20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the series of articles by prominent historian Alexander Yanov. In the new installment the author discusses whether it was possible for Russia to avoid the Bolshevik coup d'état of 1917—and why it did not.


Pavel Milyukov (left) and Count Sergei Witte.


In this article series, as we approach the fatal dates of July 1914 (the infamous July Crisis that led to the First World War) and February 1917 (the February Revolution), the more sophisticated its central issues look:

  1. Could Russia have avoided the catastrophe of October 1917 (or, as it’s termed by some, the “Great October Socialist Revolution”)?
  2. If yes, then who is to blame for the fact that Russia failed to avoid it?

At first, as we recall, it seemed that these issues had just two aspects—the military and the political—but now we see clearly that the political aspect can be split into two parts. The first part was before July 1914, when everything ultimately depended on the Czar’s decision; the second was after his abdication of power, when the interim governments alternately made decisions. So alas, we cannot conclude this cycle with this essay. And here we will talk only about what preceded the Czar’s July 19 (August 1 in the Gregorian calendar), 1914, manifesto, in which Russia, referring to its “historical covenants,” announced that since it was “united with the Slav peoples by faith and blood, it is forced to move navy and army on a war footing.” In other words, Russia entered the war, which could only end in disaster for it.

We preface this conversation with just two, let us call them paradoxical, considerations. First, “1913 ended for Russia,” the Russian liberal opposition leader Pavel Milyukov recalled later, “with some setbacks in Balkan politics. It seemed that Russia was leaving [the Balkans] consciously, realizing its impotence to maintain the existing customers with their weapons or their moral force. But only half of 1914 had passed, and from the Balkans came a signal that prompted the rulers of Russia to remember and return to their old role, despite the obvious risk of finding themselves in the second tier of defenders of a European policy alien to them, instead of the powerful protector of Balkan co-religionists.”

It would be difficult to find someone, no matter how strongly set he is against the Bolsheviks, who would try to explain this sudden and seemingly quite mad twist in Russian politics as a plot of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, whose influence on decision-making was then roughly equal to the influence, say, of Eduard Limonov and his National Bolsheviks on current politics (i.e., zero). But if not them, then who? It could only have been the Pan-Slavists in the Czar’s nomenklatura, bolstered by the “patriotic” hysteria mounting in the media and in the Duma’s corridors.

So I say that, theoretically, Russia’s entry into this suicidal war could have been stopped. At that time, perhaps only African tribes fought for tribal and religious interests, and in this sense, the Czar’s manifesto displayed Russia’s backwardness, which was unthinkable in Europe at that time. But in practice, without a strong “party of peace” leader and an alternative, rational strategy, any attempt to resist hysteria was useless.

Theoretically, Russia’s entry into this suicidal war could have been stopped. At that time, perhaps only African tribes fought for tribal and religious interests.

The second paradoxical consideration leads us to the same conclusion. This is that in Russia, there were plenty of realistic people who were not affected by the hysteria, and they were not silent, but instead wrote that Russia was headed toward catastrophe, and even offered more or less serious plans to stop its entrance to the war (which we’ll talk about in detail), but there was no one to hear them. Just as Alexander Herzen was not heard, if the reader will recall, over the noise, screaming, and rage that preceded the “patriotic” hysteria of 1863, the voices of rational Russians were lost in the mounting din in the years leading up to 1917.

“For us, the people who have not lost our human common sense, one thing was clear,” the writer Zinaida Gippius recorded in her St. Petersburg’s Diaries. “The war for Russia could not end naturally; there would be a revolution before its end. This premonition—more, this knowledge—was shared with us by many.” The most striking premonition among these was the famous memorandum of former Interior Minister Peter Durnovo, who predicted an “unnatural” end to the war in such detail that historians agreed that if it had not been removed from the royal archive after the February revolution, it certainly would have been deemed apocryphal, in other words, a forgery, written after the fact. But the memorandum was handed over to the Czar four months before that fateful July. Didn’t he read it? Or, worse yet, did he read it without understanding that he was reading about himself, his family, and the dynasty? And, more importantly, about the country?


