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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