logo logo

Sergei Dmitrievich Sazonov

Sergei Dmitrievich Sazonov was a Russian statesman who served as Foreign Minister from November 1910 to July 1916. The degree of his involvement in the events leading up to the outbreak of World War I is a matter of keen debate, with some historians putting the blame for an early and provocative mobilization squarely on Sazonov's shoulders.


  • Sergei Sazonov was born on July 29, 1860, to a noble family living in Riazan Province.

  • Education

    • He entered the Russian diplomatic service in 1883 and served in such choice posts as Paris, Washington, and London.


    • In 1906 Sazonov was appointed Russian minister at the Vatican, but he returned to St. Petersburg in May 1909 to serve as deputy to Minister of Foreign Affairs Aleksandr Izvolsky. Little more than a year later, he took over Izvolsky's Cabinet portfolio.

      As minister of foreign affairs Sazonov acquired a reputation for modesty and competence, free of the bent for Cabinet infighting that characterized most of the ministers serving Tsar Nicholas II; thus, he provided a measure of stability in one of the government's most important positions. But the new foreign minister clearly lacked the experience such respon-sibilities called for; and many observers remarked at his nervous personality and his frequent unsteadiness in setting policy. Albertini suggests that Izvolsky, discredited by the 1908/1909 crisis over Bosnia-Herzegovina, deliberately chose a weakling as a successor; thus, the former foreign minister, then ambassador to France, could hope to go on guiding Russian foreign policy from abroad.

      Sazonov at once made overtures to Germany for better relations, beginning with the question of the two countries' rivalry in Persia. The Agadir crisis of 1911 and the subsequent spurt in German naval expenditures helped solidify Russia's ties to France and, more slowly, to Britain. It was Russia's relations with small powers that gave Sazonov his baptism of fire. He had inherited from Izvolsky a policy of promoting alliances among the Balkan states; this, in turn, was based on the ostensible need to restrain Austria-Hungary after that nation's diplomatic triumph in the Bosnian affair in 1909. Likewise, Sazonov was heir to a Russian corps of diplomats prone to go their own way in dealing with small Balkan states. As a result, by October 1912, a Balkan League had become a reality, but in the form of an offensive alliance that soon marched against Ottoman Turkey. By July 1913, Sazonov found himself watching Serbia and Bulgaria, Russia's erstwhile friends, fighting over the spoils of victory, with the defeated Bulgars soon drifting toward the Central Powers.

      A more dangerous threat to Russian interests loomed in the mission of General Liman von Sanders to Constantinople (December 1913/January 1914) and Berlin's apparent intention to achieve a predominant role in the Ottoman Empire. To counter that threat from the Central Powers Sazonov strengthened existing ties with France and Serbia (Serbia's Premier Nikola Pasic visited Russia in February 1914) and set out to woo Rumania's Ion Bratianu.

      The assassination at Sarajevo and the ensuing July crisis of 1914 presented Sazonov with his greatest challenge. Albertini has composed the classic case against the "weak, vacillating, muddleheaded, and impulsive" creature. He wobbled between a desire to avoid war and the conviction that Russia must not seem to back down again, as in 1909, to the Central Powers. He allowed French bellicosity, originating with President Raymond Poincare and transmitted through Ambassador Maurice Paleologue, to push him into dangerous saber rattling. Finally, like a host of contemporary European statesmen, he misread the significance of military mobilization. He saw it as a diplomatic tool, a means of pressuring the Central Powers to back away from their demands on Serbia. Quintessentially mistaken, he failed to understand that once Russia's huge armies began to move to the frontier, St. Petersburg could no longer hope to control the pace of events, most notably in Berlin.

      Word of the Austrian ultimatum to Russia's ally Serbia reached Sazonov on July 24; he remarked that this meant "a European war." The pessimistic certainty that no steps could avert catastrophe may thus have been present in Sazonov's actions from the start. He called at once for Russian mobilization against Austria-Hungary. That same day, according to Albertini and (more recently) Gale Stokes, he pledged aid to Serbia and urged Belgrade not to yield unconditionally to Vienna's demands. The crisis swelled. Partial mobilization turned out to be impossible: the army had no plans for it; and to improvise such an operation meant jeopardizing Russia's defense against Germany, Austria's powerful ally. The generals stepped in to convince first Sazonov, then the tsar, to consider full-scale mobilization, which came on July 30; the German declaration of war followed on August 1.

      Sazonov proved a competent wartime diplomat, a notable achievement given the small help he received from Russia's military performance. He began by obtaining a Russian pledge (August 1914) to reunite Poland at the close of the war, that is, joining Russian Poland with Polish territories held by Austria- Hungary. Conservative opponents, led by Minister of the Interior Nikolai Maklakov, prevented Sazonov from drawing a public pledge from the tsar; rather, the sympathetic Russian commander in chief, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, made the promise, hoping to secure the rear of his fighting forces in Poland. Sazonov also saw Rumanian neutrality as essential to Russian military hopes in eastern Europe; certainly, he hoped for active sup¬port from Bucharest as well. Sazonov found that Bratianu's price was high but it had to be paid. In early October Sazonov pledged Austrian Transylvania to Rumania in return for all that Bratianu would give in return, benevolent neutrality.

      The entry of Turkey into the war in November 1914 recast Russian diplomacy. An outraged Sazonov expressed his anger by calling for Turkey to be compelled to grant Russia control of the Bosphorus. By March 1915, he had obtained a historic triumph: Britain and (more reluctantly) France consented to St. Petersburg's control over the link between the Mediterranean and the Black seas once the war had been fought to a victorious conclusion.

      Sazonov scarcely had time to savor his success. The Gorlice offensive of May 1915 shattered Russia's military position in eastern Europe. Bulgaria tilted toward Berlin and Vienna; indeed, the British took over the task of implementing the Entente's slight hopes of keeping Bulgaria neutral. Russia's ally Serbia fell under the combined blows of Germany, Austria, and Bulgaria in October/November 1915. Sazonov himself nearly left office as he took the side of Cabinet liberals, opposing the tsar's decision to take direct control of the armies, as well as the government's move to prorogue the Duma (August/ September 1915).

      Sazonov survived but he was a target for ambitious reactionaries like Empress Alexandra, her disreputable confidant Rasputin, and the new premier, Boris Sturmer. In 1916 the Polish issue brought Sazonov down. France's government, claiming to be responding to wishes of the French Left, sought to make Poland's future an issue for international discussion. Moreover, all of Poland lay under the control of the Central Powers, and Berlin and Vienna seemed about to appeal to Poland's population by some pledge to restore the country's nominal independence under their aegis. Sazonov found the victorious early days of General Brusilov's summer offensive a promising time to woo the tsar into a pledge of constitutional autonomy for Poland under Russia once the war had been won. Sturmer, Rasputin, and the empress jumped into the fray. In July the tsar backed away from embracing a liberal future for Poland. Then, to please Alexandra, he reluctantly removed Sazonov from office. Sturmer added the foreign minister's portfolio to his other posts.

      Sazonov obtained the London embassy as a consolation prize, but the March Revolution intervened before he could make the move. He played a diplomat's role in the Russian Civil War, representing the anti-Bolshevik White movement at the Versailles Peace Conference. He died, still in exile, on Christmas Day, 1927.
    Sergei Sazonov
    See on larger map
    Born August 10, 1860
    Died December 25, 1927
    (aged 67)
    • June 26, 1909
      Assistant Foreign Minister
    • 1910
      Foreign Minister
    • 1917
      Ambassador in Great Britain
      United Kingdom