“A blow like this was dealt to Russia in 1917”, President Vladimir Putin said in an unscheduled televised speech as Wagner mercenaries marched in mutiny towards Moscow in late June. 

Putin argued that, during World War One, “victory was stolen from [Russia]: intrigues, squabbles and politicking behind the backs of the army and nation turned into the greatest turmoil, the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state and the loss of vast territories, ultimately leading to the tragedy of the civil war”. 

With this analogy, he was trying to drum up fear in the population that Wagner Group soldiers were playing a traitorous game that would lead to Russia’s defeat in Ukraine and a descent into anarchy. There is a distorted truth in Putin’s comparison—after all, there is a long history of military setbacks leading to tensions and splits within armies, and then to revolutions. 

The defeat of Argentina in the 1982 Falklands War fatally destabilised the country’s ruling junta and opened the space for transition to a democratic republic. The insurrection that established the Paris Commune in 1871 occurred in the wake of the defeat of French forces in the Franco-Prussian War. The inability of the Portuguese military to hold onto its African colonies led to a split in the armed forces and the Carnation Revolution of 1974. And of course, there is the example that weighs on Putin: Russia in 1917.

While Russia managed to score early victories during World War One on the south-western front against the even more decrepit Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was hopelessly outmatched when fighting the more industrially advanced German army. By the spring of 1915, its armies were in full-scale retreat. 

Contrary to what Putin says, however, it was not the “intrigues, squabbles and politicking” that undermined the fighting spirit of the army; it was the parasitic and oppressive nature of the Russian ruling elite. 

“As every army is considered unconquerable in the national mythology, the ruling classes of Russia saw no reason for making an exception of the army of the tsar”, Leon Trotsky argued in the History of the Russian Revolution. In reality, though, “this army was a serious force only against semi-barbaric peoples, small neighbours and disintegrating states”.

Russia had tried to create a modern military to join in the fight for global domination and colonial spoils. But every step of the way it was undermined by its deeply conservative social system: a huge country containing only small pockets of modern industry, ruled by a monarchy and filled with hundreds of millions of peasants. Tsarist Russia simply did not have the economic or social capacity to win a world war.

One example related by Trotsky sums up how the conservatism and parasitic nature of the Russian elite infected its military. During the retreat in 1915, the general staff wasted precious time debating whether they should remove saints’ bones from Kiev. 

The tsar intervened, saying that it wasn’t necessary: if the Germans touched the bones, they would be cursed by God and lose the war. “This happened not in the epoch of the Crusades”, Trotsky wrote, “but in the twentieth century when the news of the Russian defeats came over the wireless”. 

It was not primarily the religiosity of Russian rulers that disrupted the war effort. The difficulty was that both the aristocracy and the wealthy industrialists of Russia wanted to keep on making as much money as they could, even as the war dragged on. Tied to the financial interests of British and French banks, they resisted moves towards peace even as it was clear the war was lost:

“Speculation of all kinds and gambling on the market went to the point of paroxysm. Enormous fortunes arise out of the bloody foam. The lack of bread and fuel in the capital did not prevent the court jeweller Fabergé from boasting that he had never before done such a flourishing business ... ‘Society’ held out its hands and pockets ... All came to grab and gobble, in fear lest the blessed rain should stop. And all rejected with indignation the shameful idea of a premature peace.”

As the reality of defeat sank in, the Russian ruling class turned on one another. Generals blamed the government for failing to supply the army. Ministers mocked the generals for leading the nation into yet another humiliation. The tsar grew paranoid and turned to religion to save his rule. Some started to feel out the German Kaiser for a secret peace deal, while others blamed the influence of the crank mystic Rasputin and had him shot. 

Everyone hoped that someone, anyone, would appear on the scene to save the day. All were worried about the morale of the soldiers and the signs of mass desertions, mutinies and discontent. 

Despite widespread acknowledgement in elite circles that the war was a disaster, Trotsky explained that, when the revolution broke out, the ruling classes as one cried that “the Bolsheviks snatched a sure victory out of their hands”.

This was the birth of the myth repeated by Putin more than 100 years later.

Military difficulties can significantly undermine the legitimacy of even the most powerful police state. However, divisions at the top of society are not enough for revolutions to break out. Lenin once argued that for a revolution to occur it is not enough for there to be a crisis among the ruling class over how to run society. There must also be “a considerable increase in the activity of the masses”, who have been drawn into “independent historical action” by “turbulent times”. 

By February 1917, discontent among the soldiers, workers and the peasantry had reached breaking point. They rose in a series of general strikes and a mass insurrection against the Russian ruling classes. In five days, the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for more than 300 years was destroyed, initiating an unprecedented period of democratic experimentation from below. 

It is precisely this which is missing in Russia today. The grinding war effort, the attacks on democratic rights, the concentration of power in the hands of Putin and his allies, and the economic privations of the Russian people, have, unfortunately, not led to mass action against the government. 

But behind Putin’s words, there is perhaps a flicker of genuine fear. That one day the seemingly subterranean discontent of sections of the Russian population will crystalise into something that could challenge him. 

Russia 1917 is his warning to anyone in ruling circles who might think of moving against him: such an action could open the floodgates to much greater upheaval, which could well sweep them aside as well.

Hopefully, the lighting will strike twice.