Tag Archives: russia

The Romanovs

Unknown.jpegThis book was provided to me by the publisher at no cost.

This book is a physical example of how hard it is to do complete histories of stuff from much before the 18th, even really 19th, century. Of the 650-odd pages, the last half covers less than the last century of the Romanov dynasty (which started in 1613 and went to 1918). Not because Michael or Peter the Great or Catherine the Great did less stuff, but because there’s less stuff firmly attested. Or attested at all. Whereas there are heaps of diaries and letters and non-Russian people talking about the goings-on certainly around Napoleon, and then even more so afterwards with the various power struggles, the Crimea, and then into the 20th century.

Anyway: this book is, as the name suggests, a biography of a dynasty. As with any biography there’s a certain frisson in knowing how everything ends – in this case, in a damp cellar with gunshots. I’ve done a fair bit of reading around the end of the dynasty (this bio of Alexander Kerensky was great, and I also read a bio of Nicholas and Alexandra recently), and I know names like Catherine the Great (it’s always weird to make connections like she’s active during the French Revolution), but I didn’t really know how it all connected. The answer is with blood, and sweat, and more blood, and a lot of trial and tribulation. Then more blood.

I was intrigued by, and quite liked, the format of the book. It’s divided into Acts: The Rise, The Apogee, The Decline. Each Act is divided into scenes, like The All-Drunken Synod and The Golden Age and Colossus, where the names are intended to reflect the individual Tsar (or, occasionally, Tsarina) who is the focus. It’s not quite a chapter per Tsar, in the earlier half, but it comes close. Additionally there’s a map early on showing the extent of the Romanov empire at different times, and each Act opens with a family tree, while each scene opens with a cast list – family, courtiers, other hangers-on. Which is a good thing because if I learnt nothing else I learnt:

  1. By golly there’s a lot of people with the same name in Russia over this period. I’m not just talking about the number of men called Alexander or Nicholas – Montefiore’s use of nicknames was a lifesaver – but the surnames! There’s like three important families! For three hundred years! … which also tells you something about the dynasty and who was important of course.
  2. If I thought the English royal family had a complicated family tree, I was kidding myself. The Romanovs are incredibly hard to follow – partly from marrying across generations, occasionally, but also with cousins coming and going and multiples wives and WHOA. I just gave up eventually.

There’s also quite a few pictures, in four different sets across the book, showing portraits and architecture and such things. I love that part of a good history book.

Other things I learnt:

  1. There were a surprising number of important women. Catherine I had acted as empress even before Catherine II reigned so superbly, and Anna was between both of them and Elizaveta, while Sophia was ‘Sovereign Lady’ for a while in the late 1600s and another Anna was briefly regent.
  2. Did I mention the blood? There was a lot of blood spilt by and for this dynasty. Like, a lot. Even if you don’t count the Napoleonic Wars (which were EPIC) and then World War I, of course, there was a LOT of fighting. Some of the blood was even Romanov blood… looking at you, Peter III, and all you would-be usurpers.
  3. There was a lot of infidelity. Two of my favourite picture captions are one depicting “A rare happy marriage” between Nicholas I and his Prussian wife Mouffy (this is  another thing: the nicknames), while immediately below is a picture of Varenka Nelidova, “the beauty of Nicholas I’s court,” whom “he visited twice daily” because she was his favourite mistress. Not just mistress; favourite mistress. These Romanovs, they could not keep their pants on.
  4. How German the Romanovs were. So many princesses came from the German principalities – Hesse-Darmstadt, Wurttemberg, Holstein-Gottorp and so on – I’m frankly amazed that some more-Russian types didn’t do some maths and throw them over on account of not being very Russian. I guess that’s partly what Catherine II did, to her husband Peter III – where SHE is the formerly German princess and HE is acting all “I wish I were Prussian.”
  5. Napoleon was a cad. So were many of the Tsars.

