Forge of Empires : Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861-1871
With its vivid narrative and memorable portraiture, Forge of Empires sheds new light on a question of perennial importance: How are free states made, and how are they unmade? In the same decade that saw freedom's victories, one of the trinity of liberators revealed himself as an enemy to the free state, and another lost heart. What Lincoln called the "germ" of freedom, which was "to grow and expand into the universal liberty of mankind," came close to being annihilated in a world crisis that pitted the free state against new philosophies of terror and coercion
Journalist and historian Beran (Jefferson's Demons) provides a lively and entertaining look at a pivotal decade, in which three revolutionary leaders took actions that, he says, would shape world events for a dozen decades: Lincoln's role in the emancipation of slaves and winning the Civil War; Bismarck's unification of Germany and the rise of that country's continental hegemony; and Tsar Alexander II's part in freeing the serfs and the short-lived moderation of czarist rule. Making superb use of short vignettes, Beran provides fascinating insights on the importance of these events, noting, for example, that had Lincoln not triumphed, the institution of slavery would have derived fresh strength from... 'scientific' racism, social Darwinism, jingo imperialism, [and] the ostensibly benevolent doctrines of paternalism. However, the book gives insufficient background on the events covered, and there is only cursory treatment of Reconstruction and the Polish revolt against Russian rule in 1863. Nonetheless, Beran captures the decade's importance in a style that is both informative and dramatic. (Oct. 16)
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March 01, 2011
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Excerpt from Forge of Empires by Michael Knox Beran
THREE PEOPLES ON THE PRECIPICE
Saint Petersburg, January 1861
In the Winter Palace two court functionaries walked down a long gallery towards a pair of massive bronze doors. They tapped thrice with their wands, ebony batons surmounted with double-headed eagles. The doors were thrown open, and the Tsar of Russia emerged from the seclusion of his private apartments, together with his Tsaritsa.
As he passed through galleries of his palace, the Tsar acknowledged, with the merest nod of his head, the bows and curtsies of the court. Every so often he would catch the eye of some devoted servant of the state, dressed, after the fashion of the eighteenth century, in silk stockings and a coat heavy with gold embroidery. The happy courtier, his face flushed with pride, would look about to see whether those around him had observed the mark of imperial approbation.
The Tsar and Tsaritsa proceeded to the Nicholas Hall, blazing with the light of a dozen chandeliers and ten thousand candles. Diamonds and sapphires sparkled on aristocratic bosoms; the cross and star of Alexander Nevsky flashed on glittering uniforms; moire sashes shimmered. The chevalier guards, specially selected, out of the immensity of Russia, for their good looks, stood to attention in white tunics and polished breastplates. It was a spectacle meant to impress; and it did impress. Foreign visitors struggled to do justice to the triple pomp of guards and grooms and gold-laced grandees that hedged this man whose Empire stretched from Poland to the Pacific, from the snows of Siberia to the vineyards of the Crimea, and encompassed a sixth of the land surface of the earth. Some thought the Winter Palace baroque, others likened it toa northern edition of the Arabian Nights. All sensed in the autocracy of which it was the symbol a refinement of coercion, the most opulent and at the same time most naked form of power. In the world struggle between freedom and oppression, Russia figured as the beau ideal of government by force.
The Tsar and Tsaritsa opened the ball with a polonaise. When the dance ended, the imperial couple mingled with their guests. Those who had never before attended an imperial ball were startled by the courtesy with which they were received by Their Majesties. A "certain democratic air prevailed," one diplomat thought. The Tsar was determined to put his guests at ease. His manner was amiable, even gentle. Nevertheless, an invisible veil hung about the person of the autocrat. An English visitor, watching the Tsar converse with an ordinary mortal, was reminded of "the Great Mogul addressing an earthworm."
Alexander II was forty-two years old at the beginning of 1861. He had for six years been the supreme ruler of Russia. His upbringing had in many ways fitted him for the exalted station he occupied. His father, Tsar Nicholas I, though of a strong and despotic nature, with acts of blood and cruelty to his name, had nevertheless been a serious and in some directions a large-minded man. The prospect of surpassing other monarchs in the education of an heir had been agreeable to his vanity, and he had taken pains to prepare little Alexander for the throne. The Tsarevitch's tutor, the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, had labored to open the boy's mind. In a letter to Alexander's mother, the Empress Alexandra, Zhukovsky described the young Prince as "the beautiful poem on which we are working." To less sympathetic eyes, Alexander appeared in a different light. There "are times," one of his teachers said, "when he can spend an hour or more during which not a single thought will enter his head."
When, at the age of thirty-six, Alexander ascended the throne of his ancestors, many predicted that he would not prosper. "He does not give the idea of having much strength either of intellect or of character," Earl Granville wrote to Queen Victoria shortly after the Tsar's coronation in Moscow. The more superstitious noted how, when Alexander was crowned in the Kremlin, the heavy chain of the Order of Saint Andrew slipped from a pillow and fell to the floor -- an evil omen surely.*
* Did Saint Andrew foretell the sovereign's violent death? During the coronation, in 1896, of Nicholas II, the last of the Tsars, the Order of Saint Andrew slipped from Nicholas's shoulder and fell to the floor. Two decades later he was murdered.