Book Review — The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution

The End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution is a look at the world leading up until WWI. Lieven is Professor of Russian studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, a Fellow of the British Academy and of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Last year was the 100th Anniversary of the start of WWI and the world was saturated with new books on the subject. I have read nearly thirty books on the war in the last two years, and for the most part, one area of the war has been missing — the eastern front. The war starts between Serbia and Austria-Hungary and then histories move directly to the Western front and stay there. The study of WWI is almost entirely a study of the Western front. It is easy to forget that there was fighting in Asia, the Australians were chasing German ships in the Pacific, and the largest of the great powers was fighting Germany and Austria along the Eastern front.

I picked up this book hoping to gain more insight on the war in the East but discovered the title a bit misleading. Nearly the entire book covers the events up until the start of WWI. It is told from a Russian perspective, but anyone who studied Tsarist Russia is already familiar with the events leading to the war and Russia’s poor position to fight a modern, industrial war. Russia lost its navy to the Japanese a decade before and the population was not ready for another national embarrassment. The 1905 Revolution, a peaceful protest turned violent with the military ordered to fire on civilians, created lasting unrest inside the country. Russia’s rail system, needed for rapid mobilization, was in a sorry state. Hastily and cheaply built there was only a single set of tracks along most of the route making the scheduling trains running in both directions quite difficult. Furthermore, Russia’s main hub or moving troops up and down its Western border was only thirty-five miles from the Austrian border making it very vulnerable to capture before mobilization was complete.

Most of the foreign affairs have been well written about in past books. Lieven, however, manages to include Russia as a main player instead of a sidelined power. Trade with Germany and French loans play a large role in Russia’s involvement Europe. Lieven, also mentions the importance of the Ukraine. The Ukraine allowed Russia to become self-sufficient in food production making a long war advantageous. However, food production was never really Russia’s problem. Transporting food to where it was needed was a problem even in the Soviet times.

Internal Russian politics are also covered in detail. From the creation of the Duma, Nicholas’ own incompetence, and a foreign ministry that preferred roles as ambassadors to that of foreign minister all go against Russia. Russia was also recovering from serfdom, which kept the great majority of the population poor and tied to farming. France made Frenchmen out of their rural population and Russia kept their peasants at a level barely above slavery. With the population that was poor and uneducated, the Russians did not develop the sense of nationalism other countries had; the peasants fought for Tsar and God. When the Tsar fell out of favor so did the will to fight.

All in all, The End of Tsarist Russia, is a solid history. For those unfamiliar with the politics leading to WWI and Russian history, it is an excellent book. For those familiar with both Russia and the war it is a good review. A single rating for this book is not practical depending on the category the reader falls into it is either four or three stars respectively.

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