The one thing that really bugged me was the use of footnotes. I want a history book to have copious endnotes where sources are detailed – this reassures me that the author really has done their research. When these are presented as footnotes, it clutters up the page too much. When the author uses endnotes for sources and footnotes for extra stuff that didn’t quite fit into their narrative, well, I’m largely ok with that – if it’s done well. Here it felt like there were footnotes on almost every other pages, and the thing that MOST annoyed me was that the symbol was almost never at the end of the sentence. Which for someone like me meant I was breaking in the middle of a sentence to go read a footnote that WASN’T ALWAYS ACTUALLY RELEVANT. I mean, what even is that about? By the second half I was basically training myself away from this compulsion and at least waiting to the end of the sentence, so that I wasn’t wasting time going back and re-reading the whole sentence. I’m still very bemused by a bunch of those footnotes because I don’t know why they were included, except to imagine Montefiore was just so excited by the fact that he wanted to include it.

While there were a few other stylistic tics that occasionally annoyed me, there was nothing bad enough to prevent me from reading this pretty steadily and basically enjoying the whole book. It’s a big book, but it doesn’t require much in the way of prior knowledge, so if you want an overview of Russian political history from 1613 to 1918 this is a pretty good place to get it. It’s also got violence and sex. Quite a lot of both. And some comparisons with modern Russian politics that gave me pause, too.

Alexander Kerensky

When I teach about the French and Russian revolutions, I like to pick a personage to announce as my very favourite; it seems to amuse the kids. For the Russian, Kerensky is my best and favourite; Lenin and Trotsky are a bit too dubious, and none of the other Bolsheviks get that much of a look-in in the textbooks. Kerensky, though… he seems to try his best in difficult circumstances between the revolutions in 1917, he had a career in politics and was a radical before the February Revolution, and I knew there was some vague connection to Australia. So he seemed a good choice. Which meant that I really needed to read a biography. Thus my excitement at finally hearing about this biography, old though it is, and the fact that I found a hardback version via Better World Books.

Certainly there are aspects of this book that date it, and while it’s pretty good about being objective it of course doesn’t entirely manage it. And books that refuse to translate French for we non-speakers just make me throw my hands in the air, sometimes non-metaphorically. Nonetheless, I am so happy to have read it; it has cemented Kerensky as the revolution’s ‘first love’ even while I acknowledge that I’m absolutely getting something of a biased account of Kerensky’s role and motivation. It’s a biography; that’s what they do

UnknownKerensky comes across as desperately in love with Russia, probably a bit near-sighted about the issues affecting the non-Russians, but vehement in his defence of, for example, the Jewish population; he was unendingly opposed to anti-Semitism. He was a passionate radical (although not a Marxist) – and, as happens to so many radicals, changed by actually being in power; he seems to have been one of those people whose reaction to setbacks is to take on yet more work and responsibility, since noone else would be able to do it as well. I felt deeply sympathetic for him, from this 100-year-on perspective, as he faced the problems of 1917: how could someone successfully negotiate placating the Allies during World War 1 about Russia not negotiating a separate peace, and deal with the Russian soldiers’ impatience with fighting this war that has gone dreadfully for them over the past two years, and deal with the expectations of the population for change following the fall of the Tsar, and deal with the political bickering from both left and right? Possibly these obstacles could have been negotiated for someone else, and maybe it should have been possible to reconcile the differences of opinion and bring everything to rights within Russia… but it didn’t happen. Abraham’s account shows where Kerensky made very poor decisions but also points out the immense pressure of the times. Like I said, I’m sympathetic (which is easier at a distance).

Two things frustrated me a bit about this biography. The first is that it didn’t really clarify for me one of the more bizarre episodes of Kerensky’s turn as head of the Provisional Government, between the revolutions: the Kornilov affair, where – depending on who you talk to – General Kornilov might have been trying to replace the Prov Gov with a military dictatorship, or working with Kerensky to save Kerensky’s position, or… who knows. Abraham does put the events into greater context by talking about Kornilov’s earlier actions as part of the overall Russian command, and gives details about Kerensky’s moves in August and negotiations with Kornilov; Abraham certainly makes it less Kerensky’s fault than other historians (looking at you, Richard Pipes) suggest, and gives reasons for some of the more incriminating evidence that turned up afterwords. But my problem is that Abraham doesn’t go into much detail about what happened to Kornilov afterwards – just a mention of a cushy prison in the context of the Civil War – and there is zero mention of Bolsheviks being let out of jail and armed in order to defend Petrograd, which the textbooks all mention. It’s too long since I read other histories of the period so I’ll have to refresh my memory from Fitzpatrick… because there’s either a weird lacuna from Abraham or a serious overstatement elsewhere.

