Thursday, April 26, 2012

Russia’s Role in the Outbreak of the First World War

Conventional Wisdom on the Origins of the First World War

Constantinople During World War I
Conventional wisdom, among both scholars and general readers, is that the war of 1914 was essentially “Germany’s war” and histories that describe the outbreak of the war focus largely on Berlin and, secondarily, Vienna.  Russia is often viewed in a passive role and the blame for the war rests largely on Kaiser Wilhelm and his military advisers who were fearful of the “Slavic hordes” of Tsarist Russia.  In order to meet this threat, the Germans took preemptive action by mobilizing their forces, which caused a chain reaction that pulled England, France and Russia into the conflict.

A new study by Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Harvard University Press, 2011), dramatically challenges this conventional wisdom and, aided by the newly opened archives in Russia, offers a startling new perspective.  McMeekin points out that “the gap in public knowledge of Russia’s war aims owes much to the deep freeze into which her revolution and civil war thrust historical scholarship on the war generally” (p. 2).
Soviet scholars were reluctant to examine too deeply the reasons why the Bolsheviks pulled the country out of the war and surrendered to Russia’s enemies.  This subject was so awkward that in the seventy years of Soviet rule no official history of Russia’s military performance was ever published.  Nor has it been even today, although military history is slowly emerging in Putin’s Russia.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian and western scholars have discovered vast documentary collections in the tsarist archives – in fact, there is now more formerly secret material available on Russia’s war aims in 1914 than on those of any other power.  Current reports from Russia indicate that the first volume of Russia’s official wartime history will not appear until 2015.  In the meantime, Russian and western scholars now have access to these secret archival materials, so a fuller story is now being told.
Russia’s War Aims

Conventional wisdom makes the case that Russia chose to defend Serbia, for reasons of “Slavic honor,” after Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were murdered in that country on June 28, 1914, and a putative response by the Hapsburg leadership in Vienna to punish Serbia for this crime was announced.  Public rhetoric aside, McMeekin argues that defense of Serbia and “Slavic honor” had nothing to do with why Russia chose to go to war in 1914.

For Russia, the war of 1914 was always about dismembering the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the area that now includes Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq.  To secure this great strategic prize, 1914 seemed ideal for enlisting French and British power to neutralize the growing German threat to Russia’s ambitions, while Russia went after its long-time goal – Constantinople and control of access to the Black Sea.   The Ottoman Empire, known as the “sick man of Europe,” was clearly dying and the Russians seized the opportunity.

We now know that five full days before the Germans made the critical decision to mobilize their forces, the Russians had secretly mobilized their army bordering on Austria-Hungary and their naval fleets in the Baltic and Black Seas.  To blame Germany for mobilizing to gain a battlefield advantage simply does not square with what scholars have discovered.  In fact, the Russians never did concentrate their forces on the eastern front against Germany, to the great frustration of the French and British.  Less than one-third of Russia’s forces were deployed in the European theater, which meant that France, with a population base one-fourth the size of Russia’s, had to bear the brunt of the battle against the Germans.
As early as November 1914, Tsar Nicholas II laid out his vision for the postwar world to the French Ambassador, and in the record of this meeting, the Tsar is very clear that Constantinople must be made an international city under Russian protection and that the Ottoman Empire would be reduced to a “mere Asian rump.”  The Russians did not hide their war aims – conquering Constantinople and the Straits were their clear goals – and Russia’s principal allies, France and Britain, had little choice but to accept them.
When Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 2, 1914, and the Ottomans followed suit eight days later, it was a “rare sort of war,” according to McMeekin – a war everyone wanted.  For Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s date with destiny had arrived and it would now be a struggle – a Holy War -- between Christianity and Islam.  Russia’s desire to expand their empire was now justified as a war against a pagan and hostile religion.
The End Game
The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, as planned by the Russians, French and British, never occurred as the Russian Foreign Ministry had hoped.  The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent decision by Lenin and his advisers to withdraw immediately from the war ended all hopes of annexing Constantinople and securing control of access to the Black Sea.
Here’s McMeekin’s conclusion: “For decades, historians, politicians, and arm-chair strategists have focused their fire on Imperial Germany as the primary instigator of the European conflict [World War I]. . . . It is high time that Russia, too, receive its fair share of scrutiny for its role in unleashing the terrible European war of 1914 and for helping to spread this war into the Middle East. . . . the First World War was the inexorable culmination of a burgeoning imperial rivalry between Wilhelmine Germany and tsarist Russia in the Near East, each lured in its own way down the dangerous path of expansionist war by the decline of Ottoman power.  In the end the war destroyed both regimes. . . .” (p. 243).
I agree with McMeekin, “to tell the truth about the origins of the war of 1914 is the least we can do to honor its victims.”  This is true of all wars and war’s innocent victims deserve at least this much respect.  Working hard to prevent armed conflict would even be a better course of action.

