The Romanov Family Album
Recent collections of photographs of life in Russia during the reign of the last czar convey an image of two separate and self-contained worlds: the world of lawyers and professors, ballerinas, officers in their clubs, prim middle-class families; and the world of shaggy peasants standing in front of their windowless huts, of “holy men” with mesmerizing stares, of Kazakh or Siberian tribesmen. Robert Massie’s edition of Romanov family photographs (taken by the last empress’s confidante, Anna Vyrubova) has much slighter historical interest than the earlier collections, but it does remind us of the curious mixture of East and West in the cultural makeup and traditions of Russia’s ruling dynasty. The last czar, heir to a Byzantine tradition of autocratic power, was the devoted and obedient husband of one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, and never happier than when indulging in the innocent pleasures of an affluent bourgeois paterfamilias, a role that he infinitely preferred to that of Autocrat of All the Russias; yet when events finally forced a choice between the traditions of East and West, he showed himself a true despot in the spirit of his ancestors. By his obdurate opposition to constitutional rule, he helped to push his country toward a new-style oriental despotism.
For more than two centuries the Romanovs, with the help of the Church, the police, and some of Russia’s greatest writers, had kept the barriers between Russia’s indigenous and Western cultures intact. While availing themselves of the technical expertise of the West, they had prevented its most advanced social ideas from infecting traditional concepts of authority, successfully isolating the tiny radical minority among the Westernized elite from the vast mass of the population who professed Orthodoxy and called the czar their father. But by the time the camera arrived to record Russia’s separate worlds, their boundaries were crumbling in a cultural upheaval no less momentous than the political revolutions that followed. As Edward Crankshaw remarked in his stimulating history of the last century of imperial rule, the destruction of Russia’s ancien régime was heralded by the appearance of strange, ambivalent figures who moved mysteriously between opposed worlds: Gapon, the priest-revolutionary who helped set in motion the events of 1905, or Azeff, the terrorist leader who seems to have owed simultaneous allegiance to the revolution and to the secret police.
Figures such as these symbolize the cultural and moral disorientation that accompanied Russia’s transformation into a modern capitalist state. The great spurt of industrialization begun in the 1890s created, along with a proletariat and a middle class, material and political demands that led in 1905 to revolution, and subsequently to the granting of a proto-parliament and the formation of Russia’s first Western-style political parties. At the same time, the agricultural reforms necessitated by the country’s expanding economy released the peasantry from the communes to which they had been bound for centuries and set in motion their transformation into independent farmers. The new tensions …