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BY OKSANA INGLE • Special to The Post and Courier • Jul 17 2016
INSIDE the elegant, azure cover of this fascinating book about the Romanov dynasty lies an abundance of new facts about Russian personalities, power, intrigue and, yes, romance.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is a brilliant storyteller who knows how to keep your attention. He structures his narrative in three-acts with multiple scenes. Each scene begins with its cast list, which helps you follow the story and keep track of all the Russian names. He also includes a family tree, lots of portraits and photographs, and a helpful map of the expansion of Russia.
His story unfolds chronologically as he deftly switches the focus from one person to another in different cities and countries. Through the use of memoirs and letters, the characters come alive as though conversing with each other.
Montefiore’s retelling and interpretation of history is never boring. There are plenty of details, but they never overwhelm you, and you certainly don’t want to miss a single one of his informative, sometimes juicy, footnotes.
In a television interview, Montefiore told how during the 1990s he became a war correspondent in Chechnya, then a historian and novelist: “I had money from banking and I could afford to do and go where I wanted to.”
This explains how he was able to visit “the great majority of Romanov palaces, many key sites, and state archives” across Russia, Europe, the Middle East and Asia where he met not only with directors of museums and archives but even with some Romanov family descendants.
Among all the welcomed new information in this historical narrative are tidbits and gossip about the Russian court: people’s physical traits, foibles, idiosyncrasies, sexual liaisons, gender-bender relationships, torrid love letters and more.
It is known, for example, that Peter the Great (1682-1725) was 6-foot-8 and had tireless energy, which he needed to build his “window into Europe”: St. Petersburg. Less known is that Peter had a constant tic in his face and was subject to epileptic fits that only his wife, the orphan of a Lithuanian peasant, could soothe.
One of Peter’s 12 children, tsarina Elizabeth (1741-1762), was recognized for her beauty and grace. No wonder, then, that she became a “fashion despot” who issued firm decrees about court attire. By the time of her death, 15,000 outfits hung in her vast closets.
Elizabeth chose Catherine (1762-1796), the Prussian-born Princess Sophie, to marry her nephew Peter III, who was later murdered by those loyal to the young Catherine, later known as Catherine the Great. She never remarried, but went on to rule Russia for 34 years, significantly expanded its borders, and ushering in the Golden Age of Russian nobility. She was a disciplined, dedicated and respected matriarch who started each morning at 6 a.m. making her own coffee, and who ended most evenings in the arms of a lover. As Catherine wrote in one letter, “The trouble is that my heart can’t be without love for even an hour.”
Nicholas II (1894-1917), the last of the Romanov tsars, had impeccable English manners and was unerringly calm in all circumstances, even while abdicating his throne during the February 1917 Revolution. When he learned, however, that the Romanov dynasty was coming to an end, he cried with his mother like a naive little boy who didn’t understand what was really happening.
Whereas parts of his book are based on material already known to educated readers, many new facts are pulled from recent research and analysis.
For example, Montefiore draws from Russian archives that include letters and diaries previously considered “too shocking to publish.” Some were the letters of Alexander II (1855-1881) to his lover, Katya, “perhaps the most explicit correspondence ever written by the head of the State, using their pet names to describe their love-making.”
During the 304-year reign of the Romanovs, Russia was transformed from a medieval Muscovite fiefdom into an Empire, the largest and one of the most powerful countries in the world.
“No other dynasty except the Caesars has such a place in the popular imagination and culture, and both deliver universal lessons about how personal power works, then and now,” Montefiore writes. “It is no coincidence that the title ‘tsar’ derives from Caesar.” Interesting, too, that this family, who believed their divine mission was to make Russia the third “Rome,” had the name “Romanov.”
