Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in force for only eight months, was a separate peace agreement between the Central Powers and Russia. It was designed to end the latter's participation in World War I without the consent of the Allied Powers.

The post-Tsarist regime of Alexander Kerensky had fallen to Bolshevik forces in the October Revolution of November 6 and 7, 1917 (New Style). The new Soviet government was determined to consolidate its hold on power at home and sought an end to the fighting. An armistice with the Central Powers was arranged in December and a peace conference followed at Brest, in present-day Belarus. Negotiations did not go smoothly. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the German demands were exceedingly harsh or the Soviets were totally unwilling to surrender territory or pay reparations.

Leon Trotsky, commissar for foreign affairs and chief Soviet representative at the peace conference, purposely slowed negotiations and in January 1918 walked out of the meetings; he hoped to quit the war, but avoid signing the peace agreement. Trotsky hoped further that by exposing Germany's blatantly expansionist aims, workers there and in Austria-Hungary would rise against their governments. Labor unrest did exist within the Central Powers, but lacked the strength and organizational unity to prevail over the existing governments.

On February 10, an impatient Germany resumed warfare against Russia. Nikolai Lenin, originally Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, chairman of the Council of People's Commissars and virtual dictator, was fearful that the Bolsheviks would lose control at home and threatened to resign if the peace terms were not accepted.

The agreement signed in March exacted even greater demands on Russia than those proposed earlier. Soviet territorial losses included the following areas to be controlled by Germany and Austria-Hungary: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Kurland, Livonia and Bessarabia. Russia recognized the independence of Georgia, Ukraine and Finland. The Armenian districts of Ardahan, Kars and Batumi were ceded to the Ottoman Empire. Five months later, Russia agreed to pay hefty reparations for its part in opposing the Central Powers.

The Russians lost more than 300,000 square miles of territory and in excess of 50 million people. Of greater significance, however, was the loss of huge sources of iron and coal in the ceded areas. From the Allied perspective, the treaty was a disaster in that it allowed the Germans to transfer soldiers to the Western Front, where they immediately gained numerical superiority.

The German territorial triumph was short-lived. As part of the armistice signed in November 1918, Germany was forced to renounce the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The new Soviet government had managed to relieve its weary citizens of the burden of war against Germany, but the surrender of important territory provoked much criticism. The treaty also helped to establish, at least for the time being, the independence of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

As a consequence of making a separate peace, Soviet Russia was denied the spoils of war enjoyed by the other Allied powers.

See World War I Timeline.

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