The Russian army in World War I.
David R. Stone, The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917. 359 pp. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. ISBN-13 978-0700620951.$34.95.
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 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 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 ground and the need for instant decisions with highly imperfect information in the fog of war. To accuse a general who fails to follow up an offensive with further action of "dithering" or "timidity" is one common way to describe Pavel von Rennenkampf in eastern Prussia in 1915 or Aleksei Evert during the Brusilov offensive in 1916 (248). David Stone uses such terms and analysis from time to time (250), but compared to nearly all prior accounts, he gives the historical actors much greater respect. For example, while he is critical of Evert's "timidity" as one of the reasons Aleksei Brusilov's breakthrough was not better exploited, he also provides context for his attitudes. In March, Russian generals displayed plenty of will power, pushing an offensive at Lake Naroch with a 2; 1 advantage in personnel but losing badly, suffering enormous casualties for no appreciable gain. The opposite of "timidity" could well have been "recklessness." As David Stone puts it, "bitter experience at the hands of the more operationally flexible Germans had taught them the virtues of caution" (224). He also often reminds the reader that the performance of Russian generals and soldiers may have fallen short of their German counterparts, but it was often comparable or superior to other armies (224).
David Stone pushes back against the iconography of Brusilov and his campaign. Built up by Soviet scholars as one of the few usable bits of history from World War I as proof that the Russians could successfully fight the Germans, Brusilov has become the embodiment of all kinds of heroic memories about the war effort. Brusilov himself did much to create the narrative of the lonely genius thwarted by incompetent and cowardly generals around him. Others added layers of Brusilov as representative of the competent, technocratic wing of the officer corps that rose to prominence based on ability rather than birthright. David Stone's brief account of Brusilov and his famous campaign is the best and most balanced I have read. David Stone grants that Brusilov's elaborate preparations for the offensive were a brilliant and extraordinary departure from all prior Russian offensives. He made unprecedented use of camouflage, aircraft reconnaissance, deception, and "for perhaps the first time in the war developed really close collaboration between infantry and artillery" (240). However, David Stone also criticizes Brusilov for not planning for a truly strategic breakthrough, focusing only on inflicting casualties and seizing trenches (239). While Brusilov's offensive began with brilliant innovations, it ended with stubbornly repeated futile offensives. While David Stone partly blames Evert for delaying his Western Front offensive, his overall judgment of the Brusilov offensive is more negative than one can find anywhere else: "the victories that Brusilov had won were squandered in increasingly costly offensives that never succeeded in capturing important strategic targets" (247, 254).
In a poignant and highly original conclusion to his chapter on the Brusilov offensive, David Stone argues that Brusilov was "as successful at inflicting casualties on his own troops" as on the enemy. He points out that Russia lost 1.5 million men in the offensive in order to inflict 850,000 casualties on the Central Powers. While this brought Austria to a crisis point and forced the Central Powers to transfer 30 divisions to the east, thereby relieving pressure on Verdun, on the whole, Stone argues that the entire offensive was of questionable strategic value from the Russian point of view and concludes that "as the Brusilov offensive finally ended, the question was whether Russia could withstand another such victory" (257).
On the whole, Stone's history of the Russian army at war has all the characteristics of a classic that will be a reliable resource for decades to come. He does not dismiss the problems of economic and social backwardness. He sees Russian economic backwardness as a problem, especially the relatively low levels of literacy among peasant soldiers and the underproduction of heavy artillery and shells. Nor does he tout the line that if only every general had been as smart as Brusilov, all would have gone well. Stone's Brusilov is deeply flawed and other generals less foolish than in most accounts. Stone argues that it was the lack of knowledge and control over its populations that made mobilization on the scale of more advanced countries difficult (36). Many accounts of the war and revolution contend that well before February 1917 the country was already tipping toward revolution, with a failing economy and war-weary soldiers leading the way. In contrast, Stone shows that in January 1917, Russia had more men and artillery than the Central Powers, and soldier morale was much better than it had been during the Great Retreat of 1915 (217-18, 273). He concludes that ironically "when Russia's armies were finally equipped with what they needed to fight, the Russian home front was on the brink of collapse" (231). This is an important insight that Astashov's book confirms.
