Following over 3 years of war with over 1.5 million military deaths belonging to the Russian Empire, Soviet Russia formally removed itself from World War I on March 3, 1918 with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Centre-robert-schuman). The preparations for the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk began in December, 1917 with an armistice in the then German-occupied Polish town of Brest-Litovsk with negotiations between Germany and Soviet Russia. The signing of the treaty resulted in huge territorial losses for Soviet Russia as it was forced to ends its military presence in the Baltic states and Ukraine. The territorial losses of Soviet Russia were acceptable as it allowed for it to focus on its Civil War and other internal issues such as aiding those effected by the famine and reuniting families separated because of the war.
The negotiations between the Central Powers and Bolshevik Russia helped to signify the authority of the newly formed Soviet government as it was internationally recognized as the head of the Russian state. Domestically however, the negotiations and agreement to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk created numerous problems for the Bolsheviks and its head of state, Vladimir Lenin. It took Soviet Russia quite some time to agree to the negotiations and Treaty as the Soviet foreign policy was shifting between agreeing to the terms presented by the Germans and continuing to stay in the war to spread revolutionary sentiment among the European people (Siegelbaum). This tactic of stalling was both intentional and a result of result of differing opinions among the Soviet government. It was purposeful as it allowed the Bolshevik government to have more time to spread propaganda to the workers and peasants in the Entente and Central Powers in order to potentially help them realize what had happened in Russia with its Revolution. The Soviet negotiators and stallers, which included Leon Trotsky, hoped that the lower classes would become inspired and wish to emulate the process that Soviet Russia had undergone, thus expanding their political ideology (Wheeler-Bennett, 139). This goal ended a couple of months later, as Lenin achieved the required majority in the Communist Committee, thus officially ending Soviet Russia’s participation in World War I on March 3, 1918.
“Ioffe Kamenev at Brest-Litovsk (1917).” Astrov, Valentin, ed. An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution. New York: International Publishers. 1928.
The mixed feelings of the Bolsheviks about Soviet Russia’s removal from World War I was supported by the idea of “War Communism,” in which the Soviet state was supposed to act heroically with a strong, unified military to secure its own statehood, and then rescue other people and convert them from a capitalist society to more socialist one (Freeze, 301). The removal of the Soviet Russian army from the World War however went against this strong internal sentiment. In fact, many saw Lenin’s signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as a sign of his and his leaderships weakness. The perception of weakness was not just limited to Russia, as Soviet Russia’s former allies and its enemies perceived the Soviet state to be vulnerable and in the correct moment to be the victim of a takeover and annexation of more land (Wheeler-Bennett, 327).
The young Bolshevik regime was assaulted by enemies from within and from the outside. Political enemies such as the Social Revolutionaries of the Right contacted the Entente forces for a potential alliance, the remaining Cadets met with the German forces in territories such as Ukraine, and the White Armies threatened an uprising in Siberia and in the Baltic States. These internal situations were occurring while the still dominate power of Germany was surrounding the former Empire and enforcing peace in the region, especially Ukraine (Wheeler-Bennett, 327-328). With the increased German power and authority in Eastern Europe and in Russia, Germany was in a better position to make demands of Russia. This weakened Russia’s negotiating position and ability to influence international events, as Germany then dominated and were considered in the major politics of Eastern Europe (Wheeler-Bennett, 329-330).
Despite the backlash against Soviet Russia removing itself from World War I, it was the best solution for all of Lenin’s problems. It allowed for him and the Bolsheviks to have a “breathing spell,” where they could solely focus on their internal matters and political rivals (Wheeler-Bennett, 141). Lenin’s strategic retreat from World War I helped save his legacy, and it can be argued that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was the savior of Bolshevism in Russia (Wheeler-Bennett, 142). Without it, Soviet Russia would have been destroyed and consumed by either German forces, the White counter-revolutionaries, or another political organization desiring power.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.
“Kamenev, Ioffe at Brest-Litovsk (1917).” Astrov, Valentin, ed. An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution. New York: International Publishers. 1928.
Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Treaty of Brest Litovsk.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/treaty-of-brest-litovsk/
REPERES. “World War I Casualties.” http://www.centre-robert-schuman.org/userfiles/files/REPERES%20%E2%80%93%20module%201-1-1%20-%20explanatory%20notes%20%E2%80%93%20World%20War%20I%20casualties%20%E2%80%93%20EN.pdf
Wheeler-Bennett, John W. Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace March 1918. London: MacMillian and Co. 1938.
Wheeler-Bennett, John W. “The Meaning of Brest-Litovsk Today.” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 17, no. 1. (1938): 137-152.http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/stable/pdf/20028909.pdf?refreqid=excelsior:f03c3cadf4786d4b637036fbe83a12e8