Monday, December 4, 2017

Mikhail Zygar's The Empire Must Die

Mikhail Zygar's The Empire Must Die:  Russia's Revolutionary Collapse, 1900- 1917 is an astounding book.  Zygar's prose is extraordinarily dynamic, and his use of the present tense to describe the run up to revolution helps to create a climate of drama, uncertainty, and suspense. We experience The Empire Must Die as contemporaries must have experienced the turn of the century, a period of time filled with possibility but fraught with danger.  In some ways, Zygar's time frame help to explain the book's narrative force.  If we don't read history backward, and don't expect revolutionary fervor to degenerate into Stalinist totalitarianism, we are left free to experience all of the vertiginous chaos of Nicholas II's tumultuous reign.  Zygar's plethora of presentist footnotes also lend urgency to the tale of Russia's authoritarian plunge into modernity.  Drawing frequent analogies between Nicholas II's reign and Putin's era might sometimes seem misplaced or even misleading.  Clearly, neither Witte nor Stolypin operated in the same context as Putin. However, the anti-Putin footnotes help readers to understand the contemporary relevance of this particularly important period in Russia's modern history. 

To read The Empire Must Die, is to be persistently surprised.  Page by page, one discovers or rediscovers the sturm und drang of the period and revisits some of the most important events in the shaping of the modern world.  This was an era of dynastic intrigue, political innovation, colonial conflict, diplomatic realignment, war, violent anti-semitism, revolution, terrorism, unrivaled aesthetic creativity, and labor unrest.  It was an era of class conflict, ideological warfare, resurgent nationalism, and religious uncertainty.  It was a time of emperors, empresses, and grand-dukes, as well as by strikers, playwrights, and rabble-rousers.  It was a time of political and aesthetic experimentation. 

The personalities of pre-revolutionary Russia (and Zygar includes the diaspora in his definition of Russia) are as dynamic as revolutionary Russia, and included Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Witte, Stolypin, Lenin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Lvov, Benois, Chernov, Azef, Gotz, Gapon, Struve, Martov, Yusopev, Tsereteli, Stravinsky, Gippius, Kerensky, Milyukov, and Rasputin.

Overall, The Empire Must Die argues that Russia on the eve of the First World War was even more fragile than one might imagine based on the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.  While perhaps nothing is ever foreordained, Russia's politics were perhaps as unstable as they could have been. They were a strange and deadly mix of dilettante authoritarianism and democratic aspiration.  As Zygar portrays matters, Nicholas II, the royal family, and the secret policy, were all dangerously disconnected from Russian civil society.  Hunted by terrorists, the royal family made some overtures to ultra-orthodox, anti-Semitic nationalist sentiment, but never really forged robust relationships with any particular class in society.  Indeed, Nicholas II's own relatives were not always entirely reliable, and certainly he was never able to demonstrate political loyalty to any particular proactive minster or group of engaged politicians.  The moral and political confusion of the time are perhaps best illustrated by the complicated relations between the tsar's secret police and their alleged enemies, the Social Revolutionaries and other terrorist groups.  According to Zygar, it was often difficult to tell the two groups apart.  In  part, the confusion stemmed from the regime's interest in sponsoring double agents or creating loyalist labor unions.  Thus, Gapon was simultaneously both ally and enemies of Nicholas II's government. In part, the confusion stemmed from the moral equivalency of the two groups, each committed to using violence to promote its own fundamentally antidemocratic aims.