Early in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the cynical Lord Henry Wotton visits his uncle, a world-weary retired diplomat, to learn more of the novel’s beguiling title character. Among the uncle’s complaints about the decaying fin-de-siècle universe he inhabits is the new meritocratic procedure of hiring British diplomats. “But I hear they let them in now by examination,” he mourns in disgust, adding “if a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him.”

The First World War somberly ended this transitional world—which Wilde chronicled with such devastating wit—and spelled doom for continental Europe’s traditional elites, who had resisted the professionalization of diplomacy. Ever since, historians have wrestled with the question of who was responsible and why. Blame has often fallen on the last generation of Old Regime diplomats, whom most standard interpretations dismiss as aristocratic amateurs dangerously entrusted with the management of complex “modern” problems they could neither solve nor even understand. Benefitting from undisguised patronage, outrageous nepotism, and inexcusable hereditary privilege, they held positions far above their levels of talent and intelligence and made a mess of the whole world.

Blame has often fallen on the last generation of Old Regime diplomats.

Dominic Lieven, or, if he will pardon the indiscretion, His Serene Highness Prince Dominic Lieven, has greeted the conflict’s centennial with a contradictory explanation. In short, it turns out that the old-world diplomats—temperate men of polish, balance, style, and rectitude—were just fine. It was the rising class of chattering “policy professionals”—arrogant men of careerism, ambition, vulgarity, and impetuousness—who loused things up and plunged Europe and the world into the bloodiest conflict known until that time. In a horribly ironic twist, the war cemented the professionals’ collective permanence in leadership at the expense of the “amateurs” they either supplanted or reduced to quaint anachronisms. Nowhere was this worse than in Russia, Lieven’s area of expertise, whose tsarist-era officials often paid with their lives for their political marginalization.

Even without our present age’s dour egalitarianism, Lieven’s argument is an uphill one. Until the archives of the Imperial Russian Foreign Ministry opened in the 1990s, the best sources on Russia’s involvement in the First World War were limited to three heavily biased sets of data. First, Trotsky, in his new role as People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs, selectively published the most damning of his predecessors’ diplomatic documents to embarrass them and discredit the values they represented. Unsurprisingly, the pre-revolutionary diplomats come off as stark-raving-mad imperialists whose excesses had only naturally led to a disaster that communist revolution would rectify. Next came the blame game of memoirs by tsarist officials lucky enough to survive the revolutionary chaos. Neither the memoirists nor their dead colleagues—and especially not their murdered tsar—emerged unscathed. Finally appeared the recollections of Allied diplomats who interacted with these officials, refracted through the prism of bitter disappointment over Russia’s lackluster military performance and early departure from the war. These calamities had seriously imperiled their own countries’ military efforts, burdened their eventual victory with a heavy expense that might otherwise have been avoided, and presented them with the unwelcome challenge of the world’s first communist dictatorship.

Lieven provides a remarkable vindication of the role of individual personalities in making history.

The archives, however, tell a different and more objective story. Beginning with the solid premise that “Russia was neither as unique nor as exotic as either its admirers or its detractors claimed,” Lieven seeks to explain the origins of the First World War from Russia’s perspective but within an international context. He correctly reminds us that the challenges faced by the Russian Empire—aggressive nationalism, the emergence of an activist civil society, and the unanticipated toll of modern warfare—were shared by all combatants and that Russia’s three immediate neighbors and principal enemies (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) also succumbed to them. To an extent, the book is an update of Lieven’s 1983 study, Russia and the Origins of the First World War, which did not benefit from Russian archival materials but nevertheless anticipated his general arguments here. Unlike the earlier study, however, his new analysis reveals a much more intricate picture at the heart of Russia’s policymaking establishment and offers an original explanation of how the tsarist government really worked. Above all, he provides a remarkable vindication of the role of individual personalities, for better or worse, in making history.

There can be no question that Russia’s pre-revolutionary diplomatic establishment would have appealed to the sensibilities of Lord Henry’s uncle. As Lieven’s valuable personal vignettes attest, its ranks brimmed with spoiled sons, favored nephews, convenient cousins, and reliable brothers-in-law. Much of it was not even particularly Russian. Count Alexander Benckendorff, the Russian Empire’s longtime ambassador to the United Kingdom, was a Baltic German Roman Catholic who spoke Russian poorly and rejected higher positions because he enjoyed the English gentleman’s way of life more than anything Russia had to offer. In 1914 he awkwardly counted the German and Austrian ambassadors in London among his cousins just as his country was sliding into war with theirs.

