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.

The Romanovs and The Russian Revolution: My Fall 2018 course at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies

Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, his wife, Empress Alexandra and their five children (clockwise from left), Maria, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexei in 1913. The Imperial Family was murdered 100 years ago in 1918.

I will be teaching an eight week course about the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution from October 2 until November 20, 2018 from 2-4pm at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies.

Click here for more information and to register

 

Course Description: The consequences of the Russian Revolution continue to influence Russia’s politics and society, and indeed the whole world’s. In 2017, Russia quietly marked the 100th anniversary of the turning points: the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and Lenin’s seizure of power for the Bolshevik party. Follow the quick succession of crises: the collapse of the Romanov dynasty, the emergence of the Provisional Government, the end of Russia’s participation in the First World War, and the fateful rise of Lenin and the Soviet Union.

What You’ll Learn:

Books I’ve Read This Week: Queens and Empresses

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 30: Queens and Empresses: In recent weeks, I have been reading extensively about one of my favourite topics, the political and cultural influence of royal women. I will be delivering a lecture about Catherine the Great and the Hermitage later this month as part of a royal history lecture series on a Baltic Sea cruise and I have therefore been reading extensively about Catherine’s famous art collection. I am also working on a feature article about royal wedding dresses to be published in time for Princess Eugenie’s wedding this October, and so I have been reading more about royal fashions from the eighteenth century to the present day. I also recently read three more titles from the Palgrave Macmillan Queenship and Power series. Here are this week’s reviews:

#204 of 365 Royal Women and Dynastic Loyalty edited by Caroline Dunn and Elizabeth Carney

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 207 pages

Acquired: Borrowed From Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: July 25, 2018

Review: A collection of articles about royal women and their contributions to royal dynasties from classical times to the 19th century. While there are familiar figures examined in this volume, such as Mary, Queen of Scots and her son James I’s queen, Anna of Denmark, most of the contributors examine comparatively overlooked figures. There are chapters concerning Empress Elizabeth Christine (the mother of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and the grandmother of Queen Marie Antoinette of France), and the little known royal women of the 17th century Ottoman Empire who served as stabilizing figures during an uncertain time for their ruling house. 

The authors draw conclusions that continue to be relevant to the history of monarchical government, women and power, and royal court culture. For example, in her chapter on Queenship and the Currency of Arts Patronage as Propaganda at the Early Stuart Court, Wendy Hitchmough observes that royal palaces continue to be sites of national identity and memory, as demonstrated by the recent Remembrance Day poppies installation at the Tower of London and the role of Kensington Palace as a site for mourning Diana, Princess of Wales.

Since the book is based on a series of conference papers, the chapters are short and sometimes end abruptly, especially the opening chapter about King’s Daughters, Sisters, and Wives: Fonts and Conduits of Power and Legitimacy by Waldemar Heckel. I hope that the contributors will expand their research into longer articles and books as the chapters in this volume examine important and often overlooked historical figures and their contributions to dynastic legitimacy.

#205 of 365 The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia by Susan Jaques

Genre: Biography/Art History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Paperback, 480 pages

Date Read: July 25, 2018

Review:The Empress of Art provides a good overview of Catherine the Great’s art patronage and the development of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Jaques writes in an engaging, accessible style, and places the acquisition of key art collections such as the Walpole paintings within the context of the wider events of Catherine the Great’s reign. The author has visited Saint Petersburg and demonstrates a familiarity with the historic buildings of the city, Catherine the Great’s influence on architecture, and her role in setting wider cultural trends.

In addition to detailing Catherine’s cultural activities, Jaques explains the ultimate fate of the paintings acquired by the Empress. While some of Catherine’s purchases remain on display at the Hermitage museum, her grandson Czar Nicholas I sold some of the pieces that he judged to be inferior while other acquisitions were destroyed by fire or sold to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. during the Soviet period. 

