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16 November 2018

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The End of Tsarist Russia

by Dominic Lieven (Viking, $35)

Dominic Lieven (Viking, $35)

If it is a maxim that generals prepare to fight the last war, then perhaps it is also true that nations fight new wars chiefly to redress outcomes of the last war. Certainly, as Lieven shows in this new history of the lead up to World War I, over a century later we still are far from fixing the problems of 1914.

Lieven starts with the salient claim that “as much as anything, World War I turned on the fate of Ukraine,” and shows how empires’ battle against the rising tide of nationalism within Europe led not just to WWI (and then to the collapse of all those empires), but to a whole range of conflicts we have yet to resolve. Today’s conflicts in the Balkans, Ukraine and Turkey are rooted in WWI and the issues it (and WWII or the Cold War) failed to resolve.

But Lieven also seeks to show that WWI was “the source and origin of most of the catastrophes that subsequently afflicted twentieth century Russia” – not just that it opened the road to revolution, famine, civil war and dictatorship, but that the course of the war and its aftermath deprived Russia of a hand in shaping post-war Europe, helping set the stage for 1939.

Previous WWI histories, Lieven says, have given short shrift to the Russian perspective, mainly for lack of access to historical resources. And so he gained considerable access to previously closed archives for his research, access that subsequently was shut off for all scholars. The fruits of that research, plus Lieven’s incisive writing style – from vivid portraits of some of the key actors to concise narratives that put events in context and perspective – makes this a superb read.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2015