Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The End of Tsarist Russia: World War I and the Road to Revolution, by Dominic Lieven

This week I'm reviewing a somewhat complex book from Dominic Lieven, The End of Tsarist Russia: World War I and the Road to Revolution.  Perhaps misleadingly for the title, the book focuses rather little on World War I and the eventual revolution in 1917 which led to the creation of the Soviet Union. Instead the book focuses heavily on the history of Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as well as the larger context of Europe, imperialism, and Pan-Slavism, which leads to the fateful decision of Russia's entry into the growing conflict between Russia and Austria. The fall of Tsar Nicholas II's regime is covered, fairly briefly, and the books end with some speculation on Lieven's part about both the past and the future. The book is okay and Lieven states he makes extensive use of Russian government archives, however as it was an audio book I couldn't really confirm the sources and the fact that these resources are once again inaccessible is...concerning, but not necessarily a cause for alarm.

The first chapter of this book is a little confusing because it actually doesn't talk about Russia at all and instead goes into great deal of the psychology of Europe, as well as the concept of Great Powers and the Balance of Power which had dominated European diplomacy since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Although I was a little annoyed by this distraction, especially because having studied this period before I'm already familiar with the concepts explored, I suppose it's necessary for readers who are unfamiliar with the subject. Providing this contextual framework, Lieven then goes into talking about Russia. The picture that Lieven paints is that by the early 20th century Russia was a country at a crossroads. Russia had been among the victorious powers in 1815, and the tsar had even marched his troops through Paris. Russia's position as one of the Great Powers, unlike Prussia or Spain, had long been assured because of its large population, vast territory, and large military capacity. However by the late nineteenth century the diplomatic scene in Europe was rapidly changing. Prussia had grown stronger through the unification of Germany and the unification of Italy under Piedmont had created two new Great Powers in central Europe, drastically altering the Balance of Power. Furthermore, Germany's industrialization was putting it well on the way to becoming the economic giant of Europe.

Russia, by contrast, had fallen behind the other powers Where other nations had become industrialized economies with extensive railroad networks, Russia remained largely agrarian and with limited rail networks, putting it at a distinct disadvantage when it came to a modern, industrialized war. The Russians were acutely aware of that, especially with the disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. This backwardness put Russia in very real danger of losing its Great Power status, a situation which was only made worse by the amount of territory Russia controlled. Much like the Hapsburg Austrian Empire, the Romanovs of Russia ruled over a large variety of ethnicities. Depending on how you counted ''Russians'', mainly whether or not you included Ukrainians, Russians made up only a plurality in the expansive empire. Russia was in just as much danger from the enthno-national forces which fracturing the Ottoman Empire and threatening to collapse the Hapsburg monarchy.

However, this did not have to be a permanent state of affairs. Much like the United States, one of the new powers on the scene, Russia had a large frontier that could be settled and exploited, as well as enormous potential to become an industrial power. The United States, after all, began as an agrarian experiment, so Russia could follow the same path. Lieven also points out that most of the development decisions, such as railroad construction, were made by a central authority which set a tradition of planned economies in Russia. (As well as a strong tradition of communal ownership of land, rather than the private property tradition in Western Europe.) Despite numerous setbacks, Russia still had great opportunities provided it had the peace necessary for growth.

So why did Russia go to war? Lieven makes extensive argument stating how it wasn't in Russia's best interests to go to war in 1914. Russia needed the army to maintain order across the empire, rather than fighting in a costly war. Russia's army and navy were still recovering from the catastrophes of the Russo-Japanese war a decade before, and despite extensive increases in budget they were still inadequate to the task of tackling Germany. Finally Russia simply did not have the civilian resources, whether it be railroads, strategic industry, or financing to prosecute an extended war. The answer, as Lieven explains it, boils down to Russian pride. Russia had expended considerable time and resources in cultivating the Balkan states such as Serbia as allies and Pan-Slavic sentiment meant the Russians could not stand idly by while the Austrians dismembered Serbia. If Nicholas II hadn't gone to war, and instead submitted to another Germanic demand, it's very possible Pan-Slavic extremism could have toppled his throne anyway. At least, that's Lieven's conjecture, but I think he indulges into it overmuch.

The two biggest problems I had with this book was the sheer number of people that Lieven talks about and Lieven's speculations. Lieven talks extensively about government officials, mostly Russian but also from the other powers, as well as their opinions on the political spectrums that made Russian policy. This is a good thing on the one hand because it provides a ton of different perspectives but since I was listening to the book rather than reading it I had a hard time keeping track of the various individuals. The other issue is the sheer amount of speculation Lieven does on both the past and the future. Lieven spends a good portion of the end of the book speculating on how World War I might have not happened or, perhaps, been avoided entirely. I think this is largely pointless as by the 1910's there was a strong assumption among the European Powers that a war was going to happen in the near future anyway, which created a self-fulfilling prophecy for when the war finally did occur. If it hadn't been the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it would have been another of a dozen different crises that would have set all of Europe off to war once again. Lieven also speculates on the future and vaguely on the possibility of a large war between the rising Asian powers. Although possible, it feels like a pet theory of Lieven's rather than any actual research.

Overall the book is okay, and does an exhaustive job of talking about the Russian perspective going into World War I, as well as why Russia went to war and why, at least with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that it was a very poor decision. The greatest weakness in my opinion is Lieven's speculations on could-have-beens, some weaker than others.

 - Kalpar

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