Then and Now: A Review of Dominic Lieven, ‘The End of Tsarist Russia,’ 2015

The real parallels between the then as described by Lieven and now are not at the level of the international landscape but within Russia itself. This is so not merely because it seems to be the case to a casual reader like me, but because that relevance is understood by the leaders of Russia’s government today who act accordingly.

Then and Now: A Review of Dominic Lieven, The End of Tsarist Russia, 2015

A little more than a year ago, my wife and I moved into a new apartment complex in the outlying St Petersburg borough of Pushkin, once called Tsarskoye Selo and best known to tourists for the Catherine Palace and its magnificent gardens dating from the second half of the 18th century. One entrance to those gardens is just 100 meters from our complex and every morning I take my constitutional walk, or, if I am up to it, my jog around the lake, passing just before the Cameron Pavilion in a 20 minute circuit.
The palace and its grounds have been restored to ‘move-in condition’ and are breathtaking in their beauty. Just nearby, on the other side of the park from where we live is the Alexander Palace, a smaller stately residence where Nicholas II and his family stayed on their occasional visits to these ancestral grounds.
Each time as I take in this beauty I ask myself how Nicholas II could have lost it all, how he could have ‘blown it’ – to use the vernacular of our day. How could he have taken Russia into that fateful war in the summer of 1914 which finally brought down three empires including his own? The level of culpability is mind boggling. Was it stupidity or smallness of spirit from the very private and weak person whom fate put at the head of a vast empire, as one of those who took control from the ancien régime, LeonTrotsky, insinuated in his writings?
Against the background of these musings, I was delighted to learn about a new book addressing these and related questions by a professional British historian with more than 25 years of experience teaching Russian history at the London School of Economics and based on fresh research conducted in the Russian archives – Dominic Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia.
For this discovery I owe a debt of gratitude to a classmate (Harvard College, 1967), Serge Schmemann, an authoritative journalist, long time bureau chief of The New York Times in Paris, who published a very favorable review of Lieven’s book in his paper in August and called out some of its extraordinary contributions to our understanding of how pre-revolutionary Russia was ruled. Later on I will return to Schmemann’s review because it raises an important issue about the relationship between man and matter that I will take further.
The originality of Lieven’s book struck me from the very beginning, in his Introduction, which explains a great deal about the author, his approach to his discipline and subject matter. Indeed this is a chapter full of ideas, setting out what he aims to prove and how, with many of the arguments developed in the course of the text telescoped here.
Both in the introduction and elsewhere in the book, Lieven occasionally addresses the reader in the first person singular, something which historians and political scientists regularly do in their dedications to spouses, colleagues, mentors, but never allow themselves to do in the main text. For Lieven, history is a craft, the restorer’s art, and not hard science. As we see later in the book, he is not positioning himself as the unerring voice of Fate using facts as building blocks. He openly and transparently weighs causal factors on the scales, and does not shrink from examining whether things might have turned out differently.
Lieven consciously tries to put himself in the shoes of the personages he studies, to see things as they did then, whether at the top or the bottom of society. He places his subjects in the broader intellectual and social currents of their day, meaning in the setting of European society. Points of distinction are noted, but for the most part his point is that tsarist Russia was not extraordinary, not a world apart. In particular, its ruling elites were thinking and behaving in line with their European and American peers of their time.
Lieven is also very human in acknowledging his unavoidable interest to identify relevance to issues we face today in the period over a hundred years ago that is the subject of his investigations. From the very first page he mentions how Ukraine then as now figured large in the issues facing Russia’s rulers. Indeed he claims that in the late 19th century Ukraine was a significant causal link in the chain of events leading to the World War because of its economic and political importance to the Empire. It was the breadbasket producing a substantial portion of the agricultural commodities, grain and sugar, which dominated Russian exports. These had to pass through the Straits to reach foreign markets, meaning that the terms of passage through the Bosphorus, Istanbul and the Dardanelles were top of mind in imperial Russia, quite apart from historical and religious pretensions that came down through the ages. Lieven puts this issue in a context that is easy for general readers to appreciate today: the Straits were for Russia what the Suez Canal was for Britain and the Panama Canal was for the USA in the same time period: the bottleneck of its foreign trade. As for Ukraine, it was a territory and a people divided between the Russian and Austrian empires, and for that reason was one more source of competition between the Germanic and Slavic peoples then in contradiction and potential conflict in the run-up to WWI. This question is developed later in Lieven’s book, and I will return to it.
Finally, at the very start of his book Lieven explains the methodology of his writing which reflects directly his understanding of causality. He tells us he will use two approaches, the God’s eye view and the worm’s eye view. The former, from on high, he defines as ‘long term structural factors such as globalization and geopolitics, the European balance of power, the dominant ideologies and the values of the era.” The latter is contingency, personalities, namely the fifty or less decision makers within the tsarist regime who guided the empire’s path in international affairs during the period preceding the outbreak of WWI.

