Forgotten Nikolasha

Reviving a key figure from Russia’s Great War

Some 20 years ago, shortly after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the late Russian military historian Aleksandr Kavtaradze was invited to give a series of talks at a university in New England. The obligatory campus tour took him to the institution’s Memorial Quadrangle, a monument to the Great War. Flanked by a neoclassical dining hall inscribed with the names of such battles as Cambrai, Château Thierry, Ypres and Somme, it features a cenotaph dedicated to former students “who gave their lives that freedom might not perish from the earth.” Kavtaradze stopped and gazed in utter astonishment at the grandiose complex. “In my country we have no such monuments to the First World War,” he muttered sardonically.

Unlike Canada, whose collective memory is seared by the sanguinary confrontation a hundred years ago, in Russia it was “the forgotten war” until very recently. Soviet historians saw the conflict as nothing more than the inevitable suicidal struggle between Europe’s imperialist powers, the necessary prelude to the new, progressive, proletarian order. While its cost to the ancien régime was tremendous, taking more than three million military and civilian lives (the highest toll among all combatants), the Kremlin consigned the First World War to the dustbin of history. But in the more patriotic climate of recent years, the Putin government has belatedly sought to generate public interest with a series of centenary monuments, museums, memorials and symposia—albeit with little more success so far than Stephen Harper’s efforts to excite Canadians about the War of 1812 during its bicentenary.

The West has paid even less attention to the Great War’s Eastern Front. When Winston Churchill published his massive five-part The World Crisis 1911–1918, he devoted fewer than a dozen pages to Russia. Almost as an afterthought, Sir Winston subsequently wrote a much briefer volume about the clash between the Romanovs, Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs, which he appropriately titled The Unknown War. Those Canadians who are even aware of the fighting to the east know about it mostly from David Lean’s production of Doctor Zhivago and Barbara Tuchman’s classic The Guns of August, which both portray the Russian struggle as the doomed effort of bumbling, bewhiskered aristocrats.

Paul Robinson’s new biography of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, who commanded the tsarist war effort during its first year, provides a welcome corrective to this stereotype of tsarist incompetence and corruption. As a scholarly monograph, with some 50 pages of footnotes culled from archives in seven countries, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, Supreme Commander of the Russian Army is an unusual book. Academics tend to disdain biographies, especially of dead, white, elite males. And military history is so 19th century. Nevertheless, the career of the grand duke is a good way to approach Russian history at its most turbulent. Nicknamed “Nikolasha,” to distinguish him from Tsar Nicholas II, his first cousin once removed, the grand duke played a leading role in some of the dying empire’s more dramatic episodes, including the abortive 1905 revolution, the First World War and Nicholas’s abdication in 1917, as well as in émigré life.

As in most European monarchies at the time, a military ethos thoroughly dominated the Romanov dynasty. Emperors were invariably portrayed in uniform and much of their education and social life revolved around the army. The last tsar once confessed that he felt most at home while on manoeuvres with his troops in the field. Even more than most Romanov males, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich was a soldier’s soldier. In 1877–78, he saw action as a cavalry subaltern in the Balkans during one of Imperial Russia’s many wars with Turkey. During the following decades of peace, Nikolasha would occupy a number of senior appointments in the army, rising to inspector general of the cavalry. When Russia once again went to war in 1904, this time in East Asia against Japan, Nicholas apparently considered tapping his older cousin to take command. However, the job went to war minister Aleksei Kuropatkin, whose chronic indecision played a role in the army’s Manchurian fiasco.

Although far away from the front, Nikolasha’s role at the time would prove to be no less critical. Defeats in the Far East led to considerable unrest in the capital and by October 1905 a general strike brought life in St. Petersburg to a standstill. The tsar’s instinctive reaction was to appoint the grand duke military dictator, to restore order. According to a well-known account, when he learned of Nicholas’s plans, Nikolasha brandished his service revolver and furiously proclaimed, “If the Sovereign does not accept [a constitution and other liberal reforms] … and wants to nominate me dictator, I will shoot myself in front of his eyes with this very revolver.”

