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Reviewed by:
  • Rossiia i pervaia mirovaia voina (Materialy mezhdunarodnogo nauchnogo kollokviuma)
  • Eric Lohr
Nikolai Nikolaevich Smirnov, with Ziva Galili, Reginald Zelnik, Boris Kolonitskii, S. Potolov, William Rosenberg, and Vladimir Iur′evich Cherniaev, eds. Rossiia i pervaia mirovaia voina (Materialy mezhdunarodnogo nauchnogo kollokviuma). St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin and Sankt-Peterburgskii filial Instituta rossiiskoi istorii RAN, 1999. 563 pp. ISBN 5-86007-211-2.

This book should become a landmark in the historiography of a watershed event in Russian and European history. Composed of 27 articles and edited transcripts of discussions of the articles at a 1998 conference in St. Petersburg, it provides the best single volume of papers on domestic Russian society during World War I to date.1 Almost without exception, the articles are based on serious original archival research and sophisticated and thoughtful consideration of conceptual issues regarding the broader significance of the "Great War" in Russian history. The volume does not address military, strategic, diplomatic, or strictly economic issues, focusing instead on domestic politics, society, and culture. This review discusses several of those themes, but given the scope of the work under review, I cannot hope to convey the wonderful diversity and depth of detail that these essays provide on Russian society under the stress of war.

Many of the participants in the conference note the remarkably underdeveloped state of historiography on Russia's experience during the war, and throughout the contributions and discussions a sense of discovery is palpable. In a poignant essay ("The Great War in Russian Memory"), Daniel Orlovsky points out that one cannot visit a town in France, Britain, or even the United States or Germany without finding a monument, cemetery, or commemoration of the war; in contrast, in Russia there are no monuments and there is hardly a trace of [End Page 196] the war in scholarship and culture. The reasons are not hard to find. Not only was Russia a loser in the war, but, more importantly, the narrative of the revolution treated the war as merely a prologue. Concentration on the revolutionary movement and the working class left little room for exploration of the broader ramifications of the war on Russian society. Not least, the Soviet thesis of the inevitability of the revolution resulted in its portrayal as a product of longue durée social change. Thus, in sharp contrast to the rich historiography of the war in most countries, the Russian case has gone relatively unexamined.

The papers in this collection showcase some of the detailed archival work that is underway to provide a fuller picture of Russian society during the war. The two most recurrent themes in the articles are the relationship between the war and revolution, and issues of patriotism, national identity, and social identity in the crucible of total war.

Nearly all the articles explicitly or implicitly deal with the question of the relationship between war and revolution. Two somewhat different rubrics can be identified within this broader problem. The first and most straightforward approach looks at the ways in which the war contributed to the destabilization and collapse of the old order. Within this rubric, Rafail Sholomovich Ganelin and Mikhail Fedorovich Florinskii provide much new evidence on what one might term the crisis within the political elite. Building upon their recent important publication of notes from the meetings of the Council of Ministers in 1915,2 they examine the period from late 1915 to early 1916, giving an inside look at the fateful decisions of the tsar, first to take command of the troops in August 1915, and then to replace relatively moderate ministers with reactionaries. They reveal a picture of extensive conflict within the political elite, and show that even these "reactionaries" vigorously but fruitlessly strove to increase the unity and power of the Council of Ministers against the arbitrary influence of the tsar. Vladimir Iur'evich Cherniaev's discussion of some new material on failed proposals to create either a military dictatorship or to restore full autocracy in late 1916 and early 1917 adds to the notion that a crucial part of the collapse of the old regime came from a political crisis at the very highest levels.

Two authors add to the picture...


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