In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

I try not to think too hardGreg Afinogenov

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia 
by Dominic Lieven.
Allen Lane, 429 pp., £25, May 2015, 978 1 84614 381 6
Show More
Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire 
by Joshua Sanborn.
Oxford, 304 pp., £18.99, October 2015, 978 0 19 874568 6
Show More
Show More

In​ the winter of 1926 the frozen corpse of a dishevelled 77-year-old man was found on a park bench in Berlin’s Tiergarten. He had been one of the dozen or so people whose choices had been decisive in the outbreak of the Great War. His name was Vladimir Sukhomlinov, and he was the former war minister of the Russian Empire. During his tenure, which began in the wake of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, Sukhomlinov had steadily built up Russia’s military strength and called on France to match his exertions. In July 1914 he assured Nicholas II that the army was ready to fight. ‘Never before had Russia been as well prepared for war as it was in 1914,’ he would write in his memoirs. Within a year, initial Russian successes had turned into a full-scale retreat that brought German and Austro-Hungarian forces to the gates of Riga in the north and Ternopil in the south – a return to borders not seen since the days of Peter the Great. Sukhomlinov was dismissed from his post, imprisoned and, after the February Revolution, put on trial by the Provisional Government for espionage and treason. In 1918, amnestied by the Bolsheviks, he secretly crossed the Finnish border and abandoned Russia for good.

Sukhomlinov was the first of the men who’d sat on the war councils of July 1914 to fall victim to Russia’s unravelling. The others followed, though some were more fortunate than others. Nicholas II had once told the foreign minister Sergei Sazonov: ‘I try not to think about anything too hard and find that this is the only way to rule Russia. Otherwise I would be long dead.’ He was executed in the basement of a merchant’s house in Ekaterinburg in 1918. The prime minister, Ivan Goremykin, retired to his Crimean dacha, only to be shot by looters after the October Revolution. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, whom Sukhomlinov blamed for secretly pushing the tsar into war and who was granted dictatorial military authority over the western parts of the empire when the war broke out, lived out the 1920s in France and died on the Côte d’Azur. So did Sazonov, who thought that securing Russia’s status as a great power and protector of the Serbs was worth the risk of war. The finance minister Petr Bark became Sir Peter Bark in 1935; the agriculture minister Aleksandr Krivoshein made it as far as Berlin, where he died in 1921.

‘The lies and frivolity, the passion and fear of thirty diplomats, princes and generals, for four years transformed peaceable millions into murderers and robbers, for purposes of state, leaving at the end the whole Continent a prey to barbarism, degeneracy, and poverty,’ the German leftist Emil Ludwig wrote in 1929. ‘Those who were guilty of all this remained unpunished and free. Of them all, only Sukhomlinov suffered imprisonment … Not one of all the names which signed Europe’s declaration of war, directly or indirectly, will be found on a casualty list … But the people of Europe paid the bill with nine million corpses.’

When it came to Russia, Ludwig was half right. Individually, many of the important members of the Russian imperial regime survived to a comfortable emigration, but the loss they faced collectively was greater than anyone could have imagined on the eve of the war. Germany and Austria lost their monarchies, but statesmen like Hindenburg and Horthy continued to speak with the authority of the old regime. In Russia the institutions and ideological platitudes that had sustained tsarist rule for a thousand years became irrelevant overnight. The storm swept away newer accretions as easily as the old – among them, the parliament established after the 1905 Revolution. With a handful of exceptions – Mikhail Bonch-Bruevich, a major-general in the tsar’s service and head of the Red Army’s general staff, who outlived Stalin, is the outstanding example – few of the men and women who shaped the public affairs of the empire in 1914 held any power in 1924.

