Tag Archives: Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich

Colluding with Hitler

Russians sure do like to ‘collude’. According to the Washington Post, it’s in the blood. The following appeared in the Post a few days ago in an article by Thomas Weber of Aberdeen University entitled ‘What Russian collusion with Hitler reveals about interference in the 2016 election’:

After Adolf Hitler’s warriors had laid waste to the Soviet Union during World War II, the secret collusion of Russian nationalists with the German leader in the 1920s became an embarrassment. In the 70 years since Hitler’s defeat, Russian nationalists have done everything possible to conceal their onetime belief that he could aid them in undoing the October Revolution of 1917 and making Russia great again.

There are enough parallels here — collusion with Russia, an obsession with national greatness — to tempt people to entertain yet another ill-judged Hitler-Trump comparison.

Yet the real significance of Hitler’s secret Russian collusion does not lie in shedding light on the challenges President Trump poses to American democracy, but on the strategic challenge that Russia poses to the world. For there has been a line of continuity from the collusion of Russian nationalists with Hitler in the early 1920s, to Joseph Stalin’s secret pact with the Nazi leader in 1939, to President Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Ukraine and his interference in the elections in the United States.

In all cases, Russia has ruthlessly pursued its self-interests with few concerns about the costs to human life and geopolitical repercussions. If it’s ostensibly good for Russia, it’s full steam ahead, regardless of the consequences for everyone else.

… Russia’s many apologists in Europe and the U.S. should wake up to the common denominator visible here in Russian conduct past and present: a geopolitical pursuit of Russia’s national interests, marked by a disregard for human life and dignity.

Weber appears to be shocked that Russians would put the Russian national interest first. But that isn’t what’s most wrong about his article. As evidence of Russian ‘collusion’ with Adolf Hitler, Professor Weber produces just two facts – first, in 1923 Hitler met the wife of the exiled Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, Grand Duchess Viktoria Feodorovna, as well as one of Kirill’s aides, Nikolai Snessarev; and second, Kirill provided money to Hitler. Quite what the connection is between the exiled Grand Duke and Joseph Stalin and the Molotov-Ribbentrop plan isn’t explained. Nor is the link between Kirill and ‘Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Ukraine and his interference in the elections in the United States.’ The link seems to consist of no more than: one time, a century ago, some obscure Russian most people have never heard of met a German who at the time wasn’t even very important; ergo Russians as a whole have a habit of ‘colluding’ with foreigners and we ought to be very afraid of them.

It’s shockingly bad logic. It’s also rather ahistorical. For sure, Grand Duke Kirill was quite pro-German. But a lot of inter-war Russian émigrés weren’t. The former White Army leader, General Pyotr Wrangel, for instance, stated that the Germans regarded Russians as fit only for dung for fertilizing the soil. He absolutely ruled out any form of co-ooperation with Germany. It is true that in the 1930s many White Russians hoped to be able to collaborate with Germany in the event that the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. But others also opposed the idea of such collaboration. There was a bitter polemic in the émigré press between ‘defeatists’, who took the first line, and ‘defencists’, who took the second line. Most prominent among the defencists was another White general, Anton Denikin, who wrote that, ‘In the event that a foreign power invades Russia, with the aim of seizing Russian territory, our participation on its side is impermissible.’ Inter-war Russians weren’t all interested in working with Hitler.

In any event, Kirill was an isolated and unpopular figure among Russian émigrés. He in no way represented émigré opinion, and so shouldn’t be used as an example of what Russians of the time thought. Far more popular among émigrés in the 1920s was the former Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich. Unlike Kirill, Nikolai Nikolaevich was very anti-German. British military attaché Alfred Knox recounted how in 1914, the Grand Duke ‘told me how he hated the Germans because one could never trust them. … we must crush Germany once and for all … the German empire must cease to exist and be divided up into a group of states.’

Grand Duke and flags
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich (seated centre): Note the French flag at the back, centre right.

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich provides an example which utterly contradicts Weber’s statement that Russians only ever put their own interests first without regard for those of others. The Grand Duke was a fervent Francophile, who as Supreme Commander didn’t fly a Russian flag at his headquarters but did fly a French one (see picture above). In August 1914, the German Army sent most of its forces against France, leaving only a few to defend East Prussia against Russia. Despite the fact that the Russian Army had not fully mobilized, Nikolai Nikolaevich ordered his troops to invade East Prussia in order to try to persuade the Germans to divert forces away from France. The French military attaché, General Laguiche, telegraphed his Minister of War that, ‘The Supreme Commander of the Russian Army wanted to respond to France’s desires and remain faithful to the undertakings he made to our ambassador.’ The Russian Chief of Staff, General Ianushkevich, issued an order to the commander of the Russian North West Front, General Zhilinskii, to invade East Prussia, telling him: ‘Paying attention to the fact that Germany first declared war against us, and that France, as our ally, considered its duty to immediately support, we must, because of the same allied obligations, support the French.’

