The book The Shadow of the Winter Palace is one of those surprises of historical writing, in that it is very well written and Edward Crankshaw as a talent for an interesting turns of phrase. Later I will give some samples of Edward Crankshaw’s writing in this book, but first I will give an overview of the books theme and subject.
The book is not a history of Russia over that time period it is instead an overview of Russian history during that time period that concentrates on those features related to the Revolutionary upheaval that eventually destroyed the Tsarist regime.
For unlike a great number of historians Edward Crankshaw does not view the Russian Revolution as some catastrophe that, but for ill luck, the evil ideas of intellectuals and the most unfortunate “accident” of World War I would not have happened. Neither does he have much time for the counter factual notion that if Tsar Nicholas II’s son had not had haemophilia, Rasputin would not have gained ascendancy and therefore the revolution would not have happened.3
In fact Edward Crankshaw views the Revolution as clearly the product of internal Russian developments, specifically the tension between a modernizing society and the resistance of an, at best, semi-obscurantist regime.
In order to understand the origins of the Revolution Edward Crankshaw starts his book with the Decembrist revolt of 1825. This was an attempt by army officers to overthrow the new Tsar Nicholas I and replace him with his far more liberal and progressively minded brother Constantine. The attempt ended in failure and resulted in some executions and exile for the many of the plotters. It also justified Nicholas I instituting a regime of almost absurd repression.4
In many respects the book centres around the four Tsars that ruled Russia during this time period; Nicholas I, 1825-1855, Alexander II, 1855-1881, Alexander III, 1881-1894, Nicholas II, 1894-1917.
There is in the introduction that glances backwards on the reign of Alexander I and gives a good overview of the enigma that is that very strange monarch.5
Edward Crankshaw views Russia in 1825 as suffering from the disease of Autocracy, which left it with a stifled civil society, and economy. The two chief characteristics of this disease were an autocratic, interfering bureaucracy and the socially and economically destructive institution of Serfdom. Serfdom which existed in two forms in Russia, bound the great majority of the population in servitude to either individual landlords or to the state. Serfdom proper bound peasants, called Serfs, to individual landlords, whereas peasants bound to the state were State Peasants. In either case Serfdom was oppressive and acted as a great barrier to economic advancement in the country, aside from being frequently quite brutal.6
Edward Crankshaw sees that Russian attitudes towards order as detrimental to the rule of law:
Obedience to an authority which embodies, or personifies, no matter how imperfectly, fixed principles of conduct is one thing; obedience to a ruler, or a hierarchy of rulers, lacking any guiding principles whatsoever, their conduct governed by expediency, is obviously quite another. Few Russians have shown awareness of this distinction, though many have sought unconsciously to conceal the absence of principle in their autocracy, whether monarchical or dictatorial…7
The result was that in Alexander III’s reign reaction was a full throttle. The violent forces that were threatening the regime were merely bottled up and increasing in explosive potential. Thus for example Alexander pursued a suicidal Russification policy.
As Edward Crankshaw writes:
Alexander III, however cared for Russians as Russians. This was unfortunate for some 50 million non-Russian citizens of the empire – from Finns and Lithuanians in the north to Georgians and Uzbeks in the south – who, in the past ,had looked to the Tsar for protection against Russian officialdom…12
…Charming, slight, boyish (infantile his father called him to Witte), not only weak of purpose but lacking all sense of purpose – except (a large exception, of course) to carry out the will of God as his obedient adjunct on earth. This involved the assertion of absolute authority in the name of the Almighty by a man who possessed no natural authority at all.14
With Kokovtsev’s departure Nicholas gave the game away and displayed, once and for all unmistakably, the almost awe-inspiring shallowness, the incorrigible silliness of his mind.15
As for Alexandra Edward Crankshaw is if anything even harsher in his opinion. He has little respect for the idea that it was due to Nicholas and Alexandra’s son having Haemophilia that led to the decisions that helped led Russia to Revolution. In Edward Crankshaw’s eyes the relationship was a disaster from day one. With the incompetent new Tsar dominated by his even more incompetent, but strong willed, wife.16
Edward describes her has:
…a religious exaltee with a strong sexual drive – a combination which is liable to colour even the most everyday transactions with a touch of the orgiastic.17Edward Crankshaw regards her influence as almost wholly disastrous.18 In fact Edward says the following:
The remarkable thing about this sad women is not that she came to arouse profound suspicion and hatred on a nationwide scale, so that she could be accused, quite unjustly, of acting in the German interest during the war, but that nobody in that land so inured to political murder ever tried to kill her in the interest of the dynasty, as on that occasion in November 1916 when she has been making her husband’s life miserable by urging him to retain a notoriously corrupt and idiotic minister, Protopopov, because Rasputin demanded it.19The rest of the story is simply depressing. The great minister Stolypin desperately endeavours at what Edward Crankshaw calls the “Thirteenth Hour” to save the state after the near overthrow of the state and monarchy in the 1905 Revolution. He is undermined by the corrupt vested interests of the state and others, and shortly before he is to be officially dismissed, having been already excluded from all influence he is murdered by a Secret Police spy, in a very opaque intrigue.20
After that it is simply waiting for the end as “Official” Russia basically commits suicide, and the corruptions, contradictions and sheer obtuse stupidity of the regime doom it to violent death. With or without World War I the regime was doomed.21
Considering the horrors that the new Bolshevik regime unleashed on Russia and the world, it is comforting to assume that the revolution that gave birth to that regime was an accident. It may be comforting but according to Edward Crankshaw in this well written and argued book it is simply false.
1. Crankshaw, Edward, The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift towards Revolution 1825 - 1917, The Viking Press, New York, 1976.
2. See Edward Crankshaw, Wikipedia Here.
3. Crankshaw, pp. 385-389, 385-393. For the hypothesis that the Revolution was the result of the “accident” of Alexis’ (Tsar Nicholas II’s Son) having haemophilia see Massie, Robert, Nicholas and Alexandra, The Viking Press, New York, 1969.
4. Crankshaw, pp. 13-36.
5. IBID, pp. 24-31.
6. IBID, pp. 27-31.
7. IBID, p. 39.
8. IBID, pp. 54-132.
9. IBID, pp. 165-177.
10. IBID, pp. 252-271.
11. IBID, p. 272.
12. IBID. p. 281.
13, IBID, pp. 272-285.
14. IBID, p. 304.
15. IBID, p. 388.
16. IBID, pp. 307-308.
17. IBID, p. 308.
18. IBID, pp. 306-310.
19. IBID, p. 307.
20. IBID, p. 354-273. The man apparently acted on his own, but the fact is he was a Secret Police spy and the possibility of him being set up the Secret Police to remove Stolypin who was seen as a dangerous radical by reactionaries cannot be discounted.
21, IBID, pp. 374-393.