Revolution, War and Empire

My aim in this piece is to look at the international context of the Russian Revolution and to assess its influence on the Revolution’s causes, course and consequences. I look both at the years of revolution and at the international context in which Imperial Russia had developed over the two centuries before 1917. To cover this enormous subject in a short piece designed as the basis for a twenty-minute talk is a daunting prospect. I will simply advance arguments which may serve to foster an interesting discussion. For reasons of time I will largely confine myself to discuss elements of hard power, in other words geopolitics, diplomacy, war and economic factors. I will say little about the European and global cultural and intellectual context.

This does not mean that I consider either the external intellectual or cultural context unimportant: very far from it. As regards, for example, the legitimacy of the tsarist regime in the early twentieth century it was hugely important and damaging that European opinion largely regarded absolute monarchy as a wholly out-of-date and reactionary form of government. Not just in Europe but even outside it some countries usually regarded as more backward than Russia possessed constitutions. This encouraged disdain for “autocracy” in Russian educated society, including among many members of the ruling elites. As regards Russian foreign policy too, questions of identity and views on Russia’s place in the world and her historical role were very important. This was most clearly the case as regards belief in Russia’s identity as a Slav and Orthodox great power. Similar factors weighed on the foreign policies of the other great powers. Already before 1914 there was strong evidence of the division of the world into what might be called ethno-ideological- geopolitical blocs. The most powerful of these was the Anglo-American bloc that potentially combined the immense resources of the British Empire and the USA. The Germanic bloc in central Europe was less powerful potentially but its diplomatic and military unity was already fixed by treaty, which was far from the case with the Anglo-Americans. Both the Anglophone and Germanic blocs were new phenomena: before the last quarter of the nineteenth century Britain and the United States were both geopolitical and ideological rivals. Much of the British elite was committed to “mixed monarchy” and regarded democracy as a danger to the social order and to international peace and stability. Religious and political rivalry between Austria and Prussia went even deeper. The formation of these two new supra-national blocs was rooted in the growing hold of ethno-linguistic and racial conceptions over late-nineteenth-century minds. But if these blocs were in that sense figments of the imagination they were also vitally important power-political realities. Much of twentieth-century international competition and conflict pitted these two blocs against each other and against a Russian-led bloc constructed on common Slav and latterly common socialist principles. Ethno-ideological solidarity greatly strengthened the cohesion especially of the Anglo-American bloc that emerged victorious from this twentieth-century contest.

As regards “hard power” and international politics the top priority of tsarist Russia’s rulers was to secure their country’s position as a European great power. Russia achieved this status in the eighteenth century and retained it in the nineteenth. Government, society and economy in Russia were hugely influenced by this priority. Russian power was rooted in a unique marriage between a European military-fiscal state and a Eurasian empire. The peak of tsarist Russia’s international power and prestige came with the leading role it played in the defeat of Napoleon in 1812-15. The key to Russian military power was its European-style combined arms (infantry/artillery/cavalry) army that used contemporary military weaponry to best effect by training to manoeuvre, coordinate and fight in close-order formation. But Russian power also owed much to elements typical of Eurasian military tradition. Uniquely among the European great powers it employed “colonial” units to great effect in the Napoleonic War: these were the Cossacks, whose traditions were rooted in warfare on the Eurasian steppe. In pre-modern warfare the horse was the equivalent of the modern tank, aeroplane, mobile artillery and lorry: it was in other words essential to reconnaissance, shock, pursuit and mobile firepower. Because of its Eurasian steppe territories Russia was far richer than any of its great-power rivals as regards horses. The Cossacks played a great role in Russian victory over Napoleon but  Russia’s immense reserves of horsepower were even more significant. The tsarist autocratic regime exploited its subjects cruelly and denied even to educated Russians the rights that their European peers increasingly enjoyed and even took for granted. In Herzen’s jibe it was a Germano-Tatar despotism. But in the power-political terms by which empire measured success it was effective. Moreover, under the Romanovs’ empire Russian literature and music became one of the ornaments of global high culture.

