Sunday, February 18, 2024

A Warning from the Past: Tsarist Government’s Financial Assistance to Wives of Soldiers at the Front in World War I Ultimately Sparked Revolution

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Feb. 14 – Russians know very little about World War I except that the initial support for the war among the population was followed less than three years later by revolution and civil war, Sergey Chernyshov says. But the policy the Imperial Government adopted of providing funds to the wives of its soldiers has important lessons for Russia today.

            The historian points to the findings of the relatively few Russia investigators of what happened to Russian society in fact between 1914 and 1917 to reach what is a surprising and in the context of day a serious warning (

            Chernyshov’s main conclusion is this: “For the poorest sections of the population from the outskirts of the country, mobilization turned out to be a blessing, as a result of which the families of those mobilized suddenly became rich, and the wives of soldiers became “masters of life” in a large country for several years.”

That was because government “payments to the families of those mobilized by 1917 became the only driver of the consumer sector of the economy. And since this money was mostly squandered by the wives of soldiers who received it on a “good life,” this led to the bursting of the money bubble, the collapse of the economy, and the revolution.”

And what that means, he argues, is that the revolution occurred “not just from a lack of money [as most people assume] but from an excess. And Chernyshov adds as a warning: “if at times it seems to you that in this article we are talking about today, remember that we are talking exclusively about pre-revolutionary Russia” (emphasis supplied).

From the start of World War I on, the imperial government relied not just on patriotic enthusiasm but on the provision to the population of important benefits, such as lifting the pale of settlement on Jews, and perhaps more fatefully, the provision of 5.7 billion rubles in subsidies to the wives of soldiers from the poorest peasantry.

Such subsidies which amounted to billions of gold rubles not only prompted peasants to enlist and kept them in line because anyone who deserted would know his wife would lose this money but also changed the social hierarchy in the villages, making women and the poor far more important than they had been only a few years earlier.

The women did not save the money but spent it on giving them unprecedented access to goods and services. That made them more important than their parents and the hitherto wealthier peasants and led them to expect that this situation would continue into the future, as long as the war continued. It even made some enthusiasts of such a continuation.

The subsidies thus undermined the social hierarchy in the villages and opened the war to demands for change; and when the money ran out, it meant that the wives of soldiers and the soldiers themselves were more disposed to listen to and follow the advocates of revolution than anyone would have thought possible only months earlier.

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