A success of pragmatism: a brief history of Racconigi's Italian-Russian agreement

(To Federico Maiozzi)

In this short article we will briefly analyze one of the most underestimated agreements in contemporary historiography, yet in the modest opinion of the author not at all secondary for national and continental history; Racconigi's Italian-Russian agreement. In particular, we will see the main dynamics (with some necessary approximation and simplification) that led to the agreement, starting from a still vivid moment in Italian memory, the Battle of Adua in 1896, to arrive at the year of the agreement itself, the 1909.

Since this is proposed as a popular text, the body will not be burdened by excessive references to sources and bibliography, and also in this case the texts cited will be in Italian or English and easy to find; in any case, it goes without saying that everything stated is verifiable in the historical-diplomatic archives of the foreign ministry and in the bibliography on the subject and the author remains available to readers, within the limits of his human abilities, for explanations and, where possible, insights.

The agreement

Racconigi's was a vague and widely interpretable exchange of letters and intentions between the Tsar of Russia Nicholas II and the King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III1, concluded on 24 October 1909 in the palace of Racconigi, in Piedmont. In these letters, Rome and St. Petersburg mutually reassured each other (it must be reiterated, very vague) on Russian support for Italian expansion in North Africa and the Mediterranean and on Italian support for Russian expansion in the Black Sea, particularly in the Straits region. Moreover, they undertook, in the event that one of the two powers had signed an agreement on Central-Eastern Europe with a third nation, to include the other as well, a point which essentially fell on deaf ears.

It must be recognized that it is certainly not the most studied topic in the history of international relations, yet this small event deserves more attention, especially for the ways in which it took place, which will be analyzed in the following passages.

The pact between the mouse and the mountain

To be objective, Racconigi's agreement is in fact too vague and it is equally true that the disproportion of forces between Italy and Russia did not suggest equal cooperation; disproportion that did not stop only at the geographical aspect but also extended to the demographic, industrial one2, military3, political and, last but not least, of available natural resources.

On closer inspection, however, the two entities had many points of contact, especially in that period, for various reasons that will be touched upon in the next few lines.

In the first place, in 1909 the two countries had returned from two military defeats that had had very heavy repercussions on their internal situation.

In the Italian case, the defeat against Ethiopia in 1896 revealed to Italian diplomacy and politics how much the world was a complex and brutal place where adventures were paid dearly. Without real support from any state, the kingdom of Italy had ordered (roughly) a deep attack in Ethiopian territory, ending up suffering a severe defeat at the hands of local forces, partly trained and advised by Russian officers and advisers and French. Seven thousand dead4 on the Italian side, more than all the official ones of the Risorgimento wars put together, and a serious humiliation at the international level.

Actually, to paraphrase John Whitam5, even two great colonial powers such as France and Great Britain had suffered many Adua over the course of their history. At the same time, however, they had also found the means to react to the defeats, unlike the Italian one, and this lack of reaction further aggravated the general situation. Faced with an Italian population increasingly bled by emigration and a rapid but not painless industrialization of peasant cultures and widespread poverty, the rhetoric of the Great Nation in an Italian key, so to speak, not only did not show itself as a glue for the national unity, but after the defeat it risked being ridiculous and harmful.

Italian foreign policy thus had to abandon the idea of ​​placing the imperial crown of Ethiopia on the head of the Savoy and concentrate, from that moment on, on the areas of greatest Italian interest: North Africa and the Balkans. In the latter case, given the Austrian excessive power, it was very evident that without an ally it would have been impossible to expand the Italian political and economic influence (and therefore try to create new jobs that guaranteed - prosaically - profits to industrialists and bread to the rest of the Italians). It was a question of understanding who this ally was, of doing it with clarity, determination, a sense of one's strength and reality. And this, net of some hesitation, happened.

