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John W. Steinberg, All the Tsars Men. Russia’s General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898-1914

Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, 384 pages
Alexandre Sumpf
Bibliographical reference

John W. Steinberg, All the Tsars Men. Russia’s General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898-1914, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, 384 pages

Index terms

Countries :

Tsarist Russia

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Dedication is grateful to Kevin Roberts who edited this book review.

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1Quite extraordinary in European History were the Russian defeats of 1905 and 1918 that brought about three revolutions. The destruction of a mighty empire, a 300-year-old dynasty and a unique autocratic regime, were intertwined with the failure of the Russian Army in all fields of warfare. After a decade of intensive research, John W. Steinberg reveals in a dense and well-researched book, how one of the most powerful armies in the world, one in which the cream of social elite served the Tsar and God, failed to learn the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War and to prepare the nation to a new type of conflict – total war. Historiographers argue that the lack of professionalism among General Staff officers explains their inability to defend the throne against external and internal enemies. Professionalism implies a minima: autonomy from political power, solidarity between officers and internal politics amendable to improvements in knowledge and skill. Steinberg contends that Russian staff officers succeeded in their professional development in more or less the same way as other expert professions (i.e. doctors, lawyers) did. Rather, internal political struggles, Nicholas’ reluctance to listen to experts, his persistent hesitation and general ignorance regarding the war to come that explain the fall of the Russian Army.

2The author justly focuses his work on education, social promotion, strategy and training reforms and political deal making. The book consists of two parts logically divided by the war against Japan. After reflecting on the Russian General Staff corps (chapter 1), Steinberg details the education (chapter 2) and training (chapter 3) of staff officers between 1898 and 1904 following the reforms of D.A. Miliutin. Steinberg then provides a captivating chapter (chapter 4) about “World War Zero” in Manchuria, whose aspects, it should be noted, foreshadow almost every facet of the Great War, including the way people perceived it in the field and on the home front. The author then considers the political machinations surrounding the reform of Imperial Army, made necessary and urgent by its encounter with total warfare (chapter 5). The new Council of Imperial Defense now defined the goals and acted to reform the Nicholas Academy of the General Staff. Steinberg rightly blames the traditional power of the aristocracy and imperial court as much as the new bureaucracy for the setback of “Young Turks” such as N.N. Golovin, though this defeat did not fully impede an unprecedented unification of military doctrine (chapter 6). However this tardy aggiornamento was not sufficient to improve what really mattered in the new warfare: operational conduct (chapter 7).

3Miliutin launched reforms of the army at the outbreak of the 20th century, intending to break the Imperial Guards’ monopoly on higher command positions and to erase class distinctions inside the General Staff. The Army paid a high cost for the success of this new policy, including the subordination of the General Staff to the War Ministry. A.N. Kuropatkin, Miliutin’s successor, attempted to improve the level of military education and skill on the battlefield, but was foiled by General in Chief M.I. Dragomirov who prevented him from fully recasting military programs, or from changing the strategic orientation of the armed forces. Viewed in this light one can understand why Nicholas II, who did not like Kuropatkin and his ideas, chose to appoint him Commander in Chief of the operations in Manchuria in 1904. The reformer bore the blame for the Russian Army’s total defeat at the hands of Japanese troops. Manchuria did not afford Kuropatkin the opportunity to validate his reforms and their impact soon diminished. During the interwar period, intense debates flourished under the supervision of Grand Duke Nikolai (1905-1909) and V.A. Sukhomlinov (1909-1915). Like many professionals at the time, General Staff officers published articles in military journals, newspapers and other publications. While many of these works discussed history, an increasing number addressed the topic of operational strategy. Though these documents are exceedingly valuable, an analysis of responses, published and unpublished, might have highlighted differences of opinion regarding military reforms among differing ranks, classes and generations.

4Steinberg draws heavily on these publications as well as archival sources to shed light on the progress of reform. If the latter sources are less often cited in the book’s argumentation, some nonetheless contain real nuggets. The use of French documentation is well considered: military attachés and counselors had a front seat following the 1892 and 1896 military alliances to observe, judge and report on the situation in the Russian command. If prone to misunderstand some nuances, they were not immersed in the Russian Army’s political games and spoke freely about its shortcomings. After the Manchurian catastrophe, progressive teachers emphasized officers’ training rather than general knowledge, but they could implement their programme only on the side (and sometimes out of the Tsar’s sight) of the anachronistic grand maneuvers that most General Staff officers praised. Without any political support from Nicholas II or a prominent political figure, these timid attempts fell short. In August 1914, the army experienced the same difficulties it had in 1904: a hierarchy not firmly based on military merit, a highly unreliable communication network and a limited link between high command and battlefield officers.

5Most memoirs or pamphlets written after the war by defeated officers in exile insisted on this sort of political “treason” to explain the unthinkable, and one has to acknowledge that Steinberg’s book proves this hypothesis at length. Are there broader conclusions about political power in Russia and the USSR or the emergence of a civil society? The study’s starting point, 1898, is quite interesting: it is not a purely political date, but a real turning point for the Army – as was 1874 with the reform of conscription. However long this book is by today’s standards, one could regret the choice to exclude the 1870s reforms and the Turkish War of 1877-8 or the first months of the Great War. No doubt the author would have benefited from new historiography about professionalisation that started in Russia during the 1880s, from Roger Reese’s Red Commanders about Red Army officers (2005) to Ilya Gerasimov’s Modernism and Public Reform (2008) on the transformation of agricultural experts from 1880 to 1930. Was the relationship between Nicholas II and officers corps typical of the Romanovs or of any power in Russia or the USSR? What were the official and informal connections with expert groups involved in the conduct of war: politicians, industrialists, or the clergy? Did the “Seven Years War" of 1914 to 1921 ultimately advantage the reformers? Raising these questions does not invalidate Steinberg’s general approach and focus. However, despite the highly enlightening prosopography in the appendix, General Staff officers appear in a perhaps too limited scope given the historical stakes.

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Electronic reference

Alexandre Sumpf, « John W. Steinberg, All the Tsars Men. Russia’s General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898-1914 », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 14/15 | 2013, Online since 11 March 2013, connection on 17 January 2018. URL :

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About the author

Alexandre Sumpf

University of Strasburg

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