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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.