Hell Is Truth Realized Too Late: Russia and the Legacy of World War I

Thomas Hobbes notoriously described hell as truth realized too late. Russia’s entry into World War I and the events that followed bring out the phrase’s meaning while highlighting the importance of balancing risk. Decisions in 1914 brought Russia into a conflict that strained its economy, political structure and social cohesion beyond the breaking point. Defeat brought collapse and then revolution followed by a brutal civil war. Totalitarian dictatorship brought order through terror. A crash program of industrialization provided the means to avoid defeat in World War II, but stagnation followed until the Soviet Union collapsed under its own contradictions at the end of the Cold War. Had the costs of war and revolution been understood, Russia might have avoided much of what it suffered over the 20th century.

Several Russian statesmen before World War I who realized the danger of conflict brought by assertive foreign policies instead urged a defensive strategy focused on economic development. Their arguments make important points for understanding the country’s history and its present outlook. Petr Stolypin, the premier who guided the country’s recovery from the 1905 Revolution, viewed anything other than such a cautious approach as insanity sure to put the Romanov dynasty’s survival at risk. His reforms sought to build a patriotic civil society, partly through agrarian measures favoring peasant proprietors who improved their land from profits in a market economy. Such a bet on the strong, as Stolypin described it, required time and stability to bring the stability he anticipated. Serge Witte, his predecessor, also believed Russia needed a generation of peace to realize its economic potential. Vladimir Kokovtsov, who combined the roles of finance minister and premier, thought an assertive policy beyond the country’s means fundamentally unnecessary. Developing Russia’s existing territories provided ample scope for its people’s energies so long as peace allowed them to do it. Responsibility for domestic rather than foreign affairs made all these men sharply aware of Russia’s true state and resources.

Durnovo’s Plea

Petr Durnovo, a former interior minister who had reasserted the government’s authority during the upheaval of the 1905 Revolution, made the most insightful case for restraint with a memorandum given to Nicholas II in February 1914. Besides predicting a long war and the strains it would bring, he demonstrated a shrewd grasp of Russia’s predicament from long experience with the country’s internal affairs. His brief memorandum rewards consideration both for the range of topics covered and for anticipating the deluge that overwhelmed the Tsarist regime. It also sharpens the question of why Nicholas and his ministers chose to risk war later that year.

Nobody would mistake Durnovo as a friend to liberty. A former director of police for a decade, he resigned over a scandal at Alexander III’s insistence, though the misstep did not derail his career. After stepping down from the interior ministry, Durnovo led the most hard right faction within the State Council. His outlook reflected a brand of Russian conservatism that Richard Pipes has described as operating along different lines from its counterparts elsewhere in Europe or the Anglophone world. It emphasized state power, which needed no constraint by the impartial rule of law, while recognizing how fragile tsarism’s brittle authority was. On this view, only the tsar could hold selfish elites in check and uphold the common good. Rather than establishing self-government, political change in the absence of civil society would instead produce a social revolution. Hence the almost Hobbesian preoccupation with order in Russian conservatism that Durnovo’s outlook reflects.

His concern with preserving order focused Durnovo on the question of what Russia gained from a foreign policy that set the country on the path to armed conflict. Framing the international scene in terms of an Anglo-German rivalry driven by commercial interests but grounded in a clash between their respective liberal and conservative orientations, he warned that aligning Russia with a British led coalition threatened to involve it in a prolonged war. It also sacrificed important regional interests along Russia’s extensive periphery, notably Persia, Central Asia, and the frontier with China, to rapprochement with London. Before this step, Durnovo argued Russia had combined a defensive alliance with France—which assured assistance if attacked without a blank check pledging military force to actions by either partner—and friendly relations with Prussia to help keep the peace. France had a guarantee from attack by Germany, which likewise had protection from French revenge by Russia’s commitment to peace. Germany restrained Austria from intrigues against Russian interests in the Balkans, while isolation kept Britain in check. Now, with that balance of power upset, in Durnovo’s view, by Russia giving up its defensive policy to align with Britain, the country stood on the wrong side of a looming war.

Russians had seen Britain as a geopolitical rival since the late 18th century with Napoleonic France and even the United States as possible counterweights. Indeed, resentment of British maritime supremacy spurred cooperation or at least sympathy between St Petersburg and Washington despite the ideological gap between Tsarist Russia and the United States. Durnovo’s memorandum also raises a common charge among Continental European conservatives in complaining that “England, monarchic and conservative to the marrow at home, has in her foreign relations always acted as the protector of the most demagogical tendencies, invariably encouraging all popular movements aiming at the weakening of the monarchial principle.” Hostility toward Britain slanted his reading of international politics. Durnovo also misreads German intentions, underestimating the ambitions of its elites along with France’s willingness to accept war as the price of recovering losses from their earlier defeat by Prussia in 1871. His slanted read on foreign politics makes it the weakest part of the analysis.