Comparisons with the Ottoman Empire are illuminating. The Romanovs and Ottomans ruled empires on Europe’s periphery in an era when European power increased exponentially and expanded across the globe. In the fifteenth century the Ottomans pursued policies later emulated by Russia: for example they built a navy from scratch in large part by importing European cadres and technology. But in the eighteenth century the Ottomans lost out in competition with Russia through their failure to develop an up-to-date European model of the military-fiscal state. Discussion of the reasons of success and failure involves issues of fundamental importance such as comparisons of Russian Orthodoxy and Islam as conservative and anti-Western political and cultural forces. If the Russian people paid greatly for the power of the tsarist state, the Muslim peoples of the Ottoman Empire paid at least as much for their state’s weakness. By the twentieth century the price included the grand-scale ethnic cleansing and massacre of the Muslim population of the empire’s northern and eastern borderlands, and even European colonisation of parts of the Islamic heartland. But the price paid by Russia stretched to the 1917 Revolution and even beyond. In my opinion the two keys to the victory of the eighteenth-century tsarist state over the Ottomans were the Westernisation of the imperial elites and the ruthless system of serfdom that clinched the alliance between monarchy and gentry and formed the basis of the military-fiscal machine. To some extent the 1917 Revolution included aspects of a cultural war between Russia’s masses and its European elites though this was very far from the whole story. Beyond question 1917 was also a response to the state’s often ruthless exploitation of the population and to the long-lasting impact of the combination of autocracy and serfdom which had been a necessary and formidable element in the creation of the Romanovs’ fiscal-military state and vast empire.

In the nineteenth century Russia’s relative power declined. That was the basic reason why whereas between 1700 and 1815 Russia usually won its wars, between 1815 and 1918 it often lost them. Decline and failure tends to reduce a regime’s legitimacy and its subjects’ sense of unity, optimism and calm. Shifts in the constellation of great-power relations were one cause of Russian decline. In the eighteenth century Britain and France in Western Europe and Prussia and Austria in central Europe were inveterate rivals. Russia was the only great power without such an inveterate great-power enemy and exploited its position to advantage, especially under the skilful direction of Catherine II. In 1815 the long series of Anglo-French wars for empire ended in Britain’s decisive victory and opened the way to long periods in the nineteenth century in which the two powers collaborated, often at Russia’s expense. The Crimean War of 1854-6 was the most disastrous result of this from a Russian perspective. Still worse was Prusso-Austrian reconciliation after 1866, the formation of the Hohenzollern Reich in 1871 and the Austro-German alliance of 1879. Now Russia faced a united Germanic bloc along the whole length of its open western frontier and within striking distance of the core of Russian economic, demographic and political power.

Still worse was the impact of the Industrial Revolution which began in Western Europe and then took the whole nineteenth century to spread eastwards, in the process de-stabilising international relations and the European balance of power. The forces that drove the Industrial Revolution were largely beyond the control of any government, let alone the Russian one. Economic historians nowadays ask why the Industrial Revolution did not begin in China or India. They do not bother to ask why not in Russia because the answer seems to them so obvious. Among the factors involved were low population densities, the immense distances between coal and iron reserves, and the consequences of Russia’s geographical isolation from the traditional centres of global commerce and culture. Defeat in the Crimean War brought home to Russia’s rulers the consequences of growing economic backwardness. Its Western European enemies moved and fought with the technology of the industrial era: they financed their war effort by the wealth it generated. Russia lacked railways, steamships, rifled muskets or adequate financial strength.

After 1856 the government launched a series of reforms and policies designed to overcome this evident backwardness. By 1914 much had been achieved. The Russian economy was growing so rapidly that many foreigners saw it as the America of the future. But in terms of per capita wealth and the technology of the “Second Industrial Revolution” (eg electronics, chemicals, optics etc)  Russia in 1914 was still well behind Germany. Meanwhile rapid economic growth was creating a modern urban society to which the Romanovs’ regime found it very hard to adapt. In 1914-17 all three elements combined to create the crisis that brought down the monarchy. A key reason – probably the most important one – why Germany’s leaders launched the First World War was that they looked on Russian economic growth with awe and fear. Convinced that within a generation Russian power would be overwhelming, they decided to start what they perceived as the near-inevitable European war now when their chances of victory were still good. In the war that followed economic backwardness vis a vis Germany cost Russia dear. But the key causes of the revolution that brought down the monarchy in February 1917 were political. Unlike in Germany in 1918 where military defeat preceded internal revolution, in Russia defeat and disintegration began in the rear. Above all, it was the monarchy’s loss of legitimacy in the face first of a rapidly changing peacetime society and then of the immense additional challenges of war that led to revolution.

