Czarist Russia in the early 20th century was growing faster than any other country in Europe. So promising was Russia’s economic and military future that Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, the German chancellor, proclaimed darkly that the “future belongs to Russia which grows and grows and lies on us like an ever-heavier nightmare.’’
That was but one of the many things Germany got wrong in what we now know was the run-up to World War I. Yet the notion that Russia, lying at the periphery of Europe, was at the center of things infuses Dominic Lieven’s masterly new view of World War I, “The End of Tsarist Russia,’’ which offers this persuasive new perspective on the conflict: World War I, though remembered chiefly for combat in France and Germany, was essentially an Eastern European affair, beginning there and, because of the Russian Revolution it helped spawn, having perhaps its most consequential effect there.
Lieven, a senior research fellow at Trinity College in Cambridge, England, who taught Russian studies at the London School of Economics for a third of a century, has produced what is basically a Russian history of the origins of World War I, though with ample and appropriate recognition of the role of Western Europe in the fighting. After all, as he writes, “Before 1914, a world war was always likeliest to originate in Europe, where six of the eight great powers lived in proximity and where their most essential interests were to be found.’’
And yet for Russia, World War I was the cause of all the tragedy that befell the nation all the way through to the end of the 20th century, from revolution, civil war, collectivization, new and brutal conflict in World War II, and the Cold War. Taken together, Lieven reckons, Russia’s move into World War I set in motion the death of more than 50 million of its people and millions of foreigners.
The empire of the Romanov czars was, as he put it, “remarkably successful and remarkably ruthless,’’ both attributable to the (outwardly contradictory) factors of 18th- and 19th-century Russian serfdom and the westernization of the Russian elite. Both these factors became tinder for the revolutionary fires that would burn in 1905 and then, fatefully, in 1917. “This was not a society that would put up with being governed by a political regime still rooted in eighteenth-century principles of absolute monarchy,’’ Lieven notes.
A principal point of vulnerability was the denial of civil rights and political representation to educated Russians. For the Russia that Lieven paints is a portrait of a nation facing either modernization or revolution. As the 20th century dawned, Russia responded to Germany’s affinity for Austria —
Russia was ruled by an autocrat with anachronistic powers; the Romanovs possessed a doomed faith in what Lieven calls “the link between paternal tsar and his loyal people.’’ “In 1900,’’ he writes of Nicholas II, “the last Russian tsar was attempting to uphold principles of divine-right monarchy for which Charles I had lost his head some 250 years before.’’
Now join this regime — rooted in a romantic, agrarian past — to antagonisms also rooted in the past of Eastern Europe’s feuding nations, all festering violently in the years leading to 1914, and the result is incendiary if not inevitable.
Humiliated in the Russo-Japanese war and then again in the various complex Balkan conflicts that occupy the center of this account, Russia grew especially sensitive to its dignity on the international stage and especially eager to no longer be viewed the way an Italian foreign minister described it: as a “great powerless country.’’
Finally a temporary “peace born of exhaustion’’ settled over Eastern Europe, a fragile peace Russia was determined to use to rebuild its status as a great power and to affirm its role as champion of the Slavs, all while preoccupied with Ottoman affairs and labor strife within its borders.
Lieven believes that nationalism in the region was “a great long-term challenge to the stability of a global order dominated by empires.’’ Thus did Europe slide into war, on a rail greased by ethnic antagonism and pride plus ethnic insecurity and national interest. Food shortages, weak political leadership, and disintegrating respect for the monarchy — in short, what Lieven characterizes as the “sheer lunacy of Russian politics’’ — weakened Russia at a time of maximum vulnerability. The result was maximum tragedy.
THE END OF TSARIST RUSSIA: The March to World War I and Revolution
By Dominic Lieven
Viking, 426 pp.,
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.