Review: The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution 1825-1917


The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia's Drift to Revolution 1825-1917
The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution 1825-1917 by Edward Crankshaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are certain kinds of history books that tell you as much about their author as about their subject. In the worst cases, you learn almost nothing about history except the historians opinions of it, but in the better cases the conflict of interpretation between the facts and the historian’s narrative creates a view which is more sophisticated and nuanced than either a plain chronicle or a pure editorial would be. This is one of the better cases.

The Shadow of the Winter Palace is the story of the last four Tsars of Russia: Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander II, and Nicholas II. Conveniently, these four reigns are bookended by two different attempts to remove the Tsar: the failed Decembrist revolt of 1825, and the more successful Bolshevik revolution of 1917. But it’s not merely about these man and their revolts, because the economic and social changes which occurred in Russia during this period are a mirror of the changes across Europe as a whole, and the end of Tsarist Russia created one of the empires which dominated the 20th Century. But Russia is a funhouse mirror, not a straight reflection, with all of the features of the Western European revolts either squashed to illegibility or expanded grotesquely.

This is where Crankshaw’s own perspective becomes important, because Crankshaw is a Whig. In an early chapter of the book he writes this:

The development of other monarchies at least reflected the running conflict between the will of the monarch and the expressed ideas and demands of the highly articulate interest groups over which he presided. Thus there was a long story of compromise and adjustment, expressing itself in constant movement and manoeuvre, and tending always, now rapidly, now slowly, towards one clearly recognisable end: the visible broadening of the base of a once feudal society to take account of the needs and aspirations of a steadily broadening spectrum of the subject peoples. This dynamic conflict was weak in Imperial Russia…. Thus there was no gradual and organic evolution, no public preparation for inevitable change.

This might be the clearest statement of the Whig view of history that I’ve ever seen in a history book. And this conflict drives action of the history in Crankshaw’s telling. There is a zeitgeist, a spirit of the age, which drove all of Europe, including Russia, in the direction of greater liberty and equality and away from autocracy. But in the case of Russia, the zeitgeist was constantly frustrated by the volkgeist, the spirit of the Russian people themselves, who could never quite get with the program. Crankshaw complains earnestly of the inability of the Russians to produce moderates. It seemed that every Russian leader and politician was either a reactionary or a revolutionary, and solid, reliable liberals were seldom to be found and wielded little influence. And so the history of Russia in the 19th century was largely one of chaotic oscillation between autocratic absolutism and terroristic revolutionary violence. Crankshaw repeatedly laments the lack of any tradition of self-rule in Russia, and this lack is what he ultimately blames on Russia’s failure to develop any secure democratic institutions, lurching rather from the Tsars to the Communists, whom Crankshaw clearly sees as two sides of the same coin.

The story, though, is brilliantly told. Crankshaw is a crackling good prose stylist, offering up beautifully evocative paragraphs like this one, about a murder that occurred during the Decembrist revolt:

Quickly realizing he could do no good, Miloradovich prepared to return the way he had come but as he turned his horse he was shot in the back and killed. The man who did the shooting was a civilian, Peter Kakhovsky, a gifted intellectual of extreme purity of motive in whom the conviction of the necessity of regicide burned with a gem-like flame. Determined to kill, expecting to die, this brilliant and terrible apparition, his slender form bundled up in a sheepskin coat, his delicate features surmounted by a shabby top hat, shot to kill with that indiscriminate ruthlessness which was later to characterise a whole generation of revolutionary terrorists. If he could not yet murder the Tsar, he would do the next best thing.

And another, describing Count Arakcheyev who served under three Tsars:

This dire and sinister creature, the only man who knew how to manage [Tsar] Paul, was an army officer, then in his late twenties, who had been dismissed from a staff appointment for excessive brutality and an uncontrollable temper: a noteworthy achievement in the Russia of that time. He was said to have bitten off the ear of a recruit on the parade ground in one of his frequent rages. But he had a virtue: he was loyal to his master, absolutely and unspeculatively as a savage police-dog is loyal to its handler.

