Reexamining Russia's Past

Reexamining Russia's Past

Appearing in the March 15 edition of The Spectator, Matthew Dal Santo's article «In Defence of the Romanovs: the Centenary of the February Revolution» falls short (to my liking) in expressing a good defense (pardon my American preferred English spelling) of the Russian monarchy. Excerpted from Dal Santo's piece:

«Taking its cue from such rejoicing, a new generation of Russian historians casts the February Revolution as a plot hatched in London and New York for Anglo-American world domination. Just as Russia was poised, they believe, for a crushing victory over Germany, British imperialists and American financiers conspired to decapitate the rising global colossus.

This is bad history, mixing with resentment and bitterness the events of 1917, 1945 and 1991. Among the deficiencies of Russia's modern 'patriots' is their obstinate refusal to take a reasonable measure of responsibility for their own revolution».

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That characterization is a negative oversimplification of the kind of patriotically minded views evident among present day Russians. Russia doesn't have a monopoly on crackpot thoughts. On the subject at hand, Dal Santo has previously provided more insight as referenced from

Relating to his recent piece: on the eve of WW I, there was a fairly popular consensus that Russia rebounded well from its 1905 revolution and war with Japan – added on with the view that Russia was poised for greater socioeconomic and geopolitical advances. Differing with that perspective, a number of politically left of center academics, have over the years portrayed the aforementioned 1905 events as a sign of Russia's extreme weakness. A follow-up counter can be given to that last opinion.

Great powers periodically lose wars, as evidenced by the British experience with American revolutionaries and what the US faced in Southeast Asia. The reason for such losses extends beyond extreme weakness. Like the American revolutionaries and North Vietnamese/Vietcong forces, the Japanese had geography on their side. Towards the end of the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese were showing signs of losing steam, with the Russian government concerned with the domestic instability in its empire. These circumstances made it easier for US President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate a settlement between the two combatants.

On the domestic side, the Russian economy of this period was growing. By present standards, Russia's 1905 revolution lacked reforms. The world was different then. At the time, America's democracy existed with numerous shortcomings. The more reasoned of anti-Communist Russophiles maintain that the timing and manner of WW I significantly influenced how Russia changed – adding that change would've eventually happened without WW I – but arguably with different conditions – inclusive of a possible constitutional monarchy.

Just before WW I: Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin weren't on the radar as prospective leaders of Russia. Military historian Max Hastings has suggested that had WW I begun in 1916 (instead of 1914), Russia's fate might've turned out differently. This point leads to some other observations.

As observed by Hastings: in 1914, Russia wasn't in a good position to launch the kind of offensive war it did against Germany. That action led to great suffering on the Russian side, which greatly contributed to the demise of the Russian Empire and the greater potential for a Communist advance. (In WW I, the Russian military engaged well against the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman forces.) It has been noted that Russia's armaments situation was actually better in 1917. However by then, Russia's morale had reached a low point.

In his memoirs, Alexander Kerensky quotes British Prime Minister David Lloyd George's basis for Britain's non-support to the Russian Civil War era Whites. Kerensky references this excerpt from Lloyd George's September 17, 1919 House of Commons speech: 

«Denikin and Kolchak are fighting for two main objects. The first is the destruction of Bolshevism and the restoration of good government in Russia. Upon that, they could get complete unanimity among all the forces, but the second is that they are fighting for a reunited Russia. Well, it is not for me to say whether that this is a policy which suits the British Empire. There was a very great statesman...Lord Beaconsfield, who regarded a great, gigantic, colossal, growing Russia rolling onwards towards Persia and the borders of Afghanistan and India as the greatest menace the British Empire could be confronted with».

The Germans and Josef Pilsudski led Poles had a somewhat similar logic as well. (These and other related matters are discussed in my Strategic Culture Foundation piece of April 7, 2016, carried over to my Eurasia Review column. Included, is a reply to the inaccurate perception of heavily foreign supported Whites opposing the Reds, minus any foreign support.)

WW I arguably played a hand in how Stalin behaved before Operation Barbarossa (the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union). It has been said that he kept in mind what happened when Russia confronted Germany in WW I, before it was well prepared to do so.

The outcome of the Russo-Japanese War might very well have greatly influenced Stalin to position a strong Fareast military presence. Note the Red Army's thrashing of the Japanese in the late 1930s, contrasted with the initial difficulty that Soviet forces faced with a militarily weaker (to the Japanese) Finnish side around the same point in time.

The Russian Empire had a roughly 300 year run – much longer than the Soviet period. Russia's pre-Soviet flag and coat of arms have been readopted in post-Soviet Russia, where there're historical differences on the matters pertaining to this essay. As is true with many other Russians, Vladimir Putin appears to seek for his country what numerous others abroad desire for their respective nation. Specifically, a careful meshing of the best past attributes that can be successfully utilized in the present and future.

Tags: Russia