TODAY is the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended the involvement of Soviet Russia in World War One.

It is one of those treaties that is often referred to humorously because nobody is supposed to know anything about it – the late great John Belushi did a funny sketch on the subject. Yet the treaty was one of the most important of the First World War and changed the face of Europe overnight.

Following the October Revolution the previous year, the Bolshevik-led socialist government had transformed Russia in a matter of months, and the Russian Civil War that would last until late 1922 was already under way with the Red Army fighting counter-revolutionary forces, most notably the Cossacks.

By late 1917, German forces and their allies were overwhelming the Russian forces and someone had to give – it was the Soviets who did so.

IN 1914, Germany and its three main allies, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey, came together as the Central Powers to fight against the Allied nations which at first included Russia when Tsar Nicholas II was enthusiastic for war.

The Russian Imperial forces were successful at first, but military reverses led to unrest both in the army and civilian population. The revolutionaries exploited that unrest and the subsequent February Revolution affected the Russian army’s morale and discipline to a great extent. The liberal Provisional Government which had replaced the abdicated Tsar in March 1917 was unable to keep command of the army and navy, and with so-called ‘Red Guards’ allied to the Bolsheviks taking charge of many parts of the forces, there was a complete collapse of the command structure.

Food shortages for civilians and massive casualties among the troops weakened Russian military resolve even before the October Revolution. Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, swiftly concluded that Soviet Russia needed to get out of the war.

In November, 1917, Lenin signed the Decree on Peace calling for a peace treaty that would include Soviet Russia withdrawing from the war.

It famously stated that the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government “proposes to all warring peoples and their governments to begin at once negotiations leading to a just democratic peace.”

THEN in Poland and now in Belarus, from December, 1917, Brest-Litovsk hosted two months of talks between the representatives of the Soviets and the Central Powers.

Lenin was desperate for peace so his Bolsheviks could get on with changing Russia for good, while his colleague Leon Trotsky wanted to fight wars against all militarist imperialist nations starting with Germany where he was sure the workers would rise up in revolt. It was a big mistake by Trotsky who had taken command of the negotiations himself – no such workers’ movements got going in Germany and on February 18, 1918, the talks broke up as some 53 divisions of the Central Powers’ armies charged into Russia where the trenches were all but empty.

Technically, Russia was still part of the Allies, but they never showed up and with the outright defeat of Russia imminent, Lenin managed to change Trotsky’s mind so that the treaty – which Lenin himself called it ‘shameful’ - was agreed.

Overnight on March 3, 1918, Russia lost 150,000 sq kms of its territories, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Ukraine had already declared independence and that was now recognised by Soviet Russia.

Rich farmlands and coalfields became either German and Austro-Hungarian territory or independent. The Allies were furious, but due to the need to occupy all these territories, the German army was weakened just at the time they were launching the Spring Offensive which, had it succeeded, might well have won the war for the Central Powers.