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Thursday, August 11, 2016

“Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar”, by Edvard Radzinsky, Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

480 pages, Free Press, ISBN-13: 978-0743273329

It is perhaps not much of an over-exaggeration to call Alexander II Russia’s answer to Abraham Lincoln. He was also one of the most contradictory and fascinating of history’s leaders: he freed the serfs, yet launched vicious wars; he engaged in the sexual exploits of a royal Don Juan, yet fell profoundly in love; he ruled during the “Russian Renaissance” of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, yet his Russia became the birthplace of modern terrorism. His story could be that of one of Russia's greatest novels, yet it is true. It is also crucially important today. Reforming Russia is difficult, as popular historian Radzinsky shows in this lively examination of the czar best known for emancipating the serfs in 1861. Viewed as the most liberal of Russia’s 19th Century Tsars, Alexander II came to power in 1856 with the idea of bringing Russia into the modern age. But as Edvard Radzinsky shows in Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar, his liberal reforms brought him nothing but trouble, coming under attack from the right for being too liberal and the left for not being liberal enough (indeed, it was frustrated leftists that eventually turned to violence and, after many failed attempts to assassinate the Tsar, succeeded in 1881). He also had to curtail his reforms when faced with the need to fight foreign enemies. Radzinsky focuses much of the latter half of the book on the rise of left-wing populist movements, and he covers in-depth the intellectual currents that swirled around Russia during Alexander’s reign.

It is a tale that runs on parallel tracks. Alexander freed 23 million Russian slaves, reformed the judicial system and the army, and very nearly became the father of Russia’s first constitution and the man who led that nation into a new era of western-style liberalism. Yet it was during this feverish time that modern nihilism first arose. On the sidelines of Alexander’s state dramas, a group of radical, disaffected young people first began to turn to terrorism to further the reforms they thought were neither far-reaching nor radical enough. Fueled by the writings of a few intellectuals and zealots, they built bombs, dug tunnels, and planned ambushes, making no less than six unsuccessful attempts on Alexander’s life. Finally, the parallel tracks joined, when a small cell of terrorists (living next door to Dostoevsky) built the fatal bomb that ended the life of the last great Tsar. It stopped Russian reform in its tracks as Alexander III, the arch-reactionary, was brought to the throne. Seeing as how, in his view, Alexander II’s liberal reforms had brought about nothing but anarchy and death, Alexander III reversed many of his father’s actions and returned Russia to the path of autocracy. The terrorists, it attempting to accelerate the pace of liberalism, succeeded only in reversing it.

Edvard Radzinsky is justly famous as both a biographer and a dramatist, and he brings both skills to bear in this vivid, page-turning, rich portrait of one of the greatest of all Romanovs. Delving deep into the archives, he raises intriguing questions about the connections between Dostoevsky and the young terrorists, about the hidden romances of the Romanovs, and about the palace conspiracies that may have linked hardline aristocrats with their nemesis, the young nihilists. Alexander’s life proves the timeless lesson that in Russia while it is dangerous to start reforms, it is even more dangerous to stop them. It also shows that the traps and dangers encountered in today’s war on terrorists were there from the start.

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