I try not to think too hard

Greg Afinogenov

  • Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven
    Allen Lane, 429 pp, £25.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 84614 381 6
  • Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire by Joshua Sanborn
    Oxford, 304 pp, £18.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 874568 6

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.’

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