minister, General Lavr Kornilov was made Supreme Commander of Russia’s army. He had much support from officers who felt that a stronger military led government was needed to curb growing unrest and desertions, and one that would be less sympathetic to granting socialist reforms. By August distrust between civil and military leaders had led Kornilov to order a march on Petrograd to set up a military dictatorship. This move forced Kerensky to rearm the Bolsheviks and free their leaders in order to defend the capitol. When the Petrograd Soviet called for soldiers not to fight, Kornilov could not attract the support he needed and the coup did not succeed, but sides were being even more distinctly drawn.

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When the Germans launched an offensive into Livonia in September there was almost no resistance to be found until they reached the massive fortifications surrounding the important port of Riga. Although the Germans had already been developing stormtrooper tactics on the Western Front, they were employed here on a massive scale. While they proved to be highly successful, the Russians had no intensions of fighting it out and were already in the process of abandoning the city before the attack began. Despite the growing reluctance of the Russian army to fight the Germans, postcards from their Allie France depicted a determined resistance. Russia’s failure to keep the Germans engaged on the Eastern Front was a major threat to the West, and so postcards hid this danger as best they could. When Riga fell to the Germans in October 1917, it would mark the last major battle on the Eastern Front.

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It was largely though the efforts of the Bolsheviks that the Kornilov Revolt failed. This garnered them far more support while the officer corps lost its appetite in supporting the government. When Kerensky asked for military help to put down the new uprising by the now more heavily armed Bolsheviks in the fall, little was forthcoming. Unwilling to share power with Kerensky, the Bolsheviks seized power in the November revolution and proclaimed the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic. One of their first acts was to issue a Decree of Peace, which called for all the belligerents to end the War through fair negotiations. Lenin signed an armistice with Germany in December taking Russia out of the Great War, but what really worried the allies was his call for the people of all nations to take matters into their own hands if their leaders insisted on continuing the conflict.

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Germany’s demand for vast land secession caused the Bolsheviks to stall for time hoping that their revolution might cause a sympathetic uprising within Germany. Germany was also playing for time in hopes that Russia would completely disintegrate as various ethnic peoples opposed to the Bolsheviks sought their own independence. When neither occurred the Germans lost patience and reopened their largely unopposed advances, marching into Livonia, Estonia, and much of the Ukraine and Crimea. Trotsky’s policy of no peace no war proved to be a failure and Lenin then insisted on meeting German demands to preserve the Revolution. The terms of the final treaty signed at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 were very detrimental to Russia, but Lenin gambled that it would have no standing once Germany lost the War.

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Though the Germans were now able to transfer many soldiers to the Western Front, many also had to be left behind to garrison their newly acquired territories. The supplies from this region were absolutely essential to Germany’s war effort, but their flow was continually jeopardized by the vast amount of Russians still under arms, and the growing civil war between Red and White forces. Many German soldiers, also tired of war, were inspired by the Russian soviets. Some German units infect with Bolshevik ideology were considered too unreliable to be transferred to the Western Front for the spring offensive in 1918.

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The Germans were not only interested in restoring order in their newly acquired territories, they now began to openly oppose the Bolsheviks they helped put in power and support the Whites. This was most evident in the Ukrainian where they imposed a pro-German regime headed by the monarchist General Pavlo Skoropadsky. The Bolsheviks were also facing other counterrevolutionary threats from many fronts, most seriously from the Czech Legion stranded in Siberia that had teamed up with the Whites. As the Czechs approached Ekaterinburg, where the Czar and his family were under house arrest, their panicky custodians executed them all in July 1918. Further Allied interventions would be made in the summer in Siberia and Murmansk. By September Trotsky had begun organizing revolutionaries into the Red Army to combat these threats. Russia would nullify the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in November and attempt to regain lost territory but this was complicated by the Russian Civil War.