That frustration is quite academic. The other is one I should have expected: that the women in his life aren’t that well treated. Kerensky married young; Olga gets served well enough early on but not later. He has an affair while a leading politician; what happens to her after he leaves Russia is dealt with brusquely in half a paragraph, and then not clearly. He has at least two more serious affairs and then marries an Australian woman; the affairs are glossed over with little explanation. Nell appears a bit in the last couple of chapters, with discussion of their moves within America and then to Australia and then back to America, but really it’s superficial. And I feel this is a shame, given how much time they spent together.

Overall this is a well-written biography, although not one I would recommend to a reader with zero knowledge of the Russian revolution. It’s certainly added to my knowledge of pre-Bolshevik Russia, and has deepened my understanding of Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky.

Alexandra Kollontai

Cranky Ladies logoThis post is was meant to be written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour

… But I didn’t get there, which is all sorts of tragic and sad, because this lady is outrageously and fabulously fantastic. So, in brief, because I can’t stand to have this post sitting in my head and not share it:

If a memoir was published as “The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman” in 2014, there would be, I think, three possibilities: it’s ironic, and actually about the difficulties of sex & the city; it’s the story of a woman from [insert stereotypically sexually-repressed religious group] discovering sex; it’s a woman who’s been living under a rock and missed the last fifty years of women and sexuality.

However… use that as your title in 1926? That makes you a seriously Cranky Lady. So does being centrally involved in a political revolution and then being the sole woman in a political administration.

Alexandra Kollontai was a firm believer in Marxist ideology, and its commitment to bettering the world via bettering the place of the proletariat. A Russian, she joined the Social Democratic Labour Party in 1899, but didn’t follow either the Mensheviks or the Bolsheviks when the party split in 1903. She did eventually join the Bolsheviks in 1915, and was appointed Commissar for Social Welfare in the new Bolshevik administration after October 1917. From about 1920 on, she began to have some problems with the directions being taken by Lenin and his closest allies. Rather than sitting back, Kollontai helped to form the Workers’ Opposition. Yes, she formed a group within the young Communist Russia that could be seen as directly opposing Lenin. How many others can claim that? Sadly, Lenin managed to close them down, and from this point Kollontai started getting pushed out. And she was even less welcome by Stalin, who got rid of her by sending her out of the country. But this wasn’t exile, and there was no ice-pick to the head (oh Trotsky); instead, she was invested as the USSR ambassador to Norway, then Mexico, then Sweden.

She was the first female ambassador not of Russia, but in the world.*

World’s first female ambassador. In 1923. As a way of getting rid of her. Lady, you are awesome. Stalin, you are… a bit of a dope.

Of course, it wasn’t just Kollontai’s political politics that some people had a problem with. It was her social politics that really stirred things up. Marxist and feminist theory have worked together in understanding the marginal place of women in the home as being a similar thing to the class problems of the proletariat: Engels suggested that women’s subordinate place in the home was part of the capitalist machinery. And Kollontai ran with this. And – note the autobiography’s title – she believed that this applied to sexual relationships as well. Some people got all antsy about her being all free-lovin’ and so on, but I don’t think she was a proto-hippy. I think she was in favour of monogamy, but not as a way of tying women down. As a partnership of equals.

Alexandra Kollontai is an aspect of the Russian Revolution that too often gets overlooked – as does what she and other women achieved for women in general. I understand that the legislative changes don’t make up for the lived horrors of those first few years, but when we ignore them (like when we ignore the radical changes to divorce laws in the French Revolution, in favour of concentrating on the Terror), we’re ignoring a significant part of history – and attempts to change the world should be regarded seriously, even if they get overshadowed by famine and war.


*Her Wikipedia page, which is wickedly short on details, calls her the first ambassador of modern times, stating Catherine of Aragon was briefly an ambassador to England before her marriage.

Rasputin’s daughter

imagesA little history lesson: Gregory Rasputin was a Siberian peasant who, after being introduced to the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia in the early part of the twentieth century, somehow appears to have had a positive impact on the haemophilia of their son and heir. There were all sorts of rumours going around about him and his relationship to the Romanovs and the way he behaved in St Petersburg, and he was eventually assassinated. This book is more than a hundred pages of his daughter reminiscing about her father, and about 30 – which I didn’t read – of Rasputin’s own reflections on holy places he’s visited.

