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The Shadow of the Winter Palace
The Drift to Revolution

By Edward Crankshaw
Penguin Books, 509 pp, 1976

The history of Russia is one of oppression and backwardness. There is no nice way to put it. The Russian people have endured centuries of totalitarian government, and only in the last decade or so have they tasted the fruits of freedom (though, so far, the freest Russians seem to be crime lords). This book helps explain why.

As the title makes clear, the author examines 19th-century Russia, told from the Tsar's point of view. The book begins with the tragic and comical uprising in December 1825 against Tsar Nicholas I, an ill-led and small revolt that ended with the deaths of many conspirators. A small cabal in and out of government had convinced just enough illiterate Russians that Nicholas was an illegitimate Tsar. The true Tsar was Nicholas' older brother, Constantine, who was living in Warsaw.

Like all other 19th-century revolutions, this one failed, luckily without the deaths of too many innocents. But it was an ominous portent for the Russian autocracy, which was personified in the person of the Russian Emperor, or Tsar, made up of the descendants of the Romanov family, originally from Germany.

The Russians had much to be unhappy about. The peasants, who made up most of the country, toiled under the obsolete serf system, in which they worked on land owned by wealthy landowners who virtually owned them and their work. These landowners, in turn, were shut out of any role in government because they were landowners. The Tsar was the absolute ruler, along with his stable of myrmidons and advisers. 

The subsequent Tsars - Nicholas I, II, and III, and Alexander II - all varied in ability and talent, but they all believed in autocracy, which meant no constitution, no labor unions, no elected assembly, no independent judiciary, no free market system. In other words, nothing that comprises the building blocks of a free and prosperous society. What reforms were enacted during this time were usually forced on unwilling Tsars by advisers or outside pressure from terrorist groups and other revolutionaries.

The true tragedy is that once a revolutions finally succeeded, it was at the hands of Lenin and his bloodthirsty Bolsheviks - the Russians had removed one despotic regime only to replace it with an even more despotic regime. Bad as the Tsars were, Russian life slowly had been improving. The feudal system was finally abolished in 1861. A modern railroad system was under construction, which supported the burgeoning industrialization, which hit its stride in the 1890s. A small but growing entrepreneurial class began to make its presence felt. Arts and sciences flourished to some degree, when its practitioners weren't censored or exiled or thrown into jail. An elected assembly, the Duma, was finally permitted by Nicholas III in 1905, though the Tsar dissolved it at his whim and ignored it at will.

But the first fledgling steps toward a functioning democracy were occurring. The Bolsheviks reversed all that and plunged Russians back into servitude and slavery.

Crankshaw covers all this and Russian foreign affairs in great detail, including fascinating portraits of influential government officials. Like all good historians, he explains why something happened, details the ramifications, and makes a judgment. Though slow reading, it's an enjoyable book, and helps explain why the Tsars were so unpopular, and how the atmosphere was ripe for a new leadership that promised freedom but instead delivered more tyranny.

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