The Russian invasion of East Prussia ended in disaster, with the destruction of the Russian Second Army at Tannenburg and the defeat of the Russian First Army in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. But Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich was unrepentant, telling Laguiche: ‘We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies.’

Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich did one thing. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich did another. It makes no sense to draw some broad-sweeping conclusions about the Russian character from either one or the other. It’s true that some Russians collaborated with Hitler and said some nice things about him. But others didn’t, while you can find plenty of people from other countries who spoke positively of Hitler at one time or another (David Lloyd George, for instance, to use an example close to Professor Weber’s home). Russians pursue their national interests. But so do other countries, and Russians can also be willing to sacrifice themselves for their friends.

Here’s the thing. You can create just about any sort of thesis if all you do is take one example and imagine that it personifies some general truth. But it’s not good history.


The popular Romanov

Today is the 100th anniversary of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Given the subsequent triumph of the Bolsheviks it is easy to see the February/March revolution which overthrew the Tsar as founded on the Russian people’s desire for ‘peace, land, and bread’. But this is to confuse one revolution with another. It is not even clear that in February/March 1917 Russians were rejecting the Romanov dynasty. Certainly, this was the demand of the more extreme elements who led the way in the capital Petrograd, but elsewhere in the country the situation was not the same. To understand this, it is worth looking at what happened to another Romanov in this period – Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

The Grand Duke had been Supreme Commander of the Russian Army until August 1915, when he was dismissed and sent packing to the Caucasus to be Viceroy. In one of his very last acts as Tsar, Nicholas II reappointed Nikolai Nikolaevich as Supreme Commander. In Petrograd, the appointment caused outrage among the more radical socialists who dominated the revolutionary mob. Elsewhere, though, the reaction was very different.

NN hermitage 1910s
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

Continue reading The popular Romanov

A dire warning

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of a warning ignored.

In autumn 1916, as the political situation in the Russian Empire worsened, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, General M.V. Alekseev, penned a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, in which he wrote:

Your Imperial Majesty, I consider the minute has come when I am obliged to report the true state of affairs to You. The whole rear of the army … is in a state of ferment. … All this is leading slowly, but steadily, toward an inevitable outburst of stormy emotions among the people.

Next to alert Nicholas of impending danger was his cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich, who sent the Tsar a pair of letters containing inflammatory accusations against the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Word of the letters reached the empress, who declared herself ‘utterly disgusted’ and denounced the Grand Duke as one of her ‘greatest enemies’.

Finally, exactly one hundred years ago today, on 20 November 1916, the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, turned up at the Supreme Headquarters in the town of Mogilev. On arrival, he invited the Head Chaplain of the Russian Army, Georgii Shavelskii, to speak to him. Shavelskii revealed that he too had issued a warning to the Tsar. ‘You did well’, said the Grand Duke, ‘But the problem is … her, only her [the Empress]. Take her away, put her in a monastery, and the Emperor will be a completely different person.’

Nicholas II and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich

After talking with Shavelskii, Nikolai Nikolaevich went to visit the Tsar. Most of their conversation was businesslike, but shortly before leaving and returning to the Caucasus, the Grand Duke broached the subject of possible revolution and urged the Tsar to appoint a government enjoying the support of Russia’s parliament, the Duma. Later he described the scene as follows:

I spoke with Nicky in a very sharp manner. … He just said nothing and shrugged his shoulders. I told him straight: ‘It would be more pleasant if you swore at me, struck me, chased me out of here, rather than say nothing. Don’t you see that you will lose your crown? Come to your senses before it’s too late. Install a responsible ministry.’

According to Shavelskii, the Grand Duke pointed to the room occupied by the Tsar’s son and heir, and told him: ‘If you won’t take pity on yourself, take pity on him.’ But the Tsar refused to heed his advice.

On his way back to the Caucasus, Nikolai Nikolaevich stopped in Kiev, where he met the Tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Mariia Fedorovna. On 22 November 1916, she recorded in her diary: ‘We are on the threshold of revolution. … Let us hope that Nicky’s conversations with four different people will open his eyes. Alekseev, Shavelskii, Nikolai [Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich],and finally Nikolasha [Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich], whom it was evidently hardest and most unpleasant to listen to, have all told him the truth.’

When revolution broke out in Russia two months later, the Tsar could not say that he had not been warned.

Victory anniversary

Today is the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest Russian victories of the First World War – the capture of the Ottoman fortress of Erzerum on 16 February 1916.

