ABOUT Alexander II and His Times


The Russian word "istoriya" can mean either history or story; Alexander II and His Times attempts to be both. Although narrative history is often disdained by professional historians, I have always admired scholarly history that reads like a good novel. Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada (1959), for example, made a strong impression upon me during my student years.

As the Table of Contents indicates, the work presented here interweaves the personal and public lives of Alexander II, Bakunin, Dostoevsky, Herzen, the Soloviev family, Tolstoy, Turgenev, the revolutionary Sophia Perovskaya, and others (see Who’s Who for the principal figures and families). But the narrative also has a central thread woven throughout: Alexander II, his policies, and the reactions they called forth from the book's other central characters, most of whom could be considered intellectuals.

Although numerous works have been written on various aspects of this period, most are of a specialized nature. I know of no other work that incorporates the lives and ideas of the period's great writers and thinkers into the story of Alexander’s turbulent reign and at the same time offers some reflections on why its outcome was so tragic.

This drama occurs in a psychological atmosphere as real but elusive as a St. Petersburg fog. It is one of raised but then dashed hopes, of confusion, conflict, and alienation, but also one of yearning for love and a sense of community. It is one, for example, of a lonely Dostoevsky in exile discovering the necessity of becoming one with the common people; of the radical Sophia Perovskaya rejecting the world of her influential father and going among the workers and peasants to both teach and radicalize them; of a Leo Tolstoy so miserable that he contemplates suicide until he also discovers new hope among the peasants. It is one of the poet and philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, formerly a teenage nihilist, seeking a vision of Sophia, the oneness of the universe, in an Egyptian desert. And it is one in which even Tsar Alexander II seeks refuge from the complexities and conflicts of the time in the arms of a women younger than most of his children.

Thus, this manuscript combines considerable biographical material with the presentation of the main ideas of the era’s chief writers and thinkers. This approach, as opposed to an exclusive concentration on the ideas of the era, not only provides history that is more readable, but more existential, more grounded in everyday reality, and, therefore, more understandable. As the German historian Wilhelm Dilthey wrote: "How can one deny that biography is of outstanding significance for the understanding of the great context of the historical world?" This method also has something in common with the "polyphonic" method that the Russian critic M. M. Bakhtin attributed to Dostoevsky’s novels. Such novels, Bakhtin thought, are marked by a "plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousness, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices." (See Chapter 30, Endnote 5).

This work also strives for both objectivity and compassion in presenting the contrasting lives and ideas of many of the era’s leading personalities. They found themselves in a difficult period of history with no easy answers available for solving their country’s problems. If these individuals were sometimes foolish, dogmatic, and impractical, at other times they were courageous and noble in their behavior. Although this "ebook" is mainly a narrative history, some analysis is interspersed throughout the chapters. Finally, the Epilogue summarizes what the preceding pages have revealed about Russia and its intellectuals under Alexander II and offers some thoughts about the relevance of these findings for post-Soviet Russia.

The first draft of this work was completed in 1987 and grew out of a course team-taught with Russ Larson on "Russia in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky." I wished to provide our students with a lively, readable, but accurate, portrait of the reign of Alexander II and the leading thinkers, writers, and revolutionaries of that period. After beginning work on my two-volume A History of Russia, (McGraw-Hill, 1997), I put the manuscript aside, except for course purposes, for about a decade. The advent and development of the World Wide Web has made possible a new version of this old manuscript--one with hundreds of links to visual and textual materials, some scanned by me but others from sites such as that of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and The University of Washington's The Cities/Buildings Archive (see Copyright Info and Map Info for more on these and other links.). In addition, I have made some minor textual revisions to reflect recent scholarship, without making any claim to having exhausted all new sources of the past decade. Those interested in the sources used can consult the Endnotes, Bibliography, and Note on Sources. In addition to the other ancillary information already mentioned, a Chronology is also provided.  For those who would like a print copy of my book, one is available from Anthem Press (London).

Two difficulties that face every Western historian dealing with Tsarist Russia are those of dates and spellings. Since the Russian calendar in the nineteenth century was twelve days behind the Western calendar, I have used the Russian dates for events occurring within Russia and the Western calendar for those which occurred outside its borders. In regard to the transliteration of Russian spellings, I have slightly modified for use here the Library of Congress system. The most noteworthy modifications of it are the use of "yu" and "ya" instead of "iu" and "ia." Thus Milyutin not Miliutin, and Perovskaya not Perovskaia. I have, however, maintained the more common English spellings of names such as Maria and Natalia rather than Marya or Natalya. Other minor variations will be noted by the specialist, but need not concern the general reader.

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