I recently helped my sister to move house, and one of my jobs was unpacking her books. In doing so I discovered that she had appropriated a number of books that belonged to me but that I’d left at home… anyway. I also discovered this book on her shelf, and I was astounded for a few reasons: that the book exists at all; that she had bothered to nab it (I was reminded that she had studied the Russian Revolution at school)… and that it had belonged to our paternal grandfather. This is somewhat surprising because although not a Communist, our Grandpa was definitely an old-school union man, voted Labor all this life, detested the Vietnam War (wasn’t it awkward when Dad enlisted and went over?)…


etc. So why he had a book aimed at salvaging Gregory Rasputin’s reputation is beyond my ken.

This book is part vindication of Rasputin as a largely good man, part protest at his treatment while alive and his reputation after death, and part somewhat dubious insight into life in Petersburg in the lead up to, and early part of, World War 1. Did I learn anything that I am willing to treat with little scepticism? Yes: Maria Rasputin’s explanation of the fact that her father was not a monk, but was rather a Starets has no need to be distorted and was genuinely helpful in my thinking about him. So too is the fact that Maria and her sister lived with Rasputin for most of the time he was in Petersburg! – this is not something that I have ever seen discussed, and although obviously a father is perfectly capable of being evil and not showing it to his daughters, it’s still an interesting addition to his character. Like I said, Maria (and I’ll keep referring to her by her first name because ‘Rasputin’ would be just too confusing) is clearly aiming to redeem her father’s name, so she stresses that their living room/reception area door was very rarely closed – thus clearly refuting the idea that, at home at least, Rasputin was up to no good and holding orgies (one of the big accusations against him). She doesn’t pretend he was a saint – in fact, she protests against that idea vigorously – and admits that he took up drinking… but blames that on the experience of Petersburg itself, and bad influences, and the need to get just a little bit of downtime.

There’s a whole lot that is pure propaganda. And I can understand that; it can’t have been a comfortable position to be in, as the daughter of such a notorious man. Especially if he had been a loving father, and all the calumny just felt so alien and unlike the man you knew. I was fascinated to read that Maria accepted – or at least wrote that she accepted – the supernatural elements of Rasputin’s story: that he was clairvoyant, enabled by a special connection to God that also enabled him to have special healing powers… I hadn’t expected that aspect.


One problem, for me: I couldn’t help but here Tom Baker’s voice every time Rasputin spoke. That was distracting.



A revolutionary feminist

The idea of being a revolutionary feminist isn’t exactly a ground-breaking one. However, in this context, it is, because the woman I’m referring to is Inessa Armand.

Never heard of her? What a surprise.

Have you heard the one about how V.I. Lenin, married but childless, had a lover who was kinda involved in the Bolshevik party?

That would be Inessa. Except that she almost certainly wasn’t his lover, but she was deeply, thoughtfully, and passionately committed to the Bolshevik party.

There are very few books, it seems, that look at the role of women in the Russian Revolution. There have been a few books written about Aleksandra Kollontai, which I’m keen to get my hands on – but for Westerners especially, she’s a ‘fun’ topic because she spouted all sorts of daring philosophies like ‘free love’ and that abortions ought to be legal. I also have a book on my pile to read that collates the reminiscences of women from the early Soviet era. But, really, compared to the number of books on Lenin and Stalin and Tolstoy, let alone the minutiae of aspects of the Revolution, women get short shrift.

R.C Elwood confronted this in 1996 when he wrote about Armand. He is very open about how he came to write the book, which I like: he’d been struck by some seeming inconsistencies around what little was written about her, he suggested one of his students write a thesis on her, and then… essentially his imagination was captured. One of the problems that he faced is that almost none of her writing has been published. While you can go read almost every little note or letter that Mighty Lenin ever committed to paper, not so for Armand. While it appears that she started several articles, most never got published – and the fault for that appears to lie with Lenin, who was dismissive of her work. And while she probably wrote many letters to Lenin, given the 130+ that he is known to have written to her, they have neither been collected nor published (or hadn’t to 1996; I haven’t seen any evidence of them, anyway).

