History: The Durnovo Memorandum

I just discovered this amazing document recently. (h/t to Mr. David Tenner — thanks, David.)

Durnovo was Russian, and he was the Minister of the Interior for a while under Nicholas II. (His successor was the much more famous Stolypin.) He was a conservative who disliked democracy and was none too fond of capitalism either; his lodestars were Russia’s national interest and the monarchical principle. In early 1914, he was out of office, but still influential… and he was alarmed at the visible drift towards war all around him. So he wrote a 5,000 word memorandum, intended for the Czar’s inner circle, detailing just why this was a Really Bad Idea for Russia. (The text of the memorandum can be found on Google Books here, or as a .pdf over here.)

What’s striking about the memo is how, six months before World War One started, Durnovo absolutely nails it. Nature, conduct, likely outcomes — he’s eerily, astonishingly correct about all of them.

Check it out:

Under what conditions will this clash occur and what will be its probable consequences? The fundamental groupings in a future war are self-evident: Russia, France, and England, on the one side, with Germany, Austria, and Turkey, on the other. It is more than likely that other powers, too, will participate in that war, depending upon circumstances as they may exist at the war’s outbreak. But, whether the immediate cause for the war is furnished by another clash of conflicting interests in the Balkans, or by a colonial incident, such as that of Algeciras, the fundamental alignment will remain unchanged.

Italy, if she has any conception of her real interests, will not join the German side. For political as well as economic reasons, she undoubtedly hopes to expand her present territory. Such an expansion may be achieved only at the expense of Austria, on one hand, and Turkey, on the other. It is, therefore, natural for Italy not to join that party which would safeguard the territorial integrity of the countries at whose expense she hopes to realize her aspirations…

[Romania] will remain neutral until the scales of fortune favor one or another side. Then, animated by normal political self-interest, she will attach herself to the victors, to be rewarded at the expense of either Russia or Austria. Of the other Balkan States, Serbia and Montenegro will unquestionably join the side opposing Austria, while Bulgaria and Albania (if by that time they have not yet formed at least the embryo of a State) will take their stand against the Serbian side. Greece will in all probability remain
neutral or make common cause with the side opposing Turkey, but that only after the issue has been more or less determined…

From the sum of these unfavorable factors we should deduct the Far East. Both America and Japan–the former fundamentally, and the latter by virtue of her present political orientation–are hostile to Germany, and there is no reason to expect them to act on the German side. Furthermore, the war, regardless of its issue, will weaken Russia and divert her attention to the West, a fact which, of course, serves both Japanese and American interests. Thus, our rear will be sufficiently secure in the Far East, and the most that can happen there will be the extortion from us of some concessions of an economic nature in return for benevolent neutrality. Indeed, it is possible that America or Japan may join the anti-German side…

Right off the bat, Durnovo correctly sketched out both alliances. This may seem obvious in retrospect, but in February 1914 it was astonishing; Italy was still officially allied with Germany and Austria, Ottoman Turkey was firmly neutral, and Romania was ruled by a Hohenzollern. The Foreign Ministries of the various great powers would spend years flailing about trying to discover what Durnovo had seen years away.

And he was just getting started:

Are we prepared for so stubborn a war as the future war of the European nations will undoubtedly become? This question we must answer, without evasion, in the negative… The fault lies, in a considerable measure, in our young legislative institutions, which have taken a dilettante interest in our defenses, but are far from grasping the seriousness of the political situation… [T]here are substantial shortcomings in the organization of our defenses.

In this regard we must note, first of all, the insufficiency of our war supplies… the supply schedules are still far from being executed, owing to the low productivity of our factories. This insufficiency of munitions is the more significant since, in the embryonic condition of our industries, we shall, during the war, have no opportunity to make up the revealed shortage by our own efforts, and the closing of the Baltic as well as the Black Sea will prevent the importation from abroad of the defense materials which we lack.
Another circumstance unfavorable to our defense is its far too great dependence, generally speaking, upon foreign industry, a fact which, in connection with the above noted interruption of more or less convenient communications with abroad, will create a series of obstacles difficult to overcome. The quantity of our heavy artillery, the importance of which was demonstrated in the Japanese War, is far too inadequate, and there are few machine guns. The organization of our fortress defenses has scarcely been started…

The network of strategic railways is inadequate. The railways possess a rolling stock sufficient, perhaps, for normal traffic, but not commensurate with the colossal demands which will be made upon them in the event of a European war. Lastly, it should not be forgotten that the impending war will be fought among the most civilized and technically most advanced nations. Every previous war has invariably been followed by something new in the realm of military technique, but the technical backwardness of our industries does not create favorable conditions for our adoption of the new inventions.


