Conditions in Russia in January 1917

Weather is really important in history but it isn’t always easy to make historical arguments based on the weather.  I mean, winter in Russia can be an exception; after all, it defeated more armies than the ******** (you fill it in, I’m not risking accusations of cultural insensitivity).

As January draws to a close it is worth it to consider the conditions in Russia a century ago.  Interestingly, many who study this time period make note of the weather: in Petrograd and Moscow it was an unusually cold winter.  Coupled with fuel shortages (coal, mostly) and the government’s attempts at limiting alcohol supply, it was a miserable time.  Dickens’ Frenchman had nothing on the ‘worst of times’ that the Russians were suffering at this point in time.

One of the most detailed accounts of winter in Petrograd comes from Richard Pipes, the Polish-American historian.  In The Russian revolution, his descriptions of the effects of a long and cold winter on the population of that city evoke sympathy from most of his readers.  The weather further led to feelings of isolation.  The cold made things worse for Russians, but it also limited protest.  Even the demonstration in commemoration of Bloody Sunday was reserved and most people wanted to be in out of the cold as much as possible.

So, the cold exacerbated conditions on the home front but it also prevented folks from taking action.  Interesting.  But can you use it in an essay?

Well – probably not.  The types of essay that you will get on History Paper 2 or Paper 3: Europe don’t usually lend themselves to this amount of detail on a topic that is not an obvious cause for anything.  This is not to say that it’s unimportant or not worth knowing.

This is a frustration with some of the more interesting things that you read.  You find it insightful and memorable but you don’t know how to use it.

The answer is context.  This is important information for framing any argument that you may make.  A cold winter means that fuel is in demand but, due to the war, its supply is limited and even when people could get it, it was expensive.  This is going to contribute to war weariness and dissatisfaction with the government.  And while people were stuck inside and isolated, these feelings would grow.  And one day, the weather would break.

AHA!  There is an argument in there!  The weather did contribute to the February revolution.  A few handy statistics about fuel costs and you have just presented a clear analysis.  All you had to do was think about the IB history concepts – causality is there – and you now can use something that you remember not because you have to, but because it is interesting.

Next: the February revolution and end to Tsardom

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