Friday, April 20, 2012

America's First Expert on Russia

An Explorer Discovers Russia 

George Kennan was born in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1845 and at the age of twelve began working in the telegraph office of a railroad company near his home. When he was nineteen, he was offered an exciting job with the Russian American Telegraph Company and was given the task of surveying a route for a proposed telegraph line through Siberia and across the Bering Strait.

After two years of traveling across Russia, especially in distant places like Kamchatka where very few Americans had ever visited, he returned to the States and became well-known through his lectures, articles and a book, Tent Life in Siberia, in which he described the history and ethnographies of many native peoples who lived in this unknown land.

In 1870 he returned to Russia, a land that he had come to love, and this time traveled to the Caucasus region that had recently been annexed by the Russian tsar. He was one of the first Americans to travel to this region and meet with Muslim craftsmen and sheepherders. When he came back home, he shared stories of his travels in public lectures and became a popular, charismatic speaker. He was fascinated by the diversity of the Russian people and their vast, beautiful country and showed little interest in Russian politics at this point in his life.

In the 1870s and 1880s, very few English language translations of Russian authors were available to American readers. Kennan, having mastered the Russian language, decided to help fellow Americans overcome their ignorance of Russian literature. Ivan Turgenev was the first Russian author to be translated into English on a wide scale, although few of his works were available at this time. His powerful novel, Fathers and Sons, eventually was translated into English by Eugene Schuyler and Kennan attempted to translate a number of other Russian authors himself, but was unable to find a publisher for his translations.

 Kennan’s “Radical Conversion” 

Because of his love of Russia and his desire to educate Americans about this largely unknown land, Kennan became well-known by Russian officials and was given special treatment as a guest in their country. He was supportive of the Romanov tsars and believed the Russian Empire was a “civilizing presence” as it expanded across the vast Eurasian territory. He was convinced that the native peoples of Siberia, for example, would benefit from their inclusion in the Russian Empire. He engaged in arguments with critics of Russia who increasingly highlighted its repressive government and exile system, but Kennan insisted that the “evil revolutionaries” who opposed the tsar needed to be repressed. In his mind, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 proved his point. Kennan defended all things Russian.

All of this dramatically changed as a result of Kennan’s fifteen-month investigation of the Siberian exile system. The debate he carried on with critics of Russia’s exile system had piqued his interest and he decided to travel there to examine this system firsthand. His trip began in May 1885 and included a ten-month-long examination of thirty Russian prison camps in Siberia and personal interviews of over 100 exiles who were eager to tell their stories, and ended with meetings in London with notable Russian revolutionary émigrés. Kennan came to understand the enormity of the Russian exile system and its brutal treatment of both convicted criminals and people who were judged by Russian officials to be “politically untrustworthy” – a judgment made without benefit of a trial. From 1823 to 1887, a total of 772,929 exiles were sent to Siberia, including women and children. What impacted Kennan the most was the suffering of the political exiles, who he originally viewed as troublemakers, but later came to respect. In his opinion, many of these political exiles were “well bred, cultivated, reasonable, loveable human beings . . . yet a human being whom the Russian Government regards as so dangerous that it has banished him to this remotest part of Asia.” He was also amazed that many of the political exiles were “well-versed in American subjects” and discovered many Western books in their prison huts.

What further inspired Kennan was the cheerful acceptance of their tragic exiles expressed by many political prisoners. One female political prisoner said to him, “Yes, Mr. Kennan, we may die in exile, and our grand-children may die in exile, but something will come of it at last.” After listening to them and seeing the brutal living conditions in the camps, Kennan swore to publicize their suffering for the sake of freedom in Russia. As Kennan’s biographer notes, “His complete conversion to the side of the Russian political opposition would make him the most implacable non-Russian opponent of the Russian government in the English-speaking world, if not the entire world.”

Shaper of American Public Opinion 

When Kennan returned to the States, he wrote a series of articles for Century magazine on “Siberia and the Exile System” that began in May 1888 and ran through the fall of 1891. In December 1891, his book of the same title was published. His articles were in the format of a chronological travelogue and, while he focused on the plight of the political exiles, he described the entire Siberian exile system in all its cruelty and the arbitrary use of power that supported the oppressive penal structures.

