The Surrealism of War

I was beginning work on my final post regarding Sean McMeekin’s book The Russian Origins of the First World War, when in my further research, I came across the notes of Maurice Paléologue, the French ambassador to Russia during the war.  The specific section is regarding an inter-Allied conference, held in Petrograd amongst the Allies: Britain, France, Italy and Russia.

What is of primary interest to me at this moment is the date of the conference: it began on January 29, 1917.  If I must put this date in context, the Russian February Revolution was only weeks away.

Reading these notes, I am struck by the dialogue – and I will focus here on the portions of the dialogue pertaining specifically to the internal situation in Petrograd:

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[After having just arrived, Gaston Doumergue] asked me about the internal situation in Russia. I painted it without sparing the darker colours, and drew the inference that it was necessary to hasten military events.

“On the Russian front,” I said, “time is not working for us now. The public does not care about the war. All the government departments and the machinery of administration are getting hopelessly and progressively out of gear. The best minds are convinced that Russia is walking straight into the abyss. We must make haste.”

“I didn’t think the mischief had got so far.”

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Imperial Household Minister, Count Vladimir Frederiks, was responsible for the administration of the Imperial family’s personal affairs and living arrangements.  He offered:

“The conference must agree together that after the war the Allies shall come to each other’s aid in case of internal disorders. We are all interested in fighting revolution!”

To which Paléologue wrote in his notes:

He is back in the days of the Holy Alliance; only a century behind the times O sancta et senilis simplicitas!

At a small private lunch:

The conversation, which was quite unrestricted and very animated, was mainly on the subject of internal politics.

At one moment, Doumergue thought that my guests were a little too impulsive, a shade too eager to take the field against tsarism, and was advocating patience.

At the very mention of the word “patience,” Miliukov and Maklakov burst out:

“We’ve had quite enough patience! … Our patience is utterly exhausted! Besides, if we don’t act soon, the masses won’t listen to us any longer.”

Maklakov went on to remind us of Mirabeau’s remark: “Beware of asking for time! Disaster never gives it!”

The advice to the Russians from the French was for patience, not resignation.  And: “…whatever you do, put the war first!”

Not for much longer….

Paléologue describes a visit by “Prince O,” who has just come from Kostrovna. This region is described as one “where dynastic loyalty is most intense.”  He takes the opportunity to ask about the political situation in this most loyal region:

“Things are going badly! They’re tired of the war they don’t understand anything about it now except that victory is impossible. And yet they haven’t clamoured for peace so far.”

This was the best that could be said, from the region that would have been most supportive of the Tsar.

This next one is dated February 10:

I am told that during his visit to Petrograd, Bratiano has sounded the Emperor as to his ultimate consent to the marriage of the Grand Duchess Olga to Prince Carol, the presumptive heir. The idea of this union has been mooted several times before. The Emperor’s answer was quite encouraging: “I shall have no objection to the marriage if my daughter and Prince Carol find they suit each other.”

Grand Duchess Olga was the eldest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II.  In mid-March (scarcely one month later), Nicholas abdicated the throne; in July 1918, the entire family was executed.


When Doumergue and General de Castelnau came to bid me good-bye, I gave them a message to take:

“Please tell the President of the Republic and the President of the Council that you have left me very anxious. A revolutionary crisis is at hand in Russia; it nearly broke out five weeks ago and is only postponed. Every day the Russian nation is getting more indifferent towards the war and the spirit of anarchy is spreading among all classes and even in the army.

“My conclusion is that time is no longer working for us, at any rate in Russia, and that we must henceforth take the defection of our ally into our calculations and draw all the inferences involved.”

In reply:

“I am just as pessimistic as yourself,” replied Doumergue; “I shall certainly tell the President of the Republic and M. Briand all you say, and will confirm it myself.”

This note is dated February 21.  The revolution came on March 12 (February 27 per the Julian calendar still used in Russia at the time).  Three weeks.

Wartime Surrealism

Sprinkled throughout his notes during this time, Paléologue describes his efforts to secure a firm, written agreement regarding support of France’s claims against Germany after the war.


For anyone interested in the French perspective of events in Petrograd from July 1914 through May 1917, this diary is invaluable.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.