THE END OF TSARIST RUSSIA
The March to World War I and Revolution
By Dominic Lieven
Illustrated. 426 pp. Viking. $35.
First, we're at midpoint of the centenary of the Great War's midpoint.
As usual, The Economist offers an eloquent overview, pointing out that the year 1916's importance didn't pertain only to horrific blood lettings at Verdun and the Somme. It was also the year of the naval battle at Jutland, the Easter Rising in Dublin, and crucial map-making decisions in the Middle East.
A most terrible year
Two long battles of attrition engulfed the European powers in 1916, a year crammed both with horrors and with consequences, many of which still endure.
As The Economist duly notes, 1916 also was the year when the three eastern empires -- Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans and Tsarist Russia -- began to "crack under the strain."
The bulk of Lieven's book seeks to add detail to the enduring debate as to why the belligerents (and specifically, Russia) had so much to gain from peace, and yet went off to war. The contradictions are aptly explained by Josef Joffe in his review of the book at the New York Times.
Maybe we know too much about the Great War by now, with overdetermined explanations marshaling too many arguments and crisscrossing too many levels of analysis. Yes, the war was about fear, but also about ambition. It was about folly, but also about greed. It was to save dynastic rule; then again, every power except the United States (which had grabbed an inland empire in the 19th century) went for land and dominion. The alliance systems were meant to deter war, but actually favored hair-trigger strategies. Chauvinism kept stoking the fires of aggression: better a war now than a risk to survival tomorrow.
“The End of Tsarist Russia” sets up a paradox: The more we burrow, the fewer the surprises.
The strength of Lieven's book is his addition of color to some of Russia's important but forgotten diplomats and functionaries in the drama, at least one of whom presciently charted the disaster to come in an ignored 1914 memo.
But for each of these warnings, there were recommendations to proceed, many embracing a tone of resignation: It's bound to happen sooner or later, so it might as well be now. Nicholas II hesitated at the last moment, then signed the orders to mobilize, observing that he was sentencing hundreds of thousands of Russian men to their deaths. He became one of them.
The author had access to hitherto unexamined Russian archives, and while these have yielded numerous minor details, it cannot be said that the book produces any brilliant new insights.
File under: "Good read, though not for beginners."