Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Learning from Foreign Wars: Russian Miltiary Thinking 1859-1873 by Gudrun Persson

Too often the Russian state and, inherently, the Russian army are presented as "backward" or "exceptional". Up to and through the First World War the deficiencies of the Russian state and military are regularly highlighted to explain the battlefield defeats and failures Russia suffered as well as the eventual dissolution of the Russian Empire with the 1917 Revolution(s). Gudrun Persson, however, has authored an original look at the "thinkers" of the Russian military and how the highest echelons of Russia's armed forces viewed the wars taking place in Europe and abroad, and the lessons they took away from them. The reality, as usual, is a complex amalgamation of traditionalist thought on the part of conservatives within the military and a minute group of reformers looking at the present and toward the future, including all that needed to be created and prepared to catch up with Russia's European competitors.

The contentious discussions and debates the author focuses on revolve around mass conscription; the move away from an officer corps made up of mainly the nobility - dictated by birth and blood - toward officers who achieve their rank and office through talent, merit, and education; technological developments, including railways and weapon advancements; and mobilization plans that included ideas about offensive and defensive preparations (including fortifications). There are a few chapters/sections that seem somewhat removed from the main emphasis the author concentrates on, but seen in the greater context of the book, much of what is presented not only adds to already established debates and discussions on the Russian military in this period, but also goes against established understandings and offers new venues and areas for research. Fascinating, for instance, is the chapter on military attachés throughout various European states and their role in keeping military officials, including the Tsar, up to date on the latest developments in European armies. But how or if they were influential in crafting Russian policy and reforms within the armed services or the state as a whole is not conclusively shown. The overarching movement that an attaché fit into was the move by the military toward educating their officers. Those in attaché work had to have a working knowledge of several foreign languages and needed to regularly read foreign manuals and texts on the latest ideas related to strategy, tactics, industry, technology, etc.

This goes to the heart of one of the more interesting aspects of not only Russia's military but that of Europe in general that Persson devotes some discussion to (but not enough in my opinion). Specifically, a few influential Russian reformers within the army were aware of the changes armed forces throughout Europe were undergoing. The move was away from professional armies that were commanded by nobles and adhered to strict guidelines when taking the field of battle. Now, the officer corps was composed of educated men from all sectors of society who achieved status and rank through merit and ability rather than blood or birth. As a result, the tactics of the battlefield began to change with the introduction of new technology, which a more educated officer corps was needed to understand and utilize (the paper pushers of the army), and at the same time those officers leading in the field were expected to retain a degree of autonomy in fulfilling orders as linear tactics of the past were replaced by ever-changing developments on the field of battle that could be reported on in speeds thought impossible previously.

Thus, Russian reformers found themselves in a consistently changing military environment and having to advocate for changes that traditionalists and conservatives could not always or fully support or endorse. Persson's main point here is that it is less important to note that by the eve of the First World War Russia's military seemed oblivious of the changes that took place four decades previously, but that with the help of reformers like D. A. Miliutin, Russia was making similar updates and changes to her military as were the French, Germans, and Austro-Hungarians. Her railroads developed and grew, rifles were consistently updated and upgraded, and military institutions began to educate the officer corps in record numbers. What happened between 1873 and 1914 is not offered up for analysis in this text, but the information presented undoubtedly offers food for thought. Undoubtedly the period leading up to the war, featuring Tsar Alexander III and his counter-reform movement, impacted previous progress. But more important to note here is that a system previously thought too conservative and 'backward' to consistently accept needed changes was, on the contrary, willing to make amendments to its institutions on a regular basis and looked toward Western Europe for ideas and advances to implement, albeit usually with alterations made for the fact that it was being done in Russia.

No comments: