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
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
The first draft of this work was completed in 1987 and grew out of a course
team-taught with Russ Larson on "
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