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How Russia Might Have Stopped World War I

The Durnovo Memorandum foresaw a conservative alternative to the conflagration that engulfed Europe.
Nicholas II puck cartoon world war I copy

This year, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, it is worth recalling those who warned of its coming catastrophe, that we may celebrate their wisdom and use it to advance the cause of peace in our own time. Even at a distance of a hundred years, we can learn from those who saw what most refused to see.

Perhaps the best known prophets of pre-World War I catastrophe are Ivan Bloch, author of The Future War (1898), and Norman Angell, author of The Great Illusion (1909), both of whom argued that a war between the great powers would be long, costly, and futile. But probably the most prescient of them all was former Russian interior minister Pyotr Nikolaevich Durnovo, who a hundred years ago this month wrote a memorandum to Tsar Nicholas II warning of the dire consequences that would result if Russia continued to ally itself with France against Germany and went on to war against the latter.

The Durnovo Memorandum (PDF), as it is generally known, is one of the most remarkable conservative antiwar documents ever written, and deserves both to be read in full and to be analyzed in depth. Although Durnovo did not get everything right, and much of what he wrote pertains specifically to the time period in which he was writing, his predictions were extraordinarily accurate, and the philosophy underlying his arguments has continuing relevance.

Durnovo began his memorandum by telling the tsar that the central fact in European politics was the struggle between Germany and England. This, he said, was bound eventually to produce war, which would not be confined to those two nations. “The fundamental groupings in a future war are self-evident,” Durnovo wrote. “Russia, France, and England, on the one side, with Germany, Austria, and Turkey, on the other.” Italy, he continued, was more likely to join the former group than the latter, as were Serbia and Montenegro, while Bulgaria would join the Central Powers. Romania would sit on the sidelines and wait to see who was winning. This was an accurate prediction.

The main burden of the war, said Durnovo, would fall on Russia,

since England is hardly capable of taking a considerable part in a continental war, while France, poor in manpower, will probably adhere to strictly defensive tactics, in view of the enormous losses by which war will be attended under present conditions of military technique. The part of a battering-ram, making a breach in the very thick of the German defense, will be ours.

Russia, though, was unprepared for war. Defeat was likely, and the result would be revolution. As Durnovo put it:

The trouble will start with the blaming of the Government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the Government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitations throughout the country, with Socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of the land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy.

This is exactly what happened.

Underlying these predictions was a profoundly pessimistic and conservative worldview, which regarded autocracy as the only bulwark against chaos. “Everyone considers me an inveterate monarchist, reactionary defender of autocracy, incorrigible obscurantist… and doesn’t realize that I am the most convinced of republicans,” Durnovo complained, adding:

I consider best for a people the situation where the people itself can have at the head of the administration as president the most worthy citizen chosen by themselves. For certain countries such an ideal… is becoming a possibility. But this it is by no means possible to say about our immense and very varied Russian Empire, where because of purely practical considerations the machinery of administration and the Empire’s unity demand the existence of the Imperial banner woven by history. If it goes Russia will disintegrate. That is the immutable law of nature in Russia’s political order.

Born in 1847, Durnovo was commissioned as an officer in 1862 and spent 10 years in the navy. According to historian Dominic Lieven, his “vision of the perfect Russian community was a distinctly military one, spiritually united in a common patriotic cause and with the potentially wayward lower orders kept under strict discipline by their social and professional superiors.”

After leaving the navy, he began a career in the police department, and rose to become minister of the interior in October 1905, just as Russia was plagued with unrest following its defeat in war with Japan. As interior minister, he dealt with revolutionaries ruthlessly. “Governing a state is a harsh business,” he said, “the tsar has to be terrible but gracious, terrible first and foremost and gracious afterwards.”

Durnovo disliked the Franco-Russian alliance. Republican France and Tsarist Russia had nothing in common. The conservative German Empire, by contrast, was a much more natural ally. “The vital interests of Russia and Germany do not conflict,” Durnovo wrote in his memorandum to the tsar. The two countries did not claim any of each others’ territories, and their trading interests coincided. By contrast, “The Triple Entente is an artificial combination, without a basis of real interest.” A foreign policy based on interest rather than sentiment would align Russia with Germany, and so prevent a war that would quite possibly destroy both countries.

