20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the series of articles about Russian nationalism written by the well-known historian Alexander Yanov. The first three essays, dedicated to Pan-Slavism, told the story of the birth of this ideology in Russia and its consequences for the country. The new installment explains how a great patriotic hysteria led the country to lose in the First World War and the consequent victory of Bolshevism.



Russia’s Fatal Mistakes

In the autumn session of 2013, it remains for us to discuss only one, crucial element of this whole cycle’s theme: Is it possible to imagine Russia’s history without Lenin, and if so, why did he win? All previous essays have been devoted, in fact, to the conceptual and terminological preparation for answering this question.

This topic, however, has two very different aspects. The first aspect is the military: Was there a strategy in which Russia could join when the nation entered the First World War (as it was self-evident that the victorious Bolshevism was doomed to failure in Russia, as well as in all other victor countries)? And if such a strategy existed, what prevented the nation from adopting it? The second aspect of the topic is political: Could Russia simply not have gotten involved in this war, keeping in mind that none of its direct interests were at stake, no threats had been made against it at all, and, in general, this war was an exercise, so to speak, in shouldering other people’s sins?

Germany was contesting the naval supremacy of the British Empire, had old scores to settle with France over the Alsace, and did not have any claims to Russia. Not to mention, Russia was the country’s largest trading partner, and Germany didn’t have anything like the anti-French Schlieffen Plan for the invasion of Russia. The only thing that could embroil the Russians in the war was pan-Slavism. Germany would not allow the breaking up of its allies Austria-Hungary or Turkey, as the canons of pan-Slavism required.

American historian Niall Ferguson was right in saying that in 1914, only Belgium and France did not have the choice to fight or not to fight: they were attacked, they had to defend themselves, and the rest went to the war by choice. Then how can we explain the fatal choice of Russia?

I think you understand why this topic is crucial. If you believe the world historiography, Russia was obliged to enter the First World War that Lenin won in October 1917 and to then undergo all that followed it—that is, the tragic history of the twentieth century. After all, Lenin could have gone to the United States, as he had intended a year before the October Revolution, especially since Trotsky was waiting for him there. And that would have ended the history of Bolshevism in Russia. He could, of course, have left if Russia had made another choice—but it chose to wage war “to the bitter end.”

I understand that there may be readers for whom this topic seems purely academic; they might say, this happened and has been long forgotten. However, in spite of the general anthropological, if you will, problem of historical memory; in spite of the possibility of a country losing its memory like a person afflicted with amnesia—and how long could a person live in such a condition in this world?—there is also the quite vital problem of historical errors that have an insidious way of repeating themselves.

One such case of error repetition occurred almost in our own memory, when Russia, barely rid of the utopian specter of pan-Slavism, immediately embraced another incarnation of this utopian longing: Lenin—dooming the country to disaster once again, as it turned out. And, alas, there is no other opportunity to gain immunity from repeating such mistakes except by delving back into historical memory.

The leaders of imperial Russia made two fatal mistakes: one military and one political. However, a strategy for Russia to win the First World War did exist.

Has Russia finally gained such immunity? It is too early to judge. Even today, there is a strong national-patriotic lobby that is trying to dictate that the country embrace another utopia: imperial Eurasianism. The powerful military-industrial complex, which receives billions from Putin, supports this lobby. And his propagandists receive some of this money, too, of course.

But this concerns the future, and I wanted to talk about where it all began. I proceed from the fact that in 1914, the leaders of imperial Russia made two fatal mistakes: one military and one political. In fact, all that we have learned so far has been intended to explain why these mistakes were inevitable. Or, if you like, it comes down to a question of what made the history of the twentieth century so unhappy: Leninism, as is commonly believed, or the Russian nationalism that made inevitable the victory of Lenin's utopia?

This essay is dedicated to the military error. I take the liberty of saying that a strategy for Russia to win the First World War did exist. I’m sure it did, because it's not my opinion. You can read it in the guidelines of the General Staff of the Russian Army, known colloquially as Plan-19.



Plan-19 was offered by Colonel Yuri Danilov, who had the reputation of being “the chief strategist of the Russian army.” He believed that if Russia went to war with the Teutonic powers, “abandoning the defensive strategy of Peter the Great and Kutuzov,” it would certainly be doomed to failure, because Russia’s western border was indefensible. The Polish territorial overhang made ​​it vulnerable to simultaneous flank attacks from the Austro-Hungarian and Eastern Prussian territories. In this case, the main forces of the army, camped in the western provinces, would be cut off from communications and surrounded.

According to Danilov, it was therefore reasonable to give the enemy ten western provinces of Russian territory in order to gain time to mobilize without hurry, to force the enemy to stretch its communications, and to concentrate Russian forces with the aim of launching a crushing counterattack in the direction of the Russians’ choice.

