- The Russian Army in World War I
It has been more than 20 years since the Russian Military Historical Archive (RGVIA) ended the restrictions of the Soviet era and opened its inventories and collections to scholars for free exploration. First a trickle, and now a steady stream, of monographs, dissertations, and articles grounded in archival work has brought much new source material to light and has challenged much of the received wisdom about World War I.1 This essay reviews two [End Page 688] new fundamental contributions on the Russian army in the war. David Stone takes stock of the new literature and presents an excellent synthesis and interpretation of the military-operational history of Russia’s war effort. Aleksandr Astashov draws on extensive work in RGVIA for his exhaustive study of soldiers’ daily life, motivations, attitudes, and interactions with civilians, painting an incredibly detailed and nuanced portrait of the lived experiences of the war. While quite different in approach and topic, the two books show how far scholarship on the war has come and give a snapshot of a new narrative of the war that is emerging.
David Stone’s audience is broad and his stated intent is to “present a clear and brief synthesis of scholarly research on Russia’s experience in fighting the First World War” (10). The result is an eminently reasonable and convincing narrative that confirms some established interpretations and challenges others. One of the most important arguments he contends with comes from the last major synthesis on the topic 40 years ago, by Norman Stone (no relation). Norman Stone famously argued that the key problem for Russia was not so much inherent and insurmountable backwardness but, rather, a crisis of rapid hothouse modernization that created bottlenecks and tensions within the economy and society.2 He also iconoclastically argued against the more specific notion that shortages of weapons and artillery shells (caused by industrial backwardness) were the key barrier to Russian military success. David Stone sees economic failures as more important for military operations and the conduct of the war. He argues that Russia was not that different from other countries in its shortages of shells in the first months of the war, and that it actually mattered less on the Eastern Front than on the Western Front due to the mobile nature of warfare. However, by early 1915, the Eastern Front was digging in with deeper and more sophisticated trenches and defensive fortifications, making artillery more and more important. When the German command decided to shift forces to the east for an offensive, David Stone argues that the German advantage in artillery proved to be [End Page 689] critical; it was not so much the quality and quantity of weapons in the army at the outbreak of the war as Russia’s relatively slow switch from field guns suitable for use against troops in open ground to “mortars and heavy artillery, systems better suited to trench warfare and the destruction of fortifications and entrenchments” that proved decisive in 1915 (37). While Norman Stone dismisses as scapegoating the generals’ complaints of shell shortage for their lack of strategic imagination, David Stone sees the shortages as an important strategic factor. It is a convincing argument.
Norman Stone and others tend at times to slip into the omniscient arrogance of hindsight, writing with a jocular dismissiveness of the decisions of generals and politicians, often portraying their decisions as driven by petty personal rivalries or as the expression of character flaws (losing nerve, weak constitution, etc.). Some of this comes from the memoirs themselves, where generals often comment on their erstwhile colleagues’ flaws (never their own, of course). David Stone refreshingly gives the historical actors more respect. It is difficult to reconstruct the complexity of situations on the...