The Liberal Fear of Russia

MEV-10289679 - © - Mary Evans / John Massey Stewart Collection
A British cartoon satirising the role of Russia during the First World War: The steam roller is truly Russian and Crushin’. Tsar Nicholas II drives th…

In 1914 there was unease within British Liberalism about allying itself with Russia in pursuance of its Great War. Sure, the Russian Steamroller was the necessary instrument to occupy the Germans in a two front war while they could be worn down by a Royal Navy Blockade. But Russia was, after all, geopolitical enemy number one and “the land of pogroms, corruption, reaction, aggression and autocracy” which had “trampled over Poland”, a cause so dear to English Radicals.  If the Russian Steamroller managed to crush Germany would that mean that the real autocracy of the Tsar would take the place of the more imaginary autocracy of the Kaiser at the heart of Europe, and at Constantinople?

Under Sir Edward Grey the British Foreign Office had become obsessed with the growing power of Russia, believing that the Tsar needed to be cultivated because he had at his disposal far greater resources than any other Power in Europe. The Permanent Under-Secretary to Grey, Arthur Nicolson, had drawn attention to a dispatch of July 18, 1914, which stated that “by the end of 1916 Russia would possess an active army greater in numbers than the joint forces of the Triple Alliance Powers” and that “the Russian Navy estimates now exceed the British ones.”  (British Documents on the Origins of the War, X., pt. II, pp.787-8.) Sir Edward Grey was of the same belief, in thrall to the gigantic military resources of the Romanoffs.

Of course, if that calculation were correct, the Balance of Power dictated that it should be the Tsar’s state that be cut down to size rather than the Kaiser’s. But there was a belief in Britain that its resources would be insufficient for a victorious war on Russia, with its vast territories than required great armies, rather than small amphibious landings, to subdue the country, and the difficulties of making a naval blockade effective against her. There were also no available allies for such a task – the foundation of successful British wars in the past.

H.G. Wells addressed “The Liberal Fear of Russia” in a famous piece for The Nation on 22nd August to dispel the fears of English Liberals, which might get in the way of the waging of a successful war against the new enemy, with the former enemy as ally. It is worth quoting at length to understand how the unlikely alliance between Liberal England and Tsarist Russia was justified in Britain through a modification of the existing narrative, that had been in place for around 3 generations. The major point that Wells made about Tsarist Russia was that “unlike Prussianism, it is not a great danger to the world at large.”

H.G. Wells wrote:

“It is evident that there is a very considerable dread of the power and intentions of Russia in this country. It is well that the justification of this dread should be discussed now, for it is likely to affect the attitude of British and American Liberalism very profoundly, both towards the continuation of the war and towards the ultimate settlement.

It is, I believe, an exaggerated dread arising out of our extreme ignorance of Russian realities. English people imagine Russia to be more purposeful than she is, more concentrated, more inimical to Western civilisation. They think of Russian policy as if it were a diabolically clever spider in a dark place. They imagine that the tremendous unification of State and national pride and ambition which has made the German Empire at last insupportable, may presently be repeated upon an altogether more gigantic scale, that Pan-Slavism will take the place of Pan-Germanism, as the ruling aggression of the world.

 This is a dread due, I am convinced, to fundamental misconceptions and hasty parallelisms. Russia is not only the vastest country in the world, but the laxest; she is incapable of that tremendous unification. Not for two centuries yet, if ever, will it be necessary for a reasonably united Western Europe to trouble itself, once Prussianism has been disposed of, about the risk of definite aggression from the East. I do not think it will ever have to trouble itself.

Socially and politically, Russia is an entirely unique structure… and it is quite impossible to find in any other age a similar social organisation. In bulk, she is barbaric. Between eighty and ninety per cent, of her population is living at a level very little above the level of those agricultural Aryan races who were scattered over Europe before the beginning of written history. It is an illiterate population. It is superstitious in a primitive way, conservative and religious in a primitive way, it is incapable of protecting itself in the ordinary commerce of modern life; against the business enterprise of better educated races it has no weapon but a peasant’s poor cunning. It is, indeed, a helpless, unawakened mass. Above these peasants come a few millions of fairly well-educated and actively intelligent people. They are all that corresponds in any way to a Western community such as ours. Either they are officials, clerical or lay, in the great government machine that was consolidated chiefly by Peter the Great to control the souls and bodies of the peasant mass, or they are private persons more or less resentfully entangled in that machine. At the head of this structure, with powers of interference strictly determined by his individual capacity, is that tragic figure, the Tsar. That, briefly, is the composition of Russia, and it is unlike any other State on earth. It will follow laws of its own and have a destiny of its own.

