World War I is often described as “the war to end all wars,” a global conflagration unprecedented in human society whose outbreak reshaped the face of Europe, and led to the collapse of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union. But did the war really come out of nowhere? What else was going on in Europe—and around the world—that led to the outbreak of this “global” conflict?
Our guest, Dominic Lieven of the London School of Economics, has spent his career examining problems of political stability in Europe in the 19th century, and the history of the Russian Empire’s waning days, and helps us understand the world on the eve of its first global war.
- Dominic LievenProfessor Emeritus of International History, London School of Economics
- Joan NeubergerProfessor of History, University of Texas at Austin
We’re going to talk about Russia on the eve of World War I. So let’s dive right in and begin with an overview international conflicts that were smoldering in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century that ultimately led to World War I. Can you give us an overview?
Yes. The international conflicts were smoldering across the globe, though they were mostly driven by the European powers. You have the Spanish-American War, then you have the Boer War, then you also have the Russo-Japanese War, and then you zoom into the immediate causes of the First World War, which are to do with the decline and seeming likely collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Firstly, the Italians pinch Libya from the Ottoman Turks, and that in turn leads into the Balkan Wars, when the various smaller Balkan states (the Serbs, the Bulgarians, the Montenegrins, and the Greeks) decide to carve up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. And in a way, the First World War is actually the third of these Balkan Wars.
What were Russia’s interests?
Russia’s interests were worldwide. The problem is that Russian resources don’t actually suffice to defend Russian interests worldwide. But specifically, after the defeat with Japan, they basically do a deal with the Japanese to close down danger on the Pacific front and concentrate their resources on trying to defend their interests in the Middle East and Europe, and that is above all to do with their sense that the Ottoman Empire is declining fast and likely to collapse. The Austrian Empire might follow it. And Russia has enormous interest in what we now describe as Turkey at the Straights, at Constantinople and the Straights, and in Southeastern Europe, which it needs to defend if necessary.
And so in the lead up to World War I, there were a number of international agreements in Europe to try and balance powers in Europe. Can you talk about what those were?
The basic idea of balancing power in Europe is the idea of security. If any one country is so powerful that it can push all the others around, what you need to do is gang up against it. That, in a sense, is what had been going on in Europe for a hundred years or more. The basic problem now, after German unification in 1871 and the enormous growth of the German economy, is that Germany appears to be potentially the dominant power in Europe. So essentially the Russians and the French gang up against it to make sure neither of them will be pushed around. That, in turn, of course, scares the Germans. And it’s out of this spiral of mutual fears and a basic idea that you’re going to balance power and that is going to stop anyone from getting completely above themselves and try to take over the top spot in Europe. Out of that comes the First World War.
Let’s just focus on Russia a little bit. You’ve just written a book on the Russian Empire up to World War I. And, like all other European states, Russia was a kind of nation-state, and it was also the center of an enormous empire. How did the fact that Russia was an empire play into foreign policy thinking in the early 20th century?
This is the most basic distinction between Russia and certainly the West European empires. Whereas the English, and the French, the Dutch and to some extent the Spanish had empires, Russia was one. And therefore the boundaries between what you might describe as a Russian core state and the empire are very difficult to define. The basic point though for all these European states is that unless they are countries of continental scale, with continental scale populations and resources, they’re not going to be a great power in the 20th century, and that’s for all sorts of obvious reasons, but the most basic is that they can look and see what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic. They know that the United States is very soon going to be powerful on a scale which will dwarf any normal European country.
Of course Russia isn’t a normal European country. It is attached to a great empire. And so the Russians are in this strange situation, in which at the moment they feel themselves to be very weak and vulnerable—and they are, indeed. They are poorer and less powerful in most ways than the Germans. And yet, they think if they can hold together and develop their enormous economy for the next generation or so, they will be the only European country which can match the United States. So it’s a complicated picture.
You’ve said that, from the Russian point of view, there were three areas of geopolitics that mattered in shaping foreign policy: security, interests, and identity. Why don’t we take those one at a time and start with what you mean by security.
Security means balance of power. It essentially means that you need to be sufficiently powerful to ensure that your core interests are not trampled on. And the Franco-Russian alliance is the main Russian way they try to do this because they fear being pushed around by Germany and particularly by the German-Austrian alliance, which was signed in 1879. So balance of power is Russian security. The obvious point to make is that this isn’t just Russia. The Russian’s put their faith in the balance of power in just the same way that people in London and Paris did. And in principle, everybody believed in the balance of power.
