Romanovs, Russian, and Revolution–An Era of Darkness Begins

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In late December of 1977, I landed in Leningrad, Russia and begin looking at everything around me in that dark, cold, foreboding land.  The mornings began not with sunrise but with darkness that pervaded the northern climate until late–after 10 am–and then the daylight hours ended early in the afternoon.  And then there was the bitter cold, the sterile feel of the Communist state, the indifference of store workers to their customers, and the feeling of regimentation, oppression, and chains.  Still, there was plenty in Russia–both old and new–that was beautiful, charming, and alluring.  It was my one visit outside of the U. S. and is still a country I would love to see yet again and see more of.

Maybe with a nudge or two in those days, I might have pursued graduate studies of Russian history and literature.  But I was tired of college and ready to teach school.  Besides, I had other interests in the field of history as well.  So, I never quite developed as an expert in Russian history and culture.  But over the years, I have continued to read books here and there, both novels and histories, that unveil images of that vast and mysterious land.

Currently, I am working through two books on Russia in the time of the 1917 Revolutions.  At last, I have a worthy excuse for reading what I am consumed in at the moment.  This is the year for Modern World Humanities with a focus on the 20th century.  Truth be known, I am probably better versed on the 20th century than any other part of history.  But I often reach that time period late in the school year and the chance to explore those times and events is zapped by the oncoming summer break.  Meaning, kids stop listening.

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The first book on this venture is The Race to Save the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport.  Mrs. Rappaport has written quite a few works in recent years on the Romanov family and the Revolution.  I have picked up a volume or two in some bargain venues, but jumped at the chance to read and review this book.  It is published by St. Martin’s Press.

The Romanov family story is filled with everything one might imagine in a fairy tale and/or a horror story.  Nicholas Romanov and his wife Alexandra were two remarkable figures, placed in history by forces beyond their control and put in the middle of a storm that no mere humans could have survived.  They were a beautiful and loving couple.  Their letters to one another reveal a man and a woman who were deeply devoted to each other.  Yet, Nicholas had no ordinary job to go to.  He was the Tsar of Russia, a powerful, but struggling world power connected to Europe by land and blood, and entangled by alliances to events that brought about World War I.

As Tsar, Nicholas was a man of limited vision and personality.  He did not relish being the leader, but he was a Romanov and could no more think in modern terms than he could have used modern (as in 21st century) technology.  Behind him, his wife was pushy, sometimes dominant, narrow minded to the hilt, and terribly offensive to others.  Adding to her problems, she was German by heritage, which meant that she was constantly attacked by Russian presses and gossip during World War I.  (For those who may have forgotten, Russia was at war with Germany.)  No one ever became more fiercely Russian than Alexandra Romanov, but both Allied leaders and many in Russia thought her disloyal.  As if that wasn’t enough, the Tsarevitch, or son of the Tsar and heir of the throne, Alexey, suffered from hemophilia.

I thought this story had been almost completely told in Robert Massie’s incredible book Nicholas and Alexandra.  I have read that book a couple of times, along with his sequel The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.

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Helen Rappaport’s book goes beyond what Massie’s books did.  The focus is on the efforts to rescue the Tsar and his family.  The most likely candidates for rescuing this family were the British.  The King, George V, and Nicholas were cousins.  Alexandra was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.  But the British dithered, delayed, hesitated, ignored, pawned off, and managed to do little other than mourn the deaths when rescue was too late.

Efforts were made by many others to rescue the family.  Germany had some opportunities to do so, and the Romanovs were kin to the Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II.  Talk was of sending the Romanovs to Denmark, southern France, an obscure place in England, Norway, Sweden, the Crimea, and Spain.  Within Russia, there were loyal monarchists who desperately wanted to both rescue and restore the family.

Part of the pain of reading this book is knowing how it will end.  As Rappaport points out, the Tsar and his family were not simply killed or executed, they were murdered–brutally, cruelly, and with malice and aforethought.  To make matters worse, the Bolsheviks concealed the crime and even used the family as a political pawn even after they were all dead.

Of course, World War I and the reign of Communists in Russia both piled up dead bodies by the millions.  Still, this account is one that is known and will not be forgotten.  As former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin said, “The Yekaterinburg massacre was one of the most shameful episodes in Russian history.”  (Yekaterinburg, also known as Ekaterinburg, is where the Romanovs were being held and were then murdered.)