In this short piece I will merely mention two ways in which international contexts and comparisons help to explain the dilemmas and failure of tsarism. One way is to view Russia as a member of what I call the “Second World”, in other words of that group of countries on Europe’s western, southern and eastern periphery that were in most respects backward by the standards of its First World core. Of course there was enormous variety in Europe’s periphery but a common element was that on the continent’s periphery the population was generally poorer and more rural, middle classes were smaller, a country’s various provinces were less integrated, and the state was less truly powerful than in Europe’s more developed core. Faced by the new challenge of mass politics and socialist movements by the turn of the twentieth century governments and property-owners felt more vulnerable on Europe’s periphery than in its core. It is not a coincidence that very few countries on Europe’s western, southern and eastern peripheries in the twentieth century enjoyed a peaceful transition to liberal democracy. In the inter-war period almost all of them were ruled by authoritarian regimes of the right or the left. Russia was backward even by most Second World measures. The Italian state’s schools proved too few and too primitive to turn peasants or even the urban masses of the south into loyal Italians. But Italy had twice as many teachers per head of population than Russia. The Russian authoritarian tradition that had served the country’s rise to great power status so well in an earlier era made it even harder than elsewhere to adapt successfully to the challenges of an increasingly urban and literate society. The limited legal space permitted to Italian and Spanish trade unions allowed some hope – though no certainty - of blunting the revolutionary temper of the working class. In Russia even that space was denied. In another even more fundamental way the Russian regime was more vulnerable than most of its peripheral peers. Russia was an empire, with all the additional challenges that empire posed in terms of controlling vast space and many different peoples in an era when nationalism was gaining ground. When contemplating the dilemmas faced by tsarism it is worth remembering that all the world’s empires faced similar problems in the twentieth century and none of them survived this challenge.

When I first joined the profession as a graduate student in 1975 western historians were generally divided into two camps – so-called “optimists” and “pessimists”. The optimists believed that by 1914 Russia already possessed the key elements necessary for evolution into a liberal democracy. These included civil society, a legal system and parliamentary institutions. Optimists believed that without the war and perhaps without Nicholas II a successful move towards liberal democracy was probable. Pessimists on the contrary believed that the tsarist regime was incapable of peaceful evolution, that revolution was inevitable, and that the Bolshevik regime was the likeliest and legitimate heir of Russian history.

Even back then as a graduate student I believed that seeing Russian late-imperial history in these terms had more to do with the Cold War context and ideological battles within the Western intelligentsia than it did with early twentieth-century Russian realities. I never believed that a peaceful transition to democracy was likely. No doubt my peculiar origins had something to do with this. The first original document I ever read about Russian history was the famous report presented to Nicholas II by Petr Durnovo in February 1914 warning that in Russia in that era the triumph of liberalism was impossible and that entry into a European war would almost certainly result in socialist revolution. I was given this as a twelfth birthday present by my uncle Leonid, a child of old Russia and the White emigration, one of whose tutors, incidentally, was Georgii Salomon, the former Social Democrat. My thesis, whose subject was Durnovo and his peers in the tsarist bureaucratic elite, only reinforced this view. In those days I had not yet fully developed my ideas about the “Second World” or imperial comparisons but elements of both already lurked in my mind and made me even more sceptical about the optimists’ line.

I believed that the pessimists’ line was more plausible. For many reasons, however, I thought that Bolshevik victory was neither inevitable nor even the likeliest scenario in the absence of war. One key reason for my scepticism was the international context and the question of foreign intervention. Here comparisons between 1905 and 1917 are to the point. In the winter of 1905-6 the monarchy came close to collapse. Its survival depended above all on the very uncertain and wavering loyalty of the armed forces. Had tsarism collapsed and – as was almost inevitable – had the revolution then spiralled sharply to the left it is inconceivable that the European great powers would have stood aside as Russia seceded from the international system, set itself up as the headquarters of socialist revolution, and endangered the massive foreign investments in its economy and government. As Russia’s neighbour and Europe’s leading military power Germany would always be the key to successful intervention. Berlin had even more pressing reasons for intervention than the other powers since the German community in Russia was uniquely large and vulnerable to social revolution. Above all this meant the Baltic German elites whose links to the Hohenzollern regime were strong. In the winter of 1905-6 William II told the representatives of the Baltic Germans that if the Russian monarchy fell then the German army would intervene in defence of their lives and property. No one can say what even the short-to-medium results would have been but the probability is that intervention would have resulted in the victory of counter-revolution.