Unfortunately, there are some historical errors sprinkled throughout the book, especially toward the beginning and end. The errors concern names, dates, and, most often, the family relationships between royal personages. (For example, Maria Josepha was Maria Theresa’s daughter, not her daughter-in-law. A daughter of the last Byzantine Emperor did not marry a czar, as stated in the book. Instead, a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor married a Grand Duke of Muscovy, Ivan III. The title of czar was not in use until their grandson’s reign.) While these errors do not undermine Jaques’s overall argument that Catherine was a key cultural patron with a lasting legacy in a number of different spheres, they are distracting for the reader.

The Empress of Art is an engaging biography of Catherine the Great as a cultural patron that is especially useful for visitors to Saint Petersburg and the city’s Hermitage Museum. Includes illustrations of key paintings and architecture from Catherine’s reign.

#206 of 365 Queenship and Counsel in Early Modern Europe edited by Helen Matheson-PollockJoanne Paul and Catherine Fletcher 

Genre: History

Date Read: July 26, 2018

Format: E-Book, 291 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles about how early modern queens exercised and received political counsel. The book includes fresh perspectives on Tudor and early Stuart era queens who are often reduced to one dimensional portrayals in the popular imagination.

For example, Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, closely associated with her nephew Holy Roman Emperor Charles V because of the circumstances of the breakdown of her marriage, in fact had a more complicated attitude toward English foreign policy and was not always perceived as placing Spain’s interests first. Henry VIII’s sister Mary, Queen of France, famous for marrying Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and incurring the King’s displeasure in fact remained closely interested in Anglo-French relations for the rest of her life, and attempted to maintain her own network of connections during her brief marriage to Louis XII. Mary, Queen of Scots paid careful attention to her household, avoiding appointing the wives of privy Councillors to attend her in a personal capacity in an attempt to separate her public and private spheres. Queen Elizabeth I made use of her classical education to affirm her authority over male Councillors.

In addition to chapters reassessing well known queens, there is analysis of little known queens consort and the manner in which they exerted political influence. The book’s focus on the early modern period allows for exploration of how royal women’s roles were passed through the generations. For example, there is a chapter about Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland followed by a chapter about her daughter, Catherine Jagiellon, Queen of Sweden, two queens consort who deserve to be more well known. The book comes together as a cohesive whole, with parallels drawn between the various queens discussed in individual sections and wider conclusions presented about the range of roles for a queen in the sixteenth century. Highly recommended for scholars and general readers interested in early modern queenship.

#207 of 365 Queens Matter in Early Modern Studies edited by Anna Riehl Bertolet

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 399 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: July 28-August 2, 2018

Review: A collection of scholarly essays dedicated to Carole Levin, the co-editor of the Palgrave Macmillan Queenship and Power book series. I am honoured that my own book is mentioned in Charles Beem’s essay concerning the development of the series, which states, “…Carolyn Harris’s Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, a provocative comparative study of two queens who suffered miserably at the hands of revolutionary ideologies.” The chapters are divided by theme, presenting a broad range of perspectives on early modern queenship, especially the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. I found the chapters about Elizabeth I’s role as a godparent (she had at least 114 godchildren over the course of her reign including John Harington, inventor of the flush toilet), and the comparisons between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots especially fascinating. An interesting and informative read.

#208 of 365 Catherine the Great: Art for Empire: Masterpieces from the State Hermitage Museum, Russia

Genre: Art History

Date Read: July 30, 2018

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 328 pages

Review: The book that accompanied the 2005 Catherine the Great exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. A nice balance between beautiful illustrations of works of art collected and commissioned by Catherine the Great, and insightful essays about the different facets of her role as patron of arts. The art historians focus on the variety of different art forms in Catherine’s collection including paintings, sculpture and cameos, her motives for amassing such an extensive art collection, and the question of whether she possessed good taste or was simply a “glutton for art” who bought large collections without considering the merits of the individual works. The essays concerning her patronage of women artists including Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun and Marie-Anne Collot are especially interesting. I would have been interested to read a concluding essay about the expansion of the Hermitage museum’s collection after Catherine the Great’s reign.

#209 of 365 The Royal Wedding Dresses by Nigel Arch and Joanna Marschner 

Genre: History and Fashion

Date Read: August 2, 2018

Acquired: Read at Toronto Reference Library

Genre: Hardcover, 176 pages

Review: A beautifully illustrated history of royal wedding fashion from Henry VII and Elizabeth of York to Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Although the title suggests that the book examines wedding dresses alone, the authors also look at the fashions worn by royal bridegrooms, bridesmaids and guests. There are some fascinating examples of royal brides adapting traditional bridal fashions to reflect their own preferences including Queen Marie of Romania choosing a tulle veil instead of the wedding lace favoured by most of Queen Victoria’s descendants, and her cousin Princess Margaret of Connaught choosing an Irish made gown embroidered with shamrocks to reflect her happy memories of spending time in Ireland as a child. I would be interested to read an updated edition that includes the last few decades of royal wedding fashion.

#210 of 365 Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution by Will Bashor

Genre: History

Date Read: August 7, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 299 pages

Review: An excellent read, especially in tandem with Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the French Revolution by Caroline Weber. Bashor examines the life and hair-raising exploits of Leonard Autie, who rose from obscure origins in Gascony to become Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser and confidant. Both the hairdresser and Marie Antoinette’s milliner, Rose Bertin, became recognizable public figures in their own right and were nicknamed Ministers of Fashion, setting precedents for future celebrity stylists and fashion designers.

I especially enjoyed the chapters about the Flight to Varennes, where Leonard acted as a secret messenger for the King and Queen, and his brother may have unwittingly foiled the royal family’s plan to flee France. Leonard had a long career after the French Revolution, styling the hair of the Russian Imperial family, including the murdered Czar Paul I for his state funeral. Marie Antoinette’s Head is lavishly illustrated with images from the French archives of Marie Antoinette, her family and her famous hairstyles. Highly recommended.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Romanovs, Royalty and Revolution

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 27: Romanovs, Royalty and Revolution July 17, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the murder of Russia’s last Imperial family and four members of their household by Bolshevik revolutionaries in Ekaterinburg. The centenary of this tragic event has prompted the publication of new books and articles concerning the Romanovs and their legacy.

The two most recent non-fiction works about the Imperial family, To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall and The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport examine whether an escape from Russia was possible after Nicholas II’s abdication in March 1917. Hall discusses the difficulties faced by the whole extended Romanov family while Rappaport focuses closely on Nicholas, Alexandra and their children and the political and logistical difficulties that prevented them from leaving Russia.

A recently published historical novel, The Romanov Empress, focuses on Czar Nicholas II’s mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna, the most senior member of the Imperial family to survive the revolution and find refuge in Europe. In the past week, I also read two history books about royal families who faced political upheaval in past centuries as well as a historical novel set in the aftermath of the Japanese annexation of Korea and a history of the Baltic States. Here are this week’s reviews:

#183 of 365 To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall

Genre: History

Date Read: July 9-July 12, 2018

Format: E-Book, 306 pages

Acquired: Received a review copy from Amberley Publishing

Review: A fascinating history of what Europe’s royal families did and did not do to help Czar Nicholas II and his extended family after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Most books that examine negotiations concerning a possible rescue of the Romanovs focus narrowly on King George V and the British government. In addition to George V, Hall discusses a diverse array of European monarchs including King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who showed a strong interest in the welfare of the Russian Imperial family, Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose assistance was rebuffed by his Russian relatives because of the First World War, and King Christian X of Denmark, whose diplomats provided some aid to imprisoned Grand Dukes in 1919. Hall draws upon British and European archival sources as well as the unpublished diaries of Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri, who became increasingly outraged by George V’s failure to do more to help Nicholas II.

While I greatly enjoyed the book, I thought the ending could have been stronger, emphasizing all the reasons why there were not more efforts to help the Romanovs, such as the First World War and the poor communications of the time. The book is filled with references to undelivered letters and unsent telegrams that undermined efforts to locate the Romanovs once they were sent to Siberia, let alone develop a viable rescue plan.  Instead, To Free the Romanovs, ends with the loose threads in the negotiations between Russia and various European powers concerning the Romanovs just before the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his immediate family, and the hope that that further information will come to light.

