A vivid, character-driven reconstruction of the period leading up to the overthrow of the Romanovs and the birth of modern Russia.
One-time TV host Zygar (All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin, 2016) opens with a mild protest: he is a journalist and not a historian and so writes by the journalist’s playbook, “as if the characters were alive and I had been able to interview them.” Nonetheless, the author commands a powerful depth of historical knowledge and a novelist’s knack for sorting through the details to determine what is important and what’s ancillary. His book is long on meaningful storytelling in the service of finding out what went wrong in Russia’s brief moment of liberalism, an era that snapped shut a century ago. He adds that his characters, who range from rebels to royals, intellectuals to clerics, had no idea how their deeds would play out in history or how small events would turn into big ones. In some senses, the October Revolution began more than two years earlier, with anti-German riots that embraced the Empress Alexandra, “an ethnic German by birth.” The riots did not please Alexandra, still less the demands of the crowd that her confessor, Rasputin, be hanged, and still less the popularity of the general who restored order. In a narrative reminiscent of the best of Eduardo Galeano, Zygar raises all sorts of what-if questions in the reader’s mind: what if Alexander Kerensky had prevailed over Lenin? What if the old intelligentsia, civil service, and minor nobility had been able to integrate into Soviet society instead of being massacred by Stalin? What if the czarist state had been able to read the tea leaves better and accommodated the demands of the people for better food, better jobs, better government? The possibilities are endless—and endlessly fascinating.
An excellent complement to recent work by other Russian journalists who have turned to history, and to brilliant purpose.