The End of Tsarist Russia

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By David Michael Newstead.

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I & Revolution by Dominic Lieven offers a critical reassessment of events a century ago. It’s a story of empire, geography, and long festering social problems that destroyed many lives and reshaped history. Below, I offer select excerpts from the book.

From Page 2

Contrary to the near-universal assumption in the English-speaking world, the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict. Its immediate origins lay in the murder of the Austrian heir at Sarajevo in southeastern Europe. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, led to a confrontation between Austria and Russia, eastern Europe’s two great empires… It is true that victory in World War I was achieved on the western front by the efforts of the French, British, and American armies. But the peace of 1918 was mostly lost in eastern Europe. The great irony of World War I was that a conflict which began more than anything else as a struggle between Germanic powers and Russia to dominate east-central Europe ended in the defeat of both sides… Worse still, the Versailles order was constructed on the basis on both Germany’s and Russia’s defeat and without concern for their interests or viewpoints.

From Page 61

Autocracy survived in part through tradition and inertia, in part through fear that liberalization would release class and national conflicts that would tear the country apart.

From Page 343 to 346

Russia’s World War I went roughly as Petr Durnovo, Russia’s most intelligent “reactionary” leader, had predicted in his February 1914 memorandum (Read Here). The Russian army was inferior to the German and was defeated in a number of battles, most notably at Tannenberg in 1914 and Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915. In a number of areas, German superiority in material was important: most notably in heavy artillery, airplanes, and communications technology. Deeper-rotted problems of Russian personnel mattered more. The relatively small number of professional officers and noncommissioned officers in comparison to Germany proved a great disadvantage. Russian armies also usually had less competent commanders and staffs than their German enemies. But the British and French armies were also on the whole inferior to the German until the latter was crippled by General Ludendorff’s spring offensive in 1918. On occasion, Russian armies did defeat the Germans. They were in general superior to the Austrians, whom they defeated heavily in 1914 and 1916. The Russian army also outperformed the British in the war against Turkey.

By the winter of 1916-17, the Russian army was tired and had suffered heavy casualties, including high levels of surrender and desertion. In a few units, there were signs that morale and discipline were slipping… In the Russian case, it was the rear, not the front, that collapsed first and undermined the war effort… As Durnovo had predicted, the railways became a major problem with very serious consequences for military movements, food supply, and industrial production. Neither the railway network nor the rolling stock was adequate for the colossal demands of war, but in addition industry was diverted overwhelmingly to military production, with repairs to locomotives, rolling stock, and railway lines suffering as a consequence. Inflation too its toll on morale and discipline among railway men, as it did across the entire workforce. Durnovo was once again right in predicting that Russia would face great difficulties in financing the war.

From Page 351

The end of tsarist Russia came in the course of a few days in late February and early March 1917. A dynasty that had ruled for three hundred years departed almost overnight and with a whimper rather than a bang, because very few Russians were willing to defend it.

From Page 365

For Russia as for Germany, 1914 was year zero. The catastrophe of World War I led directly to other, even more terrible disasters. From war sprang revolution, civil war, famine, and dictatorship. Hopes in the 1920s that the revolutionary regime might in time become more moderate were dashed in the 1930s as an even greater wave of famine, terror, and revolutionary development engulfed the Russian people.

Patrick Stewart as Vladimir Lenin

By David Michael Newstead.

Today marks the centennial of the February Revolution of 1917, which ended the rule of Czar Nicholas II. Here’s a clip of Vladimir Lenin learning of the downfall of the Czar as portrayed by actor Patrick Stewart.

Russia Past & Present: The Revolution

By David Michael Newstead.

This year marks the hundred year anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which influenced world events for decades and precipitated the bloodiest civil war in history where over nine million people lost their lives. To reflect on the significance of these events, I’ll be posting material about the revolution throughout 2017 starting with this clip from the classic film, Doctor Zhivago.

Russia Past & Present with Richard Pipes

By David Michael Newstead.

The Washington Post once called Richard Pipes one of America’s great historians. Pipes served on the National Security Council in the Reagan administration and did analysis for the CIA. Now a professor emeritus at Harvard University, his books include Russia Under the Old Regime, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, and Communism: A History. Today, Richard Pipes joins me to discuss the upcoming centennial of the Russian Revolution and the unusual state of U.S.-Russia relations in 2016.