#184 of 365 The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 372 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Date Read: July 13, 2018

Review: A thoroughly researched study of the obstacles to rescuing Czar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their children in 1917 and 1918. Rappaport argues that there was a very narrow window of opportunity for the Imperial family to escape because of the internal political situation within Russia. She includes her own notes on her research process and how she built upon the work of previous authors who have examined the unsuccessful efforts to rescue the Romanovs by Europe’s monarchs.

I found Rappaport’s analysis of the influence of Empress Alexandra’s reputation on attitudes toward rescuing the Romanovs both within Russia and across Europe especially interesting. By 1917, Alexandra had alienated many of her own relatives as well as popular opinion in both the United Kingdom and Russia, and negative attitudes concerning her influence over Nicholas undermined interest her welfare and that of her family.

The book concludes with the former Imperial family’s own views of potential rescue plans. Their reluctance to be separated from one another and to leave Russia means that they would not have supported many of the plans discussed in the book. An engaging and absorbing read, even though the ending is sadly well known.

#185 of 365 The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna by C. W. Gortner

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: July 14-15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 427 pages

Review: An excellent historical novel from the perspective of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Czar Nicholas II, and sister of King George I of Greece and Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom. C. W. Gortner brings Maria, nicknamed Minnie, and her colourful family to life. The scenes with Minnie’s sister-in-law and “friendly rival” Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, nicknamed Miechen, were especially entertaining. Gortner provides a nuanced portrayal of Minnie’s marriage to Czar Alexander III, which was successful in many ways but not without its challenges, and shows her frustrations at becoming increasingly marginalized from major decisions during her son’s reign. I would have liked more scenes set outside of Russia as Minnie was prodigious traveler who spent much of Nicholas II’s reign visiting relatives in England, Denmark and Greece. There were therefore opportunities to show more of Europe’s royal courts in the years leading up to WWI. Otherwise, an enjoyable novel inspired by a historical figure who lived through key events in the 19th and 20th centuries.

#186 of 365 Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots by Nancy Goldstone

Genre: History

Date Read: July 15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Ben McNally Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 480 pages

Review: An absorbing four generation family saga beginning with the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and ending with the accession of George I in 1714. Goldstone describes the reign of James I, the eventful life of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, and the adventures of her thirteen children, including four gifted daughters. Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Sophia, actively campaigned for her family to be acknowledged as the senior line in the British succession and her son George I became the first monarch from the House of Hanover.

Goldstone draws interesting parallels between Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth of Bohemia and Sophia of Hanover in their tireless promotion of their family’s interests. In addition to their political significance, Elizabeth’s daughters were part of the intellectual life of the seventeenth century. Princess Elizabeth, corresponded with Descartes, Louise Hollandine was an accomplished portrait artist and Sophia and her daughter supported the work of Leibniz. I would have been interested to have read more about these intellectual currents. For example, there are passing references to prestigious University of Heidelberg without mention of the nature of the scholarship taking place there at the time. Daughters of the Winter Queen is otherwise a fascinating joint biography about an important branch of the royal family who became the direct ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II.

#187 of 365 Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson

Genre: History

Date Read: July 17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 331 pages

Review: A careful and detailed analysis of lives and deaths of Crown Prince Rudolf of the Habsburg Empire and Mary Vetsera who died in an apparent suicide pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Greg King and Penny Wilson examine the myths surrounding the events at Mayerling and the efforts of Emperor Franz Joseph to prevent any further investigation of his son’s death. They present a plausible reconstruction of what might have happened the night that Rudolf and Mary died. King and Wilson also describe the cultural atmosphere of late 19th century Vienna, a city that had one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, and discuss the tensions within Rudolf’s dysfunctional extended family. They provide an especially sensitive portrayal of Rudolf’s estranged wife, Crown Princess Stephanie, who suspected that Rudolf planned to harm himself and attempted to warn other members of the Habsburg dynasty. The book concludes with an epilogue that discusses the colourful life of Rudolf and Stephanie’s only child, Archduchess Elizabeth and the convent founded on the site of Mayerling where daily prayers are still offered for Rudolf’s soul.

