The Villain of the East

Review – The Russian Origins of the First World War by Sean McMeekin

The First World War is hardly a novel subject for serious historical study. Its origins in particular, in the same way the end of the Roman Republic and the creation of an empire captures the attention of scholars and general readers, demands attention; it is both a vital, epoch-defining event and a perfect encapsulation of something deeper – and such a suggestion is highly attractive, not only to those who seek to discover (or invent) cast iron laws of history, but to anyone seeking a more crystalline understanding of the past.

Instead of the traditional notion that Russia went to war to protect Serbia from the over-bearing retaliation of Austria-Hungary in the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, McMeekin suggests otherwise; he argues that Russia’s role was not reactive but provocative, and that those in power actively connived to fight.

An early claim, and one which seems to be backed up by a great deal of archival evidence, is the idea that Russia’s real objective was not the defeat of Germany or even the defence of Poland, which was effectively abandoned fairly early on in the fighting, but the conquest of new territories – particularly in the east. The road to Constantinople (now Istanbul, which had acquired the hopeful and expectant name ‘Tsargrad’ in the Russian diplomatic lexicon), it seems, was seen to run through Berlin. And it cannot be forgotten, as McMeekin states, that the beginnings of Russia’s pre-war mobilisation (if not its declaration of war) predated that of Germany by days.

McMeekin’s criticisms of Russian actions go beyond even the suggestion that the country holds a great deal more responsibility than often theorised for the outbreak of European war. He also holds Russia responsible for other, more specific instances of slaughter. One of the most pertinent examples of this national trait is to be found, McMeekin argues, in what he considers to be the Russian engineering of the Gallipoli campaign.

Russian interest in Turkish territory notwithstanding, McMeekin paints the origins of the Gallipoli campaign in vivid colours. For him it was not the result of an over-optimistic and trigger-happy crowd – normally said to include Winston Churchill and Herbert Kitchener – within the capitals of the western Allies, but rather the result of a careful and calculated campaign by Russian statesmen. Strategists such as Sergey Sazonov, McMeekin suggests, with quite a lot of skilfully orchestrated evidence, connived to have the soldiers of other nations die for the advancement of Russian causes and the expansion of Russia’s empire. Russia had planned, he writes, to send some troops to Anatolia at the same time as the British, French and ANZAC nations, but its policymakers had deliberately held off; and this hesitation, masked in careful diplomacy, was – remarkably – forgotten in the aftermath of the war, with Europe still effectively reeling from the Bolshevik revolution.

Even Churchill, much to McMeekin’s cultured surprise, who should have known the extent to which Russia advocated for an attack on Turkey and then avoided committing its own resources to what turned out to be a quagmire of immense proportions, wrote in his World Crisis that Russia was to be, if anything, pitied. She had, he implied, been wronged by the failure of the campaign. McMeekin laments Churchill’s ‘characteristic unsourced empathy’ on this front, and even writes of his having fallen victim to ‘the same kind of ventriloquism that overcame British diplomats during the war’, many of whom had fallen into the habit of simply adopting Russian talking points as their own. ‘In her darkest hours,’ Churchill wrote, ‘Russia had cheered herself by dwelling on the great prize of Constantinople’. The implication of those pathos-heavy words (composed, of course, after Russia had undergone two revolutions and lost its royal house through violent means) is that those countries that had fought in the Gallipoli campaign had some moral duty to continue for the sake of their ally – and it implies further that they had failed in that duty.

What follows is an extended quotation from Churchill’s history of the war years, which in McMeekin’s view contains ‘empathy carried too far’.

A profound chill spread through all ranks of the Russian people, and with it came suspicion no less deep-seated. England had not really tried to force the Straits. From the moment when she had conceded the Russian claim to Constantinople, she had not been single-hearted, she had lost her interest in the enterprise. Her infirm action and divided counsels arose from secret motives hidden in the bosom of the State. And this while Russia was pouring out her own blood as no race had ever done since men waged war. Such were the whispers which, winged by successful German propaganda, spread far and wide through the Tsar’s dominions, and in their wake every subversive influence gained in power.

The phrase which attracts particular ire – and comment – from McMeekin is the almost poetic suggestion that ‘Russia was pouring out her own blood as no race had ever done since men waged war’. Despite a few examples of military failure in the war against Germany, McMeekin successfully argues, Russia was hardly pouring out her blood at all.

Churchill was not alone in this thinking, of course. Guilty of it in particular, according to McMeekin, was Sir George Buchanan, who – as well as being apparently slow to grasp Russia’s bellicose aspirations in 1914 – became strangely likely to talk of certain Russian objectives as though they were fundamental to the good of the Allied war effort.

Another particular interesting element of McMeekin’s investigation is his handling of the Armenian national question, and the involvement Russian politicians and military figures had in inadvertently fomenting the first genocide of the twentieth century.

In McMeekin’s telling, the Russian manipulation of Armenian national sentiment – as well as the undoubted assistance it provided in arming and organising rebel groups and providing a safe haven for those who opposed Ottoman rule and had fled – provided a great deal of the initial impetus for the forced deportations and the massacres, as well as the battles and sieges, which characterised the genocide. In effect, Sazonov and others groomed Armenians to rebel under the pretence that Russian troops would ride to assist them, only to allow the nascent revolution to be crushed and a people victimised on a terrible scale. Indeed, in this telling it is difficult not to see the malevolence in Russia’s actions, with Armenian warriors rising up with the hope of liberation by Russia but having instead to endure sieges and privations and ultimately extermination while Russian troops remained in their barracks.

On this point, however, McMeekin’s argument becomes compromised a little by his use of language. His positioning of the word ‘genocide’ resolutely within perpetual inverted commas especially does seem a little cowardly – though such things can be explained, if not justified, by the Turkish milieu within which McMeekin worked and lived, and the fairly hefty legal penalties within that country (which, to be fair, McMeekin condemns) that penalise said description.

In other areas one can sense an almost Russophobic edge to some of what McMeekin writes. The criticism is not an entirely serious one, as McMeekin has written many other books on the origins of the war, some of which are said to ‘blame’ countries such as Germany. But it does become a little wearing how every apparently unfortunate aspect of the war, from the Gallipoli campaign to the Armenian genocide, from the division of the Middle East at the hands of Sykes and Picot to the iniquities of Brest-Litovsk, can be laid at the door of Russian statesmen. (McMeekin suggests that a more accurate name for the Sykes–Picot Agreement would include that of Sazonov, which is certainly clever, but will doubtless do little to alleviate the particular opprobrium associated with that diplomatic document.)

In one important respect this book is very successful indeed: its style. McMeekin writes both prettily and informatively, and his long, elegant sentences convey subtlety easily while never straying far from the point at hand. In this McMeekin is aided by expansive, discursive endnotes, which make the book seem much more than the ‘polemic’ identified by Michael Reynolds on the dust jacket (though he does not use the term in the pejorative sense).

Though some of its assertions seem rather alien to lay readers – especially arguments which, as is the case in McMeekin’s discussion of Gallipoli, simply bypass much of the contemporary popular debate on the subject – this book is, in sum, rather valuable. It manages successfully to challenge certain well-established ideas concerning the war’s origins, and it does much to shift the attention of the reader eastward – and to Russia’s war with Turkey, no less. Though McMeekin’s apparent anti-Russian stance could be considered restrictive, in fact it gives a platform to and sufficient impetus for some interesting ideas. And that’s a rather good thing, especially in an area of study like the First World War, where bookshelves and schoolchildren alike groan under the weight of what has already been written and said.