David Newstead: How do you think the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution should be marked?

Richard Pipes: Of course, there were two revolutions in 1917. I would mark the February-March one with great ceremony, but I would totally ignore the October-November Revolution. The February Revolution was a democratic revolution accomplished by the population at large. And the October Revolution was a conspiracy and a seizure of power.

David Newstead: Is the world still feeling the impacts of that seizure of power?

Richard Pipes: For almost three quarters of a century the world felt it very, very powerfully. The Twentieth century was very much dominated by the Soviet Union and its actions. Today, no. Today, it’s pretty much history.

David Newstead: So, do you feel there’s any significance to Russian President Vladimir Putin being a former agent of the KGB?

Richard Pipes: Yes. He is not fit to be a democratic leader. A democratic leader listens to the population and does what the population commands. He is still mentally and psychologically very much of the Soviet mold.

David Newstead: What do you think is often misunderstood about the October Revolution that people should remember today?

Richard Pipes: People should remember that the Cold War and a great deal that happened in the Twentieth century was due to that. And it was all evil. And the only good thing about the Bolsheviks was that they created a regime that could resist the Nazis when they invaded them. And that was one great solid achievement of Bolshevism. Otherwise, I see nothing but evil.

David Newstead: In light of that, do you think Vladimir Lenin’s body should still be on display in Moscow?

Richard Pipes: No, he definitely should be removed.

David Newstead: You’ve also done a great deal of research on Russia under the Tsar. I’m curious what you think Tsar’s legacy is a hundred years after his downfall?

Richard Pipes: It’s ancient history, of course. But the legacy of the Tsars and of all previous Russian governments was that democracy was not good for Russia. And that Russia needs a strong ruler, even if he rules in an autocratic manner. And that is very deeply ensconced in the Russian political culture.

David Newstead: You were in the Reagan administration for a time. Do you feel the Reagan administration offers any lessons on how America should deal with Russia today?

Richard Pipes: No, because the situation is very different. When Reagan was in the White House, the Cold War was on. There’s no Cold War today. I mean, our relations with Russia are not terribly good, because of Putin and the administration. But it is not as dangerous as it was then.

David Newstead: I’m curious if you have any views on the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election right now?

Richard Pipes: Well, yes. They are participating in it. In my view, the Russians are friendly to a very bad candidate. Trump, if he’s elected, would be a disaster. And Trump is friendly to Putin and Putin is friendly to Trump and that’s not good. I hope that Russia changes its attitude to the rest of the world – that it becomes more cooperative and less hostile. But I am not very optimistic that this will happen.

David Newstead: It seems like Russian politics have been going in a bad direction for some time now…

Richard Pipes: It goes back to authoritarianism and hostility to the rest of the world. I’m afraid it is so. And I hope it will change, but I’m not very optimistic.

Read Part One

Russia Past & Present with Peter Kenez

By David Michael Newstead.

Next year marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution and to reflect on the significance of those events I reached out to historian Peter Kenez. Kenez is a professor emeritus at the University of California Santa Cruz where he specializes in Russian history and the history of Eastern Europe. His books include The Birth of the Propaganda State, Varieties of Fear: Growing up Jewish under Nazism and Communism, and A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Recently, Professor Kenez joined me for an in-depth discussion on Russian history, politics, and propaganda.

David Newstead: There’s a new edition of one of your books coming out entitled The Soviet Union and Its Legacy. What are some of the main points of that legacy?

Peter Kenez: As far as the world is concerned, it’s one thing. And as far as the Russian people are concerned, it’s another thing. That is, the Russian people remember Stalin. A large number of them remember him very fondly, because Russia was propelled to be one of the two great powers. However silly it is, people do derive pleasure from being citizens of a major power. And that is what the Russian people today recall as the legacy of the Soviet Union. Namely, that “We were respected!” And people want to be respected. As far as the world is concerned, it was a great blow against Marxist ideology. People identify the Soviet experiment quite wrongly with Socialism of any kind. And that obviously is false on the face of it.

