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British diplomatic perspectives on the situation in Russia in 1917 : an analysis of the British Foreign Office correspondence Stocksdale, Sally A.


During the third year of the Great War 1914-1918 Russia experienced the upheaval of revolution, precipitating the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and installation of the Provisional Government in March, and culminating in the Bolshevik takeover of November, 1917. Due to the political, military, and economic chaos which accompanied the revolution Russia was unable to continue the struggle on the eastern front. Russia was not fighting the war against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary alone, however, and her threat to capitulate was of the gravest concern to her Allies, Great Britain and France. In fact the disintegration of Russia's war effort was the pivotal issue around which Anglo-Russian relations revolved in 1917. Britain's war policy was dominated by the belief that the eastern front had to be maintained to achieve victory. It appeared that any interruption to the eastern front would allow Germany to reinforce her lines on the western front, then to win and control the economic destiny of Europe. Britain could not allow this to happen. This study focuses on the reportage from British diplomats and representatives in and outside of Russia to their superiors at the Foreign Office in London from December 1916 to December 1917. A vast wealth of documentation is available in the Foreign Office Correspondence. Analysis of these notes reveals certain trends which were dictated by the kaleidoscopic turn of events in Russia and the national ethos of these representatives. A minute analysis demonstrates a great diversity of opinion regarding the situation in Russia, ranging from optimism to pessimism and objectivity to prejudice in all phases of the year 1917. To a limited degree this diversity can be correlated with the geographical location and diplomatic status of the individual representatives. Above all it is clear that when historians quote from these sources, they choose the quotations which support the conclusions they have already reached because they know the outcome of the developments that they are describing. The individuals on the spot at the time were far less prescient and insightful. They were much more affected by their own historical prejudices and rumours, as well as the vagaries and short-term shifts of their immediate environment. Many of them believed in the great-man theory of history; a number attributed all developments and difficulties to some aspect of the Russian national character; some explained certain events during the year by conspiracies, especially of the Jews, with whom they tended to equate the Bolsheviks. Only a few were consistently solid and realistic in their appraisal of events, attributing them to factors favoured by our most respected historians.

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