Involved with the affairs of Russia are certain less barbaric States. There is Finland, which is by comparison highly civilised, and Poland, which is not nearly so far in advance of Russia. Both these countries are perpetually uneasy under the blundering pressure of foolish attempts to “Russianize” them. In addition, in the South and East are certain provinces thick with Jews, whom Russia can neither contrive to tolerate nor assimilate, who have no comprehensible projects for the help or reorganisation of the country, and who deafen all the rest of Europe with their bitter, unhelpful tale of grievances, so that it is difficult to realise how local and partial are their wrongs. There is a certain “Russian idea,” containing within itself all the factors of failure, inspiring the general policy of this vast amorphous State. It found its completest expression in the works of the now defunct Pobedonostsev, and it pervades the bureaucracy. It is obscurantist, denying the common people education; it is orthodox, forbidding free thought and preferring conformity to ability; it is bureaucratic and autocratic; it is Pan-Slavic, Russianizing, and aggressive. It is this “Russian idea” that Western Liberalism dreads, and, as I want to point out, dreads unreasonably. I do not want to plead that it is not a bad thing; it is a bad thing. I want to point out that, unlike Prussianism, it is not a great danger to the world at large.

So long as this Russian idea, this Russian Toryism, dominates Russian affairs, Russia can never be really formidable either to India, to China, or to the Liberal nations of Western Europe. And whenever she abandons this Toryism and becomes modern and formidable, she will cease to be aggressive. That is my case. While Russia has the will to oppress the world she will never have the power; when she has the power she will cease to have the will. Let me state my reasons for this belief as compactly as possible…

Now, first let me point out what the Boer War showed, and what this tremendous conflict in Belgium is already enforcing, that the day of the unintelligent common soldier is past; that men who are animated and individualised can, under modern conditions, fight better than men who are unintelligent and obedient. Soldiering is becoming more specialised. It is calling for the intelligent handling of weapons so elaborate and destructive that great masses of men in the field are an encumbrance rather than a power. Battles must spread out, and leading give place to individual initiative. Consequently Russia can only become powerful enough to overcome any highly civilised European country by raising its own average of education and initiative, and this it can do only by abandoning its obscurantist methods, by liberalising upon the Western European model. That is to say, it will have to teach its population to read, to multiply its schools, and increase its universities; and that will make an entirely different Russia from this one we fear. It involves a relaxation of the grip of orthodoxy, an alteration of the intellectual outlook of officialdom, an abandonment of quasi-religious autocracy—in short, the complete abandonment of the “Russian idea” as we know it. And it means also a great development of local self-consciousness. Russia seems homogeneous now, because in the mass it is so ignorant as to be unaware of its differences; but an educated Russia means a Russia in which Ruthenian and Great Russian, Lett and Tartar will be mutually critical and aware of one another. The existing Russian idea will need to give place to an entirely more democratic, tolerant, and cosmopolitan idea of Russia as a whole, if Russia is to merge from its barbarism and remain united… No one who has seen the Russians, who has had opportunities of comparing Berlin with St. Petersburg or Moscow, or who knows anything of Russian art or Russian literature, will imagine this naturally wise, humourous, and impatient people reduplicating the self-conscious, drill-dulled, soulless culture of Germany, or the political vulgarities of Potsdam. This is a terrible world, I admit, but Prussianism is the sort of thing that does not happen twice.

Russia is substantially barbaric. Who can deny it? State-stuff rather than a State. But people in Western Europe are constantly writing of Russia and the Russians as though the qualities natural to barbarism were qualities inherent in the Russian blood. Russia massacres, sometimes even with official connivance. But Russia in all its history has no massacres so abominable as we gentle English were guilty of in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Russia, too, “Russianizes,” sometimes clumsily, sometimes rather successfully… We “Anglicised” Ireland. These forcible efforts to create uniformity are natural to a phase of social and political development, from which no people on earth have yet fully emerged. And if we set ourselves now to create a reunited Poland under the Russian crown, if we bring all the great influence of the Western Powers to bear upon the side of the liberalising forces in Finland, if we do not try to thwart and stifle Russia by closing her legitimate outlet into the Mediterranean, we shall do infinitely more for human happiness than if we distrust her, check her, and force her back upon the barbarism from which, with a sort of blind pathetic wisdom, she seeks to emerge.

It is unfortunate for Russia that she has come into conspicuous conflict with the Jews. She has certainly treated them no worse than she has treated her own people, and she has treated them less atrociously than they were treated in England during the Middle Ages. The Jews by their particularism invite the resentment of all uncultivated humanity. Civilisation and not revolt emancipates them. And while Russian reverses will throw back her civilisation and intensify the sufferings of all her subject Jews, Russian success in this alliance will inevitably spell Westernisation, progress, and amelioration for them. But unhappily this does not seem to be patent to many Jewish minds. They have been embittered by their wrongs, and, in the English and still more in the American Press, a heavy weight of grievance against Russia finds voice, and distorts the issue of this… it is a huge misfortune that this racial resentment, which, great as it is, is still a little thing beside the world issues involved, should break the united front of western civilisation, and that the confidence of Russia should be threatened, as it is threatened now by doubt and disparagement in the Press. We are not so sure of victory that we can estrange an ally. We have to make up our minds to see all Poland reunited under the Russian Crown, and if the Turks choose to play a foolish part, it is not for us to quarrel now about the fate of Constantinople. The Allies are not to be tempted into a quarrel about Constantinople. The balance of power in the Balkans, that is to say, incessant intrigue between Austria and Russia, has arrested the civilisation of South-eastern Europe for a century. Let it topple. An unchallenged Russia will be a wholesome check, and no great danger for the new greater Serbia and the new greater Rumania and the enlarged and restored Bulgaria this war renders possible…

I see no danger to civilisation in Russia anywhere—at least, no danger so considerable as the Kaiser-Krupp power we fight to finish. This war, even if it brings us the utmost success, will still leave Russia face to face with a united and chastened Germany.” (The Nation, 22.8.1914. Included in H.G. Wells, The War to End War, pp.63-72.)