Dominic Lieven’s new book, Towards the Flame, tries to make sense of the suicidal decision that Russia’s soon-to-be ‘former people’ made in July 1914. It covers much the same ground as Russia and the Origins of the First World War (1983), including detailed analyses of actors and competing political forces as well as the events of the July Crisis, but it is more panoramic and substantial in nearly every respect, as well as based on new archival research. It traces the Russian predicament as far back as the Crimean War, surveys the problems and ambitions of its imperial rivals, and adds compelling new accounts of the people involved.

The overall conclusion, however, remains the same as it was thirty years ago. Russian statesmen, led on by the snarling of the nationalist press and the sense that they had already granted too many concessions to Austro-Hungarian rapacity in the Balkans, felt that the honour of the Russian Empire demanded an assertive response to Vienna’s ultimatum to the Serbs. Added to this were larger anxieties, some of them well founded – for instance, that the Habsburgs were encouraging Ukrainian nationalism and that the Germans would soon control Russia’s Black Sea trade thanks to their growing power in the Ottoman Empire.

This claim is less anodyne than it once seemed. In The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011), Sean McMeekin makes the startling claim that Russia masterminded the entire war in an attempt to secure Constantinople and the Dardanelles, then manipulated its allies into doing most of the fighting on its behalf. Towards the Flame is, deliberately or not, a rebuttal of this approach. Where McMeekin attributes a Straits-based monomania to the Russian Empire’s leadership – sometimes appearing rather monomaniacal himself – Lieven takes pains to show just how conditional and limited the Straits question was. Dostoevsky may have seen Constantinople as the linchpin of a massive civilisational conflict between East and West, but Russian statesmen understood that gaining permanent access to the Mediterranean still meant having to reckon with Gibraltar and Suez, both controlled by Britain. If the Russian Empire had ever had a great plan of anti-Ottoman conquest, by 1914 this had given way to anxious triangulation between British and German constraints.

To account for the war’s consequences requires going beyond its origins. Lieven opens his book with the provocative statement that ‘as much as anything, World War One turned on the fate of Ukraine.’ In the early 20th century, Ukraine was the fulcrum of Russian imperial power, the focus of its Great Russian nationalism and the source of its industrial strength. In the closing years of the war, Bolshevik, nationalist, conservative, anarchist and German forces battled over its fate. But the need to untangle the interminable Balkan crises leading up to the reckoning in July means that Ukraine mostly disappears from Lieven’s narrative between the first chapter and the last, and by then it is too late. This is at its heart a traditional ‘origins’ book, bound by the limits of the genre.

Just how it was that the war on the Eastern Front – that is, in Russia’s western borderlands, including Ukraine – turned out to mean everything for the collapse of the Russian Empire is the story told by Joshua Sanborn in Imperial Apocalypse. Sanborn traces the way the dislocation, decentralisation and social fracturing generated by the retreats and mass migrations of the war made their way, like cracks in glass, to the heart of the imperial machine. What happened in Petrograd in 1917 as the war effort sputtered seems to be a familiar story: Rasputin and his intrigues, rumours of German spies at the heart of the court, Nicholas’s abdication in February, the squabbling of Duma-Soviet dual power, Lenin making his way to the Finland Station with German money in his pocket in April, Lenin ready to lead the Bolsheviks to seize all power for the Soviets in November.

Yet little of this would have taken place had it not been for events on the Eastern Front. In 1915, as Russian troops were swept back in the retreat that led to Sukhomlinov’s trial, European Russia was convulsed with massive population movements – deported Jews and Poles, refugees fleeing combat, convoys of prisoners of war – while the social truce that had seemed to consolidate Russian society behind church and tsar began to fracture, with uprisings, revolutionary agitation and labour militancy reaching new heights after the lull of late 1914. But the upheaval on the Eastern Front, as Sanborn demonstrates, also set creative processes in motion. With imperial bureaucracy unable to cope with the chaos, local authorities – including popular military commanders – and new social institutions took over tasks of which the central administration had washed its hands. Yet the regime, the tsar above all, was unwilling to recognise what was happening.