David Newstead: So, the Socialism of the British, the Swedish, and Bernie Sanders doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Socialism of the Soviet Union?

Peter Kenez: Certainly not!

David Newstead: One thing I did want to ask concerns your book The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization. Do you see any similarities between the propaganda techniques pioneered by the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago and the techniques of modern Russian?

Peter Kenez: No, I don’t. There are two kinds of historians: those who see patterns all the time and those to whom every event seems as something new. Now, obviously the similarities are always there. But how much stress are we going to put on it? My sense is that looking for the similarities is likely to confuse us, because our task is to look at the work as is. We should understand how effective propaganda can be and what are effective propaganda means.

Yes, obviously the Soviets were pathbreakers inasmuch as they believed that they were in possession of a blueprint for a perfect society. Consequently, for them to try to advocate for that blueprint seemed like a noble undertaking. So in their understanding, propaganda was not a dirty word.

Now, I think the power of propaganda goes only so far. What I mean by this is, it depends on your target audience. There is an audience that finds an appeal in what Donald Trump says. That doesn’t mean that he’s a superb propagandist. It means that he stands for something which resonates in the soul of many. So to ask “Who is the better propagandist?” it is pretty much an impossible question to me, because it does matter on your target audience.

In the Soviet case, this was not an issue. Because the success of Soviet propaganda was their ability to suppress every opposing point of view. This kind of approach to propaganda in the modern United States does not exist. And as far as I can tell in the foreseeable future, it could not exist. In Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Russia, it was easy to be a propagandist, because anybody who wanted to shout “What you are saying is silly. It’s not true!” was hit over the head. And that was that. It’s not that they were such clever propagandists. They had the means to suppress every opposing point of view. You know, it’s not that they hit on some brilliant ways to influence the human soul.

By the way, the Soviets were always convinced that the Americans in particular were much better than they were at spreading their message. But everybody thinks that the other side is the better propagandist. The reason for that is because as we live we find that people see the world differently and how can that be? How can that be that people don’t see what I see? The answer to this is, “Because they have been misled by propaganda!” And everybody always thinks that the other side is better at propaganda than their own side. The Russians were convinced that the Americans were very clever.

David Newstead: How does the Putin regime fit that description?

Peter Kenez: To be sure, the current Russian state has the means to achieve not complete uniformity and not a complete monopoly when expressing their views. But at the same time, what Putin has to say is that “We have been humiliated by the West!” This finds an echo in the current Russian soul. It’s not that they’ve been so clever as propagandists, but what Putin has to sell means something to the Russian people.

What is striking to me is how great a rebellion there is in the modern world against liberalism and Putin is not standing alone. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the regime in Poland, Erdoğan in Turkey, Netanyahu in Israel, the close results of elections in Austria. And Trump seems to be a parody of all that. But nonetheless, it’s a parody of something which is an international phenomenon. What I am saying is that Putin is not standing alone. It’s not that there is something called Putinism that is so extraordinary. It’s not attractive mind you. I mean, I’m no fan. But there is so much that is unattractive in much the same way: nativism, suspicion of foreigners, rebellion against liberalism, craving for identity. Brexit is another example. And Trump fits into this as a parody, but a parody of something that is genuine. I just saw the polls today as I was coming in here and Trump has something to sell. It’s not that he’s so clever as a propagandist. He represents something that reverberates in the soul of man.

David Newstead: Probably not our better angels.

Peter Kenez: We agree.

David Newstead: What’s the historical significance of a former agent of the KGB leading Russia? Recently, a harsh anti-terrorism law was passed there. And, of course, there’s the alleged hacking of the Democratic Party in America. Do these things relate to his background in your view?

Peter Kenez: I think that Putin was an ordinary Soviet man and his work for the KGB matters little.

David Newstead: Because a lot of your research has focused on Southern Russia and Ukraine, have you been paying attention to the current conflict there?

Peter Kenez: Very much so. I just wrote for the new edition new chapters on Putin and there, of course, Crimea comes up. What gave Russians today trouble was not the Ukrainians in Crimea, because there’s a rather small Ukrainian minority in Crimea. But in the Donbass region! The main reason that Putin found it necessary to take Crimea was that he assumed for good reasons that the lease for Sevastopol would not be renewed in 2017, which is the only base for the Russian Navy on the Black Sea. So, it had far reaching consequences.

