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 …

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