Comparisons between this scenario and what happened in 1917 are striking. In peace-time Germany would have been the spearhead of international intervention on the side of counter-revolution. In the context of the First World War it did everything possible to support the revolution. Without German support Lenin would probably not even have reached Russia in 1917. For a year after the Bolsheviks seized power the First World War saved them from effective foreign intervention. During that year the new regime put down roots and consolidated its hold on the Russian heartland where communications hubs, military stores and most of the population were concentrated. It was their control over this heartland and its resources that was the major factor in Bolshevik victory in the Civil War.

To be sure, when the monarchy fell in March 1917 the triumph of the Bolsheviks was far from inevitable. For example, had the Provisional Government not launched a military offensive in the summer of 1917 it is possible that a ministry dominated by moderate socialists might have staggered through to the end of the war. My hunch is that even had this happened the moderate socialists would have found it very hard to survive the great difficulties inevitable in the aftermath of the war, let alone the devastating consequences of the 1930s depression. European comparisons strongly suggest the likelihood of a military coup and the coming to power of some version of right-wing authoritarian regime. But when contemplating alternative scenarios in 1917 it is vital to remember how closely entwined were the First World War and the Russian Revolution. The winter of 1916-17 was one of the key moments in twentieth-century European history. Had German miscalculation not brought the United States into the war at the very moment when the revolution was setting off the rapid disintegration of Russia then it is entirely plausible to envisage German victory in the First World War, with momentous consequences for Europe and the world.

To make sense of this claim one needs to grasp European geopolitical realities between the mid-eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. In this era it was difficult but possible for a single power to conquer and control the Carolingian core of Europe, by which I mean the lands that made up Charlemagne’s empire and later became the founder-members of the European Union. Both Napoleon and Hitler achieved this. At that point the great challenge to any would-be pan-European ruler arose in the form of two great power centres at the opposite extremities of Europe, namely Britain and Russia. To mobilise sufficient power from the Carolingian core to defeat simultaneously maritime Britain and land-based Russia was not impossible but it was very difficult. Both Napoleon and Hitler failed this challenge. They did so partly because they attempted to subdue Russia by a policy of purely military blitzkrieg which failed in the face of Russia’s geography and resources, not to mention the sterling performance of the Russian army. In the First World War Germany used a much more effective military-political strategy to undermine the Russian state. The Revolution crowned this strategy with success, which of course is not for a moment to suggest that the Revolution was mostly a product of German efforts. But the result of the Revolution was that for the only time in two hundred years of European history one of the two great peripheral power centres was temporarily removed from the equation. For that reason, and contrary to the overwhelmingly predominant view, in my opinion William II came closer to dominating Europe than either Napoleon or Hitler. It was American intervention in the struggle that robbed Germany of likely victory.

It is important to remember that, to win the First World War, Germany did not need victory on the western front. All that was needed was stalemate in the west and the peace of Brest-Litovsk in the east. Without American intervention such a scenario was very possible. Without Russia or the USA the French and British could never have defeated Germany. Without the prospect of American help it is hard to imagine the western allies sustaining the will to continue fighting in the face of Russian disintegration, the Italian debacle at Caporetto, and the mutinies that struck the French army in 1917. Even had the will survived the means might well have been lacking. Already in the autumn of 1916 Woodrow Wilson was threatening to withdraw the American financial support on which the allied war effort depended. Given the calamities that struck the allied cause in 1917, American pressure for peace, for the ending of the blockade and the restoration of international trade might have been irresistible. In these circumstances it would have been extremely hard to persuade the British and French peoples to pursue the war in order to stop German domination of eastern Europe. And the disintegration of Russian power inevitably left most of the cards in east-central Europe in Germanys hands.

The key to the region’s future to a great extent revolved around the future of Ukraine, which emerged as an independent state as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The territory of the Ukrainian republic included the core of the Russian Empire’s coal, iron and metallurgical industries, as well as of its agricultural exports. Without them Russia would cease to be a great power, at the very least until the Urals-Siberian region was developed as an alternative. The dramatic shift in the European balance of power this entailed was increased by the fact that a nominally independent Ukraine could only survive as a German satellite. Not merely did the government in Kiev face hostile Bolshevik, Russian and Jewish minorities within Ukraine; even most of the ethnically Ukrainian peasant majority had very little sense of Ukrainian identity. Only Germany could protect Ukraine against its external and internal enemies. Germany and an independent Ukraine were in fact natural allies since they shared the same enemies, namely the Russians and the Poles. To write in these terms might seem to deny the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood. That is not my intention. Given time an independent state could have used its schools to inculcate a sense of Ukrainian identity into the Ukrainian peasantry. Ukraine was potentially a much more viable nation-state than, for example, the Iraq that Britain carved out of the Ottoman Empire after allied victory in order to secure control over the region’s oil.