[A] war will necessitate expenditures which are beyond Russia’s limited financial means. We shall have to obtain credit from allied and neutral countries, but this will not be granted gratuitously. As to what will happen if the war should end disastrously for us, I do not wish to discuss now. The financial and economic consequences of defeat can be neither calculated nor fore-seen, and will undoubtedly spell the total ruin of our entire national economy.

Bang, bang, bang: too few heavy guns, not enough munitions production, inadequate rail network and rolling stock, too much reliance on imports, financial weakness. Durnovo doesn’t identify every problem Russia would have, but he’s hit about half of the top ten.

And what of the war’s outcome?

[A] general European war is mortally dangerous both for Russia and Germany, no matter who wins… [T]here must inevitably break out in the defeated country a social revolution which, by the very nature of things, will spread to the country of the victor… An especially favorable soil for social upheavals is found in Russia, where the masses undoubtedly profess, unconsciously, the principles of Socialism.


If the war ends in victory, the putting down of the Socialist movement will not offer any insurmountable obstacles… But in the event of defeat, the possibility of which in a struggle with a foe like Germany cannot be overlooked, social revolution in its most extreme form is inevitable… Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen.

And Germany?

No matter how strange it may appear at first sight, considering the extraordinary poise of the German character, Germany, likewise, is destined to suffer, in case of defeat, no lesser social upheavals. The effect of a disastrous war upon the population will be too severe not to bring to the surface destructive tendencies, now deeply hidden.

Durnovo glosses over a lot, and gets some details wrong. His contempt for intellectuals and the Duma is very clear in the last part of the memo, and it leads him down a couple of dead ends. But he’s so right about so many things that picking out his errors is really quibbling. In the last hundred years of European history, I’m not aware of any document that makes so many predictions, of such importance, so correctly. And I’m astonished that it doesn’t get more attention from western historians.

Question for our Russian readers: are Durnovo and his Memorandum taught in Russian schools? Or has he been more or less forgotten in Russia, too?

19 thoughts on “History: The Durnovo Memorandum

  1. No, I do not remember him being mentioned in the school history course, though it was a while ago (I graduated in 2002).

  2. This is truly a remarkable document. It almost defies belief that six months prior to hostilities a man could envisage the outcome with such clarity. Many thanks for bringing the item to our attention.

  3. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Russia: The Durnovo Memorandum

  4. While the outlines of the conflict are nicely foreseen and the relative value of the policy of drawing closer to England is critiqued compellingly, the central premise of the argument seems fundamentally wrong.

    While my history may well be faulty as a result of poor public schooling and an excessive youthful enjoyment of Barbara Tuchman, I do not see how one can portray the actual outbreak of war as the logical manifestation of the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. In August of 1914, England was not urging France and Russia to war as part of a Wellington-style strategy to strike at the threat posed by Germany. Indeed, until Edward Grey gave his speech to Parliament condemning specifically the violation of Belgian neutrality, the French government was convinced that they would be betrayed by the British and left unprotected along their northern coast in the face of the German invasion. While Grey and Haldane (and Churchill) clearly supported France in a defensive war for the traditional strategic reasons of preventing domination of the continent by any one power, Britain gave no blank check to France. I am unaware of any evidence that Britain pushed Russia to mobilize against Germany and Austria in support of Serbia or that anyone in the government even considered the possibility of a general war as a result of the July Crisis until it was practically upon them.

    At the same time, Wilhelm II in Berlin planned the war with almost criminal disregard for the role Britain could or would play. Naval plans against Britain were incoherent and underdeveloped (Tirpitz raged over this at the time) and the Schlieffen Plan was entirely focused on the two continental enemies. Again, on August 1st, Wilhelm willfully misinterpreted Grey’s position to believe that Britain would not only remain neutral, but guarantee the neutrality of France as well, resulting in his gloating command to Moltke to “turn the entire army to the east” because his brilliant diplomacy and family ties had immobilized both Britain and France. When this plan fell apart, the Kaiser blamed the British and invented a variety of paranoid justifications. His claim that “The dead Edward is stronger than the living I” represents in no reasonable way an accurate description of how Britain actually entered the war.