Each tsar’s personal characteristics colored the way they ruled, what they accomplished and the kind of relations they had with their subjects, enemies and allies. One of many touching stories that Montefiore tells is when Alexander II (1855-1881) learned about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Although Alexander did not share the same philosophy of government, he admired Lincoln, ordering mourning prayers in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. He also wrote to Mary Lincoln that the president “was the noblest and greatest Christian of our generation — a beacon to the whole world — nothing but courage, steadfastness, and desire to do good.”
Montefiore also describes how Peter the Great so wished to be the first servant of his dream Empire that he traveled through Europe for 18 months incognito, “determined to learn the trade of shipbuilding and return with the technologies of the West.”
Overall, Montefiore’s book leaves you with the strong impression that the extended Romanov dynasty formed the spine of the Russian Empire which was broken in 1918 when the Bolsheviks recklessly executed Nicholas II and his family. Unbeknownst to his assassins, the communists and the post-1991 government established at the end of the Soviet Union reconstructed Russia’s autocratic spine. But they were never able to restore its noble marrow.
Special to The Post and Courier • May 1, 2016
MANY RUSSIANS would love to have a tsar again. But in their hearts, they know that is not what Vladimir Putin is. He is more like a loyal, hard-working assistant who rose steadily through the ranks to become the CEO of Kremlin, Inc., which is how he comes across in Steven Myers’s new book, “The New Tsar.”
Even on the cover, Putin is wearing a gray suit and tie, seated inelegantly on a corporate armchair, staring down with an unprofessional glare of disdain. He certainly does not look like a grand Russian tsar.
This book is pitched (on the jacket) as a “riveting read,” but it will fall seriously short of that for the average reader. On the other hand, scholars, political scientists, journalists and others intrigued by Putin will relish all the details about how a nondescript, hardworking Soviet security officer from an ordinary Leningrad family unexpectedly found himself in the president’s chair in the Kremlin.
It is an incredible journey. After all, who would have thought that since 2000 Putin, despite severe criticism, would garner the favor of 60-80 percent of Russians and in 2015 be selected by Forbes as Number 1 on its list of The World’s Most Powerful People?
Myers is a New York Times journalist who has spent seven of his 26 reporting years in Russia. He is clearly fascinated by Russia’s long transition from the former Soviet Union to its still unsettled and undefined status. He is even more interested in the most common and visible thread running through this transition: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Indeed, when the world thinks of modern Russia, it thinks of Putin, and it is Putin they try to understand as the barometer of what Russia is doing and where it is going.
Having myself been born and educated in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and being well-acquainted with Russian culture and history, I am impressed with Myers’ painstaking and accurate fact-finding, his well-considered points of view and his arsenal of sources, which comprise some 80 pages of end notes and bibliography.
Equally impressive is how he resists stating his opinions. Instead, he objectively summarizes the attitudes and explanations uncovered during his research. He also includes many human-interest vignettes about Putin’s personal and professional life, and about Russian politics.
Despite Myers’ tendency to bog the reader down in too much detail sometimes, this book is a thorough, truthful story of Putin’s “Rise and Reign.”
Many Americans view Putin as a secretive and cunning former KGB agent defiant towards the United States. This book describes how Putin grew up in the backyards of a struggling, post-war Leningrad, joined a professional judo team and dreamed since the age of 15 about becoming a spy. To this day, Putin does not trust many people outside the circle of his old Leningrad comrades.
Myers shows how Putin became embroiled in Big Money acquired by the Russian government thanks to a nationalized oil and gas industry. There is no concrete proof, but Putin also is suspected of being behind the murder and/or imprisonment of obstinate oligarchs, outspoken journalists and vocal leaders of the opposition, all of which adds to the impression of him as vengeful, calculating and cruel.
At one point, Myers quotes President Barack Obama describing Putin as “sullen and insolent,” with “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But, as Myers makes clear, there is more to Putin than the outward appearance of an immature, pugilistic persona.
Less obvious, and certainly less acknowledged by the U.S., is that Putin is more adroit in foreign policy than many of our own politicians.