#188 of 365 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 11-July 14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 16 minutes

Review: The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 brought the reign of the last Korean Emperor, Sunjong, to an end. Pachinko is set in the aftermath of this political upheaval, following four generations of a Korean family who face discrimination and changing fortunes in Japan. The first two thirds of the novel are especially good as the political and economic circumstances of Japan and Korea, especially the Depression and Second World War, inform the conditions faced by the central characters. The atmosphere at the boarding house in Korea and in the Korean district of Osaka, Japan, as well as the pervasive obstacles faced by the characters as Koreans in Japan are presented in a compelling fashion.

The narrative begins to the lose momentum once Noa discovers some hidden truths about his family’s history. During the later chapters, there are too many jumps in the chronology and too many digressions concerning minor characters and their love lives. The novel is at its best when its focused on the central characters and their challenges within the wider context of Korean and Japanese history.

#189 of 365 A History of the Baltic States by Andres Kasekamp

Genre: History

Date Read: July 17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Paperback, 251 pages

Review: A good overview of the history of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from prehistoric times to the present. More than half of the book is devoted to the 20th century but the major events and historical figures from earlier centuries are also discussed in some detail. I found the analysis of the influence of Baltic Germans on Imperial Russian history especially interesting. Kasekamp notes that “From Peter the Great until the demise of the monarchy in 1917, an astonishingly high proportion (one-eighth) of individuals who served in the top echelons of the Imperial administration were of Baltic German origin” with Baltic influence especially pronounced during the reigns of Peter the Great’s consort and successor Catherine I (who was raised in what is now Latvia) and his niece, Anna. The book includes detailed maps, a chronology of events, and an extensive further reading section organized by time period and theme.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Russian History and Literature

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 21: Russian History and Literature: In late May and early June, I read some works of modern Russian history and literature including a history of Saint Petersburg (which I am looking forward to visiting for the second time this August), a very somber history of Russian gulags in the 20th century, a history of the October Revolution written by a science fiction author and a Dostoyevsky novel that critiqued the revolutionary movements of his times. After taking a break to read some royal biographies (reviewed here last week) and some fun novels (to be reviewed later this week), I finished reading a biography of Mikhail Gorbachev that I started earlier in the month and concluded with a Trans-Siberian railway travelogue. Here are this week’s reviews:

#142 of 365 Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia by W. Bruce Lincoln

Genre: History

Format: Hardcover, 470 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from a friend

Date Read: May 28-30, 2018

Review: A excellent overview of Saint Petersburg’s history, especially the art and literature inspired by the city, with a strong focus on the 19th and 20th centuries. The chapters about the Silver Age of Russian poetry and the Siege of Leningrad are especially well written. The eighteenth century, however, including the seminal reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, however, do not receive as much attention as they merit and the building of the city goes by quite quickly. Overall, however, Sunlight at Midnight is a well written and insightful biography of Russia’s old Imperial capital.

#143 of 365 Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 27 hours and 45 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 27-30, 2018

Review: A well researched, comprehensive and heartbreaking history of the gulag forced labour camps in Soviet Russia. The chapters concerning child and adolescent inmates are particularly difficult to read. Journalist Anne Applebaum balances the history of how and why the gulag system was established with a comprehensive analysis of daily life in the camps including food, visitors, labour, and relations between prisoners and guards. Sources include memoirs and archival documents. The focus on the voices of the inmates makes the history very compelling.

While the book is excellent, the audiobook has a few shortcomings. The narrator has difficulty with Russian names and sometimes pronounces the same name in a few different ways over the course of the book. Also, the chapter subheadings do not match the audiobook sections and so it can be difficult to find subsections within a chapter. Otherwise, an excellent book.

