Episode 17:

The Clumsy Giant

        First of all, sorry for the delay getting this episode out to you all. Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a better excuse than, it’s been a few months since I’ve been doing this regularly, and I fumbled a bit in terms of scheduling and meeting self-imposed deadlines. I apologize, and I will do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Anyway, after spending the last few episodes discussing the opening campaigns on the Western Front, today we will begin to shift our focus to take a look at the military and political developments on the Eastern Front. Or, at least…that was my intention going into this week. But as I took my outline for this week’s episode and started writing about the part that read “briefly introduce the Russian leadership and state of the Russian army and government,” I wound up going into way more detail and writing way more about the Czarist government in the early 20th century than I originally intended. And as I got more and more into it, I realized that this was perhaps a blessing in disguise. As we will see time and time again in this series, the Russian Army is going to pretty spectacularly underperform throughout most of the First World War, which will only be exacerbated by an utterly incompetent government and bureaucracy. And, of course, this utterly incompetent and repressive governing style, which will cost Russia literally millions of lives, will ultimately become unbearable and spark waves of revolution rolling back and forth across the Russian Empire. So, I think it will be helpful for us to take some time this week to explore just what was so flawed about the Czarist leadership and, more broadly, government at this time, not only to help us understand what is about to unfold on the Eastern Front in August 1914, but why of all the Great Powers involved in the fighting Russia will wind up being the one that experiences by far the most radical and widespread revolution as a result of the war.

One last thing I’ll mention before we dive into this is that I am calling this next arc, the fourth in our series, “Eastern Promises,” to reflect the nature of how Russia’s military alliance with France against Germany was premised on promised French financial aid in exchange for a promised Russian offensive against Germany should a war ever break out. Also, some of you might recognize the title for this arc, “Eastern Promises,” from a 2007 film of the same name starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. Does this reference have anything to do with the First World War? Well, no, not really, but it’s a cool title and a pretty good movie. Anyway…

So first let us discuss a few of the military leaders who will play a prominent role in the opening campaigns of the Eastern Front. I figure that we should start with the highest levels of military command, and then work our way down to the commanders who will actually lead the troops on the ground. The Russian Minister of War at this time was a one Wladimir Aleksandrovich Sukhomlinov, who had previously served as the Chief of the General Staff and had first been appointed Minister of War back in 1909. While Sukhomlinov was hardly one of Russia’s great military heroes, he did possess some significant military experience, and in terms of the rest of Russia’s ministers of state, his resume was perhaps the best suited to his position, though that wasn’t saying much. He had been decorated for personal bravery and valor back in 1877 during a war with the Ottoman Empire, and established a reputation for himself as a daring and dashing cavalry commander. Though he was not unintelligent, and did have a relatively decent grasp on military matters in general, he was consumed by those two personal vices that have so often led military and political leaders to disaster – an unwavering confidence in his own abilities, and a total lack of interest in taking advice or adapting along with changing times. He believed that all the new advancements in weapons technology and the theoretical tactics to deploy them were all so much fluff, merely a façade around the eternal truths of war and how to best carry it out. “As war was, so it has remained,” he once told a colleague shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914. “Look at me, for instance; I have not read a military manual in twenty-five years.”

In addition to this, ahem, troubling unwillingness to learn and implement new tactical and technological innovations into the military he commanded, Sukhomlinov also had a reputation for being a bit of a free-wheeling, drink guzzling libertine. Now, to be fair, this was probably an exaggeration. Sukhomlinov certainly enjoyed parties, drinking, and, how shall I put this, the pleasures of the table, but it’s not like he was some alcoholic philanderer. In fact, far from being a lecherous adulterer, Sukhomlinov spent almost all of his time when not at lavish parties at home with his young and beautiful wife. Emphasis on young there, the woman whom Sukhomlinov courted in 1906 was but 23 years old when she married her 58-year-old husband. So much time did he spend with his new wife that a French ambassador once observed that, quote, “[he kept] all his strength for conjugal pleasures with a wife 32 years younger than himself.” For those of you doing the math there, yeah, that French ambassador actually slightly underestimated the age difference between the two.

The new Mrs. Sukhomlinova, beyond having won the affection of a powerful and influential member of Russian high society, also had a taste for the finer things in life, making a regular habit of ordering lavish clothing from Paris and throwing enormous parties where champagne and caviar were served by the metaphorical truckload. In order to pay for this extravagant lifestyle, Wladimir Sukhomlinov became an expert at the ancient art of embezzlement. Over the course of a single six year period, Sukhomlinov was able to embezzle something like three times his nominal salary by falsifying official war department expense reports.