The whole book is like that, an exhilarating read with heroes and villains (but mostly villains) sketched in vivid language and bright colors.

The story begins with the accession of Nicholas I, which triggered the short-lived Decembrist revolt. Nicholas was disgusted by the necessity of putting down a revolt at the very beginning of his reign, but he handled the matter as he handled everything, with military precision. Crankshaw condemns him as a reactionary, which he was: he firmly opposed any attempt to deviate from the principle of Tsarist autocracy, and what reforms he permitted were largely procedural reforms meant to make the civil service more efficient. And yet, on nearly every other measure he was quite successful. During his reign Russia began the process of industrialization, grew in prosperity, and was secure on all of its borders. Only a few dark spots stand out: he failed to undertake necessary agricultural reforms, and was sluggish in getting railroads and factories built, which had long-lasting effects on Russia’s economic development. And his military did very poorly in the Crimean War, the last military encounter before his death, which caused his reign to go out under a cloud.

His son, Alexander II, was an incompetent reformer. Both elements of this description come through very clearly. He emancipated the serfs, accomplishing one of the major goals of frustrated reformers from his father’s generation, but he did so in such a way that many of them were worse off than before, and he gained little popular support for it. He created the zemstvo system which was supposed to introduce local representative government to the provinces, but the zemstvos lacked necessary authority to do very much, and instead became sources of resentment and occasional revolutionary fervor. The latter part of his reign was marked by a wave of terroristic violence that resulted in the deaths of dozens of government officials, culminating in his own assassination. This was the thanks he got for attempting to reform the system, and his reign in contrast with his father’s set the theme for the 19th century in Russia: the reactionaries die of natural causes, while the reformers are killed by the radicals they try to appease.

Alexander III succeeded his father, and pursued policies more like those of the reactionary Nicholas I. And in this he was remarkably successful. With great efficiency he put down the revolutionary elements which had bloodied his father’s reign, and reigned over a period of remarkable peace and stability. But Crankshaw doesn’t much like him: he titles the chapter on Alexander III “The Peace of the Grave”, because he had no interest in continuing his father’s programme of reform. And yet, given what happened to the reformers, it’s hard to say that he was wrong to do so, as his reign is by most objective measures the most stable and successful of any of the Tsars after Nicholas I. Alas, he died of illness after a brief and uneventful reign, giving the reigns of the country over to his son, Nicholas II, the last.

Nicholas II was nothing like his namesake. Crankshaw depicts him as constantly incompetent and out of his depth, relatively disinterested in ruling, and lacking the strength of will to balance the contrary forces of reaction and revolution within Russia. A great number of major reforms happened under his reign, but Nicholas himself took almost no role in directing them, and they failed to do much to prevent the rise of revolutionary fervor. As the situation in Russia grew more extreme, Nicholas withdrew from active government, giving more and more power to his ministers. And so it should not be surprising that during WWI there was a revolt in St. Petersburg, led by a coalition of revolutionary groups. Nicholas abdicated.

Crankshaw ends the book abruptly here, not covering the last several months of the Tsar’s life. This seemed like an odd choice at first, but defensible. What later happened to Nicholas and his family was a personal tragedy, but he political life of the Tsars ended with the abdication. The farce of Nicholas II’s reign turned, a few months later, into one of the most famous murders of the 20th century, a contrast which seems all too fitting as an epitaph for the Tsars.

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Myself on “Storm Bride” at SFSignal


I recently wrote a guest post for SFSignal about Storm Bride and the question of “Strong female characters”. Allow me to quote myself:

I think it was because I read one too many cover blurbs for fantasy and urban fantasy novels with female protagonists. There was a depressing regularity: The leading woman will carry a gun, sword, or other weapon on the cover. She will look at the viewer either alluringly or defiantly. Her voice will be snarky. She will be “tough”. If it’s a more traditional fantasy, she’ll declare her disdain for princessy pursuits and traditional femininity. If it’s a contemporary fantasy, that attitude will be written in her torn jeans, tattoos, and the mysterious (but attractive) scar above her eye.

