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Monday, January 12, 2015

“In War’s Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War”, by W. Bruce Lincoln

557 pages, Dial Press, ISBN-13: 978-0385274098

W. Bruce Lincoln (a scholar of early 20th century Russian history who passed away in 2000) wrote In War’s Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War to cover the period of Russian history from 1891 to 1914. As usual with Lincoln’s books, it is literate, well-written, insightful and sometimes entertaining – just about everything that a good historian should aspire to provide. When taken as a trilogy with his later books Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914-1918 and Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, In War’s Dark Shadow provides the tapestry for following Russia’s descent into chaos, revolution and civil war. Even readers familiar with a background in Russian history should find plenty of useful information in these pages and the author excels at connecting the dots on seemingly disparate topics.

The book begins with a close examination of the year 1891 and the impact of three seminal events on subsequent history: the forging of the Franco-Russian alliance; the development of the Trans-Siberian railroad; and the export of Russian grain to earn foreign currency, which leads to a massive famine. These are events that typically receive little mention in standard Western-based historiography but which Lincoln effectively demonstrates were bellweather events. The famine caused an estimated 400,000 deaths in Russia and Lincoln uses this to begin his second chapter, which examines peasant life in great detail. It is a very bleak picture indeed, with 80 percent of Russia’s population living in abject, semi-starved poverty. Lincoln points out that Russian agriculture was not transformed by technology as it was in the West, which left the peasantry little better off than they were as serfs. He then discusses the rise of the entrepreneurial class, which has striking similarities with what transpired after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Other chapters covers the development of the urban worker population in the late 1890s and the rise of right-wing, pro-regime organizations. Altogether, Professor Lincoln provides a very colorful and insightful look at how Russian demographics and economic changes shaped the coming revolution. Throughout the book, there is a sense of foreboding that events were bad and that most individuals involved knew that they were likely to get a lot worse.

The second half of the book covers the Russo-Japanese War, the Revolution of 1905, and Russia’s brief economic revival 1907-1914. On straight military subjects, such as the siege of Port Arthur or the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin, Prof. Lincoln is not always correct about certain facts, but his overall depiction of events is spot-on. As usual, Nicholas II does not come out looking very favorably and there is none of Robert K Massie’s tragic romanticism surrounding this character; Lincoln shows the Tsar not only as incompetent but also knowingly callous about loss of life and the welfare of his people. The book’s discussion of Okhrana (The Department for Protecting the Public Security and Order) efforts to manipulate the workers and stave off revolution makes for very interesting reading. The final chapter deals with the immediate crises leading up to war in 1914 and the Tsar’s reaction to the crisis in Sarajevo. As Prof. Lincoln points out, Russia was trying to avoid war in 1914, but gave Serbia too much leeway. This book provides essential insight to English-language readers on why Russia was heading toward Revolution even before Gavrilo Princip fired his fateful shots in Sarajevo.

I have never read a book about Russia before the Great War that dealt in such depth with the squalor and filth that the peasants and the workers lived in as In War’s Dark Shadow has. W. Bruce Lincoln’s vivid descriptions of the lives, working and living conditions of these people are truly admirable in that they have opened a door to a world basically hitherto unseen, and it is a very disturbing and shocking world, indeed. I highly recommend this book to those readers interested in deepening their understanding as to how the Russian Revolution occurred, what its causes were, and the conditions present in Russian society itself at the time, not just the political points of tension that we are so familiar with.

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