Settling Into a Long War

Nevertheless, Durnovo correctly saw that war would be a protracted struggle of attrition rather than the short conflict others predicted. Nobody would come home before the leaves fell, as William II promised, or even by Christmas. War would be fought on an unprecedented scale with neither block having the ability to score a blow that would compel the others to consider terms. The technological innovations every war produces would favor belligerents with skills and manufacturing capacity, assets Russia conspicuously lacked. Durnovo further anticipated Italy and Romania remaining neutral at first and then intervening to secure a share of territorial spoils once they saw favorable conditions. The war’s main burden, he insisted, would fall to Russia, “with the part of a battering-ram, making a breach in the very thick of the German defense.”

Long experience with Russia’s internal conditions made the consequences painfully clear to Durnovo. He anticipated revolts among subject peoples, not only in Central Asia, but also Poland and Finland. Japan and the United States would pose no threat in the Far East, given their own interests, but Persia and Afghanistan might act on Germany’s side or at least take advantage of Russia’s focusing on its western frontier. With few domestic factories and consequently reliant on imports certain to be blockaded, Russia would soon run short on war supplies. Additional traffic would overwhelm strategic railways and their rolling stock to worsen shortages and disrupt communications. Moving both troops and goods, including food, would become increasingly difficult.

With military disasters inevitable, Durnovo feared the government would face a crisis unless it suppressed public criticism and political opposition. The Russian people would not follow an opposition with little support beyond the intelligentsia if the government held firm, but compromise risked a crisis of authority. Defeat would then bring a social revolution in its most extreme form. Trouble would start with the government blamed for all disasters and a vocal campaign against it in the legislature followed by revolutionary agitation throughout the country. Socialist promises to divide land and property would arouse the populace. Neither legislative institutions nor opposition parties lacking popular authority could stem the tide toward social revolution in its most extreme form. A defeated army that had lost its most reliable men and faced with mass desertion could not preserve law and order. Russia would fall into hopeless anarchy with unforeseeable consequences.

Victory offered no better prospects. Noting how Germany provided capital and manufactured goods at better rates than Britain or France and served as a profitable intermediary for Russian exports overseas, Durnovo observed that a country ruined by defeat could neither serve those functions nor pay reparations to cover war expenditures. Debts to allies from the war would cripple Russian finances while territorial gains in Poland or Galicia would make existing problems with subject nationalities worse. Under Habsburg rule, the latter had become a forcing house for Ukrainian nationalism that already stirred trouble within the tsarist empire’s borders.

Durnovo made a strong case that Germany in defeat would face problems as serious as Russia. The predominant influence of landowning nobles, especially the Prussian Junkers, and peasant proprietors would be overthrown while the economic impact of defeat on urban workers combined with outraged patriotic sentiment would push the German people from what he called “the road of peaceable evolution” they hitherto had followed onto a “a purely revolutionary path.” A German revolution would then spread back to Russia, which had always been vulnerable to social upheaval.

Prophecies Fulfilled

Had Durnovo not died in 1915, he would have enjoyed all the consolations of the mythical Cassandra in seeing his predictions fulfilled. He saw the truth well ahead of others, but recognized it without the ability to influence events. Nicholas II, who held Durnovo in high enough regard to offer him the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers, probably read the memorandum, but did not change Russian policy to lower the risk of war. Particularly after Austria embarrassed Russia by annexing Bosnia-Herzogovina in 1909, many officials believed the humiliation of making concessions again would shatter the Romanov dynasty’s popular legitimacy. Escalating and then de-escalating offered diplomatic leverage, though dialing down proved harder in practice than officials realized and brinksmanship in 1914 would push Germany to mobilize. Once Berlin put the Schlieffen Plan into effect with a march through Belgium to score a quick victory in the west, Russia had no choice besides holding to its treaty commitments with France.

The consequences bore out Durnovo’s assessment of what war meant for Russia. His memorandum provides a revealing starting point to reflect on events the conflict set in train. Defeat followed by a collapse in public support and a power vacuum in St. Petersburg brought revolution and civil war between Communist Reds and Tsarist Whites, the latter were joined ironically by some liberal opponents of the old regime, and semi-organized peasant Greens who fought both sides. Russia lost more than two thirds of its pre-war territory as regions broke away. Foreign intervention and the Armistice in November 1918 did not bring peace. Germany collapsed into revolution with brief communist uprisings crushed by paramilitary forces. Hungary followed the same path with a quicker passage to authoritarian dictatorship. Communist victory in the civil war brought famine, exile and purges, and the Soviet Union joined Germany as an interwar pariah state.

A look back to the arguments Durnovo and other Russian conservatives made before 1914 helps understand the causes and consequences of World War I from an oft-neglected perspective. It also has relevance for thinking about Russian policy today, as leaders cognizant of their country’s 20th century experience recognize the need to avoid costly mistakes along with the tragedy of lost opportunities. However difficult things might be, history shows that they can get much worse. As Nikolas Gvosdev recently noted, Russia’s current political leadership sees the civil war as finally ended in our day with the Whites rather than Bolsheviks or late Tsarist liberals having won. Those who see themselves as Stolypin’s heirs look to economic development as Russia’s path to greatness.

Grandiose projects and messianic ambitions have too high a price, especially when modernizing a backward country offers enough to do. While their approach might not be liberal, its underlying prudence seems conducive to peace and stability by avoiding confrontations likely to escalate or create hell on earth.