She’ll be, in other words, a Strong Female Character™.

And then I go on for another 700 words.

Head on over here to read it..

Interview with Josh Vogt


Josh VogtI recently got a chance to do a brief interview with Josh Vogt, who… well, actually let’s just let him introduce himself:

Josh Vogt has been published in dozens of genre markets with work ranging from flash fiction to short stories to doorstopper novels that cover fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, adds to the RPG Pathfinder Tales tie-in line. WordFire Press is also launching his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor (2015) and The Maids of Wrath (2016). You can find him at or on Twitter @JRVogt. He’s a member of SFWA as well as the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers.

Both of his newly released novels look great, although I admit that I’m a little jealous because I also have an (unsold) story about janitors staving off supernatural forces with cleanliness. But I won’t hold that against him! Here’s the interview:

Enter the Janitor - Cover

Forge of Ashes

Who are you, what do you write, and what is your favorite food?
Ah, so we begin with the existential questions. Very well. My name’s Josh Vogt and I’m a speculative fiction author as well as a full-time freelance writer. I mostly write fantasy, but also veer into science fiction, horror, pulp, humor, and often a mix of many of these. I also freelance for a number of tabletop RPG developers and publishers, working on tie-in fiction, campaigns, game manuals, and more.

My favorite food (currently) is sushi.

Briefly explain what your book is about.
I’ve actually got two books coming out, one right after the other! The first is Forge of Ashes, a tie-in novel to the Pathfinder roleplaying game. It’s a sword and sorcery adventure that focuses on Akina, a dwarven barbarian who returns to her mountain home after fighting abroad for a decade. But things have changed drastically in her absence—not only has her family fallen on hard times, but her beloved mother has also vanished into the tunnels beneath the city and is presumed dead. Akina determines to restore her family at all costs, no matter what dangers stand in her way.

The other is Enter the Janitor, the first in my dark humor urban fantasy series, The Cleaners. In it, a grizzled old janitor named Ben works for a supernatural sanitation company that keeps the world clean and safe from the forces of Corruption (aka Scum). Just as Ben gets a new, germaphobic apprentice, he’s tasked to discover the source of an imbalance between Purity and Corruption that could destroy whole cities if not dealt with.

Would you live in the world of your book? If so, would you be a hero, villain, or NPC?
I’d live in either world, yes. Golarion (the Pathfinder setting) would be highly dangerous, but that’s why so many love to go adventuring there in the first place. Just take lots of healing potions, right?

The world of The Cleaners would be fascinating as well, getting the chance to work behind-the-scenes of modern society, saving people’s lives without them ever realizing it…it’d almost be like being a secret agent, except with a license to clean instead of kill (although Scum are still fair game).

Would you be friends with your protag? Would s/he be friends with you?
Akina and I might be friends if I fought beside her for a few battles and proved myself a worthy ally. Though she has something of a temper, so I’d have to be careful not to insult her family or anything.

Ben probably wouldn’t mind having me along so long as I did my share of the work cleaning toilets or washing windows. The job always comes first for him, because it’s the only thing keeping Scum from overrunning the world.

Let’s say that the people from your book are teleported to our world. What would surprise them the most?
Akina would have to get over the sudden absence of magic as well as the advanced technology we have compared to her fantasy existence. Though she might approve of the Game of Thrones television series, what with its penchant for brutal violence.

Ben would also have to deal with the absence of real magic in our world, though he’s resourceful enough that he can handle some nasty threats without a spell in sight. He’d likely adjust quick enough and keep on pushing his mop around any floor that needs cleaning.

Tell me about an author that inspires you.
Max Gladstone is a fantastic author everyone should take the time to read. He veers far and away from any traditional fantasy elements, creating incredibly unique worlds and characters full of fascinating (and fearsome) magic. It’s some of the more refreshing storytelling I’ve encountered in a long while, highly entertaining, and evocatively written. His Craft Sequence books include Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five, with Last Snow First on its way. Gorgeous cover art too, which doesn’t hurt.

