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Russia: The Pursuit of the Extreme

In what is probably his best, as well as his most recent, book Edward Crankshaw has set himself the task of presenting the history of the Russian Empire from 1825 until its collapse. His narrative stops before the revolution of 1917—his aim is not to show how it all ended, but to describe the slow accumulation of errors, disasters, and ill fortune which eventually led to the debacle of 1917—and by implication, since the Provisional Government was built on shifting sands, to the revival, in the persons of Lenin and his companions, of the autocracy which the tsars had so stubbornly defended. Mr. Crankshaw is a master of narrative. He knows how to distill his very extensive reading of the works of the Russian as well as the English and American historians of the period, and of the published sources, into crisp and lucid prose, and his account is periodically illuminated by the apt selection of some revealing detail in order to make a more general point. There is something else to note at the outset. Reviewers of comprehensive histories on the scale of this book generally delight in picking on errors. I think this time they are going to be disappointed.

In essence this is the story of four reigns—from that of Nicholas I, who came to the throne in 1825, up to the end of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. But since the reign of Nicholas I began with the Decembrist revolt (“un joli commencement du règne” is the comment generally attributed to the young emperor), a sketch of Alexander I is included, and of the ambivalent and contradictory policy pursued by him which contributed to the exasperation and despair out of which the ill-conceived, ill-planned, and ill-fated rebellion of 1825 grew. The Decembrists, for all their lack of any kind of success, became an important element in Russian history. Their attempted revolution colored Nicholas’s policy thereafter and made it, if possible, even more repressive than it might otherwise have been. Their example, or rather the mythology which grew up around their not particularly noble exploit, exercised a great influence on future revolutionaries. Above all, to one like Mr. Crankshaw who sees Russian history during the period described by him as very largely a conflict between what became known as the “intelligentsia” and the autocracy, the Decembrists (who were essentially intellectuals in uniform, rather than soldiers) form a vital part of the story.

Intellectuals, not “intelligentsia”—and here lies a vital difference. The young officers who attempted revolution in 1825 were, in spite of their rebellion, not yet alienated from the emperor or the system which they tried to overthrow. Most of them after their arrest spoke freely and frankly of their part in the incident, and this was not primarily due to the conditions in which they were confined during the interrogations—which Nicholas personally conducted. Kakhovsky, one of the five to be hanged, who burned with a white-heat passion for regicide and who shot dead General Miloradovich when he came to parley with the rebels, wrote to the emperor from his prison cell: “I…with my whole heart wish to love in you…the Father of my Country.” The murderers of Alexander II in 1881, a much better monarch than Nicholas I, would never have written that.

By the time the revolutionary movement emerged in the early 1860s a new phenomenon, the “intelligentsia,” had come into being in Russia—a band of intellectuals drawn from all classes, ranging from outright revolutionaries to moderate liberals, whose common characteristic was complete alienation from the government regime, amounting to an inability to cooperate with the authorities even when they seemed to be doing the right thing. The often-quoted conversation of Dostoevsky, in which he declared that he would be incapable of informing the police should knowledge of a plot against the emperor come to his notice, is typical of this attitude. I.S. Turgenev, who was a convinced monarchist and who cooperated with the authorities in trying to make work the Emancipation Act of 1861 (the Act which so shocked and disappointed the more radically minded) nevertheless contributed materials to Herzen’s “Bell” and money to convicted revolutionaries.

This peculiarly Russian phenomenon, the “intelligentsia,” has been much romanticized by historians (not by Mr. Crankshaw). And indeed it is hard for a liberal Western European or American to feel much sympathy with a system of government which even at its best never succeeded in maintaining the relaxation of its essentially repressive nature for long. Yet, the alienation of much, or most, of the educated class in Russia from this government and all its works was a tragic thing. The group known as the Vekhi (“Landmarks”) group, who published essays critical of the intelligentsia in 1909, and in particular of their alienation from the government—and aroused an almost universal storm of protest—were unhappily proved right by events, when the new autocracy swept away not only the weak libertarian Provisional Government which had succeeded the old autocracy, but the intelligentsia as well.

I am far from suggesting that the faults were all on the side of the intelligentsia. Indeed, if I have any quarrel with Mr. Crankshaw, it is because of what seems to me his failure to emphasize sufficiently in his chapters dealing with the reign of Alexander II the consequences of that monarch’s stead-fast refusal even to consider the various schemes for reform of the central government which were submitted to him by his more enlightened officials. (They are all now excellently documented in the outstanding work of the Soviet Professor P.A. Zaionchkovsky with which Mr. Crankshaw is familiar.) Liberal-minded Russians expected him to crown his far-reaching reform of Russian society with some steps toward involving “society” (as representatives of loyal but enlightened opinion in Russia were usually described) in the deliberations of government. Alexander II, who probably did greater service to his country than any other monarch, resolutely set his heart against the slightest erosion of autocracy. When in 1861, shortly after the Emancipation Act of February 19, the landed nobility of Tver’ petitioned the emperor to consider reforms which would include the abolition of the special privileges of the nobility (such as exemption from taxes) and an invitation to representatives of the landed gentry to cooperate in an advisory capacity in putting the emancipation into effect, they were rewarded with six months’ imprisonment in the fortress of Peter and Paul.

