Prelude to The Great War—–Machinations Of Czarist Russia


[Russia] is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…

–        Winston Churchill, October 1939

While this quote is taken from a time 25 years after the beginning of the Great War, it is certainly applicable to the Russia of 1914 as well….


In September 1908 at the Austrian foreign minister’s castle in Buchlau, Russian foreign minister Alexander Izvolski stepped into it; best to simply describe the aftermath, as who agreed to what is somewhat murky:

Russia would look benignly on the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Dual Monarchy…. In return, Vienna would support Russia’s attempt to seek a new international agreement opening the [Turkish] Straits to its warships.

Izlovski either never agreed to this or stated he would take the proposal back to the Tsar. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth (and after an ultimatum from Austria’s ally Germany), the annexation was recognized by Russia.

Bargaining away two Slavic provinces to the Catholic monarchy was a bit too much for many Russians to accept – a betrayal of Slavdom.

Peace at Almost Any Cost

So said Vladimir Kokovtsov, Russia’s Prime Minister from 1911 – 1914.

Any system that produced leaders of his character could not be all bad.

He proposed many reforms to benefit the working class – even by this time Russia had seen significant work strikes and the like.  The industrialists opposed these reforms. Eventually, a watered-down version of reforms was passed in 1912.  He also supported subordinating foreign to domestic policy; Russia needed an extended period of peace in order to properly deal with pressing internal issues.

Opposite stood the minister of war, General Sukhomlinov.  His beautiful and expensive wife apparently motivated him to accept bids (greased by bribes) from Vickers from machine guns that were priced 43% higher than competitive bids from Russia’s Tula Armament Works.  As such, Russia entered the war with one-sixth the number of machine guns that Germany had.

As early as 1912, Sukhomlinov was pressing for mobilization of the Russian army on the Austrian frontier – apparently at the Tsar’s request.  Ultimately cooler heads prevailed, and mobilization almost certain to lead to war was averted…for the time.


Having amazingly stopped the internal bleeding of the child Alexis, Rasputin won permanent favor in the court of Nicholas and Alexandra.

Accusations of spying on the Tsars daughters while they changed into nightgowns; raping nuns; sinning so that the quantity of sin in the world would be reduced.  None of these dissuaded the royals from keeping trust with him.

A mystic, a healer, a trusted advisor to the Tsar’s family; a man whose story is far too complicated for this overview.  But an overview of Russia at this time is incomplete without mentioning him.


Having seen the drunkenness in the villages firsthand, the Tsar moved to prohibit vodka sales in all but first class restaurants (talk about adding insult to injury for the peasants). Besides greatly upsetting the masses, this destroyed Russian finances, as the tax on liquor was one of the key sources of revenue for the government – some 28% of the state’s revenue.

Durnovo Memorandum

Pyotr Nikolayevich Durnovo (1845 in Moscow Governorate – 24 September [O.S. 11 September] 1915 in Petrograd) was an Imperial Russian lawyer and politician.

Six months before Russia entered the Great War, the Tsar (or at least his advisors) received a memorandum from Durnovo.  The key points:

…warning that war would make “social revolution in its most extreme form…inevitable.”

…war would bring revolution…Russia must break with its entente partners, France and Britain.  Peace could be secured, revolution skirted, only by changing sides, renewing the nonaggression pact with Germany that had lapsed in the early nineties.

He cautioned that England, being a naval power, needed Russia to fight its land war against Germany; France would focus on a defensive war.  It would be this land war that would send the revolutionaries over the edge.

“The main burden of the war will undoubtedly fall on us…”

A Russian defeat would be catastrophic:

“…Russia will be flung into a hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen.”

Having seen the strikes and revolutionary fervor as a result of Russia’s war with (and defeat by) Japan in 1905, Durnovo was not the only voice making this case – only the last.

In the end, fortune smiled on Durnovo; he avoided the violent fate reserved for several of his peers and successors.  From the previously cited Wikipedia article:

Pyotr Durnovo died in September 1915 at his villa in Petrograd. He was the last Russian Imperial Minister of Interior to die from natural causes. His six successors were all assassinated, or murdered during the Red Terror.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

“Russia is not ready for war”…“war would be a catastrophe”…“war would bring revolution.”

The Kaiser was not concerned about Russia in 1913 – Russia could not make war for four or five years, he believed.  With this in mind, Germany sent General Limon von Sanders to Turkey to command a Turkish army corps.  As nearly all of Russia’s grain for trade passed through the Bosporus, this action raised concerns in St. Petersburg.

The one issue that could drive Russia to war at this time was a closing of the Straits.


This concern over the Straits was Tsar Nicholas’s rejoinder to the Durnovo Memorandum.

The rest of the story is well-known.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

Source: Prelude to the Great War: Russia