Lieven defined as his main task to write about the origins of WWI from the Russian angle, a viewpoint which has taken a hundred years to see the light of day for several identifiable reasons. Firstly, Western historiography of WWI has been focused exclusively on where the pain was felt – on the Western front, with concentration on such causal factors as the British-German rivalry for global dominance and with due attention to the German-French security issues coming down from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, along with questions of military technology and mobilizations, and the way military necessities trumped diplomacy in a deus ex machina when push came to shove in July 1914.
On the Russian side, the Bolsheviks murdered or sent into exile the professional Russian historians who otherwise could have produced the definitive work on the subject fifty or sixty years ago. Moreover, the Soviet regime denied the value of and interest in World War I except as a prelude to Revolution. The global disaster we know as WWI was merely an inevitable consequence of advanced capitalism and required no detailed explanations. For these reasons Dominic Lieven had the privilege to do a pioneering work built upon the till now missing day by day narrative account from inside the control tower.
He has succeeded brilliantly in writing a dense text walking us through European and Russian diplomatic history in the decade leading up to the war. He explains convincingly the broad mind-set of elites in St Petersburg and European capitals, who they were socially, where and how they were educated, what they read and how they prepared for and exercised their professional lives at the head of the relevant ministries –foreign affairs and war. He shares with us his profound knowledge of the family relationships and friendships among the elite, so that we see who they were in the round.
One of the notable generalizations about this ruling elite in tsarist Russia which Lieven pitches to us early in in the book is that: “By 1914, most Petersburg officials were competent, university-educated professionals with a strong ethic of public service.” From his remarks on individual officials and officers, we read in case after case about their enlightened views and decency, features which cut across the spectrum of the above-surface political views from Right to Left. And if Nicholas II himself cannot be held up for outstanding competence or enlightenment, he is nonetheless praised for his patriotism and for performing a role of Autocrat that was so demanding in terms of the expectations of his followers as to be virtually unachievable for the best of men.
Lieven tells us a good deal about the press and other factors shaping public opinion in tsarist Russia on matters of foreign policy. And he shows at length how public opinion and the Slavophile sympathies in the ‘country’ party that put Russia on its collision course with Austria-Hungary and Germany predominated within the foreign ministry and even took possession of the monarch himself, while calmer minds of the ‘court’ party urged reconciliation and avoidance of war at all cost, fearing, rightly, that it could only lead to social unrest and revolution. Both sides in the argument received a hearing which reached through the senior officialdom to the tsar himself. The resulting policy may have been unfortunate, but it was not for lack of open discussion, and finally reflected the views of the political nation, rather than just of the autocrat and his immediate circle. In this as in much else, Russia closely resembled the other European powers of the age.
This is consequently a narrative with very few dunces and very few villains. If one villain is to be identified in the entire book, it is the leader of the centrist Octobrist party in the Duma and head of the War Industry Committees during the war, Alexander Guchkov, whose personal ambition overwhelmed what patriotism he felt and whose intrigues both in parliament and with senior military officers facilitated the February Revolution that brought down the regime. In taking this position, Lieven is following a line developed first by another British historian of Russia, George Katkov, in his book on Russia 1917 published back in 1967.
It is curious that Dominic Lieven has chosen to highlight the relevance of Ukraine to Russia’s fortunes as a common thread between the pre- WWI period and today. In addition to the reasons already cited above, Lieven calls attention to the threat perceived in St Petersburg from the Ukrainian nationalist movement which the Viennese authorities allowed to develop in their part of Ukraine, Galicia, where it was viewed as a useful counterbalance to Polish power and incidentally as a potential tool against the Russians in the broader issue of the Habsburg empire’s standing as a multinational state with a substantial number of Slavic subjects. Given the vital importance of Ukraine to the Russian empire not only for its economic contribution but for boosting substantially the Slavic component in Russia’s ethnic mix, the Russian court was justifiably concerned over any threat to the loyalty of its own Ukrainian population coming from Galicia.
However, by Lieven’s own admission, in 1914 this threat was still quite premature and Ukraine was only a small contributing factor to the more acute issue of competition between the two empires in the Balkans.
Indeed, if we look at the pre-1914 international landscape described by Lieven in his book and the present day, there is another commonality that is, in my view, far more striking: namely the competition between Germany and Russia for hegemony in East Central Europe if not on the Continent as a whole. Lieven mentions in several places how these two powers were emerging as the clear contenders for dominance on the Continent in the new century. Heavily industrialized Germany was still well ahead but anxiously watched a Russia that was on a steep trajectory of economic and military growth from the nadir of its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and Revolution of 1905 to its visible prosperity in 1912. That growing Russian prosperity was financing a large-scale armaments program, including a naval construction budget greater than Germany’s.
What Lieven has apparently failed to see is how the post-reunification Bundesrepublik has become the new hegemon within the European Union, controlling all the levers of central power and enjoying a psychological dominance among its nominal peers coming from its wealth and resilient economic performance in the face of Continent-wide financial crises. Germany, which abjures an independent foreign policy, has been operating through the EU institutions and the Eastern Partnership program to carve out a sphere of influence in the former Soviet empire. In that sense, Germany bears ultimate responsibility for the present confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. And at the same time, Germany is engaged in geopolitical contest with Russia for influence in the Balkans.
However, I believe that the real parallels between the then as described by Lieven and now, the real relevance of the historical record is not at the level of the international landscape but within Russia itself. This is so not merely because it seems to be the case to a casual reader of The End of Tsarist Russia like me, but because that relevance is understood by the leaders of Russia’s government today. Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his admiration for the most outstanding politician and statesman of the pre-1914 period, Peter Stolypin. And many of the challenges faced by Stolypin and his circle of officials have also been faced by Russia since the turn of the new millennium.

