- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 10, 2005

ALEXANDER II: THE LAST

GREAT TSAR

By Edvard Radzinsky

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

Free Press, $35, 462 pages

REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN

There are several good reasons for calling Alexander II the last great czar, a reformer in the tradition of Peter the Great. A young Queen Victoria fell in love with Alexander, but to no avail. Alexander eventually married his long time mistress and legitimated their children which was more than his great-grandmother, Catherine the Great, with 13 official lovers, ever did. Czarist power was so immense, that Alexander’s command to free 23 million Russian serfs was obeyed despite grumbling. In contrast, at about the same time, Abraham Lincoln’s antislavery presidential election unleashed the Civil War which cost 620,000 American lives. By a remarkable coincidence, both heads of state were assassinated.

Whether or not you are interested in czarist history, Mr. Radzinsky’s biography is a marvelous read even if it is poorly translated. What kind of English is this? “A terrorist who shot publicly.” Or “he was sentenced to endless hard labor.” Actually the book is more than just a biography of the Russian royals. It is also social history at its finest. At times, as I read the detailed historical background, I thought I was reading pages of a Dostoyevsky novel like “Crime and Punishment” or “The Possessed.”

Alexander’s reformism had its limits exemplified by a contemporary maxim: “If you write, don’t be afraid. If you are afraid, don’t write.” Mr. Radzinsky, a leading Russian historian, calls this period an artistic renaissance. And why not? During Alexander’s reign, Russian literature flowered as never before or since — Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky — even though, writes Mr. Radzinsky, “Aesopian language, euphemism, and writing in code were required by Alexander’s censorship.”

Russia’s revolutionary youth, a handful of disaffected and well-educated young Russians, was antimonarchist. They called their organization, created in 1879, “People’s Will,” its members sworn to achieve a self-assigned task: Assassinating the reigning czar and thereby establishing, they believed, instant democracy.

Dynamite was easy to find and purchase, having just been invented by Alfred Nobel. These young men and women, an early version of “suicide bombers,” quickly learned how to get the dynamite and how to use it. They were quite prepared to sacrifice themselves as a sort of rite of passage in order to achieve their wildly utopian ambitions under a leader named Robespierre Mikhailov, no less.

The organization called itself the Executive Committee or EC whose members gave their lives and fortunes to the committee and, writes Mr. Radzinsky ominously, “you could join it but you couldn’t leave.” At the head of the EC stood the administrative commission which executed the EC’s orders, no questions asked. Its members and their rationales reminded me of a passage from Camus’s play, “Les Justes:” “We kill just to build a world where no one will ever have to kill again! We accept our being criminals so that the earth can finally be covered with innocents.”

Reading this superb biography raises a question which is difficult to answer: Why has Russia in its thousand year history been unable to establish to this very day what we call a civil society, an area of voluntary associations into which government may not enter. President Putin’s government is imposing controls on what was a budding civil society. In fact, the Duma has just voted in favor of state surveillance of a major constituent of civil society, nongovernmental organizations, that is, the civil society that never was. I hope that the author will one day turn his sharp mind and his profound knowledge to explain this anomaly. In the meantime read “Alexander II,” one of the best biographies of the year.

Arnold Beichman a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist of The Washington Times.

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