The Erzerum complex, consisting of a core of 11 forts and batteries with two more forts on each flank, and with a garrison of 50,000 men and 300-400 guns, was the centrepiece of the Ottoman line in Anatolia, Eastern Turkey. Against it were 80,000 troops of the Caucasus Army of the Russian Empire. Thus, although the Russians had an advantage in numbers, it was not at all the 3-1 majority normally considered necessary for a successful attack, let alone an attack against such a powerful objective.

The Caucasus Army had begun an offensive against the Turkish defences in Anatolia on 10 January 1916. The idea was to inflict a serious defeat on the Turks before reinforcements could arrive from Gallipoli, which had recently been abandoned by the British. Six days after the offensive began, the Turks abandoned their positions and withdrew towards the protection of Erzerum. On 19 January, the Chief of Staff of the Russian First Caucasian Army Corps, Major General V.G. Lastochkin, telegraphed the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, asking for permission to assault Erzerum on the run with the forward elements of his corps before the Turks could organize their defences. The Grand Duke rejected the proposal, considering it too dangerous, and the Russians waited until they had brought up all their forces before preparing their next move.

At the end of January, the Commander of the Caucasus Army, General N.N. Iudenich, decided to risk an all-out assault on the fortress. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich was reluctant to give his approval, but eventually relented and on or around 1 February gave Iudenich permission to proceed. On 11 February 1916, the assault began.

The Russian point of main effort was an attack across the Kargapazar ridge north of the fortress. The Turks had left this mostly undefended due to the mountainous terrain and the harsh winter conditions, which they felt made the ridge impassable. The Russian soldiers were, however, able to cross the ridge in force, and by 14 February had outflanked most of the fortress’ defences. The next day, the Turks began to abandon Erzerum, and on 16 February the Russians entered the city. “The Lord God has given such great help to the super-valiant forces of the Caucasus Army that after an unprecedented five-day storm Erzerum has been taken,’ the Grand Duke telegraphed to the Tsar, adding that his army had taken 14,000 prisoners.

After Erzerum the Caucasus Army continued to advance westwards into Anatolia. The Ottoman Army never fully recovered. Had the revolution of 1917 not intervened, total Russian victory over Turkey would have been assured.

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich reviews Ottoman flags captured at Erzerum
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich reviews Ottoman flags captured at Erzerum
The Grand Duke reviews Russian troops at Erzerum.



New Series: Friday Book

I have finally decided on a replacement for last year’s Friday Object Lesson series. This will be a Friday Book. I hope this will provide a means of looking at various aspects of Russian history, culture, and politics. I have numerous Russian related books scattered around my house and office, but some of the bigger, more obscure, or more interesting ones are on a shelf above the desk in my study. So, what I shall do is go from right to left along the shelf, photographing one book each week, and discussing its contents.

To start, on the far right of the shelf, I have Au service des Tsars: La garde impériale russe de Pierre le Grand à la révolution d’Octobre. This was published to accompany an exhibition of the same name which I visited in Paris in January 2011 while researching my biography of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich. My own photographs of the exhibition didn’t turn out too well, so when I saw this in a bookstore in Antibes (the terrible places I have to go for research!!), I snapped it up.

au service des tsars

Continue reading New Series: Friday Book

God and Joan of Arc

On 5 August 1914, just a few days into the First World War, the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, met the French ambassador to St Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, and promised him that the Russians would come to France’s aid by attacking Germany. According to the Frenchman, the Grand Duke finished their conversation with a flourish, announcing, ‘God and Joan of Arc are with us! We shall win.’

The Franco-Russian alliance dated back to 1892, and by 1914 had become an extremely tight one. The Russians fulfilled their promise and attacked German East Prussia in August 1914, an assault which ended in catastrophic defeats at Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. ‘We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies’, the Grand Duke told the French military attaché, General de la Guiche.

1893 political cartoon depicting the Franco-Russian Alliance
1893 political cartoon depicting the Franco-Russian Alliance

Today, Russia and France are getting back together again. According to RT:

The Russian president has issued orders for Russia’s Moskva cruiser, covering the Russian base in Latakia from the Mediterranean Sea, to work together with a French naval group led by flagship Charles De Gaulle, a 26 fighter-jet aircraft carrier, which is departing for Syria this week. ‘The French naval group, led by the air carrier, will soon reach your area of operations. We need to establish direct contact with it, and treat it as an ally,’ the Russian president said. ‘We need to develop a joint action plan for both sea and air operations.’ The Kremlin said that the parameters for a joint mission had been agreed upon by Putin and French President Francois Hollande, following a personal phone call. ‘The two leaders focused their attention on bilateral and multilateral cooperation in combating terrorism,’ a Kremlin statement said. ‘This includes closer ties and joint operations between the military command and intelligence services of Russia and France in Syria.’

‘Russia is shifting because today Russian cruise missiles hit Raqqa,’ French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening, ‘Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible.’

