Books I’ve Read This Week: Imperial Russia

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 40: Imperial Russia My recent reading has Imperial Russian theme, including three books from palace museums in and around Saint Petersburg, a history of Nicholas II’s reign in the years preceeding the First World War, the collected works of a Russian satirist who attended a dinner party with Rasputin, a flawed historical novel about Grand Duchess Marie and a collection of essays of European court culture that provide a wider international context for Peter the Great’s reforms. There are many more Russian history titles on my to-read list so expect a week entitled “At the Court of the Last Czar” in the next month! Here are this week’s reviews:

#274 of 365 Saint Petersburg and Its Environs by Yevgeny Anisimov

Genre: History/Geography

Date Read: October 8, 2018

Acquired: Purchased at the Peterhof Palace near Saint Petersburg

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Review: A beautiful book of photographs of Saint Petersburg’s most famous landmarks along with panoramic images of the city and surrounding country palaces. In addition to the pictures and descriptions of famous buildings, Anisimov provides a brief overview of how each Russian ruler from Peter the Great to Nicholas II shaped the city, drawing upon the architectural trends of their reigns. The book stands out because of its photographs of little known palace and cathedral interiors alongside the more famous sites. While the book naturally contains numerous photographs of the famous Amber Room at the Catherine Palace, there are also images of rooms from the Menshikov Palace (now a museum of 18th century Russian culture) and Czar Nicholas II’s study at the Alexander Palace. An attractive and interesting book.

#275 of 365 The Catherine Palace: The State Rooms, The Living Apartments by Olga Taratynova

Genre: History/Art History

Date Read: October 8, 2018

Acquired: Purchased at the Catherine Palace in Pushkin

Format: Hardcover, 256 pages

Review: A beautifully illustated history of the Catherine Palace in Pushkin (formerly Tsarskoe Selo), written in honour of the town’s 300th anniversary. The Catherine Palace was a primary residence for Russian rulers from Empress Elizabeth to Czar Alexander II and one of the settings for state occasions until the reign of Nicholas II. This volume includes photographs of the artistic and architectural details in both the state and private rooms and also provides older photographs and paintings for rooms that have not yet been restored after the damage to the palace during the Second World War. There are detailed essays about everyday life in the palace with a focus on the reigns of Catherine the Great, Paul I and Alexander II. Paul I had a short and unsuccessful reign that ended in his assassination in 1801 but the book demonstrates and he and his wife Maria played a key role setting trends in art, architecture and interior design for the Russian elite in the late eighteenth century. A fascinating and visually stunning book.

#276 of 365 The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War One and Revolution by Dominic Lieven

Genre: History

Date Read: October 15, 2018

Format: Paperback, 426 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Review: A fascinating political history of Czar Nicholas II’s reign informed by Russian archival research. Dominic Lieven, author of Nicholas II: Twilight of Empire, focuses closely on the ministers and diplomats who surrounded the Czar and the variety of perspectives that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries concerning Russia’s future. The book provides a nuanced portrait of Nicholas II as a ruler. While Nicholas’s biographers often attribute his political missteps to sheer incompentence and unsuitability to reign, Lieven provides the political context that explains the rationale behind the Czar’s decisions, even those that turned out to be extremely misguided.
The End of Tsarist Russia will be of interest to readers interested in the circumstances in Eastern Europe that contributed to the outbreak of the First World War as well as the political context surrounding the last Russian Imperial family. I would have been interested to read more analysis of the First World War itself, which is summarized along with the February revolution in the final chapter. An epilogue explaining what happened during the Russian Revolutions and Civil War to the various ministers and diplomats discussed in the book would also have enhanced the book. As a political history of the first twenty years of Nicholas II’s reign, however, The End of Tsarist Russia is an engaging and informative read.

