This is a late entry into the parade of recent books occasioned by the centennial of World War I, but it is one of the best, and it offers the finest account yet of the Russia that entered that war and perished as a result. Lieven is a student of empires, and it is his rich sense of Russia as an empire in its last days that gives this book its power. What makes it both so complete and so readable, however, are his careful portraits of the complex cast of Russian actors—not just Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers but secondary figures as well—who dithered, argued, and stumbled their way into the war. Lieven has a double gift: first, for harvesting details to convey the essence of an era and, second, for finding new, startling, and clarifying elements in familiar stories. This is history with a heartbeat, and it could not be more engrossing.
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