Russia’s Railways in War and Revolution, 1914-25: What really happened?

For over 150 years railway transport has been absolutely vital for moving people and freight across the vast territories of the tsarist empire, Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. At no time was this technology more important than in the First World War, when the tsarist war effort depended not just on the armies at the front but also on the smooth functioning of the railways, industry and agriculture in the rear. So how did the railways rise to that challenge?

‘Badly’ has seemed to be the short answer. Every student of the Russian revolution soon learns that the railways collapsed in 1915–16 under the huge strain of the war’s demands and that the resultant food shortages and price inflation sparked the riots that turned to revolution in the capital, Petrograd, in February 1917. At the time, the army, government, press and public opinion were all bitterly critical of the railways, and even the Ministry of Ways of Communication, which managed the railway network, agreed that the traffic situation was desperate. As for historians, the prevailing view can be summed up by quoting A.L. Sidorov, the most important Soviet economic historian of that period: he called the railways the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of the tsarist economy. According to this interpretation, railway construction prior to 1914 was insufficient for the country’s peacetime needs, let alone the unprecedented long-term demands of the war, and so the network simply could not cope.

By extension, this view has also shaped our understanding of how the railways fared during the early years of Soviet power. Logically, the first big railway challenge for Lenin’s Bolshevik regime was to halt the collapse of traffic – an aim eventually achieved in 1920 as the Civil War entered its final phase. Beyond that, the Bolsheviks had to promote recovery, and indeed they did see railway traffic grow gradually to regain its pre-war (1913) level in about 1925.

But how accurate is this familiar picture of collapse? In recent years J.N. Westwood and several other historians (this author included) have begun to reinterpret the railway experience of the World War and Civil War. They argue that although the railways certainly did suffer severe problems during 1914-16, their collapse was a product – not a cause – of the February Revolution, and that it was intensified by the Civil War and War Communism. The available traffic statistics are incomplete and rudimentary, as one would expect for a wartime economy that, moreover, then endured a long civil war. But the figures that we do have suggest that overall the railways moved a record amount of traffic in 1915 and then beat that record in 1916. This immense work may not have been enough to avert critical food shortages in Russia’s cities, but it surely does not indicate a collapse before 1917. Perhaps, instead, it was politically expedient for the successive regimes to blame their military and economic woes on railway shortcomings.

The above discussion might appear to be a mere matter of semantics and nuance. But it is not. It has broad significance because, first, if we can establish that the railways did not collapse in 1915–16, then we may well need to find a different explanation for the food shortages that helped to spark the revolution in Petrograd in February 1917. Second, it would imply that the collapse faced by the Bolshevik regime was actually a product of the February revolution and its reverberations, including the divisive policies of the Bolsheviks themselves.

So what did happen with the railways in the First World War and beyond? A thorough reassessment is overdue but under way. Watch this space.

Anthony Heywood, University of Aberdeen (UK)

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