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Nicholas II Emperor of All the Russias.

Dominic Lieven. John Murray. 292pp. 19.99[pounds]. 0 7195 4994 9.

It may be argued that seldom do academic historians, or novelists for that matter, make good biographers. Academics tend to be concerned more with issues than with people, partly because reputable universities do not allow doctoral theses to be biographies, partly because of natural inclinations. (The worst example this reviewer ever read was a biography which did not mention that its subject had died.) While there are, of course, exceptions, like Lord Blake, they tend to prove the rule. In some cases, however, to write a biography demands a range of knowledge and expertise lacking in most biographers. Such is the case with regard to biographies of Russian emperors: a good biographer needs not only the language but a knowledge of a vanished and complex world and few, other than academic historians, would have it. In this case Dominic Lieven, who teaches history at the London School of Economics, has made good use of his extensive knowledge of nineteenth century Russia. This biographical study is a logical outcome of his previous work on Imperial Russia's ruling establishment and on her entry into the Great War. It is, in essence, a political biography.

Unlike most of this sort, it does not ignore Nicholas II's private life and history, but it concentrates on his work and role as Tsar. More than any other biography of Nicholas II I have read, this book tells one how Imperial Russia was governed and how vital was the position of Nicholas II, even after the 1905 revolution forced on him the rudiments of constitutional rule (for this role the fourth chapter is especially valuable). The biography also sets into context some aspects of Nicholas II's reign: why the Emperor assumed military command in 1915; why Rasputin's role has been exaggerated; why the Emperor had so cornered himself by 1917 that the army could, in effect, allow him to be driven from power and by so doing, condemn the Empire to extinction.

As with any really good book, one can find areas of disagreement. True, Nicholas II faced governmental changes during his reign (1894 to 1917) as profound as those faced in Britain by those sovereigns from George Ill to Edward VII (1760-1910). Yet should one imply, at least in some chapters, that because the Empire fell it was doomed to fall? Must the tensions inherent in the 1905 settlement necessarily have led to disaster without a war? On this point there is, at least to this reviewer, some lack of clarity. Sometimes the comparisons with other dynasties seem a little bit over-done and the general historical asides can be a bit too sweeping; on the other hand, comparisons with the rule of the Communists, are most apt and illuminating. It does appear that the final pages which deal with the Tsar's abdication and murder, are rather rushed as is so often the case with biographies. Mr. Lieven manifestly likes and respects his subject--perhaps even reveres him--and understands far better than any other biographer the terrible problems he faced. Even so, the requirements of length set down, perhaps by the publisher, and the inevitable academic pull to deal with politics rather than home life, mean that a lot of little stories which a lesser biographer would include are left out. This is a pity because for the average non-academic reader, these 'asides' are like small brush strokes that make a portrait come to life.

One interesting point is that for the first time in any historical work this reviewer has read, modern-day Japan plays a role. The book was partly written there and the author received financial help from the Japanese government and assistance from Japanese libraries and the University of Tokyo. In the past British-based historians would probably have lavished their thanks for generosity solely on the academic establishments of East-coast America. But the world has changed in historical writing as elsewhere.

This is a book well worth the reading for anyone interested not just in Russia's last Tsar but in the nature of government and the problems facing Russia today. Even with the impossibilities heaped on Nicholas II, Mr. Lieven shows that his greatest problem was himself: he was neither the right nor the best man for the job. Yet he was also a much misunderstood man, then and now: this biography should remedy that misunderstanding at long last.
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Author:Munson, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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