Spacer May 8, 2005
  | Asymmetry | Archive | May 8, 2005 |




Mommy thinks I'm saying "dada" now.

Two things went on pretty much all day yesterday: It rained, and I read about Russia.

Edward Crankshaw's The Shadow of the Winter Palace tells the story of this great, bizarre country from the Decembrists to the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, and he manages to make it a page-turner even though everyone knows not only the ending but most of the events along the way. The author's voice is compelling and dryly incisive, not hesitating one jot to call imbecility where he sees it, whether it dwells in the tsar or the peasantry. Indeed, he doesn't seem to like his subject matter much, exhibiting at best a sort of exasperation at their innumerable failures to make choices that might have led to a far different, almost certainly better future.

If I'd ever really thought much about pre-revolutionary Russia, I would have assumed that the tsar was simply a ruler, like all the other rulers of the day. Crankshaw details the ways in which the Russian autocracy was from centuries past considerably different from other contemporary governments, how the investiture of all authority in one person, who made, changed, and ignored laws according to caprice, to whom nobles and peasantry were equally inferior, and who in general--along with everyone else in the country right down to those peasants--appeared to sincerely believe that this was the only way in which Russia could possibly be ruled, led to a society in which political and economic institutions and instincts common in other places simply never developed (like the very idea of "law" as an ideal to be respected, rather than something to be got round, ignored, or hated--centuries of such experience will leave a mark). It was a system in which everyone was liable to be brutalized by anyone above him, devoid of any checks or balances, any security for anyone or anything except the institution of the autocrat (individual tsars being liable to be murdered by their own guards if they were too clearly problematic). Small wonder that when the revolution came, extremists found easy ground in which to work; no one knew any better.

According to Crankshaw, Russia suffered in the course of the nineteenth century largely because no one in power had the faintest idea how to actually govern--how to determine what was important, how to invent solutions to new problems, how (this is one of his bugbears) to find and train talented individuals and give them scope to work creatively and constructively for the country rather than insisting that what change there was had to depend exclusively on the center, a center living in splendid, arrogant, and ever-increasing isolation from the real world. Indeed, on the whole no one wanted to; to do any of that would infringe on the tsar's prerogative (who alone knew what was best for his subjects), and any weakening in the autocratic institution would lead directly to chaos, would encourage those foolish few who insisted on hoping for representative government in any form, however small, even though it was patently obvious that this alien system, born of the corrupted institutions of the West, would never work in Russia.

A highly engaging book, in all; though I wouldn't bet much on his objectivity, it's a fascinating read. The book was published in 1976, by the way, when much that has happened in recent decades was quite unforeseen.

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Except where otherwise noted, all material on this site is © 2005 Rebecca J. Stevenson