#277 of 365 The Passion of Marie Romanov: A Tale of Anastasia’s Sister by Laura Rose

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 15-16, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 1 minute

Review: I was pleased to find a Romanov themed historical novel that I had not yet read and I liked the idea of Nicholas and Alexandra’s third daughter Marie as a narrator as she was present when the news of the Czar’s abdication arrived at the Alexander Palace and accompanied her parents from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg. There is evidence that the author completed extensive research for the novel as a number of historical documents and memoirs are quoted in the text. Greg King and Penny Wilson’s book The Fate of the Romanovs clearly influenced the author’s approach to the material.
Unfortunately, The Passion of Marie Romanov is written in a melodramatic, repetitive style that does not do justice to Marie’s character and interests. The young Grand Duchess was a talented artist, a top student, an observant letter writer and sociable person who asked numerous questions about the daily lives of the people she met. None of these characteristics are demonstrated by the narrator of the novel who is mostly a silent observer who rarely speaks to the rest of her family or the numerous members of the Imperial household named in the novel. There is an implausible “romance” that resembles Stockholm Syndrome toward the end of the novel. The narture of the relationship between Marie and one of her guards depicted in the novel does not align with the character of either the thoughtful historical Marie or the passive fictional Marie. The murder of the Romanovs is described at the end of the novel in unnecessarily grisly detail. The narration of the audiobook emphasizes the melodramatic style of the novel. I recommend The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller for readers interested in historical fiction about Czar Nicholas II’s daughters. For the correspondence and diaries of the actual Grand Duchess Marie, I recommend the recent volumes translated and edited by Helen Azar

#278 of 365 Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi edited by Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson

Genre: Humour/Classic

Dates Read: October 16-17, 2018

Acquired: Purchased a BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 220 pages

Review:  The selected writings of early 20th century Russian humourist Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya whose work was admired by both Czar Nicholas II and Lenin. Her essays are very entertaining. She wrote  in the style of Mark Twain about her career as writer as well as the interesting people she met in Czarist Russia and in exile. Highlights include her fun poem about the Governor of Saint Petersburg’s misguided efforts to fill in the Catherine canal, which amused Czar Nicholas and launched her career, her efforts to go behind the scenes of the pre-revolutionary Bolshevik party where she discovered a lot of boring meetings while workers strikes passed them by, and attending a society dinner party where Rasputin was a prominent guest who was conscious of his image in the presence of a journalist. A fresh perspective on Czar Nicholas II’s reign and the Bolshevik Revolution. Well worth reading for anyone interested in Russian history and literature.

#279 of 365 Romanovs in Peterhof and Oranienbaum by Yevgeny Anisimov

Genre: History

Dates Read: October 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased at the Peterhof Palace near Saint Petersburg

Format: Hardcover, 538 pages

Review: A Czar by Czar history of the Peterhof Palace and surrounding former Imperial residences, lavishly illustrated with rare images from the Peterhof museum collection and the Russian state archives. Anisimov examines how each ruler from Peter the Great to Nicholas II contributed to the development and atmosphere of the palaces. There is a balance between analysis of the architecture and descriptions of daily life inside each palace in successive reigns. By the reign of Nicholas II, the Great Palace was used for grand state occasions such as the state visit of the President of France on the eve of the First World War while the Lower Dacha was the birthplace of four of the last Czar’s five children and a setting for family summer holidays by the sea. A beautiful book that provides a history of the Romanov dynasty through its most popular summer residences.

#280 of 365 The Courts Of Europe: Politics, Patronage and Royalty, 1400-1800 edited by A.G. Dickens

Date Read: October 22-23, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from one of my students

Format: Hardcover, 335 pages

Review: A classic collection of scholarly articles about royal court culture with great illustrations and a strong emphasis on cultural patronage. Each chapter focuses on a different early modern royal court and discusses how the monarch’s household was structured as well as royal palaces, governance and cultural trends. I found the chapters about Empress Maria Theresa of the Habsburg Empire and Emperor Peter the Great of Russia especially interesting. Maria Theresa is the only female ruler whose court is analyzed in the book (though the role of women at the courts of various kings receives attention elsewhere in the volume) and her chapter discusses how Imperial patronage contributed to the development of German language opera. The Peter the Great chapter emphasizes the differences between his court in Saint Petersburg and the the courts of other European monarchs including Peter’s enthusiasm for socializing with people of all economic backgrounds and the comparative absence of influence wielded by family members. A good book for placing individual royal courts in a wider European context.

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