Spare the knout and spoil the serf: an admiring biography of the 19th-century Russian ruler who ushered in modernizing reforms but was assassinated all the same.
By Russian TV personality and pop historian Radzinsky’s account, Alexander II was a soft touch, inclined to take after his mother, who was “frail and gentle, with azure eyes,” rather than his father, “the indomitable giant” Tsar Nicholas, whose differences apparently “helped create the great harmony of their marriage.” They may have found room to argue over young Alexander, who was altogether nice. When Nicholas asked his son what he would have done with a roomful of plotters arrested in the aborted Decembrist uprising, for instance, Alexander replied that he would forgive them in proper Christian fashion. His father replied scornfully, “Remember this: Die on the steps to the throne, but do not give up power!” When Nicholas finally died, Alexander immediately set about reforms that would be likened to the perestroika of the Gorbachev era, though, Radzinsky adds, “Starting reforms in Russia is dangerous, but it is much more dangerous to stop them.” One reform was the abolition of serfdom, which, Radzinsky writes, occasioned only the briefest of honeymoons between the royals and the growing antimonarchical movement in Russia. The liberals of mid-19th-century Russia saw hope that Alexander would lead the country toward some version of social democracy, but Alexander had no intention of reforming himself out of a job, whereupon the pioneering nihilists and radicals who had been learning their politics from Marx and Bakunin—who make pleasing guest appearances, as does the ever-morose Fyodor Dostoyevsky—set about trying to do the tsar in, attempting to assassinate him on no fewer than six occasions and finally succeeding in March 1881.
What the country got in return was a worse ruler, making nostalgia for Alexander a popular sentiment at the time of the revolution. Those who share that yearning for long-gone royals will find this portrait a pleasure.