So this was Russia’s minister of war: a wine loving libertine who regularly stole money from the government, spent almost all of his time at either lavish parties or attending to his wife, very little time at the war department he was allegedly in charge of, and yet supremely confident in his military genius. Suffice it to say, there were many in Russia’s government who wanted to get him the hell away from the levers of power before his incompetence and abuses of power began to permanently damage the Russian Army. But Sukhomlinov had acquired and maintained his position by his unwavering ability to charm the Czar, who had the authority to elevate whomever he wished to high office without consulting with anyone else. When the war broke out, Sukhomlinov probably imagined himself being showered with gifts and praise as one of Russia’s great military heroes. Instead, his tenure as Minister of War during actual war time will not last even a single year.

The next person we should discuss is particularly interesting, and will have a particularly interesting role to play in the coming weeks and months. Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaievich was an elder cousin of Czar Nicholas II, the latter of whom we will discuss more in a bit, and who was appointed Commander-in-Chief for all Russian forces in the looming war on August 2, just days into the outbreak of the conflict. Grand Duke Nicholas, despite being a born and bred member of the upper echelons of Russia’s aristocracy, represented a wing within Russia’s political leadership – or in any case military leadership – that embraced reform and adopting more quote-unquote “modern” ideas from the west. In many ways, he was the polar opposite of Minister of War Sukhomlinov. Where Sukhomlinov was short and pudgy, Grand Duke Nicholas was tall and lean, six foot six or about nearly 2 meters tall by some accounts. Where Sukhomlinov was simultaneously ebullient and stuck in his ways, Nicholas was brusque and yet open to new ideas. Where Sukhomlinov continued to embrace outdated ideas not only of the bayonet being able to conquer the machine gun but also the absolute autocracy of the Czar, the Grand Duke Nicholas had not only supported but pushed for his cousin, the Czar, to institute a legislative parliament for Russia back in 1905. In short, the two men were very different both in terms of personality and military/political views, and by 1914 had developed a deep rivalry with one another.

Yet although Sukhomlinov largely held the ear of the Czar, Grand Duke Nicholas commanded a great deal of respect as a visionary military leader, and the Czar himself understood the value not only of listening to his cousin’s advice, but also of bringing in this symbol of reform and modernization to represent both the army and the state itself. Further, Grand Duke Nicholas was well known and well-liked by the French high command, and this too probably influenced the Czar when he appointed his cousin as commander-in-chief for all Russian forces launching their invasions of both Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Two last interesting things to note about Grand Duke Nicholas. First, was a document he issued, apparently without forewarning the Czar, which has been dubbed by history “The Manifesto to the Polish Nation.” In it, Grand Duke Nicholas in his role as supreme commander of all Russian Armies in Europe, declared to all the Polish people not only in Russian held territory but also in Germany and Austria-Hungary that, quote, “A hundred and fifty years ago the living body of Poland was torn to pieces, but her soul survived and she lived in hope that for the Polish people would come an hour of regeneration and reconciliation with Russia. The Russian army brings you the solemn news that this reconciliation which effaces the frontiers severing the Polish people, whom it unites conjointly under the sceptre of the Czar of Russia. Under this sceptre Poland will be born again, free in her religion, her language and autonomy.”

This was an incredibly electrifying statement, as the borderlands separating Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary was principally comprised of ethnic Poles. Grand Duke Nicholas was, in effect, trying to recast this war not simply as an attempt to reign in the power of the Central European German Empires which threatened Russia’s own power and position, but as a national war of liberation for the Polish people. Whether or not the Grand Duke really intended this promise to be kept, in many ways this promise would come true by the end of the war. At least, for awhile.

The last interesting thing to note about Grand Duke Nicholas was that he openly and virulently despised a new advisor that had in years past caught the attention of first the Czar and Czarina, then the rest of the imperial court, and ultimately the entire Russian Empire. Back in 1905, an eccentric religious wanderer from Siberia with a reputation for his miraculous healing abilities met with Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra, and soon thereafter became one of the chief medical practitioners and religious advisers for the Imperial family. That man was named Grigori Rasputin. I won’t do any more today than first introduce the name of the mad Siberian monk, but trust me, this will not be the last time we hear about Rasputin by a long shot.

