Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution by Dominic Lieven

This topic, in many respects, is my bread and butter. I'm a student of Soviet/Russian history and while I specialize in the Second World War, I've also done a fair amount of research on the First World War, including the lead up to the outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914. I had high hopes for a new treatment of the outbreak of the war from the Russian perspective, but Dominic Lieven promised much and delivered little, in my opinion. The subtitle, 'WWI & The Road to Revolution' is somewhat misleading. The lead up to the outbreak of the war takes up 312 of this 368 page tome. How can you fit in WWI and the Road to Revolution in some 50 pages?

The author's motives are understandable. There is a distinct lack of literature that concentrates on Russia on the eve and throughout the First World War when compared to the Western Allies or the Axis in Central Europe. Yet the war was begun because of what happened in Eastern Europe and the failure of the Entente to dictate a viable peace at the end of the war meant an environment that would create conditions for the outbreak of a Second World War, that much deadlier than the first. Thus, a concentration on Russia, who saw itself as a protector of the Balkan Slavs, is understandable and welcome. But this effort by Lieven leaves much to be desired. I'm fine with reading both popular history accounts or dry factual volumes that are minefields of little known information. While Lieven aims to be the latter, his writing style featuring thick descriptions of mundane events and minutia just put me to sleep. More so, the treatment of Russia and Russian figures takes center stage to the point where so many personalities are introduced that one simply loses all hope in trying to keep track of who is doing what, believes in what, and whether it matters how much influence they wield if they simply die off before 1914 even comes around. Putting so much onus on Russia and her "important decision makers" means many in the west are left out or are overlooked. Thus in some ways other nations are either reaction to Russian decisions/actions or are making them possible but their own agency seems to be absent. I wish I could say there are better alternatives out there for those seeking much of the information presented here but, again, there is a distinct lack of these studies where Russia is concerned. If you're able to get through this dense diplomatic history of Russia on the eve of war, I can only commend you.

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