Firstly, there was (and has recently been again) a collapse of the military and geopolitical might of Russia. Lieven goes to some lengths to explain why the defeat of the Russian navy at the hands of Japanese in 1905 and the revolutionary spasms of 1905-07 which nearly brought down the regime were deeply hurtful for Russian self-esteem and knocked the country off its ranking as a world power of the day. He also explains in detail how the country’s political consolidation and economic dynamism under the stewardship of Prime Minister Peter Stolypin brought back its credibility as a power to the extent that by 1912 the French once again expressed confidence in Russia’s likely contribution to any war effort against Germany on the Eastern front and renewed their pledge of mutual defense.
The contemporary parallel is the collapse of Russian state power following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992. Though it was designated as the successor state to the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation quickly underwent wrenching economic decline in the 1990s, plummeting to the GNP level of The Netherlands, while its bloated and underfunded military ranks were coping poorly with repatriation of the Soviet garrisons from the former Warsaw Pact countries. The ‘vertical of power’ which Vladimir Putin implemented as from the year 2000 brought order from chaos throughout the government structure, including the military. The quickly rising prices on hydrocarbons, Russia’s main export commodity, were captured to finance timely payment of government obligations to state workers and pensioners, infrastructure investments, and military reform and re-equipment. By 2007, Putin’s Russia was ready to reclaim its position as a world power, thereby touching off the growing confrontation with a hegemonic United States that reached its culmination in the outbreak of a New Cold War in 2014.
The second parallel between then and now is the incompleteness of Russia’s recovery and the acknowledgement by its more conservative statesmen that the country needs a further long period of peace to begin to reach its potential as a first line world power. Lieven cites a number of authoritative memoranda from the senior military staff and civilian ministries stating precisely that Russia could not prevail in a war with Germany and Austria-Hungary because of military shortcomings, including a sharp deficiency of NCOs and of materiel such as artillery and assorted advanced technologies, and also because of undeveloped transport (railways), resulting in very slow mobilization of troops from the interior of the country to the Western frontiers. Some of these warnings reached directly to Nicholas II.
The asymmetric responses Russia is beginning to deliver in the hope of countering strategic advantage the United States achieved following its withdrawal from the ABM treaty and work on its global rapid force delivery systems all highlight the unfinished nature of the restoration of strategic balance. We can be certain that Vladimir Putin has read the texts of tsarist officials counseling peace. Too many of the specific deficiencies of pre-1914 were again a problem today. Putin’s own behavior in avoiding direct confrontation with the USA today wherever possible while asserting Russian national interests demonstrates that he has learned these lessons from a hundred years ago very well. This surely is the context for Russia’s pulling the chestnuts out of the fire for the US over Syrian chemical weapons two years ago and of the Russian initiative to reach firm agreement with the US over regulating their respective air forces deployed over Syria today.
Then there is the very important, in the end decisive issue for the survival of tsarism: the cleavage between the court and educated society. Lieven confirms to us that the intelligentsia most acutely, but even Russian officialdom more generally, were Westernizing and keen to build on the constitutional achievements of 1906 to establish a monarchy limited by parliament. They had no confidence in the competence of the Autocrat. In parallel with this there was a deficit of patriotism in the country at large which could not be drawn upon later in the war to match the morale in Germany and the Western democracies.
The parallels with the fawning, pro-Western leanings of the Russian intelligentsia and ‘creative classes’ in the 1990s are striking. However, this core audience of Ekho Moskvy has fallen on ever harder times since the late 1990s due to the association between its Neo-Liberal ideas and the destruction of the Russian economy under their guidance during the Yeltsin years with profound and widespread suffering. And whereas Vladimir Putin took power at a time of sullen perseverance of the general population, he has presided over a resurgence in national pride and patriotism which has become a great point of distinction with the then described by Lieven.

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Once upon a time, I had the pleasure to write the first detailed narrative history of one aspect of the period covered by Lieven’s book on the basis of archival research I performed in Leningrad and Moscow. This was my doctoral dissertation on the introduction of parliamentary institutions in Russia during the 1905-07 period. As a foreigner on a Fulbright fellowship in 1971-72, I had this unique privilege because those who should have written the textbooks decades earlier were killed or driven into exile and the Soviet regime had no interest in encouraging study of the subject at hand. For these reasons, I take a personal interest in what Professor Lieven has achieved in The End of Tsarist Russia.
Like Dominc Lieven, my close examination of the high officials of the tsarist regime who drafted and re-drafted all the texts that eventually became the constitution (Fundamental Law) of 1906 and the electoral laws to the Duma led me to have the highest regard for their professionalism, breadth of education and patriotism. And the outstanding case was a certain Sergei Kryzhanovsky who worked closely under Peter Stolypin and whose personal recollections and other materials I found in the Bakhmeteff Archive of Columbia University. A graduate of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, Kryzhanovsky had an extensive knowledge of European constitutional law from which he chose wisely what might be most appropriate to the circumstances of his conservative and still rather backward homeland.
The fact that my high regard permeated my dissertation did not serve me well at that time, because the predominant view of tsarism then among professional historians and not just among the general public, in the United States and not just in the Soviet Union with its Communist ideology, was strictly unfavorable. I do not claim that my political statement doomed my aspirations to secure an academic appointment back then, but in a tough job market the cards were definitely stacked against me and eventually I changed direction and went off on a business career.
The situation with respect to appreciation for the tsarist regime is very different in modern-day Russia. After a period in the 1990s of being content with rushed translations of Richard Pipes’ Russia Under the Old Regime and similar Western classic texts of the day, Russia began to produce its own full-fledged historians to write about its past and began to produce patriotic treatments of the country’s history that included the resurrection or rehabilitation of tsars and tsarist officials like Stolypin whose achievements were known only to a very few during the Soviet period. In this sense, Lieven’s book will fall well within the prevailing Russian historiography and his invitation to participate in this year’s Valdai Conference in Sochi confirms that.
Within the United States and the West, Lieven’s book will find a less receptive audience on university campuses. This is all the more so given the way the author wears his politics on his sleeve and specifically rejects key points of contemporary Western values-based and pro-democracy ideology. I have in mind his remarks on how the presumably retrograde court party of aristocrats was actually the standard-bearer of peace in pre-WWI Russia while the spokesmen for the progressive, democratic ‘modern men’ of the day were leading the war party.
However, the bigger issue is the ongoing denigration of Russia in the West which goes beyond the demonization of the incumbent president and takes in the country’s present and past to its roots.
At this point I wish to return to Serge Schmemann’s glowing review of The End of Tsarism in The New York Times which would seemingly disprove my prediction of rough sailing for Lieven in the West. Inter alia, Schmemann compliments Lieven on his vivid portraits of leading officials in the court and government of Nicholas II, including the author’s own forebear, Prince Alexander Lieven, Chief of the Russian Naval Staff, 1910-14. As Schmemann notes, Lieven is a descendant of the Baltic barons. These aristocrats were disproportionately represented in the higher levels of diplomacy and ministerial positions in the tsarist regime. And, in an important aside, Schmemann tells us “As someone who also has Russian roots, I found his portraits of the men from the ‘nest of the aristocracy and gentry’…among the most interesting passages of the book.”
By calling attention to Lieven’s heritage and his own, Serge Schmemann has crossed a ‘red line’ of political correctness and is offering us “ad hominem” observations. Since Schmemann, who is an authoritative voice in American media, has opened this door, I propose now to walk through it.
It is a fact that in the West very, very few high-level works on Russian history have been written by professional historians who are ethnically Russian by birth or descent. One of the few other exceptions is the history by Katkov mentioned above. And this situation is not new.
Very few if any Western professional historians had a good word for the tsarist regime in 1975, the year of my dissertation. There were very few objective, unprejudiced researchers back then as regards pre-revolution Russia just as post-revolution Russia. The field was populated heavily by descendants of the minority nationalities of the Empire, all with an axe to grind and family histories to defend. Tsarism meant abject poverty, discrimination on religious and linguistic grounds and violence. And the situation was no better in political science, where there was a parallel, aggravating factor of political bias against not only totalitarian but also against authoritarian regimes.