The Red Wheel: March 1917, Node III Book 1 is by the Nobel Prize for Literature winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  It is part of a massive, epic in every sense of the word, history he spent much of his life writing.  It has yet to all be put into print or to be translated into English.  This portion was published by the University of Notre Dame Press and is translated by Marian Schwartz.

The available volumes so far are August 1914, which originally came out in the 1970s and then was published in an expanded version in 1984.  Next was November 1916, which appeared in 1985.  (My source said it appeared in two volumes, which vexes me since I have only one of them.)  This one, March 1917, is supposed to be in four volumes! And April 1917 has not been translated into English yet.

My biggest concern in beginning this book was wondering if the previous volumes were necessary to have been read before this one.  The publisher’s note promised me that it was okay to begin this one.  Mountain number one was then avoided.  Reading this one volume as a stand alone is challenge enough.

Confession time:  I am still working to get into this book.  But I am determined to read it through.  Solzhenitsyn is not always easy, nor are many other Russian writers.  The reward is in the perseverance.  I have long been reading his books and books about his life.  I was a senior in high school when he was expelled from his beloved Russia.  I read the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago on my own when I was a college student.  My old paperback copy of that book fell apart when my son Nicholas read it.

Earlier this past year, I read 1917: Lenin, Wilson and the Birth of the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman.  Great book and one that whetted my appetite for more Russian history and literature.  At some point in the upcoming school year, my class and I will be reading some of Tolstoy’s shorter works and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.  A study of things Russian would in itself be enough to make for a rich life.

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his younger years.

Great Literature and Page Turners

Readers battle over these matters.  Authors agonize over this.  Actually, some don’t agonize; rather, they go to the bank…often.  Two people who read lots of books find themselves with nothing to talk about.  There are snobs on the one hand; and addicts on the other hand.  It is the issue of high brow and low brow.  It is not just confined to the world of books, but pertains to music and other artistic forms as well.  There are the patricians and the plebians.  There are great divides.  There are snubs and snobs.

It is the old issue of what makes great literature great literature.  It is the issue of timeless works and the latest best seller.  It is the issue of refined works of lasting literary merit versus pot boilers.  It is the difference between what literature professors read and teach versus what the man in the street or the woman at home reads.

It would be a lot easier to discuss this matter if it were a clear case of good versus bad, great versus mediocre, lasting versus latest.  There are no unbending, absolute rules determining what is and what is not great literature.  Even the aficiandos of great literature cross out selections on each other’s defining canons.  Also, one cannot reasonably assume that great literature ended when William Faulkner died in 1962, or for other purists, when Shakespeare or Dante or Jane Austen died.  We don’t always know new stuff will last, but we don’t know what old stuff will last either.  Herman Melville went down to obscurity, strapped to the side of his great white whale, and did not emerge for a generation.  Sir Walter Scott is off the required reading lists of most serious literature programs, but I figure that dogged Scot Scott will show up again in time.

I must confess to having spent most of my novel reading life in the classics, engulfed in the literary classics.  This began as a serious quest when I was in my junior year of high school.  In what might be considered the dullest life ever lived, one of my favorite memories is of a Labor Day weekend where I read A Separate Peace by John Knowles and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  We had a screened in porch, and it was there that I spent that long weekend.  Later that year, I discovered Faulkner, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, Kipling, and a host of other writers.  Literature began its long association with history as the subjects that consumed my interest.

Over the years, there were only a few rare occasions when I read a book that had been on a recent best sellers list.  One of the few was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.  It did seem to have some literary gravitas.  I was usually aware of who the best selling authors were, but I did not read them.  Nor did I read mysteries, thrillers, spy novels, westerns, romances, science fiction, fantasy, or any other type of popular literature.  There were a few exceptions.  I read Sherlock Holmes stories.  I trudged through C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy and a volume or two of the Narnia series.  I managed to read The Hobbit.  But again, those cross the lines to the more literary stuff.

All of this is to say that I now read quite a few more popular, less literary, more fun, less weighty novels.  I started a few years ago by reading Bret Lott’s books.  I read a few of John Grisham’s novels, such as Bleachers.  After enduring my wife’s laughter over Jan Karon’s Mitford series along with her constantly saying, “Father Tim sounds just like you,”  I read the books myself.  Wondering what made popular literature popular, I read a Nicholas Sparks romance.  I read Tom Wolfe’s Man in Full and Anne Tyler’s St. Maybe and novels by Larry McMurtry, Lief Enger, David Guterson, and others.