#144 of 365 October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville

Genre: History

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 37 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Listened: May 30-June 1, 2018

Review: Since October is a history book written by a novelist, I was expecting the book to be more of a page turner. Instead, it is a history of the Russian Revolution that consists primarily of revolutionaries attending meetings (“And still the soviet continued to debate.”) The author also tends to romanticize the Bolsheviks, especially Lenin and Trotsky as well as the October Revolution, even though this event ultimately led to a great deal of suffering for the Russian people. There are some one dimensional portrayals of some of the other major historical figures (Czar Nicholas II is described as having “bovine passivity”) and a few historical inaccuracies (Princess Putiatina was a friend of Grand Duke Michael, not his wife). Readable but not as engaging as I expected.

#145 of 365 Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

Genre: Russian History/Biography

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 928 pages

Dates Read: June 3-18, 2018

Review:  The definitive biography of Mikhail Gorbachev, informed by extensive research and interviews. The subject of the book warned the author in the introduction that “Gorbachev is complicated” and Taubman unravels this complexity by placing Gorbachev within the context of his times. The influence of Gorbachev’s parents and grandparents and how their experiences countered the prevailing soviet cultural narrative is especially well presented.

Taubman also provides an excellent account of Gorbachev’s marriage. Raisa Gorbachev was the most influential spouse of a Russian leader since the Czarina Alexandra and her role both within Russia and abroad is discussed in detail. There is also extensive analysis of Gorbachev’s interactions with world leaders including American president Ronald Reagan, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well as King Juan Carlos of Spain, whom Gorbachev admired for managing Spain’s transition from Francisco Franco’s rule to democracy. A fascinating and absorbing biography of one of the 20th century’s most significant political leaders.

#146 of 365 Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Genre: Russian Literature

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: June 3-7, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 28 hours and 2 minutes

Review: An intense and difficult listen. There are some powerful scenes but I preferred Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as novels. Dostoevsky’s philosophy is front and centre in Devils and it tends to overwhelm the characters. Like all Dostoevsky novels. there are desperate men committing unspeakable acts, long suffering women, meditations on the nature of Russian society and spirituality and a few moments of dark humour amidst all the depressing developments but, in my opinion, these characteristics don’t come together in Devils to create a satisfying whole. The audiobook was well read by George Guidall but I did not find this book as compelling as Dostoevsky’s other novels.

#147 of 365 Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into The Heart of Russia by David Greene

Genre: Travel Writing

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Date Read: June 19, 2018

Review: I expected Midnight in Siberia to focus closely on the author’s journey aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway and the major cities along its route. Instead, the book focuses on the author’s efforts, as an American journalist, to understand Russian political attitudes and culture. His interviews provide a series of snapshots of rural life in modern Russia. Since the author is the former Moscow bureau chief of NPR, I was surprised that he was not more familiar with the language (he relies heavily on his translator, Sergei) and that his mentions of Russian history were limited to Stalin’s gulags and the Decemberists. There are some interesting chapters that illustrate the complexities of Russian society today but there are also repetitive straightforward observations from the author such as “Russians like tea” or “history and culture matter.” Interesting but not quite what I expected.

My January-February 2018 course at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies: Family Life from Medieval to Modern Times

On Wednesday afternoons in January and February 2018, I will be teaching an eight week history course about Family Life from Medieval to Modern Times.

Click here for more information and to register.

Course Description:

Our views on marriage and childrearing would seem very strange to families of past centuries. We’ll see the influence of romanticism on the current understanding of family life, the changing role of grandparents in relation to family traditions, and the emergence of a distinct children’s culture including the birth of children’s literature, due in part to the expansion of formal education. Join us for a look at marriage and parenting customs and advice through the centuries, and the surprising influence of history on family life today.
Learning Outcomes:

Imperial Russia Book Reviews: 1913 Diary of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna and Maria and Anastasia: The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses in Their Own Words

Grand Duchess Maria (1899-1918) is the least well known of the four daughters of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II and his consort, Empress Alexandra. Her two older sisters, Grand Duchess Olga (1895-1918) and Grand Duchess Tatiana (1897-1918) came of age and made their debut in Russian high society before the outbreak of the First World War and continued to be prominent public figures in wartime as nurses and heads of charitable organization. Maria’s younger sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia (1901-1918) became famous after her death as she was impersonated by numerous women who claimed to have survived the massacre of the Imperial family in 1918. In the context of her family, Maria was overshadowed by her sisters and younger brother, the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Alexei (1904-1918) and there is evidence that she sometimes felt overlooked in her own lifetime.