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Growing tensions with the Germans led Trotsky to believe that it was time to begin spreading the Bolshevik revolution and take it to Germany at the point of the bayonet (Revolution from abroad). The first targets would be the puppet states that Germany had set up on former Russian lands. These annexed territories were only lightly garrisoned as most German solders had been transferred to fight on the Western Front. By late November the Red Army began attacking German troops in Estonia, advancing until January 1919 when they were unexpectedly stopped by growing opposition from local national forces. While this particular confrontation would evolve into the Estonian War for Independence, it mimicked the situation on Russia’s entire western border as new states tried to emerge from the chaos wrought at the end of the Great War. Ukrainian Socialists also overthrew the pro-German Skoropadsky government at this time, though they would come to fight Russian Bolsheviks in an attempt to form their own independent state. Poles fearful that the victorious Allies would not be able to force territorial concessions to resurrect a new Polish State began an uprising against Germany at the end of December.




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While postcards were produced in Russia during the Great War, the vast majority of those that depict the Eastern Front were made in Germany or Austria-Hungary. Many Russian publishers issued cards in prewar years, but these were largely printed in Germany or Sweden. Once war broke out, these familiar trade routes were cut off. Despite this reasoning the absence of Russian cards still seems strange considering the size of this Empire and its involvement in this war. A more probable cause was that peasants made up at least eighty percent of Russia’s soldiers, and the vast majority of them were illiterate. Even so, the mailing of postcards is known to have been common; while those produced by revolutionary groups could not be sent through the mail, postcards provided the only legal means of correspondence with those in exile so they could be easily censored. The empire’s poor transportation system combined with harsh weather and a very mobile front may all have placed additional adverse effects on mail delivery and discouraged the use of postcards; but this is just speculation. Russia was not entirely out of the postcard business; firms like Richards in Petrograd continued to publish during the War. Most of these Russian military cards do not depict specific battles or events but focus in on individual soldiers. They tend to be rendered in a realistic manner to capture the humanity behind the uniform rather than concentrating on heroic deeds. While revolutionaries self published postcards, little propaganda was placed on cards by officials because the medium was perceived of as too low class to bother with.

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The Russians produced relatively few propaganda cards. Where the manipulation of public opinion had been crucial elsewhere to keep up support for the War, the absolutist ruler of Russia felt no need to sway a public that was of no importance to him. Even censorship was lax, only enforced by temporary decree against information that directly threatened military operations. Czar Nicholas II was notorious for not accepting advice from his ministers and the public mattered even less. This flawed attitude began to become apparent when he took personal control over the army, and found his popularity declining with mounting defeats and unfettered criticism. Rather than truly compromise he wound up being forced to abdicate eventually facing execution. Most of the propaganda cards concerning the Eastern Front came from Russia’s ally France. A popular theme was that of the Kaiser being mauled by the Russian Bear or flattened by the Russian Steamroller.

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If the Czar took the support of his subjects for granted, he still had to appeal to them for money when the Empire’s coffers ran dry. This was the case in 1916 when the State Bank issued thirty propaganda posters designed by well known artists to encourage Russians to buy war bonds. These included works by Efim Cheptsov, Alfred Eberling, Sigmund Lidberg, Alexey Maksimov, Michael Olkone, Gregory Semenov, V. Taburin, Vladimir Varzhanskiy, and Ivan Vladimirov, These images of military scenes were then transferred to the postcard formant to further publicize the need for funds. These cards were produced in very large numbers and reprinted as needed. Like many propaganda posters, these images were shared with the Allies and some appear on French and Japanese postcards.

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The Latvian, Richard Germanovich Zarrin worked for the engraving and art department of the Russian Securities Office creating bank notes and postage stamps since 1899. During World War One he became the foremost artist for the State Bank, producing four or more war loan posters. He also designed the first stamp for the new Soviet government in 1918.