    At the same time, Durnovo ignores the German decision to let the Reinsurance Treaty lapse and their growing support for Austrian ambitions in the Balkans. While it would be simplistic to argue that Russia was helplessly pushed by Wilhelm’s incompetence and belligerence into the arms of France and from there stumbled into uneasy association with Britain, it is difficult to argue as Durnovo does that Russia consciously sought out a British alliance that ignored its true interests or that Britain actively cultivated Russia as part of a grand plan to encircle Germany as Wilhelm came to believe.

    Durnovo has a trenchant critique of Russian policy toward Britain, but the underlying argument matches more the pattern that later historians searching for a pattern in history have understood the “underlying causes” of the war have imposed on the facts than the actual course of history.

  5. >are Durnovo and his Memorandum taught in Russian schools?


    >Or has he been more or less forgotten in Russia, too?

    Yes. A quick lookup over Yandex mostly produces references from obscure web-forums.

  6. Memory, two things.

    One, I agree that Durnovo gets the underlying causes wrong. What’s interesting, though, is /how/ he gets them wrong. Notice how it all becomes Britain’s fault. Russia’s ally France is blameless; Germany is obnoxious, but rationally so, following her own national interest.

    What’s completely missing is a sense of /Russian/ foreign policy failure beyond criticizing the entente with Britain. The Duma gets dinged for lack of seriousness, but the executive is almost completely absent. Reading this, you’d have the idea that the Czar made one big mistake — a pro-British foreign policy — but otherwise, everything was fine. There’s no acknowledgement of the general hoof-handed stupidity of Russian policy during this time. WWI couldn’t have happned without Nicholas II’s idiotic decision to support Serbia, but you’d never imagine this from Durnovo.

    Perhaps this was because of his position — as a former Minister, he had to be circumspect, and he may not have wanted to criticize the Czar even implicitly. On the other hand, he doesn’t exactly pull his punches in the rest of the memo. The other possibility is that he sincerely believed in virtuous, put-upon, long-suffering Russia. That’s hard to believe of a man otherwise so sharp, but OTOH it is a common thread in Russian nationalism, then as now.

    Second, if he does get the “why” of WWI wrong, it’s that much more interesting that he’s so right otherwise

    Doug M.

  7. On the other hand, can we name a national champion who was happy to think of their homeland as ‘Just another country, really, perhaps a bit less moral than most’? At the time, London, Paris Rome and Berlin were full of people whose attitude to their states was composed of various proportions of ‘Last best hope of mankind/the White Race’ and ‘Hard done by and oppressed’.

    I’m not a complete expert in this topic, but it’s my impression that over the last 80 years (from Albertini onwards) the July Crisis spotlight has been successively shone on Berlin, Paris, Vienna and London, but St Petersburg has recieved far less historiographical attention, at least in English-language publications.

  8. Wasn’t it Leo Szilard, as a Hungarian schoolboy aged sixteen, who called the outcome of the war at its outbreak?
    Going from memory, “I said that it was perfectly obvious how the war should end. It should end with the defeat of the German Empire, and also with the defeat of Russia. I admitted that I couldn’t see quite how this would happen, since they were on opposite sides… In retrospect I am amazed that, as a schoolboy with no knowledge of any countries other than Hungary, I was so confident in making this prediction.”
    (from Richard Rhodes, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”)

  9. The weakness of the Russian military had become quite obvious after the defeat in the war with Japan. Also the existence of social upheavals after a defeat wasn’t new, since it followed France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. After reading the whole document I guess Durnovo was a sharp man with good knowledge of the weaknesses and political interests of the major players in continental politics, except for France and the UK. He seems do disregard that France was eager to regain power of Alsace and Lorraine lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian war. He also seems to think of the UK as the source of all evils in a similar fashion to what we see regarding the USA in the present.
    The UK didn’t desire the end of the Kaiser’s Germany or the Tzar’s Russia, although it was interested in weakening them. (The royal families of the UK, Germany and Russia where close relatives) .
    The assessment that war was inevitable seems, even today, largelly incorrect. If we follow the events after Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo we see that really no one wanted to go to war. (Niall Ferguson’s “War of the World” offers a good description of the start of the war).

  10. The other thing to note is that he almost completely ignores Austria, and Germany’s attachment to Austria. Realistically, a German-Russian rapprochment was only possible if Germany ditched Austria. (I suppose inspired diplomacy on all sides could have kept the Three Emperors’ League going, but if one thing is evident about the WW I run-up it is that none of Austria, Russia, or Germany had diplomats inspired by anything but the spirit of arrogant incompetence).