Russia had a population of 180 million in 1914. 9 million were drafted in the first year of the War.  At the start of the Great War the Tsarist Army invaded East Prussia with 30 Divisions and attempted to trap the German Eight Army near Konigsberg. However, the 2 Russian armies were separated between lakes and forests and they badly bungled the operation, leading to a great defeat by the Germans at Tannenberg.  The Tsarist State did not develop the scientific military method, possibly because it would have aided any military coup that was launched against the regime. Russian regiments fought well, but autonomously in an un-coordinated way in two separate armies, misdirected by Generals Samsonov and Rennenkampf, who acted more as rivals than as commanders on the same side. There was great spirit shown but it was completely negated at the level of command. (Bernard Pares, A History of Russia, p. 514. This is the subject of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s great novel August 1914.)

If the Russians continued to be sent to war under such conditions – badly fed, badly armed and badly led – a breakdown in society would ensue and a thousand year od nation would combust.

It would have made greater sense for Russia to have established defensive positions on the German front where territory was more suitable for this form of warfare. But the Tsar knew nothing except attack and had delusions of capturing Berlin within weeks. All the victories over Austria – whose army was not dissimilar in character to Russia’s, only smaller – could not compensate for the hammerings the Russian Army took from the Germans. But Russia had no good reason to fight Germany.

H.G. Wells described Russia as an “obscurantist”, “barbaric” and “aggressive” state. He was prepared to let it expand, taking Constantinople if it must, along with the creation of Greater Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria, which he hoped it would check. Such ideals were hardly the traditional causes of English Liberalism, or even those of the Jingoes in the Tory Party. Professor Thomas Callander, in his excellent book, The Athenian Empire and the British, remarked that if the British Parliament had known, when Sir Edward Grey made his famous speech on 3rd August, that the Foreign Secretary was about to “sign treaties with the Tsar guaranteeing him Constantinople, the Straits and other Turkish possessions , there would have been no stampede to battle, no jubilation in the ranks of ‘the Jingo Party’”  let alone the Liberals. (Thomas Callander, The Athenian Empire and the British, pp.52-3. Professor Callander also interestingly notes that no event of such importance had been ignored by politicians and the press as the Constantinople Agreement of 1915 had been: “Suppression of vital truths is one of the greatest triumphs of mass propaganda and on the list of triumphs few can rank above this – the blackout of the betrayal of Stamboul and the Straits to the Great White Tsar.” p.53.)

Wells’ basic message to English Liberals was that a triumphant Russia was not to be feared. It did not possess the internal character to be a force in the World, that its size might have determined it should be, and if it liberalized itself in its development it would deprive itself of the very character that made it a threat in the first place, in the minds of English Liberals.

But this begs another question that was not posed: Why did Wells think that the Russian Army would perform in the field against such a superior enemy as Germany and would it be an effective ally in a Great War to destroy the Germans? He obviously didn’t. Russia was merely a useful instrument to create the second front that was necessary for Britain to win such a War against that country which had been identified as the primary threat to British World dominance at that moment in time. Wells seems to have presumed that Russia would probably do enough for Britain’s needs, but damage itself badly in the process. That would be all well and good for the future. Russia would be no threat to the British Empire in the aftermath of the War.

That seems to have been the calculation that British Liberals made when they cast aside their doubts about being an ally of autocratic Russia and abandoned their opposition to War in the days following Edward Grey’s famous speech.

It was as much a fatal calculation for English Liberalism as it proved to be for Tsarist Russia (Rather fittingly H.G. Wells’ article is included in the appropriately named collection, The War to End War. Perhaps the greatest illusion/miscalculation of all made in 1914.)

Tsarist Russia did not survive the Great War it decided to join. Britain, in cajoling it into war and pressurizing the Tsar into continuing fighting it, as the Russian State creaked and began to fall apart, conjured into existence something that was even less palatable to English Liberalism than the thing that had previously confronted it – Bolshevik totalitarianism rather than Tsarist autocracy.

But by then the great English Liberal Party had been itself broken by the Great War it had collaborated in toward its destruction.


  1. It is not correct to say; that “Russia has not committed massacres during its history”. Just remember what they did to Circassians killing 1.5 million men and selling Circasioan women at the hareems of Ottoman Pachas as sex slaves. This was done by Russians.


    • H.G. Wells is making the point that Russia, from an English point of view, was “barbaric” and certainly committed massacres. In fact, the Circassian massacres were well known in England and there was great sympathy for the Circassians during the mid-19 Century. What Wells is saying is that England did much worse in Ireland (and other parts of the world) than Russia ever did to anyone. That is certainly true when Wells was writing.


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