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Treaty of Brest-Litovsk: Summary

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You may know that Russia fought in World War I, but did you know that it pulled out of the war before it was officially over? This lesson explains the history and terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.

World War I

The start of World War I was complicated, to say the least. In 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian national. Germany, Austria-Hungary's closest ally, jumped to the country's defense and threatened to intervene in Serbia. Meanwhile, Russia (Serbia's ally) began to mobilize in case of war. Within a few short weeks, half of Europe was caught up in World War I thanks to a tricky system of alliances. To simplify things a little bit, think of it this way: World War I was fought between two groups--

  • the Central Powers made up of Germany and Austria-Hungary
  • the Allied Powers made up of France, Great Britain, and Russia (and eventually the United States!)

After about three years of conflict, Russia was ready to leave the war, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was the country's way out.

Bolshevik Revolution

While Russia was fighting alongside Great Britain and France, the country had a number of problems internally. Compared to other countries in Europe, Russia was way behind economically and technologically. The country was ruled by the ineffective Czar Nicholas II (basically the king of Russia) and an equally inefficient government called the Duma.

In the spring of 1917, the poor and starving Russian people had had enough. A group of radical socialists called the Bolsheviks led an uprising against the government and took control of the government. The Bolsheviks' leader, Vladimir Lenin, was at the head of the revolution.

Within a few short months, Lenin had made changes in Russia to consolidate his power and win over the hearts and minds of the Russian people. Lenin knew that Russia had sustained heavy losses fighting against the Central Powers, and World War I didn't show signs of ending any time soon. To keep the Bolshevik Revolution alive, Lenin decided to withdraw Russia from the war.

Early Negotiations

On November 8, 1917, Russia reached out to the Central Powers to ask for peace negotiations. Within a month, this request had turned into an armistice, which means that the two sides called a truce and fighting between Russia and Germany and Austria-Hungary stopped. Negotiations began on December 22 in Brest-Litovsk, an area located in present-day Belarus. Among the people negotiating the treaty were Russia's Leon Trotsky, Germany's Richard von Kuhlmann, and Austria-Hungary's Count Ottokar Czernin (what a name!).

Negotiations were ongoing from December to February with little progress. In February, Trotsky abandoned the talks. In his mind, the Central Powers were asking Russia for too much. After Trotsky walked away from the negotiating table, Germany mobilized its troops and resumed its attack on Russia. Both Trotsky and Lenin realized that they had no other option but to come to an agreement--their country was far too weak to continue the war effort.

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

On March 3, 1918, Russia and the Central Powers signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in which Russia agreed to:

  • allow Finland, Georgia, and Ukraine to become separate states.
  • give the Central Powers Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
  • cede territory to Turkey.

Map of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
Map of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

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