17 JULY 1976, Page 21

Kingdom of the blind

John Terraine The Shadow of the Winter Palace: The ND to Revolution 1825-1917 Edward Crankshaw (Macmillan £5.95) Vienna: The Image of a Culture in Decline Edward Crankshaw (Macmillan 23.50)

Under the sumptuous immensity of the sky, the snow covered the endless forests, the frozen rivers, the plains of an immense country, obliterating the landmarks, the accidents of the ground, levelling everything under its uniform Whiteness, like a monstrous blank page awaiting the record of an inconceivable history.

Thus Joseph Conrad, on Russia, in 1911. The 'inconceivable history' was about to be„ gin; what The Shadow of the Winter ralace shows is that by 1911 the 'page' was bLY no means blank, though a persistent, ghastly effort had been made for centuries In keep it so. An absolute and permanent autocracy, impossible to imagine in terms of any part of Europe, had sought to overlay ;ne Russian people as snow shrouds a l.andscape. Here is Conrad again, writing 1905; 'The Russian autocracy as we see It now is a thing apart. It is impossible to assign to it any rational origin in the vices, the misfortunes, the necessities, or the 4sPirations of mankind.'

Edward Crankshaw disagrees. He accepts that Conrad's view is entirely understandable, reflecting moods which 'when contemPlating this or that episode of overwhelming Inhumanity, have seized and cast down ulost visitors to Russia from the sixteenth c,entury to the present day.' But he adds: t-ro make any sense at all of the Russian ti.ragedy it is a mood to be resisted . . . For .e autocracy was not, as Conrad felt, a sitation, a blight, imposed upon the russian peoples by occult forces: it was a teDunse to a popular demand . ' He aces this demand back to the 'Time of Lrpubles' which ended with the accession of tChaei Romanov in 1613: The chronicler Abraham Palitsyn wrote of the Time of Troubles, through which he himself lived, that the great destruction of the State of Muscovy had been brought about by nothingelse than a deep national aPathy: there was no speaking up, no determined efforts on the part of the People to become masters of their fate. Tor this national apathy, for the thoughtless silence of the whole land, the country was punished.' ',The thoughtless silence of the whole land,' 'a'aYs Crankshaw, was to bring punishment 4in and again; never more so than in our

own century, since 1917.

In this book, however, he is only marginnal ly concerned with the twentieth century: his real subject is the nineteenth—and with reason. It is, after all, possible to embrace the idea of autocracy, as the Romanovs understood it, in the age of Cromwell and the Divine Right of the Stuart kings, of Louis XIV, of Frederick the Great and his awful father, of Napoleon—and of Hitler. But in the nineteenth century! The age of the great technological upsurge, of intellectual exploration and challenge in all directions, of deep romantic attachment to abstract ideals, of explosive liberalism and revolt all through the European world—to observe the perpetual imbecility of trying to contain a century like that within the bonds of an obsolete tyranny is to wring one's hands at the turn of every page. If Edward Crankshaw's admirable— though doleful—narrative needed another sub-title, 'Alas!' would suffice.

Where, out of many qualities, the final excellence of this book lies is in the filling in of Conrad's 'blank page'—in tracing through four dismal reigns the attempts of different Russians, groups and individuals, mad and sane, to break through the blankness and write some of their country's history for themselves. This, of course, was impermissible. What linked the last four Romanovs to each other, despite substantial personal differences, and what links them to the whole succeeding system from Lenin to Brezhnev, is the firm belief that the initiation of social reform was 'the prerogative of the Tsar and of nobody else at all.' Such was the belief of Nicholas I, the policeman-Tsar whom we meet in the early pages of the book personally interrogating the arrested Decembrists: such was the belief of all his dynastic successors (except possibly Alexander III, who preferred that no reform should disturb the 'peace and tranquillity of the grave' which marked his brief reign); for 'Tsar' substitute 'Party', for 'Party' !tad 'Secretary-General', and you have the Bolshevik version.

And yet, against all these smothering powers, the effort was made. In 1825, the year of Nicholas I's accession, it was made by the Decembrists—inept, uncoordinated,

disloyal, but including such elements as Peter Kakhovsky, 'a gifted intellectual of extreme purity of motive in whom the necessity of regicide burned with a gemlike flame.' It is a type that recurs—until the Bolsheviks devised an apparatus of repres sion capable of quenching even gem-like flames. The Decembrists failed; the midcentury idealists were impotent; the Anarchists (and their half-crazed prophet, Michael Bakunin) performed more abroad than they did in Russia. Then came the pathetic Populists, 'ardent and starry-eyed dreamers' who 'went to the people'-peasants or factory workers—to teach and exhort : 'Their own awakening was bitter. Most of them had never talked to a peasant in their lives. They were appalled and shattered at their reception at the hands of the noble savages they had come to liberate.'

After them came a different set of fellows: a tiny handful of fanatics, dedicated to sheer terrorism, arrogantly calling themselves 'The People's Will'. Their central achievement was the assassination of Alexander II, the 'Tsar Liberator', on the day that he put his signature to a scheme for a form of constitutional government. Finally there were the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats. On all their deeds, good or bad, on all their intentions, high or low, the abominable Lenin had the last word. Crankshaw is very good on Lenin: It is not necessary, I hope, to assure the reader that I am aware of the power, incisiveness and range, the subtlety indeed, of Lenin's intellect or the unsurpassed strength of his will: in the sense of being elemental in force and larger than life he was indeed a great man. But like so many great men, as opposed to great spirits, he destroyed more than he built. Further, his purely intellectual processes, powerful as they were, were always at the service of his instincts; and these were the killer-instincts of a powerseeker.

So much for the reformers and revolutionaries; arrayed against them (and sometimes, in strange and devious ways, beside them) were the personalities of the autocracy itself, each one appropriately sketched. Outstanding among them (and the best portrait in the book) was Alexander II: 'He was a martyr, of course; a martyr to an idea. Humane but not just; stubborn but not strong: he was a natural victim of the fates.' There were statesmen and officials: Milyutin, who reformed the army after the Crimean War; Loris-Melikov, who persuaded Alexander to grant a constitution—of sorts, and too lam; the sinister archreactionary, K. P. Pobedonostsev, who worked as hard for revolution as any revolutionary; 'the insufferable Plehve' who fancied 'a short victorious war'— with Japan; Count Witte—*Witte did not fail Russia. Russia failed Witte. . .'; Stolypin, once called 'the most notable figure in Europe'. At the end of that line came Nicholas II; Crankshaw is very good on him, too:

. . . the almost awe-inspiring shallowness, the incorrigible silliness of his mind . . . It was not so much that Nicholas broke his word as that he qualified it out of existence .. .

One by one, through these wise, sad pages, they march to their doom, and with them what one of the assassins called 'this great martyr of history—the Russia of the people.'

Romanov autocracy leaves a bad taste; Habsburg autocracy (Edward Crankshaw's other very special subject) leaves much that Europe can never afford to lose, and this is affectionately displayed for us in Vienna: The Image of a Culture In Decline, first published in 1938, and now happily reissued.