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All Posts, Seaforth

Guest Post: Dr Stephen Ellis

Russia re-discovers its naval history.

Over the last decade most Western European nations and most of the English-speaking world have been commemorating the centenary of the First World War, from its beginning in the Balkans through the many theatres of war to its end in the forest near Compiegne. In virtually all of these commemorations there has been little or no recognition of the contribution of one of the great allies of the western nations, the Russian Empire. This is not new – almost from the moment of the armistice Russia’s massive effort in the four preceding years of the war appear to have been written off, a debt sunk by the Treaty at Brest Litovsk and regarded at Versailles as void. Millions of its soldiers killed and its treasure and lands devastated counted for nothing.

Ironically, much the same fate befell perceptions of the war effort within Russia itself, as the terrible losses and suffering of the war years were overwhelmed by the equally terrible suffering of the civil wars, the starvation and displacement of the years of collectivisation and the purges of the 1930s and then the horrors of the Second World War. All over western Europe, and indeed the rest of the world, one finds memorials to those who served and perished in the First World War– in Russia there are almost none.

Characterised in the Marxist ideology of the Soviet state as a war arising out of capitalist imperialism, the First World War was largely dismissed as contributing nothing to the development of a better society and offering nothing in terms of lessons for future conduct of international relations. In this sort of collective amnesia, by which the triumphs of revolutionary zeal were seen as more worthy of historical attention, a great deal of awareness was lost about what Russia had actually done in the war. This most affected the role of the Russian Army, most of whose senior officers ended up in exile abroad, where their efforts were focussed more on continuing their struggle against the Soviet regime than on reflecting on the lessons of the war.

This was less true of the Russian Navy, partly because a significant proportion of the officer cadre remained in Russia and continued to serve under the Bolshevik regime. Also, the navy was called upon to continue national defensive operations quite unlike those demanded of the army, which was focussed on the civil war.

In the immediate aftermath of the end of the war, the Navy found itself confronted by intense Allied pressure in the Baltic which it could not really deal with effectively. One part of its response was to establish an historical commission which reviewed the operations of the Russian Navy in the recent war. In part this can be seen as a device to provide safe employment for naval officers in a time when their loyalties were dangerously under suspicion. There is plenty of evidence that the works produced by the commission were carefully edited to conform to the expectations of socialist historiography – the criticisms of senior officers and strategies always overrode any reflections on the morale of the common sailor. Nevertheless, the continuity is remarkable: for example, the official Naval Journal (Morskoi sbornik), which had been founded in 1848, continued to provide a forum for considered well researched studies of naval issues and does so right up to the present time.

Several of the naval officers who ended up in exile wrote memoirs recounting their war experiences. For most the emphasis again fell on the fatal events around the revolution and later the civil war rather than the naval war itself. These memoirs remained virtually unknown inside the Soviet Union, where the control of information was intended to ensure that the official narrative, both of the war and of the revolution, remained unchallenged. The dissolution of the Union in the 1990s has seen a flood of re-publications of memoirs from the Russian diaspora and an enormous re-invigoration of interest in the history of that period, including in naval history.

Many of the earliest of these re-publications lacked any pretence at bibliographical guidance for their readers, appearing without contextual notes and often even without indications of the original date and place of publication outside Russia. Later issue have improved and there have now been dozens of higher degree theses submitted in tertiary institutions across the former union on topics in Russian naval history in the period of the First World War and the revolution. Most of this research has been financially supported through standard academic channels, as it would be in the West. In addition, there has been a ground-swell of interest from those we would call “enthusiasts” in the Russian community.

Among the western publications re-issued in Russia in 1998 were the memoirs of Rear Admiral S N Timirev, originally published in Russian in New York in 1961. As Professor Norman E Saul has observed, Timirev’s personal account of the war in the Baltic and the revolution in the fleet is distinguishable from the recollections of other senior Russian naval officers by being a coherent narrative written within a few years of the events it describes. In contrast, the recollections of other admirals were fragmentary articles published in various émigré journals through the 1920s and 1930s. The more substantial memoirs of admirals Bubnov and Dudorov were composed decades after the war. For several decades after its publication in New York Timirev’s account provided a primary insight for historians into the events and personalities of this time of war and revolution. Now many of the contemporary naval history studies within Russia rely as heavily on Timirev’s assessment of Russian naval leaders as did western scholars previously.

This new translation into English of Timirev’s account makes this important source available to English readers for the first time.

You can order a copy here.

Naval • Seaforth • ww1