cover image Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar

Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar

Edvard Radzinsky, , trans. from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis. . Free Press, $35 (462pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-7332-9

It's difficult to reform Russia, as popular historian Radzinsky shows in this lively examination of the czar best known for emancipating the serfs in 1861. Viewed as the most liberal of Russia's 19th-century czars, Alexander II (1818–1881) came to power in 1856 with the idea of bringing Russia into the modern age. But as Radzinsky (The Last Tsar ) shows, his liberal reforms brought him nothing but trouble. Alexander came under attack from the right for being too liberal, and the left for not going far enough. He also had to curtail his reforms when faced with the need to fight foreign enemies. Radzinsky focuses much of the latter half of the book on the rise of left-wing populist movements—the book covers in depth the intellectual currents that swirled around Russia during Alexander's reign. Some frustrated leftists eventually turned to violence. After many failed attempts to assassinate Alexander, they eventually succeeded in 1881. Some readers may think Radzinsky provides too much familial background before launching into the czar's life, but his well-translated, readable prose will win over most readers interested in European history, and those looking for a cautionary tale on what Russia could face in the future. (Oct. 18)