Edvard Radzinsky's "Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar" was one of three books President George W. Bush took with him to Texas on summer...

Share story

“Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar”
by Edvard Radzinsky
Free Press, 480 pp., $35

Edvard Radzinsky’s “Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar” was one of three books President George W. Bush took with him to Texas on summer vacation this year.

Given the prepublication publicity highlighting Alexander’s ill-fated struggle against bomb-throwing terrorists bent on bringing down the tsarist regime, it’s not difficult to see how an advance copy of Radzinsky’s biography caught the president’s attention.

Born in 1818, Alexander was the sensitive, teary eldest son of Tsar Nicholas I, the iron-willed autocrat who for three decades ruled Russia with a militarist’s devotion to order and discipline.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

On his death bed in 1855, Nicholas called Alexander to his side, made a tight fist and told him this was the only way to rule Russia. With his death, all of Russia breathed a sigh of relief and placed its hopes in the young tsar to ease the maniacal repression of his late father.

Alexander ignored his father’s dying words, relaxing censorship, permitting foreign travel and granting amnesty to the surviving Decembrists who had rebelled against his father 30 years earlier. Next he turned to the greatest reform of his reign: the freeing of the serfs.

Alexander proceeded cautiously, for he knew the depth of the elite’s opposition. At his coronation there were bad omens — a courtier dropped the golden orb, the crown fell off the empress’s head — that many interpreted as signs Alexander’s reign was doomed.

But Alexander continued on, and Feb. 19, 1861, the “Tsar Liberator” signed the emancipation proclamation freeing tens of millions of serfs, four years before the slaves were freed in the United States. Starting a cycle of reform and retreat that would repeat throughout his reign, Alexander now put a stop to more changes, partly to appease the reactionaries at court, partly out of fear that he had gone too far.

For the rest of his life Alexander would be caught between two opposing forces: the reactionaries urging a return to the Russia of his father and the progressives urging further reforms.

As he vacillated, a third force arose: young Russian terrorists committed to the violent destruction of the existing order. This socially mixed group of men and women was bound by the belief that only through violence could a new Russia be born.

Radzinsky’s discussion of the terrorists, some of the book’s finest passages, makes for chilling reading. Six times they tried to kill the tsar, before finally succeeding with two bombs on March 1, 1881, along St. Petersburg’s Catherine canal.

A Russian talk-show host, playwright and historian, Radzinsky tells Alexander’s story with great flair, breathless pacing and the novelist’s eye for the telling detail and the revealing anecdote.

“Alexander II” is a great read, vividly portraying the tsar and his splendorous court and offering evocative sketches of the age’s great writers, artists and intellectuals who made his reign one of such rich cultural effervescence.

It is Radzinsky’s strengths as a storyteller, however, that weaken the authority of his work. One gets the sense Radzinsky is incapable of passing up a good anecdote no matter how often it’s been proved unfounded or wrong, nor can he resist the neat formulation that sounds good but defies reason.

The dramatist’s desire for form and structure imposes a tidy coherence of events here that elides the intractable messiness of life.

To most of Radzinsky’s American readers, Bush probably included, these failings will mean little, drawn to the book no doubt less out of an interest in understanding Alexander’s vanished world on its own terms than for whatever light it might shed on our current troubled times.

It’s difficult to see what lessons they might draw. Terrorism in Russia was a home-grown evil bred by centuries of oppression and stoked by reforms that never went far enough.

Perhaps the only lesson is the truism Radzinsky states at the beginning of his book: “Starting reforms in Russia is dangerous, but it is much more dangerous to stop them.”

Douglas Smith is a visiting scholar at the University of Washington’s Jackson School and the author of “Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the

Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin.”