Aleksandr Astashov's study of soldiers' daily life, motivations, attitudes, and interactions with civilians is a fundamental contribution to the historiography of World War I. His work in the Russian Military Historical Archive is prodigious and allows him to paint a richly textured portrait of the lived experiences of the war. As is the norm for doctoral theses in the Russian system, the text is heavily empirical, deeply researched, and deploys exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) details, often providing numerous examples to prove a point when one or two could have sufficed. This and the author's modest, understated style and reluctance to stray far from the sources to explicitly make broader interpretive claims may hide the significance of the book's contributions, some of which confirm the scholarly consensus, but others of which strongly challenge the conventional wisdom. I will try to highlight some of the ways in which this book confirms and challenges existing interpretations.
Astashov draws on many different sources from RGVIA, one of the most important of which is the reports of military censors on the mood of the troops at the front. While William Rosenberg reminds us that this source must be used with care because the staff gathering the sources and writing their summary statistical reports may have been telling their bosses what they wanted to hear, it is also important to remember that for all its flaws, this is probably the best source we have for gauging soldier moods, concerns, fighting spirit, patriotism, and the like. (3) Astashov is aware of the methodological limits of the censor reports and supplements with other sources when he can, but at times the analysis could benefit from more critical analysis and context. In any event, his source base is more reliable than the source collections that the Bolsheviks culled, edited, and published to prove a point, or the archival sources that the Soviet regime allowed Allan Wildman to see a half-century ago. (4) The result is the most detailed and closely source-based analysis of the Russian army in World War I to date.
In some important ways, the central themes and arguments of the book confirm traditional points of view about Russian relative backwardness as the defining feature of the war. Astashov argues that the kill rate of German soldiers was two times higher on the Western Front than on the Eastern Front and that Russian soldiers were five times more likely to be killed than German soldiers (21). Moreover, he cites figures that for every 100 killed, Russia had 251 prisoners of war and missing in action, by far the highest of all combatants. By comparison, Austria/Hungary had 150, Italy 92, Germany 65, Britain 21, and France 4 (23). He accounts for this remarkable relative failure of Russian fortitude at the front by pointing to the peasant nature of the Russian army. He makes an important argument that while Germany and France increased their technical troops (railway, artillery, trained specialists), the Russian army became much more infantry-based as the war went on. And the infantry began as predominantly peasant in composition and became even more so as the war wore on (25). Peasants lied to get better assignments, listed themselves as nonpeasant, and even the few soldiers listed as "craftsmen and specialists" were often peasants coming from regions where their work was a mix of peasant and craft pursuits. Russia paid stipends to families of soldiers and a full 91 percent of them went to villages (30). Along with peasantization came a fall in literacy of the army. Losses were highest in the more literate groups, and the militia called up in 1916 was much less literate; the literacy rate overall in the army fell to 40-45 percent during the war (31).
While Astashov's argument that peasant values and illiteracy came to dominate the army informs much of his analysis, his story is not uniformly about backwardness. He provides original material about the relatively successful and incredibly massive scale of Russian trench digging, concluding that the construction of complex systems of trenches was a feat of modernization on a scale with the building of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He details how the army's defensive trench-digging operations took off in August 1915 and particularly singles out A. E. Evert for praise for his work on the Western Front against the Germans. On this score, Astashov does not portray Brusilov as a lonely genius; in fact, he argues that trenches in his sector were generally inferior to those in the Northern and Western Front sectors (80). The successes of building complex trenches of over 7,000 kilometers in 1916 alone help explain one of the great mysteries of the war--why some key military commanders were relatively optimistic about their prospects at the end of 1916 and even into 1917 (82-93). Nonetheless, the trenches filled up with water (which froze in the winter) due to a lack of pumps, and Astashov makes clear that for all the marvel of their construction, they were nowhere near as solid and well drained as the German trenches.
Astashov's book provides particularly interesting insight into the puzzle of soldier motivation and patriotism. Official army publications stressed that the Russian soldier fought for his Orthodox tsar, the True Faith, the motherland, the reconquest of lands occupied by the enemy, and Russia's brother Slavs (126--30). In reality, the reports on soldier moods and intercepted soldier letters (except at the beginning of the war and during the successful Brusilov offensive in 1916) rarely mention any of these themes. Instead, Astashov stresses that duty, fate, patience, and religiosity were the major themes. There was a particularly heightened sense of the importance of faith. Many soldier letters describe praying, turning to religion, and putting faith and trust in God. (5) Such a focus was doubtless encouraged by the mothers with whom soldiers were corresponding but also was inspired by the horrors of life and proximity of death at the front. Soldiers frequently wrote that "to end the war would be a sin" (132-38). Fears and rumors about life after German conquest such as the idea that serfdom would be restored were often repeated and served as a powerful motive to keep up the fight (162). Soldiers often expressed anger about draft dodgers, profiteers, and generally, any failure to share in the sacrifices and burdens of the war effort (613).