Between 1889 and 1898, before audiences that numbered approximately one million, Kennan delivered over eight hundred lectures. His platform presence was conversational and his talks were mesmerizing, aided by his common lecture apparel of a prisoner’s garb with chains around his ankles and latched to his waist. At one lecture before the Washington Literary Society, Mark Twain got so aroused that he rose to his feet and shouted out: “If dynamite is the only remedy for such conditions, then thank God for dynamite.” This response was a prophetic statement about the activities of the Russian opposition that increasingly decided it had no choice but to use violence against the autocratic Russian regime.

Some observers referred to Kennan’s book and lectures as “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Siberian Exile.” His writings came to symbolize non-Russian support for the revolutionary cause in Russia, just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book had symbolized the abolitionist movement. Kennan, America’s most renowned expert on Russia, had a profound impact on American public opinion and convinced many that Russia, while a beautiful country, was oppressive, anachronistic, and deserved the opposition of the American government. The days of a harmonious relationship between the new American Republic and the Romanov dynasty were coming to an end.

For a biography of George Kennan, who is related to the later U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, George F. Kennan, see Frederick F. Travis’s George Kennan and the American-Russian Relationship, 1865 – 1924 (Ohio University Press, 1990).

Friday, April 13, 2012

Russia Sells Alaska

Check used to pay for Alaska,
Worth $7.2 million
The surprisingly cordial relationship that developed between President Abraham Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II, a relationship described in previous “Reflections on Russia,” subsequently lead to the Tsar’s decision to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867.  The negotiations and the sale that took place, once the American Civil War ended, mark a high point in the history of Russian-American relations.

Russia’s Perspective

For the Tsar and his closest advisors, there were many factors that convinced them that it was time to sell Alaska to their friendly neighbor, rather than lose it to the British whom they fought in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and whose navy controlled the high seas.  Russia’s principal commercial enterprise in ”Russian-America” (as they called it) was the Russian-American Company, but it was badly mismanaged and was forced to sign contracts for food and supplies with businessmen in San Francisco for their northern outposts and to serve as the company’s principal markets.  While this company struggled to survive – in fact, it never made any money -- commercial interests in California and New England argued that it was time for America to move in – a logical extension of its “Manifest Destiny.”

The distance from St. Petersburg and the mismanagement of the Russian-American Company were key factors in the Tsar’s decision to sell Russia’s only overseas colony.  There was also the realization that Americans were quickly moving across their vast country and would probably take over this territory in time anyway.  The growing friendship with the America, the exchange of naval visits, and the desire to keep the British out of the North Pacific were all part of Russia’s strategic thinking.

At a meeting in the Russian Foreign Ministry on December 28, 1866, the Tsar and five key Russian officials met for less than an hour and the only comments made on the possible sale of Alaska were positive.  After hearing all the advice, Tsar Alexander II agreed with the recommendation to send one of his top advisors to Washington with the authority to sell Alaska for no less than $5 million.  The only stipulations he added were that natives and employees of their company had the right to leave the territory, if they desired, and to retain their religion (Russian Orthodoxy), if they stayed.

Painting by E. Leutze depicting
negotiation of Alaska Purchase
Once the Russians decided to sell Alaska, the negotiation process with the Americans was kept secret and was brought to a successful conclusion at the end of March 1867.  They concluded after an all-night session and the treaty was signed at 4 a.m. on March 30 with a purchase price of $7.2 million – or approximately 2 cents per acre.

A Win/Win Agreement

With their expansion into Siberia, Russia’s growing presence on its Pacific coast, and the buildup in Vladivostok that made it into a modern naval base, the Russians considered Alaska a diversion and too far away to adequately defend.  The Far East was a priority now, not Alaska.  Russia liquidated a financial and strategic embarrassment for $7.2 million and the stock of the Russian-American Company soared so they were able to pay off all of their debts.  The Americans now had control of this region and they were not viewed as a threat; the troublesome British were now shut out of the Pacific North.

American expansionists were thrilled with this purchase, and while some leaders were critical of the decision, calling this purchase “Seward’s Folly” (so named because of the key role played in this decision by Secretary of State William Seward), the acquisition of an area of 586,412 square miles was soon recognized as a major achievement.  Although adding a territory twice the size of Texas immediately excited some Americans; others didn’t recognize its potential until 1896 and the great Klondike gold strike.

“Close Friends in Separate Spheres"

From the 1760s to the 1860s, Russia and America experienced 100 years of harmonious friendship, highlighted by the sale of Alaska.  The national interests of both countries were congruent, not in conflict; both countries also had a common antagonist – Great Britain.  There was also a realization, especially on the part of the Russians, of the limits of their power and the need not to expand beyond their defensive capabilities.  In addition, this was a period when differing political ideologies – democracy vs. autocracy – did not influence diplomacy in either country.

Over the next fifty years, leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, all of this began to change.  But that’s another story.