  11. Guilherme – I think you’re onto something – there’s seems to me to be a long-running strange vein of Anglophobia that Russians seem to prone to. Not very unusual in of itself, I’ll be honest, but the Russian form seems to view England as a determined cunning foe with a single-minded goal of humbling its eternal enemy, Russia… The lack of reciprocation from the English of this view never seems to bother them…

  12. Nobody wanted to go to war (with the possible exceptions of Conrad and Moltke) but everyone wanted peace plus an outcome which was incompatible with everyone else’s. The lines in the sand overlapped.

    This is why I find Ferguson’s attempts to reason away the long-term causes of the war, and to assign the short-term causes into the category of errors, rather frustrating.

    There were some loud voices in the UK which did indeed see Russia as the root of all evil, especially on the left and within the Liberal Party. Check out ‘Urquartism’, for example.

  13. I would, but the one hit on Google is, um, yours…

    The other thing I find interesting about pre-WWI though is that experienced military minds expected a very short war, not out of optimism, but because they confidently expected to run out of munitions and men so quickly.

    (Interestingly, this is pretty much the same logic as to why any Warsaw Pact/NATO confrontation was supposed to go nuclear so quickly – I do wonder how that would have panned out in practice.)

  14. See also Jan/Ivan Bloch, Polish/Jewish/Russian railway tycoon who correctly predicted in a mammoth book the course of the war, the tactics, the unprecendented scale of total mobilisation, and the final collapse into revolution. Winston Churchill’s “Military Aspects of the Continental Problem” accurately predicted how the 1914 campaign would pan out.

    It’s eerily similar to how so many people (Calculated Risk, Setser, Krugman, Roubini, Ed Hugh…) correctly predicted the current financial crisis in some level of detail.

    As far as unexpectedly long Warsaw Pact/NATO scenarios, General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War has the 3rd Shock Army being held up unexpectedly long, both sides running low on supplies, and the NATO navies tipping the balance by successfully bringing in the REFORGER convoys. Pity about Birmingham though…

  15. I actually found a copy of that ‘un on a second-hand book stall a few weeks back (pedantically, the P/B edition of the sequel that retconned out a Shah-led Persia and a Soviet-aligned Egypt), which inspired my comment. Even in it, WW3 could only last for a few weeks before JH had to have the USSR collapse for no clearly defined reason. (Slightly spooky that he happened to choose a city in Byelorussia to get nuked…) The book itself holds up surprisingly well, actually – in some places, the bias of the regional expert consulted (particularly the insane gibberish w.r.t sub-Continental Africa) comes through, but in others, it still seems like a plausible route we were lucky to avoid.

    Of course, Chris, it’s not so much procurement propaganda, as pro-TA propaganda…

    (That said, it did make me wonder about the possibilities of a thriller/crime novel set in the present day, but in the aftermath of Hackett’s scenario.)

  16. Resurrecting an old thread, but I felt compelled to reply to one point in the comments here. (I only recently found the memorandum which, being a Russian, actually came as a great surprise to me – nowhere was it mentioned in any history courses).

    Anyway, my comment is about the so-called anglophobia among the Russians and the so-called lack of reciprocation among the British.

    While the British nation, either individually or as an entity does not view Russia/Russians as enemies, the course of history and Britain’s vital interests (colonial and economical) have dictated that she pursue a policy hostile to Russia – the Great Game, Crimean War, Anglo-Japanese alliance as late as 1905, they are all valid proof to that point). Arguing from a world point of view, such policy is even criminal – the world has never been meant to be controlled, neither politically nor economically, by a single nation. Third Reich by subtle means. Granted, other nations besides Britain have at least in part aspired to complete world domination. Nevertheless, Britain’s aspirations to cause war among its neighbours and warm her hands on the heat of the bonfire have plunged its friends and enemies alike into war on many an occasion. A strong cause for Russia’s entry into the triple Entente (regardless of the actual events in Sarajevo, the European conflict has been ripening for years) have been British and French monetary credits and loans, for which Russia could offer little guarantee other than its military strength in case of conflict. That Nicholas II should not have listened to Durnovo’s advice and instead courted the Germans seems in retrospect complete folly, but that incompetent monarch has let his nation down so much in so many other respects that this is only to be expected.

    Naturally the British would see it otherwise, and that is understandable, one’s patriotic feelings cloud one’s vision of the other side of the coin (the same is true of myself as well). In any case, it is obvious that Russians have always had good reason to view British worldwide influence with extreme suspicion and dislike. We do not dislike you as a nation, we dislike and suspect your government. And, unfortunately, your government’s priorities and policies haven’t changed for the past 200 years and more. The same is true for Russian anti-Americanism as well.

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