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The charity cards published by the Commune of Saint Eugenia, a subsidiary to the committee of the Red Cross, were sold to raise funds for its Sister of Mercy nurses. These nurses were essential to the Russian war effort and many who served on the front lines became casualties themselves. While a number of charities issued cards, the Commune of Saint Eugenia was especially noted for their many artist drawn chromolithographic cards reproducing work by such notables as E. Bem, Bevenshtam, Bilbin, Pimonenko, Smukrovich, and Zarubin. These images often stress Russian culture through the illustration of myths and fairytales rather than military subjects. Production shut down in 1917 after the Revolution. Today they are sought out for their high artistic quality and are rarely associated with the Great War.

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Gregory Gorodetsky published a large set of artist drawn propaganda cards in the first year of the Great War for Today’s Lubok (Segodniashnii Lubok), an avant-garde art association centered in Moscow. These artists included David Burliuk, Vasily Chekrygin, Aristarkh Lentulov, Ilya Mashkov, Mikhail Larionov, and Kasimir Malevich. Despite the input from many sources, the set is unified by their folksy lubki style and their mocking captions written by the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. These types of popular woodblock prints hand colored with tempera and accompanied by simple text were commonly sold in Russia since the late 17th century, and were extensively used for propaganda and distributing news during the Napoleonic wars. At least thirty cards were produced in Gorodetsky’s set, though there may be at least a dozen more. Similar images continued to be made during the War as prints by Today’s Lubok.

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Kasimir Malevich (Kazimierz Malewicz), born to a Polish family in the Ukraine moved to Moscow in 1904 to study art. Influenced by modernist tendencies, especially cubism, he quickly became a prominent member of the Russian avant-garde. By World War One he was producing propaganda posters for the art association Today’s Lubok, which were turned into postcards before the end of 1914. These simple images display an obvious contempt for the enemy as shown on the card above depicting an Austrian soldier on the end of a peasant’s pitchfork. Despite his interest in lubki, his work took a radicle turn in 1915 when he infused his strong personal mysticism into pure abstraction to found Suprematism. As his work divorced itself from the material world, it became useless to the conservative Czarist regime.

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Although the origins of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies dates back to the organized strikes of 1905, they came to represent workers and soldiers in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) after the March Revolution of 1917. Holding substantial power, they set themselves up as a rival to the provisional government in Moscow. In this role they produced a great deal of propaganda, much of it issued through their newspaper, Izvestiia Petrogradskogo Soveta, which also published postcards. While not in total opposition to the War like the Bolsheviks, their cards often expressed views that countered official government positions. Many photo-based images from the front page of the newspaper were reproduced as postcards. After the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin declared the transfer of all state power to the Petrograd Soviet. Russia’s involvement in World War One would end soon after.

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While Sergei Sergeerich Solomko painted miniatures for the Imperial Porcelain Factory and Carl Faborge, he was better known to more common people through his watercolor illustrations for books and the magazines Jugend and Niva. The greater dispersal of his work however came through the many postcards he illustrated depicting fairy tales, mythology, and romantic themes from a time past. In 1910 he moved to Paris where he continued to illustrate postcards. While he generally rejected depicting contemporary social and political issues in favor of the symbolism of the universal, he did illustrate anti-German propaganda cards during World War One.

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Although images of Cossacks appear on Russian cards, it was western publishers that had the greatest fascination for them. They are probably the most common Russian subject to be found on Allied postcards, no doubt to common familiarity with their legendary status. Few might know their history or that there were different types of Cossacks from different regions, but nearly all had heard of them and believed them to be an asset to the shared cause because of their renown horsemanship. The Central Powers also held a fascination with Cossacks, but if there were any admiration it was rarely shown. While perhaps the best cavalry in Europe, their publishers usually portrayed them in flight before the enemy or pillaging villages.

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Once peace returned, many social realist artists in the Soviet Union created military paintings that were reproduced on postcards. World War One however was seen by the communists as a war of imperialist ambitions and participation in it was not glorified in any way. So while the war of the Czar was completely ignored there are many cards that cover the revolution against him and the civil war that followed. Ironically a popular subject was the glorification of the power of ordinary people through the early soviets while a repressive form of government was taking shape to support a more singular vision.




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