Tuesday, September 28, 2010

History Channel

This blog has only just begun. In future months, we'll be exploring the vast Russian-related archives of Netflix. I've begun with Land of the Tsars, Part I, a documentary that does a pretty good job of covering the whole of Russian history, right up until the Revolution of 1917.

It's got everything: ninth century viking trading networks; the emergence of "Rus;: the influence of Constantinople; five centuries of Mongol rule; the overthrow of Mongol rule in the 1480s; orthodoxy; the Time of Troubles; the rise of the Romanovs; Peter the Great as reformer, Westernizer, and tyrant; Peter's daughter Elizabeth (who assumed power at age 32 and ruled confidently for 16 years); Peter III (stupid, crude, and Russophobic, he forced his brilliant wife to play toy soldiers in bed and hanged a rat in front of her for treason--worse, he made peace with Frederick the Great when Russian forces were poised to obliterate Prussia, forced priests to dress like Lutherans, and threatened his wife with the nunnery); Catherine the Great (conspirator, lover, Enlightened Despot, and reformer, she created some organs of local government and challenged elite traditions, but nevertheless engaged in ceaseless wars to expand the kingdom in all directions, and put down peasant insurrections--Pugachev's primarily--without compunction); etc.

The Land of Tsars spends a great deal of time on Catherine. After all, her reign so Russia occupy the Black Sea Coast and the Crimea as well as Alaska. There were 30 million Russians living within the Empire at the time, and Russia seemed unlikely to stop expanding in several different directions. Catherine's successor, Paul, was horrendous. He was exceedingly cruel and, like his father, pro-Prussian. He was also in a hurry to revenge his father, even burying Catherine with the man she had overthrown and effectively killed. Paul's brief reign saw hurried and ill-considered reforms that led to his own death. The indirect cause of his murder in 1796 was none other than his own son, and Catherine's favorite, Alexander I. The historians in the film claims Alexander was wracked with guilt over his accession to the thrown and compulsively indecisive, toying with reform but always rejecting it in the end. According to one historian, he was "born confused." Alexander's one great decision was to renew a war with Napoleon, a decision which nearly cost him all of Russia. In the end, Alexander's Russia emerged victorious of course, and Russian armies effectively became the guardians of the conservative, Christian, dynastic order throughout Europe.

What was next for Russia? Some thought liberalism, reform, or at least a constitution were in order. However, the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, inspired by the liberal currents of Western European politics, was put down ruthlessly. Nicholas I had leaders of the movement either executed or exiled to Siberia. Politics remained illegal. Even educated Russians were legally unable to discuss political change of any sort. Where there was no public sphere to debate liberal ideas, and economic and social elites felt humiliated by the autocratic atmosphere of Russia, politics turned inward. Secret societies sprang up. Even so, while the rest of Europe eventually exploded in liberal and democratic revolt in the fateful year of 1848, Russia remained quiescent, the autocracy triumphant. Nicholas I even sent troops to restore the Hapsburg monarchy.

In light of Russia's recent history, the Crimean War came as a shock. Russians were out-gunned by the French and British. The myth of Russian invincibility, born at Borodino, was overturned at a stroke. The Russian elites felt humiliated. Clearly, Russia had become a backward state. Its technology, economy, and perhaps even its whole social and political framework, were pre-industrial, pre-modern. When Nicholas II died, Alexander II conceded defeat to the Western powers and began an ambitious program of national reform and modernization. He encouraged private enterprise, liberal ideas, and the rule of law. Most importantly, he "liberated" the serfs in 1861. At first, the film tells us the Russian educated classes were elated. The tsar was known as the Tar-Liberator. Later, after it became clear that Russian peasants remained impoverished and deeply indebted to landlords under the terms of their emancipation, and that Russian agricultural production was plummeting, the tsar's popularity sharply declined.

Of course, the Tsar Liberator was soon hounded by assassination attempts (the streets emptied whenever he moved about St. Petersburg) and he was eventually murdered by a child of elite parents, illustrating what one historian calls one of the central paradoxes of modern Russian history: the fact that members of the Russian social elite--Lenin included--often became the regime's opponents.

Alexander II was replaced by his son, Alexander III, was cracked down hard against the regime's opponents and reversed Alexander's modest movements toward political devolution. The assassins were executed. Over the next 15 years, Alexander essentially assured that the regime's critics would remain violent, radical, and underground. After all, even as the country hurdled toward industrialization and modernization, the country had a single source of political authority: the person of the tsar.

When Alexander II died in 1897, he was replaced by his son, Nicholas II, who was completed unprepared for the responsibility and admitted as much to himself. The film's historians believe he was completely unsuited to power and, as importantly, unable to compromise his belief in his divine right to rule. His wife, compulsively shy, was a further hindrance to him, and her complete faith in the mystic Rasputin did nothing to enhance her reputation, insofar as her son's hemophilia (which Rasputin seemed to be able to contain) was a state secret.

Nicholas II was indecisive but he gambled by threatening Japanese geopolitical ambitions in the Far East. The Japanese victory in the 1904-1905 war came as a devastating shock to the country. An entire armada was destroyed. The country was racked with labor and peasant unrest. When father's Gapon's enormous rally--ostensibly loyal to the tsar at least personally--was met by gunfire and Cossack sallies, the country erupted in revolt. Revolutionary Councils made bids for power in about 50 cities. Peasants burned estates. Reluctantly, the tsar made peace with Japan and granted a modest but very real constitution in October. A duma was eventually elected, and power was, for the first time and despite the tsar's continuing authority, officially divided.

The tsar's tenuous grasp on power did not withstand the first World War. 16 million soldiers were lost at the front. In the bloody civil war that followed, the tsar and his family eventually lost their lives as well.


  1. Russia has incredible history, so many events, revolutions, wars.
    Russia is not only country, it's a civilization with specific culture, mentality and history.

  2. Very interesting summary of Russian history. I'll have to look up the Land of the Tsars myself.