According to Astashov, habits of daily life were also hugely important in helping soldiers soldier on, and nothing was more important to the mood of soldiers than things like food, good supplies of warm clothing, games and amusements, and friendships in the unit. He claims that the Russian army did not stress formalities in lines of authority but tried to foster a sense of "brotherly unity" akin to that in the peasant commune, and officers often tried to foster a fatherly, informal set of relationships in units at the front that contrasted sharply with the discipline and hierarchy of the German army (128).
As supplies of these goods went up (as they did in mid- to late 1916), so too did soldier moods (136). Likewise, as the economy began to serve the front better in late 1915-16, letters show that the influx of new rifles, grenades, shells, and well-dressed recruits were much discussed and created a strong impact (146). Grenades were particularly popular. News of victories from other Russian fronts or France also had a strong impact. In some ways, Astashov pushes back against the narrative of accumulating grievances, hardship, and war weariness at the front. (6) In fact, he cites reports from the end of 1916 through the first months of 1917 showing a sharp improvement in mood for a list of reasons related mostly to daily life at the front: better food, good supply of warm clothing, officers arranging games and amusements, the United States entering the war, a cold spell freezing the water table and preventing water from seeping into trenches from nearby swamps (144, 671-72). Rather than a steady decline in morale at the front, he stresses the centrality of soldier concern with the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Russian interior (especially inflation) as the primary source of discontent in late 1916 and early 1917 (597-602). In fact, by late 1916, Astashov found that soldiers were sending care packages with tea, soap, and especially sugar back home to their family members (604). He even found discussions of a lively black market in sugar that soldiers' wives received from their husbands at the front. He makes a strong case that more than anything else, in the months prior to the February Revolution, the biggest issue for soldiers was inflation and its effects on their loved ones at home, not their own travails. In the months following the February Revolution, soldiers became increasingly upset about inflation, crime, the labor shortage and its impacts on planting and harvesting crops, the threat of infidelity or sexual predation on their wives, and a host of other concerns about the situation in the interior of the country.
Astashov's picture of the crisis of 1917 is different in some important ways from that provided by Wildman and others. First, he sees sharp differences between fronts based on their missions, levels of activity, and the enemy they faced. For example, he provides a strong case that morale was closely linked to the amount of activity. Sectors of the Northern Front that had high rates of activity, both in preparing trenches and engaging the enemy, tended to have better reports of soldier mood than sectors that were inactive. This counterintuitive insight is important for understanding the course of the February 1917 Revolution, which started with inactive soldiers in the Petrograd garrison and only later spread to the trenches. Second, his account of "desertion" is quite nuanced and interesting. The overall reported numbers are very high, as much as ten times higher than the German and Austrian figures (479). He estimates that as many as 750,000 soldiers were arrested as "deserters" and sent back to the front over the course of the war up to the February Revolution (479). He also cites lots of evidence that bands of deserters were responsible for a rash of theft, looting, rapes, and disorders against civilians in the front zone and even quite far to the interior (469-70).
