Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia
Dominic Lieven
Allen Lane  448pp  £25

Histories of Russia’s involvement in the First World War have long turned on the question of whether 1914 caused, hastened or even delayed the Russian Revolution. Dominic Lieven’s masterly Towards the Flame uses a different lens to examine the decade before the July Crisis, not as a crucial staging ground in the origins of the Russian Revolution but rather as part of the history of empire in an age of nationalism and mass politics. Instead of approaching the autocracy as an ideological anachronism, economically more backward and politically more unstable than the other Great Powers, Lieven presents a ‘modern’ empire, which shared its rivals fundamental strengths and weaknesses. 

Russia entered the First World War for reasons of ‘security, interest and identity’. Security meant an attempt to bolster the existing balance of power against the perceived threat of German expansionism; interest meant Russia’s desire for predominance in the Balkans and control over the Straits of Constantinople; and identity meant a defence of Russia’s status as a Great Power and the leader of the Slavs. Such fundamental considerations also impelled policy-making in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Britain and France in the run up to war.

‘In 1914, it was possible’, Lieven argues, ‘to envisage either a brilliant or a catastrophic future for Russia’ but that future depended on tsarism’s ability to negotiate a stable path to modernisation without falling prey either to its Great Power rivals abroad or its revolutionary demons at home. At the centre of Lieven’s story are ‘the conflicts between empires and nationalisms in east-central Europe’. The Russian and the Austro-Hungarian empires were both in relative decline over the 19th century. Industrialisation, urbanisation and the spread of literacy were all fomenting incendiary forms of nationalism that were corroding the legitimacy of the ruling houses and threatening to disrupt the European balance of power. These problems were much harder to resolve than Anglo-German commercial and naval competition. Yet if the weakening of central dynastic hierarchies was, Lieven suggests, an inevitability; their sudden and bloody implosion in the crucible of the First World War was not.

Towards the Flame examines the tectonic shifts in the evolution of European empires but also plunges into an intimate, sometimes claustrophobic world of palaces, ministerial offices and diplomatic missions. In St Petersburg foreign policy in the years and months before August 1914 was conducted ‘in secret by the monarch and handful of individuals whom he appointed’. Lieven demonstrates how the fate of Europe, indeed of the world, in 1914 depended not simply on the iron laws of historical inevitability but on the personalities and (mis-)judgments of individuals with all their idiosyncrasies and frailties. 

But while Lieven emphasises how this unaccountable and opaque decision-making contributed to a dangerous form of brinksmanship, he also makes plain that the drumbeat for war could be heard far beyond the corridors of power. All of Europe’s dynastic empires were now struggling to conduct traditional diplomatic policy in a new era of mass politics, in which public opinion was a powerful and often vociferous force to be reckoned with. Liberals and nationalists in Russia were demanding that the emperor come to the defence of fellow Orthodox Slavs in the face of Austrian aggression. 

Lieven’s pages are populated by diplomats and ministers, who struggled to mask their government’s weaknesses and to press their own advantage while attempting to placate public opinion and avert a war that almost all understood Russia was not prepared to fight. The most prescient prediction of what a conflict would mean for the Russian Empire came in a memorandum penned by the conservative statesmen Pyotr Durnovo in 1914. Durnovo saw that a prolonged war with the axis powers, regardless of whether won or lost, would only hasten the onset of a revolutionary cataclysm. Yet many Russian policy-makers also felt that after a decade of military defeats and diplomatic climbdowns, Russia had no choice but to mobilise against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914 in defence of Serbia if it was to maintain its position as a Great Power. The greatest pessimists were, of course, proved right. 

Towards the Flame is a finely-wrought and compelling account of Russia’s final decade of peacetime before a continuum of war and revolution that stretched well into the 1920s, and arguably beyond. It is the story of a disaster, which, while it loomed ever larger on the horizon, was never an inevitability.

Daniel Beer is Senior Lecturer in History at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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