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From Nicholas to Putin: Russia Since 1900: World War I, Revolution, and Civil War

By David M. Durant

World War I, Revolution, and Civil War

Until recently, most scholars of Russian history have treated the history of Russia’s involvement in the First World War as a mere afterthought. Fortunately, recent scholarship has begun to rectify this oversight. In part, this is evidence of a recent turn in Russian historiography away from a strict focus on social and cultural history and toward a greater consideration of political, military, and geopolitical factors.

A seminal example of this trend is Dominic Lieven’s 2015 work The End of Tsarist Russia. Lieven provides a brilliant analysis of the political and strategic factors that led the Tsarist empire to go to war in 1914, particularly the struggle between empire and nationalism. As a multinational empire, one of several that still dominated eastern Europe at this time, Russia was very concerned about the spread of nationalism among its non-Russian populations. The greatest fear was of Ukrainian nationalism, which flourished in the western Ukrainian region of Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In Lieven’s words, “[W]ithout Ukraine’s population, industry, and agriculture, early-twentieth-century Russia would have ceased to be a great power” (p. 1). As other scholars have noted, the same was true of Josef Stalin’s mid-twentieth-century USSR and even of Putin’s contemporary Russia. In addition, Russians looked at Ukraine as “Little Russia,” which along with Belorussia and Russia formed the Great Russian nation. To have Ukraine go its own way was unthinkable.

As for the reason for Tsarism’s collapse in 1917, it was not because of lower-class unrest, which was nothing new, or military defeat per se, but rather that the middle and upper classes had lost confidence in Nicholas II and his regime. When massive unrest broke out in Petrograd in March 1917, there was no one still willing to defend the autocracy. It was this collapse of central authority that allowed the Bolshevik party to seize power in November 1917, and over the course of the next several years impose their own autocracy, one far more brutal and encompassing than its Tsarist predecessor.

Two very good recent histories provide an introduction to this process. One work, written for a general audience, is Antony Beevor’s Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917–1921. Drawing heavily on first-person accounts, Beevor has written a highly accessible account of the key events of the revolution and civil war. For a more in-depth narrative, historian Laura Engelstein’s Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914–1921 is essential. Both volumes focus far more on the role of non-Russian nationalities, especially Ukrainians, than does earlier scholarship. Returning to the theme of empire versus nationalism, each author shows how the Bolsheviks, while advocating for national self-determination, set about creating their own version of Russia’s multinational empire.

Works Cited