Nevertheless, these were men who knew who they were, where they came from, and what they and their countries stood to lose from ill-considered conflict. To virtually anyone at the highest level of Russian politics in 1914, war with Germany—a fellow authoritarian monarchy with a much larger economy and in many ways both a natural and historical ally—was “suicidal madness.” As a result, an odd paradox at play among the Russian elite was that the more reactionary an official, the less inclined he was to endorse war. Probably the best expression of this entrenched caution was the high-ranking statesman Peter Durnovo’s distillation of numerous internal discussions in a brief but extraordinarily prescient memorandum circulated in February 1914. One of the era’s most revealing documents, it repeated three essential points about Russia’s likely fate in a general European war: that it would probably lose, that victory would only bring more restive ethnic minorities under already unpopular Russian rule, and that the strains of conflict would cause a massive revolution that would destroy Russia’s state and society. Durnovo was no liberal—in the decades before 1914 he had built a career as a nasty secret police chief and Interior Minister devoted to upholding the tsarist order (his early career in high officialdom was nearly undone when it was discovered that he used police spies to steal his mistress’s letters to a rival). But he was absolutely right about what a general European war would do to the Russia he served.

The more reactionary an official, the less inclined he was to endorse war.

As Russia’s leaders edged toward their reluctant decision to go to war in the wake of the July Crisis, Old Regime reactionaries filed report after report denouncing the idea. Those who eventually accepted war as unavoidable did so against their better judgment. And even that had consequences Lord Henry’s uncle would have cheered. When one minister veered toward favoring war in the days leading up to mobilization, he and the adamantly pacifist yet arch-reactionary Interior Minister Nikolai Maklakov nearly fought a duel over it. To add irony to insult, the staunchly anti-war Maklakov was one of the first tsarist ministers to meet his end at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Just why did Russia’s leaders end up in a war almost none of them wanted? In the absence of firm documentary evidence, the standard explanations long painted them as victims of the very forces of modernity that their backgrounds supposedly prevented them from mastering. Interlocking alliances, dizzying arms races, and fierce imperial competition possessed a logic of their own, one that mere mortals could never hope to contain. Studies of the social factors further placed the Old Regime diplomats in an outmoded honor culture that precluded sensible solutions. But Lieven presents a much more banal culprit few scholars have ever suspected: civil society. Russia did have one. Particularly after the unrest of Russia’s “first” revolution in 1905, civic activity exploded as legal restrictions on expression and association almost completely vanished.

It may seem surprising that this should have led to a devastating war that claimed millions of Russian lives and ended in an unspeakably violent revolution that claimed millions more. In our relentlessly liberal age, one usually expects that broadening civil society will automatically engender more responsible government. In a mournful irony, Lieven’s study proves that Russia’s war fever was not inflamed by the expected cadre of reactionary lunatic warmongers, but rather by two phenomena that students of modernity are practically inoculated to trust: the independent media and the allied professional meritocracy. Yet at every step in the years leading up to 1914, many of their representatives shamelessly championed war over peace, nationalism over internationalism, and conflict over conciliation.

As the reactionary “amateurs” sought to avoid hostilities, they were brutally assailed at every turn by a newly empowered group—a functional middle class—of journalists, editors, academics, parliamentarians, and even professionalized meritocrats who had risen within government circles, all passionately urging them toward war. In an era of mass media in which public opinion truly started to matter, they found their natural caution and reserve broadsided by opinionated critics happy to indulge their lack of government experience with the absence of any practical limitations on what they could say in the public sphere. The critics also roamed free of the cosmopolitan sensibilities and “Olympian Majesty” for which they derided their stunned betters in the halls of the Foreign Ministry. As the documentary record unambiguously shows, the beleaguered government officials suddenly had no choice but to devote time and energy to the new and unfamiliar concept of “spin”—reacting to public opinion, shaping policy to accommodate it, and, very often, simply admitting that it lay beyond their control. “The deep irresponsibility of the Russian press,” Lieven writes, shattered Europe’s peace more assuredly than any tsarist martinet in court dress. In its final decade Imperial Russia emerges not as a divine-right autocracy but as a disturbingly modern society in which media and information elites arrogated unelected and unaccountable power to themselves.

The Russian press shattered Europe’s peace more assuredly than any tsarist martinet in court dress.

Once they rounded on Russia’s well-known diplomatic reversals in the years beginning with the Bosnian Crisis of 1908, there could be no going back if they felt the country’s prestige had been bruised. Opposing them promised danger at least as great as going along with them. Thus could Nikolai Hartwig, Russia’s self-made middle-class career minister to Serbia, buck up his host government—to the disgust of his nobly born colleagues—with confident assurances that public opinion alone would force Russia to go to war to defend it in its brewing conflict with Austria-Hungary. Hartwig’s allies in the media even relished their corrosive role: “All your arguments will be to no avail,” one Russian popular journalist mocked a diplomat. “Our purpose now is to destroy the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” In sending Russia into a spiral of crisis that toppled its dynasty, unchecked public opinion was as effective as Bolshevik firing squads. As Vladimir Putin cracks down on freedom of expression and association a century later, we might at least credit him with a sardonic ability to learn from history.