At times, Putin is quick and decisive, such as when he made up his mind to annex Crimea, a move that evoked fierce criticism and sanctions from the West, along with euphoria from many Russians who shouted, “Crym nash!” (Crimea is ours!).
At other times, Putin seems to show restraint, such as when he influenced European leaders to join him in opposing America’s plans to bomb Syria at the beginning of the civil war there.
Then, not long afterwards, he “joined forces” with the West for targeted (and controversial) air strikes. In another instance, when it came time to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, Putin ironically, if not humorously, treated Snowden as a defender of human rights who “struggles for the freedom of information.”
It was another political chess move that showed how adept Putin is at putting himself in the best position to win in the context of what he considers to be the best interests of Russia, even though it remains to be seen whether his moves will be beneficial to Russia in the long run.
Myers describes how Putin is equally savvy about domestic concerns. For example, Putin knows that most Russians spend hours a day watching TV, readily believing what they see and hear. Consequently, he makes a point of being on government-controlled television almost every day. His presentations and image are carefully staged by his Kremlin media advisers with remarkable effectiveness.
This constant publicity, in addition to serving his politics, bloats Putin’s self-esteem. As Myers says, Putin is presented as “an indispensable leader, even a glamorous, elite sexual icon.”
Russians would love to have a real tsar, but an international personality who is a strong, decisive man of action will suffice.
The reason, as Myers explains, is that the democratization Russia experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s ushered in extreme forms of chaos, injustice, inequality and poverty. The majority of Russians did not want that kind of democracy, and American democracy seemed hypocritical to them.
Then Putin came into office and life got much better during his first two terms. St. Petersburg, as well as many cities and towns, never looked so good.
Meanwhile, corruption is not the hindrance that it appears to be from a Western perspective. Russians know how corruption works and, to a certain extent, they expect it and have learned to live with it.
They criticize their government and themselves, but they do not like being criticized by outsiders. They regard most criticism of Putin, too, as Western propaganda and tend to blame not him, but those in power around him for pursuing commerce and profit.
To the average Russian, Putin is a fearless, lonely warrior who has brought economic growth, progress and stability to Russia, as well as revived the national pride that was lost in the chaos of the 1990s.
From his perspective, Putin interprets criticism of Russia, from both outside and inside the country, as a national insult.
He sees himself as the protector of Russia’s place as the largest country in the world. At the same time, he seems determined to be recognized, on the world stage and in history books, as the savior of Russian pride, power and respectability.
Nothing offends him more than being demonized or, even worse, belittled rather than respected for this.
This aspect of his nature ties into one of the key findings from Myers’s thorough dissection of Putin’s background and character: that although Putin is in many ways a simple person, he harbors an indelible pride of country, his ego is growing, his political skills are on the increase and he is willing to take risks. All of these tendencies are exactly why many Russian admire him, and why the rest of the world, especially the West, cannot predict what he might do next, or how to respond when he does act. In this sense, Putin is, as far as he is concerned, The New Tsar.
Russia holds an interesting place in the American imagination—a country viewed suspiciously by many through the lens of Cold War rivalries. One student put her graduation on hold in order to learn more about this world and better understand its differences and its commonalities.
by Kathleen Holden, class of ’15 • from the College of Charleston Magazine • Oct. 21, 2015
I CAME TO THE COLLEGE knowing one thing: I was not going to take Spanish for my language requirement. Not ever. I took Spanish for three years in high school and still can’t even ask where the bathroom is.
Luckily, I had plenty of choices here, including Hindi and Russian. I have always had an interest in Russia; something about how big and far away it is always intrigued me. So, my first semester, I took Professor Oksana Ingle’s course, Window Into Russia, and fell in love with the Russian people and their culture. Coincidently, I found a language requirement that wasn’t Spanish! After completing Oksana’s course, I declared my Russian studies minor, which wound up fitting perfectly with my anthropology major. From there, I began focusing solely on those two areas of study.