The result wasn’t only revolution in Petrograd. It was also, as Sanborn sees it, decolonisation in Russia’s western borderlands. The new states that emerged in Europe after the First World War have often been seen as high-handed creations of the Entente powers drawing lines at Versailles. Yet, just as the Soviet Union came into being by cobbling together the institutions that had sprouted from the empire’s rubble, so did the new states of the onetime Eastern Front: Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and, for a time, Ukraine. Lieven calls the events of 1914-17 a ‘huge tragedy for the Russian people’; the same cannot be said so confidently for the Finns and Poles.

The Latvians above all exemplified the ambiguities and contradictions of the period of war and revolution. Concentrated in the Russian provinces of Livland and Courland, the native Letts had been ruled by German-speaking landowners since the Middle Ages. After Russia conquered the territory in the 18th century, the barons were co-opted into the Russian imperial state, which confirmed and safeguarded their rule. In the decades before the Great War, the Latvian lands were among the most rapidly industrialising regions of the empire. Hundreds of thousands of former Lettish agricultural workers were the core of Russia’s new proletariat – a vast, politically active constituency which had found in socialism and anti-imperial struggle a left-wing nationalism all its own. In the first half of 1914, the average Livland metalworker went on strike four times; more strikers were recorded there than in all of Moscow province, whose urban population was four times as large.

Latvian independence and the Soviet Union were forged simultaneously in the crucible of conflict. With the coming of the Revolution and Civil War, the Latvian Riflemen – organised as a militia in 1915 to defend against German invasion – were an elite unit in the Red Army, among the first to be thrown into battle on the Volga and the last to break under German assault in Riga. Some afterwards returned to independent Latvia as members of its underground Communist Party. Others stayed in the Soviet Union. In the end, it mattered little: in the ‘nationalities operations’ of 1937-38, Stalin executed most of the latter, and when his tanks invaded Latvia in 1940 the former died too.

Despite the strikes in Russia’s cities in the first weeks of July 1914, the affairs of the Letts were far from the minds of Sazonov, Sukhomlinov and their colleagues after the murder of Franz Ferdinand. Ukraine occupied them only insofar as Austrian Galicia – its western third – offered the tempting promise of ‘reunifying the Russian lands’, and destroying the centre of Ukrainian nationalism at the same time. Poland, many of them accepted, would have to be abandoned to the Germans if the fighting became serious, but they still pinned their hopes on a quick resolution.

As for the Bolsheviks, few took them seriously. In 1914, the story goes, the socialist Victor Adler told the Austrian foreign minister Leopold Berchtold that war would lead to revolution in Russia. ‘And who will lead this revolution?’ Berchtold snorted. ‘Perhaps Mr Bronstein sitting over there at the Café Central?’ (Bronstein is better known to posterity as Trotsky.) Lenin’s collected works leave no doubt that his plans for 1914 – as he wrote to his mother that March – revolved around ‘hiring a live-in servant to help with the housework and enable us to take longer walks’. Meanwhile the tsarist regime tried to use the Bolsheviks just as the Germans would try to do. As late as 1912, the secret police were covertly aiding Lenin’s supporters in Russia, convinced that their fractiousness was the best way to destroy Russian social democracy.

The origins of the First World War, as far as Russia was concerned, had little to do with its consequences. After 1917, no one was still speaking of the Straits, or of Pan-Slavism and Russia’s overlordship of the Balkans. The Bolsheviks exposed the seedy calculations of imperial statesmen in a series of revelatory publications and paraded them around Europe as evidence of the old regime’s guilt. Sukhomlinov, meanwhile, saw which way the wind was blowing. In the afterword to his memoirs, published in Berlin in 1924 – and soon printed in Leningrad by the Soviets – he wrote:

I see another guarantee for Russia’s future: the fact that it is led by a self-confident, firm government driven by great political ideals … Their worldview is unacceptable to me. And yet slowly and unsurely the hope awakens in me that they will lead the Russian people, perhaps against its will, down the right path to a sure goal and new power.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.