The wave of desertion was most problematic during the Great Retreat of 1915, when soldiers would blend in with refugees (often acquiring civilian clothing from sympathetic local residents). But Astashov also problematizes the notion of "desertion" and its meaning. He presents evidence that many cases that were reported as "desertion" were actually closer to what we would call "absent without leave" (AWOL). This was particularly true on the Northern and Northwestern fronts, where soldiers who did not have far to travel to their villages would disappear, especially during crucial planting and harvest periods, then quietly return to their units (471). Likewise, he provides some evidence that, as in the French Army, Russian soldiers opposed what they saw as pointless offensives and orders to attack from officers who did not understand the situation on the ground and were willing to sacrifice soldier lives for minimal strategic gains (674, 683-85). On 23 December 1916, during the Mitava operation, one unit reportedly responded to orders to attack with shouts that "we'll defend, but we won't attack" (689). Even at the peak of the summer 1916 offensive, which brought a sharp upswing in soldier moods at the front, soldiers also frequently commented on the waste of lives during repeated attacks. As it became apparent that the Brusilov offensive would not bring an end to the war, soldier moods soured and the picture Astashov paints of the army going into 1917 is one of concern about the home front, boredom, and increasing hopelessness about the prospects for the war ending. Astashov also presents an interesting argument that from the summer of 1916 on, faced with increasing soldier opposition to offensives, officers began to change the way they interacted with soldiers, increasingly trying to persuade them of the reasoning behind orders to attack (677-80). Ultimately, he argues, turnover and attrition in the army were crucial to the rise of soldier rebellion. Shortages of officers, especially at the lower level where officers and soldiers interacted, and the influx of new conscripts undermined solidarity and simple human bonds that held the army together. "Usually disorders began after the arrival of new troops" at the front (712).
These two books are cautious in style, but sharply challenge some common assumptions about Russia's World War I. According to David Stone, Russian generals did not perform on the whole nearly as badly as most accounts portray, but Brusilov bought his successes at an unacceptable cost in lives. Both paint a picture of the army as more loyal, better supplied, and willing to fight on the eve of February 1917 than most prior accounts. According to Astashov, soldier insubordination and rebellion were comparable to the disturbances in the French army, with soldiers opposing offensives but maintaining desire to defend the country and defeat the enemy. These books should be read by anyone interested in World War I, and though they do not analyze 1917 directly, their arguments have important implications for interpretations of the revolutions of that year as well.
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(1) An incomplete sampling of recent work on the Russian army in World War I includes A. V. Oleinikov, Zakhvacheny v boiu: Trofei Russkoi armii v Pervoi mirovoi voine (Moscow: Veche, 2015) ; V. K. Shatsillo, Pervaia mirovaia voina, 1914-1918: Fakty, dokumenty (Moscow: Olma-press, 2003); Shatsillo, Posledniaia voina tsarskoi Rossii (Moscow: Eksmo, 2010); O. A. Khoroshilova, Voiskovye partizany Velikoi voiny (St. Petersburg: Evropeiskii dom, 2002); Khoroshilova, Vsadniki osobogo naznacheniia (Moscow: Russkie vitiazi, 2012); Laurie Stoff, They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006); Timothy C. Dowling, The Brusilov Offensive (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008); M. V. Os'kin, Krakh konnogo blitskriga: Kavaleriia v Pervoi mirovoi voine (Moscow: Eksmo, 2009); O. R. Airapetov, ed., Posledniaia voina imperatorskoi Rossii: Sbornik statei (Moscow: Tri kvadrata, 2002); and Airapetov, Generaly, liberaly i predprinimateli: Rabota na front i na revoliutsiiu (1907-1917) (Moscow: Tri kvadrata, 2003). Joshua Sanborn has offered a thought-provoking reinterpretation of the war that deals with the military, though not as the central topic in Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) ; see also his Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics, 1905-1925 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003). A lot of work has been done on the impact of army policies on civilians. See, e.g., A. Iu. Bakhturina, Politika Rossiiskoi imperii v vostochnoi Galitsii v gody pervoi mirovoi voiny (Moscow: AIRO-XX, 2000); Alexander Prusin, Nationalizing a Borderland: War, Ethnicity, and Anti-Jewish Violence in East Galicia, 1914-1920 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005); Peter Gatrell, A Whole Empire Walking: Rejugees in Russia during World War I (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); and various articles by Mark von Hagen, Peter Holquist, Joshua Sanborn, Eric Lohr, Sergei Nelipovich, and others. For more references, see B. D. Kozenko, "Otechestvennaia istoriografiia pervoi mirovoi voiny," Novaia i noveishaia istoriia, no. 3 (2001): 3-27.
(2) Norman Stone, The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 (London: Penguin, 1998).
(3) William Rosenberg, "Reading Soldiers' Moods: Russian Military Censorship and the Configuration of Feeling in World War I," American Historical Review 119, 3 (2014): 714-40.
(4) Allan Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980, 1987).
(5) For a new study of the issue, see Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014).
(6) Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army; Rosenberg, "Reading Soldiers' Moods."
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|Title Annotation:||"The Russian Front from 1914 to the Beginning of 1917: The Experience of War and Modernity" and "The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917"|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2016|
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