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Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar
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Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar

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by Edvard Radzinsky, Antonina Bouis (Translator), Antonina W. Bouis (Translator)

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Edvard Radzinsky is justly famous as both a biographer and a dramatist, and he brings both skills to bear in this vivid, page-turning, rich portrait of one of the greatest of all Romanovs. Alexander II was Russia's Lincoln — he freed the serfs, promised a new, more liberal state for everyone, yet was brought down by a determined group of terrorist anarchists


Edvard Radzinsky is justly famous as both a biographer and a dramatist, and he brings both skills to bear in this vivid, page-turning, rich portrait of one of the greatest of all Romanovs. Alexander II was Russia's Lincoln — he freed the serfs, promised a new, more liberal state for everyone, yet was brought down by a determined group of terrorist anarchists who tried to kill him six times before finally, fatefully, succeeding. His story proves the timeless lesson that in Russia, it is dangerous to start reforms, but even more dangerous to stop them. It also shows that the traps and dangers encountered in today's war on terrorists were there 150 years ago.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Radzinsky tells Alexander's story with great flair, breathless pacing, and the novelist's eye for the telling detail and the revealing anecdote. Alexander II is a great read, vividly portraying the tsar and his splendorous court, and offering evocative sketches of the age's great writers, artists, and intellectuals who made his reign one of such rich cultural effervescence."

The Seattle Times

"Lively and brilliant, both epic and epigrammatic."

The New York Times Book Review

"This is [Radzinsky's] best so far: Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar is dramatic, entertaining, and authoritative. Mr. Radzinsky is as comfortable in the palaces of the Romanovs as he is in the conspiratorial attics of their assassins or the studies of great writers like Dostoevsky.... Mr. Radzinsky skillfully tells the story of the czar, of course, but also of the terrorists who begin to hunt him ruthlessly in ever more ambitious plots."

The Wall Street Journal

"An engagingly flamboyant, intimate portrait of the tsar who ruled the enormous empire at the pinnacle of its culture and splendor....[Radzinsky is] informative, witty, and unfailingly entertaining."

Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"A compelling account of one of Russia's most important figures, as well as a portrait of a critical, formative period in Russian history."

The Washington Post

Alexander II (1818-81) was Russia's most progressive tsar, the one Romanov ruler who could have delivered his people safely into the 20th century. But it was not to be: "Russia's Abraham Lincoln" was cut down on the streets of St. Petersburg by a Nihilist assassin before his reforms could be completed. Celebrated historian Edvard Radzinsky's biography of Alexander recaptures the turmoil of the time without losing sight of the "Tsar Liberator" at its center.
Peter Baker
… Radzinsky's volume offers presidents and everyday readers alike a compelling account of one of Russia's most important figures, as well as a portrait of a critical, formative period in Russian history. Beyond the engaging narrative -- complete with all the spectacle, romance and intrigue that once dominated the court of St. Petersburg -- Radzinsky, a famous Russian playwright and television personality turned pop historian, presents a timely look at the roots of revolution and the nature of Russian society.
— The Washington Post
Richard Lourie
Radzinsky's Alexander is an abstraction. The floorboards never creak beneath his weight.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
It's difficult to reform Russia, as popular historian Radzinsky shows in this lively examination of the czar best known for emancipating the serfs in 1861. Viewed as the most liberal of Russia's 19th-century czars, Alexander II (1818-1881) came to power in 1856 with the idea of bringing Russia into the modern age. But as Radzinsky (The Last Tsar) shows, his liberal reforms brought him nothing but trouble. Alexander came under attack from the right for being too liberal, and the left for not going far enough. He also had to curtail his reforms when faced with the need to fight foreign enemies. Radzinsky focuses much of the latter half of the book on the rise of left-wing populist movements-the book covers in depth the intellectual currents that swirled around Russia during Alexander's reign. Some frustrated leftists eventually turned to violence. After many failed attempts to assassinate Alexander, they eventually succeeded in 1881. Some readers may think Radzinsky provides too much familial background before launching into the czar's life, but his well-translated, readable prose will win over most readers interested in European history, and those looking for a cautionary tale on what Russia could face in the future. (Oct. 18) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Best-selling author Radzinsky (e.g., The Rasputin File), a celebrated talk-show host and playwright in his native Russia, has written a biography for general readers that could double as a social and political history of prerevolutionary Russia. Its subject, who ruled Russia from 1855 to 1881, is best known for freeing the serfs but is characterized here as a "two faced Janus" because he spent the next 15 years keeping them in their place. Alexander II lived a charmed life, surviving at least six assassination attempts, but he remained caught between "the retrogrades," or conservative element in the government, and the revolutionaries. He was disliked by the liberals, who found his reforms inadequate and turned more radical in response. On March 1, 1881, he was finally assassinated by a handmade bomb thrown at his feet. Radzinsky sees Mikhail Gorbachev as a flawed reformer like Alexander II (looking backward while looking forward) and argues that the travails of 21st-century Russia have their roots in the vacillations of this tsar. Though scholars will find no new thesis here, the book is well researched, with a flowing narrative that weaves cultural history and biography very accessibly. Recommended for public libraries and general collections on prerevolutionary Russia.-Harry Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. Syst., Iola Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Spare the knout and spoil the serf: an admiring biography of the 19th-century Russian ruler who ushered in modernizing reforms but was assassinated all the same. By Russian TV personality and pop historian Radzinsky's account, Alexander II was a soft touch, inclined to take after his mother, who was "frail and gentle, with azure eyes," rather than his father, "the indomitable giant" Tsar Nicholas, whose differences apparently "helped create the great harmony of their marriage." They may have found room to argue over young Alexander, who was altogether nice. When Nicholas asked his son what he would have done with a roomful of plotters arrested in the aborted Decembrist uprising, for instance, Alexander replied that he would forgive them in proper Christian fashion. His father replied scornfully, "Remember this: Die on the steps to the throne, but do not give up power!" When Nicholas finally died, Alexander immediately set about reforms that would be likened to the perestroika of the Gorbachev era, though, Radzinsky adds, "Starting reforms in Russia is dangerous, but it is much more dangerous to stop them." One reform was the abolition of serfdom, which, Radzinsky writes, occasioned only the briefest of honeymoons between the royals and the growing antimonarchical movement in Russia. The liberals of mid-19th-century Russia saw hope that Alexander would lead the country toward some version of social democracy, but Alexander had no intention of reforming himself out of a job, whereupon the pioneering nihilists and radicals who had been learning their politics from Marx and Bakunin-who make pleasing guest appearances, as does the ever-morose Fyodor Dostoyevsky-set about trying to do the tsarin, attempting to assassinate him on no fewer than six occasions and finally succeeding in March 1881. What the country got in return was a worse ruler, making nostalgia for Alexander a popular sentiment at the time of the revolution. Those who share that yearning for long-gone royals will find this portrait a pleasure.