I started my final year of college last fall, when Oksana was promoting her Maymester in Russia to all the department’s classes. I don’t think she was having very much success; a lot of people were afraid to go or didn’t want to spend the money to go “somewhere so cold.” At first, I didn’t even consider going. I was on track to graduate in May and was thinking about a million other things. However, one day I ran into Oksana in the hall, and she made me feel a little guilty about my lack of interest in the trip. When I explained that I was graduating in May and probably couldn’t go, she told me not to worry about that: She’d had a student on a past trip who’d already graduated.
It’s actually not quite as simple as she made it sound: In order to go on a Maymester after graduation, you must still take the required classes, and you have to push your actual graduation date back until the end of summer. These things were not explained to me up front, but – once I got the idea of going to Russia in my head – I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.
I changed my graduation date to August and started looking for enough scholarship money to pay for most of the Maymester abroad. I knew early on that the typical Center for International Education scholarship wasn’t going to cut it, but then I learned that the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) and the anthropology department were both offering special scholarships for summer studies abroad. Both were competitive scholarships, and I knew whatever research I wanted to complete in Russia would have to stand out in order for me to be considered. In addition to an upper-level language class and a Russian literature course, I would be conducting an independent study – and that was what I was most interested in, and I had the freedom to choose any topic about Russian life, history or people.
Earlier in 2014, I’d learned that Russia would be hosting the 2018 World Cup and that the government was attempting to “modernize” the host cities there. I’d taken Social and Cultural Change the semester before, and knew that words like modernize are red flags for cultural change. Seeing the perfect connection between anthropology and Russian studies, I developed an independent study of the economic and cultural effects of Saransk hosting the World Cup. After what happened in Brazil, the World Cup and its effects had become a hot topic, and the subject caught the attention of both the HSS and the anthropology department. I was able to get enough scholarship money to go abroad!
It didn’t hit me that I was actually going to Russia until the night before I left. The two months before had been a blur: I was focusing on graduating and moving out of my downtown apartment, definitely not on being in Russia. Maybe that’s why I had almost no preconceived notion of what to expect. Everyone else, especially my parents, seemed to expect the Russians to hate Americans. They worried about how our little group would be received in Russia – that we would not be safe there.
The opposite was true. While St. Petersburg and Moscow are like any other big city in the world – lots of people from all over, and nobody exceptionally friendly – Saransk, a little town south of Moscow, was where we spent most of our time. And, in Saransk, the people are amazing! They were extremely open and welcomed us with open hearts. None of the young people behaved as if they hated Americans; they were just curious about our lives and the differences in how we grew up. As it turns out, there are very few differences, perhaps because American pop culture is so big there. The older people were a little reserved, but not because they hated Americans; rather, the Russian government portrays America in the same light that the American government does Russia, so they were skeptical and thought that all Americans hated Russians. Once we were able to sit down and talk to people, it was clear to see that – aside from cultural differences – we were not different at all. We’re just people trying to make the best life we can in this world.
This made my independent study especially interesting. People wanted to share their thoughts and feelings on Saransk becoming modernized for the World Cup. Most people thought the city needed to become modernized (e.g., new roads and better infrastructure). But many also felt like the government didn’t have the community’s best interests in mind. Economic security, a good education system and health care are what matter most to the people of Saransk, and they don’t really feel like the government is taking those things into consideration. Instead, they feel the government is only planning for the short term. It makes them a little uneasy.
Overall, I loved my trip to Russia. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot about the culture. It was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done – getting enough scholarship money, overcoming the language and cultural barriers and completing my independent study – but it was definitely the most beneficial. I was very lucky to make a couple of amazing Russian friends, as well as have my independent study published in one of Saransk’s academic journals. I will always be in Professor Oksana Ingle’s debt for encouraging me to have this amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world!
– Kathleen Holden ’15 graduated this past summer with a degree in anthropology and a minor in Russian studies.
This article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of The College of Charleston Magazine.
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