Towards the Flame

Review: ‘The End of Tsarist Russia’ by Dominic Lieven

By Serge Schmemann

Aug. 30, 2015

Dominic Lieven’s stated reason for this contribution to the centenary literature on World War I is to place Russia “where it belongs, at the very center” of the war’s history. Certainly the war proved to be at the center of Russian history, leading to revolution, dictatorship, repression and more war.

But Mr. Lieven, a well-respected British scholar of Imperial Russia, makes the convincing case that World War I was really about the struggle of Russia and Germany for territory, status and influence in Eastern and Central Europe, in which the fate of Ukraine — shades of today — played a central role. At the end, Russia and Germany both lost, leading to a peace in which neither played a constructive part, and making a second conflict likely.

In giving Russia’s side of the story — as he did in his well-received study of an earlier war, “Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814” — Mr. Lieven punctures the popular Western image of a reactionary autocracy stumbling into a suicidal war through misguided Slavic nationalism. There is that, to be sure, but his Russia is also a vast empire and an economic powerhouse in the making, where a fledgling civil society and influential press often contributed to nationalist passions while a counterintuitively capable aristocratic elite wrestled with legitimate questions of where Russia’s national interests lay in the complex and rapidly changing world of the early 20th century.

Mr. Lieven’s empathy with the well-born men who ran Russia and its foreign policy under Emperor Nicholas II may be explained in part by his own descent from an illustrious family of Baltic aristocrats — one of whom, Prince Alexander Lieven, makes a delightful cameo appearance in the book as chief of the Naval General Staff from 1911 to 1914, who “liked to work with his pet monkey perched on his shoulder.”

But it would be wrong to dismiss Mr. Lieven’s portrayal of the imperial elite and its role as solely the product of his heritage. On the contrary, his intimate familiarity with the Russia he describes and his extensive study of the letters, diaries and books of the chief actors in Russia’s descent “towards the flames” — many not hitherto accessible to historians — are what render this work so authoritative and readable.

In Mr. Lieven’s telling, the primary cause of the war was “the conflict of interests, fears, and ambitions created by the decline of the Ottoman and Austrian empires.” The crises this generated could have been resolved only through the collaboration of the rising German and Russian states. But that was neither simple nor obvious at the time in St. Petersburg, torn among the imperatives of ensuring access to Black Sea ports through the Straits; sustaining a Slavophile “mission” to the Balkan Slavs; managing the costs of a vast land empire; and balancing dynastic links to Germany against fears of its rising power.

“The options open to Russia were difficult, and there were powerful and rational arguments to justify the foreign policy adopted by Petersburg,” Mr. Lieven writes. As someone who also has Russian roots, I found his portraits of the men from the “nest of the aristocracy and gentry” who made or disputed that policy — like the foreign ministers Aleksandr Izvolsky and Sergey Sazonov, or the diplomat-journalist Prince Grigorii Troubetskoy — among the most interesting passages of the book. Contrary to the notion of self-serving noblemen leading Russia to disaster, these men, as portrayed by Mr. Lieven, “were far from stupid” and generally decent. They were also, as he makes clear, closely linked by class, rank and often marriage to the aristocratic elite that predominated in most European governments.

Nicholas II, in Mr. Lieven’s telling, is also more complex and sympathetic than the hapless monarch of Western lore. The subject of another earlier Lieven study, Nicholas is “above all else a Russian patriot,” steeped in the ideology of a unique communion between Orthodox czar and people, caught between equally dangerous demands for reform and status quo.

Mr. Lieven’s ability to empathize with the different forces of the old order isn’t limited to the elites. The book is liberally sprinkled with personal asides like this one: “Personally, my sympathies are with the soldiers: I too would have been deeply unwilling to sacrifice my life for the Straits.” I particularly liked the brusque dismissal of popular myths about the power of the holy wanderer Rasputin: “Grigorii Rasputin’s influence on policy was grossly exaggerated then and has been ever since.”

This book is not, however, always an easy read for the general reader, who may at times become lost in the thickets of names, arguments and events. And only fellow historians are likely to fully appreciate how Mr. Lieven disagrees with them, since he often does not identify them. But for anyone interested in the First World War, the effort is well worth the exposure to a side of the war that is often given short shrift in Western histories.

Inevitably, an account of European maneuvers and passions on the eve of cataclysm prompts a search for contemporary parallels, especially when issues like the fate of Ukraine are described as pivotal, and the main protagonists — Russia and Germany — are again at the center of European politics. Mr. Lieven acknowledges the echoes, but he is quick to note that Angela Merkel’s Germany is very different from Kaiser Wilhelm II’s; Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not Nicholas II’s; Ukraine does not hold the key to Russian imperial power; “and Europe is no longer at the center of the world.”

Yet some of the forces that Mr. Lieven describes behind Russian policies and politics — messianism coupled with a sense of inferiority, backwardness coupled with brilliance and great wealth, the vastness of the land and the determination of the rulers to be recognized as a great power — are all very much on display in Putin’s Russia.

Mr. Lieven sees more worrisome parallels in Asia. On the last page, he writes that he conceived and wrote the book at his home on a Japanese mountain, and thinking about the dangers of geopolitical brinkmanship and strident nationalism in east Asia “is not a comforting experience.” Hopefully discomfort will prove to be the worst of it this time around.


The March to World War I & Revolution

By Dominic Lieven