David Newstead: Shifting gears some, I’m curious. Is the world still feeling the impacts of the Russian Revolution? And if so, how?

Peter Kenez: Every great historical event changes the world. The French Revolution changed the world. Hitler coming to power changed the world. In that sense, the Russian Revolution changed the world. There are continuities and there are abrupt changes. In the case of Russian history, the continuities are striking. But so are the changes followed by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

I do think that the 1917 Revolution was surely one of the great events of the 20th century. I cannot imagine Hitler coming to power without the Russian Revolution. I think that the German’s fear of Marxism and Communism was a major source of Hitler’s strength. This more than anything else enabled Hitler to come to power. And anti-Bolshevism was, of course, a main plank in his ideology. Without the Russian Revolution, that’s difficult to conceive.

This is not to blame Lenin for Hitler, but things are connected. You know, the famous Butterfly Effect of a butterfly flaps its wings in Asia and from this such and such things follow… The Russian Revolution was more than a butterfly. So, I don’t think that anybody would dispute that Nazism and Communism fed on one another, which is not to say that Nazism is like Communism or that there’s nothing to distinguish them. But the great communist appeal in the 1930s and, indeed during the Second World War, was precisely that the Soviet Union was the main bulwark against Nazism.

Let us just say, yes. The Russian Revolution was enormously significant. And even though after seventy years the Soviet Union disappeared, that does not mean it has not changed the world.

David Newstead: You’re well-known for writing several histories of the White Army in the Russian Civil War. And I wanted to ask your view on the legacy of the Whites and their relevance today?

Peter Kenez: Well, the interesting thing is those people who want to highlight the Whites in Russian history also look favorably on Stalin. The logic being, they wanted to make us great, they stood for Russia, and Stalin stood for Russia. So, you can have the White leader Denikin as a hero and Stalin as a hero at the same time. Obviously, what the Whites stood for has no future and they are really a throwback to a previous era anachronistic in the modern world. But inasmuch as they were passionate nationalists, they have an appeal. I mean, Denikin fought a war against Georgia, which was absurd. It was absurd given the fact that he also had to fight the Red Army!

David Newstead: One book I read said that the Reds outnumbered the Whites ten-to-one or something to that effect.

Peter Kenez: The Reds mobilized more people, it is true. They occupied more territory. The White Armies were much better led and much better organized. If a White Army and a Red Army met on the battlefield and they were the same size, the Whites were likely to win. And a large number of Red Army soldiers never ever saw combat.

Obviously, the Reds won. But it was not pre-determined. The Whites had things going for them, but they had more things against them since they lost. They were divided geographically. Their policy concerning the peasants was very stupid. If the peasants occupied land, the Whites took it back and returned to the landlords. Therefore, the peasants liked the Whites less than the liked the Reds and that’s very important. Anti-Semitism was also a great force for the Whites. Hatred of Jews and communists was a very powerful propaganda message for the Whites. And for Hitler, for that matter.

David Newstead: Tying the two together, I’ve heard the White Army loosely described as a proto-fascist movement.

Peter Kenez: Again, I shy away from comparisons. We have such a tendency to describe anything that we don’t like as fascist and that’s not very helpful for understanding the nature of that group. They were royalists. They wanted to bring back the old regime. And that’s not what fascism stood for. I mean, that they were anti-Semitic… Well, most people were anti-Semitic then. That’s not enough to make them fascists. To be sure, there is a continuity. Some of these White leaders ended up in Nazi Germany and contributed to their cause during the Second World War and they had a role to play. But in my mind, it’s not helpful to describe them as fascists. Resisting the modern age? Yes. Anti-Bolsheviks? Of course.

David Newstead: Do you have any closing thoughts?

Peter Kenez: You know, many people have made the point that the 20th century was from 1917 to 1991 in accordance with the existence of the Soviet Union. That is, the 19th century ended with the First World War and a new era started with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States becoming the only superpower. This century included the two world wars, included Nazism, included Communism, included all sorts of exciting moments.

Reads Part Two