Book Discussion: All the Tsar's Men: Russia's General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898-1914

By
Amy Liedy

Although implemented with good intentions, extensive reform of the Russian Imperial Army at the turn of the nineteenth century ultimately contributed to the fall of the Russian Empire. At an 8 November 2010 Kennan Institute event, John W. Steinberg, Professor, Department of History, Georgia Southern University, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, outlined the history of the institutional reforms of the Imperial military forces addressed in his book All the Tsar's Men: Russia's General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898-1914.

The origins of All the Tsar's Men, Steinberg explained, began with his graduate research on General Lavr Kornilov's alleged attempted coup d'etat against the Russian Provisional Government in 1917. Better known as the Kornilov Affair, the general's defeat at Petrograd served as political fodder for the Bolsheviks to bolster their popularity among the citizenry; this prompted the author to understand why the General Staff Officers did not prevent the political "leftist drift" and seize control of the revolution by establishing a military dictatorship until a democratic institution could be elected.

Steinberg attributed the Imperial Army's failure in preventing the fall of the Russian Empire to infrastructural changes implemented as a part of the Great Reforms (1861-1881) that ultimately weakened the military. Developed by then-Minister of War Dmitrii Milyutin, these changes focused on expanding the size and strength of the army by making military service compulsory to all males—both nobility and non-nobility—over the age of 20. Further, as Steinberg noted, the Milyutin reforms improved the army training program in an "effort to bring more men into [the Imperial Army's] educational institutions." Because educational standards in Russia were so low, the new curriculum in military schools had to offer everything from specialized courses on military tactics and strategy to the more general topics, such as Russian language.

The story of the impact of Milyutin's reforms "grows slowly in Imperial history," said Steinberg. Although the changes were implemented decades earlier, in 1898 General Aleksey Kuropatkin became the first War Minister who was a product of Milyutin's reformed schools. The author explained that the reformed military under Kuropatkin's leadership initially seemed to be a promising institution. Notwithstanding its increased size and level of education, however, the Imperial Army's inferior training for battle ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Russian Empire.

Steinberg suggested that the dichotomy between deeply-rooted Imperial military traditions and the reality of what the army needed to do to succeed significantly compromised the strength and security of the state. For training, the troops played "war games"—military strategic exercises—in the presence of the Tsar. The author explained that these games were designed to be aesthetically pleasing presentations in which the Tsar's side always had to win. Follow-up reports to these exercises usually portrayed the army as being in outstanding condition, so Steinberg asked, "How can [an] army that's losing everything be so great?" The emphasis on practicing for such performances took priority over training the Imperial Army for the actual battlefield, which resulted in a polished, yet unprepared, military.

Further, General Kuropatkin's military leadership is considered a major reason for the Russian Empire's loss of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. The troops' lack of training for the battlefield was a major component of the eventual fall of the empire—but it was not the only one. The clash of cultures that existed between Kuropatkin and factions close to Nicholas II in terms of leadership resulted in a messy military strategy that weakened the Imperial Army. The author noted that officers fighting in the Russo-Japanese War would receive two sets of orders: one set from General Kuropatkin and one set from officers close to the Tsar. The troops had "to operate within the bounds set by Nicholas II," Steinberg explained, but the Tsar and the officers closest to him "despite their best intentions simply didn't understand the complexities of the modern battlefield." Because of the hierarchical structure of the Imperial regime, the confusion of whether to follow orders from the Tsar (who didn't understand the conditions on the battlefield) or from Kuropatkin (who understood the operational challenges and conditions, but remained the Tsar's subordinate) compelled officers in the battlefield to decide how to fight on their own. The leaders' conflicting understandings of the reality of the Russo-Japanese War eventually cost the tsarist empire victory.

Steinberg concluded the discussion with an assessment of how the Russian Empire's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War impacted the strength of the Imperial Army and the state overall. Thanks to the Milyutin reforms, by 1914 the composition of the Officer Corp was half nobility, half non-nobility, all of whom were educated. The growing number of educated citizens outside of the nobility, in conjunction with the weakened infrastructure of the Russian Imperial Army, helped ignite anti-Imperialist sentiments that ultimately led to the 1917 Revolution.

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

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