Excluding Austria-Hungary, Italy's rival (or at least the Italian leadership was certain of it while the historian Schindler would suggest the opposite6) in spite of what the triplicate's papers affirmed, Rome tried to coordinate - sometimes with conviction, sometimes less - the efforts of its diplomacy with those of Germany, Great Britain and France, obtaining results that were disappointing to say the least. Almost always kneeling before a stronger state exposes only the head to more decisive and targeted blows, and not to benevolent aids..

In truth, in the early years of the twentieth century Italy had also attempted a rapprochement with Russia, but without success. After all, Russia's position in the Balkans was very solid, as confirmed by the Italian diplomatic envoys. What should the Russian empire have done with the small kingdom of Italy? Indeed, until 1905 the answer seemed clear: almost nothing.

From that year, however, things changed in part and in the next paragraph we will try to introduce and explain, obviously simplifying, the causes.

War in the "East", consequences in the "West".

To tell the truth, a certain Russian retreat in the Balkans had already begun in 1904, with the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War, and the results were manifested blatantly with the annexation of Bosnia by Austria-Hungary in 1908, when under German pressure. and without any compensation St. Petersburg had to accept the fait accompli. But that annexation was not the only nor the first Russian retreat in the region.

Due to the war against Tokyo, the logistical difficulties and the expertise of the Japanese armed forces had led both the Russian Navy and the Russian Army to serious defeats, which had an importance even outside the military sphere. Leaving aside the very significant consequences internally and focusing only on those in foreign policy, it is clear that such a setback imposed a new imperative on the Russian empire: the control of its borders for defensive purposes. Not only did the war cost several human and material losses and a movement of a massive amount of weapons from the West to the East of the Empire as early as 19057, but also serious financial problems that led the Empire to contract debts with banks in Great Britain, Germany, and especially France (France was Russia's most important foreign creditor already well before the war)8.

At this point, it could be emphasized that having debts, even large ones, with the "distant" French republic was all in all partially (but not entirely) tolerable, starting to have them even with the neighboring, highly armed and industrialized German empire was a more serious. Moreover, still speaking of borders, around those in Central Asia, Central Europe, the Black Sea and the Caucasus, the autonomist - or frankly nationalist - movements certainly did not have a marginal weight.

In this paper, considerations will be brought only on the case of Central Europe and the Black Sea, as those of greatest interest for the Italian side.

In those two areas, in fact, after the 1905 downsizing, Italian-Russian cooperation seemed almost suddenly not only feasible but also very useful to the two powers. In the first place, the Russian interest for both material and political-cultural reasons for the Strait of the Dardanelles and in particular for the so-called Second Rome, Constantinople, was certainly not a mystery.9. Equally strong were Italian interests in Ottoman North Africa (the future colonies of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, then Libya), seen as a land in which (depending on the interest group) one could: speculate; evangelize; reclaim; build a second homeland for Italian emigrants; the set of all these purposes. At this point, we see how the Ottoman Empire showed itself as a common rival for both Russia and Italy, given that de jure the sultan still reigned over the future Libya.

It is true that in a hypothetical war against the Ottoman forces the naval force would have played a decisive role, and in this regard it must be considered that the Italian fleet was smaller than the Russian one, but on the other hand Rome had its ships almost entirely concentrated. in the Mediterranean and even in absolute terms it certainly did not have a small navy10. So the difference in power between Russia and Italy was quite balanced even in this case.

A similar argument could be made not only for the Strait region and North Africa, but also for the southern European theater. Indeed, both Russia and Italy had countries with significant warfare capabilities on their borders. Among them, Austria-Hungary was a potential common enemy for both.

From a legal point of view, in theory, Italy would have had nothing to fear from its neighbor, as both members of the Triple Alliance and in 1902, with some difficulty, they had both renewed it by signing the fourth Treaty of the Triple Alliance. The reality, however, was not so simple, especially on the Italian side. Meanwhile, it should be remembered that in the early years of the twentieth century for most Italians the unification of the country had not ended on 20 September 1870 with the entry of the Italian army into Rome, but on the contrary it should have taken place with the annexation of at least Trentino, Friuli, Istria and Dalmatia, territories partly inhabited by Italian speakers and all under the Austro-Hungarian authority. It is necessary to specify it: not all the Italian-speaking inhabitants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted, dreamed or plotted for an attack by Rome against Vienna and Budapest, but autonomist or irredentist aspirations existed, assuming different connotations and modes of action. 11.