 In recent decades, the publication of new primary source material concerning the imprisonment and murder of the Romanovs has done little for Maria’s reputation and historical legacy. A 1918 interview with Vassili Yakolev, the Bolshevik Commissar who escorted Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg (their final place of imprisonment), translated and reprinted in The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution dismisses Maria in a few lines: “Maria, the Romanovs’ daughter, is completely immature for her years. She has no understanding at all of life in the broad sense of the word. She is under the strong influence of her mother.” The 2005 book The Fate of the Romanovs, quotes extensively from biased Bolshevik sources and presents the teenaged Maria as a flirt who was censured by her family because of her friendly relations with the soldiers who kept the Romanovs under guard in 1917 and 1918.  Helen Rappaport’s books about the Imperial family are kinder to Maria but Rappaport still emphasizes Maria’s perceived flirtations, concluding that “Gauche and naive, she was an innocent abroad in the company of men” in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg.

Two new volumes of Maria’s letters and diaries,1913 Diary of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna: Complete Tercentennial Journal of the Third Daughter of the Last Tsar and Maria and Anastasia: The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses In Their Own Words: Letters, Diaries, Postcards, edited by Helen Azar, finally allow the Grand Duchess to speak for her herself and demonstrate that she was not fully understood by those who met her in passing during the final months of her life. Klavdia Bitner, a tutor employed in 1917 noted that the Grand Duchesses were unfamiliar with certain contemporary authors and concluded that they were indifferently educated but Maria’s 1913 diary reveals that at the age of thirteen and fourteen, Maria’s days were dominated by lessons. On February 5, 1913, she wrote, “Had lessons in the morning…[In the afternoon] Had a dance lesson. Had a music lesson…Then did homework.” A report card from that year demonstrates that Maria received top marks from all of her tutors and that she experienced a wide variety of educational opportunities from frequent visits to theatre and ballet to physics lessons in the science lab of a secondary school near the Alexander Palace.

During the First World War, Nicholas II spent months at a time at military headquarters as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army and his daughters wrote him frequent letters. Of the four sisters, Maria may have been the most descriptive letter writer, providing detailed and thoughtful accounts of the hospital where she volunteered with her sister Anastasia. On May 29, 1916, Maria wrote to her father, “This afternoon we rode around then went to our infirmary. Almost all the wounded are lying in the tent…Those who are able, walk to the Catherine Park and sail around the lake in row boats. They really enjoy this and always ask the nurses to go with them.”

Both Maria’s 1913 diary and her wartime letters demonstrate how closely she and her sisters were integrated into their father’s close relationship with the military: all four of the Grand Duchesses became honourary Colonels-in-Chief of regiments from the age of fourteen, attended military reviews, organized social events for military personnel and volunteered in military hospitals. This routine meant that Maria was comfortable socializing with soldiers from a young age. Her interest in the daily lives of soldiers and ability to create a friendly rapport would be interpreted as flirtation by Bolshevik observers after her family was placed under guard following Nicholas’s abdication in March 1917.

Maria’s diaries and letters also provide insights concerning the daily routine and social circle of the Russian Imperial family during the 1913 tercentennial of the Romanov dynasty and the First World War. The involvement of two of Czar Nicholas II’s relatives, his cousin Grand Duke Dmitri and nephew by marriage Prince Felix Yusupov, in the 1916 murder of Grigori Rasputin seems to demonstrate a longstanding estrangement between Nicholas and his extended family but Maria’s letters and diaries demonstrate that Nicholas, Alexandra and their children had a warm relationship with numerous members of the Romanov extended family. Maria appears to have been particularly close to the “Ai-Todorsky,” the children of her Aunt, Grand Duchess Xenia, including Princess Irina, who married Felix Yusupov.