Danilov’s patron, Chief of the General Staff Sukhomlinov, was a great diplomat. It is no wonder that a year later, in 1910, he became War Minister and two years later renounced his beliefs, a decision for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment after the February Revolution (the Bolsheviks later released him.) But at the time, Sukhomlinov agreed with his chief strategist completely. More than that, he seemed to understand the social and psychological meaning of this plan better than Danilov: an enemy invasion solely on the ground would unleash the power of patriotism and could neutralize the nihilists.


Vladimir Sukhomlinov (left) and Yuri Danilov


However, Sukhomlinov realized the pitfalls of implementing Danilov’s strategy. First of all, the official doctrine of Alexander III, which Russia inherited from the counter-reform time, was not defensive at all, but offensive. A preemptive attack on Berlin lay at the heart of this policy—a kind of Stalinist strategy, in the words of Viktor Suvorov. The unsuccessful strategist of the Balkan War in 1870, Alexander III personally described this strategy by saying (in a formulation that the national patriots like to quote frequently) that Russia has only two allies: the Russian army and the Russian navy. In fact, this strategy called for a closer union with France. Here are his words: “We should come to terms with the French, and, in case of war between Germany and France, immediately rush to attack the Germans, so as not to give them time to break the French first and then to pounce on us.”

There was a second pitfall that Sukhomlinov saw in Danilov’s plan: it destroyed the French hope that after the start of the war, Russia would immediately begin attacking East Prussia, as Alexander III had promised, distracting German forces from the western front to defend Berlin. The immediacy of this attack was the most valuable promise for the French in their alliance with Russia (note that the famous American diplomat and historian George Kennan called it “the Fatal Alliance”). The third pitfall, and one over which the “patriots” in the Duma could raise a ruckus, concerned Danilov’s proposition to demolish all ten fortresses guarding the western border.

An experienced politician, Sukhomlinov had no doubt that the fortresses would stir up a storm. And he was right. The Allies’ resentment did not make the slightest impression on the Duma, the Duma’s “patriots,” or the St. Petersburg nomenklatura. No one remembered Alexander III’s promises. As it turned out, no one gave a damn in Russia about the interests of the Allies.

It’s fair to note that the Allies didn’t hold Russia's interests too close to their hearts either. Here is the irrefutable evidence: on August 1, 1914, Prince Lichnowski, the German ambassador in London, telegraphed the Kaiser that in the case of Russian–German war, England was not only willing to remain neutral herself, but also guaranteed the neutrality of France. Delighted, the Kaiser immediately ordered Chief of General Staff Moltke to transfer all forces to the Russian front.

Moltke answered that it was too late, that plans were already underway, divisions were concentrated on the Belgian border, and in just six weeks, they, according to the Schlieffen Plan, would be in Paris. It turned out that it was not the “Fateful Alliance,” but the German field marshal’s dogmatism that saved the Allies from the temptation to leave Russia alone in the face of the German war machine.

Slavophilism, the idea of ​​a hegemonic post-Nicholas Russia, completely conquered the minds of its former opponents, and the former Westernizers took the helm of the country and, without realizing it, became national liberals and led the country to its “self-destruction.”

Among other things, this series of decisions proves the ineffable naiveté of the National Liberals of the Provisional Government who insisted to the last day on the Slavophile slogan, “War to the bitter end!” So, God forbid, they did not fail the Allies. There is a remarkable document—the transcript of a talk between Kerensky and the famous British press baron Lord Beaverbrook that took place in 1928. Here's how Kerensky replied to the question of whether the interim government could have stopped the Bolsheviks had they concluded a separate peace with Germany: “Of course, we should be in Moscow right now.” And when Lord Beaverbrook asked, surprised, why they did not do so at the time, the answer seemed to him marvelous: “We were too naive.” Even eleven years after fleeing from Petrograd, Kerensky did not really understand what had happened.

And here's what happened. Slavophilism, the idea of ​​a hegemonic post-Nicholas Russia, completely conquered the minds of its former opponents, and the former Westernizers took the helm of the country and, without realizing it, became national liberals and led the country to its “self-destruction.” But that is exactly what Vladimir Soloviev predicted in his formula of four “selves” back in 1880, if the reader recalls. We devoted so much space in the initial articles of the series to “the man with the stamp of genius on his forehead”—with good reason, it turns out. But he was not heard.


Trump Card

But let us return to the story of Plan-19. Yes, Sukhomlinov’s fears came true, and the plan indeed created a “patriotic” storm in the Duma. But then the plan’s supporters showed the “patriots” the prearranged trump card: the report of a man who, as it seemed, presented pure science. This was the well-known General Winter’s report. At the time, Winter was the most prominent Russian military engineer, the “new Totleben,” as he was called, whose recommendations formed the basis of Plan-19. They were:

  1. It makes no sense to keep ten fortresses that are hopelessly outdated and will not withstand the first storm of the Teutonic nations with their modern siege artillery on the western border.
  2. In the event of a war, it is necessary to come to terms in advance with the loss of territory, especially in Poland. The offensive strategy deprives Russia of its main advantage over other European countries: a unique extension of the homefront.
  3. It is necessary to stop the costly construction of dreadnoughts and use this money for the purchase of submarines, torpedo boats, and airplanes.
  4. Since Russia is not ready for a major war, it is better not to get involved in European conflicts, especially if the nation is only fighting to help someone else. Such a decision would be the utmost recklessness. (As far as I know, General Winter was the first person to publicly use the expression “calm neutrality” as a policy suggestion for the event of any conflict that did not directly affect the interests of Russia.)