Then I discovered Daniel Silva and his Gabriel Allon series of spy/espionage stories.  Actually, I didn’t discover Silva, rather I was pushed toward him by George Grant.  After the first read, my literary comment was “Okay.  Enjoyable enough.”  The second book I liked better, and by the third one, I was hooked.  I like them so much that I force myself to space out the readings.  From Silva, I have branched out to other authors such as Steve Berry, Nelson DeMille, Alan Furst, and Brad Thor.

Reading of Late:  An Unexpected Experiment

Recently, I finished two novels.  It was only after finishing them both that I thought of them together.  The first was Thunder Point by Jack Higgins.  This story began in World War II with the evil Martin Borman escaping Berlin and making his way toward South America.  Then the story shifts over to former IRA fighter and assassin Sean Dillon, who is recruited by the British Intelligence to find a lost U-Boat that contains top secret and damaging information.  There are killings, fights, lies, danger, beautiful women, unexpected deaths, and enough plot movers to keep the story going.  It quickly became a fun page turner.  Then it was over.

The other novel was The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  This story concerns zeks in the sharanska in Soviet Russia.  Zeks are political prisoners and the Sharanska was a research and development bureau made up of generally highly skilled gulag prisoners.  This is more than just an expose of Communist atrocities and evils, although that element is there. There were many biographical elements within the book, but this was not Solzhenitsyn’s autobiography.  This was a soul searching book. This was the story of Dante’s first circle of Hell, where things are not so bad, but not good either.  I started it in April and finished in August.  It was not an easy read, and at times, I was totally lost.  There were engaging chapters, but sometimes, I had to force myself back into the camp with the zeks and the dark world of Soviet Russia.

Both Higgins and Solzhenitsyn were good writers.  Both books were well written, and I wish I could write something comparable to either of them. Both left me wanting to read yet another book by the authors.  I bought another Higgins novel and am planning on reading Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn.

Here are the differences:  When I finished Thunder Point, the story was through.  It was fun, fast, and engrossing, but then it was over.  When I finished The First Circle, I immediately began looking up sources on the book.  Then I went back to the book The Other Solzhenitsyn by Daniel Mahoney and reread the part about The First Circle.  I discovered that the version I read was only 87 chapter long, but in 2009, the complete version of 96 chapters was released.  I find myself still thinking about the book.  I am still moved by the scene where one of the prisoners was granted a half hour visit with his wife (with no physical contact).  The arrest and treatment of another person is still terrifying.  The struggles, the conversations, the acceptance of life inside the prison still resonates.

In reading Thunder Point, I was constantly thinking, “What will happen next?”  When reading Solzhenitsyn, I am still thinking, “What happened in that book?”  In time, I will want to read Solzhenitsyn novel again.  If I could read it with others, that would be even better.  In time, I will read some more of Jack Higgins’ writings, along with Silva.  But great literature, like The First Circle, is never completed.  The questions within the heart of the book keep coming back.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the great men and writers of all times.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.  One might think that being published internationally and winning the Nobel Prize would secure a writer’s fame and reputation.  But many Nobel Prize winners are quickly forgotten.  Some are unknown at the time of winning the prize.  Some are thought unworthy of the honor.  And, many great writers never earned the honor of a Nobel Prize.

I recently acquired a wonderful older set of books called The Nobel Prize Library.  It consists of 20 volumes, each containing 2 or more authors’ shorter works and acceptance speeches.  This set only goes up to 1970.  I was amazed at how many winners were completely unknown to me.  Can you name the winners from the last ten years?  Or five years?  I have become familiar with Canadian short story writer Alice Munro who won the prize in 2013, and I enjoy the work of Seamus Heaney, who won in 1995, but those two are among the very few recent winners that I know.

The Nobel Prize Winners Library Bookshelf. This set was published in 1970. I wish there were a better quality and more up-to-date set of books like this.


But Solzhenitsyn stands above even his peers in the realm of Nobel Prize winners.  In many cases, the lives of writers are relatively dull stories.  A writer, by definition, has a life-long love affair with a typewriter.  He or she is an observer.  The writing craft is solitary and the confrontation with the world and events happen primarily in the writer’s mind and imagination.