And yet it was only by building a bridge between the autocrat and the moderate elements in “society” that the growing alienation from the rising intelligentsia with its large radical revolutionary component could be avoided, and Russia saved from the ultimate disaster. It is true that by 1881, when the revolutionaries were mounting a succession of assassination attempts on Alexander, that the emperor was at last persuaded to accept what might have become the beginning of a quasi-constitutional regime. He signed the necessary rescript on the morning of March 1, 1881—the morning preceding the afternoon when he was blown to bits by his assassins’ bombs.

There was little talk of reform under Alexander III, who perfected the Russian police state (and, incidentally, inaugurated quasi-official anti-Semitic violence). But all expectations centered on his heir, Nicholas II. This was, perhaps, due less to any acquaintance with the young tsar than to an irrational belief that Russian emperors followed in an alternation between “good” and “bad” (Catherine II “good,” Paul “bad,” Alexander I “good,” Nicholas I “bad,” Alexander II “good,” Alexander III “bad”—hence Nicholas II “good”). But Nicholas II, with the obstinacy that characterizes weak men in positions of power, steadfastly refused to come to some kind of terms with “society” even at the eleventh hour, before the revolutionary year of 1905. It might then still have been possible to consolidate an alliance with the more moderate elements in the growing liberal movement, which would have been prepared to accept a solution on the basis of an elected assembly with advisory powers only.

This development, under a wiser monarch, could well have proved a more lasting first step toward constitutional government than the much further-reaching “Constitution” forced on Nicholas II in October 1905, at a time when the liberals distrusted the monarch as much as he suspected them. In his judgment on Nicholas II Mr. Crankshaw is charitable and sympathetic, with a full sense of the tragedy of a simple and essentially good man called to responsibilities which he was unable to fulfill. He contrasts him with Lenin:

Nicholas, of course, felt and behaved like Lenin. He believed that he knew best and could do no wrong. For this he stands condemned, and justly so. But at least Nicholas inherited a long-established and widely shared delusion: he believed he was the obedient instrument and regent of God on earth. How to compare this millennial and in some sense humble fantasy with the raw lunacy of a man who, denying God, inheriting no burden of responsibility, singles himself out and unforgivably proclaims that he and he alone can succeed where all other men in the history of the world have failed?

Mr. Crankshaw is less inclined to be charitable to Nicholas I, who was, of course, a much harder character, and who therefore excites much less compassion even from the most generous of critics. Mr. Crankshaw even at one point (p. 122) refers to Nicholas I’s “silliness.” This comes at first as a shock—limited, unimaginative, of course, but silly? Yet there is something to be said for this view when one considers, for example, some of the reactions of the emperor to the revolutions of 1848 in Western Europe—reactions which bore no kind of relation to the total absence of any sort of subversive, let alone revolutionary, organization in Russia at the time.

To mention only a few of the more glowing instances: not only was criticism of the government at all levels forbidden, but praise as well, since any comment was lèse-majesté; all musical scores were to be submitted to censorship, in case they contained cipher messages; Nathaniel Hawthorne was placed on the list of banned authors, Turgenev imprisoned and then exiled in 1852 for writing an obituary article describing Gogol as a great writer; fifteen (including Dostoevsky) of the thiry-nine members of the Petrashevsky circle, which was very little more than a discussion club, were sentenced to death—and reprieved and sent to hard labor only at the last minute after a mock execution.

One is reminded of Stalin and the present-day KGB at their worst. There was indeed one incident which only Stalin could have equaled. The poet, V.A. Zhukovsky, a highly venerated figure, who was later to be appointed by Nicholas as tutor to his son and heir, the future Alexander II (and acquitted himself in this task remarkably well), once went to the emperor in deep distress. A young protégé, I.V. Kireevsky (a man of shining integrity, later to become one of the founders of Slavophile thought), had been attacked by the police department. Zhukovsky declared that he would vouch for the loyalty of Kireevsky. “And who will vouch for you?” was the reply.

Mr. Crankshaw describes with equal skill and clarity the foreign policy of Russia during the period which he reviews. He chronicles the imperial ambitions of Russia. He also deals with the three wars, all equally unnecessary, into which Russia blundered, and which left so profound a mark on the development of the country—the Crimean War, the war with Japan, and World War I. One is tempted to speculate (as Mr. Crankshaw quite properly does not) to what extent, if any, World War II fits into the pattern. It was probably not avoidable for the Soviet Union. Even if an alliance with Great Britain had not been rendered impossible by Stalin’s expansionist ambitions, the maniac who controlled the destinies of Germany had long before decided to conquer Russia and annex large parts of her territories. But it was Stalin’s obsessive faith in Hitler’s assurances that was responsible for Russia’s lack of preparedness for the initial onslaught with all its terrible consequences for the Russian people. And, but for the fact that Hitler very soon proved himself to the Russians as even more brutal than Stalin, the invasion of 1941 might well have spelled the end of Stalin’s regime.

Is it to be wondered at, when one considers the tragic history of this great country, that no bridge was ever built between the autocracy and the most enlightened representatives of society? There were some who tried—B.N. Chicherin, in a small way I.S. Turgenev, D.N. Shipov, and some more. They usually ended up suspected by the autocracy as dangerous radicals; and despised by the radicals as rotten compromisers. As Herzen wrote to Michelet in an open letter in 1851, “Russia will never be juste-milieu.” For Herzen this was an assertion made with pride and defiance. Perhaps this epitomizes the tragedy so skillfully retold by Mr. Crankshaw, which illustrates clearly how the pursuit of extremes by all—the monarchs, the intelligentsia, and the Bolsheviks—plunged the country into its present predicament.

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