Order Number 1 Nearly Destroyed the Russian Army: What Was It?

Russian Troops Marching
Russian Troops Marching. National Geographic Magazine 1917, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the days of the Russian Revolution of 1917, an order went out to the country's military which almost destroyed its ability to fight, and made a takeover by socialist extremists more likely. This was 'Order Number One', and it had only good intentions.

The February Revolution

Russia had experienced strikes and protests many times before 1917. They had once, in 1905, experienced an attempted revolution too.

But in those days the military had stood with the government and crushed the rebels; in 1917, as a series of strikes convulsed the political orders and showed how a Tsarist government that was dated, autocratic and would rather fail than reform had lost support, the Russian military came out in favour of the rebellion. The soldiers whose mutiny helped turn strikes in Petrograd into Russia’s February Revolution in 1917 initially came onto the streets, where they drank, fraternized and sometimes held key defensive points. The soldiers began to swell the newly appearing councils - the soviets - and allowed the situation to become so bad for the Tsar that he agreed to abdicate. A new government would take over.

The Problem of the Military

The Provisional Government, made up of old Duma members, wanted the troops to return to their barracks and regain some form of order, because having thousands of armed people wandering around out of control was deeply worrying to a group of liberals who feared a socialist takeover.

However, the troops were afraid they’d be punished if they resumed their old duties. They wanted a guarantee of their safety and, doubting the integrity of the Provisional Government, turned to the other major government force which was now nominally in charge of Russia: the Petrograd Soviet. This body, led by socialist intellectuals and comprised of a large body of soldiers, was the dominant power on the street.

Russia might have had a 'Provisional Government', but it actually had a dual government, and the Petrograd Soviet was the other half.

Order Number One

Sympathetic to the soldiers, the Soviet produced Order Number 1 to protect them. This listed soldier’s demands, gave the conditions for their return to barracks, and set out a new military regime: soldiers were responsible to their own democratic committees, not appointed officers; the military was to follow the orders of the Soviet, and only follow the Provisional Government as long as the Soviet agreed; soldiers had equal rights with citizens when off duty and didn’t even have to salute. These measures were hugely popular with the soldiers and were widely taken up.

Chaos

Soldiers flocked to carry out Order Number One. Some tried to decide strategy by committee, murdered unpopular officers, and threatened the command. Military discipline broke down and destroyed the ability of huge numbers in the military to operate. This might not have been a major problem were it not for two things: the Russian military was attempting to fight World War One, and their soldiers owed more allegiance to the socialists, and increasingly the extreme socialists, than the liberals.

The result was an army which could not be called upon when the Bolsheviks gained power later in the year.