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Book Review


John W. Steinberg, All the Tsar's Men: Russia's General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898–1914. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2010. Pp.xvii + 383. $60.00 (hardback)


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     This scholarly monograph addresses one of the most vexing questions in modern Russian history, why did the tsarist army perform so poorly in the early twentieth century despite ongoing efforts at reform and modernization beginning in the 1860s? In answering that question, John W. Steinberg concentrates on the Russian General Staff and its failure to become the autonomous command and control institution within the tsarist army. Through a thorough and detailed analysis of the Russian archival materials and professional military publications Steinberg demonstrates that even as the staff officers engaged in the activities one would expect from a General Staff (mobilization planning, intelligence gathering, etc), they never developed sufficient skills as military commanders in the field.

     By examining the education, training, and performance of Russia's General Staff officers, the author draws a number of conclusions. Most important of all, social and political factors impeded the professionalization and modernization of the Imperial Army. As Steinberg shows in glaring detail, the traditional courtiers around the last tsar, Nicholas II, continued to carry inordinate influence, and consequently the staff officers did not have enough social prestige to assert themselves in the command structure of the field forces. Often their orders were ignored by noble officers from the Guards Regiments who disdained their social inferiors in the General Staff. One odious way that social prestige hurt the training of the army was the expectation that whatever side the Tsar commanded in maneuvers had to win the exercise. The presence of the tsar turned the potentially useful training into empty exercises of pageantry as units had to drop everything to parade before the tsar with proper pomp. Because the cavalry remained a bastion of high nobility, opposition arose to abandoning the traditional role of the cavalry as an offensive branch in favor of transforming it into the branch for gathering field intelligence and reconnaissance. In effect, such mundane activities lacked the prestige of a cavalry charge and were accordingly perceived as beneath the dignity of noble officers. Consequently, the tsarist army was most often blind to the disposition of enemy troops in the field, and the information flow from reconnaissance to issuing orders suffered critical delays, which resulted in extremely poor command and control.

     War Minister Aleksei Nikolaievich Kuropatkin occupies center stage in Steinberg's narrative. While many historians have generally derided Kuropatkin, the portrait of the minister offered here is more positive. Steinberg shows that Kuropatkin understood well the deficiencies of the tsarist army, especially its dysfunctional system of command and control. Kuropatkin also deeply appreciated the military capabilities of the Japanese and did not underestimate them as an opponent, unlike many others in the tsarist military establishment. However, because Kuropatkin had humbler social origins and did not come from the high noble background of the traditional Guard elite, he could not overcome the bias favoring those traditional elements. Kuropatkin's fall from the tsar's favor reflected the broader problem within the Russian military, namely that generals had to worry primarily about navigating the social and political currents while professional duties took a back seat.

     This book is written for specialists in Russian history, especially experts in the late tsarist era. For the intended audience Steinberg's book is a fine piece of work and it makes a significant contribution to the field. Non-specialists will have a more difficult time making use of the high-powered research and its findings. For those seeking a succinct and extremely insightful analysis of the campaigns during the Russo-Japanese War 1904–05, reading Steinberg's chapter on the subject will pay handsome dividends. However, the student or teacher of world history will have not gain as much from reading the entire book. Due to the specialized nature, the book is more appropriate for a graduate seminar in tsarist Russian history than course adoption at the undergraduate level.

Jonathan Grant is Professor of Modern Russian History at Florida State University. He has published two monographs: Rulers, Guns, and Money: the Global Arms Trade in the Age of Imperialism, 1860–1914, (Harvard University Press, 2007), and Big Business in Russia: The Putilov Company in Late Imperial Russia, 1868–1917 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999). He has also co-edited a volume, Girding for Battle: The Arms Trade in a Global Perspective, 1815–1940 (Praeger, 2003).  Additionally, he has published articles in the Journal of World History, The Journal of Military History, Comparative Studies in Society and History, and Central Asian Survey.  He has been a member of the World History Association since 1996. He can be reached at


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