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