Russian history has always been a preoccupation of mine, for some reason. I remember learning in high school about the rise of Napoleon and Hitler and how they both made one crucial error in their quest to conquer the world: they invaded Russia. In both instances, Russia was not particularly strong. Napoleon made it all the way to Moscow and even took that city captive (not before the Russians set it ablaze, of course). Hitler fared far worse. The siege at Leningrad lasted for 872 days and the Nazi’s never were able to take it. My interest is even more piqued when you look at the only empire that invaded Russia and was successful: the Mongols in the 13th century. Their influence on Russian culture would last for centuries. And even further still, the Soviet regime has been an interest of mine as well. I picked up Montefiore’s biography on Stalin while I was in Tokyo was years back and I have a tome that is equal to the size of this book by Richard Pipes on the Russian Revolution. In addition, I reviewed Anne Applebaum’s masterful work on the Gulag prison camps last year.
Suffice it to say, I have a vested interest in Russian history. I noticed this book because of its reputation. As of this writing, it is the #1 book in non-fiction biographies in the Amazon store and won some awards. It’s always interesting to me to see how history works to connect a narrative. Before this book, I had a decent knowledge of the Soviets rise to power, mainly through the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin’s work to oust the Tsar, Nicholas, and his family. Things that I’ve read in Gulag and my Western Civilization II class filled in more gaps on the history of Russia. But how did Russia get to the point where the people were willing to overturn 400 years worth of Tsar’s and autocratic rule in exchange for a cruel dictatorship and Communist system? That is a question this book answers: it fills in more than some gaps in my understanding of Russian history, even though it is a massive work. Looking at history from an overarching, mile high view is beneficial for many reasons. And that’s exactly what this book does.
The Romanov’s were a dynasty. They became solidified in their rule when Peter the Great systematically westernized Russia. He moved the capital to a city named after himself, St. Petersburg, and reinvigorated a nation that had long been stymied by the lack of progress. Seemingly stuck in the middle ages, Russia was one of the last countries in the world to abolish serfdom. Their lagging agricultural practices combined with setbacks in political and economic infrastructure greatly inhibited their ability to be a truly successful nation-state as those in the West were becoming. Peter changed this by introducing reforms that swept across this vast nation. He added territory to their nation and made it strong. He centralized power that could be summed up by the word, “autocrat” very nicely. But he also had his flaws: he refused to keep his libido in check and while he had 13 (!) children with his wife, Catherine (not “the great”), he contracted syphilis and without modern antibiotics, died sometime later. One of his greatest legacies was to proclaim that the Tsar could appoint a successor.
After her husband was strangled to death, Catherine the Great is portrayed in a way that characterizes her as ambitious. As a woman on the throne, she was able to shape Russian up until the overthrow of the monarchy. One of the underlying themes that one must understand about Russia is that when the Byzantine Empire split into east and west halves, the west was shaped by Roman Catholicism while the east was heavily Orthodox. Orthodoxy believes they have an unchanged liturgy that is linked to the worship of the Apostles. They also did undergo reform; different from the west which experienced the Protestant Reformation. There are undertones of Russian Orthodoxy throughout the entire book. But it’s hard to say that these were “Christian” men and women: their sexual practices and their love for sordid entertainment does little to back up the faith they professed to have. Another oddity of the court was the reliance of midgets as entertainers. I thought this to be very strange.
Catherine was succeeded by Alexander II, who was eventually succeeded by Nicholas II. The story of Nicholas is really quite fascinating to me, personally. Of most interest to me is the character of Rasputin. Rasputin was a spiritual peasant who gave advice to the Tsar. He was well loved by Nicholas’ entire family, particularly his wife Alexandra. After the colossal failure of the Russo-Japanese War, the 1905 student revolution, and the onset of WWI, Nicholas was extremely unpopular. He was sometimes seen as a puppet whose strings were being pulled by Rasputin himself. Part of the allure that Rasputin had on the family was because Nicholas’ son Alexei was diagnosed with hemophilia: Rasputin, by some mystical way, was always able to treat Alexei and keep Alexandra from madness. A group of individuals set on removing Rasputin from power decided to poison him with cyanide. When he didn’t die, they shot him. Miraculously (and this is where it gets weird), he still didn’t die. He began to run before being shot again and again until he finally went down (I can’t do it justice but it’s a really fascinating story, I’d recommend looking it up).
Due to the 1905 revolution and Bloody Sunday, Nicholas’ hand was forced to create a constitution and give up some of his power. The Duma was akin to congress with the Monarch executing an incredible amount of power including the ability to dismiss the entire Duma (which Nicholas exercised more than once). During this whole time, the Bolsheviks, a radical Communist group who avowed to see the monarchy overturned through revolution, were gaining momentum. Under the trifecta leadership of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, the Bolsheviks forced Nicholas to abdicate through revolution. Nicholas and his family escaped to Ukraine but were later killed by the Communist party.
And thus the dynasty collapsed. This book is really a masterful work regarding Russian history. There were slow parts of the story, of course. I’ve left out a lot of other Tsars because they just weren’t that interesting. But the truly remarkable ones engage the attention and demonstrate how leadership in Russia is won: through a show of force. Peter the Great himself was some 6 foot 6 inches!
This history also demonstrates the way Russia is today. Russians have always looked to Peter and Catherine, and to some degree Stalin and Lenin, as the most influential leaders in Russian history. They were strong, powerful monarchs who exercised complete and ironclad control over the nation. In 1991 when Communism was done away with and the nation moved into constitutionalism, they saw the weakness of this system. A power to be kept in check was just an excuse for weakness. Looking towards modern day Russia in the 21st century, we in America are befuddled to see Putin still in power and reigning like a tyrant. But one must consider that 500+ years of strong leadership does not just disappear in a decade or even two.
In any case, if you can stomach it, I’d recommend this book!