Solzhenitsyn was one writer, however, whose life story is as fascinating, adventurous, and dangerous as the greatest thriller novels of all time.  He was a soldier in World War II, a prisoner in the Soviet prisoner camps, an exile within his own country, a published author whose first book created a sensation, a covert smuggler of critical information (one could say, state secrets), a watched man, a cancer survivor, a man who loved and lost and loved again, a religious believer in an atheistic world, a religious pilgrim, an exile from his own country, a reclusive author in a foreign land, a center-point of political controversy, a cultural critic, a returning hero, and an overlooked and often forgotten author.

He survived ordeals that destroyed many others along the way.  And he kept on writing.  Many of his writings have yet to appear in English.

He was a novelist and a poet.  But Solzhenitsyn was also a moral and political philosopher,  a historian, and, in a certain sense, a prophet and preacher.  While writers commonly create imaginary worlds, Solzhenitsyn stands alone for having destroyed a real and ugly world.  Solzhenitsyn joins a handful of people, such as Pope John Paul II, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan, who clearly saw the issues of the Cold War and the evils of Communism and who acted to bring down the Soviet Empire.

Too many of Solzhenitsyn’s beliefs are rooted in tradition, morality, moral absolutes, “old verities” (to use Faulkner’s words), and Christian doctrine to please the modern world.  Some of the more liberal folk who protested in his behalf, and liberals were once strong defenders of the written word, shied away from the Solzhenitsyn who spoke critcally to the West and its decaying values.

Invited to Harvard in 1978 to give a commencement address, Solzhenitsyn gave a defining speech called “A World Split Apart.”  That world split even more as many distanced themselves from his pronouncements.  A few years earlier, the opportunity arose for President Gerald Ford to invite Solzhenitsyn to the White House so to honor this opponent of Communism.  Ford quaked at the political ramifications of appearing with the Russian exile.

The world of literature, especially the subset of literary critics and scholars, have all too frequently ignored, misrepresented, or attacked Solzhenitsyn.  He was not an easy man to peg, define, or limit.  He was wordy and nuanced in his ideas.  He wrote literature, not bullet points.  So, he was accused of being a Czarist and a proponent of the worst of Old Russia.  He was thought to be against progress, modernity, and new ideas.  It was implied that he was anti-Semitic.  He was, undoubtedly, strongly Christian in his fundamental worldview.

The misconceptions, falsehoods, and distortions compelled Daniel J. Mahoney to write The Other Solzhenitsyn:  Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker.  This book is published by St. Augustine Press, one of my favorite publishers.  There have been some fine biographies written about Solzhenitsyn.  A worthy lengthy one is by Michael Scammel, and the best discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s faith can be found in Joseph Pearce’s Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile.

Mahoney’s book, however, is not a biography.  It is a study of the Solzhenitsyn’s writings and thought.  It is an answer to his critics and a call to read the man’s writings.  This book provides commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s works and motivation for those like me who need to read more of him and re-read what I have already read.  The book ends with a talk that Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalia, gave.  From beginning to end, this is a powerful and inspiring book.

I must admit that when I started reading The Other Solzhenitsyn, I found it hard to get into.  Then I started reading two books by Solzhenitsyn.  One is a shorter work titled The Russian Question of the Twentieth Century.  The larger portion of that book is a survey of Russian history where Solzhenitsyn discerns trends and faults in the country he loved so dearly.  That is followed by an address given to the International Academy of Philosphy in 1993.  The speech deals with the spiritual and moral crises of our times.  (It is a good window into Solzhenitsyn’s thought.)

The other book I read is called Apricot Jam and Other Stories.  Several of his stories appear in this posthumous book for the first time.  Like so much of his writing, these stories echo the pains, failures, and survival of humans caught in the Russian Civil War, the years of Stalinism, and the corruption of post-Communist Russia.  These are painful stories in many cases, but a testament to the soul and survival of man.

Both of these books helped me navigate back into the ideas of Solzhenitsyn.  Both Solzhenitsyn books helped me understand the book The Other Solzhenitsyn, and that book helped me understand Solzhenitsyn writings.  It was like having Dr. Mahoney in my living room explaining to me what I was reading.  One could also read some of Solzhenitsyn other works, such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or A World Split Apart for the same effect.

At this point, my next goal will be to tackle one of the longer Solzhenitsyn works that have too long occupied the shelves unread.