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Book Review


Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xii + 324. Bibliography and Index. $18.95 (paper).


     "There were at least as many men in St Petersburg who wanted war in 1914 as there were in Berlin—and the men in Petersburg mobilized first" (239) notes Sean Mckeenin in The Russian Origins of the First World War. Russian leaders did so because they had a narrow window of opportunity in which to seize control of Constantinople, the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus from the Ottoman Empire. Turkey's modernization of its Black Sea fleet was closing this window. Russia therefore took advantage of the Sarajevo crisis and acted deliberately and effectively to manipulate her British and French allies into not only supporting this seizure, but even attempting to carry it out on Russia's behalf. If Russian military leaders had performed with the same efficiency as her diplomats, Constantinople could indeed have become "Tsargrad"—and part of the Russian Empire, by 1917.

     This is Sean McMeekin's answer to the classic question: "What caused the First World War?" Strikingly absent are the traditional explanations of alliances, war plans, mobilizations and "blank checks." McMeekin's shift to the Black, Caspian and Eastern Mediterranean Seas should instantly pique the interest of world history teachers seeking to expose students to alternative visions of the Great War. Of particular value is McMeekin's detailed description of wartime Russia's role in shaping the modern Middle East.

     From the outset, McMeekin supplies ample evidence to reconstruct Russia's intention to go to war with the Ottoman Empire and Russian manipulations of the tensions of 1914 to achieve the best possible coalition of allies to achieve her aims. He argues that Russia not only successfully influenced her allies' actions at the start of the war, but continued to do so throughout. So effective were her diplomats that, with Russia having been "spared the worst horrors of 1916" (215) the "war was still going undeniably well in spring 1917" (226). This remained true, McMeekin asserts, despite the chaos of the February revolution and the abdication of the Tsar.

     McMeekin builds his case gradually and effectively, incorporating materials from Russian, French, German and Turkish diplomatic and military archives. Much of this material, particularly the German and French, has been used by other historians. But the juxtaposition of Russian and Turkish sources to this familiar material is McMeekin's signature contribution.

     In his opening chapter, McMeekin effectively uses archival support to build the case that Ottoman naval modernization in the Black Sea inspired Russian leaders urgently seek any opportunity to seize "the Straits." The Sarajevo crisis provided such a chance.

     The second chapter is based largely upon telegrams and letters from the Russian-French "summit" meeting of July 1914. These sources demonstrate both French and Russian belligerence. Convincing evidence from Russian military archives demonstrates Russian gradual and secret mobilization of army and naval forces targeting Constantinople and the Straits. McMeekin concludes that Russia maneuvered to build the best possible coalition for immediate war because war was precisely what Russia desired.

     Chapters three and four describe Russia's single-minded pursuit of her Straits objective. Russian diplomats convinced the British and French to support Russian aims in Galicia and the Straits. Russia then purposefully maneuvered forces in Galicia and the Black Sea to further its goal of acquiring the Straits while France and the British Expeditionary Force bled to halt Germany's Schlieffen Plan. These chapters make McMeekin's argument to reverse a long held view of the opening of war on the Western Front; asserting that August 1914 was best characterized as "France falling on its sword for Russia, and not the other way round" (79).

     Chapter five provides the strongest support for McMeekin's assertion that Russian motives were a driving force behind both the start of and the conduct of World War I. He makes a strong argument that Britain and France conducted operations to seize the Straits out of a fear that the Russians might conclude a separate peace. Archival sources, meanwhile, demonstrate that Russia feared it lacked forces to successfully seize the Straits on its own, and therefore convinced its allies to do so on her behalf. Remarkably, the British Gallipoli operation proceeded without any significant or timely Russian military support. It is here where Russian commanders failed to match the excellence of Russian diplomats.

     Chapters six, seven and eight examine Russia's wartime policies and actions in the "Armenian" provinces of the Ottoman Empire and in Persian Azerbaijan. While, in some ways, these chapters divert the reader's focus from the core argument about the Straits, they nevertheless provide some of the best material for a world history focus on Russia's role in shaping the modern Middle East. Chapters six and eight in particular add new insight into the Armenian tragedy, effectively asserting that Russia manipulated the rising of Armenians against the Turks to prepare the ground for its own future dominance of the region.

     The final chapter describes the continued effectiveness of Russian commanders and armies in the east, even asserting that the "war with Turkey was popular in no small part because it was going so well" (220). In a rare stumble, McMeekin fails to provide source references for his assertion that Russia's economy "was thriving in 1916-1917" (220). But he makes a good case that Russian commanders and troops in the east remained both motivated and capable as they planned amphibious landings to seize the Bosphorus in June 1917. These landings, approved by both the old regime and the Provisional Government, obviously never happened. Instead, the Provisional Government launched the disastrous offensive on the Galician front in the summer of 1917. McMeekin blames this error on the naiveté of Kerensky and asserts that his mistake was not in launching an offensive, but rather in choosing the wrong offensive to mount.

     In summary, McMeekin delivers a valuable service in addressing the "historical amnesia" about Russian motivations and intentions in WWI. His positions, with the one exception noted, are meticulously documented with a variety of interlocking archival sources. As such, this book can be a significant tool for upper level undergraduates, graduate students, and teachers of World History. The primacy of Constantinople and the Straits for Russia certainly does not surprise Russian specialists. But McMeekin's articulation of that primacy in the context of the literature's traditional western focus on the start and conduct of WWI should provide substantial fodder for the many studies sure to originate in the 2014 centennial remembrances of the war's beginning.

David L. Ruffley is an Associate Professor at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle, Colorado. He can be reached at


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