The problem was that the balance of power is always a dangerous idea. In the first place it’s always very difficult to decide who has got power. The only way you can really work it out is through war. Then you have work out not just people’s power, but their intentions, and that’s even more complicated. And then specifically, in the European case before 1914, if Germany was the obvious potential dominant power in Europe now, it was not entirely unrealistic to think that Russia might well be in a generation’s time. So all the calculations are difficult.
What do you mean by interests?
Russia, like every country, certainly like any great power, has interests. Some of those interests are to some extent common sense; security, not allowing the invasion of your country, not being pushed around when it comes to international disputes over trade and other things. But specifically, Russia has a number of interests, not least because it covers the whole of northern Eurasia. It’s vulnerable in the Far East to the Japanese, it has real worries in the Caucasus partly because external and internal problems can easily be linked. Revolution within and support from outside: the old imperial nightmare. But actually, between 1906 and 1914 the Russian government defines its key interest as being in, above all, the Middle East and Southeastern Europe, which really means the Ottoman problem.
Above all, the Russians are absolutely paranoid about the fate of what are usually called the Straights, the waterway that links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Most Russian exports go out through that waterway, there is no alternative to them going out through that waterway. The percentage of Russian exports that are going to go out through that waterway is growing with every year. And therefore the Russians are paranoid about protecting this key, key route. And because they think the Ottoman Empire is either going to collapse, so the Straights are going to be up for grabs; or in its weakness, it is increasingly going to become a German protectorate, they get more and more fraught. And although that isn’t the only Russian interest in Europe, it is the main one. That is what the biggest Russian concern is.
So we come back to the Ottoman Empire?
We come back to the Ottoman Empire. Again, one needs to put things in context. Just as the other European capitals also thought in terms of the balance of power, the British for instance worry about it. Whether one’s talking about the balance of power in Europe where Germany seems to them the greatest threat, or in Asia where Russia seems the biggest threat to their Indian empire. Well it’s just the same way at the Straights. Of course Russian ambitions at the Straights are a source of insecurity and fear in Europe. But you have to put that in the context of a world where the British have pinched the Suez Canal and taken over all of Egypt to protect it, the Americans have pinched the Panama canal and taken over a slice Central America. This is the name of the game in those days. And actually the Russians had greater interest in the Straights than the British did in Suez or the Americans had in Panama for the simple reason that the Russians had no other way to get their exports out.
What do you mean by identity?
Well, identity is always a bit more complicated, but fundamentally, it seems to me, identity means two things as regards Russia and foreign policy. Firstly is the idea that Russia is a Slavic country, that it has a historical mission, as was said at the time, to be the leader and protector of the world’s Slavic communities. And secondly and more generally that Russia is a great power, an empire, and that for any Russian, keeping Russia as a great power, making sure that Russia has a major say in the great questions, making sure that Russia is second to none, not humiliated, recognized by all as one of the key players in the world. This is very much a part of what Russian elites think of as “their” Russia. It’s those two things fundamentally.
Again, you have to put it in context. Russia’s not unique. The British, the French, the Germans, and indeed the Americans in a slightly different way, all thought that either being a German or being an American demanded ensuring that your country was one of the great countries in the world, which no one could ignore in the great questions that would determine the world’s future. The Slav issue is a narrower one, and there are very specific aspects to the whole Russian/Slavophile tradition. And yet again it’s a general question. After all, in many ways, 20th century world history, at least until relatively recently, was a battle between what you could describe as a Russian led bloc, a Germanic bloc, and an Anglo-Saxon (or Anglo-American) bloc to dominate the world. And these were, of course, blocs defined by geopolitical interest, but also ethno-ideological identity. The British and Americans won, and that’s why we live in the world we do—it’s not the only reason, but it’s a major one.
So again, this Russian attempt to create a what you could describe as a geopolitical ethno-ideological bloc is nothing strange. The main problem is that firstly the Russian-Slavic bloc is not united. They all hate each other: Poles, Russians, Bulgarians, and Serbs. Secondly, whereas in the German and Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-American case, you have blocs that are sustained by the sense that they’re the leaders of civilization, both culture and economics. Nobody thinks that Russia is the head of anything; it’s a backwards country. And certainly no one thinks that Tsarism is a desirable regime or desirable ideology, which is not true when you’re thinking of Anglo-American democracy, which has many admirers outside the UK and the USA. And then the third most basic point is that even if all the Slavs had been united, and even if all Slavs looked up to Tsarism, Russia is a relatively backward country. And at least today, god knows about the day after tomorrow, but today, the Russian bloc is much weaker than the big German bloc of all the German peoples of Europe. And of course it’s incomparably weaker than the alliance of the UK and the United States, the world’s English speaking people. So the Russians are in a bind. And the fact that the Russians are weaker, and are conscious of the fact that they’re weaker, helps to explain some of the paranoia.