Though the suggestion will cause understandable outrage in many countries, one might in fact argue that German victory in the First World War and German hegemony in east-central Europe might have been better than the actual outcome of the war. To be sure, handing over the region to the tender mercy of Erich Ludendorff was anything but a desirable outcome but nor was east-central Europe’s actual fate after 1918. The First World War started in east-central Europe as a struggle between the Russian and Germanic empires. By an irony that no one could have foretold it ended with the defeat of both the Russians and the Germans. The Versailles peace and the territorial settlement in east-central Europe was made without Russo-German participation and against both German and Russian interests. But Germany and Russia remained potentially the most powerful states in the region, indeed on the European continent as a whole. The prospects for lasting peace were of course further undermined by American retreat into isolation and by Britain’s refusal to join France in a permanent military alliance to guarantee the settlement. But even had the British and Americans behaved differently a European settlement created against the continents two most powerful states was bound to be extremely fragile. Had Russia been one of the victor powers the post-war order would have been far more stable. Had the Franco-Russian alliance survived to sustain that order then the rise of Hitler and Europe’s descent into a second great war would very probably have been avoided. The Russian people would probably not have had to fight the World War twice, at terrible cost to themselves and the world. This thought reinforces the main point I try to make in this small piece, namely that historians studying the Russian Revolution ignore the international context, foreign policy and war at their peril and at the price of misleading their students and readers. Sometimes appealed to act as external examiner to courses on the Russian Revolution, I am generally driven to distraction by students’ bland criticism of the Provisional Government for not withdrawing unilaterally from the war, as if withdrawal was easily managed and carried no consequences.

Nor does the contemporary world situation suggest that ignoring international contexts or great-power politics is sensible for today’s historians. Disturbing parallels exist between the dynamics of pre-1914 international relations and those of the present day. Fundamental shifts in the balance of power are never easy to manage, not least because of the ambitions they breed in some powers and the hysteria that sometimes accompanies perceptions of relative decline in others. If integrating European, Christian and capitalist Germany into the ruling club of an Anglophone-dominated world was difficult before 1914, integrating the far more alien China should logically prove much harder in today’s world. Now as before 1914 technological advance is giving value to territory that previously could not be exploited and was therefore not subject to great-power competition. Before 1914 railways and deep-mining technology was opening continental heartlands to exploitation; today the same is happening with the sea-bed.

The geopolitical basis of the era of High Imperialism was belief that in the future only continental-scale resources (in other words empire) could enable a European country to retain its great-power status into the future, given the impact of globalisation and the huge growth in potential American might. The most dangerous aspect of this belief was that, unfortunately, it was true. The European continent itself was very unsuited to empire for reasons of both history and geopolitics but the countries likely to dominate the world of today and tomorrow are vast continental-scale polities; the USA, China, perhaps India. The European Union is in one sense an attempt to ensure that Europeans remain at the top table and have some voice in the great decisions that will determine our planet’s future; its great problem, very familiar to pre-1914 statesmen, is how to legitimise continental-scale (i.e. imperial) government in the region that invented modern nationalism. Historical empires were always hard to govern because of their immense scale and diversity but rulers seldom needed to bother about the opinions of more than the elites. The latter could usually control the masses through local systems of patronage and coercion. In the contemporary era of mass literacy and politics there are far more voices to hear and balance. The continental-scale states that dominate international relations are becoming ever-harder to manage, with conflicting domestic pressures making rational foreign-policy decision-making increasingly difficult. Meanwhile we are about to face the political consequences of global ecological crisis. If fundamental human needs such as water and food that are inevitably rooted in territory become objects of acute shortage and competition, then we will increasingly leave behind the world of liberal globalisation and return to the older and more deadly geopolitical realities that underpinned much of great-power politics in history. If my generation of historians has little reason to ignore power politics, diplomacy and war the same, unfortunately, seems likely to be even more true in our children’s world.  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.