Russian President Vladimir Putin's nationwide mobilization has dramatically raised the stakes - not just for the war in Ukraine, but for his legitimacy at home. Putin is wagering that the addition of 300,000 or more reservists will turn the tide for Russia's attempted neo-imperial conquest of Ukraine.
The risk, though, is that the Kremlin's heavy-handed mobilization - really, a forced conscription - will undermine Russian domestic support for the war effort, and potentially topple the Putinist regime itself. Already, stories and videos are emerging of young men fleeing Russia by air, rail, and road, inflicting gruesome injuries upon themselves in hopes of disqualification, protesting the mobilization, or tearfully acceding to an uncertain fate on the front lines.
And while it is still too soon to say whether Putin's gamble will ultimately help him or hurt him politically, he's not the first Russian autocrat to attempt a mass mobilization to change the tide in a war of uncertain value to ordinary Russians. In the 20th century, there were two that sparked similar unrest - one in 1904 for the Russo-Japanese war, and another in 1914 during World War I.
Both those mobilizations eventually contributed to popular uprisings that culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917. But the history of that unrest holds important lessons on the impact of war mobilization on the stability of Russia's autocratic institutions and the risks facing Putin.
It turns out that it takes a lot to topple an autocrat.
The Russian conscription system originally devised by Peter the Great demanded settlements across Russia to provide a certain quota of recruits - it was up to local village councils to determine which unfortunate boys would fulfill the community's obligations. "Conscription was a species of death," Russian military historians claim. "The recruit was torn away from his native village, severed from the company of his family and his friends, and was well aware that the chances were that he would never return to them."
The mobilization of 2022 is being administrated by a similar regional-quota system. Then as now, the poor Russian recruit faces not just the enemy's deadly barrages, but also epidemic diseases, shortages of food and supplies, as well as brutal (and often deadly) hazing by superior officers.
In 1904 the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet moored at Port Arthur, hoping to hobble Russia before it could mobilize for war. And not unlike Putin's current war, Tsar Nicholas II prepared Russia for a quick and easy war against a supposedly inferior foe.
The call-up was a fiasco. Torn from their families, some men committed suicide rather than enlist. More frequently - as is the case today - would-be conscripts looked for exemptions, either bribing officials, or devising some ailment that would preclude them from fighting. Some officers shot themselves or cut themselves with knives.
One military physician in 1905 recalled a distraught widower, who pleaded with the Russian draft board that his children would starve. "He acted like a madman. Then he suddenly grew silent, went home, killed his children with an axe, and came back," saying: "Now take me. I've attended to my business."
More often than not, the tragedy of mobilization was fueled by vodka. Tearful send-offs at local assembly points across the Russian Empire often turned into drunken mayhem, with recruitment officers trying - often in vain - to control and subdue mobs of unruly conscripts, who'd ransack and loot local businesses, injuring and even killing local authorities. As one might expect, once armed with military weapons, disgruntled and poorly treated enlistees even occasionally murdered their superior officers.
Such drunken insubordination at mobilization turned to drunken battlefield ineffectiveness against Japan. At the decisive Battle of Mukden - the largest battle in human history to that point - the Russians were routed by the Japanese, despite overwhelming numerical superiority. St. Petersburg newspapers lamented how "the Japanese found several thousand Russian soldiers so dead drunk that they were able to bayonet them like so many pigs." International observers described the entire Manchurian campaign as a "scuffle between a drunken guardsman and a sober policeman." With discontent roiling on the home front, Nicholas II was forced to sue for peace.
Embedded with the Russian army, Associated Press war correspondent Frederick McCormick blamed Russia's dismal performance on its system of mass conscription, which drafted boys regardless of their aptitude for service. "Individuality, character, adaptability, capability, were ignored-all was 'cannon food,' as the Russians so often remarked of themselves."