A lot of what you’re talking about comes together in two regions: in Ukraine, in the early 20th century, and in Russia’s attitude toward Siberia. Can you talk about how those two regions played into the way Russia acted on the eve of World War I?
Both the Ukrainian issue and the Siberian issue are in a sense: empire. And the idea that to be a great power, to survive in the dog-eat-dog great-power politics of the 20th century, you need to be an empire. Well the great threat to empire is nationalism. It’s still the case in 1914 that most of the Russian elites think of the Poles, or sometimes the Jews, or even occasionally Finns or this and that as the biggest immediate threat to the empire. But the more farsighted Russian thinkers and statesmen see the Ukrainian threat as in the long-run, or in the medium-run, the most dangerous. And that is simply because without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a great power. Seventy percent of Russian coal and the metallurgical industry’s produce comes from Ukraine. Ukraine produces most of the export grain, which is at the center of the Russian export economy, which itself is what allows Russia to import foreign capital, foreign technology, and is therefore the basis for the entire program for Russian development. So that’s the first issue.
The Ukrainian problem is also serious in the sense that if Ukrainians are considered “Russians,” then 67% of the Russian empire’s population are Russians. If Ukrainians and Belorussians are not, then only 44% are, and of course that makes a huge difference in an era where it is usually taken that national identity, nationalism, is the best way to consolidate a political community and legitimize the state in the eyes of its subjects. So there is a very big security issue there and the whole question of whether Ukrainians are a separate nation or whether they are a region of the Russian people is hugely significant.
And was it controversial at the time?
It was hugely controversial and it was becoming more controversial with every day that went by. One has to remember that this isn’t a battle between Russians and Ukrainians. It’s a big battle within the Ukrainian elites as well. Virtually the whole Ukrainian elite up to the 1850s is convinced that, though certainly they have a separate regional identity, they are not just Russian, but in many ways the most Russian of Russians. Because after all, what we now call Ukraine is where the Russian reigning dynasty came from, it’s where the Orthodox Church came from. And in the old world it’s dynasty and church, religion, which determine identity. On top of that, there is a more acute sense of Russian identity often in Ukrainian-Russian elites than there is in the heart of the Russian empire for the very simple reason that this is a borderland. And the Ukrainian elites are traditionally fighting Poles to defend what they see as the Russian identity, the Russian dynastic and all the other Russian identities against Polish cultural and political domination. Then you have the rise of capitalism and then they’re all obsessed with the power of Jewish elites, you know, as “leaders of Capitalism” in the borderlands.
So you have a situation which is not unique, it’s often true, that what we call Ukraine, the borderland elites in Ukraine, until certainly beyond the 1850’s, are fairly unanimous in seeing themselves as the most Russian of Russian provinces. Then in the last seventy years of imperial Russia you get developments which include the emergence of Ukrainian nationalistic elites, which says ‘No, Ukrainians are not Russians. We are a separate nation just like Poles are separate to Russians, or Slovenes are separate to Croats, the same kind of arguments you’re getting in the rest of Europe. And therefore potentially we must not only have our own separate identity, but even a sovereign independent state. Well, of course for the Russian elites this is absolute anathema, and so you get an increasingly bitter struggle, which is still, to a considerable extent, kept underground within the Russian empire—although, after open politics becomes possible with the Duma, the Parliament, in 1905, it does begin to come above ground. But of course because 75% of Ukrainians live in the Russian Empire, but 25% in Austrian Empire, in Austrian Galicia, what we now call Western Ukraine, becomes the absolute heartland of Ukrainian nationalism. And that has a big affect in souring Russian-Austrian relations. That isn’t yet the main issue in Austrian-Russian relations in 1914, but it’s becoming bigger and bigger with every year that goes by, and it could very soon become as important an issue in Russo-Austrian relations as the Balkans.
And some of the most thoughtful foreign policy experts saw Ukraine as being an important borderland issue.
Some of the most important foreign polity experts, but also the public intellectuals in Russia. So did some of the more intelligent security officials. This problem is there and it’s clearly likely to get worse.
And how does Siberia play into this?