Maria was murdered with the rest of her family on the night of July 16-17, 1918, soon after her nineteenth birthday. Her final letters demonstrate that she was the most hopeful member of her family in their final months. In a letter written just two months before her death, Maria wrote, “It is difficult to write anything pleasant, because there is very little of it here to report, but on the other hand, God does not abandon us, the sun shines and the birds sing.” The publication of Maria’s letters and diaries provide valuable new insights about life within Russia’s last Imperial family from 1913 to 1918 and show Maria to be an intelligent and thoughtful observer of her family’s experiences during the Romanov tercentennial, First World War and Russian Revolution.

My October-November 2017 course at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies: Women In Power

“Boadicea Haranguing the Britons” by John Opie

In the Fall of 2017, I will be teaching an eight week course about the history of Women in Power at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Click here for more information and to register:

Time and Date:

03 Oct 2017 – 21 Nov 2017 
Tuesdays 
7:00PM – 9:00PM

Course Description:

Powerful women have presented themselves as warrior queens, rulers by divine right, wives and mothers and, most recently, as elected officials. We’ll examine the most significant female political figures in history, including Boadicea, Queen Isabella, Queen Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton. Through lively lectures and discussions, you’ll learn the story of women in political life. Why are women still underrepresented in political life? Join Carolyn Harris for a fascinating look at the often-neglected place of women in power from Cleopatra to Angela Merkel.

Learning Outcomes:

 

National Post review of Raising Royalty: “Murder your children’s rivals, and other parenting tips from royals”

19th century portrait of Peter the Great interrogating his son, Alexei

My new book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, is featured in the weekend National Post including quotes from the chapters about Peter the Great, Queen Victoria and Henry VIII.

“[The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge] want Princess Charlotte and Prince George to go to the local school. They want to be hands-on parents. On the day George left the hospital, William wrestled with the lad’s car seat, a performance reenacted daily by new dads the world over. The message they hoped you’d glean from it? Will and Kate are just like you and me.

In her new book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, Canadian historian Carolyn Harris reveals there may be other parenting tips to be gleaned from royal watching. With Harris as inspiration, we offer six tips from moms and dads who also happened to be monarchs.”

Click here to read “Murder your children’s rivals, and other parenting tips from royals” in the National Post

Smithsonian Russian Revolution Series: May 1917: The Women Warriors of the Russian Revolution

Maria Bockareva, who issued a call to arms for Russian women in May 1917

The May article in my Russian Revolution series in Smithsonian Magazine examines the May Day celebrations in Russia on May 1, 1917 and the subsequent call to arms for Russian women to take up combat roles during the First World War. Advocates of women’s rights in Russia and around the world, including the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, paid close attention to the mobilization of women on the eastern front.

Click here to read “The Women Warriors of the Russian Revolution” in Smithsonian Magazine

Links to all of my Russian history articles in Smithsonian Magazine are available here.

Sources and Further Reading:

 The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars Nadezhda Durova is quoted at the beginning of the article. The experiences of Durova, a woman who served with distinction in the Napoleonic Wars influenced Russian popular culture during the years preceding the First World War.

The May Day celebrations in Saint Petersburg on May 1, 1917 are described in detail in Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport. The book also discusses Emmeline Pankhurst’s visit to Russia in the Spring on 1917.

Excerpts from the former Czar Nicholas II’s diaries, including his account of the May Day celebrations outside the Alexander Palace, where the Imperial family were under house arrest in 1917, are available to read in A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story.

Maria Bockareva, the soldier who formed The Women’s Battalion of Death in 1917, wrote a memoir about her experiences, which was reprinted in 2013 as Maria’s War: A Soldier’s Autobiography.

The newspaper account of Russian women disguising themselves as men to enlist in the war effort as early as 1914 is available to read in Conflict and Cooperation: Documents on Modern Global History, edited by Tracey J. Kinney.

Midwives of the Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917 by Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar provides further context for the mobilization of women in 1917 as well as the role of women in the Bolshevik party.