Russia boomed in the last years before Armageddon, to the dismay of its German and Austrian enemies. After 1917, its new Bolshevik rulers forged a myth of Tsarist industrial failure. In reality, the Russian economy had become the fourth largest in the world, growing at almost 10 per cent annually. The country’s 1913 national income was almost as large as that of Britain, 171 per cent of France’s, 83.5 per cent of Germany’s, albeit distributed among a much larger population – the Tsar ruled two hundred million people to the Kaiser’s sixty-five million.Russia had the largest agricultural production in Europe, growing as much grain as Britain, France and Germany combined. After several good harvests, the state’s revenues were soaring. In 1910, European Russia had only one-tenth the railway density of Britain or Germany, but thereafter this increased rapidly, funded by French loans. Russian production of iron, steel, coal and cotton goods matched that of France, though still lagging far behind Germany’s and Britain’s.
Most Russians were conspicuously better off than they had been at the end of the previous century: per-capita incomes rose 56 per cent between 1898 and 1913. With an expansion of schools, literacy doubled in the same period, to something near 40 per cent, while infant mortality and the overall death rate fell steeply. There was a growing business class, though this had little influence on government, still dominated by the landowning aristocracy. Russian high life exercised a fascination for Western Europeans. That genteel British magazine The Lady portrayed Nicholas II’s empire in romantic and even gushing terms: ‘this vast country with its great cities and arid steppes and extremes of riches and poverty, captures the imagination. Not a few Englishmen and Englishwomen have succumbed to its fascinations and made it their home, and English people, generally speaking, are liked and welcomed by Russians. One learns that the girls of the richer classes are brought up very carefully. They are kept under strict control in the nursery and the schoolroom, live a simple, healthy life, are well taught several languages including English and French … with the result that they are well-educated, interesting, graceful, and have a pleasing, reposeful manner.’
It was certainly true that Europe’s other royal and noble fraternities mingled on easy terms with their Russian counterparts, who were as much at home in Paris, Biarritz and London as in St Petersburg. But the Tsarist regime, and the supremely hedonistic aristocracy behind it, faced acute domestic tensions. Whatever the Hapsburg Empire’s difficulties in managing its ethnic minorities, the Romanov Empire’s were worse: enforced Russification, especially of language, was bitterly resisted in Finland, Poland, the Baltic states and Muslim regions of the Caucasus. Moreover Russia faced massive turmoil created by disaffected industrial workers. In 1910 the country suffered just 222 stoppages, all attributed by the police to economic rather than political factors. By 1913 this tally had swelled to 2,404 strikes, 1,034 of them branded as political; in the following year there were 3,534, of which 2,565 were deemed political. Baron Nikolai Wrangel observed presciently: ‘We are on the verge of events, the like of which the world has not seen since the time of the barbarian invasions. Soon everything that constitutes our lives will strike the world as useless. A period of barbarism is about to begin and it will last for decades.’
Nicholas II was a sensitive man, more rational than the Kaiser if no more intelligent. Having seen the 1905 Russo-Japanese war – which Wilhelm incited him to fight – provoke a revolution at home, the Tsar understood that a general European conflict would be disastrous for most, if not all, of the participants. But he cherished a naïve faith in the common interests of the emperors’ trade union, supposing that he and Wilhelm enjoyed a personal understanding, and were alike committed to peace. He was contradictorily influenced, however, by Russia’s recent humiliations – in 1905 by Japan’s forces, in 1908 by Austrian diplomacy when the Hapsburgs summarily annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. The latter especially rankled. In January 1914 the Tsar sternly declared to former French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé: ‘We shall not let ourselves be trampled upon.’
A conscientious ruler, Nicholas saw all foreign dispatches and telegrams; many military intelligence reports bear his personal mark. But his imagination was limited: he existed in an almost divine seclusion from his people, served by ministers of varying degrees of incompetence, committed to sustaining authoritarian rule. An assured paternalist, on rural visits he was deluded about the monarchy’s popularity by glimpses of cheering peasantry, with whom he never seriously engaged. He believed that revolutionary and even reformist sentiment was confined to Jews, students, landless peasants and some industrial workers. The Kaiser would not have dared to act as arbitrarily as did the tsar in scorning the will of the people: when the Duma voted against funding four battleships for the Baltic Fleet, Nicholas shrugged and ordered that they should be built anyway. Even the views of the 215-member State Council, dominated by the nobility and landowners, carried limited weight.
If no European government displayed much cohesion in 1914, Nicholas II’s administration was conspicuously ramshackle. Lord Lansdowne observed caustically of the ruler’s weak character: ‘the only way to deal with the Tsar is to be the last to leave his room’. Nicholas’s most important political counsellor was Sergei Sazonov, the foreign minister. Fifty-three years old and a member of the minor nobility, he had travelled widely in Europe, serving in Russia’s London embassy, where he developed a morbid suspiciousness about British designs. He had now led the foreign ministry for four years. His department – known for its location as the Choristers’ Bridge, just as its French counterpart was the Quai d’Orsay – spoke scarcely at all to the Ministry of War or to its chief, Vladimir Sukhomlinov; meanwhile the latter knew almost nothing about international affairs.
Russian statesmen were divided between easterners and westerners. Some favoured a new emphasis on Russian Asia and exploitation of its mineral resources. The diplomat Baron Rosen urged the Tsar that his empire had no interests in Europe save its borders, and certainly none worth a war. But Rosen was mocked by other royal advisers as ‘not a proper Russian’. Nicholas’s personal respect and even sympathy for Germany caused him to direct most of his emotional hostility towards Austria-Hungary. Though not committed to pan-Slavism, he was determined to assert the legitimacy of Russian influence in the Balkans. It remains a focus of keen dispute how far such an assumption was morally or politically justifiable.
Russia’s intelligentsia as a matter of course detested and despised the imperial regime. Captain Langlois, a French expert on the Tsarist Empire, wrote in 1913 that ‘Russian youth, unfortunately supported or even incited by its teachers, adopted anti-military and even anti-patriotic sentiments which we can scarcely imagine.’ When war came, the cynicism of the educated class was evidenced by its many sons who evaded military service. Russian literature produced no Kipling to sing the praises of empire. Lack of self-belief, coupled to nationalistic aggressiveness, has always been a prominent contradiction in the Russian character. Nicholas’s thoughtful subjects were conscious of their country’s repeated failures in wars – against the British, French, Turks, Japanese. The last represented the first occasion in modern history when a European nation was defeated by an Asiatic one, which worsened the humiliation. In 1876 the foreign minister Prince Gorchakov told a colleague gloomily: ‘we are a great, powerless country’.