McCormick also faulted the demoralization that came with Russia's cursed addiction to vodka. "The chief enemy of an army is the nation's moral diseases," McCormick concluded. "A great people with a great army, who could not defeat the Japanese in one single battle, must first have been the victim not of the enemy, but of themselves." Vienna's Neue freie Presse was more blunt: "The Japanese did not conquer, but alcohol triumphed, alcohol, alcohol."
Here too it seems history is repeating itself in 2022. Social media has been flooded with videos from across Russia of tear- and vodka-soaked sendoffs, recruits passed-out on the ground, heated confrontations with draft authorities, demoralized "alco-battalions", drunken brawls with officers, and even medical casualties.
If history is any guide, Russia will again be fighting both their Ukrainian foes and the vodka bottle. The problem of drunkenness has already become so acute that regional authorities across Russia's Far East have banned the sale of alcohol near call-up points. Meanwhile, rumors are circulating of a nationwide Prohibition on vodka to ease mobilization.
If Putin were to enact a wartime Prohibition, that would truly be an instance of history repeating itself. The consensus lesson from Russia's disastrous defeat against Japan in 1905 was that morale, discipline and sobriety were more important determinants of battlefield success than sheer force of numbers.
It is not a bad lesson to draw. Tsarist authorities wound up abolishing soldiers' traditional vodka ration (charka), removed alcohol from military stores and restricted alcohol near military encampments and mobilization points, just as they're doing today. In fact, Russia's example prompted calls for alcohol Prohibition as a mobilization measure by virtually all militaries in World War I, including both Germany and the United States.
A decade later, when the entanglement of European alliances drew Russia into the Great War in 1914, Tsar Nicholas II applied the lesson he learned from Russia's earlier defeat and instituted a sweeping alcohol Prohibition to facilitate the mobilization of 4 million troops.
Glowing reports poured in, affirming the tsar's apparent wisdom: Russia fielded an army in half the expected time, even scoring early victories in East Prussia before their German foes had fully mobilized. The British military attaché in Petrograd reported: "The spirit of the people appeared excellent. All the wine shops were closed and there was no drunkenness-a striking contrast to the scenes witnessed in 1904. Wives and mothers with children accompanied the reservists from point to point, but the women cried silently and there were no hysterics."
Such reports no doubt pleased the tsar, who was - in traditional autocratic fashion - shielded from the more troubling reality. Yet in researching for my Vodka Politics book, I discovered in the State Archives of the Russian Federation in Moscow reams of long-suppressed reports of mobilization riots in the summer of 1914 from virtually every region of the Russian empire.
In Ekaterinoslav, a town now in Ukraine, conscripts smashed hotels and restaurants. Drunken rioters looted liquor stores and the local distillery. The mobs seized control of the entire city of the Siberian city of Barnaul, torching houses and stores while residents fled for their lives. Over a hundred Russians died in the subsequent battle between conscripts and the police. In one week alone, mobilization riots nationwide left 51 officers wounded and 9 dead, with 136 conscripts injured and 216 killed.
The police captain of the eastern Russian city of Sterlitamak telegrammed that "over 10,000 reservists began a disturbance that is threatening devastation of the entire city. The havoc began at the liquor warehouse that was ransacked. The assistant superintendent has been wounded when the police guards opened fire. The stores and shops are all closed on account of the devastation of the property of the residents," adding: "We never had this sort of disturbance during the war with Japan."
Such damning reports likely never made it to the tsar - as accurate-but-unflattering information rarely rises to the top in autocratic regimes. Since all of Russian officialdom owed their ranks and entitlements not to merit but to the good graces of the tsar, there was little incentive to deliver bad news. Or, as Russia's Foreign Minister at the time, Sergei Sazonov, candidly told foreign dignitaries: "In Russia, ministers have no right to say what they really think."
This too is directly analogous to Putin's debacle today, where there are no incentives to deliver bad news about either the mobilization disorder or the military losses in Ukraine up the chain of command. "We've learned that you do not bring bad news to the tsar's table," a former intelligence officer confided to Kremlinologist Mark Galeotti. Like the autocrats of Russia's past, Putin has long been intolerant of information that challenges his worldview.