Siberia is, for a Russian optimist, the world of the future. This is Russia’s way out of the great dilemma, the great crisis it faces at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s as if Britain or even England was attached to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and a large portion of the United States. At that point, it would much easier to integrate all these areas into a greater Britain, which would remain a superpower into the 20th or even 21st century. Siberia plays that role for the Russians. And you have to understand that new technology is making this dream of Siberia’s importance much more real, meaning the railway. With the railway you can penetrate the heartland of Siberia, you can exploit its resources, you can enormously speed colonization. And therefore these Russians have dreams, seemingly very realistic dreams, that the whole center of gravity of Russia will swing East. Within 100 years, you’ll have 450 perhaps 500 million Russians, which would make the United States or possibly China its only competitors in the world.
And not just that, Siberia is seen as a way of both ameliorating the social crisis—the social political crisis—by allowing peasants to flow into these newly accessible areas, and therefore reduce the pressure on the land in Ukraine and Russia, which is one of the key causes of agrarian revolution. But it will also allow large numbers of Ukrainians and Belorussians to flow into Siberia, where they will become a sort of new Russian amalgam. It’s just the same way that Scots and Welsh and even Irish and, of course, English who emigrated to Canada and Australia became new British. They lost some of their local regional identities. Now of course in time, they created Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand identities. But there was no chance of Siberia seceding from the Russian Empire. So there was some hope that you would create a new Russian identity out of Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians in Siberia. And after all, to some extent, in the same way that people who emigrated to the United States didn’t necessarily and immediately lose their ethnic identity, but they did acquire a broader American identity. So it’s this kind of thinking, which through all the crises and difficulties of the early 20th century, does cheer up Nicholas II and some of his advisors.
So it gave Russians a sense that whatever happened in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans there was always their backyard that would be there for future development.
The basic thought was, yes, this is our future. But they were terrified that this future might be preempted by a war before they would be ready to cope with it. And they had different answers to how they should respond to this danger.
Do you think that, just from Russia’s point of view, that this war could have been avoided? Were there voices in the foreign policy and military and diplomatic circles who were doing what they could to avoid war, and at what point did they let that go?
I think that the great majority of members of the Russian ruling elite across the board before 1914 want to avoid war. You have irresponsible politicians in the Duma. But in terms of the ministers, in terms of the immediate entourage of Nicolas II, they all want to avoid war. Now in certain cases they want to avoid war for good if they possibly can, because you have a strain of humanitarianism and they’ve all seen what happened in the Russo-Japanese war. But more important is the sense that firstly we don’t need a war. The future’s on our side, we’ve got our empire. And secondly, a war now would be a catastrophe. We saw what happened in the Russo-Japanese war. Defeat could easily come against Germany and defeat could bring revolution. In fact defeat, in the eyes of a large slice of the elite, was seen as being almost certain to bring revolution.
Whether they want to postpone war or whether they hope to avoid it all together—they do all want to avoid war, but you’re in a pretty ruthless world and it is a world where unless you stand up for your own interests you might get pushed to the wall. And of course this comes up with the whole Straights issue with Germany’s increasing influence at the Straights. It’s also the case that there is a contradiction here because this is a regime whose legitimacy rests deeply in its military prestige, in its defense of Russian pride. And as it becomes less legitimate, as the domestic crisis grows, the need for the legitimacy that success in foreign policy, success in standing up for Russian pride brings gets greater and greater. So you have this contradiction. And you have very powerful internal stresses towards, for instance, defending Russia’s position as the leading Slav power, defending the interest of the Baltic-Slav people. All these things are not easy to dismiss or side-line because even those who are somewhat skeptical about the Slavs and Russia’s position there nevertheless in the first place themselves usually have some sense of their debt to Russian history. Allowing the Germans and the Austrians simply to dominate the Balkans makes them feel that they’re somehow losing out or betraying their ancestors. But then there’s the broader issue of the regime’s legitimacy. As the regime attempts to build bridges to educate its society and to create a parliament, allow greater freedom of the press, you’re actually liberating chauvinist voices. It’s not at all the case that civil society, at least in some of its more conservative aspects, or in its centrist-conservative aspects is specific—it isn’t. The government is much more peaceful than civil society in that sense.
So all of these issues, starting from where we started (the Straights, Ukraine, Siberia, economics) were controversial within the government. Gradually consensus grew that Russia would have to go to war. Is that what happened?
There was a growing consensus. What really provides the basis for the consensus is the alliance between, and this is particularly the foreign ministry, the professional people, that the balance of power is essential to Russian security. That means the French alliance, etc. And the idea in civil society, that Russia must defend its historical interest in the Balkans, its dignity in the Balkans, and that this is all a part of Russian identity. And those two elements come together. There are people who deny this. There are actually often very intelligent critics who deny this. But they are the outriders, and they’re becoming more the outriders by 1914.