Now we should discuss the two men who will actually lead the forces on the ground during the Russian invasion of Germany. This invasion, comprising about 500,000 men, was split into two armies: First Army under General Paul von Rennenkampf, and Second Army under General Aleksandr Samsonov. The two men had relatively similar military backgrounds: they were both lifelong soldiers who had served in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, the Boxer Rebellion of 1901, and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Another similarity between the two generals was that despite their long records of service, neither had commanded forces of the size they now did in wartime. Both Rennenkampf’s and Samsonov’s highest level of command in battle before the outbreak of the First World War were as divisional commanders, and now they had been elevated to commanding whole armies, each of which was comprised of a dozen divisions or more. Rennekampf was the elder of the two, sixty-years-old to Samsonov’s fifty-four. Now, one difference the two men had was their family backgrounds. As you might have guessed, Rennenkampf was descended from a family of German origin, which as you can imagine was the result of a great deal of suspicion among many in the Russian high command. Nevertheless, they both had risen through the ranks of the cavalry, and both had reputations as skilled and dashing commanders.

Despite their similarities in career and reputation however, the two men shared a deep and fairly public rivalry with one another. Partly this was due to personality differences, but more importantly it was due to a dispute between the two men dating back to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Long story short, the two men had publicly quarreled over command decisions during a particular battle during the war, that according to some sources had actually devolved in the two exchanging physical blows with one another. This is probably an exaggeration, but we will nonetheless see that neither Rennenkampf nor Samsonov had much interest in helping one another out, and this personal rivalry would severely hamper the Russian armies during the coming critical campaigns of 1914.

         Finally, to close today, let’s take a more detailed look at the supreme autocrat of the Russian Empire, Czar Nicholas II. We’ve given good old cousin Nicky a few passing glances, but today let’s flesh him out a bit more, as of all the people we will talk about in this episode, he is going to be the one who sticks around the longest and will consistently play the most important role.

Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov was born in 1868 in the Alexander Palace in St. Petersburg, the eldest child of Prince Alexander Romanov and Princess Maria Feodorovna, who would soon be crowned Czar and Czarina respectively. To rehash a point I made way back in episode 2, technically speaking the titles of “Czar” and “Czarina” were no longer used by the Russian Imperial family, nor had they been for nearly 200 years. The last ruler of Russia to use the title of “Czar” was Peter I, aka Peter the Great, who had died back in 1725. A few years before his death, as a part of his ongoing project to reform Russia into a more quote-unquote “modern” state in the mold of the European kingdoms to the west, Peter had declared that the Czardom of Russia would henceforth be known as the Russian Empire, and its rulers would take on the title of Emperor (or, Empress), which in Russian are more properly pronounced as “imperator” and “imperatritsa” respectively. However, as I also mentioned way back then when I was first describing the historical background of the Russian Empire, nearly every author who writes about the First World War (and any other period of Russian history post-Peter the Great) refers to the rulers of Russia by the old titles of Czar and Czarina, which more than anything helps to keep all the various emperors who took part in the Great War straight in our heads. And, frankly, not only do most primary sources from the era continue to use the title of “Czar” when talking about Russia, but even Nikolai Alexandrovich, the future Nicholas II, often referred to himself as such in short-hand. So, for clarity’s sake, I will also continue to use the more familiar title of Czar.

Anyway, the young Nikolai became upon his birth the heir apparent of the Russian Empire, and it was understood by all that, should he live to adulthood, he would one day be the ruler of Russia. Obviously, there were many things that the young prince would have to learn (most of which, as we will see ad nauseum for the next few years of the war) he failed to learn. But one important lesson that did leave an impact on Nicholas for the rest of his life was the incredibly dangerous place he was in as heir to the throne, a danger which would only increase upon his ascension. We won’t get too much into this right now, but suffice it to say that the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was wracked with social, political, and economic strife that would erupt several times into full blown revolution, ultimately culminating with Lenin and his Bolsheviks. On March 13, 1881 (by the old Julian calendar, and we don’t have to worry about Russia’s different dating system just yet), Czar Alexander II, Nicholas’ grandfather, was mortally wounded when an assassin threw a bomb at his carriage, in a not dissimilar assassination plot as would be seen in Sarajevo in 1914. The bloody, mangled body of the Czar was rushed to the Winter Palace, where he would bleed to death after about twenty minutes. Among the members of the Imperial Court who watched the Czar bleed to death on the carpet of the Winter Palace was young Nicholas, who was but twelve years old.

Of all the things that Nicholas would fail to learn or understand about what it took to be an effective ruler, this early traumatic experience did teach him at least one lesson: to be the Czar was to have a target painted on your back. It was pointless to try to make liberal, enlightened reforms to address the people’s grievances. Indeed, the now late Alexander II had earned the title of “The Czar Liberator” for, among other things, his abolishing serfdom in the Russian Empire and proclaiming all people in Russia to be free. And as a reward for this enlightened benevolence, Alexander II had been torn to shreds by an assassin’s bomb. Thus, paranoia and harsh repression towards any perceived dissidents was a sound survival strategy for the soon to be Czar. Or, at least, that’s what Nicholas took away from that experience.

Upon the death of his grandfather, Nicholas’ father ascended to the Russian throne as Czar Alexander III. This Alexander was in every way a throwback absolutist conservative in the mold of Russia’s greatest autocrats, Peter and Catherine. He believed it was his right and his duty to rule over the Russian people with unquestioning discipline and obedience; indeed, he seemed to view the proper structuring of society through a very militaristic lens: strict obedience to one’s superiors must be enforced with harsh discipline, from the lowliest peasant all the way up to the supreme ruler, the Czar. And Alexander tried to instill these lessons upon his son Nicholas, who would one day ascend to the throne himself. However, not only was this political philosophy of absolute autocracy proving to be extremely ill-fitting in this age of political, social, and economic upheaval Russia was undergoing (to say nothing of it being despotic and cruel), but the soon-to-be crowned Nicholas II was perhaps the worst kind of person to inherit such a governing philosophy, as we shall explore more in a bit.

Yet despite the fact that Alexander III drilled into his eldest son’s head throughout his life the virtues and even necessity of strong, unwavering, absolutist rule that would not abide even the slightest questioning of authority, he did little else to prepare his son for the nuts and bolts, day to day rigors and routines of what it takes to rule. As Nicholas grew up into a young man, it became clear that he did not in any way take after his large, barrel-chested father the Czar, a man who seemed to ooze authority and gravitas from his very being. Nicholas, by contrast, was short, slight, quiet, shy, and good-humored. He seemed to be eager to please everyone without ever making it known how he felt and what he wanted. Yet he also deeply absorbed the lessons from his principle tutor, Constantine Pobedonostev, a sour and curmudgeonly man who was known at the time as “The High Priest of Social Stagnation.” More importantly, Pobedonostev believed just as fervently as Czar Alexander III that autocracy was the only just form of government, and that any popular participation in government or any toleration of disobedience to the will of the Czar was not only ineffective, but evil.

“Among the falsest of political principles is the principle of the sovereignty of the people,” Popedonostev had told his young student Prince Nicholas. “It is terrible to think of our condition if destiny has sent us that fatal gift – an all-Russia parliament. But it will not be.” Nicholas would absorb and maintain these principles as he eventually grew up to be the Czar, yet this governing philosophy seriously clashed with his quiet, reserved, good-natured personality. Worse yet for his father, Czar Alexander III, than Prince Nicholas’ somewhat weak-willed temperament was the fact that Nicholas spent his teens and early twenties living something of a libertine, playboy lifestyle. He seemed to have no real interest in religious contemplation, nor serious study of politics and history, nor at least any kind of military career; he rather seemed to enjoy drinking late into the night with his friends and cavorting with mistresses.

Some good news came along when Nicholas began to court, and ultimately get engaged with, a distant cousin of his with whom he had fallen deeply in love: Princess Alix Viktoria of the Grand Dutchy of Hesse and by Rhine, a small German principality. There’s no need to get too much into this relationship at the moment, nor into a detailed discussion of Princess Alix, as although she will play an absolutely critical role in the upcoming disasters of 1916 and 1917 as the Russian Empire truly begins to circle the drain, the future Czarina will not play a particularly important role in the opening military campaigns on the Eastern Front. So rather than give her an incomplete thumbnail sketch here, I think I will wait until the time is right to do her biography justice. All we really need to know at this point is that young Princess Alix was a part of the extended European Royal Family (as at this point basically all European Royal Families had married into one another at some point), was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and had come to know Prince Nicholas of Russia when the two were teenagers at what were essentially diplomatic summits/family reunions, and the two had quickly grown quite fond of one another. And while, yes, the idea of starting a romantic relationship with one’s cousin does sound a bit gross by our standards, this was actually pretty common for European royalty at the time (as, again, pretty much all the royal families were related to each other), and in any case they were not first cousins but second cousins, sharing a great-grandmother. Which…yeah is still a bit gross but again, this was not considered unusual at the time. The two became engaged in April of 1894, and planned to be wed at the end of that year. This timing would prove to be fortuitous, and indeed would come not a moment too soon.

