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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #38: Nicholas and Alexandra

Now streaming on Hulu. Oh, wait...

I'm no expert on Russian history. I do have fond recollections of Russian-Soviet Studies back in 1990/91 with Mrs. Dierdorf, learning the fifteen republics that suddenly became fifteen countries. (I can still do all 15 by the way. Pro tip: it helps to group them as the five Asian republics, the three in the Caucasus, the three in the Baltic, and the four European ones.) I also studied Soviet foreign policy with Tom Trout at UNH, learning about the Russian/Soviet obsession with territorial security that remains a potent force in their political goals today. That understanding probably makes me more conversant with Russian geopolitical realities than our president, though I'll confess I'm less conversant with commercial real estate in Moscow.

I've read some books on Catherine the Great, Lenin, and other Russian figures, but the one that always stays with me is Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, another of the books Tom Smith assigned to us for summer prep reading before his 9th grade US history class in Exeter. It's a gripping tale, masterfully told, full of all the trappings of great drama: the doomed nobleman and his charismatic family, including the poor little hemophiliac prince, the made-for-cinema villain in the fascinating Rasputin (there's some of him in my Cadmus), and the sweeping backdrop of epochal change in Europe and the world. I've spent some time studying the Russian revolutions (it wasn't just one), and come to the inescapable conclusion that the onset of Soviet communism and an autocratic Russian state wasn't preordained. The initial revolutions in Russia were democratic, and prime minister Alexander Kerensky tried heroically to steer the new republic down a middle course between the Czarist past and the Bolshevik future. He failed, as did the move toward republicanism, largely because continued involvement in Word War I gave Lenin and his reds the ammunition they needed to turn the population against Kerensky's government. Had Russia abandoned the war, things might have gone differently.

There was also the lack of vision by the US government, headed by the myopic and ailing Woodrow Wilson. Had a more robust US leadership recognized the opportunity to support emerging democracy in Russia, the 20th century might have been a very different place. If Roosevelt had won in 1912, for instance, the US would likely have entered WWI much earlier, sparing the continent much of the devastation that led to fascist movements, and Russia and Germany might never have turned to Stalins and Hitlers. But I digress.

I still think Rasputin is out there, somewhere, in his big bearskin coat.

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