To all of this, one has to add the large volume of non-expert literature generated to this very day not by descendants but by emigrants from the Former Soviet Union who in the vast majority of cases spend their entire lives abroad justifying their departure by slamming the country they left behind. Such people are showcased today in the nominally liberal East Coast publications of the United States, and they are to a man/woman viscerally anti-Putin. This is all very understandable on the human level. At the same time, it creates an enormous public relations problem for Russia whatever the regime in power.

Having gotten all that off my chest, I now propose to close this review with one further thought about the structure of Dominic Lieven’s book, which has been built somewhat unevenly. Where he did his archival research, we are treated to wonderful details and a dense narrative that moves slowly through the decade being described. But in the final chapters, the pace moves from a trot to a fast gallop and his chapters on the war and onset of revolution are historical essays rather than narrative history. They are also a treat but for a different reason: here the author shares his conclusions from extensive readings of primary sources with less constraint than when compelled to footnote everything.
Within this gallop, we find a very important observation. Lieven tells us about the moment in the summer of 1915, after Russia suffered some major military setbacks, when the Progressive Bloc appeared in the Duma and petitioned the tsar to form a cabinet answerable to the legislature, that is to share power and responsibility for the conduct of the war and its reverses. Lieven speculates that had Nicholas II jettisoned his attachment to absolutism and acceded to this request the regime might quite possibly have survived the war.
With this stroke of expert insight and calculation of the odds, Dominic Lieven has confirmed the silent accusation that comes to mind with each stroll I make through the Catherine Palace park in Pushkin: that Nicholas II indeed ‘blew it’ and was personally responsible for the catastrophes that befell him, his family and the Russian nation for the duration of the century.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2015

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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to