Nevertheless, Danilov accepted General Winter's amendments. And the trump card did work. Winter was respected by all. Consequently, the Czar signed Plan-19, and beginning in 1911, it became an official guideline for the General Staff.


The Silent Death of Plan-19

Alas, Danilov celebrated victory too early. A military man, he lost sight of what was happening in society—particularly the lingering “patriotic” hysteria that continued to flare and then fade. This hysteria started back in 1908, when, according to the Canadian historian Hutchinson, the Octobrists considered “the government's decision not to declare war on Austria-Hungary that annexed Bosnia as a betrayal of Russia’s historic role.” Note that this statement was not referring to Stolypin’s government and that it was the Octobrists who made ​​this outrageous Slavophile accusation. They were the majority party in the Third Duma, and the day before, they were Westernizers, and –the day before that National Liberals, and after 1908, they became inveterate national patriots.



Slavophiles of the third generation, finding unexpected support in every possible corner, of course, blew the hysteria up with mostly rabid anti-German propaganda, declaring Germany “the main enemy and troublemaker among white mankind.” How exactly Germany did displease them defies rational explanation. It did the same things that the modern United States has done to displease this party’s heirs: it took Russia’s place on the modern superpowers’ Mount Olympus. At the time, the United States, however, was treated more gently than Germany, because America was not yet a superpower and Germany was.

Remember the words of Nekrasov: “Russia raves of America / tending to it with heart. / Shuya-Ivanovo goose [an entrepreneur]—an American? Of course! / Everything being dragged. / ‘Our ideal—’ they say— / ‘a transatlantic brother?’” I'm afraid that nothing but the Russian Napoleonic complex explains the unexpected transformation of yesterday's transatlantic brother into today's pindos (a modern Russian derogatory term for an American) and yesterday's butcher of the ideal.

I don’t know why Slavophilees were so sure that by crushing Germany, Russia would take the vacant seat on Olympus. But this is in fact what they expected. I promise that in the next essay, I will prove this claim with documents. In any event, if Germany was a pole of evil in the Slavophiles’ universe, the pole of good was, of course, Serbia. It had already been forgiven for its treacherous alliance with the “Judas Austria” in 1881–1896, and for its renunciation of Russia after its defeat in the war with Japan in 1905. Once again, it became the apple of Russia’s eye, the “tail that wags the dog.” And, as always, the dream of the Great Serbia haunted the Serbs’ minds.

When the pan-Slavists intervened, Plan-19 was doomed. Strategic considerations were powerless. The hegemonic idea triumphed over victory.

In October 1912, Serbia suddenly occupied Albania—although not for long. Two weeks later, after a hard ultimatum from Austria- Hungary, Serbia was forced to retreat. But “patriotic” hysteria in Russia had reached a new peak. Europe, too, was agitated by the Serbian aggression, but Russia was raving with anger because the Austrians dared to present an ultimatum to the Serbs without asking their permission. They hurt “the consanguineous and the coreligionists”! It was a bad omen for things to come.

But when the pan-Slavists intervened, Plan-19 was doomed. I have not found in any sources any mention of when and why the plan was canceled. Therefore, I must judge indirectly—for example, by the fact that immediately after October 1912, Sukhomlinov abruptly changed the front—but only a year before, he had celebrated with Danilov and General Winter the victory of the defensive strategy and the “peace party.” He made a surprise announcement: “The Emperor and I believe in the army, and the war can bring only good for Russia.” This could mean only one thing: the hysteria had reached such a pitch that the Czar intervened. And facing the choice between the country's future and his career, Sukhomlinov chose his career.

I make my assumptions also based on the accusations in Sukhomlinov’s address to the Slavophile press: that during his command, the “war got out of hand, replaced the morale-boosting war strategy of the Emperor Alexander III with a murky document, which undermines the spirit of the nation.” In short, strategic considerations were powerless in the face of pan-Slavism. The hegemonic idea triumphed over victory. And everything resumed its usual course, as if there had never been a Plan-19.


* * *

As you can see, in 1912, Russia was ready to make a fatal military mistake that, according to the authors of Plan-19, promised her defeat in the coming war. They were ready to make this move because of widespread “patriotic” hysteria that, as on the eve of the Balkan War in 1870, neither the general staff, nor the prime minister, nor even the Czar himself could resist. So what does Lenin have to do with all this?

The political aspect of our subject will be addressed in the following essays.