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Free Press
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Read an Excerpt


This may be the most important era in the thousand-year existence of Russia.

— Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich

Diary, January 1, 1861

If we perish, there will be others.

— Terrorist Andrei Zhelyabov

The history of Tsar Alexander II is paradoxical. Alexander II dreamed of bringing Russia into the circle of European states, leading the country toward a European constitution. He gave the eternal Russian pendulum that swings between West and East a definite push to the West. Yet this Westernizing tsar is little known in the West.

Nevertheless, Alexander II was the greatest reformer tsar since Peter the Great. The Russian Lincoln, he put an end to a thousand years of Russian slavery by emancipating the serfs.

He did more than free 23 million Russian slaves; he reformed Russian life by changing the justice system, the army, and the very form of government. He was the father of the first Russian perestroika, which brought about a great spiritual awakening. "The Thaw"..."The Great Icebreaker"..."The Russian Renaissance" were some of the terms for Alexander's reign used by the press. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Mendeleyev only begin the list of stars in the galaxy of famous writers and scientists who created their masterworks in the days of Alexander II.

"This may be the most important era in the thousand-year existence of Russia," wrote the tsar's brother, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, in his diary.

"What a novel his life makes!" wrote a contemporary. His turbulent life encompassed everything from great reforms, to victorious wars, to the sexual exploits of a royal Don Juan, to his final, great love. Yet this hot blood in Russia's leader, echoed in that of his country, flowed dangerously. Once Alexander quickened Russia's pulse, he could not contain its circulation.

Like all reformers who followed him, including Mikhail Gorbachev, he failed to understand this basic truth: "Starting reforms in Russia is dangerous, but it is much more dangerous to stop them."

The young radicals, the children of his perestroika, decided to hasten Russian history. The great tsar was forced to see the bitterest change: His Russia became the home of terrorism, a terrorism previously unparalleled in scope and bloodshed in Europe.

Bombs and gunshots exploded all over the country. Tsarist officials were killed. Alexander II survived six attempts on his life. The terrorists managed to blow up his Winter Palace. The tsar saw the blood of dead and wounded victims in his own home.

For the first time the fate of the country was decided not only in the magnificent royal palace but in the impoverished hidden apartments of the terrorists.

Underground Russia, with its secret life and bloody exploits, is an important character in this book.

"Our work is destruction, a terrible, total, universal and ruthless destruction" proclaimed one of the fathers of Russian terrorism. "The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no interests, no work, no feelings, no ties, no property, not even a name. Everything is consumed by the single, exclusive interest, the sole thought, the sole passion: revolution. Poison, dagger, and noose — the Revolution sanctifies everything."

The Russian terrorism of Alexander II's reign remarkably presaged the terrorism of our day. The words and slogans that agitated the long-buried and decomposed Russian terrorists can be read in newspaper articles today.

"The basic lesson of history is that people do not learn from history," is a trite but — alas — true aphorism.

Alexander II had to learn to fight against a previously unknown evil (the "new barbarians," as he called them). The tsar declared a war on terror, for the first but not the last time in history.

His war broke off in March 1881.

Copyright © 2005 by Edvard Radzinsky

Meet the Author

Edvard Radzinsky is the author of the bestselling The Last Tsar, Stalin, and The Rasputin File. He is one of Russia's most celebrated playwrights. He lives in Moscow, where he is also an award-winning television personality.

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