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.’

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.