Elwood’s is a well written, and well structured, biography. (It might seem obvious how to structure a biography, but within standard chronology I have read some truly confusing stuff.) He tells Armand’s story in a straightforward manner, and didn’t seem to me to be making too many leaps of intuition. He also incorporates a fair amount of history about the situation in pre-revolutionary Russia, and the immediate after-effects of the October Revolution; as with Lenin, Armand wasn’t actually in the country for the February one. Sadly, for Armand herself and in thinking about how she might have continued to influence affairs, she died in 1920 – while the Civil War was still going, before War Communism was repealed and the NEP introduced. Thinking about it though, this might almost have been a good thing, since she didn’t have to face Stalin’s rise to power.

My one quibble is Elwood’s use of the term ‘feminist’. He never theorises what he actually means by that, and whether he is using the term in a modern or a contemporary way. He doesn’t spend much time – and none early on – discussing what was obviously a problem for the Bolsheviks: that most women who identified as feminist at this time were doing so from a bourgeois perspective. Consequently, there were real problems for women who identified both as Marxist and feminist, since Marxists said women’s issues were a class problem, not a gender one. Anyway, this leads to some sections where it sounds like Armand evolved from feminism to Marxism, which I would take issue with and I’m not sure was Elwood’s intention.

There are lots of things to like about this book, but perhaps my favourite is the chapter focussing on the historiography of the notion that Armand was Lenin’s lover. Elwood details what he reconstruct of the earliest suggestions of such a relationship, then looks at the actual evidence, and points out all the flaws and inconsistencies. Of course, as he acknowledges, it is a possibility he was wrong; they (with Lenin’s wife Krupskaia) did spend a lot of time in the same places, and they did write to each other a lot. But the weight of the evidence at the moment says they were not involved like that. Apparently you actually could be female and have an impact on politics other than through your sex life. Who knew?

Dr Zhivago

I am watching this tonight, in bits and pieces, trying to find appropriate bits to show the kiddies tomorrow – preferably the parts about the Civil War, and the privations suffered under War Communism and the Bolsheviks. I would quite like to watch the whole thing – I think the only time I have was about a decade ago, and I remember liking it then… but it’s just so long! I simply can’t watch the whole thing tonight, and the thought of watching a 3-hour movie just seems too difficult these days.

Omar was quite devilishly handsome in his day. I’ve just got to the part where Zhivago is about to meet Lara… terribly exciting. Truly, it is a grand narrative.

Nicholas and Alexandra

As I mentioned a while ago, we put on a showing on this film at school for the kids doing Revolutions (we’re doing Russia, of course, and eventually China, which is a bit scary for me…). Very few turned up, which was a bit disappointing, but since I hadn’t seen it it was at least a good chance for me to watch it.

It was made in 1982, and it moves very slowly. Very slowly. If it wasn’t for the historical aspect, I would go so far as to say that it was very boring. Except for the point at which I realised that Ra-Ra-Rasputin was played by Tom Baker; that was a very funny moment, almost brain-messingly so.

The most interesting part was how the relationship between Nicky and ‘Sunny’ (I think that was her nickname) was shown… which makes sense, given the title. Most of the time, she is shown as completely domineering, which I think does indeed have some historical evidence to back it up. There are a few occasions where Nicky stands up to her, but very few. And Nicky’s reaction when he has to admit his abdication to Alexandra – it was amazing, and heartbreaking, and horrifying as well – that he broke down, and seemed almost to have a nervous breakdown, I think from the sheer shame of the event. I wonder how much evidence there is to support that idea.

We didn’t get to the end – it was hometime right when Lenin started doing his April Theses thing. Related to this is one of my biggest beefs with the film: I don’t think Trotsky had anything to do with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1905 – in fact, not even by 1917, really – and yet in the film they are shown together right back as far as Bloody Sunday, almost. Pft.

Kerensky was probably my favourite bit-part. Possibly because I think he is in ‘real life’, too.

Richard Pipes

I’ve just finished his Concise History of the Russian Revolution, preparing for next year. The book as a whole is fascinating, and glaringly showed up my lack of knowledge, but the end in particular is interesting, for its ruminations – and, to some extent, attack – on historians and thinkings about history. He says that historians should not be passionless in dealing with their subject, that we should not always be scientific in our thinking about historical events.

He says a lot of other things, but right now I have to both make a cassata and get busy with my reports, so I am going to leave this half-thought-out and do those… because my brain really isn’t on theoretical things at the moment.