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Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar by Edvard…

Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar

by Edvard Radzinsky

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Edvard Radzinsky has taken advantage of perestroika and glasnost to rummage around in previously secret Russian state files and come up with some pretty interesting aspects of the life of the man he calls “the last great Tsar”. He’s also a playwright; hence the book has a lot of dramatic, novelistic qualities. And he’s also a Russia, with an appreciation for the stereotypes of national character.

Either a lot of Russian history was suppressed by the Soviet Union or Radzinsky is consciously writing for a foreign audience, because the first third of the book is a primer on Russian history that I think a normal Russian reader would be expected to know. It a nice elementary introduction and explains a lot to me. When he finally gets to his subject, it’s almost as if his style changes; sentences and paragraphs become more sophisticated.

Alexander II was the one who freed the serfs. This had an opposite effect to what you might expect; conservatives hated him, of course, but the liberal faction didn’t like him very much either. (Radzinsky explains this by theorizing that Alexander II didn’t give the serfs enough freedom; I wonder if it were also a “Nixon in China” thing, where liberals got upset because someone had co-opted their program). At any rate, shortly after the serfs were freed Alexander II began to suffer assassination attempts, until the final successful one in 1881.

Conservatives and religious leaders were also scandalized by Alexander II’s sex life. The Tsar, of course, was expected to mess around with ladies-in-waiting and serving maids now and then, but Alexander’s critics felt he carried this to excess (especially since the Tsarina had the reputation of being a secular saint). The final straw was when the Tsarina died of tuberculosis, Alexander married his long-time mistress Ekaterina Dolgorukaya and legitimized their children. It was one thing to have a mistress, but it horribly offended the nobility to marry her. (One of the ironies here is that the Romanov dynasty, by this time, was almost 100% German due to the tradition of Tsars and Tsareviches marrying minor German princesses. Ekaterina Dolgorukaya, on the other hand, was the first Russia to marry a Tsar since the 15th century).

This is where Radzinsky begins to spin a conspiracy theory. His proposal is that the conservatives (Radzinsky usually calls them “retrogrades”) essentially cooperated with the radical assassins – not directly, but by deliberately ignoring evidence of assassination attempts. Radzinsky has just enough evidence here to be intriguing. It certainly looks like the radicals had some sort of inside information on the Tsar’s plans, and that the secret police, despite having immense powers, showed stunning incompetence in dealing with the plots. In December, 1879, assassins had exact information on the route of the Tsar’s train and the car he was in, tunneled under the tracks from a convenient house, and detonated a cache of dynamite as the train went by. (What saved the Tsar here was that there were two trains, a baggage train and a passenger train; the baggage train normally went first but a minor accident had delayed it slightly and the Tsar’s train was now ahead. The bomb was detonated under the correct car but the wrong train). A short time afterward the radicals managed to smuggle 250 pounds of dynamite into the Winter Palace, which turned out to be not quite enough to collapse the State Dining room when detonated in the cellar two floors below. The final attack involved a suicide bomber who managed to get close enough to the Tsar to detonate, while the Tsar was inspecting the damage done by yet another bombing a few minutes earlier that killed one of his guards.

This resulted in Tsar Alexander III, who corresponded to everybody’s idea of what a Tsar should be. He was 6’5” tall, strong enough to twist a horseshoe with his bare hands, had the brains of that same horseshoe, and was firmly under the control of the conservatives. Radzinsky makes the interesting point that the previously inefficient secret police sudden became very effective, quickly arresting all the surviving radicals.

Radzinsky draws attention to an interesting coincidence – and speculates it might not be a coincidence at all. For the final, successful plot, the radicals operated out of a small apartment building in Moscow. Their next-door neighbor was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky, off course, had been on the scaffold waiting to be hanged for belonging to a subversive group when his sentence was commuted (by Alexander II’s father, Tsar Nicholas I) to exile in Siberia (resulting in Notes from the Underground and Dostoyevsky’s religious conversion). Did Dostoyevsky have any contact with the plotters? He had a stroke, ostensibly while trying to move some heavy furniture, while police were searching the apartment next door. Radzinsky speculates perhaps Dostoyevsky was expecting his own apartment to be searched and the stroke was actually brought on by his possession of incriminating papers.

Well written and a nice introduction to the Russian history of the time, as well as the character of Alexander II. I forgive Radzinsky for a little Russian chauvinism (I never realized the Russians invented the electric light before).
( )
  setnahkt | Dec 3, 2017 |
After a few chapters, I'm just not enjoying it. I can't tell if it is the narrative style or the translation but it is hard to follow and rather rambling. My list to read is long so I'm letting this one go.
  amyem58 | May 15, 2015 |
Excellent! Covers both the life of the tzar and political environment of that time. Good coverage of Russia's underground movement, and People's Will in particular. I read other historical works by Radzinsky and seems that every subsequent work gets better. ( )
1 vote everfresh1 | Apr 20, 2011 |
As with the other books written by E. Radzinsky I thoroughly enjoyed "the Last Great Tsar". Radzinsky does not focus at any great length about Alexander's politics but more on his personal life.The author also sheds light on major figures of the era, most noteably Dostoyevsky. This is a great book on one of the most important figures in Russian history. My only complaint with the book was the fact that Radzinsky does not spend much time on major political/social events such as the abolition of serfdom. I would recommend reading "Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia" by Mosse to fill in the gaps.All things said, I would certainly recommend this book to anyone. ( )
  Melkor81205 | Dec 5, 2009 |
well done ( )
  Harrod | Nov 26, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743284267, Paperback)

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. Alexander II was Russia's Lincoln -- he freed the serfs, promised a new, more liberal state for everyone, yet was brought down by a determined group of terrorist anarchists who tried to kill him six times before finally, fatefully, succeeding. His story proves the timeless lesson that in Russia, it is dangerous to start reforms, but even more dangerous to stop them. It also shows that the traps and dangers encountered in today's war on terrorists were there 150 years ago.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:45 -0400)

"Alexander II was Russia's Lincoln, and the greatest reformer tsar since Peter the Great. He was also one of the most contradictory, and fascinating, of history's supreme 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." "It is a tale that runs on parallel tracks. Alexander freed 23 million Russian slaves, reformed the justice 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 experimented with dynamite, and first began to use terrorism. Fueled by the writings of a few intellectuals and zealots, they built bombs, dug tunnels, and planned ambushes. They made 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." "Edvard Radzinsky, delving deep into the archives, 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 hard-line aristocrats with their nemesis, the young nihilists."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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