The resulting constitutional interregnum was one of the most intriguing developments in Russia’s political history. For the next decade, Nicholas would share power with an elected legislature, the Duma. The October Manifesto did not automatically transform the empire into a full-fledged constitutional monarchy; ministers were still responsible to the tsar and the Duma’s authority did not extend to defence and foreign policy. However, the need to gain its approval of budgetary increases subjected even these sacrosanct realms to parliamentary scrutiny. According to Marc Szeftel, “contacts between the Government personnel and representatives of the people which hardly existed in the beginning gradually became unavoidable … The traditional chasm between the ruling bureaucracy and the critically minded intelligentsia was thus being bridged over in the process.”

Robinson does point out that the grand duke was hardly a democrat. Meanwhile, among his subordinates in the army he had the reputation of being a harsh disciplinarian. Even younger members of the imperial family referred to Nikolasha as diadia grozny (the fearsome uncle). Yet, despite his firm loyalty to the tsar, he was no blinkered reactionary. As viceroy of the Caucasus during the latter years of the Great War, the grand duke proved remarkably tolerant of the region’s many Muslim minorities. Indeed, his insistence that his cousin yield to calls for democratic reform in 1905 earned him the unyielding enmity of more reactionary elements at court, most prominently Nicholas’s hysterical consort, Alexandra Feodorovna.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his stern manner, the grand duke enjoyed great popularity both in the army and among the public. His imposing physique certainly helped. Six feet six inches tall, reed slender and ramrod straight, Nikolasha radiated martial authority. When Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, the tsar immediately designated him commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Most greeted the appointment with enthusiasm, although he was not a brilliant success. Within a year German troops had advanced deep into Russian territory, in what came to be known as the great retreat.

Robinson explains that, for all of his ferocious discipline, the grand duke proved to be an indecisive commander who gave too much latitude to his generals. Yet the reverses did little to diminish the commander’s popularity. Furthermore, there were many other reasons for the tsarist army’s poor performance, including poor logistics and a severe shortage of munitions. Nevertheless, in mid August 1915, Nicholas sacked his cousin and personally assumed command of the war effort. All of his ministers were aghast and repeatedly urged their master to reconsider. They correctly understood that the move would severely jeopardize the tsar’s standing should the campaign continue to falter. Meanwhile, political leadership in the capital devolved to his deeply unpopular consort and an increasingly inept gaggle of ministers, thereby only further eroding the autocracy’s waning authority. Within less than two years Nicholas was forced to renounce the throne. Even cousin Nikolasha endorsed the decision.

Russia’s performance in the Great War has traditionally been seen as an unmitigated disaster. In recent years, however, some historians have adopted a less critical stance. While the fight against Germany proved hard going, they point out that the tsarist army almost knocked Austria–Hungary out of contention and inflicted major defeats on Turkey. Even the struggle with Germany was not entirely in vain, since it distracted from the campaign on its western front with, according to Prussian general Erich Ludendorff, “fatal results.” Meanwhile, by 1916 the supply shortages that had so hampered tsarist generals were being resolved. Robinson is firmly in the revisionist camp.

Robinson’s focus after the summer of 1915 shifts to the grand duke’s new posting in the Caucasus, where he directed the more successful war against the Ottomans for the next two years. One of the tsar’s last acts before abdicating in March 1917 was to reappoint Nikolasha as supreme commander. Although many in the army still held him in high esteem, the new government could not accept a Romanov at the head of the military, and he retired to his Crimean estate. It was a brief respite, since the Bolshevik coup in November increasingly menaced the lives of those whom Lenin branded as “former persons.” Unlike his cousin, however, the grand duke managed to flee into exile, and he would die of natural causes in a comfortable villa on the Côte d’Azur shortly before Christmas 1929.

Some 20 years ago, the post-Soviet opening of Russia’s archives generated tremendous excitement among historians. Many predicted dramatic changes in our understanding of the secretive state’s past as unfettered access to its records produced legions of “smoking guns,” thereby conclusively resolving the great historiographical controversies that had exercised previous generations of scholars. The results have been more prosaic. Work with primary documents may not have magically brought about consensus among historians of Russia. However, it has encouraged many of them to adopt a somewhat more traditional source-based approach while lessening the invidious appeal of post–modern theorizing. Altogether a positive development.