With hindsight, it's clear that Russia's disastrous military performance in World War I accelerated the demise of the Romanov dynasty. After three long years of defeats, and millions of deaths in the hellish trenches of the Eastern Front, demoralized Russian conscripts deserted en masse. Away from the front, they found shortages, hyperinflation, famine and despair. In February 1917, revolutionaries and mutineers from the armed forces halted the tsar's train outside of Petrograd, and forced Nicholas II to abdicate - though the February Revolution did not end Russia's suffering, the war, or the political instability.
While the historical continuities about Russian war, mobilization, and alcohol are striking, they also suggest that autocracies are persistent, despite the pathologies of their institutions.
First, mobilization for war is still an arduous, time-consuming process. In 2022 - as in 1905 or 1914 - military experts estimate that it will take three months or more to assemble, equip, and train Russia's reservists before being shipped to the front. Yet autocratic pressures to produce rapid results mean cutting corners and timelines, which explains the Kremlin's apparent plan to have the new conscripts trained and on Ukrainian battlefields in just two weeks.
The optics of mobilization are likewise similar. While the boxcars of yesteryear have been replaced by buses and planes, the despondency, demoralization, and drunkenness are the same and appear to be hitting the poorest, most remote, and non-Russian regions the most. This includes Yakutia, Dagestan, and Buryatia, where men are being rounded up and even dragged out of their beds to be sent to war.
Then there is flagging support for an autocrat's war. Unlike the scores of volunteers signing-up for service in World War II, Putin's forced mobilization to Ukraine after seven months of war is an implicit acknowledgement that his planned three-day offensive to topple Kyiv has gone horribly awry. Not even the relentless barrage of Kremlin propaganda can obscure that fact. While the majority of Russians outwardly support the government and its war effort, the popular mood has been one of general apathy; until, that is, they're asked to make personal sacrifices for Putin's uncertain cause.
The differences in morale and discipline between the Russian and Ukrainian sides has likewise been striking, which can be seen in relation to alcohol. When Russia invaded in February, Ukrainian martial law included a partial prohibition on alcohol sales to maintain discipline and preserve foodstuffs, which was subject to local enforcement. With Ukrainian breweries and distilleries shifting to the mass production of Molotov cocktails, getting drunk seemed a selfish and unpatriotic diversion from the collective sacrifice of wartime. Even after the lifting of prohibition, Ukrainian morale and discipline have remained high.
By contrast, drunkenness seems endemic in the ranks of the demoralized Russian military, with some 20-40 percent of soldiersrefusing to fight. Of the horrific reports of rapes, murders, and war crimes at the hands of occupying Russian forces, alcohol seems to be an ever-present contributor. Ukrainians liberated from Russian occupation tell of drunken Russian commanders threatening to slaughter locals as retribution, while "younger soldiers were drinking and getting high, shouting at the Ukrainians that they all needed to be 'punished'."
Finally, even though the Russian mobilizations of 1904 and 1914 were followed by revolutionary disturbances, there is no guarantee of a similar outcome today. In the West, there is a widely held misconception that Putin's autocratic regime is inherently unstable, and an expectation that any loss of popular support and legitimacy will bring it tumbling down.
This ignores that, even without popular legitimacy, autocracies have a wider range of tools to maintain social control - including the co-optation of opposition groups, state propaganda, and outright repression - than democratic governments have. And as harrowing as the unfolding reports of anti-war protests, the arrest and crackdown against opposition to the mobilization, and even loud disagreements at local conscription offices may be, we should keep in mind that it all still pales in comparison with the scale of the widespread, and often deadly anti-mobilization riots of the past in which hundreds if not thousands of soldiers, conscripts and civilians died. Even then, the ruling autocracy had little difficulty in maintaining power, political control, and continued forward with an ultimately doomed war effort. It took 13 years from the 1904 mobilization, and three years from the 1914 mobilization for the tsar to be deposed.
Vladimir Putin has already outlived many predictions of his political demise. History suggests that he could again.