Just for fun, who would win in a fight: Captain Picard, Gandalf, or Obi-Wan Kenobi?
Ooh. Tough choice, and it’d depend on how fair of a fight we’re talking about. I’d go with Gandalf, simply for his ability to return from death. Even if he gets knocked down, he’ll be back sooner or later to finish the job. Hard to overcome that kind of persistence.

Bonus Video Trailer

Guest post: Darusha Wehm on oat bars and books


Darusha WehmIf there’s one thing in this world that I like more than science fiction, it’s food. Delicious, crunchy food. So when Darusha Wehm offered to do a guest post with a recipe, well, that was something I could sign up for.

Children of Arkadia follows three generations of humans and AIs participating in an audacious experiment — to create a just and free society in an orbital space colony. The book is, in many ways, utopian science fiction. The Arkadians are literally trying to build a better world. Of course, it’s not that simple, and this story revolves around how people can (or can’t) resolve the inherent conflict between competing views of what doing the right thing actually entails. And, of course, how they are going to feed themselves.

Arkadia is a mix of high-tech and rural living. Farming is the chief concern of most of the people — human and AI — and even those not directly participating in growing food are, to some extent or another, foodies. Among the human population, at least, everyone needs to eat.

Camilo Molina is someone who wants to make sure no one goes hungry. A homebody and, with his husband Cliff, adoptive parent to a house full of kids, Camilo is one of those people who is always in the kitchen. For him, food is love, snacks are comfort and baking is stress relief. So, when one of his kids goes missing, Camilo’s kitchen starts to look like a commercial bakery.

Here’s one of his favourites:

Camilo’s Nutty Oat Bars

(easy contemporary Earth substitutions in parentheses)

bars1/2 cup goats’ milk butter, melted (cow butter works)
1 large hen’s egg
1/2 cup honey (light brown sugar)
1/2 cup ground nut butter (peanut butter, almond butter)
(a drop or two of vanilla extract)
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking soda (1/2 teaspoon if using sugar rather than honey)
pinch salt
about a cup of mixed nuts and dried fruits (chocolate chips are good, too)

Beat the egg, butter, and honey (and the vanilla if you’re using it) with a fork until it’s fluffy, then stir in the nut butter. Once that’s all smooth, add the oats and mix them well so they are all damp. Then add the flour, baking soda, salt and oats. Stir until it’s just mixed, then stir in the fruit and nuts. Pour it into a pan, smoothing it out. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes at 350F/200C until the centre is solid and the top is golden. Let it cool a bit to firm up, then slice into bars.

About Darusha Wehm:

M. Darusha Wehm is the three-time Parsec Award shortlisted author of the novels Beautiful Red, Self Made, Act of Will and The Beauty of Our Weapons. Her next novel, Children of Arkadia (Bundoran Press), will be released April 28, 2015. She is the editor of the crime and mystery magazine Plan B.

She is from Canada, but currently lives in Wellington, New Zealand after spending the past several years traveling at sea on her sailboat. For more information, visit

Publisher’s Blurb:

Children of ArkadiaChildren-of-Arkadia-cover-1000

Kaus wants nothing more than to be loved while its human counterpart, Raj Patel, believes fervently in freedom. Arkadia, one of four space stations circling Jupiter, was to be a refuge for all who fought the corrupt systems of old Earth, a haven where both humans and Artificial Intelligences could be happy and free. But the old prejudices and desires are still at play and, no matter how well-meaning its citizens, the children of Arkadia have tough compromises to make.

When the future of humanity is at stake, which will prove more powerful: freedom or happiness? What sacrifices will Kaus, Raj, and the rest of Arkadia’s residents have to make to survive?

Darusha’s site:
Buy Children of Arkadia:

“The Judge’s Right Hand” to appear in Ceaseless West

Ceaseless West, including my story "The Judge's Right Hand"

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which is probably the best fantasy magazine out there right now, just sayin’, is reprinting my story The Judge’s Right Hand as part of their Ceaseless West anthology. The anthology’s contents and cover art are right here, and the anthology also includes one of my favorite BCS stories.

The anthology goes on sale at the end of April… so any day now.