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Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War

This is a lively, well-written book which even though published by the best kind of university press (Harvard 2011) has a polemical, one-sided style and content which will no doubt attract commentary and criticism.

What the book does, most valuably, for an English (or West European) reader is to point out that the First World War was a war between Imperial powers, the strong among which all had designs on the territory of the weakest, the Ottoman Empire. In addition, Russia also wanted to seize territory from the second weakest Empire, Austria-Hungary - and from non-Imperial Persia.

Russia aimed to seize Austrian Galicia (Eastern Poland, Western Ukraine) and, after initial successes, failed; it did not succeed until 1939 when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact carved up Poland. That success proved enduring: Galicia is now part of modern Ukraine.

At the same time, Russia aimed to seize Eastern Anatolia (Western Armenia)and, more importantly, Constantinople and all such territory as was necessary to control the waters between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It made remarkable advances into Turkish territory as late as 1917 but never succeeded in either aim. Indeed, when the Bolsheviks finally made their peace with Turkey, the Turkish borders were extended eastwards into what had been Imperial Russian territory (Kars and so on).

Russia also lost the control it had achieved over northern Persia, though it tried again unsuccessfully at the end of World War Two.

Russia's Imperial drive was partly motivated by its perennial anxiety, border insecurity. With by far the longest land borders of any country, Russia always faced the problem of enemies across the border. Its Imperialist response was always to push to expand the borders - east (into Mongolia and China), South (into Persia and Turkey) and East (into Austria). At no point does it seem that anyone realised the paradox and futility of this behaviour, as if by making your borders even longer you could solve the problem of long border insecurity.

Mc Meekin writes from a position sympathetic to Turkey (he is a Professor at a Turkish university, Bilkent). He shows in a very interesting way how the Russians manipulated Armenian nationalists in their own expansionist interests, and abandoned them when it suited. Along the way, they certainly gave the Ottoman Turkish authorities cause to be wary of their own subjects.

But in emphasising Imperial predatoriness, he perhaps underestimates the real drive for autonomy and independence among national or quasi-national groups of the old Empires. In a similar if exaggerated way, apologists of Milosevic's Serbia (like the late Sean Gervasi), see only the predatory dismemberment of Yugoslavia by American imperialism, aided by their European allies, and fail to see the genuine drive for self-determination among increasingly reluctant and abused parts of the Yugoslav Federation.

In emphasising Russia's successes on the Eastern front, with consequent high morale, McMeekin has a bit of a problem with the overthrow of Nicholas and then the Bolshevik revolution. If the senseless butchery of Verdun and the Somme did not lead the citizens of France or Britain to string up their leaders from the lamp posts, how come Russia had a revolution when it was winning?

McMeekin does not answer this by pointing to failures on the Western front - the loss of Poland and then the Baltics. Rather, he suggests that the Tsar fell between two oppositions: those who believed he and his ministers were not prosecuting the war vigorously enough (because they were basically pro-German traitors)and those who believed that Russia should not be prosecuting the war at all, because it was an Imperialist war. In this scenario, the Provisional Government of March - October 1917 is an energetically pro-war government which came to power at a time of increasing war-weariness in the Russian heartlands. The Bolsheviks seized the opportunity this created with the call for Peace linked to that for Bread and Land.

There is a great deal of unfamiliar material presented and discussed in the pages of this unusual and very readable book.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

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