St Petersburg was a powerful player at the European chessboard prior to 1914. The Imperial Russian Army had entered Paris to bring down Napoleon Bonaparte a hundred years earlier and the tsars of Russia helped to enforce a reactionary political settlement across the continent. The Crimean War of 1853–6 put Russia’s might into partial eclipse, and the industrial drive in Russia and Ukraine towards the end of the 19th century still left the empire lagging behind the other advanced economies of the day. Even so, the Russian Empire under Nicholas II, who succeeded to the throne in 1894 and was crowned emperor in 1896, enjoyed the natural and human resources capable of restoring its fortunes, if only it could sustain an unbroken period of peace with its neighbours and avoid any further revolutionary strife, such as had occurred in 1905–6.
This was the vision of Pyotr Stolypin, the dynamic premier who blended conservative nationalism and agrarian reform, until his assassination in 1911. He ruthlessly suppressed rural rebellion – the hangman’s noose was known as Stolypin’s cravat. At the same time he financed the modernisation of the armed forces and promoted an impressive recovery from economic disarray.
Why, then, did Nicholas take the huge gamble of mobilising his army in the summer of 1914, with little regard for the impact this would have