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  • E.G. Maladroit

'Alexander II' by Edvard Radzinsky - the last great Tsar?

Edvard Radzinsky’s book on Alexander II, ‘The last great tsar’, is a thorough and interesting analysis of Alexander II’s reign and personal life. Looking at one of the most controversial reigns of the Romanov dynasty, it is a well-recommended addition to anyone desiring to look into imperial Russia.

Alexander II has many conflicting storylines within history – as one of the seminal figures in Russia’s modernisation, as a back-tracking failure, and as a misunderstood liberal, who did his best and was eventually betrayed by the tide of progress. Radzinsky aptly displays all these qualities as having co-existed to some extent. Associated with the title ‘Tsar Liberator’, Alexander is predominantly remembered for his Emancipation Edict of 1861, which supposedly freed the serfs. But his reign was one of turmoil; Alexander was privy to seven assassination attempts (the last of which succeeded), his propensity for reform apparently inadequate for the contemporary Russian appetite.

Radzinsky’s writing style is fluid and highly readable, with Antonia Bois’s translation not hindering tone or subtext - reading as if straight from the author. Criticised for being almost amateurish for the ‘wink-wink’ style that the narrative assumes in places, there is somewhat of an amused undertone. Mocking nicknames for the Tsar like ‘Janus Alexander’ highlight this, but it is a minority of the narration. Instead, this minority of personalised commentary allows a comfortable security in Radzinsky’s familiarity with the character of the Tsar and prevents the book assuming the sometimes dull or pretentious stream of scholarly jargon and information biographies can be inclined towards. In comparison to his earlier work on Stalin it is far more accessible to the average reader and is masterfully encapsulating.

The biography covers all aspects of Alexander II’s life. The inclusion of considerable detail of his father, his childhood, and the figures revolving around him constructs a believable account of his influences and his disposition. Alongside this, use of contemporary descriptions of him from all angles makes Radzinsky’s conclusions about him seem grounded, rather than the conjecture some authors spuriously construct. An aspect of the novel that has attracted some condemnation is the alternating focus on the political situation, and the lives of the intelligentsia and terrorists who dominate his reign. However, this is perhaps purely up to personal preference – I found the inclusion of these contemporary figures as integral to understanding the extent to which Alexander was isolated in his beliefs, as well as different viewpoints on the ways he acted. The surrounding ‘storylines’ convey the turbulence of the era, and the effectiveness of his actions. Arguably without them it would be hard to understand his reign – or the extent to which he was ‘great’, one of the main strands of questioning within the book. On top of this, focus on individuals like Dostoevsky gives refreshing insight into the culture of the era, and how it became intertwined with violence and terrorism.

The biography asserts on the first page of the introduction that ‘Alexander II was the greatest reformer since Peter the Great’. This is a bold assertion, considering the book later goes on to portray a rule of mostly dissatisfaction and incompetence – a choice I question. Despite this, he does not hyper-fixate on forcing this viewpoint (avoiding the Amis-like alienation of becoming too entranced in providing one argument), allowing the reader to develop an actual understanding of the complexity of Alexander’s rule. He forms a distinctive impression of Alexander as a ruler driven for change and reform, in the stead of transformative rulers like Catherine the Great – and a huge contrast to his very conservative father, Nicholas I. But he also shows Alexander’s pitfalls – his streak of indecision, making incomplete changes, taking two steps back with repression every time he took one forwards. This, though perhaps incongruous to his own conclusion, is a delicate and human portrayal of the flawed reign.

The only large criticism I would apply to content is the slight glossing-over of the many flaws of Alexander’s ‘incredible’ freeing of the serfs. Whilst it is fair to praise such a bold move, especially following the repressive reign of his father, most serfs ended up worse off – with less land, land of worse quality, and the oppressive control of the Mir (a peasant council, which had patriarchal power over the peasant’s lives). It was also so poorly structured that under Alexander III serfdom was practically re-established with ease. I also feel the over-arching ‘wheel’ narrative, that Alexander couldn’t stop the insatiable machine of liberalisation and progress from turning, is somewhat reductive – especially considering the image of Alexander given to us by Radzinsky, as someone who was prone to failure by his own faults.

Ultimately, the book is a conclusive chronicle of Alexander II’s life, as well as covering the culture and turmoil of his peoples as Russia moved into embracing a new era of violence, terrorism, and change. The book ends off with his violent assassination and an insight into his son (Alexander III)’s conservative and anti-liberal reign. It is a clear prelude to the Russian Revolution, with its mention of the Decembrists and covering of the emergence of terrorism and the populist movement making it an essential read for anyone interested in the Russian Revolution, on top of anyone looking into Imperial Russia. It is an easy read, and an engrossing one.


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