As these quotations testify, Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria is already reaping diplomatic dividends. It is no longer possible to talk of Russia being ‘isolated’. If Franco-Russian efforts to coordinate their military campaigns bear fruit, then the West will find it increasingly hard to portray Russia as a dangerous threat to Western security. With many economists predicting that the Russian economy will come out of recession in 2016, anti-Kremlin activists who had hoped that a combination of diplomatic isolation and economic collapse would lead to the rapid fall of the ‘Putin regime’ are going to be very disappointed.

Nevertheless, I would caution against making too much of the possible new Franco-Russian Entente. Military cooperation in Syria does not equate to a formal alliance. At best it is a temporary matter of mutual convenience. It breaks the diplomatic ice, but doesn’t do much more than that. Although in the long term it may contribute towards a broader thaw in relations, I consider it unlikely that it will do so in the shorter term. Russia will probably not receive any quid pro quo for cooperating with France in the form of a relaxation of economic sanctions. I expect that European powers will refuse to link Syria with Ukraine.

Perhaps more importantly, gaining the favour of the French is not the same as gaining the favour of the Americans. Franco-Russian military cooperation might lead to some coordination of political objectives in Syria, in terms of seeking a peace settlement which avoids the defeat of the current government, but although the Russians might be able to persuade France of the value of such an objective, I consider it less probable that they will able to persuade the United States. Washington will more probably continue to pursue its policy of supporting anti-Assad forces. In short, while some sort of Franco-Russian entente is possible, a truly ‘grand coalition’ involving not only Russia and France, but also the United States and other Western states, remains a distant dream.

Russia invades Iran and Iraq

This month, the attention of the world is on Russian military operations in Syria. But this is not the first time that Russian forces have intervened in the Middle East. One hundred years ago today (10 November 1915), troops of the Russian Expeditionary Corps under General N. N. Baratov landed at the northern Persian port of Enzeli at the start of a campaign which eventually saw some of them enter Iraq. Generally ignored by histories of the First World War, the Russian invasion was part of a series of events which eventually resulted in Persia possibly losing a greater percentage of its population than any other country during the war (in large part due to famine in 1917-19).

General N. N. Baratov
General N. N. Baratov

Continue reading Russia invades Iran and Iraq

Change of command

Today, 5 September (new style), marks the 100th anniversary of a turning point in Russian history. On this day in 1915 Tsar Nicholas II assumed command of the Russian Army, which until that point had been led by his first cousin once removed, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

The Tsar’s decision to take over from the Grand Duke was in large part a product of the series of defeats suffered by the Russian Army in summer 1915. Driven by a strong sense of duty, Nicholas felt that in a time of crisis he should be at the head of his troops. On 19 August 1915, he wrote to the Grand Duke to tell him: ‘Now that a year has passed and the enemy occupies a large expanse of our land, I have decided to take supreme command of the army. … I thank you from all my heart for your efforts, and all the torments and sufferings which you have experienced during the year of war because of the heavy responsibility lying on your shoulders. If there were any mistakes … then I sincerely forgive them.’

Nicholas II and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich
Nicholas II and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich

It took some time for the change of command to occur. In the meantime, the decision met serious opposition from the Tsar’s ministers, who on 3 September wrote to Nicholas urging him to change his mind. ‘We dare once again to tell You, Sovereign’, they wrote, ‘that the decision you have taken, according to our most thoughtful consideration, threatens Russia, You, and Your dynasty with the direst consequences … Finding ourselves in such circumstances, we are losing our faith in the possibility of serving You and the Motherland with any consciousness of utility.’ The Tsar refused to change his mind, and on 5 September he arrived at the Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) in the town of Mogilev.

The Grand Duke blamed the Tsar’s wife and Rasputin for his dismissal, telling his chaplain: ‘I did not lift a finger for my popularity. It grew against my will and desire, it grew among the troops and the people. This worried, excited and angered the Empress, who greatly feared that my glory, if you can call the people’s love for me that, would eclipse that of her husband. To this one must add the matter of Rasputin. Knowing my hatred of him, Rasputin exerted all his strength to rouse the imperial family against me.’

Nevertheless, the Grand Duke outwardly accepted his fate with good grace, and issued a final order to his troops, telling them:

Today, valiant Army and Fleet, the Sovereign Supreme Leader Emperor has become your chief. Bowing before your heroism for over a year of war, I send you My sincere, heartfelt, fervent thanks. I firmly believe that, knowing the Tsar to whom you have sworn oaths is leading you, you will accomplish new unprecedented deeds, and will help your Anointed achieve victory. General-Adjutant Nikolai.

These hopes of victory were not to be fulfilled. In addition, ensconced in remote Mogilev, the Tsar was cut off from the Empire’s centre of power in Petrograd. Control of the country slipped out of his hands as revolution approached. Unfortunately for Russia, the ministers’ warning proved all too prescient.