Durnovo’s memorandum did not come out of the blue. He delivered it immediately after the dismissal of Vladimir Nikolaevich Kokovtsov as prime minister in February 1914, as part of a concerted effort by conservative-minded officials to reorient Russia’s foreign and domestic policy alike. Durnovo and his colleagues sought to reassert the monarchical principle that had been diluted in October 1905 when the tsar had issued a Manifesto leading to Russia’s first elected parliament, the Duma.

The effort failed. The alliance with France had strong support within the bureaucracy and among those close to the tsar, both for solid strategic and financial reasons (Russia was reliant on French investment) and for sentimental ones. Despite, or perhaps because of, the German origins of so many Russian aristocrats and bureaucrats, many Russians regarded Germany and Germans with decided suspicion. By contrast, there was a great admiration of French culture. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, who became supreme commander of the Russian Army in July 1914, loathed the Kaiser, whom he disparagingly referred to as “Basil,” but adored France, a country whose language he spoke fluently and where he had often holidayed in his youth. During the war his supreme headquarters did not fly a Russian flag, but it did fly a French one, given to him by General Joffre in 1912. Against this sort of Francophile sentiment, Durnovo’s appeal to the monarchical principle had little chance of success.

Durnovo was so much more accurate in his predictions than others precisely because of his refusal to subjugate interest to sentiment. Supporters of the Franco-Russian alliance chafed at what they regarded as German humiliations of Russia and saw the war that erupted in the summer of 1914 as a chance to restore Russia’s greatness. Durnovo took a far more material view of national interest, did the sums, and found that war simply didn’t make sense.

Realism is often denounced as immoral, as if the crude pursuit of national interest inevitably produces bad results. But as Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman pointed out in their 2006 book Ethical Realism, a foreign policy based on rational calculations of interest is likely to mitigate against rash adventures and produce more ethically desirable outcomes than one based on moralizing.

In addition, Durnovo was undoubtedly right to regard the internal consequences of war as a vital part of the calculation of whether fighting was worthwhile. Nowadays, we do not need to worry about revolution, but that does not mean that our wars do not have internal consequences. They do disrupt our political and social orders by increasing debt, encouraging state encroachments on civil liberties, and so. These consequences are often more important in the long term for the society as whole than the immediate costs in lives and treasure.

Finally, what really made Durnovo so prescient was his pessimism. “We are in a blind alley,” he said in 1912. “I fear that we all, along with the tsar, won’t succeed in getting out.” This, as it turned out, was a justified fear. It was no coincidence that opposition to the First World War in Russia came from conservatives like Durnovo, not from liberals. For what distinguished the liberals, as it does the liberal interventionists today, was their breezy optimism that war would end well and make everything better.

A notable example in Imperial Russia was Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Vasilievich Krivoshein, who was probably the most prominent hawk in the Russian government. Whereas Durnovo doubted whether the Russian people would stand behind their government in time of war, Krivoshein had no such worries. The government needed “to believe more in the Russian people and their age-old love for the homeland which was greater than any fortuitous preparations for war,” he argued. In July 1914, it was the liberal Krivoshein who more than anyone else persuaded the Russian Council of Ministers to mobilize its army, and so led Russia and the rest of Europe into a calamitous war.

Durnovo’s appeal to the monarchical principle is of course outdated. His reactionary political views make him an unsympathetic figure to modern eyes. But his attempt to make a rational calculation of interests, his emphasis on the negative internal consequences of war, and his refusal to bow to the overconfidence that so often causes war stand out. As arguments heat up on both sides of the Atlantic about the origins of the First World War, its legacy, and the justice or injustice of the various causes—arguments that will help shape not only how we view that war but also how we view wars of the future—Durnovo’s memorandum merits a second look.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, and the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history.



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