The Shadow of the Winter Palace

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

The Shadow of the Winter Palace is a lucid account of the decline and fall of the Romanov dynasty. Edward Crankshaw, whose personal experience with Russia goes back to his service on the British Military Mission in Russia during World War II and who has written extensively about Soviet Russia, addresses himself to nearly a century of eventful Russian history that culminated in the cataclysmic Bolshevik revolution. It is a fascinating and highly dramatic story, which opens with the abortive “Decembrist” revolt staged by officers of the Imperial Army and some liberal civilians who conspired to overthrow the autocracy on December 14, 1825, the first day of the reign of Tsar Nicholas I.

Although it failed miserably, the insurrection was a momentous event in Russian history. For the first time a genuine political movement sought to abolish the autocracy itself and establish a republican system. The beginning of the Decembrist movement reached back to the immediate post-Napoleonic period. A number of highly placed officers, the scions of prominent aristocratic families, formed the Union of Salvation in St. Petersburg. Its objectives were the abolition of serfdom and the establishment of a constitutional government. Palace coups and uprisings had occurred before, but they were never directed against the institution of the autocracy. The prevailing Russian view through the centuries was that only the autocratic power of the Tsar made possible the creation, continuation, and growth of empire. Any concession to constitutionalism or particular rights was considered a threat to Russian greatness. The requirements of empire not merely excused, they sanctified autocracy. The autocracy became a fundamental principle of national life and the moral order of society. Of course, royal absolutism and rule by divine right were not restricted to Russia. However, the overwhelming dominance of the Russian autocrat was not matched by European monarchs; if some of them had come close in the past, they certainly did not in the nineteenth century. The fatal consequence was, ultimately, that nobody was truly responsible in the whole of the vast empire. Everything was up to the will of the Tsar, but because the Tsar was everything, he was nothing. The doomed challenge of the Decembrists marked the beginning of a tremendous process, ending in the convulsions touched off by the Communists.

Nicholas I was determined to preserve the status quo. He wanted order and symmetry. The military with its rigid chain of command and perfect obedience was the visible expression of this harmony, under which everyone knew his place. It was to be the model to which civilian society must aspire. Crankshaw provides an interesting character study of this monarch, who ruled over a land of slaves. A man nearly devoured by self-pity, with a streak of sadism and more than a touch of paranoia, inhabited the vast Winter Palace. A characteristic institution was the Tsar’s Personal Chancellery. It consisted of various sections, of which the Third was the most important. The Third Section was concerned with internal security; it kept track of any subversive ideas and institutions. The secret police became a powerful instrument of the ruler, eventually to be used far more effectively by the leaders of Soviet Russia. As Crankshaw’s work reveals, it is one example of some of the fundamental features of modern Russia carried over from the past.

Despite the activities of the Third Section—the acute censorship, the close supervision of the schools and universities, the prohibition of foreign travel, and the official propaganda under the slogan, “orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality”—there were formidable disruptive forces at work against which the government was all but helpless. These were the problems emanating from the institution of serfdom, industrialization, and the growth of the intelligentsia. The preservation of the status quo became a fixed idea for Nicholas. He envisioned himself as the champion of the old order for all of Europe. In the end it was his foreign policy, not the internal social tensions and the activities of numerous members of the intelligentsia, that made reform inescapable. Nicholas had moved against Persia and Turkey with relative immunity, he waged successful campaigns in the Caucasus, he totally subjugated rebellious Poland, he even was able to play his self-appointed role as “gendarme of Europe” by helping Austria subdue rebellious Hungary. However, when in 1853 he again wanted to bring the Turkish Sultan to heel, he precipitated the catastrophic Crimean War. Nicholas saw himself as a crusader for Christianity, while Britain and France were guilty of the infamy of fighting for the Crescent. Crankshaw vividly describes the fiasco. The ineptitudes on both sides were horrendous. In the end, the Allies achieved what they set out to do; the Russians failed absolutely. After the fall of the Crimean fortress Sevastopol in 1855, the Russians had no choice...

(The entire section is 2041 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, September, 1976, p. 99.

Economist. CCLX, September 11, 1976, p. 108.

History Today. XXVI, September, 1976, p. 617.

National Observer. XV, October 2, 1976, p. 21.

New Yorker. LII, October 4, 1976, p. 156.

Newsweek. LXXXV, August 16, 1976, p. 81.

Saturday Review. III, September 4, 1976, p. 42.