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Historical Notes: Russia was better off under the Tsars

THERE WAS always one argument that Soviet Communism could use. It was that Old Russia had been very backward, full of drunken peasants, and that Stalin, with his Five Year plans to create modern industry, had changed all that. Soviet planning might therefore be extended, with profit, to other backward parts of the world. A central part of this argument - very fashionable in the Sixties and Seventies - was that Tsarist Russia had been defeated by the Germans, whereas Stalin won the next round, and would not have done so without the industrial wherewithal created, with so much sacrifice, in the Thirties.

Like most others of my Sixties generation, I had swallowed this business of Soviet modernisation. As a colleague says, if you are a young historian of Russia, trying to put together a coherent lecture, you do become a bit of a power-worshipper, because the Russian power-people, from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin, appear at least to get something done in that messy country.

If you look into the facts of the First World War you will find that the Russians did not lose the First World War because they were materially too weak. In 1914, Russia was already the fourth economic power in the world, and of course that could be translated into guns, shell, aircraft, barbed wire etc. The Tsarist government took time about things, for various very Russian reasons - exaggerating the capacity of foreigners to deliver, mistrust between various bits of government and army, the wrong people in charge. However, by the autumn of 1915, the war industry was starting to move adequately enough, and in summer 1916, the Russians nearly won.

Some of this story had been hidden, partly because the Communists did not want to give the Tsarist state any credit, and partly because the generals, in their memoirs, blamed their woes on material shortages instead of their own inefficiency, which was prodigious. When I looked into things, it became plain that the army had lost battles because it was very badly led.

In the Second World War, it also started off very badly led, but this time the shock to the system of a German invasion caused even Stalin's bloodthirsty old brutes to develop a degree of competence. And the real difference, looking back on it, was that the Germans in the Second World War were a great deal less efficient than they had been in the First. In 1914-18, they had some idea where to stop, and some idea of their own limits.

It is true that there were German commanders, Ludendorff the best-known, who had a rush of blood to the head at the idea of a German empire in Russia. But others knew that it was just not possible, and they stayed short of a full-scale invasion, merely wearing Russia down. In March 1918, they did not annex Russian land directly, preferring to rule through satellite states - those Lithuanias and Ukraines and Georgias which, once more today, have re-appeared.

The "sort of pre-Petrine Muscovy" that the German Foreign Office then imagined has now also re-emerged. It has been desperately ravaged by Communism, and one measure of this is that the adult male age upon death, now 68 in Turkey, is in Russia now 54. It embarrasses me to see that Western historians who would once happily prattle on about "Soviet modernisation" are still prattling away, this time about "transition from socialism". Any Russian knows that Communism was not planning for a brighter future at all: the place was better off under the poor old Tsars.

Norman Stone is the author of `The Eastern Front 1914-1917' (Penguin, pounds 8.99)