Plans to Save Russia

There were three major attempts to prevent Russia’s involvement in the European conflict. The most unrealistic, though unusually far-sighted, was the proposal of Count Sergei Witte. According to him, Russia should have become a mediator in the creation of a Continental Union, which would have been based on a reconciliation between France and Germany, something like the future European Union. Alas, two bloody wars and a half-century were needed before European politicians were ripe for the idea. In the early twentieth century, it remained unsettled.

The second attempt was made by Milyukov. Back in 1908, during his Balkan tour, he became convinced that Serbia was ready to provoke a European war. His communications with the young Serb military brought him to two main conclusions: First, that “these young people totally ignore Russian diplomacy.” Second, that “relying on their own strength, they extremely exaggerate it. Anticipation of war with Austria passed here into impatient readiness to fight, and success seemed to them easy and certain. This mood seemed so universal and undisputed that it has been completely useless to enter into a dispute on these topics.”

Simply put, the Serbs got loose. They had their own imperial project: Greater Serbia. And when they needed to carve up consanguinean Bulgaria to achieve this goal, they divided it without hesitation in 1913 (incidentally, in alliance with the Turks, with whom they had been in a war only in 1912).

As the Russian military attaché in Athens, Pavel Gudim-Lewkowicz, reported, “The defeat of Bulgaria by the coalition of Serbia, Turkey, Greece and Romania, i.e. the Slavic power by a non-Slavic coalition, blinded by the petty interests and short-sightedness of Serbia, is seen here as a complete wreck of Russian policy in the Balkans, as they say even to me, a Russian, with a slight grin and gloating.”

The only possibility of saving Russia from involvement in the European conflict in the face of cutting loose Serbia, according to Milyukov, was the “localization of the conflict,” which if translated from diplomatic language to Russian meant leaving Serbia to its fate.

And if the Serbs found that they needed to divide Austria-Hungary to suit their purposes, the Serbian military confessed to Milyukov, they certainly would go the distance. The only possibility of saving Russia from involvement in the European conflict in the face of cutting loose Serbia, according to Milyukov, was the “localization of the conflict,” which if translated from diplomatic language to Russian meant leaving Serbia to its fate. He substantiated his proposal as follows: “The Balkan nations have proved themselves self-sufficient, not only in their struggle for liberation, but also in fights amongst their states. Now the burden of the Slavs’ interests is lifted from Russia. Now each Slavic state goes its own way and protects its own interests. Russia, too, must be guided by its own interests. Russia should not fight over the Slavs.”

This sounds logical enough. And Milyukov did not even mention Serbia by name. But his words struck the “patriotic” press like a strong gale. Pan-Slavists were beside themselves. Milyukov almost lost his paper The Speech. He had to retreat. Far away. In short, Milyukov repeated Minister of War Vladimir Sukhomlinov’s fate, who, as we remember, found himself in a similar situation the year before.

The third attempt to keep Russia from going over the edge was (or could have been) much more serious and requires a separate discussion. But first...


Stolypin’s Mistake

There is no doubt that the reasonable faction of the highest nomenklatura in Saint Petersburg agreed with Milyukov. Repeatedly and publicly, former Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin stated that “our internal situation does not allow us to conduct an aggressive policy.” Milyukov was supported even more strongly in the words of Foreign Minister Alexander Isvolsky: “It’s time to end the fancy imperial expansion plans.” In the end, standing up for the cut-loose Serbia, as everyone knows, was deadly for Russia. After all, behind Austria-Hungary, which the Serbs provoked desperately, stood a European superpower: Germany. But in the face of the frenzied Pan-Slavist hysteria, not defending Serbia could mean political death, as Sukhomlinov learned in 1912, and Milyukov in 1913. This was the difficult puzzle that the ideology of Pan-Slavism put in front of Russia’s pre-war nomenklatura leadership.