All the Tsar's Men
Russia's General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898-1914
Johns Hopkins University Press 2010
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was the most important political event of the twentieth century (no Revolution; no Nazis; no Nazis, no World War II; no World War II, no Cold War). It’s little wonder, then, that historians have expended oceans of effort and ink trying to explain why and how it happened. The answer is complex, but it boils down to this: Nicholas II’s armies had a rough time of it in World War I, his regime lost credibility, the hungry cities revolted, and the Bolsheviks usurped power in an armed coup. The key event was, then, the Russian loss to the Germans on the Eastern Front. Surprisingly, the Russian defeat –arguably the second most important political event of the twentieth century because it triggered the first–has not been widely studied. For my generation of Russian historians (and, I should add, the one that preceded it), the Revolution–the last, best hope of mankind to many–was a sexy topic indeed; the failure of the Russian Imperial Army, not so much. So we were left in the dark (or, rather, left ourselves in the dark). There were, however, historians who went against this grain. Among them are (to name only a few and those who write in English): John Bushnell, William Fuller, Peter Gatrell, Hubertus Jahn, Eric Lohr, Bruce Menning, David Rich, David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, Norman Stone, Allen Wildman and our guest today John Steinberg. Steinberg’s wonderful new book All the Tsar’s Men: Russia’s General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898-1914 (Johns Hopkins/Wilson Center, 2010) is a significant contribution to our understanding of the roots of the Russian defeat in World War I. His focus is the Imperial General Staff and its struggle (failed, as it turned out) to reform itself and the army that it commanded. As Steinberg points out, their task was a difficult one, made much more so by Russia’s all-encompassing (and to a considerable degree self-imposed) backwardness. The leaders of the General Staff were smart people. They knew what to do to make the Imperial Army a first-rate fighting force. Under other leadership, they might have succeeded in modernizing the army. But Nicholas did not lead, and so nothing could be done. Autocracies depend on autocrats, and Russia had none when it needed one most.
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