You see, up until this point the Czar, Alexander III, still regarded his son and heir as immature and ill-prepared for assuming the throne. But rather than giving the young Prince some responsibilities, even just nominal ones, in an effort to grow him up a bit or at any rate gain some practical administrative experience, he instead decided that Nicholas was not yet ready for such responsibilities. Putting Nicholas in charge of some official government ministry would doubtless cause that ministry to be hampered by his inexperience, and besides, it’s not like there was any rush to get Nicholas acquainted with the day to day grind of ruling. Nicholas at this point was still in his early twenties, and Alexander was not even fifty years old and the picture of good health. The Czar would no doubt live to reign for at least another decade or two, which meant there was plenty of time for Nicholas to grow into inheriting his birthright.

However, in mid 1894 the Czar’s health began to rapidly decline from what was later diagnosed as a kidney disease. He decided to travel to a retreat in Greece in the hopes that the fairer weather there might improve his health, but by the time the Imperial entourage got to Crimea they had to stop, as the Czar was to weak to travel any further. Young Prince Nicholas and his Fiancée Alix rushed to the palace where Alexander was staying and upon arriving there, in a grandiose display of his physical and martial vigour, the dying Czar insisted upon rising to greet his future daughter-in-law in full dress military uniform. Alexander III ultimately died in October of 1894. At 26 years old, ready or not, young Prince Nicky became Czar Nicholas II.

         This was all an incredibly troubling and tragic event for the Imperial family. First of all, Nicholas had just lost his father, a man whom he idolized, from a sudden illness when just months before he appeared perfectly healthy and likely to live into his eighties. Not only that, but this until so recently strong and healthy Czar was one of the few things keeping the government stable and secure, as his iron fisted absolutism held together the many, fractious, and in most cases quite incompetent ministries, courtiers, and functionaries that ran the Empire. Now that delicate machine that was only kept in line by a strong willed military man was now in the hands of a shy, quiet, weak-willed and totally inexperienced playboy. And I mean, not only was Nicholas ill-prepared and probably ill-suited for the throne, but he was but 26 years old. I just turned 27 a few months ago, and personally I don’t feel as though I would be well prepared to rule a giant empire with over 100 million subjects. And it’s not like the new Czar was ignorant of what an incredibly difficult situation he and the Empire as a whole now found themselves in. Shortly after Nicholas’ father was pronounced dead, the new Czar pulled aside his brother-in-law, the Grand Duke Alexander, into an adjoining room whereupon he burst into tears. “what am I going to do? what is going to happen to me, to you…to Alix, to mother, to Russia? I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to ministers. Will you help me?”

         The young and inexperienced Nicholas would go on to consistently underperform in his role as Autocrat of Russia throughout his reign, perhaps never quite as spectacularly as during the First World War. He had neither the iron will nor force of personality to rule as a strong military dictator, nor the liberal disposition to allow for dissent and political participation by his people. He was not a deep thinker, nor a man who took advice well, though he was too weak-willed to tell off someone who had offended him to their face. And this weak, immature, and uncreative man would be forced to lead Russia through some of the worst catastrophes it would ever face – rising political opposition from mild liberals all the way to militant communists, a failed war in the Far East against Japan, rising economic inequality, and finally a leading role in the largest war in human history up to that point. And, not to spoil anything, but Nicholas will ultimately be consumed by the last of these disasters. Next week, we will watch as the Army Nicholas had inherited from his father, comprised of millions of peasant conscripts and supplied only by massive loans from France, will take its first step into the maw of the Great War which will ultimately destroy him, his family, and his entire dynasty.




  • Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

  • Meyer, G.J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.

  • Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1962.

  • Nicholas, Grand Duke. Manifesto to the Polish People. https://newspapers.bc.edu/cgi-bin/bostonsh?a=d&d=BOSTONSH19140822-01.2.9#