In addition to all this, we must always keep in mind an even more prosaic fact. With Austro-Hungarian Rijeka and Trieste, Vienna and Budapest could potentially have throttled or at least hindered Italian exports and imports passing through the Balkans. Not to mention the fact that foreign investments in Italy, even if not comparable to French ones in Russia, already controlled a large part of the Italian economy and therefore a further constraint would have been catastrophic for the Italian economic system.

On the one hand we therefore have Russia which had to keep Austria-Hungary at bay on its borders, on the other Italy which was struggling not to implode and believed it was necessary to do so (if and rightly so we will know if and when we there will be many other studies on the subject, in a long time) to tear strips of influence to the detriment of Francesco Giuseppe. Still on the subject of the Balkans, however, even for the Russian empire it might not be a good idea to let Germany and Austria-Hungary expand into the Balkans, mostly Slavic territories, making the second between the two come especially allies dangerous temptations to create Austro-Hungarian-Slavic empires, potential competitors to the Russian one.


In this complex situation both for Rome and for St. Petersburg, the diplomacies of the two countries were able to create contacts where there were none or few existed (as mentioned, the two countries in 1896 were not in idyllic relations) obtaining a significant result whose effects materials did not take long to manifest themselves with the Italian-Russian trade agreement of the following year. Italy was less alone in Europe and Russia ensured a precious balance west of Vienna and Budapest.

Whether a solid alliance between the two states could arise from this agreement is not yet known, there are too few studies and above all the First World War wiped out a large part of that old world. However, the history of this agreement could bring some lessons that are ultimately useful also to Italy today12.

In the first place, even a small country under the protection of others, if it knows what it wants, can carve out its share of strategic autonomy, for the benefit of its own interests. Secondly, allies are allies, but the survival of your country matters more. Last but not least, foreign policy is not far from the destinies of ordinary citizens, on the contrary it determines them.

1 The complete text of the agreement is also published in the Italian volume: L. Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914, vol. THE, Milan, 1942-43, pp. 325-326.

2 On the economic potential of the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy, see: The Economics of World War One, Cambridge UK, 2005, p. 235-310.

3 Among others see: BW Menning, Bayonets Before Bullets. The Imperial Russian Army, 1861-1914, Cambridge US, London, 1991; DG Hermann, The arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, Princeto, 1996.

4 A dispassionate advice from the author: the numerical estimates of the war dead are not a mere exercise in macabre accounting, they have their own value. However, they are, precisely, estimates, which can change with the refinement of historical research on the subject.

5 Of this author it is recommended - for merit and method used - of the now dated but still valid volume, History of the Italian army, Milan, 1971.

6 See J. Schindler, Fall of the Double Eagle: the Battle for Galicia and the Demise of Austria-Hungary, Lincoln, 2015.

7 This activity was noticed by the Italian diplomatic agents in the Balkans and promptly communicated to Rome.

8 On the subject see the "elderly" but very valid volume; R. Charques, The Twilight of Imperial Russia, London, 1958.

9 A publication in Italian on the topic of recent European diplomacy and easily available: G. Giordano G., Between Marsine and stiffelius. Twenty-five years of Italian foreign policy. 1900-1925, Rome, 2012; but see also, among others: R. Bridge, R. Bullen The Great Powers and the European States System 1814-1914, Oxon, 2013 (latest edition).

10 For the situation of the world navies on the eve of the First World War, among others: PG Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, Routledge, 1991.

11 Among others, on the subject cf. L. Monzali, Italians from Dalmatia. From Unification to World War I, Toronto 2009.

12 According to the author, historical science, precisely as a science, does not serve to understand current phenomena; there is a risk of forcing. However, it provides those who study it, in academia or outside, the ability to understand the links between apparently distant phenomena; in this sense it is “useful”.