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Book Review: The End of Tsarist Russia

By (August 19, 2015) No Comment

The End of Tsarist Russia:the end of tsarist russia

The March to World War I & Revolution

by Dominic Lieven

Viking, 2015

Dominic Lieven, eminent historian of Russia and author of 2009’s excellent Russia Against Napoleon, presents in his new book The End of Tsarist Russia an extended case for restoring Russia to the center of our narrative of the First World War. The war, he contends, “was first and foremost an eastern European conflict.”

On the surface, his economical summary of the Russian role in the war would seem to contradict such a contention:

In March 1918, the Germans and the Russians signed a peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk that ended World War I on the eastern front. In this treaty, Russia was forced to recognized Ukraine as an independent country in principle and a German satellite in practice. Had the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk survived, Germany would have won World War I. To win the war, Germany did not need outright victory on the western front. A draw in the west combined with the eclipse of the Russian Empire and German domination of east-central Europe wold have sufficed to ensure Berlin’s hegemony over the Continent. Instead, Allied victory on the western front resulted in the collapse of German hopes for empire in the east. As part of the armistice that ended World War I, Germany had to renounce the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and abandon its conquests in Eastern Europe.

Hence, and easy enough, first and foremost a western, in fact a French, conflict. But regardless of such big-picture interpretations one way or the other, Lieven’s smaller-scale work is superb, his fine focus on what he refers to, with rueful accuracy, as “the last frontier,” the Russian archives. The bulk of his book chronicles in exorbitant detail the political and diplomatic intrigues and maneuvers that led to both the Russia of Czar Nicholas II entering the First World War and also that same Russia being caught up on the turmoil of revolution. And as Lieven points out, even far along in his story, there were very different roads open to the country:

In 1914, it was possible to envisage either a brilliant or a catastrophic future for Russia. Everything would depend on whether the regime could overcome the political crisis that loomed over it in the first years of the twentieth century … the key aspects of this crisis were generic in modern empires and were hard to overcome. It bears repeating that all the European empires faced this same threat from nationalism, and none of them survived it.

The Soviet Foreign Ministry archives in particular have provided Lieven with the raw material from which he shapes a succession of brief, fascinating portraits of such Russian ministers as Serge Sazonov, Vladimir Kokovstov, Aleksandr Izvolsky, and Prince Aleksei Lobanov-Rostovsky, men who disappear entirely from broader-brush histories of the period but who here get a chance to speak in their own words about the rapidly-changing world around them. The large outlines of those changes are well-known, the series of Balkan crises, the growing international tension, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and Lieven’s running observations about those larger events are every bit as insightful and pithy as their counterparts were in Russia Against Napoleon:

Nothing can excuse the stupidity of the German General Staff in invading Belgium and thereby easing Britain’s entry into the war. But faced in the winter of 1912-13 by a plea from the German Foreign Ministry to rethink the Schlieffen Plan and thereby avoid provoking British intervention, General Moltke could mount a plausible defense of his strategy by arguing that Britain’s army was too small to matter and that balance-of-power considerations would bring London into the war on France’s side regardless of whether Germany infringed on Belgium neutrality. If clarity regarding interests and intentions is the greatest virtue in foreign policy, then British foreign policy in 1914 was a disaster.

Many of the Russian archives Lieven consulted in researching this book have now been closed again to Western researchers; it may be a long time before we get a comparably thorough account of imperial Russia’s road to its destruction and transformation. Fortunately, a book as strong and tightly-detailed as The End of Tsarist Russia could see the light of day before the interdict descended. The book adds vital perspective to one of history’s most-trafficked subject.