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The End of Tsarist Russia Cover

The End of Tsarist Russia

The March to World War I and Revolution

Dominic Lieven

Viking, New York, 2015, 428 pages

Book Review published on: January 12, 2017

Rare are the historical works that provide new perspectives on iconic events in world history. The End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven is one of those works. His book details the strategic imperatives, decisions, and personalities that led tsarist Russia to war and its ultimate demise. He does not settle for a dramatic retelling of the heady days of Revolution in Petrograd, or the final years of the First World War. In fact, those events are covered in the shortest and last chapter of the book. Instead, Lieven studies the geopolitical situation in the years preceding the Armageddon that swept through Europe and the world a little over a hundred years ago. In so doing, he illuminates dangerous parallels with today.

The first myth that Lieven debunks is that of tsarist Russia as an exceptional or irrational actor on the world stage before World War I. On the contrary, Lieven argues that the strategic calculus of Russia resembled that of the other empires of the time. Russia’s desires to control the straits of Dardanelle were similar to British designs on the Suez Canal or U.S. control over the Panama Canal. Furthermore, he underlines the imperial dilemma faced by all great powers in the early twentieth century: that a state’s greatness depended on its size. However, the greater a state’s size, the more vulnerable it was to political disunity. This threatened all empires in an age of rising ethnic nationalism.

Lieven then explains the particular security dynamics of tsarist Russia. These included its defeat by Japan in Manchuria, Pan-Slavic aspirations, a rising Germany, and growing Polish and Ukrainian nationalism. Interestingly, and probably as a result of his access to Russian archives, he spends a large amount of the book describing the various personalities of Russian leaders and bureaucrats who shaped tsarist policy in the years before the war. As a result, the reader is struck by the realization of how important individuals are to the course of history.

One of the book’s most ambitious claims is that “as much as anything, World War I turned on the fate of Ukraine.” While clearly meant to galvanize the reader and draw parallels with the current security situation in Europe, the book does make a coherent argument on the primacy of the East in World War I. This is an important point for those knowledgeable about the bloody trench warfare of the western front.

This is an authoritative work, with new perspectives, on Russian government policy in the years before World War I. It is well written and particularly relevant in the increasingly fraught geopolitical situation we face today. Those security specialists who seek a greater understanding of historical Russian geostrategic imperatives will benefit from reading this book. However, its in-depth analysis of individual personalities might overwhelm more general readers. Military officers will not find any tactical or operational insights but will benefit from understanding the political context from which war is made.

Book Review written by: Maj. Roland Minez, U.S. Army Reserve, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas